Pushing Our Limits on Mount Hikurangi

Mount Hikurangi on the East Cape of New Zealand’s North Island provides a breath taking and challenging two day hike. Here I take you through my experience of scaling this majestic beauty — a mountain you’ll definitely want to add to your New Zealand trekking bucket list!

A comfort zone is a beautiful place, but nothing ever grows there

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Sometimes it’s nice to enjoy life in the comfort zone. There are a certain breed however, of which I am included, who like to get out of it regularly. For me, the quote above sums it up nicely. I am committed to a life of growth through personal development. Pushing my boundaries forms part of my purpose to live and grow in a meaningful way.

Getting out of my comfort zone helps develop my character through building confidence and resilience. The experiences I choose and decisions I make during these times demand courage. They help to foster a sense of gratitude in a way that material possessions can’t. By pushing my boundaries I am making the most out of my life and enjoying adventures along the way.

There are many times that I have been out of my comfort zone. These range from public speaking to sitting on my backside for ten days during a silent meditation course. I have travelled to 30 or 40 countries and have lived in a few where I didn’t speak the local language or know a soul before I arrived. These experiences have included many situations far from ‘my normal life’ and they have been pivotal to my journey of personal growth.

My favorite hobby

One of my favorite hobbies is hiking. New Zealand hiking is especially beautiful and rewarding in many ways. Therefore I make every effort to get out for trips to the hills, and nature walks on a regular basis. Trips away are often centered on multi-day hikes, so I am no stranger to pushing my limits in the great outdoors.

Many of my hiking outings are relaxing and my intention doesn’t normally revolve around getting out of my comfort zone. However, there is unpredictability around what lies ahead in terms of wild weather and unknown terrain. Creatures are abound in the outdoors, and there is potential for injury or illness in the group. These all factor together to create a unique experience, that is sometimes more challenging than anticipated.

Proper preparation and choosing a hike that fits my skill and experience level are important factors to consider. I’m all for challenging myself to choose adventures that potentially will push me a little further than I’m used to. At the same time I know it’s important to be sensible and safe enough to know my limits. I understand that the most important thing is my safe return at the end of the day. Having the wisdom to know when to turn back or call it a day is about respecting Mother Nature and all her power. It is also having the character trait of strength without ego.

Choosing Mount Hikurangi

The most recent mountain I chose to climb could certainly be placed at the extreme edge of my ability. I chose an overnight hike classified as an ‘advanced tramping track’. This was probably a step up from the intermediate level New Zealand hiking trails that I was accustomed to. What was the reason I chose this trail? I had always wanted to climb this mountain. I was also given the ‘all clear’ from my partner who would look after our three year old for the night. With this in mind I chose something that I wouldn’t have been able to take my daughter on in the back pack. Take the opportunities while they’re there I say!

I had been staying with my family in Gisborne, New Zealand for a few months before the hike. This is my hometown, where I grew up but hadn’t lived for any extensive time for the past 18 years. 80km north lays the incredible peak of Mount Hikurangi, and it had always been on my wish list to climb. Although it is truly on the doorstep of my hometown I knew few people who had climbed it. I wanted to be able to return and share the awe of this majestic beauty. I hoped that others would consider visiting such an amazing place that is part of the pride of the east coast.

Standing 1752m above sea level Mount Hikurangi is the North Island’s largest non-volcanic peak. It is traditionally regarded as the first land to see the new sun each day. Islands such as Fiji, Tonga and the Chathams are further east but this has not stopped Hikurangi gaining prominence as being the first.

The East Cape experience

My friend Sue would be hiking with me. We found that the two and a half hour road trip from Gisborne to the bottom of Mount Hikurangi was an experience in itself. The animals seemed to be more ‘free range’ the further up the coast we drove. Our first animal encounter was trying to edge our way through a couple hundred sheep being herded along the road. This is quite a normal experience in rural New Zealand but the next encounter had me somewhat surprised. There was a horse standing smack bang in the middle of the open road! Others were lounging about on the sides of the road. I hoped they didn’t care too much about the odd car driving by.

Next came a family of quails crossing the road straight in front of us. By this stage I knew I would need to keep my wits about me. Turkeys and peacocks roaming on the sides of the road came next! When I finally thought I’d met all the furry friends that I could possibly see on the road we had our closest call. We had a narrow miss with a pig running straight out in front of us!

Having been the one to decide upon and organise this trip I felt somewhat responsible for not being able to find the road to get there. It could be suggested that a landmark such as the massive Mount Hikurangi should negate the need for adequate signage. Somehow we still had a challenge or two to find our way there. You could have said that I was edging out of my comfort zone already!

Starting to climb Mount Hikurangi

Mount Hikurangi
Starting the climb up Mount Hikurangi

After finding the right road to get there we parked the car and began the hot (about 35 degrees) walk up to the hut, where we would spend the night. On a hike like this the mid-summer heat would be one of the main factors pushing me outside my comfort zone. The New Zealand sun has a certain intensity to its heat that I haven’t experienced elsewhere. It’s not very humid but instead has a piercing type heat that burns in minutes if you are not prepared with adequate sun protection.

Hydration and nutrition would be critical to our successful ascent of Mount Hikurangi. We knew that a water tank was available at the hut. Our concern was that after a long dry summer we were unsure whether there would be enough in the tank to meet our needs. On a day like this, having the possibility of being greeted without a water top up meant that we had to be prepared to turn around and come back down once we’d reached the hut, if it was in fact dry. Without streams around to refill our bottles this was a very real possibility.

With the extreme heat and no shade I had consumed my entire two litre water bladder and 500ml re-hydration drink by the time we reached the hut. I was delighted to find that there was water for us when we arrived so we would be able to continue onward!

