Five Passes Trip 2009/2010
This was supposed to be the venture onto the Olivine Ice Plateau, as has every trip into this area over the last five years. Each year I find a reason for not venturing beyond the safety of the well worn tracks and avoiding the Ice Plateau. This time I abandon any intention of striking out for the plateau on the first evening when I discovered that I’d left both gas canisters at the road end. Only the most rudimentary check was done of the bag’s contents and for most of the first day my preoccupation was with whether I’d left the compass in the bag. It was only upon commencing the evening ritual of meal preparation that the lack of gas was discovered. A disbelieving search of every part of my bag revealed the extent of my ineptitude.
The repercussions cascaded before me, a minimum of seven nights eating cold rehydrated food. It would be joyless and glum experience on what was supposed to be an adventurous holiday. There were options, the most obvious being to prepare a fire each night in order to boil water. This requires access to dry firewood and as most of the campsites are above the tree line and constant rain tends to reduce the likelihood of stumbling upon a readymade tinderbox. Most tellingly was my reluctance to get involved in the patience and determination involved in slowly building a fire that is self sustaining and generates enough heat to boil a billy. Better to eat my lunch food for dinner and save the dinner packs for when I got back to the gas canisters. Cutting out the Olivine Ice Plateau section of the tramp would probably require four or five nights of alternative dining, not ideal, but manageable.
There was one other option, to spend the following morning retracing my steps back to the start of the track in order to collect the gas and then return the same way. It would take a full day but put me back on course. It was a possibility I never seriously considered, mainly because of the grinding tedium of going back and forth over difficult country involving numerous sections requiring careful navigation as well as several stream crossings that were extremely unnerving. No, to cut out the OIP meant that options at the other end of the trip would open up, climbing Mt Sisyphus, venturing up the French Ridge Hut, exploring the Earnslaw Burn. I would bend like a reed rather than snap in brittle anger.
A day before the well practiced transition between Sydney and the track end had taken place with an economy of effort and thought. A flight on Christmas evening allowed me to arrive in Christchurch while the festive season was technically still alive. At the airport I encounter a Customs official who announces that he doesn’t need to see my tent as I look like the sort of bloke who’d keep it clean. If only all such episodes were as hassle-free. Even the x-ray examiner took a friendly interest in my ice axe and crampons asking where I’d be climbing without proceeding to give me a lecture about it. The shuttle bus continued the jovial mood, a range of travellers respectful of the requirements of others. I’d advised the YMCA that I’d probably be arriving at 1am but was at least half an hour early. The night keeper was vacuuming the floor nearby so I had instant service and a comfortable bed in minutes.
The warm streak continued the following day with a competent bus driver getting us out of Christchurch and on the way to Queenstown with practiced efficiency. A brief chat with an elderly Invercargill bred school teacher was charming but not something I wanted to pursue beyond the opening gambit. She’d come to Christchurch at the start of her career and never left, never married. Now she was venturing on holidays to one of the featureless towns between Lake Tekapo and Wanaka. The driver took us through to Lake Tekapo where we stopped for lunch and then the travel gods began to get fractious. The driver for the next leg turned out to be incompetent, unable to manage the group of travellers under her command. The indicators were there from the outset, a ten minute delay in departure from Tekapo and then a nonsensical stop for fifteen minutes fifty minutes later. Twenty minutes later we were still waiting for a very vague man to make his way back to the bus. I suspect he had an Alzheimer’s related disease so being invited to derisively applaud his late entrance was tacky.
Worse followed when he disappeared at what was supposed to be a drop off point fifty minutes outside Queenstown. Rather than go and look for him the driver decided to do a melodramatic countdown and drive off, as if she had a time table to keep to. The absurdity of what she’d done was quickly revealed as five minutes down the road we stopped at a fruit stall for another five minute break. Again the driver failed to do a head count and drove off without a passenger. She then gave the passenger who advised her of the situation a lecture about looking after his friends. When this continued the messenger responded “she’s not my friend”, he was just being the Good Samaritan on behalf of someone he didn’t know. The idiot driver was quickly on the receiving end of a ticking off from the bus company for her empty headed passenger abandonment and she quickly backed down advising that she would drive back and collect the flotsam after she’d completed the bus run. By this time it was raining heavily in Queenstown and it was necessary to extract wet weather gear before booking in to the camping park on the hill.
