There are a few classic New Zealand trips that have been on the to-do list ever since we started exploring the harder to reach parts of Aotearoa. The Three Passes is a 4-5 day tramp across the beautiful Southern Alps, taking you from the wide open rocky banks of the Waimakariri River all the way to the lush green valleys of the West Coast. The obvious issue is then of course how to get back to where you started. With only four days off work over New Year's and an aversion to hitch hiking after not showering for several days, Dad finally came to the rescue. We would leave our car at Klondyke Corner and meet him three days later at the bottom of Lake Kaniere - all going to plan.
The first part of the plan went out the window when the third member of our party called in sick at 3am the morning of our departure. Having worked right up until New Year's Eve we barely had time to pack our gear, let alone change anything - the three man tent was going to have to do. We made a small detour on the way to Arthur's Pass to pick up another Beacon (since our missing comrade was responsible for this essential piece of kit) and leave a detailed map of where we intended to be and when.
By 12pm we were bumping up the gravel road to the car park at Klondyke Corner with a couple of hitch hikers in tow. They had been into Harman Pass and out via Julia Hut a few days earlier and needed a lift from the main road to their car. Assuring us that we would smash out the first day's walk in no time, we bid them farewell and set off up the river under a burning midday sun. The low river level allowed us to shoot a relatively straight line for the corner just past Anti-Crow Hut and we passed several groups heading out after spending New Year's Eve in the Crow Valley or up at Carrington. If the river level is higher it would pay to make your way to Anti-Crow Hut and follow the track from there to the river where you need to cross below the bluffs. If you cannot find a safe spot to cross here you probably need to wait for the river level to drop as you may get yourself into trouble.
I made a mental note to enjoy the fine weather as the next two days were forecast for rain on both sides of the divide. Our destination for the night was the top of Harman Pass and the Ariel's Tarns so we were happy to make it to Carrington at 3.45pm with plenty of daylight and energy left. This is the obvious stopping point if you're going to take 4 or 5 days to do the trip and the hut is a very accommodating 36 bunks in capacity. After chatting to the only couple there (where was everyone - it's the middle of the holidays?!) and grabbing a bite to eat we set off on the track to the Clough Cable Way. Positioned just below the Taipoiti River, the cable way allows safe passage over the rapids if needed. We were lucky enough to be able to cross easily through the water as I have a thing about heights - and falling from them.
From here we turned up the near branch of the Taipoiti and began the long rock hop up to Harman Pass. The heat was almost claustrophobic in the narrow valley and it was all I could do to be distracted by the near mythological beauty of the place. Stunning waterfalls cascade from the high walls either side of the river and alpine daisies lay nestled in beds of soft green moss or sprout from the sides of boulders. Peter Jackson obviously missed this place when picking film locations, although it's probably for the best that it gets minimal human disruption. As we popped out at the top of the pass, poles marked the way to our campsite to the left, and down into Mary Creek on the right. When we arrived, we found one lone gentleman ensconced in a little rock hotel for the evening and two pristine pools of freezing cold water.
The Ariel's Tarns are a stunning spot to spend an evening and we cooked a surprisingly sumptuous dinner (with actual meat) looking up at Mt Isobel and Whitehorn Pass. At about 6am the next morning the first ominous drops began to hit the tent and spelled the end of our weather window and my ability to take photos. We decamped, donned the heavy duty rainwear, and set off towards the permanent ice of Pass number 2 for the trip. When we actually hit snow, it was soft and slippery so we threw our crampons on to speed up the journey to 1753m. Visibility wasn't ideal but we found our way easily through the chunky scree and over the other side where a track could be found winding down into the valley below. Between gaps in the cloud cover we caught glimpses of the Cronin Glacier beneath Mt Rosamond as we skidded our way down the wet scree.
Although not particularly dangerous, this section of the route may be an uncomfortable introduction if you haven't had to slide down shingle slopes before. A good rule of thumb is to just go with it... unless you're precariously close to a cliff... then get the hell away from the cliff. We were fairly damp by the time we reached the river and as the track had petered out into nothing we began boulder hopping our way along it instead. This was a slippery and energy draining exercise but with the rain still unrelenting we were reluctant to stop for a break. When we rejoined the track just east of Park Morpeth Hut, it felt like a highway. By the time we arrived at our first shelter for the day we were soaked through and well overdue for a coffee. Another sodden tramper had just turned up after coming over Browning Pass and we took a break to swap information about the track in either direction.
