As many WTMC holiday weekend trips do, this trip started with the Interislander ferry to Picton and a drive to a DoC campsite. This time Kawatiri just beyond St Arnaud and handily situated right next to the both SH6 and SH63 (handy for access that is, less handy for sound sleeping). Queueing for the loo as we prepared for bed allowed a moment for stargazing, which happened to coincide with Starlink passing across the sky.
Less common than the Interislander journey for holiday weekend WTMC trips was the great forecast for clear settled weather that meant we had a real chance at executing Plan A – up and down Faerie Queene in a day.
Next morning we were off at 7 am to Lewis Pass, and the start of the St James Walkway. It was 9:40 am before the faffing finished and the tramping started. Today was a straightforward track walk along the walkway. We stopped at Cannibal Gorge Hut for lunch and Ada Pass Hut for afternoon tea, before continuing over Ada Pass and a few km along the Ada River. Around 5 pm we established base camp at the bottom of Camera Gully, with enough time to cook up a delicious shepherd’s pie and hear the trip leader’s briefing for the big climb the next day along with tips from her consultant.
We spilt into two teams, with those who were old-hands at rough terrain travel grouped together (we’ll call them the Summit Party) and those still working on their technique forming another group (the Support Party). The consultant tagged along with the Support Team to ensure all went well. The plan was for the Summit Team to take the more exposed and challenging route along the ridge to the summit of Faerie Queene, while the Support Team would ascend from the tarn-speckled basins to the north. We agreed to leave base camp at 6:30 am when it was just light enough to walk without a headtorch.
The first part of the climb is stream travel up Camera Gully, sometimes in the bush or other times in the shrub on the stream sides. The Summit Team made quick work of this and bypassed the 8 m waterfall on the true left as per our instructions from the consultant. From here we crossed onto the true right and attempted to find the path of least resistance up the snow grass and mingimingi covered slope to gain the benches from which we could access the tarn at the head of the gully. Direct access to the tarn is not possible unless you can scale a couple of hundred metres of bluffs, so suffice to say we opted for the benches via a scree slope to avoid having the climb all the way to the ridge on the tussock (the Support Party stayed on the tussock to gain the ridge before joining the benches to the tarn). We used a bunched-up team formation for scree travel or indeed anywhere where there was a risk of sending rocks down on one another and we all wore helmets from the first scree section onwards. There was no camping around the tarn, but maybe one or two sites on the benches.
We stopped at the tarn edge at 10 am to fill up on water for the rest of the day and assess the next part of the route. From here we had two options to gain the ridge to Faerie Queene, gleaned from the consultant and the route guide – round the north side of the tarn and up to the saddle to the northwest, or round the south side of the tarn and up the ridge coming south from Point 2145. From face on, both options looked uninviting, more so due to the large snow patch on what would be the direct route to the saddle. We opted for the saddle, although as we approached it we had several group decision discussions about exactly how we would deal with the snow, steep scree and small band of bluffs. Any of the many options would have been fine as it turned out – sometimes a face on climb looks more daunting than it really is. From the saddle we hugged the top of the scree until we found a suitable gully to ascend to the ridge. At 12 pm we stood at Point 2145 and waved at the Support Party who we could see just arriving at the tarn. They didn’t see us so had to make up their own stories about where we’d got to all day.
From there it was glorious scrambly ridge travel all the way to the summit of Faerie Queene, although for much of the journey I was unwilling to stake a bet on exactly which peak along the ridge we were aiming for as there are several very close in height. We were all hoping it wasn’t the far one with the very spiky-looking bit of ridge line before it.
At 12:40 we wedged ourselves under a rock for a bit of shade while we ate lunch. And at 2 pm we spotted a pole on what we assumed was the summit 20m ahead of us. But as we celebrated we spotted another pole on another summit another 70 m ahead so of course we had to go check out that one too. Getting to the second pole was the only place we had to use both hands at once to scramble, and again to down climb. By 2:15 pm we were snacking and re-suncreaming at the real top. The views on this clear day were fabulous-filled with mountains in every direction. No sign of the Support Party amongst the tarns below – they had lunched at the first tarn and sensibly turned back from there concluding the trip to the summit and back would have taken too long.
The Summit Party went back along the ridge looking for the best spot to descend the scree into the tarns below. We briefly discussed retracing our steps having enjoyed the ridge travel so much, but all decided we’d rather complete the loop exploring new territory and scouting for potential campsites for future trips as we passed through the tarns. Someone asserted that the grey scree was best for downward travel so we headed for that, although it turned out to be disappointing (and it all looked grey to me!) Together we negotiated a couple of lines of small bluffs, and zig-zagged our way down to the tarns by which time the terrain turned to much bigger rocks and boulders which one could easily hop between. There was the odd tent site amongst the tarns that would do, but no soft grassy camping to be seen. It was then a bit of a scree slog back up to the saddle which we reached at 5 pm. From there we pretty much retraced our steps back down past the tarn, along the benches, down the scree (as escalator-like as we found all day), down the grass, past the waterfall and along the stream back to base camp. We arrived back at camp at 8:45 pm to cheers from the Support Party who also had the billy boiling for us. Dehy dinner and bed followed very soon, especially when we found out the Support Party had decided we would leave at 6:30 am the next morning to get out to the van in time to drive to Picton and catch the ferry back to Wellington.
Now you have read the story you can watch the movie created by Caryl.
Just like we might describe our 14 hour magnificent day in the mountains climbing Faerie Queene as epic, the peak’s namesake is an epic poem up to twelve books long (I wasn’t quite motivated enough to make this a 12 book trip report!) It was written in the late 1500s by Edmund Spenser (after whom the mountain range is named) and is thought to be one of the longest poems in the English language.
The Faerie Queene herself represents Glory – it certainly was a glorious day and a glorious climb. And the Faerie Queene’s name is Gloriana, after which a nearby peak is named. The Faerie Queene is thought to be Queen Elizabeth the 1st of England and depending on what level of literalism you take from the poem it can paint her in either a positive or negative light. Isn’t it strange what some of the mountains of Aotearoa New Zealand are named after?
Those on the trip were: Summit Party – Emily, Tereza, Illona, Caryl, and Mike W. Support Party – Huw, Michael P, Michael S, Tony G, and Aimee (trip leader).
Trip date 6 – 8 February 2021.
Story and photos by Emily Shrosbree.