After a week on the Five Pass Trip I meet up with Bill at the camping site of the Routeburn Flats for a couple of days of side trips.
The sun is generating considerable heat so it is good to have a table with shelter over it. This is the luxury end of camping. An Irishman arrives with his nine year old daughter. We invite them to join us at the table and I move around to the other side so that they can have the view out to the North Routeburn. They are travelling around the South Island on a two week holiday and doing tramps where they can. They have walked from the road end this morning and will return in the afternoon before driving on to Te Anau.
We leave the Irish family to their lunch and I set about constructing my tent as close to the river as I can get it. The campsites are well spaced and though there is only one canoodling couple in residence at the moment the afternoon is sure to bring others to the area. Bill has been unable to locate the hut warden in order for us to pay for our spot so we will need to catch up with her later. Our agenda for the afternoon is a jaunt to the iconic Harris Saddle. Though tired I’m particularly interested in reaching the top, having been turned back by heavy snow when attempting to do this with Alex 18 months before. We move at a fierce clip taking great swathes out of the height and distance we need to climb.
Within 45 minutes we reach Routeburn Flats Hut and we take a brief moment to take in the view from the veranda. I show Bill where the snow used to curl over the roof before thumping to the ground when it’s weight got too heavy.
Bill takes the lead from the hut as we cruise over the flats leading to the track that climbs above the Lake. I hit the wall at this point and Bill is forced to wait for me to catch up. When he moves off he leaves the track and begins climbing rather steep bluffs that lead to Ocean Peak. It takes several calls to get his attention and re-direct his energies. Along the way we pass the last of the parties making their way over from Lake Mackenzie hut and they are doing it tough with the steep drops between the rocks that are required when coming off the saddle. The track above Lake Harris is quite a vertiginous experience as it plummets several hundred metres into the deep blue waters.
The late afternoon sun makes for hazy views towards the Hollyford Valley and the wonderful Alabaster Lake. We settle for photos overlooking Lake Harris in the direction of the fascinating flats that lead to the seldom visited Lake Wilson. The Harris Shelter provides an opportunity to sit down, rest and eat. Bill provides me with several cracked wheat dry breads and I’m grateful for the salt. He wants to get going on the return trip. I prefer a few moments more to rest and summons the necessary energy. Thoughts of climbing Conical Hill are abandoned and I stagger after Bill, pausing every now and then to photograph him against the sky-line.
Though we are now travelling down valley the return trip takes about as long as the up hill section. There is no sign of the hut warden when we return to the tents so I insist that we pay her a visit. We knock on the door and there is some delay before she opens. We explain that we are camping and ask what the price is. Elizabeth replies that it is $10 if you book ahead but $20 for the likes of us who just rock up. Bill explains that we have just completed the 5 Pass trip and that is why we haven’t purchased tickets. Elizabeth’s demeanour changes immediately upon learning that we are mountaineers and begins querying us about the trip. She is used to dealing with the tourists on the Great Walk but she admits that her heart always quickens a beat upon detecting a pack with an ice axe.
We regale her with tales of snow choked passes and encounters with helicopters on Park Pass. This pricks her interest and she invites us in so that we show her exactly where the helicopters landed. The glacier is right on the edge of the boundary between Fiordland and Mount Aspiring National Parks. It would seem the tourist operators have the right to land on one side of the line but not the other. A cursory look at the map shows that the landing was clearly on the Mount Aspiring side of the line. Elizabeth takes down my email address with the intention of reporting it to DOC and having them contact me. We’re quietly impressed with her can do attitude. When we describe how we were really pleased by the work that the backcountry workers had done on the track between the bivvy rock and the Rock Burn she digs out a comments pamphlet which she asks us to fill out. “Those boys work their guts out and they never get any credit”. It seems the job took a number of weeks, which given the scope of the job is easy to understand.
When we describe our afternoon trip to Harris saddle as a quick day trip she has a chuckle about the territory we routinely cover. In truth, after eight or nine days walking with a pack there is nothing easier than a pack free stroll. When Elizabeth finds out that our plans for the next day are to travel in the direction of North Col she provides a few tips about how to get through the notorious boulder field that is the major impediment to a successful passage. I promise to drop off the comments about the Beans Burn track and also a guide through the boulder field in a couple of days when we come back through the Routeburn. Even with sixteen hours of light at the height of summer we have almost used up our full allocation by the time we return to the campsite. Bill has a flashback moment when the final light of the day fall on Momus Peak and he is taken back twenty years and the last time he passed through this way.''
An early start is essential if we are to have success in reaching our destination. The guidebook estimates that it takes 6 hours to reach the North Col so we are looking at a 12 hour day. It is another 2.5 hours to Lake Nerine so there is little prospect of going beyond the Col. We are up early enough that we have to shake the morning due from our tent fly. The first stop of the day is at the other end of the Routeburn North Flats where we intend to re-establish our tents. This will save us $10, which is a lousy deal given that it takes about half an hour to re-erect the tents at an inferior site.
