Thursday, August 6, 2020

From Hall Arm to the Jaquiery Pass, 16-18 July 2020

In February 2006, Simon and I paddled up Vancouver Arm of Breaksea Sound to camp near the tidal flats, leading to the Jaquiery Pass, our intended route. We found that the valley floor was covered in a dense podocarp forest of Pungas, Coprosma, Vines, Crown Ferns and fallen, rotten trees. Too early, we left the valley floor for a rockfall on the right-hand side. Higher up, we planned to sidle leftwards to a slip where we thought there might be deer trails heading over the Jaquiery Pass to Hall Arm. However, the going was very steep, and it proved impossible to sidle the face. The going deteriorated into a vertical, vegetated grovel up mossy cliffs, and fallen rotten trees carrying our massive packs and inflatable boat. At 330m we could progress no further, being blocked with a vertical bare rock. After a bewildered look at Simon, and muttering deprecations, we started down to try plan B.


Fast forward to July 2020 and our conservation trip to Deep Cove. The plan was to work on our trap lines for 5-6 days and if the weather held to run a reconnaissance from Hall Arm to the Jaquiery. I had intended to flag a route in preparation for a major effort south this coming summer and the crux was the passage to Vancouver Arm.


There were four of us from our trapping team: Sally, David, Gavin, and me. Bob who was the relief caretaker at the hostel, along with Bronwyn, his trainee/assistant, launched the boat and took us on a sunny morning down Deep Cove past Pridham Point into Hall Arm. Bob is a great character and has an encyclopaedic knowledge of the area. Ahead of us was the sentinel Commander Peak and he told me about a fisherman friend who once noticed 2 dots on its summit and looking back at me said “and who do you think they were? “. “Tara and Keith” I replied. Yes, I heard about it – south ridge, a desperate leap on a vertical step to grab a root and a pull-up.


Near the top of Hall Arm, Bob slowed the boat and drifted in towards some rushes in shallow water. Then it over the side into cold water to wade ashore into the damp, frigid bush. With a roar, Bob disappeared back down the sound leaving us in quiet contemplation. We pulled out our packrafts and left them in plastic bags in the bush, then loaded up and set off on ubiquitous deer trails heading up the valley. The bush was quite dense in places and cold as no sunlight entered this deep U-shaped valley, shaded by the surrounding high mountains. About 2 kilometres in, we crossed a large tributary coming in on the TL. Here the valley starts to climb more steeply and the terrain becomes more difficult with tall crown ferns, rotten logs and concealed holes.


We started flagging our route. Ahead was a steep spur coming down from the TL and the valley curves around this in a northerly direction. We climbed some cliff lines and found some open slabby leads, which was a relief. This led to a level section but it was very slow going. Somewhere ahead at around 500m altitude and 4 pm, we stumbled on a small open space with enough room to pitch our 3 tents. It was dark at about 5.30 pm and too cold to hang around so it was into the tents for a very long night. During the night we were woken by two Kiwi calls, loud and piercing, nearby.


Around 7 am, I jumped up and fired up the stove for a hot drink for Sally and Gavin. Shortly after 8 am, we were off climbing up to the next level where it was a bit more open. This led to a partially frozen lake surrounded by frosted tussock and bog. We initially tried to get around the TL but this led nowhere, so then it was back to the mouth of the lake where we crossed to the TR. About 160 m above, the pass bathed in life-enriching sunlight. Leaving our packs, we moved swiftly up through the bush to arrive on the scrubby saddle. The view was very restricted, though we could identify Vancouver Arm far below us. It looked easy enough down the next 200m or so of bush through the scrubby forest but beyond this there was no view down to the valley floor. It just seemed to be a herculean struggle to head down this to check out the route so I suggested, we hope for the best next time and retreat.


