Thursday, 22 February 2007

Stage 4 - Scrub, Boulders and Pain

10 January - After some last minute arranging on the evening I arrived in Mount Cook, I suddenly had three people joining me for the Copland Pass crossing. I had two days off at Cook in which I spent most of my time sitting on the Unwin Hut computer writing up my blog. Nina arrived on the evening of my first day and had to content herself with sitting around reading the following day while I tapped away on the computer. She was planning on hitching down the coast after the Copland crossing and meeting up with Kyle Beggs and Nic Millar in Haast to complete a traverse of the Haast Range up to the Matukituki. Dan Allan and Rob Lawrence arrived late on Friday night, and spent some time sorting out their gear before going to bed, as they were contemplating trying to climb Sefton after crossing the pass.

After a 0700 start, we dropped by DOC, so Rob and Dan could sign in, then we rolled on over to White Horse Hill to drop Rob’s Impreza off. By this time it was around 0930. My pack was huge, and I had to quite literally kick it into the back of Rob’s car. It must have weighed around 30-35 kg, as I was carrying 16 days food, ice axe, crampons, helmet, mountain radio and tent on this leg. The weather was being kind to us, but cloud was hanging around the Divide obscuring the view. We shouldered our vastly different sized packs and headed on up the East side of the Hooker valley, as DOC had recommended it over trying to traverse around the Western side of the glacial lake. The East Hooker had changed a lot since I had last been here in 2005. Large chunks of the moraine wall you sidle above the lake on have fallen away, changing the nature of the route substantially. It is no longer easy wandering along open ledges, instead there is a lot more up and down and a couple of guts to cross.

We had been told that there was a good chance that we would be sharing the Copland Shelter with four others that night. I initially thought that they may have assumed that they may have thought that it was our group, as I had been in there the day before asking about the route and saying that four of us would be doing the crossing starting today, but as we made our way up the valley we picked up sets of fresh footprints from time to time. It was going to be a cosy night with eight people in the four person shelter!

We made the point where up turn off up to the Playing Fields, and descended down a large gut in the moraine wall to the lower Hooker glacier. Rob and Dan had not taken much fuel with them, and none of us new whether there was a water tank at the shelter, so they decided to cart three litres of water up the ridge with them, as they didn’t want to melt snow if they possibly could get away with it. I was feeling pretty good, and was easily keeping up with the others, even though my pack was twice the size of some of their’s!

We crossed the moraine covered glacier and stopped for lunch at the base of the route up the Western moraine wall. From a distance the route looked alright. It was split by a shelf at half height, and didn’t look too steep. The cloud was starting to break up at this stage, and we started enjoying broken views of Mount Cook and the upper Hooker valley as we sat around eating and talking shit. We were soon on our way again, climbing up the moraine wall. We angled up to the tussock covered ledge, then sidled this until it started to run out, then climbed a small divot to the base of the final steep section of moraine wall, which was particularly steep and loose. Fortunately there was a fixed rope attached to the top of this last gut, and we dispatched it with ease.

We wandered along the top of the wall for a way before picking out cairns amongst the rocks, which marked the start of the climb up onto the Copland Spur. The route started up quite steep snowgrass before eventually reaching the original track which zig-zagged its way up the spur. The route starts out as a steep walk, but gradually becomes more scrambly as the spur narrows and steepens. There are some fun, airy rock scrambles and the occasional ridge top traverse. Nina and I had something of a close call one time, when a small wall of loose rock collapsed just as I was walking beside them. Luckily they didn’t go far, otherwise I would have been flattened and Nina taken out too. Dan was finding the climb hard work after a summer spent behind a desk. He decided to ditch some of his water to make life a little easier, but Rob objected to that and wound up taking it – he did not want to use excess fuel!

The ridge steadily got more and more scrambly, but relented just below the shelter, which turned out to be empty when we finally arrived there around 1700. To our relief the other party ahead of us had decided to push on over the pass, so we had the place to ourselves. Yay! The Copland Shelter is a large barrel tipped on its side and strapped to the top of the Copland Spur. There are precipitous drops on either side of it, and a small section of ridge in front that has had a small section flatten to use as an open air bivy if the shelter is overcrowded – definitely not a place to be in a storm! Behind the bivy, a steep snowfield rears up around 200 metres to meet the rock crest of the Main Divide and the small notch that is the Copland Pass. The could had pretty much cleared by now, and we were presented with views down to Mount Cook Village, Lake Pukaki, the Liebeg Range, Hooker Valley and Mount Cook Range. Of course everybody went a bit snap happy with the cameras – particularly when the sun started to set and Mount Cook started turning orange – bloody marvellous!

One of the first things I found when we arrived was a water tank attached to the back of the shelter, which was hilarious, as it meant that Rob and Dan had carried an extra three kilograms of weight up the spur for nothing. They were not impressed! We set up something of a couch made out of mattresses outside the door to the shelter and sat around and had dinner outside, then watched the sun go down from our eyrie. The night was so mild that when we went to bed, we kept the door open to circulate some fresh air.

I felt good today. And didn’t really notice the huge pack I was carrying. I found the climb up to the shelter easy, much to the others disgust, so must be finally getting match fit!

11 February – We were up and away by 0840. The day was beautifully clear and still. We followed old footprints up the left hand side of the steep final snow field behind the shelter. Some of yesterdays zing had gone, and hauling my huge pack up the steep firm snow was a bit more of an effort, but we made the pass in about half an hour of leaving the Copland Shelter. We stopped and blazed away at the backdrop of the Southern Alps with our cameras before taking off our crampons and stepping through the notch of the pass. From here we dropped down a bit of a shelf that led right from the pass into loose gut that dropped down to the first basin on the western side. We got a bit spread out here, with Rob way out in front out on the open scree below the gut and Dan some way behind him, but still in the gut. Nina was next, just in front of me. We were scrambling down a small step when she kicked off a rock which went barrelling downhill straight for Dan. We yelled “ROCK!” which alerted Dan to his impending doom. He bounded a few paces, then fell over on the loose scree. The rock came hurtling towards him, and we were sure he was going to get sconed, but he got up and got out of the way just in time. Needless to say, after that we were a more careful about dislodging stones after that.

