Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Gillespie Pass

Frosty camp in Young Basin,
Milky Way glistening brilliantly above.

Elevation quickly gained then lost;
Enchanting scenery from Gillespie Pass.
Relaxing afternoon enjoying Siberia Valley
Beneath Mt Dreadful's towering face.

Lunchtime siesta at Crucible Lake;
Refreshing dip at Kerin Forks.
Evening chats with fellow campers;
Meteors sprinkle the darkening sky.

Hot morning with abundant sandflies,
Relieved by deep river crossings.
Throb and thrill of jetboat
Planing down the braided river.

Thursday, February 8, 2018

Mt Brewster

Smooth, round stones. Cool, clear water. Bare feet. Fording the shin-deep Haast River provided a blissful foot massage to bookend our excursion.

Mt Brewster as seen from Brewster Hut. Photo: Jim Davidson
Post-Christmas the days were hot, sunny and windless; perfect for climbing mountains. In order to avoid the worst of the heat it was late in the afternoon before my parents and I, along with our friend Andrew, set off from State Highway 6 towards Brewster Hut, perched high on the shoulder of Mt Armstrong. The evening was spent relaxing on the deck absorbing the beauty and grandeur of the surrounding mountains, while also studying our route for the next morning. 

Six hours return. That's what the guidebook said to reach the summit of Mt Brewster via the west ridge.

It was crisp and clear when Dad, Andrew and I set off just after 5am. Headlights were only required for a few minutes, and extra layers of clothing were soon stripped off as well. To begin with there was a rough trail to follow but then we continued sidling high instead of dropping down to the Brewster Glacier. Gradually the rock gave way to patches of snow and we donned crampons several times before finally reaching the lower slopes of Brewster. Andrew's crampons immediately showed signs of disuse with one strap disintegrating in his hands. Cable ties and a little ingenuity soon had a solution in place. We traversed low across the southwest face before climbing steeply up to the west ridge. For both Andrew and I it was our first serious climb in a while so it took time to get back into the swing of things. Front pointing in soft boots and old, dull crampons showed me how much I now take full shank boots and sharp crampons for granted. The morning was truly glorious and it was exhilarating to be high up in the mountains again. 

Andrew, Heather & Jim with Mt Brewster behind. Photo: Jim Davidson
Once on the ridge, the rock deteriorated to a pile of choss, requiring caution and careful testing of every hand hold in order to avoid raining rocks down on those below. Everything went swimmingly for a while as we worked our way along until the ridge began getting very narrow and exposed. We knew we were nearing the crux of the route which involves a short abseil down a vertical step. We also knew we were nearing or turnaround time of 2pm. So much for 6 hours return. Dad went ahead to reconnoitre while Andrew and I discussed the pros and cons of continuing. Getting the go-ahead from Dad, we roped up to proceed another 20 metres or so, which included standing atop a rock with nothing below on either side. After making this progress we promptly decided that were having an enjoyable day in the mountains and there was no need to push our comfort zones to tackle the crux and the final 60m scramble up loose choss to the summit. So we retreated with absolutely no regrets.

The chossy ridge. Photo: Andrew Shepherd
It was hot and calm so on reaching a less exposed spot we rested for quarter of an hour contentedly munching delicious chunks of Christmas cake. What a fantastic way to spend a holiday! Carefully picking our way back down the loose ridge took just as long as the ascent. Instead of dropping back down the steep snow slope we had come up we continued sidling down to the head of the glacier. Andrew's crampons once again needed emergency repairs, while I didn't completely trust my short, blunt crampons in the heat-softened snow. By this time afternoon cloud was starting to roll in around the peaks. Strolling down the Brewster Glacier was straightforward but hot. We were intrigued by a series of poles spaced out along the length of the glacier which were evidently scientific measuring equipment for studying glacial movement. Stepping off the toe of the glacier, we slaked our thirst from meltwater running down the rocks. These smooth, solid, ice-carved rocks were incredible and it was good fun scrambling along picking our way through the maze of humps and hollows. Such a contrast to the rock up on the ridge! 

Leaving Brewster Glacier. Photo: Andrew Shepherd
"Andrius!" We were back on the Mt Armstrong route and unexpectedly bumped into an acquaintance of mine from Auckland. Sometimes the great outdoors is truly a small place. Not long afterwards we were welcomed back to Brewster Hut by Mum, who had been patiently waiting for several hours past our predicted return time. We had doubled the guide book time without even reaching the summit! But we had thoroughly enjoyed ourselves in the process.

