Trans-Alpine Trip  The Mathias Catchment

Sonja Risa recounts her first transalpine trip with fellow members of the Peninsula Tramping Club and gains valuable insight into how one mighty river can dictate the course of a trip.

By Sonja Risa (January 26, 2020 – February 1, 2020)

Mona Anderson refers to the mighty Rakaia River in her book ‘A River Rules my Life’, and as the Wilberforce River ruled Anderson’s life, so the Rakaia River, its tributaries and the weather ruled our trip, and provided this inexperienced Aussie tramper with an insight into braided rivers, their differing moods, immense power, force and beauty. This was one of my many experiences on this year’s transalpine trip. 

Our original trip, held a week earlier than previous trips, was a traverse across the neves from the  Franz Josef to Fox glaciers, and if that wasn’t possible, a circuit up the Paringa River via Marks Flat and returning via the Otoko River. Neither of these options were feasible, because of the unsettled long-term weather forecast. As an alternative, Geoff suggested we explore the Rakaia and Mathias valleys. This remote region, lying to the east of the Main Divide, is seldom visited, and it offered a number of trip options, big valleys for shelter in the event of inclement weather and lots of new country for the group to explore. 

This was my first transalpine trip, and although I felt slightly disappointed that we weren’t traversing mountain tops and neves, I was thankful the trip wasn’t cancelled. Despite the change of plan, it was a fantastic trip, with a great group of like-minded souls that challenged my endurance and skill and provided me with invaluable mountaineering and river crossing experience.

We completed a circuit over seven days, starting from the road end at Glenfalloch Station, across the Rakaia River to Manuka Point, up the Mathias Valley to the confluence of the North and West Mathias rivers, following the west branch for about 5km, then backtracking to the South Mathias River, over Observation Col and down Cattle Stream.  We followed the Rakaia River downstream to Manuka Point where we crossed the river to our parked cars.

It was sunny and warm when we departed Christchurch. Our group of eleven met at Darfield, then the convoy of three cars drove to the road end at Glenfalloch Station. This was my first encounter with the mighty Rakaia River. Groups of three or four people, linked arms and crossed the channels. In the main channel, despite the river’s subdued appearance, you could feel the power of the current. Once safely across, we hid two pack rafts that Jane M. and Geoff had bought as a contingency in the event of higher river flows on our return crossing. Carrying heavy packs while trudging up the Mathias Valley into a strong northwester resulted in a few hours of unpleasant tramping. Later that afternoon, a sheltered campsite adjacent to Big Paddock Creek provided a welcome reprieve from the wind. Copious numbers of brews restored everyone’s spirits as did Jane’s pasta dinner with fresh smoked salmon.

The wind continued unabated overnight. Next morning, we continued up valley into the northwester. The view back down the valley was breathtaking; the size, scale and beauty of the landscape was completely new to me.

We stopped for morning tea at Mathias Hut, a well maintained hunters hut, located near the confluence of the North and West Mathias rivers. With the weather deteriorating, Geoff suggested two route options; head up the North Mathias and climb over Kea Pass to West Mathias River, with the caveat that the route required fine weather, or go up the West Mathias River, climb Mt Warner and Bonds Peak, and then up the South Mathias River over Observation Col to Cattle Stream and back to the Rakaia River. The second option received the group’s unanimous vote.

Just north of the hut, the map shows Centennial Cabin. We dropped packs and went to have a look, only to find remnants of the building’s chimney. What caught my eye was the prolific flowering and sweet scent of mountain holly and lancewood. The whole mountain side was a rich tapestry of white and green. Above the confluence, the West Mathias Valley narrowed and the river flowed swiftly around large boulders and screes. We stopped briefly at the well-hidden and cute West Mathias Bivouac before continuing upstream to find a sheltered campsite for the next two nights. This two kilometre section provided the group with several challenges, climbing large boulders and scrambling through scrub close to the river, with the expert guidance from Geoff and Jane M. and help from of Gaylene, Tony, Raymond and Gary.

Waking to a fine morning, there was a feeling of excitement that buzzed through camp with the prospect of climbing Mt Warner. We set off early up the river carrying day packs. About one kilometre up from our camp, we turned off into a large unnamed side stream where we steadily climbed across tussock grass terraces on the true right before dropping into the river. Travel through this terrain was challenging due to the steep banks, numerous boulders and loose scree. On our return, we descended the spur on the true right of the river, which provided a safer and quicker route. Once above the river, large slabs of rock offered easier travel to the snow line at 1800m. We were now on the Main Divide, but to our disappointment the views of the surrounding peaks were obscured by a thick smoke haze blown over from Australian bushfires. With crampons affixed and ice axes in hand, our group climbed slowly towards to the summit through some steep and challenging terrain, on the way unexpectedly disturbing a deer and a fawn that quickly fled across the snow. On the summit of Mt Warner there was remnants of a platform for a trig station and below it another smaller platform presumably constructed for the surveyor’s camp; a harsh and exposed environment to live in a tent for extended periods. It wasn’t a place to linger in a freezing wind. 

