This post was intended to be a trip report on the Lathrop Saddle/Zit Saddle circuit on the west coast of the south island. That's not the case but we had a lot of fun and ticked off a few firsts for the memoirs. The trip started late on Friday night as we left work with a car full of gear and drove over to the coast. Arthurs Pass was blanketed in snow on our way through and by the time we parked up at the start of the Styx Track temperatures were below zero. What would have been a relatively peaceful sleep in the car was interrupted about 1am when some enthusiastic locals arrived for some four wheel driving and light refreshments. Alas, I wasn't feeling on top of the world as we set out at first light the next morning across the frozen muddy fields before the track proper.
Having walked out of the Styx only a few months earlier, we were well familiar with the first four hours of the terrain into Grassy Flat Hut. The ice covered rocks and frigid river made for a more technical walk than our previous experience but we were feeling good upon reaching the hut for some lunch with the sun finally warming the valley a little. With the climb up to Browning Biv still ahead of us we only stopped for five minutes before finding the turn off and starting up towards the saddle. The path is great all the way to the river and then things get harder very quickly. A rock scramble ensues for the better part of an hour until the track veers away from the water and up, up, up. Think nature's stair master meets low level rock climbing and you'll be questioning having left the beautifully flat Styx Valley in the first place. After 45 minutes of sucking air and convincing myself I was almost there, I was greeted by a home made sign at the side of the track. "Browning Biv. If you're just about buggered, you're just about there."
The view was worth the climb as we stopped for a quick drink at the tiny Biv and surveyed the river now some distance below us. So far our times were well within what we had read on other trip reports and we thought we had plenty of time to pop over the saddle and down to Top Crawford Hut on the other side based on other people's times. Unfortunately that was not to be the case as we would find out a few hours later. It was another hard slog up the spur through a reasonably overgrown but easy to follow track that took a straight line to the saddle itself. We didn't hit snow until almost 1500m and it wasn't until we were well on the saddle that we needed to pull out crampons and axes to keep moving. We had been another hour and a half at this point and the chances of making it down the other side before dark were becoming increasingly slim. As we dropped over the south side of the saddle we found that the snow on this side was sitting a lot lower down the slope and created some steep, slippery slopes to negotiate before hitting the bush again.
The route heads right from here with sparsely placed poles (a bit of a contrast from the Styx side which is really well marked) and we sidled around and down the slope rather carefully on the frozen snow. From here we front pointed straight down for three pole lengths as the sun started disappearing behind the mountains. We could see the hut down on the flat but the track winds down and through some bluffy terrain which was slow going in the snow. By the time it was totally dark we could no longer see any markers but had dropped into the safety of the bush line. I hadn't really appreciated the lack of lumens my head torch provided until I was trying to navigate down this section of the route. We were both a bit reluctant to keep moving as it was clear that our overall goal of making it to Zit Saddle and back to the car in only 48 hours was unrealistic with so much snow so we found a flat spot to camp instead.
We didn't have a tent for the trip so we had brought along a bothy bag in case we needed some emergency shelter. The night was clear so we ended up sleeping on the bag and the rest of our gear and packs rather than inside it but it was nice to know if we got cold we could throw it over ourselves again. After melting some ice and snow for dinner we settled in for a romantic night sleeping under the stars in between the tussock. I had a new appreciation for how warm my Fairydown 20 below sleeping bag was after sleeping soundly for 10 hours only to wake and find every piece of gear frozen solid - including the outside of our sleeping bags. Having realised that putting frozen boots on is near on impossible we set about defrosting them over the open flame of our cooker - probably voiding the warranty and doing permanent damage at the same time.
We had decided the previous night that in the interest of not worrying my Mum it would be best to turn around rather than keep going and be a day overdue at the other end. Trying to do a four day tramp in three days was always going to be 50/50 so we weren't entirely surprised to be trekking back up to Lathrop Saddle that morning. Conveniently our steps had frozen overnight creating a perfect staircase back to the tarns and over the other side. With nothing but time for a change we made a leisurely journey back past Browning Biv and down to Grassy Flat Hut where we demolished most of the food we hadn't gotten around to eating the previous day.