Then it was back to the packs and off down the valley following our flagging tape. This went mostly well and around 4 pm, we were close to the large tributary on the TL at about 120m. David suggested that we cross the river to a level bushy area on the other side. This was a prescient thought as we immediately found enough open areas to camp again.


On our last day, we reached the sea in 2 hours, launched our packrafts onto a wind still fjord, paddled through rafts of thin sea ice, reached the long-sought sun, and in harmony and good fellowship, paddled back the 8 km to Deep Cove. Hopefully, there will be a sequel to this adventure next summer.


Acknowledgment: My gratitude to Sally, David, and Gavin for joining me on this wee trip and to Alastair, Fleur, and John for continuing the conservation work over in Deep Cove in our absence.

Friday, July 3, 2020

A Traverse of the Northern Olivine and Thomson Mountains from the Cascade River to Martyr Hill and Lake Clarke, 20-25 June 2020.

By coincidence, Neil and I dreamt up this trip separately and then joined forces along with Gavin for a winter traverse in a great spell of settled weather. 2020 has been an extraordinary year, full of major cataclysmic events such as the Fiordland Deluge on 3-4 February which cut off Milford Sound and destroyed the Lower Hollyford Road and Gunns Camp, followed by the lockdown in March-April brought on by a Pandemic. Plans and dreams were put on hold and then one day, we had eliminated the beast and suddenly the mountains were beckoning. But winter was upon us and I still remember our frigid trip to South Westland exactly a year ago so we settled for this shorter, less acerbic traverse.

Friday night saw me drive up to Arrowtown and stay with Carol and Gavin. Then the next morning, we drove to Albertown, picking up Neil and continuing over the Haast to Hannah’s Clearing, where we stopped to see Ruth and Wayne for a social visit before continuing to Martyrs. Just past Carl Creek, we hid a bike in the bush. At the road end, we briskly walked to the Cascade River to see if we could find my split paddle that I had left there the previous March. Amazingly, it was still lying in the grass where I had rolled up my packraft.

About two kilometres up from the lock gate, we left the car at the start of the old track down to the Big Bend and tramped up the Cascade for two hours to camp on a pleasant flat under the beech trees that evening. Shortly after 5 pm, it was dark and too cold to hang around so we dived into the tent. Gavin had brought along his old Fairy Down alpine tent which was much warmer than the Copper Hotel with its mesh inner. Neil had taken his Macpac Minaret.

I jumped up before dawn and got the stove going for a hot drink for everyone. Then after packing up, we set off for Woodhen Creek, an hour away. A rocky creek bed led to the first tributary on the TR and this provided easy access to the bush line. The sun was slipping down the slopes towards us which we reached at 650m. The valley eased off and we stopped on a stony plain at 800m for lunch. A short scrub bash and we were climbing up a stony ridge to the top of Martyr Hill at 1031m. To the south were the russet-coloured slopes of bare Mt Richard and Mt Raddle–part of the ultramafic zone, a hard landscape bare and bony with only a whisper of grass.

Ahead was a band of beech forest and we pushed through this up to a peak at 1207m. A bit further on we sidled down into a shallow valley on our left that led to twin lakes and camped on a rise just before the further one. There was a lovely alpenglow as the sun melted into purple clouds on the far western horizon. I turned around and the tussock had turned russet against a silver sky.  A bright planet appeared either Jupiter or Saturn. Later during the night, I went outside and watch a spectacular display of the Milky Way and the Magellanic clouds to the east, galaxies frozen in a moment of time in a limitless domain beyond our comprehension.

We were away before 8.00 am next day climbing up to peak 1449m overlooking Staircase mountain and the ridge to Dagon. We dropped down to a col at 1259m and decided it was too far to climb Staircase Mountain and have enough time to reach a bivvy site under Dagon. So we descended easily down to the lake to the NE at 840 m. There was about 180m of bush on the TL of the creek at the bottom that went easily. The valley floor was boggy and we crossed this to a drier place on the far side where we stopped for lunch.