To the south of Mt Warner is the impressive Bonds Peak. Geoff and Jane M. invited others to join them climb to the summit. Initially, I declined, but quickly changed my mind as it was a good opportunity to climb with extremely experienced mountaineers. Five of us, Geoff, Jane, Raymond, Gary and I, departed for our second ascent, while the remainder of the group began the long descent back to camp. Our small group hastened towards the summit, taking a line up the snow basin on the north side of Bonds Peak, which included a short climb up a very steep snow face that was exhilarating and fun! The final section of the climb involved scrambling up very loose scree followed by a short rock scramble to the ridge and along to the summit. More low cloud and smoke haze drifted in further reducing visibility, however, we had good views of South Mathias Valley and mountains to the north. We made a rapid descent reaching the camp on dusk, exhausted, after 13 hours on the mountain. 

Rain set in overnight and exhausted bodies remained wrapped up in their sleeping bags till late the following morning. Thoughts of a rest day were dashed when Geoff announced we were leaving camp to get a head start on the next days climb over Observation Col. 

Although it was a comparatively short distance from our camp to the South Mathias, travel had become far more difficult due to the rain and swollen river. Three hours later, we arrived safely, thoroughly drenched and cold, at our new campsite on flats about half way up the valley. Tents were quickly put up then followed by silence as everyone disappeared inside to get dry and warm. Everyone, but Geoff who organised boiling water for soups then cooked dinner and delivered bowls full of comforting hot risotto to everyone inside their tents. I understand it took Geoff some time to warm up after he finally retired to his tent. 

The next morning, the camp resembled an outdoor laundry with numerous pieces of clothing placed on nearby shrubs to dry in the early morning sunshine before we departed up the valley. A large unnamed side stream flows down from Pt 1816 to join the South Mathias, we stopped here beside the stream for morning tea, some of us were tempted into its chilly waters, but the cold breeze discouraged most of us! 

We headed up the true left of the stream, a steep climb to the snow line where we put on crampons and continued climbing to the base of Pt 1816. From here our group, in tight formation, zigzagged up a short steep slope below the ridge to the saddle between Pts 1816 and 1970. We were rewarded with superb views of the southern peaks and the headwaters of Cattle Stream. 

Dark low clouds moving from the northwest plus a strong wind deterred the group from dropping packs and climbing to the summit of Observation Cone, besides it was time for lunch! We found a relatively sheltered spot for a break on rock slabs by a small stream below the col. Jane L was a bit concerned about descending the snow slope, Gaylene took Jane’s hand and I watched as they skipped off together down the snow slope, past the remnants of the glacier to the snow line. There was a short section of rock scrambling which we negotiated safely, followed by an easy and quick descent down tussock spurs to Cattle Stream. Finding a good sheltered campsite proved more difficult. After a bit of toing and froing, we found a site in the scrub on the true right of the stream. Geoff promptly lit a fire that provided a lovely ambience to the camp plus copious amounts of boiling water for hot drinks. Despite the cold and the long day it was a pleasant social evening.  

Overnight the wind strengthened, buffeting the tents and the rain set in clearing by mid-morning. The stream, which we had easily crossed the previous afternoon, had risen overnight so crossing wasn’t an option. Staying on the true right, we made good time down to Evans Hut, by the Rakaia River, for lunch. The tents were hung up to dry and everyone enjoyed the sunshine in the hut surrounds, although frequent gusts of wind funnelling down the Rakaia Valley had people jumping up to secure tents, loose gear, hats and lunch items.

After lunch we headed down the flats on the true left of the Rakaia. Crossing Cattle Stream presented no problems as the channels in the lower reaches were much wider and shallow. The strong norwesterly gusts pummelled the group and made walking extremely difficult and exhausting. Although we were grateful for a tail wind we had to brace ourselves from consistently being blown over and pushed around by the wind, our packs acting like large sails with each gust. After a few hours of walking, many of the group were feeling tired and suggested heading out a day earlier than planned. After much discussion, Geoff decided, for safety reasons that we should stick to the original plan, camp overnight and cross the Rakaia River in the morning, rather than push on.

Finding water and a sheltered campsite became the next priority. We walked up Rocky Spur Creek until we found water and surprisingly, in amongst the trees there was a small sheltered terrace where we could comfortably camp. That evening Pete cooked a pasta dish, and as often on the last night together the group discussed potential trips for next year’s alpine trip. Much to my relief, the strong gusts abated at sundown.

The Rakaia River was running higher than when we crossed it a week ago. The next morning we stood on the edge of the main channel and assessed the river conditions. It was decided that a small group would attempt a crossing. I linked up with Gaylene, Tony was the anchor, and Peter at the end. All was going well until we entered the main channel. It was deep and the water was moving swiftly. The bow wave came up to Tony’s shoulders as he struggled to anchor the group, then we collapsed into the water. Remaining linked and safe, Gaylene said push with your feet, and we managed to manoeuvre ourselves onto the bank of an island. But I was caught by the current and pulled back out into the flow, Gaylene pulled me to the bank and helped me out of the water as I was drained of energy from fighting against the current. Crossing the next channel at the same point wasn’t an option. We walked downstream for a short distance and found a relatively shallow section where we could cross safely. The remainder of the group linked up, followed our line, and crossed with no problems. Once across the river, almost immediately our thoughts turned to real coffee and lunch at the Darfield cafe. 

A big thank you to Geoff and Jane M for a wonderful trip, great leadership and ensuring the safety and comfort of the group, throughout the trip.

Team members include: Geoff Spearpoint (leader), Jane Morris, Gaylene Wilkinson, Tony Lawton, Jane Liddle, Gary Huish, Peter Umbers, Doug Foster, Raymond Ford, Sonja Risa, and Callum McIntosh

Wilderlife