The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Mt Aspiring National Park

A story on:

  • Proper campsite placement;
  • Heroics in the bush;
  • How to get the best photo while being threatened with a massive avalanche thundering towards you;
  • Advanced river-crossing techniques;
  • Carrying a rope and associated climbing gear at the bottom of your pack for nine days;
  • Why ****** boots are only suitable as unusual, although distinctive pot plant holders

“Why don’t we take a rope?” asked Andrew hopefully. “Yeah,” I said, “we can take crampons and ice axes too, then we’ll look really staunch! ” “A helmet and harness would really top it off; yeah, we’ll take the lot,” Mike agreed.

So it was, we were to go climbing in Mt Aspiring National Park, spending about ten days playing around on the glaciers of Mt Aspiring with the intention of looking staunch, Keith, from Auckland, agreed with our plans and fitted us into his busy jetsetting lifestyle. At least, that was the plan.

We congregated by various means at Cameron Flat in the Matukituki Valley on Boxing Day. No doubt we looked the part as we unpacked the car and set up camp, sorting through the food, and getting ready for ten days’ tramping.

The next morning we headed up the East Matukituki Valley with the intention of making it to Ruth Flat. It rained on and off during the day, although the travel was pleasant enough. As we approached Ruth Flat we searched for a suitable campsite sheltered from the wind, which had risen a little during the day. We found what the majority of us thought to be a suitable campsite. “No, it is a dry creek bed,” protested Keith. “Bloody Aucklanders,” muttered Andrew. “It’ll be all right.” So we set up camp, relying on the advice of the Chief Guide. Most bushcraft manuals will tell you that placing your campsite in a dry creek bed as the rain is falling is not such a smart idea. During the night the rain continued to fall. At about 3am we noticed the sides of the tent were a bit squashy and wet for our liking. A quick look outside confirmed that what had last night been a dry creek bed was now not so dry. We frantically dug channels around the tent and lay there slightly damp until morning. “We should have listened to the Aucklander, they know more about rain than we do,” said Mike over breakfast. At least no one saw us; our staunchness was intact – just.

We headed up the East Matukituki stopping to dry our gear near Ruth Stream. Keith had discovered that his cotton polyester snorts were far from comfortable once they were wet and decided to continue tramping in his underwear. Such heroics were not lost on us as we cringed at the thought of meeting another tramping party coming the other way.

The plan was to head up Ruth Ridge and onto the upper Volta Glacier, hence the climbing gear. As the weather deteriorated we decided to head further up the East Matukituki and set up camp instead. We reassessed the situation and decided to go over Rabbit Pass and Pearson Saddle, hoping to drop into the Waiatoto River then up onto the Haast Range and the Bonar Glacier, and out via Colin Todd Hut.

The next day dawned fine and we made our way over Rabbit Pass stopping for lunch at the top. “Bloody good thing your shorts are dry, Keith,” I said to him over lunch as we spotted a group coming towards us from the Wilkin.

We continued on over Pearson Saddle and viewed the route that traverses around Pickelhaube. Moir’s suggests a sidle in front of some terraces to a ledge. From where we stood, the sidle looked difficult. Concerned about the lack of shelter for camping on the ledge we decided to descend into the bowl and set up camp near the creek running off Pickelhaube. We cooked dinner and sat around admiring the beauty and grandeur of the surrounding mountains.

Suddenly there was a distant roar from the direction of Pickelhaube. We looked up to see an enormous avalanche peeling off the high peak. Unfazed at the spectacle before us, we grabbed our cameras and snapped away like the Paparazzi chasing a black Mercedes. The avalanche gained momentum and volume as it continued down in front of our campsite and us.

“At least that stuff has all gone; there can’t be much more up there,” I said hopefully. Just then an even bigger roar was heard from Pickelhaube and a massive avalanche peeled off the top. We quickly ran back to the tent, grabbed our pits and packs and headed for safety. Rest assured the cameras kept on clicking and whirring throughout all of this. We watched as a miniature highspeed glacier pushed the snow and ice in front of us and our campsite. The debris settled about 10 metres from where the tent was pitched, meaning that our campsite placement had improved just enough over the previous two nights. We slept uneasily that night ready to pounce out of the tent at the slightest rumble.

What was to be a 20m stroll across to the climb was now a 40-minute grovel over the avalanche debris the next morning. We headed into the clouds stopping to notice that there was plenty of snow left to fall off Pickelhaube. We climbed up and sidled around to where we could drop down to a ramp that would eventually take us down to the Waiatoto Valley. We were lucky to bring our ice axes along for this part of the trip, as they proved useful as “grass axes” as we groveled down the steep terrain.

At this point my tramping boots were beginning to make their uncomfortable presence felt. I bought the boots before the infamous Cabbage Trip nearly two years before (see Tramping & Mountaineering 1996) when they gave me blisters the size of a 50-cent coin on each heel. I could not wear shoes for two weeks after that trip. The boots had never been properly worn in (will they ever I wonder?) and I was struggling.

Over dinner we considered our options and I conceded I could not complete the trip via Colin Todd Hut. I opted to continue out alone down the Waiatoto, but the others considered it would be best if we all went out that way.

The next day Mike, Andrew and Keith went up to the Haast Range for the day, while I minded the campsite ensuring it would not be destroyed by wandering moose and sandflies. New Year’s Eve was celebrated in the usual Christmas trip fashion: a few drops of strong alcohol followed by the alarm set for midnight as we hit our pits.

The weather was fine and dry as we spent the next two days tramping down the Waiatoto Valley. By the second day each step for me was a sharp stab of pain, and I switched to my softer backup shoes.

The entertainment came as we had to cross the river for the last time near the end of the track. At this point the Waiatoto River is quite big and a swim is inevitable. “Jeez,” Andrew cringed as Keith removed his shorts again. “Where’s your sense of decency, Keith? We’re only a couple of hours from the roadend.” We linked up and proceeded to cross. We soon ended up in deep water and split up to swim. Keith had an unusual look in his eye as he swam across, arriving a little shaken on the other side. Andrew must have thought he would pack float out the last 8 km to the road as he continued down the river. We cajoled Andrew over to the shore and continued through the beautiful South Westland forest (and not so beautiful farmland) to the roadend.

That night we stayed in the Haast Motor Camp, cooked up our last dehy meal, and of course looked staunch in front of the other “campers” in their mobile kitchen sinks (caravans and campervans).

Next morning we got a lift to SH6 at Haast and considered the options for getting back to Wanaka. For Andrew there was no option. He was going to hitchhike. Mike and Keith muttered something about wanting to be certain of getting back to Wanaka, while Andrew was adamant such extravagance as a $25 bus ride was unnecessary. I was ambivalent. So Mike and Keith headed off to Haast township to wait for the bus while Andrew and I took up positions 300m apart on SH6.

After about an hour I gave up and started hobbling towards Haast to catch up with Keith and Mike on the bus. As I began my painful hobble a campervan pulled up and the family on board offered me a lift to Wanaka. I thought they must have picked up Andrew, but as I stepped into the back there was no sign of him. When I mentioned that I was with one other person, they said, “Oh yeah, we saw him. He looked too scruffy so we carried on.”

Andrew arrived in Wanaka about four hours after us, and after I had picked up my car from Cameron Flat we headed for some local crags, pulled out the rope for the first time and the others did a few pitches. My feet took about ten days to recover and the boots have finally been replaced after twenty-one and a half years of painful tramping.


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