Rob, Dan and Nina took off downhill after that and reached the first basin quite a way in front of me. The basin still had snow in it and was still hard from the previous night, as the sun hadn’t reached it yet. The others didn’t bother to put their crampons on when they got to it and spread out all over it trying to find the easiest way across it. From above they had a farcical, Keystone Cops look about them as they skittered across the slippery surface. I was no better than them when I finally reached it, but took to the scree a lot earlier, as I wasn’t prepared to slide around and risk a fall when I was only half way done with my trip.

We climbed over the lip of the basin and dropped down more scree into the next basin, where we again ended up splitting up and going our separate ways down to the bottom. I stopped and donned crampons, then dropped down some firm snow to reach the others at the bottom. We had a snack beside a large boulder where we were joined by a couple of inquisitive juvenile keas, who kept as amused with their clowning before we headed off down past a small bivy rock, onto more scree, then eventually onto the track to the valley floor. I stopped and changed into shorts and sunhat with Nina when we hit the tussock, as the day was getting hot, and stopped many time on the way down to admire the views of Unicorn and Dilemma Peaks, as well as the Copland Valley stretching away to the West. I was surprised to see that the Copland lake at the head of the valley was silting up, and may not be in existence for too much longer.

We reached the valley floor and walked along the track until we found the appropriate lunch rock to sit on with a side stream close by. The day had turned into a real scorcher, and it was hard to find any shelter in the open scrub of the upper valley. Dan had to stop at one point and just blob, as he suddenly felt he was having heart palpitations. The fact he was in long sleeves and trousers probably wasn’t helping things much either. The track to Douglas rock was generally good until we reached a giant landslide, which we scrambled across. Shortly after that we crossed an old avalanche then followed the slowly deteriorating track to the bushline where improved markedly as we approached Douglas Rock Hut. The forest was very dry from such a long period of fine weather, but that made travel much easier, as we didn’t have to worry about slipping on wet rock.

We reached Douglas Rock around 1500 and had a snack break before making our way down to the fleshpots of Welcome Flat. Rob and Nina took off in front, with Dan following some way behind. I suddenly realised that I may have left my camera in the hut, so went back to check. It turned out that I’d just put it in my pack, and I was soon hooning down the track, after the others. I didn’t make any real attempt to try and catch up to them, as I was trying to reserve energy for the rest of the leg, which I new was going to be every bit as demanding as the last one. The track was very up and down, with little scrambly sections here and there, but was generally in good nick. I eventually caught up with Dan, who was pretty buggered by this stage, and had decided that he wasn’t up to trying for Mount Sefton this time around. We had a break before ambling on down the track a bit further to find Rob and Nina waiting for us by a small side stream.

From here it wasn’t far to Scott’s Creek, where Nina decided she was going for a swim, so the rest of us stood around and watched while she jumped in. We wandered down valley a bit to where we could see up Scott’s Creek a bit more, and I showed the boys the route up the side of the first waterfall. Rob was still keen to go and do it, but Dan just shook his head, and confirmed that he wasn’t really up to it this time around. From here it was just a long stroll down to the swingbridge and Welcome Flat Hut. Somehow I ended up in front as the others slowed down. We arrived at what appeared to be a backpackers! The hut was overflowing, with people – mainly overseas tourists, and was half covered with drying cloths. We had a look around the hut, trying to decide whether it was worth putting up with the masses, but with more people arriving and the fact that my Annual Hut Pass didn’t cover this hut, we all decided to camp out the back. To my chagrin, camping wasn’t covered by the Hut Pass either, which I think is absurd! We paid our hut fees to the warden – mainly because she was so friendly, and sympathised with our complaints, and gave us chocolate as a reward for crossing the pass! We set up camp, made dinner and did the radio sched (poor reception due to atmospherics) before paying a visit to the hot pools just after dark. Boy, were they great! It was nice to lye back and let the hot water soak away the aches and pains of the day. We sat around talking to some American girls before calling it a night and heading for bed - Dan, Nina, and I to our tents and Rob to his bivy bag.

12 February – I slept like a log. I didn’t even hear our noisy Israeli neighbors arrive back at their tent. We got up around 0700, had breakfast, shook the tents and packed up. I somehow managed to misplace one of my sock liners I had been wearing the night before in the process of packing, which really pissed me off, as I had managed to be careful not to lose or leave anything behind so far on this trip. I searched everywhere, but couldn’t find it, so gave it up as lost, unless it was still in my sleeping bag, which Nina had packed up for me while we were packing the tent away.

After one last look for my sock up at the pools, we left the hut some time around 0900. The others tore off at a rate of knots along the well trodden track, and I lumbered along at the back, pacing myself, as I knew I was in for a long day if I was going to reach Cassel Flat Hut in the Karangarua. The walk down the Copland was pretty uneventful. We passed quite a few people going in both directions. We reached Architect Creek by about 1045 and had a snack beside the swingbridge, then stopped by the Architect Creek Hut sortly afterwards for a look. We ran into a large guided party further down stream, and had a short chat with one of the guides as his group filed past. It looked like it was going to be another busy night up at Welcome Flat!

On the way down to the road, Nina was in two minds on whether she wanted to come with me for the rest of this leg or whether she would stick with her Plan A, and go up the Haast Range with Kyle and Nic. She was busy trying to figure out ways of hitching to Haast, picking up her extra gear, buying more food and coming back to meet me. She was wanting me to go to Haast with her, but I stuck to my guns and said that I would wait for her at either the Copland road end or Cassel Flat, but would not be jumping out of the hills down to Haast now I had started this leg of my journey. I wanted to keep my progression down the Alps as pure as possible, which meant no heading out of the hills and jumping up and down the island unless absolutely necessary. I probably came across a bit harshly, but didn’t want to muck about when I had definite goals set for myself.

We had lunch near the end of the bush after the Copland joins the Karangarua. A nasty looking mutant vampire Daddy Long Legs kept us occupied for a while, as we were probably sitting on its house, as did a chat with a woman’s tramping group who were bouncing around the Island doing all the tracks. They were puzzled on how we managed to pass them without them noticing, then realised that we had snuck past when they turned off the track to have lunch at the Karangarua viewpoint. We let them pass, finished our own lunch and trotted on down the last section of track before the road. I was keeping an eye out for possible crossing points on the Karangarua, but there were none, so I resigned myself to walking all the way down to the road. The last section of track before Rough Creek has been re-route due to the end of the old track being blown out by a flood.

