Alistair McDowell tells of his FMC sponsored 33-day expedition from Arthurs Pass to Aoraki/Mt Cook.
The Southern Alps form the long, mountainous backbone of the South Island, stretching from St Arnaud to Milford Sound. Graeme Dingle and Jill Tremain famously walked the entire length of Ka Tiritiri O Te Moana in 1971, in winter no less. The logistics of a 100-day trip make expeditions of this magnitude very rare. However, one particular section of the Alps has caught the imagination of many, with so many possible route choices. Offering one of the longest stretches of untouched wilderness in the country, a transalpine journey from Arthur’s Pass to Mt Cook is a real adventure, taking you by the scruff of the neck.
Planning for our expedition began seven months before the start of the trip in mid- November. Often the hardest task of any adventure is to find some capable companions, and after I pitched the idea of the traverse to the Auckland University Tramping Club, a few genuine responses slowly trickled in. Through the months leading up to the trip, we managed some preparatory mountaineering. Andy Thompson and I climbed the East Ridge of Taranaki, Hamish Cumming joined me on the Otira Face of Rolleston, and Justin Loiseau showed his North American roots and cool head while ice climbing at Tukino.
Andrew brought significant logistics experience of his previous expeditions from Wakatipu to Aoraki, and St Arnaud to Lewis Pass. Hamish’s forestry skills kept our fires blazing and wood stack ever high. Justin’s North Cackalacky drawl and southern humour kept us constantly entertained, seeing the light in every tough situation. I contributed the vision for the traverse and enough enthusiasm to make it happen – the rest was in our legs! I now had confidence that we could handle the unknown challenges that lay ahead.
We chose a satellite phone for direct communication with the chopper pilot to coordinate our food drops at Prices Flat and Lyell huts, and arranged for a third food drop at Harihari. With the help of Andrew’s girlfriend Sarah, we received weather forecasts every two days. We prepared 35 dehydrated meals, using a variety of meats and vegetables. We favoured butter over cheese for its better shelf life and energy. I used an 800-gram synthetic sleeping bag combined with a synthetic jacket to survive comfortably in many zero-degree nights camping above the snowline. This minimalist approach paid dividends during the many long days of swagging. Friend Nicholas Riordan (Canterbury University Tramping Club) generously offered to drive our band of four to ‘the Pass’, where he sent us off in high spirits. ‘Just imagine what’s going to happen to you guys over the next 30 days!’
The Waimakariri Valley forms a natural gateway to the Alps, the perfect place to begin our journey. The progression from roadside tussock hillsides to snow-capped peaks on the Main Divide was a brilliant illustration of the contrast you experience as you stride over the river gravels, until the mountains grow nearer, terrain steeper, until finally you straddle the spine itself. A camp by Ariel Tarns on Harman Pass was the first of many spectacular nights in the mountains. A kea welcomed us warmly by chewing the tent fly and one sock.
After a crisp early morning crossing of the Whitehorn, we departed from the Three Passes route and travelled south to Urquharts Hut, an old shack on the Wilberforce River flats. A humble dirt floor, open hearth fireplace and bunks made of branches from the nearby forest gave a 1930s atmosphere to the hut interior, making us feel ashamed of our high-tech mountaineering equipment.
A storm threatened as the Griffiths Stream fell away beneath our feet, but Hokitika Saddle gave us passage back to the West Coast. From the top of this steep icy couloir we viewed with apprehension the wild new territory ahead. Downstream of the rarely visited Mungo Hut, sulphur filled our nostrils – hot springs – if only we could find more than a measly dribble. Postdefeat and fording the Brunswick, the stench returned and we found the source – a boiling, steaming pit. Once soaking, the rain hardly affected our mood.
One week into the traverse saw us poised halfway up the Whitcombe River, savouring a rest day at Prices Flat hut. Well aware that we were retracing, in reverse, that famous first crossing journey by John Whitcombe and Jakob Lauper in 1863, our respect to these pioneers was held high as we toiled across landslips in the wet humidity of the untamed bush.
Mt Evans, viewed from Cave Camp, is irresistible, and urges you to meet her close up. Nearby, Mt Whitcombe ramps up along an inviting northeast ridge, before plunging a sheer 1500 metres to the Ramsay Glacier below; a face that attracts fear and awe. Unsettled spring weather spoiled our dreams of ascending these majestic peaks. But in consolation, we had a calm 12 hours of mountainous travel in a misty atmosphere over the Bracken Snowfield, nestled in the Adams Wilderness area, a coveted destination for trans-alpine trampers. As we turned our attention to the more accessible red rock of Lauper Peak, avalanches thundered continually through the fog, plunging down Whitcombe’s terrible flanks. Mist turned to rain – we claimed a ‘low peak’ before hastily retreating to the Rakaia, just as southerlies began plastering the Alps with fresh snow.
While resting at Lyell Hut, one of the oldest original structures of the Southern Alps, our satellite phone began to sing out a new and welcome tune: fine spells, light winds. This golden forecast was an absolute blessing given our ambitious goal – to traverse both the Gardens of Allah and Eden. One day saw us cover the Lyell moraines and avoid fresh avalanche activity in time to savour the sun’s last rays from a high camp on McCoy Col.