As usual the ground was rock hard and it was almost impossible to force the pegs into the earth. Why do I continue to go to this place? There were several cars taking up space in the camping zone and when I began pitching my tent an unfriendly woman started getting territorial and trying to pitch her tent almost on top of mine. The childishness of this needed intervention so I told her I’d move my tent over so we’d have more room and the passive aggressiveness ceased. I was glad to get my canvas up, my gear out of the rain and myself back to the more pleasant climes of Queenstown. I soon had transport for the following day booked, not as early as I wanted but not as late as the unhelpful staff tried to get me onto. Supplies proved to be less of a problem as the camping shop gave me a twenty dollar voucher for spending $100. If I’d just remember to buy sunscreen cream at the supermarket a little later in the evening the expedition would have had a very propitious start. What I’ve discovered over the years is that it’s almost impossible to remember to bring everything and it’s always something different that you forget each time. And if you do ever manage to bring everything it will feel like you’ve brought too much as you stagger under the weight of your pack.
The following morning I’m dropped off first at the turn off to Lake Sylvan. For a while I toy with leaving my secondary pack behind bushes where I’ve left gear previously. It is too obvious a spot however and I try the other side of the road, discovering a nook in a tree trunk that is protected from the rain and can also be completely covered over with rocks and branches in a way that will foil animals and humans alike. Arriving at the campsite I discover a large family group just about to cross the swingbridge over the Routeburn River. I get in front of most of them apart from a three year old who has been allowed to lead off. He crosses with remarkable fearlessness, though I need to slow right down to avoid rocking the bridge. His mother thanks me and I leave this group behind.
The walk to Lake Sylvan provides a pleasant introduction to tramping, though I quickly discover that the belt buckle that straps around my waist has come off my pack. After a few hours of trial and error I discover a way to secure the strap without the buckle. The further I progress along the track the more I discover I will need to innovate. There is a couple at the head of Lake Sylvan so I continue down the track for another 500 metres and come to a passable view across the lake. Large trout glide through the still waters like primordial predators. After lunch I continue along the lake and commence the steady climb through the forest towards the Rockburn. Parts of the track are swamp suggesting recent rain or permanent slush.
As I reach the Rockburn Hut I encounter several kayaking couples who have come from the river. I could continue along the track that bridges the Rockburn and avoid this group altogether but I want to sign the hut book and this leads to the discovery that I’ve come across a large group of kayakers using inflatable craft. A more brazen individual would have asked for a lift across the stream. It appears to be running high and I recall how unnerving this stream can be. I’ve never used the bridge over where the stream becomes a gorge so elect to take this route. The kayakers have disappeared down river by the time I reach the other side of the stream. I’m forced to climb high into the forest in order to avoid bluffs and it is half an hour before I reach the river flats that could have been reached in 30 seconds. Another group of kayakers is dropped off by a posse of jet boats and I look forward to pressing on upriver, out of reach of the tourist industry.
Previous tramps between the Rockburn and the Beans Burn have involved straightforward jaunts along the river flats but the Dart River seems to have changed course so that it presses hard up against the bank, preventing easy access to the direct route. Instead I must scramble through the forest, picking out animal trails and the lines linking DOC traps. The forest is relatively open with a minimum of windfall to slow progress but it is easily the slowest progress I have made through this area.
Across the Bean Burn is a nicely graded track that leads almost all the way up the valley. To reach it all I need to do is cross the stream. This is a particularly fast flowing and deep stream which has surprised me the past. My strategy this time is to strip out of my clothes and cross wearing nothing more than my thongs. The flock of sandflies hovering about me think this is a splendid idea and I’m driven to distraction until I can get into the water. I seem to have selected the deepest part of the stream and I am soon up to my chest in frosty water. Worse than the shock of cold is the fearful possibility of being carried out into the main body of the seriously massive Dart River. My pack is providing considerable flotation and I keep my legs pumping, arriving quickly at the opposite bank. Relieved I stagger across the soft sand and through warm ponds until reaching the grassy flats before returning to clothes. It might be my last wash for some time and it has been a bracing one.
It feels like the walk has just commenced and I turn my mind to getting as far upvalley as I can. Three hours later I start to look for campsites, firstly rejecting a small ledge overlooking the main stream. It is 9pm and I resolve to keep walking for another hour. When I come to a massive gut with a grassy embankment it is too tempting to pass up, purely on aesthetic grounds. There are mountain views on either side of the valley and large ice cave snaking down the side stream. The presence of so much ice ensures that it is cold once the sun light disappears but what will ultimately send a chill down my spine is the discovery that I’ve left my gas at the roadend.
