Thursday, April 14, 2022

Across the spine : Richmond Ranges Alpine Route

Talk to any person who has walked the Te Araroa, and almost all of them will cite the Richmond Ranges as one of the most memorable sections of their walk. Sometimes because of its spectacular alpine ridge walking and myriad huts, sometimes because they simply survived it, but it's considered to be one of the hardest sections of the entire route from Cape Reinga to Bluff.

It's a long section without access to supplies, so you need to be well stocked with food. And almost all of the route is exposed alpine ridges, so it's susceptible to miserable weather, including high winds and fogs. There's also very little available water on much of the route.

I wasn't fazed by the hype, especially as I planned to walk the route in forecasted good weather. Assuming the weather algorithms could actually be correct for the full 6-7 days I planned to take for the crossing. Since I'd already walked a loop along the Pelorus River and back via Browning and Rocks Huts a few years ago, my tramp would start near St Arnaud and finish at the end of the Hackett Track on Aniseed Valley Road.

One of my packrafting mates lives in Wakefield, so I hit him up for accommodation and a ride to the start of the track just off the SH63 east of St Arnaud. He would pick me up at the track end a week later. Since I had my Inreach I would be able to contact him to arrange a pickup time, and to confirm which day I would arrive. I made sure to bring some extra food in case of delays due to bad weather.

Day 1 Road end to Red Hills Hut 2 hours
Red Hills Hut to Porters Creek Hut 10.5km, 5.5 hours

Brendon and I headed off a bit before 8am for the one hour drive from Wakefield to the track end at 6 Mile Creek. There's a carpark there so I was able to pull in off the highway and get my boots on, setting off around 9:15. Brendon took my car back to Wakefield for me.

The walk up to Red Hills was initially on a single track through beech forest but then joined a shingle 4WD track for most of the climb up to the saddle. The hut was in an awesome location, in the sun, looking across some boggy ground to the Red Hills. I stopped to sign the book then continued on. 

Looking down to the Wairau Valley

Red Hills Hut, fantastic spot, just too soon in the day

I came the short way, the long way is for the EFI crowd

The track was quite boggy at first as it descended towards the Maitland River, then sidled along high above the river for some time before a pretty dodgy descent to the river bed. Once across the tributary it was a steep climb again to maintain the sidle above the river, with numerous smaller creeks to cross. I stopped at one of the side creeks for lunch, taking off my boots to give my feet some air. 

4 hours my arse!!

Through boggy grasslands

Descending towards the river

Gentians

Following the river, you can see the track top right

Mostly the track stayed high above the river, would have been a bit of a scramble to get down to these pools

Lots of scrambles like this

I've been wearing Injinji mid socks and using hikers wool to prevent blisters but there wasn't quite enough padding on my left heel and although I could feel a blister developing I didn't stop to attend to it, just soldiered on. The track climbed away from the Maitland and up a long ridge. The ground all day had been very rocky, and the vegetation dry, mostly Manuka and low shrubs, so not much respite from the sun. 

Once I got to the top of the ridge the track disappeared straight into a lovely moist beech forest and the temperature plummeted a good five degrees which was extremely welcome. The descent was fairly steep down to a boulder strewn river which required walking up within the river bed. Stone hopping isn't a favourite with me. At last the poles indicated the final ascent, a fairly brutal climb straight up to avoid a very large slip. Then the track crossed above the slip, climbed a little more and then descended to a shrubby clearing with Porters Creek Hut sitting in the sun. 


The sun didn't last long and soon the hut was in shade. It had been a tough day, and many other walkers in the hut book also attested to the walk being a tough one. The lack of shade and the dry rocky environment is quite wearying.

