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Monday, 19 May 2014

Southern Alps Traverse: Arthur's Pass to Mount Cook

The Southern Alps form the long, mountainous backbone of the South Island stretching from St Arnaud to Milford Sound. Reading Graeme Dingle's book 'Two Against the Alps' inspired me to tackle a long journey of my own. The summer beforehand, I laid out the maps and traced my finger from two obvious points... This one particular section of the Alps has caught the imagination of many, with so many possible route choices and hidden gems waiting to be unearthed. Offering one of the longest stretches of untouched wilderness in the country, a transalpine journey from Arthurs Pass to Mt Cook is real adventure, taken by the scruff of the neck.

Weaving along the Main Divide from Arthurs Pass to Mt Cook

Planning for the expedition began in April, seven months before the planned start of the trip in mid November. The first and often hardest task of any adventure is to find some capable companions. After loosely pitching the idea of a Southern Alps Traverse to the Auckland University Tramping Club, a few genuine responses slowly trickled in. In preparation for the traverse, I managed to do some mountaineering with each of these friends in the months leading up to the trip. Andy Thompson and I climbed the East Ridge of Taranaki, Hamish Cumming joined me up the Otira Face of Rolleston, and Justin Loiseau showed his North American roots and cool head while ice climbing at Tukino. From these short trips, I had confidence that together we could handle all aspects of the unknown that surely lay before us along the Alps.

Andy and I on Taranaki

We all brought something different to the table. Andrew brought significant logistics experience from his previous expeditions from Wakatipu to Aoraki, and St Arnaud to Lewis Pass. Hamish's forestry skills kept our fires blazing and wood stack ever high. Justin's North Cackalacky drawl and southern humour kept us constantly entertained and seeing the light through every tough situation. I contributed the vision for the traverse and enough enthusiasm to make it happen - the rest was in the legs!

Packing for the traverse... 15kg before food

A satellite phone was used instead of a mountain radio to allow for direct communication with the chopper pilot to co-ordinate our food drops at Price's Flat hut, Whitcombe and Lyell Hut, Rakaia. The third food drop was deposited at Harihari. The sat-phone also allowed us to receive weather forecasts every two days, with the help of Andrew's girlfriend Sarah.

Thirty-five servings of dehydrated meals were prepared over two weeks of constant humming, including a varied selection of meats, vegetables and beans going into the mix. Butter was favoured over cheese due to its much higher energy density and longer shelf life. I used an 800-gram synthetic sleeping bag combined with a synthetic jacket to survive comfortably in many zero-degree nights camping above the snowline. This minimalist approach paid dividends during the many long days of 'swagging'.

Good friend Nicholas Riordan of CUTC generously offered to drive our band of four in his small old car along the familiar Canterbury road to ‘the Pass’, where he sent us off in high spirits. 'Just imagine what's going to happen to you guys over the next thirty days!'

Fording the Waimakariri

The Waimakariri valley forms a natural ‘gateway to the Alps’, the perfect place to begin such a journey. The progression from tussocky hillsides by the road-side to snow-capped peaks on the Main Divide is a brilliant illustration of the contrast you experience as you stride over the river gravels, until the mountains grow nearer, terrain steeper, until finally you straddle the spine herself. Tent camp by Ariel Tarns on Harman Pass gave us a chance to observe the contrast of the opposing flanks of the Alps on the first of many spectacular nights in the mountains. The notorious Kea welcomed us warmly; some tent fly and one sock our donation to her midnight meal.

First night's camp at Ariel Tarns

Whitehorn for breakfast (photo: Justin Loiseau)

After a crisp early morning crossing of the Whitehorn, we depart from the ‘Three Passes’ route - the inspiration for this traverse – and travel south to Urquharts hut, an old musterers shack on the grassy flats of the Wilberforce. A humble dirt floor, open hearth fireplace, and bunks formed from the very branches of the riverside forest made us ashamed of our packs full of high-tech mountaineering equipment for breaking the 1930s façade.