Just before Rough Creek, Nina picked up a couple of stones and got me to shuffle them behind my back before presenting them to her. This was her way of deciding on whether see was going up the Haast Range or coming with me. She drew the smaller of the stones, which meant she was going up the Haast Range. With that sorted, we crossed the Creek and caught up with the boys, who were busy washing up in the Creek to make themselves presentable for hitchhiking. I stopped long enough to refill my fuel bottle with the fuel Nina was carrying and gladly received a couple of extra Hot Chocolates that Rob was carrying, then said my farewells to everybody and strode off down to the West Coast Highway. I crossed the Karangarua Bridge, then turned off up the track on the other side. The track up to Cassel Flat is the complete opposite of the well graded, frequently travelled Copland track. After starting out well, it soon deteriorates to a sporadically marked route, crossing a series of flats and skirting the river before taking to the bush before coming out on a large flat, which is crossed before cutting the corner of the Copland/Karangarua confluence in more bush. I had to be on top of my game spotting markers, and had to backtrack to pick up the trail from time to time when I lost the trail or followed a false lead.

After following the bank for a while, the track turned up a large dried up flood channel before reaching McTaggart Creek. I crossed this and climbed steeply up the south bank towards a large white sack, which was the only marking to show where the track started at the top of the bank. The going from here was slow but steady. The track headed inland and zig-zagged a lot, climbing steadily upward. The was a lot of shield fern, mud, roots, windfall, boulders and side streams to contend with, but the track was okay to follow, and I only had to backtrack a few times. The time did seem to drag on though, and it felt like I was getting nowhere for a while, but just as I was wondering if I was going to get to Cassel Flat before dark, I stumbled out into the open. Cassel Flat is quite an impressive place, surrounded by towering bluffs of tussock and smooth rock. A bit more wandering through scrubby bush and a couple of clearings had me arrive at Cassel Flat Hut just on 1930. I was surprised to find that the hut was in really tidy shape, as I had imagined it to be a bit more run down, seems it was in a relative backwater. I noticed that there was a mountain radio aerial set up in the grass outside the hut, lying down amongst the grass, so dropped my pack and rigged my radio to the aerial. The sched had just started, but again, the reception was lousy. I managed to get the forecast through the static, but couldn’t raise IB Base.

Just as the sched wound up the owner of the aerial appeared out of the bush across from the hut. I had been following relatively fresh tracks up the valley for most of the afternoon, so new that someone was up here. His name was David, a shopfitter/farmer from Akaroa, who was up here hunting Thar. He was a bit of a talker – in fact it was difficult to get a word in edgewise – but he was nice enough. He’d just been up the track towards Lame Duck Hut, and said the track was rough. He’d just had a chopper full of DOC shooters come through the previous evening and shoot a whole lot of Thar off the valley walls, and was contemplating heading out early, as there were only about 20 Thar around compared to about 40 before the shooters had been through – go figure! When I asked him about the Regina Creek/Douglas route, he said he hadn’t been up there, but another group of four had just headed up that way about a day ago.

After our chat, I went about making dinner, and once I’d scoffed that down, I fell into bed just in time for the mosquitoes to come out and buzz about. Dave said that they were so bad the previous night that he was going to sleep outside tonight, so he took one of the huts mattresses outside and bedded down in the open. I just put on my beanie and pulled it down over my ears in the hope this would ward the worst of them off, or at least muffle the buzzing. I still hadn’t decided which route I was going to take the next day, and was disappointed to find that the hut book had recently been replaced, so there was no helpful beta on the surrounding area. I now regretted not getting DOC at Mount Cook to get info from DOC Fox Glacier sent through to me while I was at Cook. I decided to make a final decision first thing in the morning based on how I felt when I got up, and hunkered down to try and get some sleep in what was shaping up to be a muggy night.

13 February – Dave shuffled back into the hut some time during the night mumbling something about getting wet outside. The mosquitoes were indeed bad, and I wound up constantly brushing them away between fits of sleep. Dave got up at 0500 to go out hunting. He wished me good luck for the rest of my traverse when he left about 20 minutes later. I got up around 0700, and set about making breakfast. The valley had filled in with cloud overnight, and heavy dew lay on the ground. Dave had left the hut mattress he had been sleeping on outside, and it was soaking wet.

I finally decided to try the Regina Creek/Douglas route, as I was keen to return to the head of the Douglas Valley again, and felt it was going to be easier to get to the Landsborough this way. Another party had just gone up that way too, which meant the route obviously went, so I packed up and was out the door just on 0830. I crossed the soggy flats and dropped down to the cableway across the Karangarua. The box car was on the far side of the river where the previous party had left it, so I had to haul it back across the river. It was stiff and didn’t come back across easily, but I got it over eventually. I threw my pack and jumped on board. To my surprise the box car didn’t roll down the cable with my added weight, so I was forced to once again haul on the rope to get myself down to the halfway point, then get the ratchet out and use it to prevent me from sliding backwards on the upward side of the cableway. By the time I reached the far side of the river, I had managed to rip several large holes in my hands from hauling on the rope so hard (I perhaps should have worn gloves – Doh!).

I got out, unloaded my pack and headed on up the track. Again, the track had been marked with orange triangles in the past few years, and on the whole it was easy to follow, but it did vanish occasionally where it got a bit overgrown or had windfall. The track led steadily uphill, and was still wet from last night. I reached the swingbridge across Regina Creek around 1030 and stopped for a snack before starting the climb up to Conical Hill. The track climbed away from the valley floor very steeply, but I made good rapid height gain. The track passed closely by several slips that went all the way to the valley floor, and I wouldn’t be surprised if those sections of track end up there fairly soon too. I would be constantly be pulling myself up hand over hand on trees and roots before reaching short sidles as I made my way higher and higher. I passed a couple of fixed chains placed in slabby creek beds, one section of track that was pulling away from the bedrock beneath it that I had to climb up VERY carefully, and a cable ladder with haul chain that was attached to a very steep bluff near the top. Once I had climbed the ladder and scrambled up a section of steep, eroding track, the terrain started to lay back again, and I scrambled my way up through scrub to the tussock. Orange markers gave way to the odd snow pole, and I made my way up to the saddle beside Conical Hill. By this time it was 1300, so I stopped for lunch just below a snow pole with a large orange triangle attached to it. The morning cloud had largely burnt off, giving me views up the Douglas Valley. Boy, this is steep, unrelenting country, and I was just about to head into the heart of it!