Sunset at Porters Creek Hut

After a wash and attending to the small blister on my left heel I had dinner and had an early night. However, at 8:30pm I saw torches and a family of five turned up. Mum, dad, two kids and a five month old baby!! They took 7.5 hours from Red Hills and walked the last couple of hours with head torches. Walking up that dry riverbed must have been pretty tough in the dark, and they wouldn't have been aware of the huge drop not far off the track. Yet the kids were great, not grumpy at all. They were doing TA NoBo and planned to just go to Hunters Hut tomorrow, having planned to take 12 days to do the entire crossing out to Pelorus Bridge. After a wee chat they cooked their dinner and went to bed. I pulled out my earplugs so I wouldn't be disturbed by the baby.

Day 2 Porters Creek Hut to Hunters Hut 7km, 3.5 hours
Hunters Hut to Top Wairoa Hut 10.5km, 6 hours

Another tough day. My alarm went off at 6am but I didn't manage to get away until 7:30. The walk to Hunters Hut was fairly straight forward with some scree downhills and uphills and a longish sidle across red boulders. The hut was in a lovely spot in the sun well above the river, the old hut having been washed away some years ago killing two occupants. 

One of many boulder fields that had to be crossed

Looking back at Porters Creek Hut

Scree scramble up

Nice wee slippery down

Down the bottom

Nice wee path through some beech forest


Back to the more usual track quality for the day

Which then became big ugly boulder fields to cross

More of those bloody boulders

From the river below the hut the track began to climb, sidling along above the river which had gorgeous pools perfect for swimming in. The wind picked up, not much of an issue at first but once the real climb began it was quite strong. As I got higher I could see down to Tasman Bay. There was also cell coverage so I checked the weather forecast. Still good. 



Climbing up the ridge towards Mt Ellis

It was a long climb. The wind was blustery and at times strong enough to knock me sideways, so I was using both poles for support. It climbed up to just below Mt Ellis, then there was a very long sidle below the rocky outcrop to join another ridge line. I could see Hunters Hut the whole time!! 

Mt Ellis

Sidling across under Mt Ellis to the ridge in the distance

About to head down into the Wairoa Valley

The route followed the ridge down and then headed straight downhill into Wairoa Valley. It was a very long and brutal descent, through tussock, bogs and huge red boulder fields. At times I thought my legs would give out and I had a few falls and scrapes, but nothing serious. At last the bright yellow hut came into view, although the toilet could be seen from even further up, but it still took forever to get to.

Upper Wairoa Hut, another 20 minutes of horrible descent to go

So happy to have arrived..

It was an old, but cosy hut, and no-one else turned up. I was glad the family had chosen to just walk to Hunters Hut, that wind would have been pretty brutal on the kids, and no way would you want to negotiate those boulder fields in the dark. I was exhausted, so it was another early dinner and straight to bed.

Day 3 Top Wairoa Hut to Mid Wairoa Hut 7km, 5 hours

I had planned to tramp another big day so I got up before 6 and managed to get away about 7:15. First I had to negotiate a rather slippery scree slope down to the river, cross it, then follow the river downstream. My mates Renee and Billy had told me that this section was pretty wild, with lots of washouts, so I was prepared for another difficult day.

The route down river was mostly sidling along above the river until the way got bluffed out, which meant multiple crossings. I'm never keen to do dodgy rock hopping to save myself from getting wet feet, so I mostly waded across. The river was pretty low, but had some lovely pools and waterfalls. 


My hydration plan for the morning was to drink a cup of water every time I crossed a stream or river. Subsequently I drank lots and had to stop to pee lots!! There was some easy walking in the forest but a lot of narrow sidling well above the river and a few ledges to climb up and around. Pretty hard to make good time and at times quite terrifying.





There were spectacular waterfalls and pools for swimming in, but the track was rarely at river level except where there was a crossing to the other side. I thought I was making okay time and then encountered a big tree fall. First I tried to climb through it as I couldn't see a track around it. That ended hilariously when I slipped and went for a fairly spectacular upside down number with one leg still dangling around a branch a la monkey bar. Only I'm not as flexible as I was when I was a kid!! I managed to extricate myself and then backed out and tried a different route a bit lower down and found evidence others had gone that way too. 


