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Friday, 20 January 2012

Arthurs No Pass - to the Brink & Beyond

Arthur's Pass was the destination, Three Passes was the goal. Though as plans warped and moulded to the weather, the trip took on a very different flavour to what we were expecting... all for the better!

Arthur's Pass National Park marks the northern head of the Southern Alps, hills turn to mountains, things get serious. In terms of mountaineering, Nelson Lakes is home to some good training climbs for the more treacherous climbs in Arthurs Pass and Aoraki-Mount Cook. Lacking the experience to give impressive peaks like Mt Rolleston and Mt Armstrong a real shot, we headed in to scope out the alpine brothers. 

We arrived early for our wilderness meal, so to keep our appetites at bay we nibbled on a taste of Foggy Peak climbed from Porters Pass par entrée. A cool Speights at the Summit? We're in south now, would be a crime not to! It was a well deserved treat after two hours spent fending off 120km/h winds and sonic sprays of hail to reach the 1730m high point. Luckily, in the past others had been driven to the ground by gales on the exposed ridge too, and had built us rock shelters at vantage points along the route. We retreated from the summit with our hands shielding our faces from scree particles, and a fair dose of wind burn.

Craigieburn Forest was our campsite for the night - we were reacquainted with our old friend The Kea. How I'd missed him. What a relief to find the car's rubber linings still in tact after a night filled with squawking Keas.

Rivers were still "burly" when we finally made our entrance to Arthur's, so we left the Waimakariri to down-brew while we made our assault on Avalanche Peak. The climb was saturated with magnificent views of Mt Rolleston crowding the backdrop. The route from Avalanche Pk along the ridge behind me seems straightforward in summer... but hidden from sight is a 30m vertical face to be negotiated. Serious stuff.

I was plagued with regret having not brought the tent, to spend a night on a tussocky flat section below the peak would have been fabulous. Instead we spent two hours sleeping on the high plateau, dwarfed beneath Mt Rolleston.

By Tuesday the rivers had finally receded, so Ben & I tackled the Waimakariri river traverse. Mostly easy going along the wide glaciated valley flats, but further upstream the river gorged forcing us to cross each of the half dozen braids. We paired up for the wilder torrents, and with Mt Harper and Mt Speight dominating the end of the valley, we successfully made it to Carrington Hut. Filled with hot, sweaty DoC workers, and now 5pm there was no way our day was over just yet...

Reading the hut book warned us of the short yet difficult passage to come... "If you sleep in and start your tramp at 1pm arriving at Carrington by 5pm it would be foolish to think  that you would be able to reach Barker Hut before dark... If you decided to attempt such an adventure you would most likely find yourself camping just below Barker Hut on a ROCKY outcrop and returning feeling like a LOSER  but thankful to be ALIVE. We speak from experience..."

Considering that it was now 6pm, we were determined not to suffer their same misery - 7 hours in we'd still have to move fast, and stretch the daylight hours to the limit. The route along the rocky White River was almost non existent, and as the darkness closed in the cairns began to blend into the sea of boulders. With dusk came a showcase of colours etched into the cool sky beyond Mt Carrington. Colours morphed, intensified and faded with each weary turn of the head.

Mountain Art - Dusk on White River

All the while, we could see our goal - Barker Hut - neartly perched on the huge rocky buttress at the end of the valley. As we finally neared closer and began the last climb, our hearts sank. We had reached what would later be infamously referred to as: The Chasm of Doom. Each of the three hanging glaciers above Barker leaked gushing tributary flows into the main White River - the Cahill glacial stream had gouged out a deep chasm now filled with white water.

Our final obstacle, we scoured the banks for a safe place to cross. 9:30pm, night vision weakening, we helped each other across the thigh-deep current, making sure each foot placement was secure - a firm forearm grip, and Ben pulled me onto land. Our adrenaline was racing now, even though we'd crossed quite safely. Now it really was one big push to top out on the 100m high outcrop - relief. Ben climbed up a few minutes later, and was ecstatic. 10:15pm, almost twelve hours had elapsed when we finally opened the wooden door to Barker Hut.

In the morning we were able to take stock of what a prime location the hut was in. Three high glaciers poured into the gorges flowing around the hut's rocky foundation. From the hut we eyed up the four painful hours of river-bashing that had consumed late last night. From the 3-walled toilet, my eyes followed the White Glacier to 2300m, where Mount Murchison - highest in Arthurs Pass - claimed his spot one hundred metres above.

Prime Real Estate

After sleeping off our mountain hangovers, Ben & I set off to explore the route to the base of Murchison. While lunching on a moraine spur, we scoped out the ascent along the leading ridge to Kahutea Col, where snatching a summit would be simple. We made it to the snowline, a rock dislodged, I sprained a thumb... Sunbathing on the glacier seemed like a far better idea. And so it was. You can't be epic all the time.

Ben soaking it up at the base of White Glacier
Braving a dip in the Barker Tarn
As our final night at Barker Hut dimmed, we watched misty cloud passing over Harman Pass way below, and creeping our way... minutes later, our screens were blank. Minutes later, the white-out had passed. Hours later the hut rattled furiously and shook at its supports - a fantastic shelter for Cantabrians - the whole night wind powerful as a magnitude 7 earthquake blitzed Barker to oblivion. For once I was glad not to be in a tent.

Suited up in full weather gear, we braved the return journey with the assurance that we knew the route. Misty rain accumulated, and the rivers rose noticeably, so to cross the Taipoiti we jumped in the 'Clough Cableway' keen for a novelty crossing. This ancient piece of machinery was built to remember a 16 year old who had died crossing the raging White river. As it turned out, the machine was more dangerous than crossing the river by a long-shot!

Three thick iron cables hung across the 30m wide river, holding a small cart to be manually winched across. It was great flying across the river, the cable whizzing past my face, rain in my face, river gushing way below. Not so great was getting my hand caught between the pulley and wire - if I wasn't wearing gloves my hand could have been seriously injured. My screams to Ben across the river were drowned out in the rain. Luckily he was tired and released the winch, not a second too soon...

Somehow, the return trip still took just shy of 12 hours. Mission and a half! Returning to Nelson along the West Coast completed our deluxe South Island tour. This was Ben's first real taste of South Island tramping, he bravely pushed himself to his limits, and was hugely satisfied with the trip. Though when he returns, he'll more likely be gliding than tramping!

Arthur's Pass - a great place for everything

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