That night I have my first cold meal and it is as unappetising as I feared it might be. Morale slumps as I prepare for sleep, ruminating on route options and trying to find a centrepiece for the rest of the trip. The following morning I’m still struggling for motivation and it is 11am before I have packed up my camp and started walking. An hour or so later I encounter a couple who are walking out from the Five Passes trip. Though I address my initial comments to the male it is the female who is the trip leader. She tells me that they have been on the route for seven days and that four of these were spent in the tent due to bad weather. They will not be the first couple I will encounter who will have tentitis. As there are very few side streams that have sufficient water volume to prevent progress of the resourceful it can only be assumed that they have opted to tramp only when the weather is fine. Perhaps they’ve opted for the wrong recreational activity.
Soon after this encounter I arrive at a sidestream of surprising vigour and after assessing the speed at which white water is coursing over a sequence of submerged rocks I conclude that the safest passage is to go through a deep pool and scramble up the boulders on the other side. Had I not met with the fair weather wimps shortly before I might have been prepared to declare the stream uncrossable. Most of my uncertainty can be put down to the need to baptise my boots for the first time on the trip. Having got my boots wet I decided to keep them that way upon reaching the Scrubby Flats at the head of the valley. Where possible I kept to the stream bed and save myself some irritation.
The most unpleasant part of this valley is the true right above Split Rock Bivvy. To be able to cross the stream and wander on easy tussock made for an enjoyable afternoon so the moment I got lazy I found myself wandering through rasping scrub and large boulders. What had started as a sunny day gradually turned darker as clouds began rolling in adding dramatic lighting to a key point of the trip.
The climb to Fohn Saddle is on steep tussock slopes. I am relieved to be climbing the slope rather than descending though any sense of comfort quickly dissipated once the unrelenting nature of the ascent became obvious. Looking up at the saddle it is quite difficult to determine what might be the best line. After leaving the initial route up a small stream bed I veer right to what appears to be a light deer trail. It is the quickest way to gain height but it requires considerable effort and a constant encounter with vertigo. After two hours I reach the ledge I’ve been working towards and ease off the pack. Only by scaling a ridge line to the immediate left will I learn whether I am on course. The prognosis is positive, I’ve gained more height than is strictly necessary but the way to the start of the snow below the pass will be a straightforward sidle.
There is slightly more snow than I recall on other visits to the saddle and I don’t hesitate in attaching crampons, particularly as it is late in the day and the snow is starting to harden under bleak skies. The onset of rain is particularly perplexing as the route off the saddle is on snowgrass slopes that are quite treacherous in even the best of conditions. I’ve always wanted to camp beside Fohn lake and previous explorations of the bluffs above the lake have revealed some of the most attractive campsites one could imagine. With rain has come fog so the stunning views are wasted. Not for the first time I wonder how much better this day would have been had I headed out much earlier.
Attempts to find a camp site fail miserably. The first attempt is a gap in the boulders above the pass, a wind swept and uneven patch of ground with little to recommend it. After cursing my ineptitude I start to descend the gentler snow grass slopes looking for a way down. A large boulder would appear to offer a rock bivvy like protection from the elements but this doesn’t quite compensate for the lack of level ground. As I’m pegging out the tent the fog clears momentarily and reveals the route to Fohn Stream. It is enough to encourage me to continue with my descent. Tiring of the physical exertion I sit on the snowgrass and then let myself slide. Before I know it I’ve gone ten metres and have no way of self arresting. The grass runs out and I come to a halt, getting to my feet with unease about my loss of control.
Careful foot placement and better route judgement gets me to the stream where I pick up the footpads that mark the route onto the Olive Ledge. Though there is a well known rock bivvy nearby I’m not inclined to look for it as there are large boulder fields to negotiate nearby and I’ve never met a rock bivvy whose virtues couldn’t be replicated by my tent. And that’s how it turns out, a grassy knoll provides the elevation required to provide certainty against flooding and convinces me that I’ve travelled far enough for one day. As I put up the tent I’m joined by a pair of kea who I chase off after they start to encroach upon my space.
