By Tarsh Turner
It was the trip that I never believed would come off. It had been optimistically pencilled into the calendar for Waitangi weekend, and we had all booked a seven-day window off work, but it seemed like such a pipe dream. We all agreed we would need decent weather for six of the days, we had no wiggle room to move the trip by a day or two, and we were heading into Fiordland… Ha! Dream on. Yet, as February rolled around, there was Metvuw showing an entire week of zero precip… Could it be??
The premise of the trip was twofold: Ana had been looking dreamily at Coronation Peak for years, while Scott had been wanting to get into the Murchison Mountains, home of the Takahe. Seeing as the only access through the Murchies is by special permit to access Mt Irene, I hatched a plan to bag Coronation and Irene in one ambitious route, guaranteeing myself a keen crew. We tried asking around to find anyone who knew if the ridge from Coronation to Irene would go, and the best we came up with was a second-hand report that “apparently it’s been done.” One 30m rope, two harnesses, and a small array of trad gear (between four people), and we reckoned we could give it a go.
Our mate Mitch dropped us by boat at the mouth of the Gorge Burn and accompanied us along the remains of a once popular, but long since abandoned, walking track to a view of the waterfall. After snapping a photo of us modelling our scrog credentials, he waved goodbye and the bush bashing began. Fairly pleasant travel saw us spend most of the day catching up and discussing the ethics around appropriate use of PLBs, exchanging stories and experiences. The hours flew by while immersed in chat. A final climb saw us reach the shores of Lake Eva, a classic Fiordland scene of water and mountains, under a bluebird sky. There were some big smiles going around, and four humans turned Takahe, scurrying around gathering vegetation, only with an ulterior motive of feeding a sandfly-fighting campfire.
The next day dawned just as beautiful and our climb to the tops was one of joyful woops and more big smiles. Three of our party work in the Murchison Mountains, carrying out stoat trapping, and as we topped out overlooking the Phillipson Burn we took a moment to identify the familiar valleys and peaks of the Murchies, appreciating the new perspective.
Carrying on toward the Cozette Burn, we passed so many picturesque tarns that it was hard not to stop and swim. However, the day was young and we had ground to cover. After lunch we tackled a tedious traverse and descent to the head of the Cozette Burn. Honestly it was awful, and so hot, but at last we plunged with relief into a cool stream at the valley floor. Then it was onward, in hopes of a camp on the shores of an unnamed lake between Coronation Peak and Mt Wera. It was a grind, and we were grateful for animal tracks along the base of the cliffs. We had planned to take a Danilo Hegg route up the true right of the waterfall draining the lake, but as we drew close, we couldn’t take our eyes off the rocky slabs to the true left. I mean, we had a rope, and we had done plenty of bush bashing for one day… It was an easy sell. To be moving on rock felt refreshing and playful, although a couple of moves made me very glad to be on a rope. We topped out feeling smug, and continued to sniff out animal trails until we settled on a campsite on the western shore of the lake, and finally let ourselves acknowledge our fatigue. It had been a big day.
The next morning, we set off full of nerves and excitement and rejoiced at the excellent rock quality we encountered on the flanks of Coronation.
The Coronation Street theme song was hummed and we debated who we would most like to encounter up there – I thought Norris, to get the Street’s goss. We dropped our packs at an epic campsite on the western side at around 1500m, taking minimal gear for the climb. We lapped up some excellent slab scrambling in the sunshine, before the terrain steepened up. Cloud rolled in, obscuring our views, and I sheepishly asked if we could please use the rope now.
As I sat with Scott at a belay, the clouds parted and I felt as if the ground had just dropped away below. Gulp. We climbed on, and made the summit in limited visibility. After downclimbing and abseiling back to our gear, we couldn’t bring ourselves to leave such a rad spot, so we set up camp and resolved to get a super early start for our unknown ridge traverse the next day. As we set up tents the cloud burned off to a brilliant evening, and I wondered if I had ever camped anywhere so wonderful as our ‘Coro Lounge.’ There was plenty of lounging to be had, feasting our eyes on Fiordland in all of its glory.
There is nothing like a pre-dawn start to raise the stoke level, and we were granted a syrupy sweet sunrise glow in which to look back at Coronation and revel in our achievement. We had identified two notches in the ridge that could cause us trouble, and we reached the first as the full light of day arrived to aid our journey. We pitched a steep grassy/rocky slope out of the notch, and I found myself wondering why I had to fall in love with such a precipitous corner of the world. Back on easy terrain, I regained my composure, while looking ahead with trepidation. The sight of the second notch was ominous. A closer inspection did not do much to console me. While the climbing did not look difficult, it was terribly exposed and again a mix of rock and tussock. We weighed up our meagre length of rope against the length of climbing, and realised it wasn’t going to go. Various plan B’s were debated, and as a consensus began to emerge that it would be safest to retrace our route and attempt to get to Irene via the tops from Te Au saddle, we shot an Inreach message out with our change of plan. We received a weather forecast in return, advising us that this would be our last fine day. Well, the party was over.
We returned to Hidden Lake and pitched camp, planning to walk out in the rain via Te Au Saddle, Forster Burn and Mackenzie Burn. The following morning however we found Sean in a sorry state, with severe abdominal pain. All of our conversations about PLB etiquette came back to haunt us, as we sat debating courses of action. Inreach communication with Healthline convinced us we should get him out of there, so we called for a heli and as the medics bundled Sean away, the rest of us made small talk with pilot Hannibal, who assured us the rain wasn’t going to arrive until evening. Ten minutes after he left, it began to rain.
Thus, with a delayed start, and now as three, we set off into the damp and cold. We found Takahe poo (outside the protected area!) and an enjoyable tops route around to the south of the Forster Burn. The weather was fairly rubbish, and we were pretty fatigued by this stage. Lunch was a grim affair of shovelling calories down throats while shivering and staring into the middle distance. Eventually we descended to Te Au hut and happily lit the fire and scavenged Mi Goreng from the hut food bin. Hut life is just so cosy and pleasant. All that was left was to walk our trapline out to the boat the following day. It poured down all day, but the boat was stocked with beer and chips and boy were we glad to get into them.
Reunited with Sean in Te Anau, we were relieved to find him feeling better, and even happier to find him cooking us burgers! We filled him in on the last leg, and reflected upon what a special trip we had undertaken. We may not have fulfilled our hopeful plan, but we had spent six days in pretty remote country, almost all off-track, we had found some fun climbing and some stunning campsites, sat around campfires most nights, swam in tarns and streams, and been witness to indescribable wilderness splendour. Months later, I look back on this trip and break into an irrepressible grin.
Viva la Scrog Life.