After lunch, I followed a series of old snow poles into an area of scrub and boulders. From here I picked up a series of old permolat markers and followed these until they ran out on top of a bit of a bluff. I spent some time looking for more markers, but couldn’t find any more, so opted to descend down the only feasible looking way off the top of the bluff. I dropped into something of a broad gully, full of shield fern and made reasonable progress down. As the terrain let me, I started to traverse along the wall of the valley. I was still hoping to find some form of trail, but nothing appeared. It was hard going, following ledges of shield fern and pushing through stunted trees. Occasionally I would have to pull up through thickets before starting to traverse again. Occasionally I would break out into the open a cross the odd slip, but generally I was forced to stay in the stunted forest and scrub. The going became painfully slow, and when I pulled out the GPS it became obvious that I was making incredibly slow progress through this horrid scrubby terrain. I soon realised that maybe this wasn’t the right route to Horace Walker, however it was too late to turn around, as it was going to take just as much time to backtrack as to push forward, and I reasoned to myself that surely the terrain would relent soon!

After another hour or so of grovelling I realised that there was no way I was going to reach Horace Walker Hut today, and the best I could hope to do was either try and find an open flat spot to put up my tent (which seemed unlikely at this stage) or I would have to find the rock bivy that was marked on the map. I eventually broke out onto some open ground, disturbing a herd of Thar as I burst forth from the bush. It had just started to rain lightly, so I stopped and put on my parka. There were several large rocks around, so I decided to have a look around to see if any of them could be used as bivvies or whether there was any ground to put my tent up on, as it was now around 1730. Unfortunately there was nothing, but as I had climbed quite high, I did notice a very large rock that appeared to have a large overhang some distance off. It could quite possibly be the bivy I thought, so decided to go check it out. The rock was in a large clearing, and there looked like there was the possibility that there might be some flattish ground there even if the rock didn’t turn out to be the bivy.

It was 1900 before I finally arrived at the big boulder. I soon saw that it wasn’t the bivy, though a quick look at the GPS and map told me it wasn’t far away. I decided not to go looking for it, as I was shattered, and there wasn’t anything that obviously looked like it from where I was standing. I managed to find a small portion of flat ground that was just big enough to put my tent up on, and set up the radio aerial to listen to the evening sched. Once again I got really poor reception, but IB Base wasn’t able to raise anybody due to atmospherics that night. I was starting to get a little concerned about not being able to get in contact with IB Base, particularly when I was sitting in the arsehole of the Southern Alps right then! Fortunately the weather forecast was still good, so at least I wouldn’t have to deal with rain as well as all this knarly country. I decided that I would try and climb high the next day to see if I could get above this horrible forest. Hopefully the day would turn out a bit easier than this afternoon! I made tea and then crashed shortly after eating. I was buggered. It had been the hardest day physically so far on the trip.

14 February – Take two on yesterday afternoon. Fuck this is hard country! The plan to climb high to avoid the boulders I had camped next to just led me into more thick scrubby forest! At one point as I was climbing up beside a scrubby streambed I ran into a squeeze so tight I was forced to take my pack off and crawl through the hole, then haul my pack through. This was bloody hard work, as my pack was still in the vicinity of 30 kg in weight! Once I broke out of the scrub I was confronted with a series of steep slabs and gullies that I had to either climb or sidle. Mainly the slabs kept forcing me up and up, but I could only go as high as the base of the huge bluffs that loomed over the top of the valley. More than once I yearned to be above those on the tussock that I could see! The going on some of the slabs was quite hairy in places and if I’d slipped I would have gone a long way, however I was becoming quite adept at picking up Thar trails and following them. I also kept having close encounters with the local Thar. They seemed very surprised to see a human at such close quarters when I burst out of the bush at them!

At the end of the last big slab, I was near the top of the slope, and pushed up through a scrubby bank to be confronted with the sight of a steep bouldery stream dropping away beneath me and part of the bluffy headwall blocking any further progress. I swore mightily and had to stop and think hard about what I was going to do next, as I was starting to get quite disheartened by all these obstacles being thrown up in my path. I was still making painfully slow progress for the amount of effort I was putting in, and the day was sliding away far too quickly. After taking some time to look at my options, I decided to drop down the bank in front of me and follow it down towards the Douglas River. As soon as the terrain let me, I would cross this stream and continue my traverse along the valley wall. It was all I could do. Luckily there seemed to be quite a few Thar trails on this bank, and I used them as much as I could. Occasionally I would have to scramble down a water course or over the odd boulder, but the travel seemed to be getting slowly better – either that or I was getting used to travelling in Thar country! I was eventually forced down to the creek and had lunch in the sun beside a waterfall, then crossed the stream and started traversing around to a ledge I had spotted that looked like it had some open ground on it. I got there and got a brief glimpse up valley, and what I saw was very encouraging – there was a large open terrace that led to a prominent ridge that led up to the open plateau that lay just before the hut. Things were looking up!

After a bit more scrub bashing and up and down I reached more open tussock. I followed this until it ended at the top of a short bluffy section and clambered down the slabby, eroding hillside to the Douglas River. From here I followed a side stream up a short way to reach the large open terrace. I followed across this as far as I could and then ploughed into some truly heinous alpine scrub. I spent some time thrashing through this before finally making it to the ridge I had been aiming for. The scrub relented a little once I reached the large Dracophyllum and Fuchsia trees that were growing along the ridge. Occasionally I would run into thick scrub, but I would just have to persevere and I was soon back among the more open areas again. I eventually picked up something of a trail along the spine of the ridge, then near the top of the ridge I stumbled onto an old cut track that still had the occasional marker, and I followed this up to the scrubline, and finally the large tarned plateau just before the hut. The views suddenly opened up in front of me, and I could finally see the Horace Walker Glacier, the head of the Douglas Valley, and back down the gorge to the Saddle beside Conical Hill. I had almost made it! Yay! I crossed the swampy plateau and headed for the stream outlet that led down to the Douglas River. My way was blocked by a steep, bouldery stream, but I got my first look at Horace Walker Hut. I backtracked a short distance and climbed up to the shoulder to the right of the stream outlet and found a snow pole. After sidling right for about 500 metres I picked up a spur that led down towards the river and soon picked up a track through the scrub that led down to the valley floor, then followed it out to the Douglas. From here it was just a case of strolling across the flats to meet the Horace Walker River, crossing it at its confluence with the Douglas (grey and deep, but not swift), and I finally arrived at Horace Walker Hut. Whoo Hoo! I was so glad to finally get here! It had taken me eight hours to come the six kilometres to get to this fabulous little hut, but I had done it!

