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Monday, 10 June 2013

Three Passes

Driving through rain across the Canterbury Plains didn't give us much hope of success on our planned crossing to the West Coast. The Three Passes trip is an Arthurs Pass mega-classic. From the stony river beds of the Waimakariri, to the icy Whitehorn Glacier and hanging alpine lake Browning, and into the lush West Coast river valleys.

I took two days off work and met Helen, Nico and Theo at the airport to begin our whirlwind South Island tour. We had an ambitious schedule to keep. They had woken up at 4AM in Auckland - and by 11AM we were fastpacking our way up the Waimakariri, and into the Alps...

Fording the great Waimakariri River


Full of energy on this first stretch, the fastpacking fever was contagious. Our packs were ruthlessly stripped to the core, for speed is safety, and to get through this rough four day trip before the weather packed in, we needed to move fast. Theo backed his fitness and carried his normal load with a ridiculous number of contingencies, yet still managed to set our pace.

Dark cloud and visible rain at the head of the valley menaced us, so although I was enjoying the quick pace downriver I was wracked with nerves. Would the rain allow us to pass through the furious Taipoiti Gorge? Would we have any visibility to navigate up the Whitehorn Glacier? The odds seemed stacked against us...

Checking the map on the knob above Anti-Crow
Helen kept us honest to a strict ten minutes for lunch at Carrington Hut at the branching point of the White and Taipoiti tributaries. We literally ran into the rain emptying into the high and narrow Taipoiti Gorge. The stream was steep and flowing raucously, tossing rapids between boulders. The walls were coated in great mossy waterfalls, it was an exciting place to be, and the rain only enhanced the atmosphere. The banks forced us from side to side for the best boulder hopping, so it would be impossible to ascend in much stronger flow than we had. Helen hopped daringly across the torrents, but I mostly chose the safer option of wading at the deeper pools - there was no avoiding getting wet on a day like today.

Feel the power and energy of the Tapoiti Gorge

Bouldering amongst the rapids
Higher up, the gorge opened out to a perfect saddle: we had arrived at the Harman Saddle. The Ariel tarns didn't look too inviting today, but in summer it would make a fantastic place to camp (wait - it was summer), and also an ideal stopping point for a 3-day 3 passes if one wanted to squeeze the trip into a long weekend.

Climbing rocky snowgrass slopes to Harman Pass
DOC had been quite explicit warning us not to attempt the Whitehorn Glacier in low visibility. Our visibility could have been described as 'marginal'. We discussed as a group that their main concern was that people would blast over the Harman and miss the Whitehorn 'turn-off'. We checked compass bearings and navigated carefully into the looming slipper of rotten ice, slowly melting away in the drizzle. However, moments after stepping onto the ice, the apparent temperature drop made itself known, and the drizzle turned to snow, covering our hair and legs in wet, icy spindrift.

Marching into a blizzard high on Whitehorn Pass
There were no views to be had on the Whitehorn Pass - we dreamt of the gazing down into Canterbury and Westland at the same time, lapping up the contrast, but we'd have to wait for the next day. Plunging back down to Canterbury after technically only a short stint in Westland, the Cronin stream stretch on for the remaining hours into the evening. Park-Morpeth hut was always just 'around the corner', but the evening was relaxed and clearing up magically. Suddenly the cloud lifted and revealed the freshly dusted rocky peaks of Mt Rosamond and the Five Jagged Peaks. We felt priviledged to be right there at that moment, fresh snow is rare in February, to witness the dynamic landscape changing around us, and back to normal in an instant. Fortune favours the bold.

Fresh snow on the peaks above Park Morpeth Hut on a stunning morning
That evening the sky was full of stars, but in return it was a freezing night, and I suffered in my light sleeping bag. Meanwhile the others slept comfortably in their fat down bags. Though somehow being cold isn't quite as bad when everyone else is warm...

It was a frosty boulder hop up the Wilberforce to the perilous junction where young Park and Morpeth drowned in 1931. The CMC hut stands near the junction in their remembrance. Several cable-ways are still functional hanging above the gnarlier rivers, but I've found them more dangerous to use than crossing the river itself - exposed pulleys and sharp wires race past your head as you sit in a swinging car clutching your pack, waiting for your mates to wrench you across.

The Park Morpeth Hut in the pioneering era

Brownings Pass - our third and final - reared up against us early on the second day. In the pioneering times, Brownings was surveyed as a possible crossing route for a road. In the end Arthurs Pass was chosen, and we were glad for it - this area was too good to spoil with infrastructure.

As we got stuck into the climb to Brownings Pass, the sprawling rivers began to present themselves below, snaking into a unified force out to Canterbury. I found Owen's Leki pole to be so useful for traction up the brutally steep scree, avoiding the 'one up - two down' disaster. Nico gave the climb his all on all fours, finally scrambling to a gap in the rock to the plateau. The views speak for themselves. Summer had returned, and it was definitely time for a swim...

Sensational panorama off Browning Pass

Swimming with the Westland Alps

Its cool and refreshing in Browning Lake
The chill of the lake smashed the sweat from our pores, we felt crisp and fresh again. We were now running through the hall of the Westland Alps. Heading away from the long gravelling riverbeds and chossy mountainsides of Canterbury, I was really excited to see the rich, bushclad mountains of the west coast. The clouds swirled an amazing show about the freshly snowed tops, and at each corner the great Arahura River valley opened up in full bore. It was impressive scenery. From Harman Hut the track was fast, we ran together solidly as a team.

Descending flowing trail into the West
Some call the trip 'Four Passes', but the final Styx Saddle hardly deserves note as it is barely a bump in a boggy saddle. But now we could at last set our eyes on the distant West Coast and hazy Hokitika...

Grassy Flats Hut was our last stopping point. We were disappointed to see the flash new DoC hut. I had fantasies that the West Coast was only full of gritty rustic forest service huts of the 1960s, but somehow we'd stumbled across one of the few new generation soul-less sheds.

Spots of exposed climbing to regain the eroded Styx river track

Lush side streams pouring into the Styx

Down valley we were invited to taste a true West coast river, the roaring Styx. The boulders had amazing texture, carved and sculpted over the centuries by the glacial blue current. Although the track was mainly a breeze, descending ever so gradually towards Kokatahi, we were in homestretch mode and took it easy. Of all the fears of failure I had harboured - rivers too high? Glaciers too icy? Visibility too poor? - we could finally now relax. We had overcome all those obstacles with a mixture of luck, skill and hardy perserverance - its times like these you're grateful to have the creator of these powerful mountains on your side.

Beautiful grade three rapids

The Styx widens and erodes its way towards the coast
At last walking out to the road end, we suddenly realised our journey was not yet over. 7pm, the traffic coming by Lake Kaniere was non-existent. Our plan to hitchike the 45km to Hokitika was seeming less than likely as we sat weary on the Kokatahi Bridge. We saw a farmers mansion in a paddock above the Lake and took our chances, we had nothing to lose. The farmer and his family exumed the friendly laid back lifestyle of the West Coast, offered us biscuits, coffee and a telephone for a taxi.

Next minute, we were indulging in a mountain of fish & chips on the coast, feeling so triumphant in the aftermath of our incredible two day crossing of the Alps.

The West Coast

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