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Monday, 22 April 2013

Mission to Minchin Biv

It was raining when we woke up. It was raining while we hitched a ride from outside the Yaldhurst Pub. It was raining as we set off running across the Mt White Bridge, over the mildly raging Waimakariri, and up into the Andrews Valley. I had never explored the eastern reaches of Arthurs Pass; the mountains seemed more tame than the peaks around Rolleston and Murchison. This weekend’s deluge set the scene for perfect conditions to make such an epic mission: to Minchin Biv.

I had been reading the ‘Shelter from the Storm’ book, telling the story of New Zealand’s backcountry huts. NZ has built a collection of almost one thousand mountain huts. I have a special interest in the old, rustic and basic bivouacs hidden in high, remote valleys. How can you not fall in love with the tiny orange 2-man bivs, they are shaped more like a dog-box kennel than than the lifestyle block mansions some of the Great Walk huts have become.

Packed light, Rose Pearson and I were ready to run as the climb up to Hallelujah Flats flattened out to the mild Casey Saddle and descended fast beech trail into the Poulter Valley. The terrain was much more suited to running than the rugged upper Waimak and her side valleys. It made the Fastpacking experience more satisfying as we truly blitzed the tramping times despite the energy-sapping cold.

We enjoyed a short lunch at Casey’s Hut, sitting on the deck to avoid settling into the warm comforts too early – we had a way to go. Wide open river flats of the Poulter had been opened up to mountain biking - a novelty for a National Park – in return we were gifted easy running. We felt some pity for them as we cruised past a sign marking the end of MTB trail; the best was yet to come. 

Progress was fast, and within an hour we had ticked off two huts, and began a steep slog uphill to the hanging valley of the Minchin. Through the dripping Beech trees Rose spotted a streak of emerald blue – sure enough, cradled by towering peaks and filled by mighty waterfalls, sat the Lake Minchin.


If only it was warm enough to go for a swim. We challenged each other to the dare, but drenched to the core and only just warm from the pace, it was a quick-fire way to plunge ourselves into hypothermia. She’s seen better days, dried round the edges from the drought, but still deserves her reputation as one of the finest lakes in NZ.

The second step in this tiered hanging valley saw us climbing a new stream formed by the constant downpour, water overflowed from each step in the rooty track. Above the scrub we could finally see our destination: is the hut a long way away, or is it just really small? A frustratingly slow-going and freezing stream bash seemed to never end as we waded the last few miles to Minchin Biv, just on dusk.

In the thick clag I could hardly sense the fading light until it was suddenly dark. We collapsed inside the dog-box, stripped off, glad to finally be free of our soaked layers. The biv was as basic as they come, built in the 1960s, door tied shut with some cord, no mattresses, mould growing on the ceiling, just two wooden bunks wrapped in iron cladding. It was all we needed! Rose cooked a hearty morrocan couscous with fruit & nuts, and poured hot milo down our necks. Finally warm. My Macpac pack luckily comes with a removal foam sleeping pad. 2mm off the hard wood was just enough to squeeze some Zs out of the wettest night since 2012.

It was raining when we woke up around first light. It took some hardening up and Rose waiting outside to motivate the painful task of pulling on Saturday’s soaked clothes. Away running and shivering, we set about executing our original route choice over the Main Divide.

The Townsend Creek looked steep and gorged from the contours. Instead we climbed the tussocks high above Minchin Pass to great alpine basins, snowy scree and slippery rock climbing. Mist hung low around the peaks east of the main divide, but to our amazement, disappeared exactly at the pass; the west coast was clear.


Far below the braided Taramakau wrenched its way towards the sea from its source at Harpers Pass. Our long sidle ended above Townsend Hut, we dropped down to sample another remote West Coast 4-bunker. It would have been a brutal climb, but for us it was a hot & fun descent to the Taramakau through the wet leatherwood bush, flying down at critical speed and grabbing whatever branch or tree came our way to avoid spitting off the edge. 

It was easy to fool ourselves into thinking we had won – only 12 kilometres of river flats lay between us and the Otira Valley state highway. But we believed the crux still lay ahead – the potentially furious Otira River. Rose still abounded with energy and set an admirable pace down valley, leaving me struggling to keep up as we approached the end of the 55km journey. A huge anti-climax unravelled as we waded across the ankle deep Otira... Was that it?

Ten minutes later a sweet dude from Harihari picked us up in his truck. Passing the Deception footbridge we felt proud of our original route, Coast to Coast, and it didn’t cost a cent. Cigar smoke and ZZTop played the victory anthem all the way to Arthurs Pass for a hot feed. It was a truly epic mission to the Minchin Biv.

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