I had the place to myself, as the party that Dave had told me about had returned down to the Karangarua the previous day by what they had written in the new hut book. I spread out and made myself at home. The hut is well stocked with food, as it is mainly used by hunters who fly in and out by helicopter, so I had a look through it and found some instant pudding that I decided would be a great treat, so promptly mixed it up with some of the huts milk powder to have as dessert, although I started eating it as soon as it had set! It was Pam’s Instant Pudding which you can mix up without refrigerating it, and it sets really well.

I wasn’t entirely alone. A family of Weka were roaming around the hut. It was really cool to see the two little ones, although they foiled all attempts to take pictures of them. The evening cloud had rolled in once again, obscuring the valley walls, so I headed inside. I sat down and had a mending session on my shorts, as they had not survives the last couple of days bush bashing too well. After that I did the evening sched (Still couldn’t raise IB Base – Hmm, I’m not liking this, I’ve changed the batteries, there must be something wrong with the aerial.), then had tea and Instant Pudding for dessert and some real hot chocolate courtesy of the hut supplies, then hit the hay.

15 February – I was up and out the door by 0830. It was a cool and cloudy start to the day. I headed up the true right bank of the Douglas River to the glacial lake at the head of the valley. The Douglas Lake was huge and very moody, surrounded by towering cliffs on either side; these reflected themselves in the mirror smooth water. The low grey cloud gave the place a slightly menacing feel.

The way around the lake lay on the true right, following the shore of the lake most of the way around until it came to a large boulder field that blocked the way. After the boulder field it looked like it continued back along the lake shore until it came to a large bluff, which rose straight out of the water at the far end of the lake. The initial part following along the lake shore was easy, then I climbed high through the boulder field and slowly angled back down to the lake again before arriving at the main barrier to progress – the large bluff. At one point the mirror calm waters of the lake were shaken by a huge booming crash, which I have to assume was a large piece of the Douglas Neve dropping off further up the valley, though I did briefly think it might have been the start of an earthquake.

The low cloud started to burn off by the time I reached the bluff, and could start to see the Main Divide around Mount Burns, and got fleeting glimpses of Mount Thomson at the head of the valley. I scrambled up a large scree fan that ran down the left hand side of the bluff to gain a broad ledge on top of it, and sidled along this to get a look at where I needed to head next. There was nothing here except bluffs plunging straight into the lake, but I did get my first view of Mount Sefton and the Douglas Neve falling off overhanging cliffs onto the lower glacier, which ran down to the lake. I could see that I would have to backtrack a bit and climb up onto the next shelf to get around to a point where I could drop down to the terminal face of the Douglas Glacier and the end of the lake. I did this, sidling moderately steep scree covered slabs of this upper shelf to a point where the angle eased and two clean slabs and a waterfall were crossed before I could descend down to the beach at the foot of the glacier. The view up the lower Douglas to Mount Sefton and the Upper Douglas Neve were gobsmacking – it’s such steep, dramatic country in here!

The snout of the glacier was right on the edge of the lake, but I had seen that the lake was quite shallow here, so ducked around the front of the black hulk of ice rather than trying to cross over the top of it. Once past the glacier I clambered up the huge moraine wall to reach Harper’s Rock Biv just in time for lunch. It was great to be back here after so many years, and even nicer to have great weather, as my last visit, helping out as a geologist’s assistant was a bit of a stormy affair. After lunch I headed across the large glacial flats behind the rock biv to get to the start of the route up to Douglas Pass. I could remember very little of the route we took up and down here when I was here last, but there looked to be numerous options, so up I went. I bypassed bluffs at the bottom and then zig-zagged up steepish rock and tussock slopes for most of the way up until I got to a waterfall blocking the way back left towards the pass. It came down in a couple of steps, and I figured I would be able to bypass scrambling up the first step by climbing up the slope I was on a bit higher and dropping in on a shelf beside it. When I got to the shelf above, it turned out to be a no goer, so I clambered back down to the first step and scrambled across loose scree to get to the base of the waterfall.

Once I got to the base of the first step I realised that this step was much bigger than I had initially thought, and in fact was a bit of a rock climb. However by this stage I was committed to doing this route, so I just went for it. I took to the large crack in the left hand side of the face, jammed my way up it with the help of a couple of well placed ice axe hook placements. At about half height, I realised that a fall here would probably have serious consequences, which helped speed me on my way to the top. Once the angle eased, I crossed the stream above the waterfall and angled up towards the pass. By this stage cloud had rolled into the Landsborough and was rapidly filling the Douglas Valley too, so I headed straight down the slumping rock shelves in the head of the Landsborough rather than hanging around the pass. I aimed for the terminal face of the McKerrow Glacier, another very sad looking glacier, which is more rock than ice these days, and crossed the infant Landsborough at the mouth of the glacier. From here I followed down the true left. I was a bit let down that I didn’t get the splendid views up to Karangarua Saddle due to the cloud hanging around the valley, which gave the place a slightly suffocating feel. Steep scree eventually gave way to flats, then the river narrow and dropped sharply beneath Karangarua Saddle, and I was forced to sidle above this on steep scree for a while before the valley opened up once more to form broad shelves of tussock and boulders on either side, while the river thundered on some 60 metres below.

The cloud lifted a little when I came out from the gorgy section under Karangarua Saddle, but still obscured the mountain tops. I followed the benches on the true left downstream until I found the rock biv beside the Rubicon Torrent and stopped there for the day, as it looked to be a much better option than a tent. The biv is pretty much where it is marked on the map, and is the largest rock in the area. It is cairned on the top and has two waled sleeping chambers at each end, the larger of the two being on the downhill side. I got water from a stream some way away, cooked tea in the biv, and did the evening sched. Once again I could not transmit out! Grr! I started looking at the aerial for any obvious breaks once I had pulled it down for the evening, but could not see anything.

As predicted a small front made itself felt that evening with a bit of light rain and a marked drop in temperature, but I was nice and cosy under my bivy rock. It had been a good day, and I felt like I had made some real progress. I asked the mighty Landsborough to treat me well over the next few days before I went and curled up in my pit for the night.