Once back on the track it was another 30-40 minutes to Mid Wairoa Hut, sitting in a lovely sunny clearing.
 
After stopping to have lunch I decided to stay. I was tired, the sun was out, and there was a really nice big pool in the river for swimming in. For the last 3 days I had taken considerably longer than the advertised DOC times so although it said 4.5 hours to Tarn Hut I couldn't be sure it wasn't going to take considerably longer. I figured I could make Rintoul from Mid Wairoa in one day, then Slaty the following day, and still have a day up my sleeve. After checking my food supplies I realised I could manage for another 2 days extra should bad weather come in. I even checked the weather forecast on my Inreach and it looked good for the next couple of days.

Decision made I had a cup of tea and sat reading my Kindle in the sun, dodging sandflies. A young couple turned up having walked in from Wairoa roadend, scoping the river for kayaking or canyoning. After they left I went for a swim in the river, and laundered the smalls. The sun and wind did a good job of drying everything, and I congratulated myself on deciding to stop and rest at such a great location.

Late afternoon a chap named Kim turned up, having walked from Rintoul. It was good to compare notes and I felt even happier with my decision to have a half day.

Day 4 Mid Wairoa Hut to Tarn Hut 6.5km, 3:45 hours
Tarn Hut to Rintoul Hut 8km, 4:40 hours

I was up at about 5:30 am and left at 7, Kim leaving even earlier. I'm slow getting away in the morning, I think I enjoy that cup of coffee too much. It was a bit of a clamber to get onto the swing bridge across the river and then it was a steep climb up to about 700m when the climb just became steady, all the way up to the ridge line. There was a handy shortcut along a long sidle below Bushy Tops which knocked off a bit of altitude and then the track followed the ridge line all the way to the turn off to Tarn Hut.



Bishops Cap, the track sidles under it after following that ridge

The ridge line had lots of rocky outcrops with stunted beech trees and a lot of wasps. These European immigrants outcompete with native bees for the honeydew produced during late summer by a native scale insect that lives on beech trees, and can give you a very nasty sting. There were no bait stations up on the ridge and the wasps were plentiful, but only in the sunny spots, not in the forest below the ridge. Needless to say I didn't linger long anywhere I could see or hear the wasps, but I did take advantage of cell coverage to get an updated weather forecast. It was looking like cloudy conditions in two days, so I planned to get most of the alpine section done by then.

Slaty Peak, to get there I have to follow a lot of ridges...

Looking down to Tasman Bay, and checking the weather forecast and my emails...



Can you see the track following the ridgeline? Slaty in background

I plunged off the ridge to take the track down to Tarn Hut, another pearler sitting in a grassy clearing. The nearby tarn was looking a little sad, not particularly inviting for a swim. I had a little lunch, filled up my water bladder and returned to the ridge along a different track.

Tarn Hut

The ridge climbed steadily to Bishops Cap, where the track sidled well below the summit then joined another ridge up to Purple Top. I passed John, an American fast packing through, and heading out at Wairoa as he had a flight back to the North Island the next day. The final climb to Purple Top Saddle was over some scree and boulder slopes, with great views, including Rintoul Hut in the distance. 


View of Rintoul from Purple Top

I stopped on the saddle to enjoy the second half of my lunch then headed down. It was an easy scree sidling slope across to the next ridge line then a steep downhill, mostly in forest. My legs were feeling great though the final bit to the hut  was a bit of a slog uphill. 

John the American had told me that a local chap, Mark, was staying at hut. Both had walked over from Old Man Hut, but Mark had opted for a lazy half day. What I would have considered doing if the weather wasn't forecast to clag in the day after.

Sunset glow on Mt Rintoul

Alpenglow and half moon

Even though I'd tramped for over 8 hours, it was by far the easiest tramping day so far: nothing technical and good track through the forest. The Red Hills section had been much tougher, but tomorrow I would be crossing Mt Rintoul, the crux of the trip!

