Traversing the Southern Alps: Arthur’s Pass to Mount Cook

From St Arnaud to Milford Sound, the Southern Alps make up the South Island’s lengthy, steep spine. After reading “Two Against the Alps” by Graeme Dingle, I was motivated to embark on a lengthy trek of my own. I spread out the maps and drew my finger from two convenient spots the summer before. With so many potential routes and undiscovered treasures in this one area of the Alps, it has captured the interest of many. Taken by the scruff of the neck, a transalpine journey from Arthurs Pass to Mt Campbell offers one of the longest sections of unspoiled wilderness in the nation.

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Seven months before the trip was scheduled to begin in mid-November, preparations for the expedition started in April. Selecting suitable friends is the first, and frequently most difficult, step in any trip. A few sincere replies gradually filtered in when I made a vague pitch for a Southern Alps Traverse to the Auckland University Tramping Club. I was able to get in some mountaineering with each of these pals in the months preceding the crossing as preparation for the journey. I climbed the East Ridge of Taranaki with Andy Thompson, Hamish Cumming accompanied me up the Otira Face of Rolleston, and Justin Loiseau demonstrated his cool demeanor and North American heritage when ice climbing at Tukino. I knew from these few visits that between us we could tackle every facet of the uncharted territory that undoubtedly awaited us in the Alps.

Each of us contributed something unique to the discussion. Thanks to his prior treks from Wakatipu to Aoraki and St Arnaud to Lewis Pass, Andrew had a wealth of logistical experience. Our wood pile grew increasingly higher because to Hamish’s expertise in forestry. Justin’s southern wit and North Cackalacky drawl kept us laughing all the time and helped us find the positive side of every difficult circumstance. The rest was in the legs, but I brought the idea for the traverse and enough zeal to make it happen!

We coordinated our food drops at Price’s Flat Hut, Whitcombe, and Lyell Hut, Rakaia, by direct connection with the chopper pilot using a satellite phone rather than a mountain radio. At Harihari, the third food drop was dropped off. With the assistance of Andrew’s girlfriend Sarah, we were also able to obtain weather forecasts every two days via the satellite phone.

Over the course of two weeks, 35 servings of dehydrated meals were cooked, with a variety of meats, veggies, and legumes included in the mix. Because butter had a higher energy density and a longer shelf life than cheese, it was preferred. I was able to camp above the snowline through many chilly nights by wearing a synthetic jacket and sleeping bag weighing eight hundred grams altogether. Throughout the numerous exhausting days of “swagging,” this simple strategy paid off.

Our good buddy Nicholas Riordan from CUTC kindly offered to take our group of four down the well-known Canterbury route to “the Pass,” where he cheerfully said goodbye. “Can you just picture the consequences for the next thirty days for all of you?”

An ideal starting point for such a tour is the Waimakariri valley, which acts as a natural “gateway to the Alps.” The transition from brushy slopes below the road to snow-covered peaks on the Main Divide is a masterful example of the differences you encounter while walking across the river gravels, as the mountains become closer and the terrain gets steeper, until at last you cross the spine herself. On the first of many wonderful nights in the mountains, we had the opportunity to witness the contrast of the opposing flanks of the Alps from Ariel Tarns’ tent camp on Harman Pass. The infamous Kea gave us a warm welcome, accepting a donation of one sock and some tent fly for her nocturnal feast.

We leave the “Three Passes” path, which served as the inspiration for our traverse, and head south to Urquharts Hut, an old musterers cottage situated on the grassy flats of the Wilberforce. our comes after a crisp early morning crossing of the Whitehorn. A modest dirt floor, an exposed hearth fireplace, and bunks fashioned from the riverbank forest’s own branches made us feel self-conscious about our loads filled with advanced mountaineering gear meant to smash through the 1930s facade.

The Griffiths Stream gave down beneath us, threatening to create a storm, and Hokitika Saddle allowed us to return to the West Coast. Apprehensively, we peered down this steep icy couloir to see what lay ahead: a wild and unfamiliar territory for the next few days.

We smelled sulfur near the isolated and little visited Mungo Hut; hot springs were nearby; if only we could locate more than a meager tepid the drip. After losing and crossing the Brunswick, the odor reappeared, and we located the source—a hot, boiling pit. The rain barely dampened our spirits once we were drenched.

