Sunday, December 20, 2020

Wildflowers in alpine valleys: a few days up the Hopkins/Huxley

It's not uncommon in NZ for the weather to alter your plans. My plans, at any rate, as I have the luxury to reschedule, not being on a fixed timeline. So, a couple of years ago I had planned to walk up the Huxley, but when I got out of my car at the carpark I was almost bowled over by the wind. Not fancying walking into that headwind I retreated around the corner and walked up the South Temple instead.

Since then, I'd rescheduled the trip at least twice more, but each time it had rained, and the Huxley Valley is best traversed along the valley floor, not an option when the river is up. Then at last the stars aligned, with sunny settled weather forecast for a good 5 days.... 

Driving up the road alongside Lake Ohau I passed the remains of the village, which was sadly decimated by a bushfire a couple of months ago. The dead trees around Lake Middleton were being cleared and the campsite there remains closed, but I was heading further up valley. Firstly to visit the mistletoe flowering on the beech trees at Parsons Creek, and then to camp the night up at Temple campsite.

The next morning I headed up to the Hopkins carpark, but decided to drive a bit further along the 4WD track towards Monument Hut as I now own an AWD vehicle. The Outback doesn't have great clearance, so I didn't get too far before bottling, parking the car on a grassy verge away from the track, and walking the rest of the way. It's a pretty average amble along the 4WD track, avoiding the occasional mudhole, to the end of the track at Monument. I stopped there for lunch.

North of Monument there is only a walking track. 4WD vehicles drive up the river bed, finding whatever track suits depending on where the braided river flows after each rain event. One driver I met said the river was fairly low at present, which was reassuring.

It's another hour from Monument up to the swing bridge across the Huxley River. The bridge crosses the river through a gorged section just before it joins the Hopkins, leaving you on the true left of the river, the same side as the next hut at Huxley Forks. 

There are two options once across the bridge: take the high water route which goes inland to avoid the gorge section, or descend to the river just upstream of the bridge. With river levels low, the latter was the much easier option, and soon I was walking up river flats covered in wildflowers.

After some time the river runs right up against the left side of the valley, leaving two options: follow the sidle track and stay on the true left all the way to the hut (an option I had heard from some returning trampers was painfully slow and tiring), or cross the river twice. I again opted for the latter, finding an easy ford at the spot where the river left the left bank, spreading into braids which make crossing much safer. Then it was a matter of wandering amongst the river fans on my way upstream, watching for a spot where I could recross to the other side again.

Finding a spot to cross back over wasn't easy. I could see where the walking track climbed up onto a grassed terrace so aimed to cross somewhere near there. The river was one channel only so flowing quite strongly, with multiple small rapids and wave trains. I spied a spot between two rapids and made my way cautiously and slowly, using both my sticks for stability, back across to the other side. The river was only just above my knees in depth, but the current was fairly strong, so I took very small steps so my risk of losing my balance was reduced. Not a comfortable crossing though...

I climbed up onto the terrace, where I spied a much better fording opportunity for my walk back out. It was further upstream, just above the rapids I had crossed between, and was wider and calmer. Mental note made. Up on the terrace I was looking straight up at Blair glacier face, mostly now devoid of ice and snow, but some very nice waterfalls all the same.

After a few small creek crossings Huxley Forks Huts came in to view. I set up camp in the main hut, the smaller hut already being occupied by a couple from Motueka who went for a day trip up to Brodrick Hut and were able to give me some beta on the route. "Take the river route" they urged me, the track sidles high to climb over numerous slips and is a bit of a bush bash.

The next day I went on a day trip to South Huxley Biv. However I only got an hour an a half along before I found myself getting uncomfortable with the terrain and how long it was taking me to find the poorly maintained trail through the vegetation. Whilst I was sidling along above a massive drop into the churning river below.

When tramping solo I am always mindful of the risks I am taking, and when I feel uncomfortable, I listen and take action. I tussled with those doubts, knowing I had hours of daylight to find the route, but still I felt weirdly uncomfortable. The trail I was on wasn't particularly dangerous, there was lots of ground between me and the drop off, but the bad feeling wouldn't go away. So I turned around and walked back to Huxley Forks Hut. I thought about walking up to Brodrick Hut instead, but decided to call it a day, let the bad adrenaline settle, and just read and do crosswords instead. It was a good decision...