16 February – The front passed through overnight, but it was cloudy once again when I got up, so I didn’t get the views of the Rubicon and Le Blanc streams that I had hoped for. The impressive walls of Mount Townshend were visible though, which was some consolation. After breakfast I dropped into the Rubicon Torrent and crossed it and climbed out the other side before following the remaining tussock shelves down towards Romping Water. A slight error in judgement had me drop down to the Landsborough slightly too early, and I was forced to climb back up onto the shelf via some stunted alpine scrub. Once back on the shelf I zig-zagged through more alpine scrub before breaking out onto more tussock above Romping Water. I had disturbed several Chamois who were out grazing the flats on my way down from the biv, and came across one more as I dropped down scree into Romping Water. I followed the true right bank until just before the confluence with the Landsborough. I had noticed that my left quad was giving me some grief this morning, and as I continued on down the valley it slowly started to seize up. This did not help my forward progress much, as it was making the boulder bashing I was now doing quite difficult, as I couldn’t weight my left leg properly. I knew that I’d be boulder bashing for most of the day, and was a tad annoyed that my leg was suddenly playing up for no apparent reason.

Just after I passed Whitcombe Creek, my right quad started seizing up too, and I was soon walking like a gingerbread man. Going uphill was painful when bending my knees, and going downhill became agony. I was once again very glad that I was using walking poles, as these helped a lot in keeping me upright, and acted as a second pair of legs that I could lower myself with and to roll over the tops of things. The thought of stopping and resting up for the rest of the day did pop into my head, but there was nowhere to stop and make camp, so I had to keep going. The rough nature of the upper valley, with a lot of boulder bashing and thick forest and scree sidles had me reduced to a crawl. I pumped my self full of anti inflammatories and Panadol to try and minimise the discomfort, but as the injury seemed to be torn muscle, these didn’t help much. The increasing number of scree banks I had to sidle and descend was the worst of the obstacles I encountered. I was forced to either side step or reverse down them with very little control, and I often slid out, which stressed my legs andforced me to stop from the pain it induced. The day wore on and on, with the only bonus being, that once again it was fine and clear. My progress felt like it was getting slower and slower. I just kept saying to my legs “Please, just get me to Zora, and I’ll let you rest – maybe have a day off – Come on, don’t let me down now!”

The bluff below Arthur Creek was intense, with me having to climb and traverse steep, loose gullies before dropping back down to the river via a side stream. At time I would be forced to just sit down and take he weight off my legs to relieve the pain, or occasionally wade into the river to cool them down, but at last the flats around the Zora confluence appeared, and I managed to gather enough energy to hobble on down to them. I arrived there about 1930, and managed to find an idyllic camp spot on a terrace on the true right of Baker Stream, where it flows into the Landsborough. I was mighty relieved to have arrived and be rid of my pack for another day. I hobbled around and set up my tent amongst a swarm of sandflies, got water from a nearby stream and made tea. I was too shagged to worry about the sandflies too much, and just let them munch on the few uncovered spots on me. My legs responded well to stopping and not having to haul my goddamn pack, but I made sure I popped more drugs before hitting to hay for the night. I would wait and see what my legs were like in the morning before deciding on whether I’d try to get down to Fraser Hut or not. It would be good if I could…

17 February – More of the same pain, but on easier terrain. The route downstream from the Zora is a lot more gentle, with more sidles in forest, and along terraces, and less rock hopping. There is less up and down too. My legs felt okay when I got up and stayed that way for the first half an hour of walking, but soon seized up again, though the pain wasn’t quite as bad. I made reasonable time down to Dechen Stream beside the river, then took to the bush when the river started to push in against the true left bank. I picked up a deer trail that took me up high onto a bench and I followed this until I came to a spot where I got a view of McKerrow Stream a long way below. The problem was I couldn’t easily get back down to the river, so I was forced to follow the trail up McKerrow Stream a way before finding a large slip to descend. This really aggravated my quads, and I arrived at the bottom of the slip groaning in pain. I hobbled downstream towards the Landsborough and had lunch with lashings of Voltaren.

After lunch I followed beside the river before once again taking to the bush when the river turned a corner to the left. This time as I clambered up onto the bush terrace above the river, I stumbled onto a track. Halleluyah! It was a trapping line, and it led all the way down to kea Flat. All of a sudden the pressure was off! I knew I’d be able to getto Creswicke Flat in reasonable time once I got to Kea Flat. Arriving at Kea Flat brought back memories of my last excursion into the Landsborough back in 1999. It had been a minor epic, and looking up at the incorrect spur we used to get up to Elcho Pass now, I had to laugh. It was good to be back on familiar ground again. I passed Kea and Jackson streams with a smirk, and headed down river until I picked up another trap line that led me down to Toe Toe Flat. The afternoon had heated up considerably and I was sweating like a pig. My quads were getting quite sore again too, but I kept on going when I arrived at the Queenstown Rafting fly camp, which is a pretty flash setup, I must say, complete with gas barbeque and picnic tables!

The track entered bush again at the far end of Toe Toe Flat and climbed over a large hillock, which made for slow painful travel, particularly when I had to descend off it. I came out onto more flats where the river swung back to the right and all of a sudden I could see Creswicke Flat – the place I wanted to be more than anywhere else! It took around an hour of hobbling following the bluffed, undulating trail beside the river to get there, but when Fraser Hut finally came into view I was wrapped – and it was only 1800! Tomorrow would definitely be a rest day – and not just because it was my birthday!

The hut is a slightly run down corrugated iron structure that is infested with mice, but it was paradise. I set about setting up the radio and doing the sched, with no more luch on transmitting out (I was getting more than a little annoyed by this, not to mention a little worried!), had tea, and set about catching up on my diary, which I had neglected to do for the past few days before eventually succumbing to sleep, dispite the sound of mice scurrying around inside the walls.

18 FebruaryHappy Birthday to me! I slept in until 0800, then tried to raise IB Base again on the morning sched without success. I had breakfast, then spent some time catching up on my diary, then had a closer look at my radio aerial. I found a couple of points that could be potential breaks, and decided to try and fix one of them. The other didn’t look like I could do much with it. When I was having a look around the hut at one point, I discovered a large plastic box that turned out to be the food drop for a guy by the name of Tim Mulliner who was coming through here some time in early March on another Southern Traverse. From the writing on the label, he was apparently from Dunedin too, so I scrawled him a note on the label to say “Hi, I’m doing a traverse too” and left him my email address if he happened to be passing by an Internet café on his travels. I made a mental note to keep an eye out for his name in the hut books in future, just in case we passed each other at some point.

