Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Four days in Siberia: Gillespie Pass circuit

This was the tramp I was working up to. A river crossing that was potentially treacherous, a long walk up a valley to an overnight hut, a gruelling climb over an alpine pass, a side trip up to a glacial lake at the head of a hanging valley, and a walk down river to a leisurely exit by jet boat.

It was a hard walk, but not out of the realm of anyone with a fair level of fitness and the right equipment. By the latter I mean proper footwear, the means to stay warm and dry, and enough food to sustain your body for 8-9 hour tramping days. If there's one thing I've learnt about myself, I'm never going to be fast!!

First stop was the Wilkin Riverjets office to book my jet boat ride down the Wilkin River on the final day. For $110 it's possible to avoid a 6-7 hour walk through farmland and a potentially difficult river crossing, in exchange for 20 minutes speeding down a braided river back to civilisation. I'm not poor enough to consider this anything but a bargain!

I stayed overnight in Makarora, where I met Leah and Steve, an American couple also doing the circuit, so I asked to tag along with them for the crossing of the Makarora. My other option was to cross over via the bridge at Blue Pools, and walk an extra 6km back down to the confluence of the Young and Makarora rivers. Instead, I walked with them across the paddocks and joined them crossing the river just above the confluence. It was fairly fast flowing, and up to waist deep in one section, so it was just a tad frightening, but I never felt I would lose my footing. Any deeper and it may have been a different story.

Just as we finished crossing a jet boat with six people turned up. It's possible to pay $25 for the privilege of a jet boat transfer across the river, but I thought that was just too easy. We saved no time, or much money, walking it ourselves, but we couldn't be considered softies!!

After drying my feet and putting my boots on, it was time to start tramping up the Young Valley. This is a narrower valley than the Wilkin, and soon I was walking beside a raging torrent as it cascaded over huge boulders on its way from glacial melt higher up the valley. The track alternates between grassy meadow and tracking through beech forest, with portions of the track being quite technical climbing up and down over tree roots. The north branch of the Young River is crossed by swing bridge, and then the going gets tougher and steeper as the valley narrows. After about 6 hours of walking I arrive at Young Hut. There's a fair crowd staying the night and it's a pleasant evening enjoying a cup of red wine, good conversation, and some beautiful views of the rock walls opposite the hut.

The next morning it's raining, but I'll take cool weather over blazing sunshine when contemplating climbing an alpine pass with no shade. Even so it was hot hard going. The Young Valley closes in on all sides to sheer rock faces with waterfalls, but for the one exit via a ridge up to Gillespie Pass. It's fairly windy at altitude, and a bit cold, but my rain jacket gives me protection whilst I grab a much needed fuel replenish, then head over into the moonscape on the other side.

The glacier below Mt Awful can be seen at times through the cloud cover, but mostly it's desolate and very Mordor like. It's pretty hard to not throw around Lord of the Rings references, this really looks and feels like Middle Earth.

The wind abates on the other side of the pass and it's an easier grade walking back down to the treeline. Then it's a rather unpleasant scramble/climb down the beech tree roots and a few more ups and downs which seem to go on just a bit too long, until finally arriving on the grasslands high up in Siberia Valley. I stop for second lunch.

The final walk along the valley floor to Siberia Hut takes about an hour, and is a pleasant way to stretch out the legs after the difficult climb over the pass. I contemplate whether I will go to Crucible Lake the next day, or take a day off. The hut is full, but it's a nice crowd, and another pleasant evening is had.

After a leisurely breakfast I head off on the Crucible Lake walk. My pack only contains water, lunch, and wet weather gear, so it's considerably lighter a load. Initially I backtrack up the valley, before crossing Siberia Stream and then beginning the climb up alongside a waterfall to the hanging valley above. Yes, it is steep clambering over tree roots again. Hard going, regardless of the lightness of my pack.

A hanging valley is created when the valley below it erodes at a faster rate than the upper valley, making a valley that hangs in midair so to speak, usually with a sheer drop that a waterfall goes over. The climb up isn't sheer, but it's no walk in the park...

After crossing Crucible Stream high up, the valley opens up, and is covered in flowers. It ends in a cirque with a lake formed by rockfall. This is Crucible Lake. Whilst I was walking up to the lake I could hear thunderous rockfalls occurring, luckily nowhere near me!

A quick lunch in the rain by the lake was all I could manage. It was too cold for a swim. A bit of sunshine would have been magic. It's still pretty spectacular in the rain....

The walk back down was much easier. My legs are definitely getting used to the downhill walking at a faster pace than the uphill climbs. It took me a good hour less to get back to the Hut, which was less than half full for the night. The sun had come out and I had a fantastic swim and wash in the nearby waterfall and pool.

Day four began overcast, but soon cleared. The track downriver to the Wilkin has been maintained at a much higher level than any of the trails I had been on over the previous 7 days. That's because tourists fly in to Siberia Hut by plane and helicopter, walk the 2 hours down to Kerin Forks, and take the jet boat back. Even the grass has been mowed!

It was an absolute joy to walk down a benched switchback to the Wilkin River below. To find a nice piece of shade by the river and enjoy a leisurely lunch, reading my book and waiting for my transport to arrive. And right on time our jet boat arrived.

Wilkin jetboat from Naomi Brooks on Vimeo.

Twenty minutes later we were back at Makarora. And a couple of hours more and I was enjoying a long hot shower in Wanaka.

Bootcamp completed!

Monday, January 29, 2018

Stafford Bay Walk: water, water, some mud, more water, and a few sandflies

I arrived in Haast mid afternoon. It was warm and sunny, so after booking in to a backpackers and putting all my wet gear on the line to dry, I set off for a little recce of my trip the next day. First stop the Haast DOC office.