Light rain falls overnight and the following morning. The fog refuses to lift and I convince myself that it would be too difficult to navigate in such conditions. Finally the rain ceases and the fog lifts and I commence tramping at 1pm. On the Olivine Ledge I encounter another party who are doing the Five Passes trip. We somehow don’t pass each other but instead have to backtrack in order to have a chat. It is two friends in their fifties who are looking to camp on the Fohn Lakes. They’ve come over from the Bivvy Rock near Hidden Falls Creek. They vouch for the bivvy and provide useful tips on how to get there. They also suggest that Hidden Falls Creek will be difficult to cross as they elected to bush bash on the true left rather that utilise the easy track on scree slopes on the true right. Sometimes the real challenge of these trips is working out what is reliable information for individual experience would appear to have considerable sway in assessing conditions and many creeks and passes have been deemed uncrossable by the timid.
After a quick crossing of the Olivine Ledge I encounter another tramping party near Fiery Creek. I soon discover that they are climbers who have left the Hollyford Track and followed Hidden Falls Creek all the way. They describe this as a mission and that’s what it is, I haven’t heard of anyone else using this route although it features in Moir’s, the bible for tramping in this area. Even more interesting than where they’ve been is where they’re going; they have aspirations of reaching the Olivine Ice Plateau, although they don’t have a plan about what to do once they reach it. Taking note of their packs it is obvious that they have far more climbing equipment than I, mainly in the form of ropes and snow stakes. Their plan is to camp at the rock bivvy near the Olivine Ledge and see if the weather will allow them a window to reach the Plateau. I wish them luck.
Coming over Fiery Col two years ago with Bill we’d elected to camp on level ground below an extremely impressive waterfall. I had started the day with the intention of using this camp-site but it was still early and there was no reason to stop. I turned my mind to the immediate task of Fiery Col, slowly making my way up the tussock spur onto the boulders below the pass. Upon reaching the first of the snow slabs below the pass I strapped on my crampons and made comfortable progress to the pass. The big surprise was how much more snow there was than last time. From the top it appeared as if it was snow slopes from here to Cow Saddle.
The previous time through this area had involved considerable angst trialling a variety of routes before we found a roundabout passage over slabs of rock before reaching the base of the slopes. This is knowledge I will put to good use, knowledge about what not to do. After a rollicking descent off the pass I finally reach the end of the snow and remove my crampons. The bluffs surrounding Fiery Col are so intimidating that on my first time through this area I’d refused to countenance that this could possibly be the pass. Now I stick as close to the massive rock fissure as possible so that I might better explore the route. Just as it appears that I have encountered a line of bluffs a snow chute presents itself. I opt for crampons on extremely hard snow, ice axe at the ready for any slip. This allows me to thread through to lower slopes and access a patchwork of tussock and moraine. The main creek once more becomes gorged but a quick sidle quickly indentifies a safe crossing to more graduated ground.
Heavy rain sets in as I begin to make my way over the flats that make up Cow Saddle and I am pleased to get across the rising stream and utilise the rough track on the red iron scree slopes. From the heights I pick out the most likely candidates for the Bivvy Rock and after identifying a bold creek crossing point I am soon weaving my way towards the shelter. Straw has been spread on the floor making for a welcoming place to put my air mattress and sleeping bag. Though slightly dark I am able to spread my gear out and look down the valley rather than be confined to a tent.
A day of heavy rain had been promised by every party I’d encountered but so far there has been nothing more than the usual squalls and showers of an average day. If a day of deluge is imminent than this will be the place to be. For a few minutes the next day it appears as if I will get my wish as waves of rain shimmer across the valley. These are short-lived and after another lazy morning I'm forced out of my lair and onto the road.
After following an easy track on the true left of Hidden Falls Creek as soon as the tree line make progress more difficult I make the shin high crossing to the true right. Crossing back is only marginally more difficult and I embark on the tricky navigation of the scrub hemmed in tight to the river boulders. It requires patience to move smoothly through this part of the route; far better to back track and try again than blunder blindly where no path exists. The most amusing moment of the day is having to call out to a couple who are no more than two metres away from me. They are fellow Five Passers on their way to the rock bivvy. We continue on our way.