Had lunch and then a bit of an afternoon siesta, as the day was another scorcher, and the hut was heating up quite a bit. My legs were thanking me for the break. I was hopeful that maybe I’d be able to stick to my Plan A and still be able to get over Studholme Pass into the Hunter, but was well aware that I would more than likely just have to bug out down the Landsborough and out via Strutt Bluff and over Haast Pass. I was opeful that my legs weren’t in such a bad state that this might mean the end of the trip for me. I figured I just needed to rest up for a few days once I had reached Makarora, and then hopefully push on.

Later in the afternoon a party of seven trampers from the Upper Clutha Tramping Club (UCTC) arrived at the hut after crossing Broderick Pass That day. I spent most of the rest of the afternoon sitting around yakking with Peter, Phil, Claudine, Dave, Madeline, Robin, and an Aussie guy whose name I can’t remember. Phil happened to be carrying a satellite phone (courtesy of Wanaka SAR – actually I later found out it was his.), and once he found out I was having problems with my radio, he offered it to me to use to get hold of Danilo, which I gratefully accepted. I called Danilo to let him know where I was, and what I was planning to do. He told me that Lindsay had already gone up to Makarora and dropped my next food drop off there. It looked like he wasn’t going to join me for a stint after all. I asked Danilo to see if he could source another radio aerial for me and get it up to either Makaroa or to Stephen to give me at Glenorchy, so I could replace the broken one I was carrying. Just as we were just winding up the conversation, the phone cut out – probably because the satellite moved out of range, but it didn’t matter, I had let someone know where I was, and that I was okay. I felt much better after that.

I had dinner and went to bed once the sun went down and the other group had started to toddle off to their tents. Claudine and Madeline joined me in the hut, as they would be able to get up a lot faster in the morning not having to pack a tent away. They were going to be getting up early to get as far down the valley as possible before the heat of the day hit. I had decided to go down as far as Harper’s Flat and see how my legs coped after a day off before deciding whether I’d be able to have a crack at getting over Upper Studholme Pass or bailing out to the road via Strutt Bluff.

19 February – The UCTC group got up just after 0500, and of course I woke up with them and didn’t go back to sleep. They were away around 0620, and I stayed in bed and dozed until 0700 when I finally decided to get up. I was ready to go by 0800 and strode off down Creswicke Flat in the early morning light. My legs felt alright, but still a little twingy. The flat ended and I rock hopped downstream following the others footprints in the sand. I passed another flat and rock hopped a bit more before crossing a stream at the end of the flat and picked up another trap line on the far side. The trap line immediately climbed away from the river and undulated along the hillside above. It was well marked and easy to follow, which was good, but the constant up and down started to flare my quads up again. They weren’t as bad as previously, but were still uncomfortable, and I could feel them slowly wind up as I went along.

I reached a large blown out creek around 1030 and stopped for a snack. Once I had finished eating I was presented with what turned out to be the crux of the day – a very steep, loose river bank. I tried to climb up to where the marker showing where to go back into the bush was, but this overhanging and loose. My second option was steep and ran out of holds and the third and forth tries the same, though the third might go if I put my poles away. I tried further upstream, but nothing looked any better, so I put my poles away and had another go at my third option. It was steep and slippery, but with some careful footwork and use of delicate hand holds I managed to get within reach of a couple of young beech trees that were growing on the lip of the bank. I grabbed hold of them, heaved up and kicked into the steep crumbly bank to gain a foothold. My foot slid out and I swung out into space, but the trees were well rooted and I was able to swing back in and get purchase on the wall and haul myself up onto the top of the bank.

I bushed myself down and picked up the trapping line once more, which headed inland along more bush terraces before coming out on a large gravel fan and followed markers across this to a blown out stream flowing down beside it just inside the bushline on the far side. From here the track sidled along more terraces in the bush, then led down to a short boulder hop along the river before heading back into the bush once more. I then followed it to a small clearing with my first view of Harper Bluff. I arrived at the foot of it shortly after, reaching it within four hours of leaving the hut – even with stuffed quads –Cool, I’m still going alright!

I started up the steep trail, and to my surprise heard voices in front of me. I was grunting and swearing a bit as the climbing was aggravating my legs, but I pushed on and soon caught up with Phil and Robin, who were at the back of their group. I was surprised to have caught up with them, and just as I was nearing them, a muddy ledge that I was climbing on to gave way beneath me and sent sliding down the bank a couple of metres. The others hadn’t noticed as they were too busy clambering up through the steep bush above. I swore like a trooper, brushed myself off and clambered up the slope after them. We reached the top together and met the rest of the UCTC group who were resting at the top of the bluff. Apparently they had been slowed down when one of their number managed to slash his leg on a sharp piece of stone he was passing. They were a little surprised to see me, but were happy for me to tag along, so I slipped in at the back as we headed down towards Harper Flat where we were going to have lunch at the rafting camp.

The descent down to the flat was slow and painful for me, and the others soon vanished off into the distance, as I gingerly lowered myself down on my poles, but when I got to the bottom, they had left a “UCTC >” carved into the ground to indicate where they had gone, and I soon joined them at the rafters camp. Peter and Robin were having a dip in the Landsborough when I arrived, and as Peter got out he suggested that I hit Madeline up for a leg massage, as she was a massage therapist, so as I got my lunch out I asked her if she would mind terribly much if she massaged my legs once she had come back from her swim, and she very kindly obliged. She went t work on my left leg once I’d found a spot where I could lie with my head in the shade, as the sun was baking hot. She said that my leg was really tight, and that the best thing I could do was rest up for a few days. This really made my mind up not to try and push over into the Hunter, as I believed if I tried to I’d end up just injuring myself properly and putting an end to the traverse. I decided that I would head out to the Haast road and head over Haast Pass to Makarora and rest up there for a few days before pushing on once I felt better.