We wandered up the creek towards Dagon around hill 984m following an amazing deer trail through cliffs on the TL. This led to a hanging valley with some fractured giant rocks which gave us trouble and beyond them a frosted bowl which the sun never reached. It was now 3.30 pm and the sun was retreating up the slopes of Dagon, so we carried on up to a lovely sunny platform at 1200m where we camped. It was much warmer up there, great views, and a splendid place to camp.
The plan next morning was to climb to about 1300m and leave our packs while we ascended Dagon and after returning to sidle up across a shelf to the north to peak 1478. The gully we followed turned a bit icy higher up as we made for a pinnacle on the left. Alas, this was not the summit which was further east. The snow slopes were quite frozen and required care as we did not have crampons or ice axes. Backing off, we found a snow gulley that took us easily to the summit. A ceiling of grey cloud obscured the summits though we could discern the Bonar Glacier cascading into the Waipara.

The descent was straightforward back to the packs as was the sidle to the north though further on, we ran into very fractured slabs which were hard going. From peak 1478 we descended to a col linking onto the Thomson Range. Below peak 1193, we dropped down to tussock benches to the west and camped near some tarns. Neil went off to take some photos while we sorted out our camp and got dinner on before the cold drove us into our tent.

I was up well before dawn firing up the stove and getting organized. It was just over a kilometre to the bush ridge to Lakes Dan and Leeb. we followed deer trails along the ridge which was covered in beech forest with an understory of coprosma. I was plodding along in a desultory manner when all of a sudden, we came face to face with 2 women trampers coming in the opposite direction–Frankie and Emily who Neil knew from Hawea. I think they were just as startled to see us as we were. We swapped our route plans and I was impressed with their trip and time frame. Then they were gone and we started climbing up to Lake Dan and just beyond it to Lake Leeb. The sun was blazing down and it was rather Arcadian especially looking back across the lake with Mt Aspiring as a backdrop.

We climbed a small hill to Sweetheart Creek and walked down this to Lake Clarke. On a spur to the west of the outlet, we camped in the lee of the bush as a frigid wind was blowing from the south. Just across from us we found a large, wrecked tarp and ropes in the trees likely left by helicopter assisted hunters– a disappointing sight in such a pristine setting.

The next day, we headed back to the lake, crossing near the outlet and climbing up the hill on a deer trail to circumvent some deeply incised vegetated gullies that crossed the flat on the other side. Then we were at the bush line and following down a bush spur on the TR of Carl Creek to Moonlight Creek. From here it was in the rocky stream bed, picking our way down to the Jackson River where we forded just up from the Carl Ck junction. Then Neil retrieved his bike and briskly sped away to return an hour later with my car. 

Saturday, March 28, 2020

A Journey from the Lower Hollyford to Martyrs

We started on the 9th of March, marching in the rain from the Marion Corner along a devastated road in the lower Hollyford. How did this come about, as this was not the original plan? But this year has been full of surprises with a biblical deluge in Fiordland on 3-4th February that severely damaged the road link to Milford Sound stranding hundreds, destruction of the Lower Hollyford Road and Gunn’s camp. The original plan was to packraft from the Lower Hollyford to the Arawhata via the Red Hills, Arcade and Collins Creeks and paddle out to Neils Beach. Then things became a lot more complicated with road access gone and the arrival of Colonel Anand from India, an old friend, and Mt Everest veteran. I had promised him the ultimate adventure–a mountain-packraftineering trip in the wilds of northern Fiordland with Gavin and me. He had the necessary wherewithal and would not be disappointed.
Belinda kindly drove us to Mossburn on 9th March to collect Gavin who was dropped off by Carol, then on to Te Anau to pick up David Cary before carrying on to the Marion Corner. Although DOC had officially closed northern Fiordland, I thought they would forgive my transgression as we intended to paddle most of the way into the Pyke.
The roads were almost empty on the Milford Road, a remarkable absence of tourons, which we’ve not experienced for eons. It was a bit showery when we arrived. It is a 15 km walk to the end of the Lower Hollyford Road and it took us a bit over 4 hours to cover it. Gavin was feeling unwell and had a nasty cough. Anand had only his Himalayan double boots and was finding it slow going. Along the way, we passed at least 7 abandoned cars, smashed bridges, trees across the road and one section of the road completely gone into the river. The worst sight was Gunn's Camp, which had been overwhelmed by a massive slip with extensive damage to the buildings there. At the end of the road was a mini-van waiting forlornly for its absent owner. By now the rain was heavier so we decided to camp there. We had only got the tents up before it poured down. 