All that remained was to retrace our steps down to the valley floor, where the cool waters of the Haast River provided relief to hot, weary feet.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Meeting Meg

It was 30°C and crowded in Queenstown; I needed to get out. Plans for my days off had fallen through so the morning had been spent poring over maps and trawling the internet for ideas. While I was sceptical that the forecast heavy rain would actually reach this drought stricken area, I still wanted to avoid any stream crossings which could become dicey. I also wanted a sense of freedom and wide open space. So eventually I settled on Meg Hut in the Pisa Range. 

But 30°C was far too hot to contemplate climbing for two hours up the arid, treeless hills so I while away the heat of the day lounging under a tree in Arrowtown, contentedly slurping a thickshake. By the time I set of from the Cardrona Valley on Shanks' pony there was high cloud cover and a breeze, making it merely quite warm rather than absolutely roasting. Even so, within minutes my drinking water turned disgustingly tepid. 

The track is a farm road through Waiorau Station which climbs over 500m up to Tuohys Saddle before dropping down to the headwaters of the Roaring Meg. There was evidence of a recent massacre: shotgun pellets and rabbit carcasses were strewn about, although there were plenty of live bunnies still nonchalantly hopping about. Grasses and farm weeds gradually gave way with altitude to tussock and Spaniards. 

Built in the 1860s as a musterers' hut, with extensions and upgrades through the twentieth century, Meg Hut has been restored by DOC and is quite spacious and tidy inside. Despite the hut being unoccupied I opted to pitch my tent as I hadn't field tested it yet. 

It was a delightfully peaceful spot, with a backdrop of rocky tors and the gentle murmuring of the brook. The perfect place to relax for a couple of nights away from the summer crowds.

Monday, January 15, 2018

Steele Creek

"It is not a shortcut". Thus proclaims the information sheet at Mid Caples hut. On the map Steele Creek looks like a nice shortcut between the Caples and Greenstone valleys, but it has a reputation of being difficult and demanding. The treasurer of the local Deerstalkers Association had similarly warned me not to underestimate Steele Creek. To top it off I met a young Scotsman who did the route ten years ago and swore "Never again!" Now, after having just completed the trip again he vowed "Definitely never again!" Of course, the more I heard the more I wanted to go over Steele Creek. 

From Upper Caples hut the 850m climb is steep and relentless, but straight forward. I was glad to be going up this section rather than descending. The bushline was reached in a tad under two hours and I paused to slather on sunblock. From the bushline the route is marked with warratahs but the foot track quickly became obscure. It began by following thin scree channels through low scrub before edging along tussock southwest toward the pass. A damp ledge lead to the broad pass at 1359m.

Below me was revealed the vista of Steele Creek running nearly due south to the Greenstone valley. Six kilometres away, at the end of river flats, the bright speck of Steele Creek Hut was just visible. The way down was again marked with warratahs and only a faint ground trail, although that became more defined as tussock gave way too low scrub. The going was easy until around the 1150m contour, where the scrub got thicker. Route finding simply became finding the path of slightly less resistance. That said, as far as scrub goes it was pretty light and not onerous. Entering into the beech forest at the foot of Tongue Spur provided welcome shade and a clear track. The final 2km down the extensive gravel flats were straight forward; simply keep walking in a straight line. A large cairn marked the southern end of the flats, and a couple of minutes later an orange marker pointed up the river bank to the hut.

Steele Creek Hut is an historic hut which was restored several years ago by the Deerstalkers association and DOC. The framing is beech saplings, with iron cladding and a dirt floor. Thankfully the upgrades included new beds, so no sacking bunks tonight.

Was it a shortcut? No (unless you define 'shortcut' as the longest time between two points), but it sure was far more interesting. Steele Creek is simply a good old tramping route requiring basic routefinding skills and a reasonable level of fitness. Its difficulty gets talked up because it is surrounded by well-defined, well maintained tracks which are achievable for Joe Bloggs off High Street. For the average punter on the Greenstone Caples circuit, yes, Steele Creek would be well out of their depth. But for me? I couldn't have enjoyed it more!

Friday, December 8, 2017

Kay Creek

From the upper Caples Valley, Kay Creek runs NNW up into the Humboldt Mountains. The creek itself is mostly bouldery, with a couple of shingle flats. It is a beautiful stream, full of charm, and there are delightful views up and down the valley. 

