In my last post, I described the first part of a tramp around the Five Passes route, an epic off-track route in New Zealand’s Mount Aspiring Park; while the first three days had delivered patchy weather, we had spent the fourth day hunkered down in a small bivvy under a house-sized boulder while the rain hammered down and previously dry water-courses on the nearby mountain slopes thundered with water. Fortunately, as the fourth night progressed the sounds of water dripping around the edges of our little shelter gradually diminished, and when I poked my head out at 6.30 in the morning, the first signs of clearing weather could be seen blowing in from the south. Impatiently I roused the others out of their sleeping bags and we began to ready ourselves for the day. Breakfasts were downed, damp gear was sorted and bundled into packs, and the route was sorted for the day – along the Olivine Ledge, over Fiery Col with its dramatic ultramafic rocks, around the boggy wetlands of Cow Saddle, and down into the head of Hidden Falls Creek where we would find our next campsite.
Leaving our damp little hideway of the last thirty-six hours, we found our way along the Olivine Ledge reasonably easily, with the occasional cairn marking the route taken by others; we also had as a backup several way points that we had pre-loaded into our GPS. Arriving at the suggested crossing of the Fohn Stream, we realised just how impassable this route would have been the previous day; now it was just knee deep, and we were soon across and traversing the boggy terrain that leads around to the foot of Fiery Col. The line of blue advancing steadily across the sky from the south indicated perhaps several days of fine weather, and we reveled in the views both back north to the edges of the Olivine Ice Plateau and west to the Alabaster Pass, which provides a deceitful offer of a route down to Lake Alabaster on the Pyke River circuit – according to the guide book it is best avoided.
To the south loomed Fiery Col with its dramatic contrast of schist on one side, and rusty-red ultramafic rocks on the other – one vegetated, the other starkly bare. The climb is very direct, and I let the others go ahead, with my camera providing useful diversions that also allowed the regaining of one’s breath. The alpine plants growing on the schist were spectacular, with some of the best flowering of small Celmisia that I’ve seen – the giant flightless weevils that feed only on Aciphylla or speargrass were also spectacular, and near the very top I spied a cute little black jumping spider who obligingly posed for me on a flower head.
Lunch on the top was hasty, given the cool wind, but with spectacular views both back along the Olivine Ledge to the north and down into Hidden Falls Creek to the south. Soon we were picking our way down the boulder fields towards Cow Saddle, staying high and to the east, as suggested by friends who’d recently done this trip. Bluff avoidance required the odd backtrack, and we were surprised to bump into two individuals in the middle of nowhere – geologists from Otago University studying faulting along the line of the ultramafics. With their update on weather prospects, and a suggestion of a good campsite in the head of Hidden Falls Creek, we pushed on, eventually finding our campsite in the silver beech forest late in the afternoon.
Our night in the head of Hidden Falls Creek was surprisingly chilly with cool air flowing down the valley off the high peaks above us, but the dawn came with a perfectly clear sky. This day would take us down to the foot of Park Pass where we would begin the nearly 600 m climb from the valley floor, up a narrow ridge that leads eventually to the head of the Rock Burn. Wrapped up against the cold, and keen to avoid wet feet in our first river crossing, we headed downstream, helped by the odd cairn and a reasonably clear foot trail. We had one crossing of Hidden Falls Creek several km below our camp, but that was easily accomplished in a section of river with large boulders, and we were off downstream again.
Eventually the time for harder travel arrived and we began the climb – it is direct! Fortunately enough people go through for the route to be reasonably easy to follow, as it gets no official maintenance. Two hours later the trees became shorter in stature, and eventually we broke out of the forest with spectacular views all about us. Dumping our packs in the tussock, we collapsed in the sunshine and ate a leisurely lunch. With the bulk of the hard work done, we gradually climbed the short distance up to the pass, finding a sheltered camp spot in the lowest, northern part of the pass.
With quite a few hours of daylight left, we decided to hide our packs from any kea that might be about, and head up to the Park Pass Glacier. We were initially daunted by the route description in Moirs Guide, but once on the line of cairns we found it a straight forward climb, arriving at the high point looking over the glacier in a little over an hour. It was sad to see how much the glacier has retreated over the last decade due to global warming, with a large lake now occupying what is shown on the topo maps as a once much more extensive ice-sheet. The descent was perhaps even more spectacular, with the late afternoon sun highlighting the dramatic landforms to the south – down Hidden Falls Creek and the Rock Burn, and with Madeline and Tutoko, the ice-clad high-points of the mighty Darran Mountains standing tall to the west. It was three very satisfied trampers who enjoyed yet another home-dehy dinner that night as the sun slowly sank towards the west. Di and I turned in early, but Andrew sat out late to watch the stars – its hard to imagine a more spectacular place from which to view their gradual appearance!