I'd already been in to the Wanaka office, and spoken at length with a friend of mine who happens to work there, who had walked the route late November. She'd told me what to expect regarding the route, in particular the large number of fallen trees I would need to navigate around, that the route mostly followed watercourses, and that the route markers were not always easy to follow. I was planning to use topographic maps I'd downloaded onto my phone, as well as the map and route following features on my Inreach satellite beacon. I wanted to trial their use on a fairly well marked route before using them on my trek in Australia in March, where we'll have no route markings whatsoever. I also wanted to gauge power usage of my devices.

I felt it was probably a good idea to pop into the local office and ask if there were any warnings or issues on the track, as it had been 2 days since I'd left Wanaka, and there had been some rain in the interim.

The woman who answered my query immediately informed me that the walk was a "route" not a "track", in keeping with the way that DOC classifies its walks. Apparently, to her, this immediately signified that I obviously had no idea what I was getting into. She informed me that I should not take the coastal route ( I wasn't planning to!) and then proceeded to interrogate me as to whether I had a beacon (yes), topographic map (yes again) and had let someone know my intentions (goddam I'd done that too!). Finally, after telling me about the windfalls and the dodgy route marking, she tried to put me off by telling me people had died on that track - not just the coastal route, but the inland route as well. What an absolute cow!!

I had a lovely feed of fish and chips and retired for the night, and the next morning drove down to Jackson Bay to begin the walk. I turned on my beacon, informed my friends I was heading off, and scrambled up the incline to the beginning of the track.

The first part follows a muddy, well marked track beside a small stream for about an hour to Smoothwater Stream, where the track forks. The route to Stafford Bay follows the stream upriver, so it's time to take the boots off and wade along in the shallow water in my crocs. Very pleasant, but slow going as you need to keep an eye out for the markers so you take the correct turn up the next stream. In fact I am pleasantly surprised that the route marking is more frequent than I was expecting, and my map and beacon also help me track where I am quite successfully.

After lunch by the stream I put the boots back on again to climb over the Stafford Saddle. It's a 200m vertical ascent, and although steep in places it's a doddle after the Brewster. The descent brings me to another stream, which I follow all the way down to its confluence with the Stafford River. There's a lot of clambering over boulders and fallen trees, but its impossible to get lost when all you have to do is follow the water downstream.

The Stafford River is a bit wider and deeper than the other streams, but easily crossed, and then it's a short stroll down to the Bay and the hut for the night. I'm the only resident, and I make sure to keep those pesky sandflies out. A short walk along the beach being dive-bombed by oyster catchers, and feasted on by sandflies sees me safe and sound back in the hut well before sunset. I have a nice wash in the river though, and dry all my clothes in the sun.

Overnight it rains, and next morning the clouds are low and there looks to be a lot more rain coming. I go check the river level and it has gone up a good foot. I decide it might be a good time to leave....

The walk out is done almost entirely in my crocs. Aside from the walk over the saddle, where I changed into my boots, I walked in the rivers and streams most of the way. There was a lot more water around, and places that had been dry the day before were now under water. It wasn't deep, or fast flowing, but it was impossible to stay dry so I just stayed in the crocs and plodded on. I took no photos, it was just too wet.

By the time I got to the car the sun was out and the skies had cleared. A quick wash in a nearby stream and some dry clean clothes made me presentable enough to go sample some seafood chowder at the food caravan in Jackson Bay.

Then it was back over the Haast Pass to Makarora for the final 4 days of my self imposed bootcamp.

Sunday, January 28, 2018

Brewster Hut walk: 1km vertical climb and descent

The legs and cardiovascular system haven't really had any sort of workout for a few months. Not since I stopped cycling or doing any high intensity workouts after my last retinal tear and repair. So they needed some serious kickstart. What better way than to walk 2.5km uphill gaining 1000m vertical. You do the math, that's serious steep, with no respite.

Brewster Hut sits below Mounts Armstrong and Brewster, and the Brewster Glacier, on the first piece of flat ground above the treeline, near the headwaters of the Haast River. The track starts just over the Haast Pass at the pretty Fantail Falls, beginning with the fording of the stream, a scramble up the bank, and then the climb begins.

It is a beautiful walk, through beech forest, over tree roots, and upwards. Depending on your fitness, it takes 3-4 hours in total, over half of it in the forest before climbing above the treeline.

Then you continue to follow a narrow ridge upwards, with views over to the glacier and the waterfalls ensuing from it.

The hut is in a spectacular location with views across to the glacier, and to the mountains over the other side of the Haast Valley. Unfortunately there was high cloud obscuring the mountains most of the day, but in the evening they cleared enough to get a good view. I didn't climb higher than the hut because of the cloud cover, but also because I needed to keep some energy for the next day's descent.

Backcountry mountain huts are an institution in NZ and are a welcome refuge at the end of a tramping day. Brewster Hut has become very popular, so now requires booking and paying ahead for a bed in the hut. The facilities are quite good, with rainwater tank, sleeping platforms with mattresses, a kitchen and dining area, outside deck, and drop toilet. And views....

The hut isn't full, but there's a fair few staying, including a family of five, and two people camping in a tent. It's cheaper to camp, but also more effort and weight to carry, so I'm opting for the hut instead.

The next morning it is misty and raining, which makes for a slippery descent. My legs are jelly by the time I at last reach the car park, where I go for a quick swim in the river to wash off the sweat, then change in to dry clothes for the drive to the West Coast.

For my next tramp....