The potentially most problematic part of the trip is going to be finding the markers leading to the commencement of the climb to Park Pass. Coming the other way I’d been confused by the myriad paths leading towards the river. With a more specific focus to the task at hand and aided by the excellent instruction of Moir’s I quickly beginning the steep climb. In electing to complete the route in this direction is is sections such as this that I’ve had foremost in my mind. The descent off the pass is painfully slow and slowly painful. As an ascent it felt as safe and inevitable as climbing stairs. It is also quicker than I could have hoped and upon arriving at the tarns on the pass my main consideration is whether to do the climb to Park Pass Glacier immediately. The skies have cleared, the light is clean and sharp, it will be a perfect time to take photos.
Fear hold me back. An evening mishap on the glacier would leave little time to send out an emergency beacon signal or get myself out trouble. The only other occasion I’d climbed up to the pass had been with Bill. He’d led the way and scooted out far ahead of me while I froze in dread after veering onto greasy rock. On the way down I’d felt compelled to crawl and grovel, extremely wary of how easily the route would vary between the straightforward and the difficult. I make my excuses that I’ll do the climb the following morning, fully hoping that a change in the weather will rule it out.
After setting up the tent I opt for a walk up the ridge leading to Lake Nerine. I am interested in the possibility of taking this route the following day but this passage looks just as dubious as it always did. The surprising bonus is discovering that the ridge has excellent views of the upper slopes of Park Pass Glacier and in the late afternoon sunlight these are exceptionally scenic.
A night’s sleep at my favourite camping site means that I am ready to brave the elements much earlier than usual the following morning. My main concern is that there will still be dew on the tussock but these fears are unfounded. The initial scramble onto the steep ledge that leads to the glacier remains uninviting. But something funny happens. Where previously we’d taken the first opportunity to get onto the ledge and quickly found ourselves on unstable slopes this time I continue on the well formed footpads through a narrow gut before topping out onto the slope. Every time there is a route making decision I am able to use my previous experience to take the better option. When the route becomes slippery I don’t allow the daunting bluff to push me away and stick to the ridge where the better steps are to be found. When I find myself on greasy rock I immediately follow a secure fault line rather than attempt to scramble over steep wet rock. Before I know it I am on the snow slopes and even here I don’t have to contemplate what was the better route or worry about where Bill had disappeared to. It takes no more than forty minutes to go from pass to snow and the rapid progress continues past large ice chunks that had broken off and rolled onto the slopes.
The previous visit to the glacier had been the highlight of the trip despite the outrage I’d felt when helicopters began landing on the basin and buzzing the terminal lake. I’d insisted that we take photographs of the offending vehicles and report them to DOC once we returned to the Routeburn. The experience had been unsatisfactory because we’d been unable to properly identify the helicopters and we’d had to estimate the exact landing point of the craft. Apparently this made a difference as the boundary between the Olivine Wilderness Area and the Mt Aspiring National Park cut through the basin. We provided the photos and several detailed accounts, there seemed little more we could do.
The experience had irked me and spurred me to return. On our previous visit we’d watched the helicopter land on a rock outcrop some 400 metres away. Neither party acknowledged the other, instead something of a face off occurred. While the helicopter was present we stayed put but once it was gone we glissaded to the perfectly circular tarn containing a crescent of ice and the bluest water imaginable. From here we’d descended to the terminal lake and looked up the glacier before returning via a different route to the tarn.
To honour that occasion I decide to avoid replicating it, instead heading across the snow slopes towards a rocky perch overlooking the terminal lake and adjacent to the glacier. What is surprising is how much bigger the terminal lake is. It has rapidly advanced on the glacier and were there had been solid ice there are now large icebergs linked together by ice bridges. There is more surface ice on the lake but this is relatively thin and will almost certainly disappear over the course of the summer. The glacial basin remains a beautiful and spectacular place to visit but it seems obvious that the proportion of unsightly moraine compared to ice will increase inexorably over the coming years. Here is the last remnants of an ice age rapidly ebbing.
For a brief moment I consider attempting to climb even higher towards the peaks overlooking the glacier but I have to remind myself that I am alone, lacking sunscreen and with an itinerary to stick to. After half an hour of photography I am ready to leave when a helicopter buzzes in from the south and swoops through the gap left by the lake heading towards the most impressive overhang. I have ample opportunity to get my camera ready and in rapid sequence I snap images of the chopper above the lake, hanging above the ice and landing on the very rock knoll I’ve just vacated. So close are they that I can’t avoid them and as far as they are concerned it is simply a coincidence that the landing has occurred so close to where I stand. I have in fact planned it, knowing that if I waited long enough I'd get lucky.