Open fire at Urquhart's

A storm threatened as the Griffiths Stream fell away at our feet, and Hokitika Saddle gifted us passage back into the West Coast. From the top of this steep icy couloir we viewed, with apprehension, the wild new territory for the following days.

En route to Hokitika Saddle (photo: Justin Loiseau)

Close downstream of the remote and rarely visited Mungo hut, sulphur filled our nostrils – hot springs – if only we could find more than a measly warm dribble. Post defeat and fording the Brunswick, the stench returned and we found the source – a boiling, steaming pit. Once soaking, the rain hardly affected our mood.

Sulphurous hot pools, warm and inviting (photo: Justin Loiseau)

Leaving the rarely visited Mungo Hut

Mungo, Poet, Bluff and Frew - we slept in a biv that was made for two (photo: Justin Loiseau)

One week into the traverse saw us poised halfway up the Whitcombe River, savouring a rest day at Prices Flat hut, a white-water kayaker’s favourite. Well aware that we were retracing, in reverse, that famous first crossing journey by John Whitcombe and Jakob Lauper in 1863, our respect to these pioneers was held high as we toiled across landslips in the heat and untamed bush in the wet.

Gorgeous whitewater kayaking to be had down the Whitcombe River

The Bracken Snowfield is nestled in the Adams Wilderness area, and is a coveted destination for trans-alpine trampers. The view of Mt Evans from Cave Camp is irresistible, and urges you to meet her close up from the 2000-metre snow plateau. Nearby, Mt Whitcombe ramps up along an inviting northeast ridge, before plunging a sheer 1500 metres to the Ramsay glacier moraines below; a face that attracts fear and awe.

The Ramsay Face of Mt Whitcombe

Unsettled spring weather spoiled our dreams of ascending these majestic peaks, but in consolation allowed us a calm twelve hours of mountainous travel in a misty atmosphere. As we turned our attention to the more accessible red rock of Lauper Peak, avalanches thundered continually through the fog, plunging down Whitcombe’s terrible flanks. Mist turned to rain – we claimed a ‘low peak’ before hastily retreating to the Rakaia just as southerlies began plastering the Alps with fresh snow.

Descending the Sale Glacier from Bracken Snowfield

Negotiating an interesting part of the North Ridge of Lauper Peak

Swamp sprint: fun over Mein's Knob

Boiling the billy at Lyell Hut

While resting under the shelter of Lyell Hut, one of the oldest original structures of the Southern Alps, our satellite phone began to sing out a new and welcome tune: fine spells, light winds. This golden forecast was an absolute blessing given our ambitious goal – to traverse the entire length of the Gardens of Allah and Eden. One day saw us cover the Lyell moraines and avoid fresh avalanche activity in time to savour last rays from a high camp on McCoy Col.

Camp at McCoy

This was crucial in order to allow us to attack a steep snow cornice in the early firm snow conditions. With Hamish stationed at a secure belay spot in the schrund, I led out across the snow and began the steep ascent. The snow had softened minutes before as the sun struck the face. I patiently kicked good steps up the slope, axes fully plunged into the fresh snow. The exposure was immense with the Lyell glacier tumbling away below me, and the heavy weight of pack threatening my balance. Once over the lip I buried a snowstake deep in the ice and belayed the others safely up to join me. An exciting start to the day...

Crux of McCoy; Malcolm Peak (left) and Heim Plateau (centre top)
Kicking steps up the steep cornice; Malcom Peak

A morning’s sidle below Mt Nicholson brought hidden crevasses, bergschrunds and avalanche debris – but on Lambert Col we had cleared the Gardens’ final defences, and wandered onto the long ice plateau. The difficult access to the Gardens is one the reasons why these high alpine snowfields are so elusive. If caught in bad weather, escape options are limited, and all difficult. The usual route is via Perth Col, still involving days of gravel-bashing from the east and arduous river-boulder scrambling from the west.