The rain cleared off during the night and morning brought signs of a clearance. The river had changed course at the road end so we walked down the old channel to a new put-in. Anand had never packrafted before but quickly got the hang of it, flying through the rapids with aplomb and insouciance, behind me. The day brightened up as the sun broke through and the clouds lifted on the spectacular Darran high peaks. There may be more trees in the river since the flood but I’m not sure. We walked around the bigger rapids. We stopped for lunch on a sunny bank and then walked to the Pyke junction about 2 km away on the old track now covered in a layer of sticky silt. Pyke Lodge was closed and we could see where the flood had got to as the lower lining inside had been pulled off. We carried on to Alabaster Hut arriving at 4.00 pm. I had arranged for Bruce Reay to tow us up the lake and he presently arrived. Bruce is the king of the Pyke, a most endearing, helpful man who I hold in high esteem.

We decided that it would be best if Gavin and Anand went in the boat and David and I would paddle up the lake. It would be a slow trip as Bruce was keen to catch some fish on the way and said he would return later for us. So off they went while David and I paddled off with a fresh southerly behind us. Two hours later, we had reached the Pyke River where it empties into Lake Alabaster and shortly after Bruce returned. I rolled up my packraft and hopped into the little inflatable. Then Bruce had a different plan and suggested I walk up the backwash of the TL of the lower Pyke to opposite the old airstrip and he would double back and get David. So off I went minus my pack following his directions. There was an open clearing heading back towards the hills, which I followed. Then I followed along the forest edge to a hummocky scrubby flat in which I put up a deer, who trotted serenely away. Beyond this was a large clearing that took me back to the river but I was unsure just exactly where the old airstrip was. I pondered the situation, which increasingly seemed precarious as I had only my standup clothes on if I had to bivvy in the forest. I stood resolutely on a beach near a bend in the river and waited . . . Thankfully just before dark Bruce rounded a bend from the north to pick me up. Back at the airstrip, the others were congregated around the tents as I strolled up. It was a relief to have all the party together again. That night, I wandered over to the hut and chatted to Bruce who is a great raconteur and who is incredibly well connected despite his remote abode. 

We awoke to a clear sky and sun creeping down the forested slopes. There had been a heavy dew and the tent flies were dripping wet. I brought my breakfast over to the hut and had breakfast with Bruce. He said he would drop us across the river. He’d been up the Barrier Gorge in his 20’s in winter and advised me it was a tough trip. I carefully noted his comments. The sun finally reached the flats where we were camped and after a group photo, we were taken across the river to the track. It was only an hour or so to the Olivine Hut and pleasant walking. The hut had been flooded and although Bruce had cleaned it out, we swept it clean again. Rats had been having a party. We dried out our packrafts and tents before carrying on to the Barrier Flats, a few kilometres away. By afternoon we had arrived and picked a nice place on the riverbank to camp. The gorge was only a kilometre away and looked . . . difficult.