It takes no more than two minutes to scramble from the base of the rock knoll to the top of it. I wave to the four passengers, making sure I am friendly and personable. As the passengers disembark I photograph the helicopter, getting not only the company name, “Over The Top” but also the website, www.flynz.co.nz and the vehicle rego, IUP. Two years ago all we could make out was the vehicle rego and we made a crucial misreading, seeing it as UIP, the initials of a well known film making company. It meant DOC considered the possibility that filmmakers might have been present in the area. Also captured in the photograph is the black clad pilot, striding towards me with a sheepish look on his face, his hands tucked into his dark jeans.
We both know the score and understand what our roles in this are. The pilot will justify being here, demonstrating on what basis it is legal. I am here to prosecute the case of helicopters having no place in the wilderness. These are the debating positions, how we’ll go about arguing our case is up to us. Perhaps I’ve mellowed. Far from bothering me the arrival of the helicopter has been anticipated and wished for. To get the photographs that give me all the information I need leaves me feeling incredibly satisfied. There is nothing to say, I have all I required.
I comment that his passengers must be impressed by the way the chopper hovered over the ice. The pilot concurs. He’s given them a tour that has taken them through to Milford Sound. The pilot asks me if I’ve come directly across the glacier, climbing from the Beans Burn. He’s seen my tracks in the snow coming from that direction and made a surprising assessment. That’s my issue with these sorts of businesses, they have little knowledge of the country they pass through. I speak about coming up the Beans Burn, going over Fohn Saddle, Fiery Peak and up to Park Pass Glacier but I might as well have been referring to provinces of Outer Mongolia for all the recognition it garners.
He seems surprised that there is an access route coming directly off the pass and that it is accessible in about forty minutes. Given his passengers have all paid $800 to be ferried up here it’s not the sort of information you want getting around. The truth is the Glacier is this company’s well guarded secret, referred to only obliquely in its advertising paraphernalia as an unnamed glacier landing. Truth be told it features in all of their journeys from the pricey to the exorbitant. The pilot has commercial interests to protect and he needs to know if I am hostile to his being there.
“I’m sorry if our presence detracts from your experience”, he said, sticking to the company guidelines.
“No, I was aware you guys flew he, I’ve been here before. What is surprising is how much the glacier’s retreated since two years ago. I guess you’d notice that coming up here so regularly”.
“Yes, it’s definitely retreating. We certainly appreciate having the concession to land here that’s for sure. It must be reassuring for you to know that if you got into trouble up here there’d be a helicopter available to come and get you”.
“Oh yeah, I’m definitely carrying my PLB, that’s for sure. The route up here has a few hairy moments and I’m not looking forward to getting back down to the pass”. Perhaps if I played my cards right I could get a lift down.
“Come and meet the others”.
“No, I’ve got to get going, I’ve got to pack up my camp and head down the valley”.
The pilot has some other questions about where I am heading and I mention that the route to Lake Nerine looks dodgy. Again, the lack of recognition is surprising.
“I’m Steve Beck” said the newly named pilot, sticking out his hand. “Tony” I reply.
“Tony Barnes, from Sydney”. Perhaps my details are going to be written up in a report. Now we have information about each other. It is a smooth move and again according to the company manual. He’s got in the information about the concession, the role helicopters play in the Search and Rescue of trampers and the right of tourists to be in this area.
xxHe has a point. Trampers had abandoned the pass. Though I’d encountered a number of parties undertaking the Five Passes trip none had given any consideration to the Glacier. Even the walk towards Lake Nerine provides fine views of the upper glacier but I sensed that this wilderness route was treated with the same linearity as any track. There were countless opportunities for exploration in this area but even the more adventurous trampers had the same limited mindset as the helicopter tourists who had spent the past five minutes busily taking photographs of the terminal lake and the basin. In some ways I regretted not taking up his offer to speak to his passengers as I’d have liked to got them to cast their imaginations back 13,000 years when ice would have scoured the vast walls of the basin. Even 100 years ago none of the moraine would have been visible and the glacier would have pushed through to the lip of the current lake. Even thirty years ago the lake would have been no more than a tarn.