After cutting the corner from the Fraser Creek turnoff the route heads up the true right of the valley. The first 100m of altitude is gained quickly but thereafter the ascent is gradual. The track itself is well marked but hasn't been cleared for a while so there is a bit of windfall and debris to contend with. After crossing the initial shoulder from the Caples the track stays pretty close to Kay Creek for the rest of the way. Part way along the main clearing a large, active slip comes down to the creek and the path becomes indistinct. In low flows it is possible to skirt around the slip at water's edge. Cairns and track markers show the way up the rest of the clearing, and there are numerous little streams to be forded on the shingle flats. As Death Valley nears the track heads uphill on the true left of Kay Creek - a sure sign the hut is not far away. With the hut in sight there is one final crossing of Kay Creek to be done. The ford is in a steep and bouldery spot which could be dicey if the stream is up*.

Kay Creek Hut is an old, dirt-floored four bunk hut. It was given a spruce up in 2016 by the Otago University P.E. department and now looks quite cosy. Judging by the hut book it is seldom visited (except by the uni groups), with most parties either hunting or heading over into Scott Creek and the Routeburn Road (or reverse).

It took me 2:40 hours to cover the 6km from Upper Caples Hut with a light day pack and no breaks. I thoroughly enjoyed the rough state of the track - it was nice to have a sense of wilderness after the wide easy path along the Caples. Kay Creek would have to be my favourite excursion of the summer so far!

* According to a note in the hut book, if water levels are high it is safer to cross Death Valley stream by the hut, instead of Kay Creek, and continue down the true right until the track is picked up. 

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Earnslaw Burn

Earnslaw Burn is a wee valley draining the southern aspect of Mt Earnslaw/Pikirakatahi (2,830m). The start of the track is a little hard to find as there are no signs and it is marked incorrectly on old maps. Turn down Lovers Leap Rd (off the road to Paradise), and when the road does a sharp right turn look across the paddocks to the left and you will see an orange triangle. The track sidles up the valley through beech forest for four hours, staying roughly 100m above the stream. It is not particularly interesting, with only one or two views and no glimpses of the river until nearly at the bushline. The rewards come once you emerge into the delightful alpine basin with a babbling stream, lovely flats and waterfalls pouring over majestic flats. There is a rock bivvy, complete with wooden sleeping platform, on the true right of the stream at the bushline and another about 500m further upstream under cliffs on the true left. As you wander up the valley the vista only gets more spectacular as the Earnslaw Glacier comes into view. There are plenty of excellent camping spots and boulders which would give some shelter. I bivvied under a rock near the head of the valley at the base of Lennox Pass. It would have to be one of the most majestic I have ever slept!

I returned back the way I came, but a good alternative is to head up onto the tops from the first stream below the bushline and follow the ridge to Lovers Leap and down to the car park.

Monday, September 25, 2017

NZAC Girls Trip

The Auckland Section of the New Zealand Alpine Club organised a girls only trip to Mt Ruapehu, and last weekend found 10 ladies ensconced at the NZAC Ruapehu Hut at Delta Corner near Knoll Ridge CafĂ©. The objective was to walk up to the top of Pyramid (2,645m), one of Ruapehu's 12 peaks, but mainly to simply enjoy being on the mountain.

Three of us took the Friday off work to travel down and so managed to catch the last chair lift up the ski field - the others didn't arrive until about 2am! The afternoon was ridiculously warm with blue skies and a touch of lightly falling snow. Having skipped the walk up to the hut, I made myself useful and got some exercise digging out the fire exit.

Saturday morning was clear but a little breezy so I got up at 6am to watch the sunrise. The sky was clear all the way out to Mt Taranaki in the west, and the rosy light gradually crept over its slopes as it emerged from the shadow of Ruapehu. The late arrivals didn't emerge from bed until a while later, so it was just after 8am when we began wandering upwards. We opted to go up the gut and through the notch onto the Summit Plateau, where we were sheltered from the worst of the wind. There was blue sky all the way until we reached the southern corner of the plateau where we paused to regroup before heading over to Pyramid. I could see the peak with cloud billowing in front, but by the time everyone had caught up we were encased in cloud with almost zero visibility. Occasional clearances allowed us to find our way over to the north ridge of Pyramid, which we followed to the top. Despite being directly above the crater lake we didn't see it at all! It was cool and breezy on top so we only stayed long enough to take a few summit shots before retreating to a sheltered spot for lunch. Then it was simply a matter of retracing our foot prints back to Whakapapa. Some of us had hoped to traverse the ridge along to Te Heuheu, but decided it wasn't worth it in the wind and limited visibility. As we went through the notch and headed down toward the ski field we dropped below the cloud and once again had a view. Back at the hut in time for afternoon tea after a leisurely 6 hour stroll.

I poked my head out of the door at first light on Sunday to be greeted by a wet shroud of white and a blustery breeze. Oh well, back to bed. It wasn't worth trying to climb anywhere in the rain and wind so we simply packed up and walked down to the cars.