Fortune once again smiled on me too, as the injured party member was not going to be be able to walk out like he had originally planned, and was going to fly out with Phil, Dave and Robin who had already booked a flight out from here. That meant that there was a space available in the truck that was picking the rest of the group up on the far side of Strutt Bluff. Peter, who was leading the group through the recently recut Cullers route over Strutt Bluff, and was happy for me to join them going this way. I was interested in what this new route was like, as it sounded a LOT better than the one described in Moirs, and as as Peter was one of the UCTC members involved in reopening this route, it seemed appropriate to be doing it with him – particularly as I had no idea where it started. Claudine and Madeline were also walking out with Peter and I.

The walk down to Strutt Bluff from Harpers Flat doesn’t take long. The view of the Moirs route over Strutt Bluff looks every bit as ugly as the description in the book says it is. Peter said he had done it once before and would never go near it again, saying it would be safer to pack float down the Landsborough around the Bluff than attempt Spearpoint’s Spur. But that isn’t necessary anymore, as this old Cullers route has now been found again.

The entrance to the track is marked with pink tape and is close to where the river flows into the bluff. The route climbs steeply to start with, then breaks right along a ledge before dropping down to almost river height before climbing back up and sidling right once more. UCTC have done a bloody good job of clearing this old track. According to Peter, it took a couple of weekends to scope out and clear the track when it was found. It was still marked with No. 8 wire when it was found and was horribly overgrown, but still navigable. Why this route feel out of favour and the one in Moirs came into favour is a mystery. This one is a lot easier and safer, and is has only half the height gain above the river than the other route.

The route finished with an abrupt climb up to a large terrace and when we arrive at the end, we were greeted with a tape barrier and a DOC sign saying “This facility is closed, sorry for any inconvenience.” Peter laughed and tore the sign off the yellow tape. He was happy to leave the tape where it was however, as it made it more obvious to anybody looking for it where the track started. I personally am impressed with the initiative shown by those members of the UCTC who put so much time into looking for and re-cutting this route. It means that there is now a safe all weather route in and out of the lower Landsborough, and that can only be good. Peter copped a lot of flak from DOC for publishing the fact that this route has been rediscovered and reopened, but apparently DOC has come round to the fact that this is a good route, and is going to go through and cut it to their standards at some point in the future.

From the top of the route our little group descended back down to the Landsborough. I took my time coming down, as my legs were still quite sore, though the massage earlier had helped them for a while. We picked up the 4WD track and started wandering down it. Claudine’s husband John was going to pick us up at 1800, so we took our time and stopped in the shade for a while. Claudine had blisters, and I’d given her some Compeed to help get her over the bluff, but they were still painful, and she changed into her sandals again (She had walked down to Strutt Bluff from Harpers Flat, but had changed back into her boots to cross the bluff.). Both Peter and Claudine were ex-North Islanders, like myself, and we chatted about how different things were between the islands. We finally decided to push on down the road a bit further to find a spot where the truck could turn around, and had gone about 100 metres when John showed up in his twin cab Mazda ute and bundled us onboard. We bumped down the down the track while the rest of us stared out the window at the views of the lower Landsborough and Clarke. We stopped to have a look at the shell of the old Landsborough Station homestead. It was rough as guts, and a hodgepodge of building designs, but kind of cool in a rustic kind of way. Apparently DOC are going to knock it down, as it doesn’t meet the building code standards.

From here we drove a wee bit further on the 4WD track, and then came out onto the Haast highway. We cruised over Haast Pass and I was deposited safely at the Makarora Wilderness Centre at about 1900. I gave Claudine by blog address and said my farewells to everybody, then headed into the shop and got myself a dorm room for the night. The food boxes that Lindsay had dropped off in the weekend was sitting behind the counter when I arrived (Wow, they multiply – I had only given Lindsay one!), so I claimed it and said I’d pick it up once I had had a shower and come back for dinner. I showered and shaved, then made a beeline back to the Café where I made the most of the all you can eat buffet (Three stacked plates of roast meats and veges, rice and sweet and sour chicken, wedges and salad, and a couple of Monteith’s Celtics – Mmm!). While I was feeding my face, the girl who served me at the counter brought my food boxes through to the café, which was thoughtful, as the shop was about to close for the day. Once I had finished dinner I picked up my boxes and headed back to my dorm to see what goodies lay within. Along with my tramping food and new pair of boots, Lindsay had left a couple of cans of Speights Old Dark, a small cake and half a ton of fruit, which was really nice (Thanks Lindsay!). I had a good rummage through everything else to see what I had, then retired to bed to write up my diary before finally turning the light out at 2300.
I was safely through the toughest country on the trip now, and I was pleased to have made it. I didn’t regret making the decision to not go through the Hunter and upper Makarora for a minute. I was sure if I rested up for a few days I’d be able to push on and finish the rest of my Southern Odyssey in good style, as the country from here on was largely known to me and easier to travel through. I had almost broken the back on it at last!


Day 44: Mount Cook Village - Hooker Glacier - Copland Shelter
Day 45: Copland Shelter - Copland Pass - Copland Valley - Welcome Flat
Day 46: Welcome Flat - Copland Valley - West Coast Highway - Karangarua River - Cassel Flat Hut
Day 47: Cassel Flat Hut - Regina Creek - Conical Hill - Douglas Valley
Day 48: Douglas Valley - Horace Walker Hut
Day 49: Horace Walker Hut - Douglas River - Douglas Lake - Douglas Glacier - Douglas Pass - McKerrow Glacier - Landsborough Valley - Rubicon Torrent Rock Biv
Day 50: Rubicon Torrent - Landsborough River via Romping Water and Whitcombe Confluence - Zora Confluence Campsite
Day 51: Zora Confluence - Landsborough River via Kea Flat and Toe Toe Flat - Fraser Hut (Creswicke Flat)
Day 52: Rest Day, Creswicke Flat (My birthday!)
Day 53: Creswicke Flat - Landsborough River via Harper's Bluff and Strutt Bluff
Days 54, 55, 56, 57: Rest Days, Makarora and Wanaka.


Lara said...

Did you take the high or low route from Conical Hill to Horace Walker?

The High route was a good route when we took it in the opposite direction--a rocky ridgeline with a bit of scrub above Conical hill, then a long tussock sidle with the odd slabby (but easy) watercourse and probably a horrible but very short bit of scrub to get down to Horace Walker creek (we never worked out if we could have avoided that bit). But if you get a bit too low it looked like it had the potential to be nasty. From what I've heard of the low route, the low route is considerably less pleasant.

Enjoy the rest of the walk.

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