That night I lay awake and fretted over our plans. Gavin was not well and Anand was having difficulties with his boots, which had caused blisters on his heels. I intuited difficulties and likely a failed attempt in the Barrier Gorge coming up and a precious day lost. Anand was due to fly out on 20th, which was making it a bit tight time-wise. What was the alternative? Then I remembered our trip a year previous when Gavin and I went up the Durward, crossed Chrome Creek and struck up to peak 1166 on our way to the Red Hills. Yes, that’s a plan, I thought. I’ll put it to the troops in the morning. With that, I drifted back to a much-needed slumber.
Another blue sky greeted us with a few drifting clouds around the tops as we set out across the gravel river flats following rather well-spaced track markers. Then we were into the tall majestic forest following the track to Lake Wilmot. The only birds we saw were the omnipresent curious fantails and bush robins flitting around us. It was calm and warm as we reached the lake and prepared our packrafts. Then it was a 2 km paddle to the far end where we rolled them up. There were extensive gravel river flats and scrub that led us to a narrow track hugging the riverbank that butted into a steep hillside on the TL. It was an eight km walk to the Pyke Crossing, the last few following gravel flats and crossing the river to find the easiest going. We reached our old campsite stopping for lunch. I think at this stage Anand would have burned his boots, which must have been like concrete blocks as they were full of water.  
The last 2 km to the Durward followed clearings and river flats until we reached the creek issuing from the bush. We set up camp on the TR at the junction. Gavin was feeling better but David now had a cough and Anand was stoically marching along with sore feet.

It was cloudy on the tops the next morning as we set off. We followed up the Durward for about a km crossing Chrome Creek and followed up its TR bank for a while through crown ferns and dense forest on occasional deer trails. These veered away as we gained height and the route was fairly straightforward. Higher we reached a spur where we cut right to avoid a shallow valley on the other side and climbed up a wide slope of tall forest. Then we decided we’d have to sidle a long way right across a wide gully to an open face which eventually took us to open tops. Anand was feeling it and I encouraged him to keep going which he did. Now we were in cloud, in a goblin forest of gnarled, moss-covered Ents. There was a murmur of disapproval from the Ents as I frog-marched Anand up the remaining slopes but time was of the essence . . .
I went on ahead and found Gavin and David statuesque and mute on a mist-shrouded hilltop like Easter Island monoliths. Gavin told me there were some tarns not far away between peaks 1166m and 1149m so that would be our destination. Then the mists parted and Anand approached wearily. A short while later, we reached the tarn and on its sandy margin, there was enough space for our tents. It has been a hard day. 

It was clear the next morning as we set off up a small tussock-covered hill and down into a bush-covered saddle. There was about 2 km of bush, which went easily enough and then a rise to peak 1208. Here I found some dead flowers of Celmisia, which I collected for my garden along with some withered Gentians. In places were small red berries of Gaultheria.  I always marvel at these beautiful plants and flowers that survive in this harsh environment–the wonders of Gaia.

From here there were a few intervening peaks to peak 1306 but on closer inspection, we decided to bypass it to the south to reach ‘Twin Lakes’. This was easy enough and we dropped down to the more northerly one and found a nice campsite.  We were now in the sun though it was still cool due to a cold wind. It was early afternoon so we had time to lazy around and to enjoy the views. Across the valley to the east was the Olivine Range and somewhere over there was a pass to Collins Creek but it was obvious that the team could not tackle it. So the plan was to head north on the Red Hills and drop into the Cascade on our old route and paddle out to Martyrs.
In the evening, I went for a solitary walk up one of the surrounding hills–what an incredible vista of bare russet-coloured hills against a backdrop of olive green forest, gilded tussock and grey rock under a pelage of grey-white cloud. I could see the lower part of Arcade Creek and how I longed to venture into its fastnesses and enjoy its adamantine terrain. Then I wandered back to camp chastened and mildly disappointed.