Before I left Steve offered to take photos of me with the helicopter. It was too good an offer to refuse and he took not one but two excellent photos of me standing in front of his sleek black bird. One of the passengers happened by and suggested they give me a lift and I concurred that this would be a good idea. On my way back to the access point of the basin I passed above the secondary tarn again noting that there was much more ice in it than two years before. The encounter with the pilot had been highly satisfactorily and I was in a relaxed frame of mind for the descent off the glacier. Again, it seemed as if I’d internalised the errors of my previous descent and this time around I found myself taking the shortest and safest route. The absence of drama fed into my confidence about undertaking these sorts of non technical climbs.
As I made my way along the ridge I spotted a solo tramper making his way across the pass. He didn’t look twice at my tent and continued towards the tortuous down climb into the Hidden Falls creek valley. I arrived at the campsite about twenty minutes later and after a celebratory lunch commenced packing. Absorbed in my work I didn’t notice the nearby tramper until he called out. This was Phil who lived in California and worked for NASA on unmanned spy planes. He’d grown up in Dunedin and was back visiting his parents. I asked him if he knew Phillip Bryden and he said he’d never heard of him. I’m fairly sure Bryden works for NASA, allegedly in a significant role on their Mars project. He liked to get out into the hills whenever he got back to New Zealand but he had his doubts about the Five Pass trip. I reassured him that it was easy and that there was nothing to worry about even if it rained heavily. I spent ten minutes going over the navigation with him and showing him where the rock bivvy is located in relation to the Hidden Falls. Going in the opposite direction to most trampers on the Five Pass route meant that I had encountered far more people than usual and this had been enjoyable.
A pleasurable afternoon of tramping following the Rockburn eventually led to the Theatre Flats. There are usually several parties camping in this area but I couldn’t see anyone and though it was starting to get late I had no inclination to stop. I’d set out with intentions of camping on Sugarloaf Pass so that I might have views of any new year’s fireworks from Glenorchy or Queenstown. Serendipity intervened however and as I followed a well worn path on the river flats I noticed that the dead bushes had extremely dry twigs. This got me thinking that if I collected enough of them I could would have the kindling with which to start a fire. The reason I was so wary of building a fire is because they’re hard to sustain and once you’ve invested the effort it is extremely deflating to have it die away.
The portents were extremely auspicious however when I looked for somewhere to put my pack and entered a clump of trees that had good protections from the winds that sweep downvalley. Others had come through before me and also noted the utility of the setting. They’d constructed a very sturdy fireplace which I was able to dig out with my ice axe. Such was the dryness of the bushes that their snap stung my hands until I dug out my gloves. After collecting a large amount of kindling I began scouting for medium sized sticks and for small logs. Again my luck was in and there was a selection of dead trees nearby. I now had everything I needed to start a fire. The newspaper I’d been carrying for the last five days now had another use and as soon as crumpled paper started to burn the kindling burst in flame and before I knew it I had a roaring fire that was barely contained by the circle of river rocks. Only when the larger sticks began to burn and nestle into the base of the fireplace did I accept that I’d been successful. The feeling of exultation was a great as any experienced on reaching the glacier in the morning.
As soon as the small logs took over as the main source of fuel I turned my attention to the business of boiling water. My strategy was to have my billy at the end of my ice axe and to dangle it over the fire for however long it took. Such was the intensity of the heat that I didn’t have long to wait. The bottom of the billy was soon scoured black and the lid burbled as bubbling water churned strongly. With my gloves on, the water was efficiently poured into the food satchel and ten minutes later I had myself a hot, delicious meal. The fire had served its function and I still had leftover firewood for the next group to come through.
Deciding on a campsite was slightly problematic. Eventually I settled downwind from the fire underneath the branches of a towering birch tree. Squalling winds and rain were sweeping down valley but the enclave seemed protected from this. It was an excellent campsite and once I’d satisfied myself that embers would not be puffed onto my tent and that the risk of falling limbs was minimal I settled into a contented sleep.
The new year was ushered in dramatically as I rose to light snow gusting about on the flats. Protected in my shelter I was able to pack at leisure before beginning the transition to the second half of the trip. Today would be about collecting my gear from the road end and making as much distance towards the Earnslaw Burn as I could manage. The quickest route would be to do a crossing of the Dart River but I’d ruled that out as not worth the risk, whatever the time saving. Others had done this crossing but there was simply too much that could go wrong to justify an unnecessary attempt. There was a bridge across the river about ten kilometres from the Routeburn Roadend and my goal was to reach this, either by foot or by getting a lift. From there I could access the tracks on the true left of the Dart and cut across some farm land to the start of the Earnslaw valley. How the day would turn out was an unknown and this gave proceedings more edge than some previous tramping sessions.