With no one but us in the hut for the night we made the most of the varied reading material and fire before turning in for our first sleep on an actual mattress in three nights. The walk out the next morning was, as always, motivated by thoughts of a hot meal back in Hokitika. But first we had to slip and slide our way back down the river and all of the frozen rocks along it. If you're looking for 101 ways to break an ankle - head this way in winter and have fun. Back at the car it was disappointing to know we'd have to be back with more time to complete the whole circuit but it was nice to have a cheeky night spent out in the open just to test the comfort ratings on those sleeping bags for a change. If you're thinking of heading this way in winter you'll need to be confident with your ice axe and crampons and give yourself extra time to get over the saddles through the snow. The route is well marked to Lathrop Saddle (and then not so well from there on) but expect a certain degree of bush bashing along the way. We were 10-11 hours to where we camped and would probably recommend 13 hours from start to finish if you're trying to do this in one day in winter.
Car park to Grassy Flat Hut: 4 hours
Grassy Flat to Browning Range Biv: 1 hour 45 mins
Browning Biv to Lathrop Saddle: 1 hour 30 mins
Crossing Lathrop Saddle: 30 mins
Daylight in winter: 9-10 hours
With our first weekend off together, there were high expectations not to waste the opportunity on insignificant activities like trying to find a house. We were already heading to Hanmer to meet some friends so after mountain biking the morning away we packed the car up and set out over Jack's Pass to take on Fowler's Pass. By take on, I mean meander at a leisurely pace over a gradual climb with great weather and way too much chocolate. Leave your car just off Tophouse Road at Fowler's Hut and begin the easy trek up to the top of the pass. It's all uphill to start with but the rest of the walk is relatively flat and easy going.
We hit snow relatively early but the track was clear enough to walk without getting cold feet as we wound our way steadily up to the top of the pass. It was my first tramp in soft shell pants - as opposed to the old thermal leggings and thin hiking pants combination - and I was pretty impressed with how much more comfortable they are. I wouldn't recommend them in the height of summer but they dried quickly after river crossings and kept my legs warm through the colder parts of the walk. We took around 90 minutes to reach the highest point of the pass between Mt Stanley (1852m) in the north and Mt Clara (1945m) in the south. The going is much steeper on this side but the mountain bike tracks weaving through the tussock indicate that you could still ride it if you were that way inclined.
A poled route leads you down into the valley and through a series of small river crossings. None were above knee height and the river was slow at the time but I haven't been through here following a lot of rain. As the valley opens up you catch your first glimpse of the historic Stanley Vale Hut down on the flats. You are still at least half an hour from the hut at this stage but the hills are well and truly over and the walk is pleasantly scenic on a clear day. We have visited the hut several times so we turned north again and hugged the lower slopes of Mt Laura as we made for Lake Guyon. There is a track here still although the topo map shows only the one leaving from Stanley Vale - the two eventually meet just before the lake.
Lake Guyon Hut sits in a little clearing halfway up the north-east side of the lake and boasts 4 bunks, an awesome fire and a long drop with a stunning view of the lake. If you are heading in on the weekend there is a high chance the hut will be in use as it is frequented by trampers, hunters and cyclists on the St James cycle trail. A back up tent would be a good call. We arrived just as it was getting dark - a solid four hours from the car, and set to a Thai Green Curry that could be classified as a weapon of mass destruction. The team at Back Country Cuisine obviously have mouths made of steel as we were unable to finish the delicious yet sweat inducing meal despite pouring a whole packet of mashed potato into the mix. Approach with caution.
The frost on the ground in the morning confirmed our theory that it had gotten well below freezing during the night. Thankfully our sleeping bags and the fire stood up to the test well and we slept quite comfortably. Not being the type to stick around indoors on a nice day, we packed up camp, downed some porridge and were sweeping out the hut a little after 9 in the morning. We retraced our steps a little slower as there were some unfortunate blisters from the previous day. It was decided that the socks should be blamed and not the fact that we hadn't done any serious walking for two months. Even so we were almost the same time back out to Tophouse road as we took the hot line straight up to the top of the pass and strode out down the other side. Conveniently the car (and mountain bikes) were all still there waiting for us.
