Moss Pass via Blue Lake

The following is a recollection of the trip from two perspectives – Lynsey and Tiffany.

With two vans from WTMC heading down for the long weekend, the ferry ride was a social affair, especially with a group of TTC folks also heading down for an attempt of Mt Manakau. We shared a van with James’ group who were heading to Murchison and owe thanks to for the drop off and pick up! 

Sat 4 June – Day 1: Sabine River, dew crystals, frosty tussock and avalanche paths


I adore winter tramping. For me there is simply nothing better than the feeling of warm sun on your face, the chill of winters breath to the cheeks and the sound of the rivers torrent beside as you climb a beech encrusted ridge line. For the best part of this year, I had been studying my Nelson lakes Topo map with envy and yearning for a small bit of alpine adventure in my second favourite park. Imagine my delight when the Moss pass trip came up on the WTMC trip pages! I knew we were going to be lucky with the weather window and the recent weather bomb had dusted the tops with its winter coat. I was so excited for a snowy vista! The weekend was everything I hoped it would be, and it was an utter joy from start to end. The view of the peaks as they emerge through the mist on the lake, the sound of the river, the smell of moss encased beech and the feel of the sun as you emerge to an open river flat is just so sublime.

Tiffany, Caryl and I started our adventure with a reasonably sleepless night tenting at the road end at Lake Rotorua. An elusive pinprick hole in Tiffany’s sleeping mat, meant poor Tiffany spent the night reinflating her mat several times (this elusive hole would be found later under cross examination at Blue Lake hut). There is something a little magical about going to sleep in the dark and then waking, expectantly and excited to see where you are! This anticipation meant we were unperturbed by our collective lack of sleep. 


We were up at 6.30am to be ready for an 8am water taxi. Other booked groups have pulled out leaving us as the only 3 heading across. Due to the recent rain the jetty is underwater! Not much, maybe 10cm or so. Nonetheless, I decide to wear jandals across in an attempt to keep the boots dry. As we cross the lake, the low fog starts to lift revealing the snow dusted mountains.


Catching the water taxi at the lakes edge we had our first experience of the glacial waters, as the Jetty was a foot under water (who needs dry feet anyway right!) We started our tramp after a 20 min exhilarating water taxi ride to Sabine hut perched perfectly on the edge of the mist cloaked lake. We could see sunlight hit the peaks and the parting of the clouds to reveal the days weather agenda; with hues of gold and blue beckoning us. A swan pierced the mirrored lakes, and I snapped some photos. 


We arrive at Sabine hut just about 8.30am. A quick stop to put boots back on and fill out the hut book and we’re off! The walk up the valley is pleasant and mostly under bush with regular glimpses of the mountains as we head further in. On occasion, the track wanders over open grassy areas offering wider views of the mountains. I brush past dew laden bushes expecting to collect some moisture, however the drops are frozen! We have a quick lunch stop at West Sabine hut, which is in the shade and actually pretty cold, before heading up to Blue lake hut. The boulders get larger and we start passing through avalanche hazard zones, marked by DOC signs, as well as a sweet rock bivy where someone has clearly lit a fire at some point.


After signing the intentions book, we started our trip, sidling the Sabine river which was heavy with flow and rapids with the recent rains. We gently climbed the undulating ridge and the beech trees glowed amber when the sun peaked through an unobstructed clearing. We stopped for morning tea, sitting among the trees with our hoods up, as the trees dripped there morning dew. Occasional glimpses of the river were had when the track ventured onto river flats and the most beautiful golden tussock dusted with frost crunched underfoot. The crystals of dew drops frozen on the manuka reminded us how cold this place can be. The track was moist in places but not particularly muddy. It turns out to be a perfect environment for some funky fungi! I must have seen nearly 30 odd different types and colours. My appreciation of mushroom beauty made all the more curious when what popped up on my Facebook feed just this week was a page for other lovers of fungi the aptly named “fungi photography – just for fun” group (with over 250 members) who knew! Anyway, I digress…..

The mornings travel by the river was relatively easy going, sidling up and down with a gentle amble through several avalanche paths (Misery, Cupola, Travers and Windward). As the track veered off to the travers saddle, we continued on reaching the very lovely West Sabine hut around 1430 for lunch on the deck. West Sabine is a big 30 bedded serviced hut nestled by the corner as the river bends towards Blue Lake under the shadow of Mount Windward. Realising we were unlikely to get to Blue Lake before nightfall, we ate quickly and returned to the track. 

A couple of hours after the hut, the views and terrain started to change as we came closer to blue lake, starting to climb more steeply than we had earlier in the day. we clambered boulders and crossed scree slips, entering and exiting more avalanche paths as we emerged into a mountain cirque. The 360-degree view in the middle of the mountains revealed our route over Moss pass and up the snow shute, our challenge for the next day. 