Crucially, this allowed us to attack a steep snow cornice in the early firm snow conditions. A morning’s sidle below Mt Nicholson brought hidden crevasses, bergschrunds and avalanche debris – but on Lambert Col we had cleared the Gardens’ final defences, and wandered onto the long ice plateau. The difficult access to the Gardens is one of the reasons why these high alpine snowfields are so elusive. In bad weather, there are a limited number of escape options, and all are difficult. However, the reward is a magical expanse of glacial terrain, above which rise scores of peaks.
A narrow but sufficient three days of fine weather forced us to race over the plateau before the next storm rolled in. Many hours of afternoon slog under the hot sun and in slushy snow resulted in unavoidable sunburn. A midnight alpine start could have solved the problem, but some say sleep is as important.
As Eden’s snows wore thin to the west, our final challenge reared before us: to climb the Great Unknown. John Pascoe handed out the imaginative place names of this area during his 1930s explorations, and it makes you think – are we more drawn to climbing a mountain or visiting a valley for the name? Previously, at Reischek Hut in the Rakaia we’d met a man named Malcolm Peak who had just climbed Malcolm Peak. In our case, means of escape from the Garden of Eden required us to traverse the mysterious summit of the Great Unknown, which although only 200 metres above the Gardens, soon plunges a devastating 1500 metres into the Perth. We gained the peak as the threatening westerlies of a new storm brewed, and had just enough time to descend into Elizabeth Creek. Redfield Stream is not for the faint-hearted – two kilometres as the crow flies became a seven-hour struggle on thin, steep scree, with treacherous waterfalls and difficult down-climbing through thick bush. The track and swingbridges down the Perth were a very welcome sight.
Twenty days into the expedition, we finally emerged into civilization to restock supplies at Harihari. Now all that remained was to pull off the elusive Whataroa to Tasman crossing. Research on the route uncovered few recent accounts of parties crossing Whataroa Saddle successfully, and we staggered up the rugged tracks to Whymper Hut with much trepidation. An old Victoria University of Wellington Tramping Club account told of one tramper falling seven metres into a schrund after attempting a giant leap of faith. So it was with massive relief that we rapped from the saddle on a bomber piton and slings, and easily hopped the well-covered schrund onto the Classen Névé, then strode onto the Murchison Glacier. Early dreams of ascending Aoraki/Mt Cook to top off the traverse were put aside at Tasman Saddle Hut. There we soaked up the ambience of the upper Tasman, culminating in a rich red sunrise from Hochstetter Dome. Ten hours down the long glacier passed as snow turned to ice and finally the dreaded moraines. We were adamant the dozens of planes overhead were missing out. Aoraki’s glistening east face towered above us … and the traverse was at last complete.
A long sleep-in, and the few hours tramping down the Ball Road gave us time to reflect on our 33-day journey. We had proved to ourselves that long traverses are sustainable for the body; we were as fit and healthy as we had started. The classic seventh day of rest eased all aches and fatigue. Though most transalpine parties opt for late-season trips, we found November–December conditions to be equally conducive to good travel. We experienced easy glacier access, many ample weather windows, and only one river crossing hold-up.
One of the most astounding aspects of the Southern Alps is its wilderness areas. While signs are useful and huts are helpful, there are few locales left on Earth, much less in such pristine environments as the Alps, where no indication of human impact is anywhere to be seen. Wilderness areas defy every inherent aspect of human nature – to find, to organize, and to claim. But within the Southern Alps, there exist pockets where snowy footprints are the most permanent presence any human can hope to have. Aircraft are forbidden to land. No signs. No huts. No nonsense.
We constantly kept an eye out for impacts on the landscape from introduced animals. Going by historic descriptions in archival hut books, things have improved in recent decades. The muddied slopes, stripped of vegetation that historic accounts described were no longer evident. Perhaps the only noticeable impact was somewhat overgrown trails through the bush and the occasional tree that had been used to scratch antlers. Although we weren’t keeping a sharp look out for animals, we did see 11 chamois on the western side of the divide and two thar. Print from deer, chamois and thar were frequently evident, including sign on the Gardens of Eden! At one point down the horrific Redfield Stream, we were grateful for the tracks created by these animals, sparing us from a significant amount of bush-bashing. It is difficult to gauge possum damage when you have nothing to compare against, but we did see several possums throughout the trip – however I think 1080 is having a good impact on this front.
It is truly an honor to have experienced a long and satisfying traverse of New Zealand’s Alps. Most of us never have the opportunity to leave civilization, and a shadowed walk in a geometrically-designed urban park is the closest many will come to experiencing nature’s wonder. But to be reminded that humanity doesn’t need to create artificial environments when the most majestic of them all survive – if only left alone – is a lesson for every adventurer. We did not conquer the Alps. We did not pioneer any new routes in the Alps. Rather, we weaved our way through its wilderness, treading softly so as not to destroy that which we can never create.
See www.vimeo.com/87835096 to watch a short film of the traverse.
Postscript: Thanks go to my three fantastic companions: Andy Thompson, Hamish Cumming, and Justin Loiseau – your relaxed attitudes, passion for the mountains, and thorough planning led to a very successful trip. Cheers also to Bruce Dando of Kokatahi Choppers for ferrying in our food, despite the tricky weather conditions. Wildside Backpackers, Harihari, comes highly recommended with Dan and Kath’s true West Coast hospitality. Finally a massive thanks to FMC for their generous sponsorship of our expedition. Get in your own application for the next round!
(This article first appeared in the FMC Bulletin – June 2014)