Total time: 8-10 hours return
Total Distance: Approx 32km
Accessibility: Drive from Christchurch (2hrs) or Hanmer Springs (30 minutes) direct to the start of the track.
In October 2012 we took on the rather daunting (at least it felt that way at the time) task of walking part of the St James cycle trail from the Edwards River to Lake Guyon via the Stanley River and returning along the west face of Mt Maria. This incredibly picturesque track is located a short drive north from Hanmer Springs over Jacks Pass. We arrived just as night was falling and left our car at the locked gate a couple of kilometres past the turn off to the ski field. With head torches in place and no idea how long it would take to get to our tent site for the night, we donned packs and got moving.
The four wheel drive track was dry and easy to walk on as we made our way steadily up the Edwards River. Our destination was Cow Stream, a small river around 10km up the valley which was rumoured to have some impressive hot springs. Scotties, a small 4 bunk hut, lies less than 30 minutes further in, under the shadow of Mt Douglas. We were gambling on the pools being worth a night in our tiny, two man tent and we weren't disappointed. When we reached the river we found two concreted in pools, bubbling with hot water, below a grassy plateau perfect for the tent. A few tea light candles around the main pool created some ambiance and we settled in to soak our legs after a solid evening stroll.
The next day dawned warm and clear along with a million sand flies ready for their breakfast. We decamped at the speed of sound and were marching down to the river at quite a reasonable hour. We stopped at Scotties only to refill our water bottles and made our way gingerly across the river before Charlie's Hill. The water was quite swift and my new trekking poles got their first real work out standing up to the knee-high torrent. From here we trudged up and over Charlie's saddle and onto the Racecourse. This wide, swampy plain looks like a walk in the park but takes a good hour to cross. From here we dropped down onto the single track which follows the Stanley River all the way to Lookout Hill. We lost the track for some time around here and simply followed the river until we finally sited Stanley Vale Hut. This two bedroom, historic, abode is an awesome place to stay with beautiful views and plenty of room for cooking and drying clothes. Unfortunately we hadn't made it there first, meaning a short stop for food was all we could afford before pushing on again.
We were counting on making it to Lake Guyon and staying in the DOC hut instead but a dozen hunters, their trucks and dogs had the place fairly overrun. Tired and a little disappointed with another night in the tent we set up camp a little further around the lake after a solid 10 hours on our feet. With the rain setting in we cooked a quick dinner of mystery foiled delights from the local Indian store (we've never tried this again!) before drifting off to sleep beside the water's edge. It must have rained heavily all night because when we woke in the morning the lake level had risen and the track had turned into a fast flowing stream in most places. The soaking tent was strapped to the back of Jeremy's pack and we made light work of a bowl of porridge before leaving camp. As soon as we started walking we began to appreciate the amount of water that was pouring off the hills. Streams ran everywhere across the track and mini waterfalls had appeared in the middle of paddocks as we passed. We skirted around the top of the lake and made our way west again to meet the Waiau River in all of its flooded glory.
The rain continued to saturate us as we turned south and headed along the river bank towards Pool Hut, our intended destination for the night. Water engulfed the track and in places the river was so close to washing over it I could have been swept down stream with a badly placed foot step. We made good time all the way to Little Lake where we found some discrepancies between the track and our map. With the new trail just recently built, the route to the bridge is now somewhat changed to the old one on the map. Preferring to rely on my own navigation skills we took off cross country and cut a path through The Downs until we found the new bridge location just around the corner from where it was on our map (2010 edition). However, if your route finding skills are a little basic I would recommend just following the new track around and back down to the river. Especially if your map is pre-2011 as things are not quite as they seem - including the exact location of the bridge.
