Five Pass Trip (Part 2 – Park Pass to Beans Burn)

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Five Pass Trip (Part 2 – Park Pass to Beans Burn)

January 1

We are camped at Park Pass on the Five Pass Trip.  Having visited the Park Park Glacier we turn our minds to the more remote country to the north and ready ourselves for a hard day's tramping.

We have agreed to an early start and the tents are packed in the cool dawn air.  The skies are clear but the sun is yet to rise over the mountains so that it appears duller than it is.  The section between Hidden Falls Creek and Park Pass always features in discussions between groups travelling on the 5 Pass trip.  It is a major psychological impediment as we have already discovered with the two other parties we have encountered.  It is one of those unavoidable transition legs, dropping as much height as possible in the shortest possible time.

It’s hard, sweaty work, requiring care and concentration, the former to the fore for the climb, the latter feature mostly for the descent.  In between the tree roots and foliage there are footsteps and handholds and it is important to take as much time as necessary to use these.  The descent takes no more than two hours; it just seems longer because the work is so unvarying and Hidden Falls Creek can be seen and heard long before it is reached.  A side stream to the left is never accessed so a building thirst can't be satisfied.  Eventually the slope relents to a more manageable downhill walk and after a brief respite attention turns to navigating through the forest towards Cow Saddle.

We travel at a slow pace.  Bill is protecting his back and I have been wearing a knee brace on my left knee for the entire trip.  It is through a section like this that a lack of agility makes for a laborious journey.  Once the route hits Hidden Falls Creek the navigation is a simple affair but the physical aspect of the journey takes on another dimension.  At its best the route travels on flat ground and just requires diligent noting of footpads and cairns.  But as the route climbs towards the head of the river the valley closes and it’s necessary to clamber over large boulders and pick the best line.  It requires strength, nimbleness and good spatial awareness.  Getting it wrong involves painstaking backtracking that can prey on the mind.

With river levels operating at an elevated level there are several stream crossings that either require bold leaps from boulder to boulder or an acceptance of the need to wade through a knee deep flow.  Bill takes the former option while upmost in my mind is protecting my knee from unnecessary jarring.  I opt for a knee deep walk amongst cool green pools, boots and gaiters in one hand, walking poles balancing my progress in the other.  Bill utilises his waiting time chronicling my conservatism with a series of photographs.

From here we enter the boulder field jammed between the gorged section of the river and the barren scree slopes running up to the Bryniera Range.  At the first possible opportunity we drop back onto the river flats and make our way towards the red rocky bend in the hills where the slopes from both sides of the river appear to intersect.

The climb onto Cow Saddle requires scrambling over moraine before an easy crossing to the true left of the nascent Hidden Falls Creek.  The Creek gets much of its volume from the imposing falls that flow from a hidden valley leading off the towering presence of the triangular Niobe Peak.  We have been travelling for about five hours and it has been tiring work.

The last time I’d been through this way Fiery Col had been obscured by cloud and I’d eventually reached Olivine Ledge by climbing a steep gut to the west of Fiery Peak and descending into the creek.  It was an original and no doubt seldom used route and I’d been very lucky that it had turned out well.

Fortunately we have clear conditions and a clear sight of the snow capped Fiery Pass.  All we needed to do was work out how best to reach the tops.  Though there is a cairned trail suggesting the most efficient route to Fiery Col it isn’t obvious from the rather shapeless flats that sit between the Olivine River and Cow Saddle.  Once we cross the stream coming off snow slopes of Tantallus Peak we drop our packs for a well earned lunch break and navigational pit stop.

The lack of shade makes for a slightly uncomfortable break and we try to get as much shade as we can on the banks of the stream.  The guidebook baldly states, “From Cow Saddle, climb scree slopes (often easy snow slopes higher up) to Fiery Col”.  From just below Cow Saddle we can see what is obviously Fiery Col and it is indeed covered in snow.  But just as it was two years ago when I first pass through this terrain the area is dominated by the gigantic bluffs of the gorge leading towards the col.  There are no scree slopes as I understand the term.  There are tussock hills, a long line of bluff, a massive valley overhang, and mighty waterfall cascading from the depths of the basin but nothing approaching scree.

While we’re sitting here we notice that the stream itself offers a gentle climb onto a series of layered ledges that we will estimate will give us access to an approach to Fiery Col.  From our Cow Saddle vantage point it seems to be a better alternative to the severe bluffs that sit directly under the Col.

Ahead of us the stream enters a large gorge forcing us to cross to the true right.  After examining a few dubious boulder leaps Bill identifies a series of rocks to hop, skip and jump across.  Despite his imploring invitation to follow in his splashy footsteps I opt to protect my knee and wade across in my thongs.  The break allows us to examine the wall of jumbled rock that is forcing us to travel towards the east.  We identify at least one point where we think we can scramble onto the tops.  We agree to stick to original plan and to return here if we are blocked at the line of bluffs.

When we arrive at the bend in the stream we find a deep gorge with a strong stream blocking the passage.  We hover at the edge of the cliff, carefully craning to observe the spume of froth tumbling through the gorge.  I spend longer than I need to scanning the horizon between Cow Saddle and the stream in the hope of finding a series of cairns.  We are standing at the base of a great jumble of boulders and with the barest consultation we begin to clamber upwards.  Perhaps there is a break in the cliff face and we will be able to down climb into the stream bed and follow it all the way to Fiery Col.