Day 5 Rintoul Hut to Old Man Hut 4.5km, 4:15 hours
Old Man Hut to Slaty Hut 10km, 4 hours

I don't know what Mark's problem was, but he got up so many times overnight going out and in of the hut and then at 4:30 he cooked his breakfast outside so as not to disturb me. I got up at 5 as his continuous disturbance meant I couldn't get back to sleep anyway. He left at 6, whereas I had a leisurely pack up and got to enjoy my coffee before leaving just after 7. 

It was yet another stunning sunny day. The slog began straight away, first a steep climb through the forest, and then up crumbly scree. It wasn't very pleasant, and I found it slightly less slippery clambering up on the bigger rocks to the side of the main "track". Once up this scree slope there was a small section where you needed to climb down some rocks and then sidle across above a steep gut to gain the main Rintoul plateau. It was nowhere near as gnarly as I'd been led to believe.

Up early...

The first scree slope to climb

Views of Southern Alps, Nelson Lakes area

Tasman Bay, Kahurangi behind

A more gentle ridge climb once above the first scree scramble

The bit where it climbs down and then across a steep gut to the next ridge

Along the ridge

The main Rintoul plateau was broad and fairly featureless, and you wouldn't want to be up there in whiteout conditions as the poles were rather widely spaced. It climbed steadily up to Mt Rintoul itself, and then the hardest part of the crossing revealed itself.

Thankful for those Waratahs


Heading towards the summit of Mt Rintoul


And now to head down that ridge, Wairau Valley in background

To get to Little Mt Rintoul you needed to climb down through rocks, which was easy, but then there was a steep slippery scree descent, a long sidle across a number of boulder fields, and finally a climb up on a mixture of rock and loose scree to at last make Little Rintoul. It was by far the slipperiest section, but it wasn't particularly exposed, so a fall would scrape skin rather than cause a major injury. Unless you were stupid enough to run it!!

The easy bit of the descent, looking back up at Rintoul

The track does NOT continue along this ridge

It drops down on this ugly scree and sidles along before climbing up again

Little Rintoul

I met a couple of women with their dog just as I got to Little Rintoul, who were a little concerned whether their dog would make it. I reassured them the route wasn't as gnarly as I had been expecting: there were rock scrambles on the Wairoa river section I'd found harder. It took about 3 hours over the tops and then another hour down the steep descent to the ridge line to Old Man. 

Looking back up at Little Rintoul

Continuing down to Old Man ridgeline, Hut in clearing to right of centre

The detour to Old Man Hut involved a loss of 200m vertical, and a climb back up to the ridge again. Since I was making good time and hadn't found the Rintoul crossing too difficult, I knew I wouldn't bypass it, simply because I couldn't NOT bag it! So down I went on a steep track through the forest to another sunny clearing. I had enough water so I just had a big cupful to drink whilst there and took my shoes and socks off for 15 minutes whilst checking out the hut, signing the book and having a snack. Then back on with the boots and back up to the ridge. All up the detour took me over an hour: 15 minutes down, 30 minutes up and about 30 minutes chilling, but I had heaps of time, leaving the hut at 11:45am for Slaty. 

Old Man Hut

Rintoul in background

When I had been up on Rintoul the wind had started to kick in but I was sheltered coming down from Little Rintoul. However once back on the main ridge the wind was quite strong but not as gusty as it had been on the crossing from Hunters. As I left the trees heading towards Old Man Peak it became quite exposed so I put my jacket on. I'd kept my gloves on all day.

The ridge walking was spectacular, views of the Southern Alps in one direction, Kahurangi and Tasman Bay the other. The wind was annoying but wasn't strong enough to knock me around so I could continue, though it was cold enough for me to put the hood up, and later to put my trousers on as well. 