After a week of the traverse, we were enjoying a rest day at Prices Flat Hut, a favorite spot for white-water paddling enthusiasts, halfway up the Whitcombe River. We worked our way across landslips in the heat and through untamed bush in the rain, mindful that we were repeating, in reverse, the historic first crossing journey made by John Whitcombe and Jakob Lauper in 1863.

Trans-alpine trampers highly value the Bracken Snowfield, which is tucked away in the Adams Wilderness area. From the 2000-meter snow plateau, Cave Camp’s breathtaking vista of Mt. Evans entices you to get up close and personal. Close by, the imposing Mt. Whitcombe rises along a beckoning northeast ridge before dropping abruptly 1500 meters to the Ramsay glacier moraines below; its face inspires both wonder and terror.

Unsettled spring weather dashed our hopes of reaching these towering summits, but at least provided us with a serene twelve hours of misty mountain driving. While we focused on Lauper Peak, the more approachable red rock, avalanches were constantly roaring through the mist and tumbling down Whitcombe’s terrifying slopes. As the mist changed to rain, we quickly made our way to the Rakaia and claimed a “low peak” before southerlies started to blanket the Alps in new snow.

As we took a break beneath the cover of Lyell Hut, one of the Southern Alps’ oldest original buildings, our satellite phone started to play a refreshing new song: “fine spells, light winds.” Considering our audacious plan to travel the whole length of the Gardens of Allah and Eden, this golden prognosis was a true boon. We covered the Lyell moraines one day, avoiding new avalanche activity, just in time to enjoy the last of the sunlight from a high camp on McCoy Col.

This was important because in the early hard snow conditions it allowed us to approach a steep snow cornice. I lead out across the snow and started the hard ascent, with Hamish set up at a safe belay location in the schrund. The light had hit the face of the snow minutes before, softening it. With my axes firmly planted in the recently fallen snow, I ascended the slope with patience. With the Lyell glacier plunging beneath me and the weight of the pack endangering my equilibrium, the exposure was extreme. After crossing the lip, I securely buried a snowstake in the ice and waited for the others to follow suit. A thrilling beginning to the day…

After a morning of hiking beneath Mount Nicholson, we discovered concealed crevasses, bergschrunds, and avalanche debris. However, on Lambert Col, we managed to breach the last barriers of the Gardens and ventured into the expansive ice plateau. One reason these high alpine snowfields are so scarce is the challenging access to the Gardens. When caught in inclement weather, there aren’t many easy ways out. The most common approach is via Perth Col, which nevertheless requires days of strenuous river-boulder scrambling from the west and gravel-bashing from the east.

The payoff is a mystical arc of glacial land with numerous peaks rising above it. We had to rush across the plateau before the next storm moved in from the west due to a brief but ample window of excellent weather that lasted only three days. Sunburn was an inevitable effect of many hours of afternoon labor in the slushy snow and scorching sun. The issue might have been resolved with a midnight alpine start, but some argue that sleep is just as crucial.

With the thinning of the Edenic snows in the west, our ultimate task emerged: ascending the Great Unknown. During his early travels in 1930, John Pascoe gave out the creative place names of this area. It begs the question, are we more drawn to visiting a valley or climbing a mountain because of the name?

We met Malcolm Peak, a man who had recently climbed Malcolm Peak, at Reischek Hut in the Rakaia. In our case, the only way out of the Garden of Eden was for us to cross this enigmatic mountain. From the summit, which is only 200 meters above the Gardens, we descended a terrifying 1500 meters into Perth.

With barely enough time to descend into Elizabeth Creek’s hanging valley, we managed to reach the peak as the menacing westerlies of a fresh storm began to gather. Redfield Stream is not for the weak of heart; a two-kilometer hike on a narrow, steep scree with dangerous waterfalls and challenging down-climbing through dense brush turned into a seven-hour ordeal. The swingbridges and track along the Perth were a much-needed sight.