Waterfalls cascaded over the mountains to our right and the river rapids on the left kept us company as we neared the ridge leading to Blue Lake hut. Moss covered trees and a couple of tachycardia induced climbs later we reached a boardwalk which signalled the hut was nearby. A beautiful tarn peppered with tussock and beech, fooled me into thinking we had reached the lake, but just a tarn it was! As much as we were so near, we also had a bit more work to do before we finally reached the real blue lake. Eager to see the lake we dumped bags and ventured down to the lakes edge, just as the sun was setting on the peaks and casting its reflection in the pristine water (which incidentally is more green than blue). 


As we reach the head of the valley, we can see Moss Pass for the next day. The track veers left under a large cliff and up a few more metres along a track that has turned into a small creek. We arrive at the hut before 5pm, with enough time to check out Blue Lake and snap some pics in the twilight.


After shooting the compulsory selfies using Caryl’s hiking pole come emergency tripod, we ventured to our home for the night excited for a cup of tea and Moroccan couscous. Blue lake hut is big and sits at 1,100 metres. It is also bloomin cold! Thankfully it has a wood burner and a small stock of damp wood that proved to be a challenge to get going without firestarter’s (top tip – carry firestarter’s). Caryl, Tiffany, and I spent an entertaining evening expelling our collective lung capacity to get it going and after a couple of hours, some dizzy heads and nearly giving up we had FIRE! Three plates of dinner later, a cosy fire, double socks and the promise of an alpine start had us tucked up in bed by 2100 warm as toast and excited for the adventure up into the snow.


That evening’s activities consist of trying to get a fire started and cooking dinner. On the menu is Moroccan couscous (or rather bulghur wheat in our case). While there’s a nice stack of freshly cut logs, they’re not very dry, and it takes the better part of two hours, plus lots of huffing and puffing, before we have a roaring fire going. Just in time for bed too, as the temperature has dropped outside and the puddles outside have started to freeze.

Bed about 9.30pm.

Sun 5 June – Day 2: Sunrise, Moss pass, mossy forest and losing the track (a lot)


You know it has been cold in the night when the gas canister freezes and hot tea in an enamel mug rapidly loses temperature in minutes! Putting on wet boots had us all internally cursing the rivers icy crossings from the day before. As we left the hut the sky was beginning to light up with marshmallow hues of pink. The track over Moss pass starts directly out the back of the hut and up through a small patch of trees and out into tussock clad hills. As we climbed up and up, feet and hands thawed, and the sky changed from pinks to golds, casting sunlight on the higher peaks (Mahanga range) that flank the pass. 


We leave early while it’s still dark. There are poles to follow and after a short flat section we begin the climb. The sun starts to rise and as we walk higher, the brighter it gets.

The views are amazing and we stop often for photos. We have a break partway up to the pass, somewhere roughly on top of the waterfall we had seen the previous day and look back down the valley we’d walked up. Looking towards the pass we can see some poles traversing across the rock and also snow, to the bottom of a snow chute. I theorise that we don’t actually have to go up the snow chute, but will only find out as we get closer.

The walk up is straightforward, although snow from the earlier fall a week ago means some sections are a bit icy requiring the kicking of some steps. At the base of the snow chute it becomes clear we do head straight up! Although the angle is much nicer than it originally looked. I’m hoping the other side is easier to descend as I think our progress would be slow if we had to return to Blue lake hut.


As we neared the snow level, small snow paths were easily crossed by kicking steps. As we neared the final ascent, calves burned, and the sky changed. It was a relatively easy (not technical, just hard mahi) ascent up to the pass via the incredibly steep snow shute. Up to the pass from the hut took just over 2.5 hours which I think is ok in those conditions and because I stopped every 10 mins to take yet another jaw dropping pano of the snowy mountains. Reaching a small basin was just utter magic to be enveloped in icing sugar snow, but the view of the other side did not reveal itself until we crossed the bowl and reached the top of that. 


We reach the pass at 9.40am, about 3 hours since leaving the hut. It’s looking like a proper alpine trip now with snow all around. Luckily the track on the other side is a nice traverse down a gentle snow slope, and we make it down the nice and crunchy snow without too much trouble, pausing for a quick stop at a frozen tarn for a snack.


The view over to the D’urville side just as incredible as the Sabine side. Looking down you can see the path of the river as it twists and turns in the valley floor. An icy tarn beckoned us for morning tea, and we marvelled at the pass, thankful we had gone up the way we had rather than going down it (would have been relatively treacherous). Hydrated and fed, we traversed the gentle snow-clad ridges down to bare rock. Despite the ice on some of the rocks we made sure to be careful and used the tussock paths to the side (which proved at times to be just as slippery). 

