Poseidon Peak has a deservedly mythical ring to it… and here I was crunching up the final slopes to its snowy summit. The views opened up to reveal vast white peaks in all directions and I grinned knowing I was about to get to ski down its glaciated slopes…
Our adventures with this mythical peak all began in July 2015 when myself, my husband Chris and a couple of friends embarked upon an ill fated attempt to ‘ski tramp’ up and down Poseidon Peak. A ‘ski tramp’ being our name for our favourite pastime of combining tramping with ski touring – often resulting in large amounts of heavy pack carrying and very little skiing.
On that previous trip weather, large amounts of snow and a broken boot were all factors contributing to us never leaving the valley floor. But the idea of skiing down the Park Glacier which covers the southwestern slopes of Poseidon Peak continued to tempt us, so we made the plan to go back in there with skis in September 2016.
After a bit of gear organisation and route research help from a couple of great bloggers/ adventurers Danilo and Jaz, we had a route planned out and we left Queenstown late on Tuesday night. The weather wasn’t looking excellent, a mixed bag of westerlies with a few very minor fronts, but nothing serious.
We parked up at the surprisingly deserted Routeburn Shelter (although it was admittedly dark and raining, Tuesday night) and set off up the Routeburn to the Sugarloaf Pass turn off. I felt a bit down – our last trip in here had been in a merry party of 5 – now we were just a quiet two. We climbed steeply up through the bush with heavy backs, until the gradient eased and we popped out about the tree line.
Way down we could see the twinkling lights of Glenorchy, and a few blobs of rain landed on our jackets. The pass was snow free, so it was quick going and we soon dropped back down into the bush on the Rockburn side. We descended steeply through the forest and before long arrived at our camp for the night – a cosy little forest bivvy. This area is a bit of a mecca for rock bivouacs, so we planned to use them when we could.
A waterfall pours of a cliff right beside the biv and a large black spider hung from the rock above me, nevertheless I slept well. A bit of homemade muesli in the morning and we got going with a grey sky pressing above and a bit of unknown ground to cover. The walk up to Theatre Flats is beautiful, through the boulder strewn mossy beech forest.
We crossed the swing bridge after a few hours and the yellow tussockland of Theatre Flat stretched out before us. Here was where we were to head straight up and out of the steep valley on the true left and over a small pass that would take us into the Lake Unknown catchment. Bush bashing with skis is never going to be ideal, but Chris didn’t make it look too bad and after a few slippery struggles and awkward manoeuvres we emerged from the bush.
From here we continued up across snow-grass slopes to a steep snow climb up a gully. The snow had turned to summer slush in the gully, with a waterfall apparent somewhere underneath our feet, so we didn’t linger. Sweating hard we climbed out of the gully and on to much gentler slopes which we could skin up to the pass.
We took off the skins, locked down our skis and enjoyed our first turns down into the basin. Suddenly Lake Unknown came into view, deep blue and extending out to the end of the basin. You could see the gap in the ridge where the lake cascaded out down to the Beansburn valley floor many hundreds of meters below.
It was spectacular and we would have loved to figure out a route down to its shores… but decided that might have to wait for another trip as we had to continue up and over towards the Park Glacier. There was still quite a lot of snow at this height (around 1600m) and in places there were dodgy looking ‘slumps’ where the snow had detached from the slabs in the warm wet weather and was falling down off all the faces.
There was the occasional crash as large amounts of this ‘slump’ snow fell off the big bluff on our right and rumbled down the mountainside. We traversed well clear of the ‘slump bluff’ and then skinned up a slope to the right of the valley. It rained, then cleared, then rained again. We could see Earnslaw clouded in mist. A very ‘fat bellied’ cloud made its way over us as we crested the ridge and looked down to the basin where we planned to camp.
The raindrops started to plop down as we again de-skinned and negotiated our way down amongst some nasty looking snow ‘slumps’ which had big avalanche debris piles at the bottom of them. Every few minutes we would hear a crack as more snow whooshed down the slabs. Luckily our route avoided their path and we swished down the mountain and into the valley. We found a nice grassy spot beneath the steep rock face of Minos Peak.
The rain cleared again and our evening cook-up saw us soaking in the final sun rays and glimpsing views onto the lovely flat white of the Park Glacier. Unfortunately the night was not so peaceful as the temperatures never dropped below freezing and my sleep was interrupted every few minutes by the booms of the snow slumps. The night was long and the beep of the alarm finally ended the battle and we got underway as it became light.