We never do find a means of entering the streambed but once we have reached the ridge line we point ourselves in the direction of pass and begin scrambling.  It is past mid afternoon and when we arrive at tarns with a few patches of level dry ground I make a note that we could camp here if we’re forced to retreat.  We take the opportunity to refill water bottles and chew thoughtfully on a snack.  By now I understand the decision of the elderly couple who took one look at Fiery Col and turned back.  Theirs had been an instinctive understanding that they weren’t equipped for the difficulties of the crossing.

As we climb higher we add layers of clothing to protect against the gathering cool.  Clouds have been hooping over the horizon since lunchtime bringing relief from the sun but adding to uncertainty as to the timing of the next storm.

After leaving the tarns we are soon confronted by snow slopes that mark the point where the gorge first gouges its path between the bluffs and the rocky knoll.  This time it is Bill who skirts the fringes of the snow while I take the direct route and find firm footing.  It’s an exciting time for we need only keep going to reach the high point of the ridge line and it blends in with the upper slopes.

As we reach the rounded top we pause and contemplate the snow slopes leading to Fiery Peak.  We’ve answered the question about how to get here.  The pass reminds me a little of the climb to the top of Mt Arthur in Kahurangi National Park.  It is steep and a little forbidding but not insurmountable.  On edge and feeling melodramatic I make a point of giving a speech about how we’ll tackle the pass.  “We’ll approach this in stages, if anything appears unsafe we’ll turn back, as the leader your safety is more important than my safety which means you’ll get first option on using crampons, we have ten metres of rope with which to transfer safety equipment and if you need to access the locator beacon it’s in the top of my pack”.  Bill grins at me as if I’m taking the piss but I’m wary of mishaps and mindful that I’d have to report any accident to his parents.  I’ve adopted the persona of a climbing guide; a particularly idiotic climbing guide.

It’s a climb that I fondly recall as we were making our own way rather than following someone else’s footsteps.  We adeptly threaded our way through a series of forbidding bluffs until we were hard up against the flanks of Tantallus Peak.  From here we were able to skip over a series of ledges containing tarns and mossy flats, moving quickly towards the base of the snow slopes that led all the way to Fiery Col.

From our vantage point on the scree it looked like a challenging climb on steep snow slopes.  Bill looks nothing but confident in the photo I took to mark the occasion while I indicated to him that my locator beacon was in my pack should he need to access it.  My tendency to catastrophize was given full flower in the face of an unfamiliar climb.

Bill scoots over the early slopes and quickly reached the raised spine of moraine that has been uncovered by the summer melt.  Once we’ve completed the rock scramble we encounter the final fifty metres of snow slope leading to the pass.  From this vantage it looks like a impenetrable wall but after careful inspection we identified that the best route was by aiming for the exposed rock lying just below the pass.

Above us is a ten metre snow wall.  I pause to put on crampons and extract the ice axe.   I tell Bill I will lower them down to him once I’ve reached the top.  Soft snow makes the climb unstable and the process of step making a slow business.  When I’m halfway up the wall I turn to find Bill is following directly behind me.  Upon arriving at just underneath the pass I suffer a case of the wobbles and have to heft the axe into the packed dome.  A few more steps and I’m on the pass.  Bill is so close behind I don’t have time to photograph him as he completes the climb of the final wall and stands on the rounded dome separating the two valleys.

We high five and survey the scene in front of us.  It wasn’t so hard but nor was it easy.  Perseverance and good judgement were essential. There is now no turning back for it will be far easier to go forward than retrace our steps.  Only the Fohn Saddle remains, though the real difficulty is the descent into the Beans Burn.  We have time to recreate our climb to the pass for photographic posterity before turning our attention to the descent into Fiery Creek and the traverse of the Olivine Ledge.  Theoretically we are aiming to reach the Fohn Lakes but really this is an unrealistic ambition given that it is five hours away.  The Olivine Ledge and the approach to the lakes deserves its own day and is best kept for tomorrow.  It is late afternoon and we have been tramping since early morning.  There are still hours of light remaining to us but better to find a good camp-site and enjoy our triumph.

We descend a short snow slope off the pass though soon hit rock and tussock.  Bill opts to drop into the creek bed while I continue to sidle on the cusp of the spur dividing Fiery Creek and the gorge leading down from Tantalus Peak.  An impressive ice cave is huddled between the bluff walls.  Its survival seems predicated on protection from the sun during most seasons and hours.  When we reach the fork between the two creeks we are presented with a lush layer of grass on compact patches of level ground.  50 metres away is a booming waterfall glistening in the sun.

It is the most idyllic camp site imaginable and Bill readily agrees to set up here.  As we sit to prise off well worn boots Bill comments that it’s been a pretty good New Year’s Day.  It has in fact been exceptional.  The camp-site is well protected and positioned to provide stunningly beautiful views.  I set my tent up so that I can gaze towards the peaks leading to the Olivine Ice Plateau.  Any decision about pressing on in that direction will be made in the morning.  Bill is adamant that he is doing the Five Pass trip only so any trip into the more remote wilderness will be a solo trip.  After the comforts and distractions of companionship it will be a difficult adjustment to make.