A bit of a slog

Covering ground that I haven’t stepped foot on before is part of the journey that I anticipate with excitement. For me, the unknown always brings with it a certain thrill. Once I realised that the majority of the three and a half hour climb to the hut was up a winding dirt and gravel driveway the thrill dissipated somewhat! So the challenge here was countering the monotony of winding around corner after corner, constantly uphill, in the hot sun. The 15kg loads on our backs made this even more difficult. Interesting and engaging conversation with Sue kept me going at this point! I was also feeling happy and high-spirited, excited to be out enjoying the outdoors. It was great to be getting away from the city, and doing some fitness at the same time.

Hooray for the hut!

The journey up the gravel road put us in touch with more of the East Cape locals. This time we saw cows, baby calves and a few bulls. We kept our distance and made sure we didn’t get between the mamas and their babies or too close to the bulls. All was well and we eventually got past the gravel road section and onto a steeper hill area with a narrow track. This is where I really became grateful for the poles I was carrying to help take some of the load out of my legs. Yellow posts marked the track. However we found we easily got off track here whilst talking and not always seeing the next yellow post. A few times we found ourselves cutting across the hill to where we could see a post further in the distance.

Mount Hikurangi
The hut at Mount Hikurangi

I always think it’s the best feeling when you go around a corner and the hut suddenly appears right in front of you. It was no different here when we popped over the brow of the hill. There a cute wee hut with a red roof was there enticingly waiting for us.

Into the new day

Sue and I had already decided not to climb to the Mount Hikurangi summit in the dark. We knew that this would be outside our skill level whilst we were walking alone. We also weren’t too fussed about getting to the summit just for the sunrise. In fact, we had decided to ensure that both of us were going to look after each other first and foremost. This allowed us the possibility to turn around if need be.

It wasn’t that we weren’t going to push ourselves out of our comfort zones and challenge our limits. We would simply do so with respect and without the ego involved with ‘crossing off another peak’. It was enough for us to enjoy the journey and the challenge in itself.

Mount Hikurangi
Mount Hikurangi sunrise

We watched the most incredible sunrise from outside the hut. Then after breakfast we prepared to head to the summit with snacks, water and clothes. We started with a steep climb and slowly made our way up into the tree area.

After about 15 minutes we got into the real alpine environment. Here there was no end to prickly, blood drawing shrubs and plants and a gorgeous selection of mountain flowers.

THE EXTREME BIT

We meandered up and down and around for a while and then reached the top of the tough stuff — steep scree. We had to be very careful in this section. I was entirely grateful that it was not windy or rainy. I would surely have been blown down the mountain or been forced to turn around. By this point my legs were quite scraped from the alpine plants and one or two slips on the rocks. The good thing was that my energy levels and spirit were holding up well.

Mount Hikurangi
Can you see the roof of the red hut below us?

I realise that the height of Mount Hikurangi pales in comparison to some of the 4000–5000m mountains that I have climbed in South America. The level of technicality however was much higher. It was certainly topping my list as the most technical climb that I had ever done.

It was difficult to see where the track went because it wasn’t well trodden. For a while it was two small steps forward and one big slide back. I was very unsure of my footing and mostly just trying not to think about how much harder coming back down might be. This was about the point where I consciously thought ‘wow, I’m well outside of my comfort zone’.

Nearly at the top of Mount Hikurangi!

Soon enough the poles I was carrying became detrimental to progress and we used our hands to scramble and pause, scramble and pause. The other main challenge was determining the best way to go as the last 500m of scree was unmarked. We had been told to stick to the left, so we did and eventually we climbed over the top ridge, super proud of getting there! Technically we weren’t at the highest point, which would have required climbing up and over a couple of peaks to get to the trig station. However we were on top of the Mount Hikurangi and that was good enough for us!

Mount Hikurangi
View from the top of Mount Hikurangi

We didn’t stay long as it was a relatively narrow space and we felt a bit nervous about relaxing for too long. So after a couple of pictures, a snack and a chance to enjoy the awe inspiring views we headed back down. It had taken us two and a half hours to climb to the summit. It would take us the same amount of time to climb back down again.

Heading down is the easy part right?

Contrary to what I had envisioned it was easier to find the track on the way back down Mount Hikurangi. I was also feeling more confident with my footing. We scrambled our way back down. We had to be careful not to dislodge rocks that might tumble down to whoever was in front.

My adrenaline subsided once we made it through the difficult scree. My legs functioned less effectively as the fatigue started to set in. I just had to focus on continuing to move with the hut in mind.

Mount Hikurangi
Looking happy after completing the climb up from and back down to the hut

After five hours walking we chilled at the hut and refueled as much as possible. Again I had run out of water just as we got to the hut so I was grateful for a refill. I was feeling very fatigued and was considering staying another night at the hut. But without cell phone reception to contact our loved ones we thought we’d better push on.

Regular refueling and re-hydrating kept me going but my legs weren’t working well by now. I’d slip and slide and couldn’t control my footing well. What a sense of achievement we felt when we reached the car! We knew we had surpassed our own expectations about what we could do by seriously challenging ourselves both mentally and physically.

What does a comfort zone mean to you?

Getting out of one’s comfort zone means different things to each person. For someone experienced in mountaineering the trip to Mount Hikurangi’s summit may have felt like a ‘walk in the park’ would feel for me. For a five year old, an overnight camping trip in their back yard could be an adventure of epic proportions. Decide what it means for you and challenge yourself to step up and grow in confidence and resilience. It could very well be life-changing for you.

Life begins at the end of your comfort zone

Neale Donald Walsch


Originally published at Elly McGuinness.