After crossing over the swollen river we had a steep climb up Saddle Spur before making our way back down onto the flats. The track was in really good condition but the constant stream crossings became more and more nerve racking as we closed the gap between us and Pool Hut. By the time we reached Dumpy Stream the first thunder clap reverberated around the surrounding mountains. Heads down, we powered as fast as we could in the direction of the hut. The last stream crossing was the worst with both of us using the poles and each other to wade through the raging waters. When we reached Pool Hut the storm was in full force and we dove gratefully through the door into the dry interior. DOC had beaten us to the fire and removed it leaving in its place a dirty mink blanket from the Warehouse that was hanging in the rafters. Usually I wouldn't touch such an item with a stick but after weighing up my options I decided hypothermia was scarier than the manky dolphin blanket. It added some cosy insulation to my sleeping bag as we snuggled into some warm clothes and took a much needed nap.
It had taken around 7 hours to reach Pool Hut from Lake Guyon and we slept pretty well that night. The morning brought the added element of a dumping of snow from overnight but we were determined to be back in Christchurch at a reasonable hour regardless. Breakfast consisted of several hot drinks as we drew courage from our coffee to face the freezing outside temperatures. We left bright and early and made our way down past Old Bridge Hut of the no walls historic hut persuasion. Over McArthur Bridge we made our way back to Scotties and the familiar Edwards River. It took a lot longer finding a safe place to cross but meandered our way back up stream towards the waiting car. The walk out was a long one, especially when you hit the rise where Peter's Valley Track splits in two directions and have to trudge up hill for half an hour. We kept up a steady pace and finally sited the car late afternoon.
While it was mostly easy tramping the whole four days, the distances we covered would only be enjoyed with a good level of fitness. To find the hot pools you need to follow the track until you hit Cow Stream where you turn left and head up the hill until you run out of flat land. The pools are a short walk down from here but there are plenty of tracks to follow once you find the right area.
After being pushed west of Arthur's Pass due to bad weather on the other side of the divide, I was looking for a good overnighter before heading back to Christchurch at the end of a week of tramping in the area. I had initially planned on spending the week by myself but Instagram intervened and I ended up driving out towards Lake Brunner with a girl I had just met online and who my husband was convinced was probably going to be a 40 year old man. One of the hardest things I've found in the last few years is finding like minded women who genuinely enjoy the outdoors (and can carry a pack), so meeting up with Leila was a bit of a novelty after spending most of my tramping trips with a bunch of rowdy guys!
We met in Arthurs Pass mid morning and were at the start of the track before lunchtime. There is plenty of parking and public toilets at the end of Cashmere Bay Road in Te Kinga and we left the car here amongst a few camper vans and a growing swarm of sand flies. The track heads more or less straight up the mountain and once we made it passed the more well worn portion leading to the lookout things got decidedly more interesting. I had read a story the night before about a couple getting lost on the descent from the summit after they started to lose light and at the time had been a bit bemused at how they managed this. I think we lost the track three or four times as we were diverted around fallen trees through dense west coast bush and I began to feel a little more sympathetic towards their situation. The track is essentially well marked but it pays to take your time locating it again when you hit these obstacles and maybe don't get distracted talking!
The climb is just over 1000m of elevation in a reasonably short distance making the incline a whole lot of type two fun. As a day walk with a light pack this wouldn't present too much of a problem for most people but with tents and all of our other camping gear my legs were definitely feeling it after an hour. DOC suggests four hours to the summit and this is a pretty fair estimate especially if you're staying the night or know you'll need to take breaks on the way up. With no water at the top, we were hoping that we would find some on the way otherwise the old freeze dried cuisine wasn't going to go down too well. Luckily the track did eventually pass close to Jays Creek about 2/3 of the way up (see map below) and we were able to fill up everything we had before continuing on.
Once at 1196m the summit itself is still a good distance away and facing a pretty bracing wind we decided to turn back to find a flattish sheltered spot to pitch the tents. As it turned out this was probably the biggest challenge of the day - after I turned the wrong way trying to get to the Lake in the first place that is. I had a reasonably small one man tent but Leila's was a good deal bigger so some serious scouting had to be undertaken to find the all important level sleeping platform without a tonne of rocks scattered through it. We eventually located two passable (my door opened straight into a substantial flax bush) spots and set up camp for the night.