But before we could indulge in Harihari’s pleasures, there was still one last task to complete. While sleeping at Nolan’s cabin, heavy rains during the night caused the rivers to swell horribly. There was only one way to cross Hughes Creek, and that was to straddle a submerged tree in the raging river. We ran to the Harihari tavern in desperation, but it was exhilarating, as a furious rainstorm tore through the sky and shook the earth.

We finally returned to civilization twenty days into the adventure, stopping in the tiny hamlet of Harihari on the west coast to replenish supplies. The only thing left to do was to complete the treacherous Whataroa-Tasman crossing. We were somewhat nervous as we ascended the rough paths to Whymper Hut, as our research on the route revealed very few reports of parties using the Whataroa Saddle in the previous ten years. An ancient tale from the Victoria University of Wellington Tramping Club described a tramper who attempted an enormous leap of faith and fell seven meters into a schrund.

We were quite relieved to get off the saddle on a bomber piton and slings, and we managed to leap across the well-covered schrund onto the eastern Classen Névé and walk onto the Murchison very ease.

At Tasman Saddle Hut, we set aside our early ambitions of climbing Mt Cook to complete the traverse and instead enjoyed the atmosphere of the upper Tasman, which culminated in a beautiful red dawn from Hochstetter Dome.

The long glacier passed ten hours later, snow turning to ice and then the dreaded moraines. We insisted that the scores of planes above were being left out. The journey had finally been completed as the shimmering east face of Aoraki towered over us.

We had time to think back on our 33-day journey after a lengthy sleep-in and our brief excursion off the Ball Road. We demonstrated to ourselves that prolonged mountain treks are physically viable in that we finished the trip just as fit and healthy as when we began. The traditional seventh day of relaxation relieved all pains and exhaustion. While most transalpine parties choose to go in the late season, we found that weather in November and December were just as favorable for our intentions. There was only one hold-up at the river crossing, plenty of good weather windows, and simple access to the glaciers.

The Southern Alps’ wilderness designation is among its most amazing features. Although huts and signs are beneficial, there aren’t many places left on earth, especially in such pure landscapes like the Alps where there is no sign of human presence. Wilderness places resist all innate human tendencies, including the need to locate, group, and claim. However, there are areas in the Southern Alps where snow-covered footsteps are the closest thing a human could hope to have. It is even banned for planes to fly overhead. No indicators. Not one hut. Nothing frivolous.

We continuously monitored the effects of invasive animals on the landscape. According to historical accounts gleaned from archive hut books, things have gotten better throughout the years. The old stories of muddy, vegetation-free slopes were gone, and the only signs of human touch were routes through the bush that were a little overgrown, and the odd tree that had been used to scratch antlers. On the western side of the divide, we did spot two thar and eleven chamois, even though we weren’t actively searching for wildlife. There were often prints from deer, chamois, and thar, including a sign on the Gardens of Eden!

We were thankful for these animals’ tracks at one point down the terrifying Redfield Stream, since they saved us from a great deal of bush-bashing. We did observe multiple possums on the trip, but it is hard to detect possum damage when you have nothing to compare it to. Nevertheless, I believe 1080 is making a positive difference in this area. There were areas with extremely active birdlife and others with relatively calm birdlife. Why? Maybe they just like some places better than others, just like humans.

To have completed a lengthy and fulfilling journey over the Alps of New Zealand is a true honor. The closest many of us will get to enjoying the wonders of nature is a shadowy stroll in an urban park with geometric design, as the majority of us will never have the chance to escape society.

However, it should serve as a reminder to all explorers that the most magnificent ecosystems on Earth exist and flourish despite human interference. The Alps were not conquered by us. In the Alps, we did not create any new routes. Instead, we cautiously made our way through its wildness, taking care not to ruin what we can never build.

I would first like to express my gratitude to my three wonderful traveling companions, Andy Thompson, Hamish Cumming, and Justin Loiseau. Our carefree dispositions, love of the mountains, and meticulous preparation made for an incredibly enjoyable vacation. We are grateful to Bruce Dando of Kokatahi Choppers for bringing our food in despite the challenging weather. Dan & Kath’s hospitality at Wildside Backpackers, Harihari, is a testament to the West Coast and comes highly recommended. Lastly, a huge thank you to FMC for their kind support of our trip from Arthurs Pass to Mount Cook. Submit your own application for the following cycle!



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