Around, 1130 we reached the bush line, with rapid descent into more mossy forest, rivers and creeks, perfect for refilling our water bottles with the best tasting water I’ve ever had. After more riverside travel and sprinkles of rain, we reached George Lyon hut a little after 14pm. Lunch and a discussion around whether we would keep going on to Morgan or stay here was tabled. I must admit I was feeling a bit worn out and could easily have been coaxed into staying. However, I knew that getting to Morgan hut that night and having a shorter walk out on our final day just made good sense. Having eaten a million BBQ rice crackers and a ton of chocolate, I was feeling more energised and ready to commit to another 4 hours to Morgan hut. As it turns out the walk was rather easy and pleasant and kept all the more interesting by losing the track often! Most of the track from George Lyon to Morgan was overgrown with ferns and flora and there was a definite rhythm to the terrain; into beech forest, over a creek, back into forest, sidle the cliff edge, out to river flats, and through dense overgrown ferns (where is that orange triangle again?) and rinse and repeat! I really loved this part of the track; it was raining a little but easy travel and searching for easily lost track made it interesting. 


We have lunch at George Lyon hut. The hut is cold and not very inviting, and we decide to continue on to Morgan hut that night. The next section of track is quite pleasant and easy walking. We make good progress, with only a few sections where we have to hunt for the track marker. As night falls we take out the head torches and continue towards the hut. About 500m from the hut we lose the track and waste about 30 minutes wondering where to go next. We decide to wade down the river a little, hugging the bushline, and after about 30 metres spot an orange triangle showing us the entry point. 10 minutes later we arrive at the hut! It’s just after 6pm.


When nightfall descended, we were so close to Morgan hut, but the combination of loss of daylight (and loss of discernible track) had us scratching our heads a little as to where we needed to go. We had talked about bush bashing through the forest to get to the hut but thankfully we retraced our steps and realised we were on the track which had now become river! (More wet feet, yay!). A short wade and a sigh of relief at the doc sign and 10 mins to the hut had us high fiving and in just after dark (about 6pm). We assumed our roles of fire starter, veggie chopper and water boiler quickly and in only 10 mins, we had FIRE! (Dry wood made all the difference). We were all relieved to have an easy walk out the next day and the prospect of a lie in was just utter magic. Tonight’s dinner was just as delicious as the previous, Satay noodles with lashings of cashew nuts and chilli (yep, I had 3 servings again). After the days epicness, we were in bed and dreaming of snowy passes by 21pm ish.


Morgan hut is lovely and cozy – a 10 bunk hut with a decent sized wood burner to get us going. There’s not much wood, but it’s dry, so it takes only a few minutes to get it roaring! We enjoy a dinner of satay noodles before heading off to a well earned sleep.

Mon 6 June – Day 3: Morgan hut, typical up and down travel and following the river to the lake


We spent the morning of our final day chopping wood to replenish the depleted wood stores, exploring the hut and nearby surrounds which consisted of tussock flats, misty peaks, river, and beech forest. The weather forecast had warned of a front coming through, however it never eventuated beyond light rain showers. Each time I got out my pack cover, the rain would stop (3 times a charm!). Todays 4-hour tramp to D’urville hut and our water taxi back to Rotorua was that typical river-ridge travel, up and down over roots and damp track, the type where you never reach any great altitude gain but is energy zapping all the same. The rain showers came and went, and we emerged onto riverbeds in sunshine, the ominous clouds retreating. 


We have a short day so have a sleep in and collect some firewood to replace what we used the night before. All of it wet of course! But hopefully it’ll dry in time for the next group. 

The track to D’Urville hut is a bit rougher than the one to Morgan, but still pleasant all the same, with sections along the river offering views down and up the valley.


On reaching D’urville hut with an hour and half to wait for our taxi we fled the sandflies and had lunch in the hut, the fireplace still warm from its previous inhabitants. Overhead blue sky while below, a quiet, mirror still lake. We challenged ourselves to the huts FMC magazine quizzes (which btw, are really quite hard!) and the water taxi arrived at 1530.


It takes us about 4 hours to get to D’Urville hut, where we have lunch and read some FMC magazines while waiting for the water taxi. The clouds have also cleared giving us great reflections of the mountains in the still lake. The jetty here is still underwater too! 

The water taxi shows up a bit early and on the ride back we note there is much less snow on the mountains than on Friday – probably the rain washing it all away. As we disembark onto a dry jetty, we hear a vehicle approaching – it’s the others with the van! How’s that for timing 😀


Braving two final glacial water filled boots getting off both jetty, James arrived with the van (in uncanny perfect timing, just as we stepped off the boat).

The long drive back to Picton was very welcome as I reflected on how lucky I was to have experienced this tramp in beautiful surroundings, cozy huts, incredible food, a perfect snowy pass and all of this with beautiful people. An experience so sublime it’s almost religious.  

Sat 4 June

8.40pm left Sabine hut

1.20pm arrive West Sabine hut

1.45pm depart West Sabine hut

4.50pm arrive Blue lake hut

Sun 5 June

6.45am left Blue lake hut

9.40am arrive at Moss Pass

1.45pm arrive George Lyon hut

2.15pm depart George Lyon hut

6.10pm arrive Morgan hut

Mon 6 June

9.45am depart Morgan hut

1.50pm arrive D’Urville hut

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