Apparently the 30th of August is still very much winter and once the sun was gone even the freeze dried stuff was looking super appealing in all its hand warming glory. Despite being not so subtly stalked by a persistent Weka all evening it was hard not to enjoy the view of lights reflecting on the dark lake and the mountains surrounding us on all sides. On a totally clear night this would be a pretty great spot for star gazing and spotting "the pot" (that's a kiwi astrological term). Unfortunately there wasn't much of a sunrise which is probably for the best since I'd brought three spare batteries for my camera and forgotten my memory card. The trip back down to the car wasn't a lot quicker than the climb up since the track is reasonably steep the whole way so you can't get much of a stride on until near the end.
Total time: 6.5 hours return
Tent sites: questionable
New Instagram friends that weren't serial killers: One (well so far so good)
Not all trips need to be grueling expeditions through dense bush or up steep mountains. Sometimes it's nice to just load your pack up with a tonne of delicious food and head to a great little hut for the night with some mates. Manuka Hut is the perfect easy over-nighter with a very achievable 5km walk from the road end with fantastic views all the way. Head in via Hakatere Heron Road from Ashburton Gorge Road and follow the sign to the start of the track. If you have a grunty 4WD you might make it along the farm track to the actual track car park but we were deterred by a couple of feet of mud and left our vehicles at the gate. The track crosses farmland below Lake Emily before sidling around the base of Emily Hill. Here we found a good amount of snow still covering the hill side which made for a slippery time for some of us.
From here follow the poled route down to the old 4WD track and around the corner to the hut. Although this makes up part of the Te Araroa Trail, the hut book showed not many people had been through that way over the winter months. The hut itself is a charming 6 bunk basic with a fire to one side and plenty of seating. The only thing it was lacking when we arrived was anything to actually burn. Having brought in all manner of wood cutting tools, we spent the afternoon scavenging dead trees and cutting down a few new ones to add to the hut's supplies.
A quick scramble up onto the ridge immediately behind the hut offers a great vantage point to look across at the ridge to Mt Taylor and all the way back towards the Two Thumb Range on the far side of the Rangitata River. This would be an awesome spot to bring kids into or as an introduction to tramping for beginners. Go next level like one of our crew and carry your own kindling wood in for exceptionally good fire starting.
Time: 1.5 hours each way
Points for replacing the fire wood you burn
*An alternative route can be taken on foot or by bike up the Stour River Track. A car park can be found just over the bridge, 2km further on from the turn off to Woolshed Creek/Mt Somers.
As part of the Torlesse Range, Castle Hill Peak offers views all the way from the Canterbury Plains to Porters Ski Field and Castle Hill Village. Just over an hour west of Christchurch along State Highway 73, Porters Pass marks the start of a relatively steep but enjoyable walk. In summer this is a non technical but challenging walk however in winter an ice axe and crampons are likely to be needed nearer the summit. There is a small gravel area to leave your car at when you reach the pass and the path begins as an indistinct route marked only by the occasional rock cairn. If you cannot locate the rock cairns, the ridge is still easily navigable as you head towards the obvious high point of Foggy Peak.
Most of the height of this climb is gained in the journey from Porters Pass at 1000m to 1733m when you reach Foggy Peak. There is a lot of loose rock and deeper gravel once you get above the tussock layer which is slow on the way up but pretty fun coming back down. We set a leisurely pace as I was still recovering from the Spring Challenge a week earlier and my calf muscles weren't so keen on the incline initially. We reached Foggy Peak in a comfortable 1 hour 30 minutes.
The trip from here is much easier on the legs and lungs as the ridge drops down to a wide saddle at 1600m where a convenient directional arrow fashioned out of large rocks indicates the correct way to traverse. A few patches of snow dusted the tops as we made our way north east towards the summit. The ridge peaks early at 1842m before another drop down precedes the real deal. The wind was beginning to pick up when we finally hit proper snow necessitating the donning of jackets and gloves before the final ascent. Two unknown persons had been about half an hour ahead of us since we left the road and we were looking forward to following their steps all the way to the top. Alas, two drunken polar bears couldn't have made more of a mess of the slope so we headed out onto clean snow and kicked our own path towards the trig. The ridge is not too narrow at this point and we made our way up the last 200m without any trouble.