The morning dawned to another perfectly clear sky, though cold enough to leave a layer of ice on the tent. I was out early for photos, while also contemplating the trip down the Rock Burn and out to civilization; it all seemed slightly tame, given the country that we had just traversed. Pondering other options, Di and I talked about the possibility of going out via Lake Nerine, and when the proposition was put to Andrew he responded with an emphatic ‘Yes!’. This is the alternative route out from Park Pass – a high sidle across steep tussock faces in the head of the Rock Burn up to one of New Zealand’s more spectacular clusters of alpine lakes; the route then crosses back over the main divide into the head of Hidden Falls Creek, sidles around to the North Col, and then descends into the North Branch of the Routeburn River.
This was probably our fastest ‘break camp and packup’ of the whole trip, and soon we were heading across to the foot of the climb. Occasional cairns again provided just enough clues as to location of the route, and we progressed steadily up and across, with only the odd hairy scramble to negotiate in the middle of the traverse. Fortunately our packs were lighter by this stage of the trip, the route taking us up to nearly 1600 m, first to a lakelet north of Lake Nerine, and then across a rocky saddle to the main lake, with its spectacular alpine setting, and gorgeous alpine ranunculus. Lunch was a hasty affair at the main lake, and then we were up across to the western side of the divide, where a series of high ledges took us steadily around to the last steep scramble up onto the North Col.
We approached North Col with some anxiety, given its reputation for holding late snow on its south-east side which can require crampons, but we were fine, with just a steep descent down a mix of rocks and avalanche debris. By this time it was approaching four pm, and we looked down with anticipation to the sunlit flats in the upper North Branch, where we intended to camp for the night, expecting to be there in an hour or two. Not to be – the route was mostly reasonably apparent, although with the odd section of scrubby travel with no apparent way through other than a slow wrestle.
Time stretched out as we pressed on with weary legs, six o’clock, seven o’clock, eight o’clock, and still the flats were ahead. Finally as eight-thirty approached we stood on the first piece of wide grassy flat, and cast about for a good tent spot. Then turning on the GPS I discovered that we were only a few hundred metres from a well setup rock bivvy – packs were put back on despite groans, and we at last found our place of rest for the night. Few dinners will taste as good as that one, and none of us took long to fall asleep, stirring only to hear the odd patter of rain as the next front announced its arrival and its delivery of fresh snow on the tops.
Back to the ‘real’ world
The last day of a trip like this is always a mixed experience for me – on the one hand, there is the anticipation of a hot shower, fresh food, decent coffee, and catching up with family – on the other hand, it is back to noisy traffic, work and the clamour of turbulent world news! With mixed emotions, we packed our gear for the last time, and headed off down the North Branch. Arriving at the crossing of the main Routeburn River we could already see several groups of Routeburn Track walkers on the other side; we were soon across, stopping to use the flush toilets and to enjoy fresh raspberries picked from the bushes in front of the main hut. Then it was off down the main track with its highway width, gravel surface, drainage ditches, culverts and bridges – and its crowds – such is adjustment back to the real world!
The rest of the trip needs no description, other than a serious endorsement of the flat whites brewed by the little cafe at Glenorchy – or was it just the contrast with the pretend packet coffee consumed on the trip? As for a fitting summary, I can only say that this country is some of the very best to be explored in Aotearoa New Zealand, with its spectacular land-forms, dense forests, high tussock passes, and alpine lakes – even more so when enjoyed with the very best of human company. For any readers who also choose to go there, may you find it as deeply enriching as we did.
All the photos in this post were taken with a Sony A7RII, which I find to be an ideal compromise between weight and performance for trips such as this. I carried three Zeiss prime lenses, a Loxia 21 mm, a ZM 35 mm, and a Loxia 85 mm. While I carried five batteries, I was still running on battery number four on the last day, despite having shot nearly 700 images. For closeups I used a Nikon No. 4 T achromatic close up lens, which on the Loxia 85 gets me nearly to 2:1. All images were shot in raw format and processed in Lightroom CC.