The morning chores out of the way we pick up the well graded track as it faithfully follows the northern branch to its source. Occasional creek crossings provide variety to the task until we reach the boulder field that marks the end of the track on the true right. Elizabeth had suggested that another party had success in skirting the field along the fringes of the forest. I encourage Bill to follow me as I flounder in the general direction of the forest ledges but he isn’t convinced and insists that we return to the river. Here we locate a cairn perched atop a large globular boulder and when another is spotted in the distance we have the makings of a route. Having become mired in the boulder field on my last attempt to come through here I’m quietly stoked to have overcome the day’s first hurdle. It is a lovely day, the river sparkles under clear skies and puffs of sharp, white cloud brew atop of the North Col.
The first difficulty of the tramp involves crossing the river to pick up the trail on the true left. The alternative is to attempt to follow the edge of the river bed on the true right but the boulder field is the physical feature that directs the river’s course so cannot be avoided on this side. Needless to say Bill is not pleased to have to cross the river and when we reach a junction 200 metres later where the river presses hard up against the thickly scrubbed hillside he insists that he would rather bush bash than take his boots off again. His plan seems to be to be insane. Certainly one or two fools have clearly thrashed their way through the scrub here but it defies belief to take the route less taken through such rugged terrain. All morning Bill has been holding out that he might turn back before reaching the Col and it seems that this might be the point when he does so. I refuse to follow him through the scrub or to abandon my own plans. Instead I say to Bill that when he returns to this point he is to add a rock to the cairn so that I know he has returned down valley. We this we part company and I cross the ankle high river once and then again.
Two hundred metres away the river climbs steeply through an extremely bouldery chute. Either side of the river seems accessible and I decide to walk back into the water in order to access the edge of the boulders on the true right. Standing in the middle of the river I can hear Bill calling out to me from high above in the thick scrub. I sight him and the large cairn on a boulder almost at the same time. This marks the spot where a well formed track climbs above the river on the true left. I’m annoyed at myself for not locating it beforehand. An extended and unnecessary encounter with the bracingly cold water coming off the ice of North Col has numbed my feet and I need a moment to get my equanimity back.
What Bill was trying to indicate to me was that he was going to drop back through the bush to the track. I make ground quickly in order to catch up with him but after walking for about 500 metres there is no sign of him. It takes a while to realise that he is still behind me and I have to backtrack in order to meet him when he finally arrives after finally bashing his way back onto the track. As we return to the highpoint above the flats we get our first sight of the gully leading to North Col. It’s something of a shock to realise that we can see all the way to our destination from so far away.
The Col is heavily under snow and the angle appears to be quite steep. For the next hour we continue to follow the river, gradually reducing the distance to the final climb. Parts of the river provide rough going and it is something necessary to climb through moraines and chunks of rotting ice. The major complication appears to be how to negotiate a massive rock knoll towards the head of the valley. The river skirts it to the right as we look toward the wall of mountains and it’s feasible that there is straightforward passage behind the knoll that we cannot see with it looming over us. The alternative is to cross the river and tackle the deeply incised stream on the left side of the knoll. Upon sighting a cairn to the left of the knoll we decide that we will make an attempt on this side first and if this is unsuccessful we will try the approach from the absolute valley head. Once we have committed to the creekbed we discover that travel is quite manageable, requiring no more than careful boulder hops and sections scrambling over moraine and the creek bed itself.
A crystal blue tarn provides an early scenic highlight and as we pause for a drink we estimate that the tarn water is at least six feet deep. We split up on the moraine, Bill preferring to scramble high above large boulders while I stick as close as I can to the creek bed. We reach the snow line at about the same time and debate who should go first, our main focus being on photographic portraiture. The snow has a hard layer of crust on it and the slopes leading towards the Col have quite at incline. Where the snow meets the rock wall on the right there is a two metre drop into the creek flowing below. The possibility of sliding off this ledge cannot be discounted so I stop to review the safety equipment. I offer Bill the crampons figuring I’ll make do with the ice axe. Bill is not in a waiting mood and presses so that he is a distant figure by the time I start my ascent. Rather than lose him I forego the crampons and try and pick up his tracks. He has managed to bang footsteps into the crust and has made rapid progress. When I veer slightly away from the tracks I realise how slippery the ice is and carefully make my way back to the tracks.
Weather conditions are not auspicious. The white fluffy clouds of the morning have been replaced by an ominous dark fog that lingers malevolently above the Col. As we approach the saddle we’re buffeted by powerful winds. Fortunately there is a line of large boulders that we can take shelter behind. We pause for a snack break and to take stock of what we’d like to do next.