The climb to Sugarloaf Pass was straightforward but much longer than I recalled. Phil had made mention of the effort required for this ascent, a comment I took as more about his lack of fitness. When I broke out of the forest for a view of the mountains it was to discover that these were dusted with an application of snow, almost as if a giant spray had been in operation. The route over the pass eventually linked up with the Routeburn track and more tramping parties were encountered in a ten minute time period than on the five days of the Beans burn and Rockburn valleys. My main concern upon arriving at the palatial shelter was to peruse my face for sun damage. In attempting to make the sunscreen last I simply could not apply enough of it each day. In order to conserve it I would need to start wearing long sleeved clothing and keep the sunscreen for my hands and face.
The turn off to Lake Sylvan is about 6kms from the Routeburn Track. The walk is familiar to me, I’ve linked these two entry points on a number of occasions. Doing it in the downhill direction provides welcome variety and I’m surprised to reach my destination so quickly. My stash of food is where I have left it and to my delight there is a packet of corn chips to enjoy immediately. I’m so absorbed with inspecting my treasure that I don’t spot the tramping couple ten metres away until it is too late to compose myself. I wave at them and they ignore me as if I’m not worth acknowledging. Fuck them.
From here my main hope is to get a lift to the end of the road. If this is unsuccessful there is the option of taking the track on the other side of the Dart River and looking for a camp site after several hours walking. On the walk out I curse every car that passes, even though I steadfastly refuse to indicate I would appreciate a lift. The most farcical occasion occurs when a car slows after it passes me and then stops. Two very fetching Europeans get out of the vehicle to take photos of the nondescript scene ahead of us, rugged, rocky mountains. The driver has a smirk on her face as if she has set up the encounter this way.
When another vehicle slows I wonder what further indignity is about to befall me. And it is indeed a cosmic joke. I’m offered a lift but the vehicle is completely full. The back seat is occupied by three young girls and the boot is teeming over with the detritus of travel. I tell the driver that while I’d appreciate a lift his car is full. There is something biblical about the offer, about making room for the foot weary stranger and sure enough I’m reassured that I can be accommodated. Gear is shifted about in the back, a child is put into the boot seat (!) and a spot is found for me in the back. I remain intrigued about whether the tyke who volunteered to give up her seat did so on the basis that if she is in the back she doesn’t need to sit next to me.
The family I’m with is holidaying in Glenorchy, using it as a base to visit the starts of a variety of the walks in the area. As I say to them it’s an excellent idea as they’ll be able to do the first part of the Rees, the Dart, the Greenstone and the Caples. They’re introducing the girls to tramping, a fantastic gift to bestow. Today they’ve embarked on the first part of the Routeburn. Twenty years ago the parents met on this tramp, he being from England, she from New Zealand. It’s a warming story and such hope keeps me out in the hills.
My part of the contract is to provide relatively interesting stories about the walking I’ve been doing and my plans. Thankfully, having come off something as obscure as the Five Pass trip with the intention of going into the Earnslaw Burn fits the bill, as does the fact that I’m Australian and have come all this way to go tramping. For a moment I consider their offer of a lift all the way to Glenorchy, offering as it does the opportunity to have a shower, buy sunscreen and check my emails. Stubborn pride intervenes and I ask to be set down on the road to Paradise. This will leave me with a four kilometre walk to the camping grounds. The day has worked out extremely well. Before we part I ask about the weather forecast for the next few days and I learn that rain is due in two days time. The woman says she’ll pray that the rain stays away, a disconcertingly interventionist offer that fits in with my assessment that I’m the beneficiary of Christian charity.
The walk along the dusty road does not engender any further offers of assistance, not that these would have been particularly useful. The walk in provides an opportunity to appreciate a different part of the country and absorb the rural landscape. To my surprise there are several vehicles parked on the deadend track leading off the Paradise Road. I say hello to one group of campers and push on around the river bend so that I am out of sight. I locate an elevated campsite that should be able to withstand the heaviest rainfall. I’m still hopeful of a lay day but remain wary of flooding. There is a sandfly presence in the area that makes setting up particularly focussed. I’m too tired to eat all of my meal and drift into a deep sleep.