High above the Lyell Glacier; one of my favourite places on the traverse

The reward is a magical expanse of glacial terrain, above which rise with scores of peaks. A narrow but sufficient three days of fine weather forced us to race over the plateau before the next storm rolled in from the west. Many hours of afternoon slog under the hot sun and slushy snow resulted in unavoidable sunburn. A midnight alpine start could have solved the problem, but some say sleep is as important.

The Garden of Eden

As the snows of Eden wore thin to the west, our final challenge reared before us: to climb the Great Unknown. John Pascoe handed out the imaginative places names of this area during his early explorations in 1930, and it makes you think – are we more drawn to climbing a mountain or visiting a valley for the name?

The Great Unknown

At Reischek hut in the Rakaia we met a man named Malcolm Peak who had just climbed Malcolm Peak. In our case, means of escape from the Garden of Eden required us to traverse this mysterious mountain, over the summit, which only 200 metres above the Gardens, turns to plunge a devastating 1500 metres into the Perth.

Climbing the steepening snow couloir (photo: Justin Loiseau)

Andy stoked to be on the summit of the Great Unknown  (photo: Justin Loiseau)

Descending into the Elizabeth Stream, the Perth far below
The most arduous descent of the traverse: Redfield Stream (photo: Justin Loiseau)

We gained the peak as the threatening westerlies of a new storm brewed, with just enough time to descend into the hanging valley of Elizabeth Creek. Redfield stream is not for the faint hearted – two kilometres as the crow flies became a seven-hour struggle on thin, steep scree, with treacherous waterfalls and difficult down-climbing through thick bush. The track and swingbridges down the Perth were a very welcome sight.

However, one final challenge remained before we could enjoy the luxuries of Harihari. Heavy rain overnight while staying at Nolan's hut gave way to horrendously swollen rivers. Hughes Creek was a violent torrent; the only possible way to cross was by straddling a submerged tree in the river. Desperate, but thrilling, over this last obstacle we escaped to the Harihari pub as an angry thunderstorm shook the ground and rumbled through the sky.

A desperate escape to Harihari

Twenty days into the expedition, we finally emerged into civilization to restock supplies in the small west coast town of Harihari. Now all that remained was to pull off the elusive Whataroa - Tasman crossing. Research on the route uncovered few accounts of parties using the Whataroa Saddle in the past decade, so we staggered up the rugged tracks to Whymper Hut with much trepidation. An old Victoria University of Wellington Tramping Club story told of one tramper falling seven metres into a schrund after attempting a giant leap of faith.

Slogging up to Whataroa Saddle

So it was with massive relief when we rapped from the saddle on a bomber piton and slings, and easily hopped the well-covered schrund onto the Classen Névé of the east, and strode onto the Murchison.

Ka Pai - bathing in early light on the crest of the Main Divide

Early dreams of ascending Mt Cook to top off the traverse were put aside at Tasman Saddle Hut, where we soaked up the ambience of the upper Tasman, culminating in a rich red sunrise from Hochstetter Dome.

Hochstetter at dawn

Above the cloud on Mt Annan

Ten hours down the long glacier passed as snow turned to ice and finally the dreaded moraines. We were adamant the dozens of planes overhead were missing out. Aoraki's glistening east face towered above us; the traverse was at last complete.

The final day of the traverse

A long sleep-in, and the few hours out the Ball Road gave us time to reflect on our 33-day journey. We proved to ourselves that long traverses through the mountains are sustainable on the body; we were as fit and healthy at the end as we started. The classic seventh day of rest cleansed all aches and fatigue. Though most transalpine parties opt for late-season trips, we found November-December conditions to be equally conducive to our plans. We experienced easy glacier access, many ample weather windows, and only one river crossing hold-up.

Crossing the Rakaia river in late November - a common barrier in spring snow-melt conditions 
Much later in the season and this glacially dependant access route at Lambert col could be cut off

One of the most astounding aspects of the Southern Alps is its wilderness-classified areas. While signs are useful and huts are helpful, there are few locales left on this earth, much less in such pristine environments as the Alps, where no indication of human impact is anywhere to be seen. Wilderness areas defy every inherent aspect of human nature – to find, to organize, and to claim. But within the Southern Alps, there exist pockets where snowy footprints are the most permanent presence any human can hope to have. Planes are even forbidden to fly overhead. No signs. No huts. No nonsense.