With the tents up we venture to the waterfall and discover that it is well served by a cavernous grotto leading deep into the gorge.  The turbulent pool is like liquid emerald and while Bill returns to the tents I step into the cool waters to slake away the day’s exertions.  My aim is to stand underneath the waterfall but so powerful is the force of its spray that I’m kept at a distance by the chilly spray.  I venture closer to where the waterfall meets the pond and find myself under aerial bombardment as the spray shifts in the breeze so that I’m showered from above.  The cold splash is a physical shock so that I stagger about and have to balance myself in order not to topple into the deeper reaches of the pool.  Only when the spray shifts again to I regain enough composure to tumble out of the water. There’s nothing quite so bracing.

After drying off I venture upvalley to look for territory to explore and discover an interesting climbing possibility onto the ridge dividing the Olivine from the Beans Burn.  I suspect we may be able to see glaciers from not too much higher.  I discuss the plan with Bill over dinner.  The light leaves the valley prematurely due to the towering bluffs that make up the mountains around Fiery Peak.

January 2

Dullish morning light serves as an immediate reminder of where we are, our commitment to early starts and the inevitability of a storm sometime in the next 24 hours.  Morning also brings the realisation that a tremendous opportunity exists to attempt to reach the Plateau.  Fitness, preparation and weather are all positives.  The only complication is in the area of commitment.

On paper the trip into the Olivine appears to require a relatively straightforward descent to the river and then a trek along the bank to where it meets the Forgotten River.  The route description speaks of following deer trails through forest and the need for avoiding bluffs and thick scrub.  I’ve read and heard numerous accounts of the approach to the Olivine and all of them have created a vague sense of unease.  Difficulties will be encountered and experience in dealing with tricky situations is essential.  It is not solo tramping territory.  Carrying the PLB makes a difference but it is not a magic shield against things going wrong.  Throughout the day I will have to deal with rising anxiety levels.

Before I can focus on how best to tackle the route to the Forgotten River I need to deliver my payload to the designated drop off point.  Over the last day or so I have emphasised that Bill needs to have a basic understanding of the territory through which he is travelling and most importantly how to tackle the route to Fohn Saddle.  Once he has arrived here he simply needs to follow the river.  I’m conscious that things can still go wrong but it will be very difficult for him to get lost.  Once we arrive at the gorge as it swings towards the Fohn Lakes I will be able to point him up the hill and send him on his way.  Even so, I cannot help but feel I’m shirking my responsibilities.

The Olivine Ledge is not easy to walk but it is at least easy to navigate.  Devoid of trees and scrub the major challenge is pushing through thick tussock clumps and avoiding the deep potholes and hidden bogs that are threaded through the area.  First we have to climb out of Fiery Creek and this involves some scrambles through boulders and small bluffs.  Joints protest at the introduction of strenuous exertion so early in the day but it allows us to warm up more quickly in the brisk morning air.  Bill begins the day wearing gloves but these are quickly shed.  We do not make quick time but our early start works to our advantage and we arrive at the creek crossing below the gorge at an industrious hour.  Bill takes his final splashing leaps across a watercourse while I indulge in another bootless crossing.

It is now time to go our separate ways and we don’t make a big deal of it.  Within seconds we have moved away from each other, Bill working his way up the large knoll on the true right of the gorge while I continue the tussock hop to the north.  Ideally I want to find the famed Olivine Ledge Bivvy from which there should be a trail leading into the forest.  Unfortunately the navigation goes wrong and I encounter no sign of either a track or cairns.  Alone for the first time in days the confusion about the best way to reach Sunset Creek is intensified.  An overactive imagination begins to play out scenarios of incapacitating injury.  A persistent clamour between boulders and tarns leads to the edge of the forest.  I stand here for half an hour summoning the courage to continue.  I have severe misgivings about pressing on to the Plateau and sincere doubts about the wisdom of attempting such a climb by myself.  The general absence of other parties in the area has been something of a surprise, where are the hardy Kiwis with whom I can tag along?

Gazing towards the forest I am drawn to what appears to be an animal trap sitting in the gully.  Curiosity leads me towards it only to discover a whitish coloured rock.  From this vantage point however is a discernible trail leading into the forest and I am compelled to follow it.  For the next half hour I sidle along what is clearly a deer trail.  When a choice needs to be made about continuing to maintain height in a northerly direction or working at an angle of 45 degrees towards the river I allow myself to drop in height.

Before long I encounter an expected deep gut.  The sides are steep and no safe entry point presents itself so I am forced to travel along the bank.  Agitation gets the better of me and I take the opportunity to down climb through fallen logs and tree roots.  With my legs flailing in mid air I’m forced to hang on to palm fronds and I disentangle myself from thorns that have wrapped themselves around my legs.  Finally I’m able to drop into the waterless gully, sweating and unnerved.  After a bruising thrash through the thick scrub of the opposite gully I’m confronted by a tangle of vines and tight bands of scrub and rotting vegetation.  My progress becomes a grimy test of endurance and I’m keenly aware the hardships are all my own without a partner to share it with.  Mind you, I don’t think Bill would offered all that much support if he’d been made to travel through such terrain!

