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!


  1. What a fabulous trip. Thanks for sharing. Are you affected by highway 6 closure?

    1. No, I finished the tramp a week ago. Had a very hot weekend in Wanaka before heading south again. Flying to Sydney today, Japan tomorrow. Ski goddess time!!