Nothing but wilderness - gazing into the western valleys from Harman Pass (photo: Justin Loiseau)

We constantly kept an eye out for impact on the landscape due to introduced animals. Things have improved since times gone by, going by historic descriptions read from archive hut books. The historic accounts of slopes stripped of vegetation and made muddy were no longer evident, and the only noticeable impact was somewhat overgrown trails through the bush and the occasional tree that had been used to scratch antlers. Although we weren’t keeping a sharp look out for animals, we did see 11 chamois on the western side of the divide and two thar. Print from deer, chamois and thar were frequently evident, including sign on the Gardens of Eden!

Human print on the Gardens (photo: Justin Loiseau)

At one point down the horrific Redfield Stream, we were grateful for the tracks created by these animals, sparing us from a significant amount of bush-bashing. It is difficult to notice possum damage when you have nothing to compare against, but we did see several possums throughout the trip – however I think 1080 is having a good impact on this front. Birdlife ranged from very quiet in some places, to very active in others. Why? Perhaps, like us, the just like some places better than others.

Andy enjoying the Lauper Valley near Whitcombe Pass

It is truly an honor to have experienced a long and satisfying traverse of New Zealand’s Alps. Most of us never have the opportunity to leave civilization, and a shadowed walk in a geometrically-designed urban park is the closest many will come to experiencing nature’s wonder.

A magical moonlit morning on the Tasman glacier

But to be reminded that humanity need not create artificial environments when the most majestic of them all survive and thrive – if only left alone – is a lesson for every adventurer. We did not conquer the Alps. We did not pioneer any new routes in the Alps. Rather, we weaved our way through its wilderness, treading softly so as not to destroy that which we can never create.

Moonlit camp on the Whataroa Neve

First round of thanks go to my three fantastic companions: Andy Thompson, Hamish Cumming, and Justin Loiseau - our relaxed attitudes, passion for the mountains, and thorough planning led to a very successful trip. Cheers to Bruce Dando of Kokatahi Choppers for ferrying in our food, despite the tricky weather conditions. Wildside Backpackers, Harihari comes highly recommended with Dan & Kath's hospitality a tribute to the West Coast. Finally a massive thanks to FMC for their generous sponsorship of our Arthurs Pass - Mt Cook expedition. Get in your own application for the next round!

Garden of Allah - soaking it all up (photo: Justin Loiseau)

Actual itinerary:
Day 1 - Klondyke - Harman Pass
Day 2: -> Urquhart Hut
Day 3: -> Mungo Hut
Day 4: -> Poet Hut
Day 5: -> Frew Saddle Hut
Day 6: -> Price's Flat Hut
Day 7: rest (food drop)
Day 8: -> Neave Hut
Day 9: rest (bad weather)
Day 10: -> Whitcombe Pass
Day 11: -> climb Lauper Peak
Day 12: -> Reischek Hut
Day 13: -> Lyell Hut
Day 14: -> rest (food drop)
Day 15: -> McCoy col
Day 16: -> Icefall Lookout
Day 17: -> Elizabeth Creek
Day 18: -> Scone Hut
Day 19: -> Nolan's Hut
Day 20: -> Harihari
Day 21: rest (food drop)
Day 22: -> Butler Junction Hut
Day 23: -> Ice Lake
Day 24: -> Whymper Hut
Day 25: rest (bad weather)
Day 26: -> Whataroa Saddle
Day 27: -> Murchison Hut
Day 28: rest (bad weather)
Day 29: rest (bad weather)
Day 30: -> Tasman Saddle Hut
Day 31: climb Hochstetter Dome
Day 32: -> Ball Hut
Day 33: -> Mt Cook Village

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