Eventually I stagger onto another deer trail and this time I do not let it go, even as it heads directly towards the river.  When it arrives it’s obvious that it goes no further, neither dropping down to the water or travelling along the bank.  At least that’s my hasty conclusion.  My only option is to backtrack and look for a higher northern route.  When nothing appears I reconsider my assessment of the deer trail and decide to return to the river.  This time however I find myself on another trail that indeed heads north and provides relatively pleasant travel on the banks high above the Olivine.  Deer prints spot the occasional bogs and I’m greatly heartened by the knowledge that other large mammals use these routes.  The keen loneliness of this endeavour is mitigated significantly.  My mind is still whirring when the track breaks out of the forest and arrives at the confluence of Olivine River and Sunset Creek.  I’ve been initiated into the world of wilderness tramping.  Whether I’ve gained a taste for it is another matter.

I have a problem.  The descent into the Olivine River involves down climbing a narrow rib dividing river and the creek.  On the Sunset Creek side the rib is a vertical cliff of about 25 metres.  The supposed route down involves down climbing on loose rocks and bare earth into the Olivine.  Once at river level I will be required to edge into the water and wade through the opening of Sunset Creek to scout for a hidden deer trail 20 metres upvalley.  All the doubts I have about the trip into the Forgotten River are concentrated into the dilemma I face here.  I’m daunted by the possibility of injury, I’m scared of the consequences of miscalculation and I doubt that I will reach my ultimate goal.

As I’m at a journey crossroads and I need to clear my head and think it through rationally I break for lunch.  Between eating and reading I haul out 10 metres of rope and drop it off the side of the rib.  It allows me to measure the descent and consider gaining security against a fall.  The only problem is that there is no obvious tree which I could tie the rope.  More realistically I could possibly use the rope to drop my pack off the side so that I’m able to climb unhindered.  But this isn’t about the impediments of pack weight as about the debilitating effects of fear.  And it isn’t necessarily about a hitherto undiscovered fear of heights.  It’s about the uncertainty that has dogging me about whether it is realistic to not only climb onto an ice plateau but descend by the same route.  I cannot discount becoming stranded and this takes the enjoyment out of the attempt.  If I turn back I’ll be able to catch up with Bill and undertake trips to Harris Saddle, North Col and Lake Nerine.  If I press on to even Forgotten River these trips won’t be possible and I will simply end up missing out on these and the Olivine Ice Plateau.  The afternoon sun continues to beat down.

It irks me that I’m only 2 hours from the Forgotten River.  The guidebook suggests that it is also possible to cross Sunset Creek 200 metres away from the confluence.  It seems only sensible to travel upriver and see if the bluffs give way to an easy descent into the riverbed.  I pick up a deer trail and begin the climb away from the Olivine.  When the trail begins to winds into the steep bank I believe it will provide easy passage.  Instead it drops precipitously and then sidles across a bank with nothing suggesting a hand or foothold.  It is just as dubious as the rib and again I back out.  Now I’m in retreat and my only aim is to return to the easy travel of the trail along the ledge above the river.  Instead I become lost in a maze of gullies, bogs, vines, fallen trees and scrub.  When I emerge I pick up a vague trail that heads upwards but is quickly lost as the forest thickens.

By now I have lost all pretence to finding the best route and am forced to bush bash through bands of unyielding scrub.  Rotted wood gives way in my hands, vines wrap around my pack and force me to the ground.  I’m force to crawl through mud and mulch, thorns scratching at my face.  I have been reduced to an animalistic state, burrowing blindly, unable to consider anything other than my immediate surroundings.  Progress becomes a matter of primal urgency, a test of will, a search for innermost drives.  Frustration builds to anger without having any outlet other than the utmost desire to get through.  Without alternatives I’m free to act with the necessary determination.  However unpleasant, the task is finite and every clawing, grovelling step puts me closer to ending it.

If I am to progress I need to raise my level and begin thinking like a deer.  It becomes a mantra, “think like a deer”.  I tell myself that a deer would aim to sidle at an angle of 45 degrees and aim to do the same.  Really I am trying to locate any trail I can find at all.  It is almost impossible to fight the forest and gain height.  My goal becomes to reach the steep creek bed so that I can climb unhindered by foliage.  When I reach the high banks I shimmy over the side only to find myself hanging on grimly as tree limbs snap off in my grasp.  I resort to the rope and lower my pack into the gravel bed before sliding down a green tunnel in its wake.

Relief at being out of the confines of the forest is quickly replaced by the anxiety rendered by having to edge over slimy boulders in order to climb up the bed.  Frequently I’m forced to unclip my pack and push it ahead of me to lessen the dangers presented by loose rocks and unstable grassy handholds.  Putting my weight onto one rock I feel it shifting from its loose hold and I ease off.  I’m forced to climb down from my position on the ledge and shimmy up another fissure in the rock, skipping over the flow of water and reaching down from above to drag up my pack.  It is harrowing work and the mulish certainties of the forest begin to appear preferable.  When the stream becomes bluffs with a wall of waterfalls I am forced to crawl up to the ledge dividing the stony gully and the overgrown slopes.  Whatever the unease cause by the rock scrambles it is still offers easier, quicker travel than the forest and I return to it for another session.  Methodically I gain the height I require, conscious that the risks taken are hard to justify.  The bluffs become increasingly formidable the higher I go so that eventually it is easy to turn back to the forest.