As expected the Col provides liberating views of the length of Hidden Falls Creek all the way to Cow Saddle while to the west are the powerful vistas of the Darran Mountains. Mt Madeline is slightly obscured but the little known Donne Glacier is shown off to impressive advantage. Amidst the mist and low cloud what isn’t evident is the best way to get from North Col to Lake Nerine. It is reasonably early in the afternoon so an optimistic outlook might regard there as being enough time to bag the lake before turning back. Bill makes it clear that he is indifferent to whether I continue but that he will be shortly returning to the North Routeburn. Perhaps if I’d thought this through I could have brought all my gear and planned to camp on Lake Nerine before traversing the slopes to Park Pass. From here I could have aimed to camp on Sugarloaf Pass the following day. The demands of carrying a pack are what made this the less attractive option.
With time in hand we have time to explore the curious campsites on the Col, carefully layered circular arrangements of rocks to provide protection from the wind. We mock these efforts at the wall is only two feet tall, not appreciating that this would at least stop the base of the tent from being blasted. We’re joined by a kea which excites Bill who wasn't present when my camp on the Olivine ledge was joined by a special guest.
For the return journey I opt for crampons but Bill shows me up by glissading for long distances in rapid time. I stick to the snow fields choking the gut for as long as I can while Bill sidles high amongst the boulders and moraine. This results in him having to wait some time for me when it is finally time to remove the crampons.
The return journey provides the opportunity to appreciate some of the large snow slabs choking the side creeks running off the Humboldt mountains. We also make good time by sticking closely to the river and boulder hopping rather than thrashing through the scrub that dominates the mild slopes. When we reach the river we’re forced to undertake the double crossing and while Bill puts his boots back on I return to the other side to build several cairns, lest any other parties be encouraged to bush bash through the scrub for half an hour in order to avoid a small creek crossing. As we walk along the true left of the river Bill starts complaining about having to cross the river at all, claiming there is a passage through the boulder field. For a moment I wonder if he has a point until I see the extent of the field and can put a quantifiable time saving on crossing to this side of the river.
We arrive at the point where we previously crossed the North Routeburn and as I have been walking in my thongs I quickly plunge into the river to arrive on the sandy banks on the other side. When we get moving again we have to find our way through the maze of the boulder field. The key is locating the large boulder that needs to be climbed over, involving a seven foot drop on the other side. I wonder if it might be a bit much to expect a petite sixty year old woman such as Elizabeth to negotiate this but I’m sure she’d find a way. The rest of the route finding is comparatively easy as we know where to look for cairns. The walk back to camp takes longer than expected and though we are following a track I can barely remember the undulations and diversions that it takes despite having walked it this morning. Such was the sense of anticipation and literal looking forward towards North Col that I had been oblivious to my surroundings.
It is still light when we arrive at camp which means the sandflies are voracious in their welcome. My hastily constructed camp has collapsed due to the lack of give in the earth so I set about finding a more pliable location. There is surprisingly little soil on these flats and it makes me wonder just how recently it is since the area was covered in ice. To ward off sandfly attack I opt for a full covering of polythermals, socks and head cover. This allows me to enjoy the evening meal as we sit outdoors without being constantly driven to distraction by swarms of insects.
The threat of rain that has been fluctuating most of the day is tilting the way of heavy downpours and Bill is anxious about being able to get across the river the following day. He wants to set off in the pre-dawn light and I agree to an early start. I agree to his demands and turn my mind to writing the report for Elizabeth regarding improvements to the Beans Burn track. I also provide a basic guide as to how best to tackle the boulder field as the tips she had provided to me had not been the best.
An hour before the agreed departure time Bill has packed and announces that he will be leaving shortly. It has been raining steadily all night and he is anxious. I announce that I’ll be sticking to the original departure time and we part company once again. Attempts to time my tent packing to a break in the weather are thwarted as the heavy downpour returns halfway through the task. It is a day for the wet weather gear, but as we are heading out such conditions lend a satisfying conclusion to the trip. Several sidestreams running into the North Routeburn are surprisingly steep and I resort to crossing via an enormous log straddling too sides of a deep pool.
The final crossing takes place outside Routeburn Flats Hut which is showing signs of life as trampers rouse themselves to face the day. I drop off my reports at Elizabeth’s quarters and leave a magazine behind at the hut. The walk between the hut and the shelter is always completed quicker than anticipated due to the quality of the track and its surprising inclination. I arrive half an hour before the scheduled departure. There are several groups who have come off the Routeburn Track while the carpark records the arrival of replacement groups. There is a large group of elderly volunteers who I speculate will be kayaking down the impressive gorges of the stream leading off Bridal Veil Falls.
The transport is slightly late, by which time a reasonably large group has arrived. There is room on the bus for everyone and it is a reasonably relaxing ride back to Glenorchy. We are held up briefly by a hire car from the Juicy company. I suggest that we should be able to squeeze past while Bill counters that the car must be a lemon. After a brief stop in Glenorchy which allows the purchase of postcards and food we continue towards Queenstown. The winding road along Lake Wakatipu is always a gruelling experience but fortunately the driver is not inclined to show off her curb hugging expertise.