We were standing on the summit exactly 3 hours after leaving the car and just in time to greet two young guys heading back down the way we had just come. I kept the polar bear comment to myself and instead involved myself in a friendly conversation about weather, snow and other typical summit small talk. We found a clear patch of rocks to settle in for some fine Pak N Save cuisine and savoured our surroundings for a bit. The view from the top towards Mt Torlesse was interrupted only by patches of low lying cloud and we could see out to Lake Lyndon and Mt Enys behind us. At 1998m this was the highest mountain I had climbed to date and if I jumped high enough I could legitimately say I had been to 2000m finally - well almost. We demolished our bagels in a couple of minutes and were back on our way as the cold started to seep in through my soft shell.
The return trip was fast and when we hit Foggy Peak again it was all down hill. The shingle and rock along the ridge isn't exactly a scree slope but it was definitely manageable to run and slide down large sections rather than trying to negotiate the steep terrain at a walking pace. The whole walk took only 5 hours and 10 minutes with a few stops along the way. The overcast weather held nicely all day with only occasional periods of gusty wind while we were near the top. This is a very achievable climb if you have a relatively good level of fitness and the snow will be all but gone by the end of October if you don't enjoy kicking steps on the edge of a ridge.
From here the track is above the bushline for a while giving stunning views in all directions before dropping down towards the intersection with the Whare route. The Whare route leads down to the popular, and much larger, Pinchgut Hut. I had been following plenty of footsteps in the snow up until this point which abruptly stopped when I turned west onto Bob’s Camp route. The route itself is well marked and easy to follow, with just the odd bit of windfall when I went through. The route drops down towards a small saddle before climbing gently up towards an area of open tops just above the biv site.
The biv itself is located about 10 minutes from here in beech forest near a small stream. The hut is a cosy two-bunk affair that used to be located in Upper Salmon Creek before being relocated to its current site. There is a good camping area at the Biv so don’t be put off by the small size if you’re happy to tent it up. Water is available from the nearby stream (this may run dry at the height of summer). There is also a large outdoor fireplace that appears to get regular use (although I couldn’t find an axe when I visited). One of the great things about this area is that it is dog friendly so I was joined by my furry friend for the trip.
Time: 2h 45m - 5 h one-way depending on your fitness
Distance: Just under 10km with about 1000m ascent into the biv.
The Crow Valley is the perfect weekend excursion into Arthur's Pass for those with limited time on their hands but wanting epic views and an awesome hut to spend the night. At only 4 hours walk from the road at Klondyke Corner, the 10 bunk hut is well situated high up the valley below Mt Rolleston at the end of an easy to follow route directly up the river. Half of our group had the luxury of a three day weekend and headed in on the Friday with more food than they would need for a week. The rest of us were parked on the Arthur's side of the river at a friendly 11am after having a few false starts leaving home that morning (the bacon was definitely worth gong back for). The sun was already out in full force as we began to pick our way up the main river bed towards the junction with the Crow Valley. There's enough water along the whole track that you can get away with a cup over a water bottle all the way to the hut.
If you're heading in on a properly hot day then there are a few spots that would be perfect for a swim in both the Waimak and the Crow if you're brave enough. As we turned north we came across the track hugging the bottom of the spur and made our way around and through the forest. From here the track disappears in places but follow your nose and you'll find a few well placed rock cairns to help you navigate up the valley. We had plenty of time up our sleeves so it was a leisurely wander up until we hit snow and the last part of the track to the hut. This is the only section that gets a little bit steep and slippery in places but it's still pretty easy going. A slip just below the hut didn't bother me too much on the way in but a few stray boulders had me running on the return trip out the next day. This would be a great place not to hang around for too long.
While we had been walking in, the first half of our group had spent the day up the top of the valley practicing basic snow skills in the basin below Rome Ridge. This is where the Avalanche Peak route drops down and joins the Crow Valley from a scree slope just a little further to the north. This is an expert route but one I'd love to come back and have a go at with a bit more gear or less snow in summer. Our two groups converged on the hut late in the afternoon where a smorgasbord of culinary delights were presented as the challenge for the weekend was cooking gourmet hut food. Carrying in the non-stick fry pan turned out to be rather futile when we realised it was no longer very non-stick. Alas the pancakes were a huge fail but the sushi, tuna and wraps were bloody good.