Within ten minutes of sidling through the forest I pick up a deer trail that steers a steady path through the forest.  As I follow it I’m made aware that it drops no more than 10 per cent of its height at any time.  Deer take the easiest gradient available, they don’t flounder foolishly as I have just done for over two hours.  This time I doggedly stick to the track, confident that the gully climb has put me at the right elevation to make it back to the Olivine Ledge.  I learn that deer flow with the terrain, they don’t fight it.  When an impediment arises they circle around it and continue on their original course.  They don’t allow themselves to become distracted or seek ill thought out short cuts.  The trail leads me back to exactly where I entered the forest five hours before.  It has required some extreme efforts to get out and I know that I could have tackled this better.  Disorientated by multiple tracks, broken terrain, unforgiving forest, I have lost composure and made a difficult task even harder.

Leaving the forest behind I’m determined to follow the deer trail for as long as I can but this becomes impractical amidst bogs and a knotty boulder field.  Although there are still several hours daylight left the Beans Burn bivvy is at least half a day’s walk away and best left until tomorrow.  The seeds of a storm have been discernible in the cloud formations for most of the day so I’m not interested in camping by the Fohn Lakes.  Better to rest and recover from what has been the toughest day of the trip.

At the edge of the boulder field are several flat sections of ground, well grassed and dry.  Shallow tarns and rivulets suggest that the area is prone to flooding however so I’m wary about what initially appears to be an idyllic spot. Nearby however is a lush patch, slightly raised from the ground around it.  Even better it is shielded to the north by a four foot slab that serves as a drying deck.  A small stream by the tarns provides water and the setting is very snug.  When both lighters fail to produce a flame I improvise with a course of kim chi noodles that have enough spice to them to be tasty eaten cold.  I doubt a pack of backcountry sludge would have gone down so easily.

The day’s exertions have left my clothes saturated in sweat and dew, while my boots are also damp through constant exposure to the natural moisture of the forest.  Leaving everything spread out over the rock allows it to air but it acts as a magnet to kea.  Their cries soon punctuate the somnolent evening and begin circling my camp.  Kea will tear camping gear to shreds with a few meaty nips from their curved beaks.  They delight in testing the texture and shape of any item and no matter how welcome their presence they are campsite guests best not left alone.  Of course in their view they’re the hosts magnanimously allowing visitors to stay in their home and it is only reasonable that they be offered tribute.

The scrawny cries don’t come any nearer the camp but the silence is just as suspicious and when there is the thump of something hitting the ground there can be only one explanation.  Reluctantly emerging from the tent I encounter a lone kea happily inspecting the boot still perched on the rock.  Thankfully there is no sign of scratch marks in the pliable leather and I lose no time in collecting my clothing from where it is drying out in the stiff breeze.  The kea hops about on the rock but doesn’t fly off.  To satisfy the kea’s curiosity I present my walking sticks, one of which is in a state of advanced disintegration, already patched together with strips of bandage.  As the kea tests the hard plastic handles the metal poles swing about like pick up sticks, requiring some fleet footed hopping from the plump little bird.  Kea are always happy to pose for photos and this one is no different.  After the short modelling session I leave the walking poles on the rock and bring all my other gear inside.  By the following morning the industrious trouper and sheared off a few centimetres of rubber from the broken pole.

January 3

The lush grass provides the most restful night’s recovery so that looking forward to the day’s tramp by 0900hrs.  I am in the process of backing out of the tent when what has been light rain becomes a howling downpour.  It takes little encouragement to retreat into my dry dome and seek sanctuary.  The storm is driven from the north meaning I am protected from it’s excesses by the boulder buffer but even so the fierceness of the winds and the relentless beat of the rain make the tent flap and shudder.  My thoughts turn to Bill who would have undoubtedly set off earlier in the day and would now be making his way along the obscure and overgrown Beans Burn track.  Though there are no side streams prone to severe flooding rain will make the crossing of the Beans Burn itself almost impossible.  I’m pleased by this as it increases my chances of catching up.  At the moment I am half a day behind with the prospect of being able to catch up with one long day’s walk.

The enforced break allows me to spend the morning reading through the Bulletin’s Christmas edition.  A number of excellent writers have been commissioned to write pieces, both fiction and non fiction and these are ideally suited to providing the varied stimulus needed when waiting out a storm in cramped conditions.  Despite this I lapse into a nap and am surprised to find that several hours have passed.  The storm continues to lash the ledge and reams of water slake off the taut canopy.  I’m nervous about makeshift streams rising to engulf the campsite but the worst that happens is that a moat begins to encircle my elevated position.  Spending a bit of extra time in finding a good camping site never goes astray in this country and it is always necessary to ask “what would happen in the worst possible conditions?”

By 1500hrs I’m resigned to a lay day but within minutes not only has the rain cleared but the sun break through rapidly clearing skies.  This itself is unusual for I am used to cycles of rain that go on for days.  Short sharp storms are usually followed up by further short sharp storms.  By the time I’ve packed up camp it feels like another day entirely.  I never do find the Olivine Ledge bivvy but better yet a decent route through the boulders and sinkholes is located and soon I’m making swift progress towards the Fohn Lakes.

Before I get there I pause to appreciate the massive range of wilderness and views, the newly born waterfalls running off the Fohn Lakes massif, the rugged sweep of the Bryneira Range, the deep canyons of the Olivine River, towering walls of Fiery Peak and the continuing allure of the peaks beyond Forgotten River.  It occurs to me that there is no one else here, that circumstances conspire to make mine the only human presence.  In this instant I’m part of the landscape but my footsteps are ephemeral and not part of the more constant scene.  It’s a humbling experience but deeply satisfying, as if I’ll know something no one else does.  No matter how much I dawdle and absorb I can’t make time slow down completely.  And yet when I check the time on my camera I realise that my portable alarm clock has jumped an hour and I have more light and time than I previously thought.  I turn to Fohn Saddle with renewed relish.