The next day I was off early, up to Brodrick Hut. I followed the river almost the whole way, requiring a little boulder hopping and wading, but not much climbing. Some of the slips were huge, so I was grateful to be able to skip around the bottom of them at the edge of the river rather than climbing up and over them in the forest. Only the final haul was up through the beech forest to the terrace where the hut is situated, just below the tree line.

It took a mere three hours to Brodrick Hut, so I had an early lunch then packed a day pack to explore further up the valley, including climbing up to Brodrick Pass on the main Divide. The day was sunny and clear. It was stunning!

My trip notes said the route up to the pass was well cairned and poled, but after crossing the third stream I couldn't find any more markers. I found one spot that might have been a fallen over cairn, so I scrambled up the slope a little, but couldn't really see a way through the scrub. I decided I didn't actually want to make climbing to a pass such a mission on a hot sunny day, and there was so much to explore in the upper valley besides.

The streams which I had crossed were still covered in ice further upstream, looking like mini glaciers, with awesome ice caves that the water was flowing through. And spectacular waterfalls.

There were flowers galore, including Mt Cook lilies in full bloom.

There was a lovely little tarn reflecting the peaks above, and perfect for a wee dip and sunbathe afterwards. I watched clouds come over the mountains from the west and just evaporate into the blue.

What a delightful spot!

That evening the wind picked up, but the hut was snug and warm, and in the morning clouds began to gather. There was no actual rain forecast, but I was still keen to get back down that river whilst the low water option was available.

The walk back to Huxley Forks only took 2.5 hours, so I continued on down river, fording at the much easier spot I had located, and back across at the same spot further down. I climbed up towards the swing bridge, but instead of crossing I followed the track on the northern side back to the Hopkins River where I stopped for lunch.

I waved at a couple coming across from the other side, thinking they were the couple from Motueka, who had planned to go to Dasler Biv after leaving Huxley Forks. It wasn't them, but a French couple who had just come back from climbing there, so I asked them about the river crossing. They said where they had crossed was deep and dodgy, but that immediately across was wider and shallower. Well why didn't you cross there instead, I felt like asking. They hadn't seen the Motueka couple, so perhaps they hadn't found a safe enough crossing either. The French couple had also not been able to ford the Huxley, so were walking back to the swing bridge. I took all this beta on board and headed out to see if I could find a place to cross.

The crossing was a piece of cake. Being a braided river the trick is to cross where the river splits, so that the current strength is diluted. Finding the shallow spots as it splits, and crossing there, also makes it easier. There was only one braid that was above my knees, but none of them had the strength of the crossing of the Huxley on my first day. I wandered up to Red Hut, which had a DOC ute parked outside. Later, three DOC workers returned. Twizel based, they were doing possum poisoning for a few days. They offered me a beer and were good company.

Red Hut was built in 1916 as a tourist hut. Some bright spark thought it would be a grand idea to bring tourists by car to Red Hut, then travel by horse up the Hopkins, climb over into the upper Dobson Valley, over Baron Saddle and down the Mueller Glacier to The Hermitage at Mt Cook. This would still be an epic undertaking nowadays. Not surprisingly, that tourism venture failed! But it's a lovely little two roomed hut all the same.

The next morning the DOC guys headed uphill to lay more poison and I walked up the valley and then climbed up to Dasler Biv. The biv is just below the tree line, and just to emphasise that this is a climbing location, there's a rock bluff you need to scramble up along the way. They provide a chain so it's not difficult. 

Above the treeline is scrub, and Dasler Pinnacle above that. I only went a little way further to get some views, then slipped and slid down the steep path back to the valley floor.

As I walked back to Red Hut I met Jamie, the local leaseholder, looking for some missing sheep. He gave me a lift back to the hut as he wanted to ask the DOC guys if they had seen his sheep. Since the DOC crew were heading back out that afternoon, I packed up my gear and hitched back to my car with them. Sure beats having to walk it both ways!

I was so grateful to get my few days up the Huxley and Hopkins Rivers. The weather was truly epic, and in January the access will be restricted for a few months whilst they repair the bridge over Maitland Stream. I drove over that bridge, it's dodgy as and sorely needs something done about it. Next time I head up there though, I think I'll bring the packraft!

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