If you're driving towards Arthur's Pass from the wide open expanse of the Canterbury Plains, chances are you've spent some time staring at the beautiful ridge line of mountains which mark the border between civilisation and rugged wilderness areas. The Torlesse Range features some great tramping mountains which are very climbable year round and easily accessible from the main road as it heads up to Porters Pass. While Castle Hill Peak is the highest summit in the range at 1998m, Mt Torlesse which lies a little further to the north east, is just as imposing at 1961m. You can link these up with a traverse of Foggy Peak, Castle Hill Peak, The Gap, Red Peak and then onto Torlesse or if you're after a shorter day out you can summit either of the peaks easily in a few hours.
Having already been to two of the above summits we decided to head up the Kowai River and climb Torlesse from the obvious spur to the south. We left Christchurch at around 6am to make sure we were walking just as the sun was coming up. Most trip reports had put the return journey at 8-9 hours and being August we wanted to make the most of the daylight in case we took any longer than that. A car park just off State Highway 73 has plenty of room to leave your car and the track starts just over the gate along a 4WD track. The track crosses private land to begin with and permission must be gained from Brooksdale Station (see details below) before passing through this way. The hut at the top of the valley also needs to be booked through the station and is a tidy 6 bunk situation with a fire and plenty of room to stretch out after the albeit short walk in from the road.
The track in from the road is indistinct in places but the terrain is easy to negotiate and you'll soon find yourself stumbling across it again if you stray from the main path. The journey up the river bed takes between one and one and a half hours and we brought running shoes for this first section knowing we would need heavier boots for our crampons later on. At the hut we switched out our footwear and had a chat to a couple of guys who had spent the night there. They had been up as far as the snow line the previous day but the conditions were a bit icy and they decided to stick to the lower slopes for the day. A track winds its way down to the stream behind the hut where the remnants of the University research project for which the hut was originally built are evident in the form of a concrete dam like structure.
We crossed here and followed a handful of equally worn paths in the general direction of the base of the spur. Having no idea if we would see water again (we didn't) we filled our bottles at the last point beside the stream before beginning the ascent up towards the ridge. A reasonably well worn track makes it easy to pick your way up through the scrub once you leave the flat. The point at which this track actually starts is more difficult to find so head for the middle of the spur and just start climbing, you'll find yourself on it without even seeing it to begin with. From here it's more than 1100m of ascent to the summit but the angle of the ridge is pretty kind to be fair. We gained height steadily without having to take many breaks before hitting the snowline at around 1300m. From here the snow was icy enough we had to use crampons almost straight away.
If you're not confident in your ability to self arrest then the next section is dangerous and shouldn't be attempted with snow on it. In summer the ridge is completely exposed and won't pose any issues for anyone with a good level of fitness so maybe wait until it gets warmer before heading up here. If you have the right gear then the rest of the route is straight forward and non-technical. This would be a good place to work on your crampon technique if you're just starting out and looking to build some confidence walking on slopes and kicking steps.
In the end we took 5 hours exactly from the time we left the car to standing on the summit (including breaks). This would be a little faster in summer if you weren't messing around with putting crampons on but in places the snow was probably easier to walk on than the scree would be. It was reasonably cold at the top so we didn't hang around long before dropping back down out of the wind for a late lunch and some blister maintenance. I was breaking in some new boots which were super comfortable for the first 4.5 hours before they suddenly turned on me and started to eat away at my right heel. We had also run out of water at this point so I was pretty happy to skip down the spur as quickly as possible and back to the stream and my lovely worn in trail shoes.
The descent was fast with the track making our lives easy through the scrub on the lower slopes and we made it back to the hut less than two hours after leaving the top. A swarm of sand flies which hadn't been there on our first visit that morning had appeared out of nowhere and dissuaded us from taking another break here. Be warned if you do decide to linger, an over confident Kea is creeping on the place waiting for some unsuspecting tramper to leave it something valuable to destroy.
Total round trip: 8hrs 20mins
Brooksdale Station Contact: Stu Gunn 03-318-4748
Pro Tip: 1 litre of water for the climb was not enough on a clear sunny day.
Extra Pro Tip: Beware of the Kea, he looks shady
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