When I reach the knoll where I last saw Bill I realise that he would have picked up a route above the gorge fairly quickly and avoided a pointless clamber to the high point.  I abandon my plan to follow the creek around the knoll and instead cut across its flanks and quickly pick up the light trail running above the gorge.  The stream is flowing strongly following the storm and there is no rush to cross it.  The later it can be put off the better.  Identifying the best approach to Fohn Saddle proves more difficult.

I’m glad I didn’t point Bill towards any break in the horizon from the Olivine Ledge as the saddle is not visible until the stream from the lakes is traced through the boulders and undulating hillocks.  I had recommended to Bill that he undertake the day walk to the Lake, mainly because he would have plenty of time to do so but also to eliminate the need for me to do it myself.  As a camping site it appears to be barren and exposed and I’ve always maintained that it is seen to best scenic advantage from on high rather than ground level.  This year the stream is choked with slabs of snow to make the gorge running through the upper slopes appear even more formidable.  The approach to the lake seems to involve a scramble through minor bluffs and rounded boulders.

I’m struggling with a minor stomach upset and uncertainty over where to cross the stream.  An inspection of the sharp left hand turn reveals it not to be where the water should be broached.  I will use every minute of the hour I have gained to sit, rest and soak in the afternoon sun.  With skies clearing after heavy rain the scenery of the Olivine massif has a radiant cleanness.  The diffuse haze that usually casts a pall over afternoon light has been swept away.

My thoughts turn to avoid being swept away when crossing the stream.  Despite the absence of cairns and tracks it’s pretty obvious that most parties would cross just above the start of rapids leading into the narrower channels of the gorge.  The flow here gathers force and makes me very wary.  For once I acquiesce and keep my boots on, a coroner’s report referring to the deceased’s inexplicable decision to remove his footwear would be the final indignity.  If I’m to be swept into the rocks below to be flung about like a pinball before coming to rest in the shallows downstream it will be done in a responsible fashion.  My walking poles wobble and hum as I enter the strongest section of the stream and after a few short steps I’m relieved to reach the other side.  Once across I regret the wet boots and I end up removing them anyway to rinse out my soaked socks.

If this is the crossing point that all trampers are corralled into using then there should be a trail leading away in the direction of the saddle.  From the stream there is a steep tussock spur that leads in the exact direction of the low point in the horizon.  The spur appears to be indented with footsteps.  Despite having come this way two years before I have no memory of the approach to the saddle.  This is unusual in itself as the repeated walk is usually an exercise in locking in to the path previously travelled.  I know the spur is not the route most used to the saddle but decide it will do as a means for gaining height before I commence sidling to the left.

The dangers of tussock have never been that apparent to me despite the frequent warnings in guidebooks.  Halfway up the spur I find myself scrambling at a surprisingly steep gradient.  Almost unconsciously I stick to the route containing the most rock, moss and bare earth.  I regard the patches of tussock with the utmost suspicion which is almost immediately justified when a stumble turns into a startlingly swift slip.  Grabbing onto clumps of grass I’m able to self arrest before I have completely lost my footing.  As I struggle for traction a glimpse down hill reveals a precipitous slope dominated by slippery strands of tussock.  Suddenly I feel vulnerable and stranded.  Attempts to sidle will involve the maximum exposure to tussock at a most unstable angle.

The realisation that “this isn’t the way”, strikes all trampers from time to time, hopefully soon enough to avoid getting into serious trouble, but not always.  It doesn’t take much to foolishly wander into danger and it usually occurs whilst looking for shortcuts, which is not the same thing as searching out the best lines.  I recall that the last time I came this way the party I encountered contained a young woman who had dislocated her shoulder while descending from the saddle.  A fall while downclimbing on tussock, facing out, would be frightening and extremely difficult to stop.  I can understand how easy it would be to wrench an arm out of its socket.  I have the advantage of travelling uphill, and suitably humbled by my navigational lapse I apply myself to finding a safe route up the steepest part of the hill.  Shortly after I reach level ground and can amble over to the main approach to the saddle.