The sky was heavy grey and I was feeling apprehensive about what the day held. We changed our original plan to traverse beneath Amphion Peak due to more avalanche risk and instead had to cross a series of extremely mushy slopes until we reached the mellower slopes of the lower Park Glacier. I was very glad to be off the mush and out of the basin of thundering ice slumps. Several expletives relating to global warming had excited my mouth as we made our escape out of that melting, collapsing place.
The snow became firmer once on the glacier and we made quick progress over a frozen lake (where Chris did manage to find a crack to fill up with some water) and onto the slopes towards Poseidon. Looking up towards the summit ridge of Sarpedon, Chris noticed a tiny fleck which he thought was moving. I told him he was imagining things until it traversed the whole ridge and headed across the snow onto the next summit. Crazy animal! We guessed it was a chamois.
The clouds had begun to break apart and the odd ray shone through. We whooped as we could suddenly glimpse our peak shining above us, plastered white and gleaming. With skis on again we skinned up to where the glacier steepened towards the summit of Poseidon. I decided to leave my skis behind at that point, while Chris ventured on up with his on his back.
A short steep climb on solid firm snow lead us to the summit of the lower Poseidon Peak. The higher summit is a vertical rock steep that was not inviting, and besides the map marks the lower (2208m) as the actual Poseidon Peak so we were quite happy with that.
It was great to reach the top, to gaze down into the Beansburn, to look towards the towering walls of Mt Tutoko and the rocky massif of Mt Earnslaw. It was great to try something a second time and succeed, it really makes you realise that not achieving something the first time can be an excellent incentive to go back again, to persevere with a goal, no matter how random and small.
I carefully cramponed back down while Chris skied down cautiously. At the bottom of our peak we donned our backpacks and skis again. The clouds skittered across above us, but for now we still had sun. The turns were magic and we both smiled from ear to ear as we floated down the smooth glacier exerting very little effort. This is the essence of the ski tramp, this is what it’s about! Just then a helicopter lifted above the ridgeline and spotted us. He swung round and looped over us and we felt quite smug to be standing where we were in that moment.
The lovely spring glacier skiing continued right down to the frozen Park Pass terminal lake. We looked back up and Poseidon Peak had shrunk to a small speck far above us in a matter of minutes. The snow petered out finally and we climbed down snow grass slopes towards Park Pass. Before long we spotted some small cairns and the semblance of a track.
We arrived at Park Pass in the late afternoon feeling very satisfied with our adventure. We were hoping to find the famed Park Pass rock biv, but no amount of scouting the hillsides seemed to be revealing it to us. There were huge boulders everywhere, but none of them seemed to contain a biv.
As the afternoon passed so did several rain clouds, so we decided to descend Park Pass in the hope of locating the biv. By now it was raining properly. As we came down into the top of the Rockburn a very very large rock blocked our path. We hopefully clambered around it and there on its down-river side was a huge overhang, a little rock wall, a flat straw covered sleeping platform and even a fireplace! Perfect.
We could view the expanse of the valley below us from the dryness of the lovely biv and it was a great space to spend our final night. We slept like rocks and woke late. It took us a while to get going and we had kind of forgotten that we had a rather long walk to get out. We had a cook up at the bivvy rock at Theatre Flat and it was only when Chris mentioned to me that at this rate we would be walking out in the dark that I got a wriggle on.
By now we had adjusted to the quiet of the valley and one another’s company, so it was a surprise to see a lone female tramper coming towards us. She was very excited to see our skis and asked us about our adventure. It turned out she was carrying a set of wings (a parapont I assume) and was planning on flying around Park Pass for the next few days. I was very impressed by that, good on her!
Eventually we started the steep climb up towards Sugarloaf Pass. Chris decided that we ought to take the route out via Lake Sylvan instead of the pass, as it wouldn’t take much longer, was mostly flat and was different. This was all well and good, but the track turned out to be one of those rooty gorge tracks which goes up and down steeply and constantly!
Working hard we eventually made it out to the Rockburn Chasm/ Lake Sylvan turnoff. A few more hours through the bush (only a mere 2 hours longer than the Sugarloaf Pass route!) and we made it out to the swing-bridge by the road. There were a whole collection of happy tourist campers here parking up for the night. Chris ran a quick 5km time trial to get the car and before we knew it we were driving homeward around the shores of Lake Wakitipu.
Of course going on a great ski tramp is an excellent way to kindle the fires for more ski tramps. Several highly worthwhile objectives were spotted and mooted during our time out in that beautiful, wild part of our country.