It was only 2.30pm so despite the temptation to stay at Park Morpeth we shouldered our wet packs and continued up the Wilberforce to Browning Pass. I'll admit I didn't believe I was looking right at Browning until I had eliminated all other possibilities, it looks more like a mountain than a potential alternative to Arthur's Pass. The wide zigzagging track maintained a generous gradient for the first two thirds of the climb and I was lulled into a sense of disappointment at how easy the going was. The last 200m was a completely different story as the distance we had traveled, the rain and a distinct emptiness in my tummy all contrived to make the final slog much more interesting. The bluffs directly below the top of the pass were steep and difficult to negotiate in the rain as the rock was understandably slippery. I took a lot more time picking a stable route to the top than would have been necessary in the dry. As we finally topped out and caught sight of Lake Browning through the rain and mist I was rejoicing for having brought a massive tent.
We set it up in a hurry and collapsed inside to finally dry out and eat properly for the first time in 7 hours. It hadn't been a particularly long day by tramping standards but we were both reasonably sore and ready to smash some calories that night. The rain never stopped.
When we woke up on day three of our journey, the tent was sitting in a puddle of water (thankfully the bottom was totally waterproof), none of our clothes had dried overnight and even less of the lake was visible through the cloud. Putting on cold wet pants first thing in the morning wasn't ideal but after we had stuffed the dripping tent into our packs and set off again we soon warmed up. The poled route led around Lake Browning towards the north before descending steeply into the Arahura River. Water was flowing over the track as we dropped down into the valley to commence even more boulder negotiation - if you're into rocks, the three passes is the trip for you. By the time we were halfway to Harman Hut the rain began to ease and then stopped altogether. We also came across a pair of Whio, the endangered Blue Duck, surfing the rapids and diving for food. All throughout the track, traps are dotted around to keep the area predator free for these little guys so it was cool to actually see a couple.
We hadn't planned to spend long at Harman but I couldn't pass up the chance to dry out some of my gear. After half an hour we were refueled and significantly less water logged as we made our way towards Styx saddle. The track is pretty amazing from here on out, wide enough to walk side by side in places, with the exception of the muddy swamp at the top of the saddle. With no rain and plenty of room to stretch our legs we arrived at Grassy Flats Hut mid afternoon, well ahead of schedule. Walking out would have been an option but we weren't being met until the following morning so we ditched the tent in favour of the hut for the night. Grassy Flats is easily accessible from the Hokitika side and as such is full of hunting magazines and, God bless someone, a Marian Keyes novel. I whiled away the evening quite happily with my book and the leftover pick-n-mix before settling in to the most comfortable of our three sleeps.
We were up early, eager to meet Dad and be in Hokitika by lunch time. With the weather looking great we left our rain jackets in our packs and marched off down the well worn track. Although the path is beautifully groomed much of the way, a few slips made life interesting as we passed over crumbling banks and down a few steep drops to pass side streams. The large slip at the very end of the track, where it meets the 4WD track, was easy to negotiate following the true right side with low river levels. It felt great to see Dad's truck waiting for us at the road end and we stopped for a well earned beer in town before heading back to our car in Arthur's Pass.
The DOC route guide for this trip gives really good information and realistic times for each leg of the journey. We went in average weather but we knew that the actual total rainfall wasn't enough to bring the river levels up on the west coast - this is definitely something you need to check before you go.
Klondyke Corner to Carrington Hut - 3hrs 45min
Carrington Hut to Ariel's Tarns - 2hrs 45min
Ariel's Tarns to Whitehorn Pass - 1hr 40min
Whitehorn Pass to Park Morpeth Hut - 4hrs
Park Morpeth Hut to Browning Pass - 1hr 30min
Browning Pass to Harman Hut - 2hrs 15min
Harman Hut to Grassy Flat Hut - 2hrs 30min
Grassy Flats Hut to Road End 3hrs 30min