Amidst the tarns and patches of snow I can discern no footprints or even much of a track for that matter.  There is a lone pole arbitrarily marking something, the lowest high point of the pass, or is it the highest low point?  Moments later I’m able to look down the vast Beans Burn valley.  Again, I’m in for an exciting surprise for unlike last time snow covers the steep upper slopes for quite some distance.  A quick test reveals an icy hardness to the layer.  There are several tracks across the broadest flank, one of which I assume was created by Bill.  Fohn Saddle is wonderful place to explore as even in summer it is a mix of marble outcrops, tarns and slabs of ice.  Leaving my pack behind I climb towards Mt Fohn and view the lakes from above.  From here access is via a straightforward amble through the rocks and gentle slopes.  I’m torn between the desire to camp on the lake and locating a dry tarn above the saddle where a high camp could be set up.  Ultimately both ideas are rejected as I need to advance my position if I’m to tackle the full length of the arduous Beans Burn the following day.  Also I’m reluctant to camp on the fragile plant-life eking out an existence on the upper slopes.  I linger on the saddle for as long as possible before returning to my pack as strapping on crampons for the descent into the Beans.
At least this time previous experience pays off as I know to descend directly rather than attempt to find a way down via the long ledge leading off the saddle.  All to soon I have run out of snow and am forced out of the crampons.  The route to the Beans is via tussock spurs and imprints in the earth make for a relatively comfortable exit off the slopes.  Only towards the base where it is necessary to enter deep guts and down climb does progress slow and more care need to be taken in order to avoid dislodging rocks.  With the Bean relatively high following the downpour I am braced for the extremely unpleasant bush bash that is required to reach the Split Rock bivvy.  Being forewarned however does not make the journey any easier and I’m buffeted by the thick scrub and sharp pricks of thorny bushes.  I am reduced to a virtual crawl and the light that I believed to have in reserve has dissipated substantially into dimming twilight.  At one point I’m reduced to unstrapping my pack and pushing it to the top of a boulder before scrambling onto the rock myself.  It is exasperating travel and after being stabbed in the face by an unseen thorn I roar out a curse.  Ten feet away on the other side of the river is a scrub free gravel bed.  There is very little to admire about my route selection.
Staggering out of the bush darkness I arrive at a large house-sized boulder which can only be Split Rock bivvy.  There is no obvious approach to the bivvy which I recall had a level campsite outside the cave-like entrance.  With the edifice in silhouette nothing is as I recall it so I drop my pack and begin to explore the rock.  There is a labyrinth of trails but these are circular and I am at a loss to identify just where I am.  One path climbs away from the bivvy and obviously traces the circumference to continue on the other side.  I return to my pack contemplating the realisation that this is not the bivvy rock and that it must be somewhere down valley.  Nearby I discover a relatively flat, mossy bed that offers the prospect of an immediate camp-site.  Amidst the gloom I’m prepared to call a halt to the fruitless search and settle.  It is passed 10pm and my exertions in the bush have left me exhausted.
All day I have been carrying my lighter in my pocket in order to hopefully avoid a repeat of last night’s failure to produce a flame.  The extra care produces the requisite spark and shortly after I’m dining on Nasi Goreng, the least charismatic of all the backcountry cuisines.  Be it because of tiredness I’m unable to stomach more than a small portion of the meal which I tell myself I’ll finish in the morning.
Within moments I am rested and lying in the dark.  I pat my camera pocket and find that it is open. It occurs to me that I haven’t seen my camera since the last time I took a photo some two hours before.  If I’ve left the pocket open during the period where I’ve been crawling through trees and wriggling under bushes it’s highly likely that the camera has fallen out.  It occurs to me that somewhere in 500 metres of dense scrub lies my record of the trip so far.  The realisation has its humorous side.  If there’s something I do not want to do again that’s return to the site of this most unpleasant piece of bush.  It’s as if I’m being tested.  I know that in the morning I will be compelled to stage the search but I also know that there is little prospect of finding a small black case in dense scrub and deep river pools.  It the still evening air I have not zipped up my tent and I’m able to contemplate a night sky alive with an array of stars.  I’m strangely reconciled to the loss of my camera and the trip’s photos.  I can always buy another camera and Bill has taken ample photographs of the trip.  Material things are always replaceable and shouldn’t be dwelled over.  I turn over and discover my camera lying in the corner of the tent where I must have put it the moment I set up camp.  Laughter rings the air.
January 4
Camped so near to the river there is a significant dew the following morning so that I delay my departure in order to allow it to dry.  On a day which I know will involve negotiating an overgrown and vague track it is far from ideal to be leaving at 9am but the previous couple of days have been difficult and my enthusiasm is not what it should be.  100 metres down valley I discover the real Split Rock bivvy and I barely pause to acknowledge it beyond conceding that a night indoors would have avoided the need to dry out a tent.  Within minutes of the bivvy rock are tussock flats on an appealing part of the valley.  Here the sun is well on its way to warming the earth and I make a note that this offers a much better campsite than the bivvy.  Halfway along the flats is the only side stream of any note between here and where the Beans Burn it ultimately crossed.  Taking my boots off here acts as a bit of a homage to the last time I did this trip for the Australian couple following after me did the same.  Despite this being a river track I managed to get lost three times that day, adding about an hour and a half to the length of a particularly trying day.
The first part of the trip goes well enough and I’m mentally prepared for the onset of the overgrown track when I leave the riverbed and climb into the marked forest.  So it comes as a surprise to discover that the track has been re-cut over the previous winter and marked anew so that what used to be vague trails are now certain paths.  The track workers appear to have relished their task for a number of large limbs have been ruthlessly hacked back to stubs.  The new track is several hours faster than the previous one, a stroke of luck for both myself and Bill.  Every now and then I come across his tracks and they appear so fresh that they appear to have been made only hours before.  In my estimation he should be a day and a half ahead so the fresh tracks are a mystery.  As they recur throughout the day I wonder if he has not had a rest day and is only hours away.  It occurs to me that he may be aiming to spend the night at Rockburn Hut, giving me the motivation to press on.