It was a full night with two other groups in the hut so a couple of the boys opted to sleep on the well appointed deck while the rest of us squeezed in on the bunks. Not that the sleeping conditions mattered in the end as a chorus of snoring kept most of us awake half the night and had me questioning why I choose to go away with boys at all.
The trip back out to Klondyke Corner was pretty quick as much of the snow from the previous days had managed to melt leaving the track relatively clear the whole way. This is an easy 3-4 hours depending on how much time you want to dedicate to relaxing next to the river along the way. Once back at the car we made a slight detour via the Bealey Pub and later the Sheffield Pie Shop before heading back to Christchurch and real life again.
*I repeated this trip with a group of girls from work a year later and we had the unfortunate (or fortunate depending on how you look at it) experience of being the sixth group to turn up to a very over full hut on a warm weekend in March. We ended up pitching a two man tent with a fly strung up beside it for seven of us to fit underneath. While we had an awesome night and made most of the hut inhabitants fairly jealous with our elaborate dinner set up, it was a good reminder to always be prepared with alternative means of shelter in easy to reach huts! We also found crossing the Waimak early after leaving the cars was reasonably challenging for the shorter members of the group on the way in as the river was flowing higher than our previous trip. I'd recommend linking up for the first crossing until you get a feel for the depth and speed which is quite deceptive and changes significantly in only a matter of hours.
Most tramping trips don't begin with handing over your car keys to a complete stranger you just found wandering out of the bush in his undies. Thankfully Phil turned out to be a stand up guy and drove our car back to the other end of the track for us - also conveniently saving him a 12km mountain bike back to his own vehicle. The Cass Saddle to Lagoon Saddle track is an enjoyable and highly accessible 2-3 day walk in the Craigieburn and Black Ranges. The only issue being the considerable distance between the two track ends. We had driven to the Bealey Hut end beside the Arthur's Pass Wilderness Lodge and left Jeremy's single speed bike in the trees so he could retrieve the car the following day. Unfortunately, we were running pretty late leaving Christchurch after our puppy sitter fell through and we had left it to the last minute to purchase hut tickets. This put us at the Cass river end a little after 2pm negotiating a car swap and ready to hit the trail.
The first few kilometres are easy going along a 4wd track and then up the open river bed. Although there is a well worn path in places it is unnecessary to stick to it until after you pass the two major slips on the true right of the river. Large orange arrows direct you to where the track leaves the river in favour of the much cooler forest. A well maintained path allows for easy walking all the way to the Cass Saddle Hut. DOC suggests 4 hours for this leg of the journey but we arrived comfortably in 2.5. The hut itself is a cozy 3 bunker with a generous fire and separate receiving room for the loud sleepers.
From here we made our way out onto the open tussock of the saddle and our highest point for the day. In the colder months the area is an avalanche zone but there was nothing but rock and shingle above us as we ploughed along the track. Once across the saddle, you can look down at the Hamilton Hut away in the distance and smile because it's still two hours away. It could be worse though, and the four tourists we encountered heading in the opposite direction on our descent proved as much. The first two looked a little worse for wear and the second pair were barely moving up the slope. We gave them a friendly hello as we barrelled back down onto the flat of the valley. Once again we found ourselves following the river and before long it opened up to see the Hamilton sitting on a little rise in an open grassy field.
The 20 bunk hut has a beautiful big stone fireplace in the centre and generous living and cooking areas. We were delighted to find some evening reading material by way of a few issues of Wilderness magazine and settled in to watch the sun drop very slowly in the sky. Dinner consisted of noodles and Outdoor Gourmet Company Wild Mushroom and Lamb Risotto (I highly recommend). With no one else in the hut we had a tranquil sleep and awoke around 8am ready for the stroll out to the road end. Not being in any sort of hurry we took our time over breakfast and were just shouldering our pleasantly light packs before 9.30am.