Back on the main ridge, my destination for the day: Mt Slaty (the pointy one)

Gorgeous rock formations along the ridge

The track climbing up towards Old Man Peak

Looking down to the Wairau Valley from Old Man Peak, there's a track that heads down that ridgeline to Goulter Hut 

Once I had climbed to Old Man Peak the trail turned west to follow the ridge to Slaty Peak, which meant down some scree and then up again to some wonderful tussock covered meadows. It was the easiest walking of the day and nice to stretch the legs. By now the wind was a headwind, but it was sunny, and with the right clothing I was warm and thoroughly enjoying the expansive views in all directions, including across to Mt Rintoul. The track undulated further until at last Slaty Peak towered above me. The hut was nestled next to the bush line well below the peak with a narrow sidle track across to it. I made it to the hut just before 4pm.

Windy, but stunning!

Looking back at Old Man Peak (left) and Rintouls (right)

Heading towards Slaty Peak

And there's the hut!

I hadn't been there long when a young Swedish chap turned up. He told me he wanted to make it to Tarn Hut the following day and didn't appear to have done much NZ tramping at all. I suggested that Tarn might be a bit ambitious given the weather may not be great tomorrow and he has to make it over Rintoul first. He took 6 hours from Hackett which isn't much under the DOC times. I suggested he help me collect some firewood, and introduced him to a few tenets of hut etiquette, but he didn't seem very interested, though was happy to enjoy the fire I lit!! I also told him I'd be sleeping in, as I had an easy day, but would wear my earplugs so he wouldn't disturb me when he got up to go.

Day 6 Slaty Hut to Starveal Hut 5km, 2.5 hours
Starveal Hut to Hackett Hut 6km, 2 hours
Hackett Hut to Aniseed Valley Rd 7km, 1.5 hours

I woke up as daylight filtered in to the hut, and enjoyed a leisurely coffee. My Swedish friend was surprised that I was up so early, as I'd said I was sleeping in. He obviously wasn't used to the common practice of packing up in the dark and heading off at first light, or earlier!!

Slaty Hut

As expected it was cloudy on the tops, coming in and out. The Swedish fellow set off a little before me and was immediately swallowed into the mist. I left about 8:30, not concerned about the cloud as I only had to get to Starveall Hut and then I would be descending off the alpine ridge into the forest. There was one more climb up to Mt Starveall before a gentle descent to the hut. By the time I got to the hut the sun was out and I'd left all those clouds behind.

Clouds over the ridge

Makes for moody walking, as long as there's a path to follow....

Vegetable sheep, a sure sign you're in the alpine zone

Starveall Hut, alpine crossing complete!

Then it was downhill all the way to Hackett, often on quite a steep track. I crossed the first streams I'd seen since the Wairoa 3 days ago. After lunch at Hackett Hut I then walked out to the roadend. I passed more people day-walking up the Hackett track than I'd met the entire week!

The first running water since the Wairoa River 3 days ago

Pyramid Rock

Following the Hackett Stream, not possible if the river is up as the track is often in the stream bed

Hackett Hut

The final walk out to Aniseed Valley Road

I had messaged Brendon to pick me up at 4. I got there about 3:40 and took off my boots and walked in to the cold river to soothe my feet. Bliss!! The kids and Brendon turned up and after the kids had explored for a while we went back to Wakefield. 

My boots were buggered. I didn't get any more blisters after packing a little more hikers wool around my heel, but the sole has begun to come apart so it may be time to retire them. I've actually done more tramping in trail shoes than boots over the last few years, but the boots always come on the particularly rugged trips. And the terrain beats the shit out of them!

Looking worse for wear....

After a lovely evening enjoying dinner with Brendon's family and a friend, I headed off the next morning for a few days R and R camping by the beach in Tasman Bay. Brendon's daughter tested positive for Omicron two days later, but luckily I didn't catch it. I had some paddling to do.

That's next...