It is mid afternoon by the time I reach the Beans Burn flats, an incredibly green expanse of grasslands.  With the moisture steaming out of the plant life it is extremely humid despite the lack of cloud cover.  Only upon reaching the bridge across the Burn do I pause to rest, contemplating the cool, green waters below.  The Dart River is only a kilometre away at which point I will need to cross Beans Burn once more, this time without a bridge.  The last time I had reached this point the Burn was in flood and it was only by walking 500 metres to the bend in the river was I able to locate a safe run out where a crossing could be attempted.  This time I’m having nothing of due care and plunge into the river at its confluence with the mighty Dart.  Within moments I appreciate the magnitude of my error as the strong flowing water reaches stomach level and my walking sticks hum with tension.  As I push across river I can see that I’m being forced into an even deeper channel so rather than go with the flow I ford a path directly at right angles until the water level drops and I can stagger onto the bank.  It has been an extremely ill conceived crossing and all I have to show for it is wet boots and a sodden pack.  It takes fifteen minutes to wring out my gear, time that could have been usefully employed walking to the safe crossing point and taking off my boots.

My memory of the walk between the Bean and the Rock Burn is that the riverbed of the Dart can be followed most of the way with only the occasional need to climb onto the high bank.  This is generally true though I manage to lose my sunglasses in one of the forays onto the riverbank and with the late afternoon sun glimmering off the dry rocks of the vast Dart bed I’m soon lamenting my loss.
The Rock Burn provides a much more straightforward ford to the run down hut.  Two years ago the hut had been welcome shelter from a violent storm but in the benign afternoon light its griminess and disrepair is more evident.  As I approach the hut a French woman emerges from the track leading out of the forest.  I assume she is with the camping party that has set up by the banks of the Dart River.  I ask if she has encountered an Australian and she responds that a lone tramper in a hat passed this way a few hours ago.  I thank her, saying I’ll try and catch up.  The arrangement I had with Bill was for him to leave my New Economist magazine on the top shelf of the cupboard.  He has hidden it well as it takes two attempts to locate it.  In the hut book Bill has left a gracious note thanking DOC for the work they have done on the track between the bivvy rock and here.  He also thanks me for my assistance with the trip, wishing me well for my further endeavours.  It appears he has had several good days since I left him, though obviously one of these has been a rest day.
As the hut is so uninviting I decide that I might as well press on in order to catch up with him but it has already been a long day and my energy levels are flagging.  Pleasingly a cache of food has been left behind on the hut table, pouches of orange juice, violent crumbles and large cookies.  This is not the usual tramper’s food so I can only assume that it has been left behind by day walkers who are feeling generous towards those on more austere rations.  The lack of a note makes for a slight ambiguity, surely they won’t be coming back for their food?  I decide to take only what I need, one of each type of snack.  The cookie is so large that I intend to share it with Bill if I can reach him tonight.
Setting out for another tramping session I quickly discover that I’m close to exhaustion and my pace never gets beyond a trudge.  After twenty minutes I regret pressing on at all but the forest is dank and uneven, not really suited to camping.  The violet crumble, orange juice and half the cookie provide the sugar hit needed to get me going but by the time I reach Lake Sylvan there is no way I want to go any further than I have to.  Unfortunately the bank of the lake seems to drop directly into the water and there is nowhere that looks predisposed to camping.  For a moment the best option appears to be finding a spot on the narrow track.  Reaching the sandy banks of the lake outlet where Bill has indicated he may be camping feels like a bridge too far.
Thankfully I locate a small headland that has just enough room to set up a one man tent.  As I get to erecting the canopy a heterosexual party passes by in the direction of the Rockburn.  Neither of them can be bothered saying hello, ecessitating a volley of abuse from myself in order to remind them what is acceptable etiquette.  After dinner I eat the rest of the cookie, still hungry after several long, tiring days.
January 5
A late start is inevitable on what is a transition day.  Firstly I have to traverse the length of Lake Sylvan which takes about an hour.  From here are good views looking down the lake though there is no sign of a campsite.  The section of track between the lake outlet and the camping site near the swingbridge across the Routeburn proves to be problematic as I find myself following a well worn path along a gully only to discover that there is no obvious track across the small creek.  It does not seem feasible that I have manage to lose the track on a path built for tourists so I have to back track twice before I can bring myself to admit my error.
When I arrive at the campsite in mid morning the campervans and their large tents are a hive of inactivity.  It’s hard to fathom that some people’s holidays are made up of doing nothing at fairly drab car parks but apparently it is so.  The next hour of my holiday doesn’t rise above the mundane as I plod along the dirt road towards the start of the Routeburn Track.  At least here I can mark the moment of completing the round trip of the 5 Pass circuit.  The crowds clustering around the oversized shelter do not encourage anything more than a moment and I do not break stride in heading for the swing-bridge back to the true left of the Routeburn.
If I think that I’ve escaped the crowds then I’m sadly mistaken as in the two hours it takes to climb towards the flats I pass an inordinate amount of parties walking out to catch the morning transport.  Each party garners a hello and the constant stream of healthy, buxom trampers is at least diverting.  There are several Japanese parties on the track, my favourite being the party of eight who walk in a tightly bunched single file, almost marching in time.
At the juncture of the track and the path to the flats hut there is an incredibly photogenic group of American college students.  The camping site is about 400 metres beyond the hut and here I discover Bill sitting down to have lunch.  Over a meal I discover that he had spent two days camping at the bivvy rock, waiting out the rain and high rivers.  This means that I came within 100 metres of meeting up with him two nights ago.  The previous evening he had walked out to the road side camp site as he did not like the look of the sand based shores of Lake Sylvan.

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