From the hut, the track winds a little further downstream and then across a wire bridge. We dropped our packs here and wandered up to Mirror Tarn, a 10 minute side trip that circles a small green pond - this may look better in the photo than it did in real life. The trip on to West Harper Hut took exactly 2 hours and we were glad for the mattresses back at the Hamilton once we peeked inside. The fire would be fantastic in winter but the old canvas bunks have definitely seen better days. After taking on some more fuel we kept trekking towards the Lagoon Saddle Shelter with an eye on the weather. Metservice had promised rain all weekend and we were waiting for it to eventuate.
With the exception of a German tourist walking the Te Araroa Trail, we were all alone wandering back towards the Bealey. It was another 2 hours to the Shelter, a tidy one bunk A-frame, and a further 1 hour 50 minutes to the track end. The rain caught us just as we disappeared back into the bush down the final spur. Thankfully our car was in fact waiting for us with keys included and we didn't have to track Phil down or try to walk back to Christchurch.
Cass Road End to Hamilton Hut - 5 hours
Hamilton Hut to Bealey Hut - 5 hours 50 minutes
Hamilton Hut is serviced and requires 3 standard hut tickets or 1 serviced hut ticket per person.
You know you're not off to the best start when you've already hit the snooze button three times on a Sunday morning. We had great intentions to climb Mt Taylor until we weren't on the road from Christchurch until 7.30am. A hasty flick through google maps had us changing our plans to nearby Mt Harper which we didn't know much about but looked pretty achievable. Slightly further up the Rangitata River towards Lake Clearwater and about 2 hours south west of Christchurch we decided that Harper in fact didn't have enough snow on it to make for much fun. Conveniently, this put us just up the road from Mt Potts which my husband assured me would be a great alternative.
Mt Potts is a beautiful 2184m peak overlooking a valley so stunning it was the setting for Edoras in the second Lord of the Rings installment. The old, disused ski field road afforded us a leisurely path up to 1200m where we traded running shoes for our new mountaineering boots which were to be suitably broken in. This took us around 1 hour 30 mins with a few stops to remove layers etc before we turned to the more serious gradient towering above us. At this point I must reinforce that we had no way of knowing we had picked a snow slope that led steeply direct to the plateau between point 2152 and the summit itself. When we turned north east to begin our ascent I had in my mind that the first 500m would give way to some sort of leveling out where we could catch our breath before tackling the top third of the mountain. In reality we dragged ourselves up through a mix of knee deep powder and ice for the next 4.5 hours.
To add insult to incredibly tired legs we kept hitting large patches of ice which warranted putting crampons on after the first few hundred metres. This was actually a bit of a blessing as my cramponing skills leave a little to be desired. I've since found that I can in fact roll my ankle into an uncomfortable but effective position to have all 10 points biting into the ice. It was going on 4pm when we made one last exhausted push to the top of the ridge and sited the trig off to our left. We gave ourselves about 5 minutes to take some photos as a bitterly cold wind gusted across the tops and then we were on our way. Both of us had in mind a 2 hour trip back down to the ski field access road - the reality was somewhat faster. Thanks to my new found crampon confidence and the sand dune like nature of the slope, we more or less ran back down in 50 minutes. The terrain certainly wasn't technical but the snow was covered in some pretty thick ice towards the top so it was hard work zig zagging the last couple of hundred metres without slipping.
With the luxury of plenty of light left we made our way slowly back to the car while taking lots of photos of the impressive ranges across the river and further inland. This is a pretty magic part of the country and incredibly accessible for those who prefer the comfort of their car to punishing their bodies in search of a summit view.
Total time: 7 hours 45 minutes
Ascent: 5 hours 40 minutes
Access: From Christchurch drive south to Rakaia on SH1, turn at the Mobil and again at the South Rakaia Hotel to gain Thompson's Track. Head inland to Mt Somers Village and onward to Lake Clearwater. Continue on until you cross a bridge to the Mt Potts side of the river and on to the ski field access road opposite Mt Sunday.
Grade: High level of fitness required. Ice axe and crampons definitely needed during winter months but a non-technical climb overall.
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