Next day, Gavin was fully recovered and powered up the hills as we made our way north across two big basins to the northern uplands. Looking back, Red Mountain was etched against a cobalt-blue sky. To the north beyond the grasslands were dark brooding peaks, a shroud of dark cloud filling the valleys, scintillating with the early morning sun. It was now quite breezy and cool as we stopped on a col for Anand to catch up. Gavin had his tent fly out which was flapping in the northerly breeze like prayer flags. There was a final run down to the 'Lake of the Nasguls'. It was good to be back but where were the Nasguls? Two of them warily flew past perhaps alarmed by the sight of the 'Copper Hotel' and insalubrious memories of their visit a year ago, which ended badly for these demonic creatures. But we did not care as we set up an early camp and enjoyed a desultory afternoon apart from a much-needed wash in a nearby lake. The news from home on the InReach was perturbing with the start of a Covid-19 Pandemic nearer to home.

Next day, we set off early down to the bush line and then across several open clearings to hill 906. We had difficulty in selecting our best line of descent but eventually picked a spur that took us further west than last time. On the valley floor, we followed a tributary of the Cascade, then climbed up another hill, sidling around this to the Cascade. We stopped for lunch on the riverbank, drying out our sodden tents before crossing the mighty Cascade. We wondered about doing a ferry glide across in our packrafts but then decided to link up for a wade across. Walking up the river for a bit, we selected a quiet but deep section and started across, the 4 of us linked together. The current grew more fierce, the limpid green water swirling around us, threatening to sweep us off our feet. Slowly, slowly we advanced, a chain of determination fighting the raging waters until we emerged onto the shallows on the far side. It had been a near thing.

Then it was down easy flats and gravel beaches to a clearing about 2 km south of the Cascade Gorge. We were following a lead in the forest when we came across an abandoned hunter’s camp. What a mess–ropes everywhere, blue tarps, a shredded esky, dirty pans. It was pretty disappointing to see such pristine country defiled in this way. Well, it was too depressing to stay there so we camped on an island nearby. Here, the colours were vibrantly alive: grey and brown stones of the riverbanks, olive-green forest climbing to red ultramafic rocks under a marine-blue sky. 

During the night, I left the tent and observed something I’d not seen for a long time–the night sky. It was so clear, the Milky Way arched across the sky above illuminating the obsidian darkness, innumerable stars of our Galaxy and solar system. To the south were two smudges, which I assume are even more distant galaxies, far, far away. I stood there for a long time transfixed by this surreal display of our insignificance in the universe and our hubris in thinking that we are in control of nature and our planet and are the pinnacle of all life on Earth. At the edges of the firmament, the umbrageous, silent beech trees indistinct in the gloom, bore mute testimony of our indifference to the earth systems that govern all life. I listened to the night world . . . rushing water like a nagging wind in the trees except it was deathly still and somewhere far off was the distant call of a Morepork–the archetypical sounds of nature.
We got up an hour before dawn so we could start at first light. It was easy enough to get to the Cascade Gorge which we knew from our previous trip was difficult to bypass on the TR. This time we kept close to the river and found a deer trail that skirted the cliffs at the start and led easily to a terrace maybe 100m above the gorge. On mostly deer trails, we followed this for about a kilometre before dropping down to the river just north of a rock garden. Once we blew up the pack rafts, we were away making fast progress. The few big rapids, we walked around. Then we became more daring and started running big wave trains. Anand was in his element and thoroughly enjoying himself. It was a 10 km paddle to our pull-out and all went smoothly. Then we were at the line of trees near the Martyr homestead and rolling up the packrafts. The place was deserted as we strolled past the homestead to the road end. Two hours later our saviours arrived in the blue van bearing grim tidings of an outside world that had changed immeasurably in the last 10 days and that we were about to re-enter.

My gratitude to members of our team: Gavin, my stalwart companion of many campaigns; David, my conservation mate over the last year and Colonel Anand, a veteran of 2 Everest climbs, Cho Oyu, a successful south Pole expedition and an attempt on the North Pole. A big thanks to Bruce Reay, a true bushman, and gentleman. Thanks to Belinda and Carol for all the driving. Without them, we could not have done the trip.