Aoraki to Arthur’s Pass

Posted by Shaun Barnett on 07/08/2003
Photo: Shaun Bartlett.

A 600km (370-mile) spine of glaciated mountains divides New Zealand’s South Island down its entire length. Although not high by world standards, the peaks of the Southern Alps (Ka Tiritiri o te Moana is the range’s Maori name) are nonetheless dramatic as they rise so close to the ocean – at Aoraki/ Mount Cook to almost 3800m (12,500ft) only 30km (18 miles) from the coastline.

Glaciers, including the Franz Josef and Fox (both of which almost reach the sea), cover much of this region. To the west of the Alps lie deeply gorged valleys and dense rainforests; to the east are dry windswept grasslands and broad braided rivers.

Two national parks form the boundaries of the central Southern Alps: in the south is the Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park and in the north, Arthur’s Pass National Park. While both are very popular and accessible locations for climbers and hikers, it is the remote and little-visited stretch of countryside in-between that offers the ultimate scope for adventure on long-distance transalpine hikes. Depending on the route taken and the weather encountered, trekkers will face a number of challenges and need to be prepared for glacier travel, river crossings and, in places, bush navigation.

On the western side of the Alps travel is undoubtedly slower, wetter and more difficult, but here lie some of the more spectacular landscapes, including the Bracken Snowfield, and the Garden of Eden and Allah ice plateaus. Hiking in the east is generally faster, but moraine and riverbed travel here can be tiresome and several of the major rivers, the Rangitata and Godley in particular, may be difficult to cross. A fast party will need a minimum of 10 days to complete the eastern route, but two to three weeks is more likely, and if you intend spending time on the western side of the Alps, allow up to four weeks.

Climbers have been tackling long traverses in the central Southern Alps from as early as the 1930s. In December 1934, GCT Burns and Max Townsend were two of the first to complete a trip, when they crossed eight passes with ascents covering more than 7800m (25,590ft) between Arthur’s Pass and Aoraki/Mount Cook in just 13 days. More recently, in 1989, Michael Abbot completed an astonishingly bold solo traverse not just of the Southern Alps, but 1600km (990 miles) along the entire South Island in 130 days.

These days there are usually only one to two attempts per year. Most parties begin in the north at Arthur’s Pass where travel is easier and there are few glaciers. However, late in the season snowmelt makes rivers very difficult to cross, and opening crevasses can make glaciers impassable, so it may make more sense to tackle the bigger, more glaciated country of the south first (the route described is in this south-north direction, and covers a mixture of travel in both the west and east). This traverse begins in Mount Cook Village. Towering above the village is the immense pyramid of Mount Cook, or Aoraki – ‘the sky piercer’ – the highest of New Zealand’s mountains (3754m; 12,317ft). From this village, hikers face two options, both involving travel up glaciers. Most choose the Tasman Glacier, at 29km (18 miles) New Zealand’s longest, while some opt for the Murchison Glacier, the second longest.

While the Tasman offers more travel on white ice and less on gritty moraine, trekkers will eventually have to cross into the head of the Murchison regardless. Both routes begin with the milky-white Tasman glacier terminal lake, discoloured from glacier-ground mica. Both valleys are surrounded by some of the country’s highest mountains, and make an impressive – if daunting – introduction to the trip. At this angle, Aoraki/ Mount Cook appears as a giant parallelogram with two massive glaciated faces dominant, while the ice peak of Mount Tasman has two prominent shoulders that at times look like a white bird with wings poised, ready for flight. From the head of the Murchison Glacier (two to three days’ trekking) several routes into the Godley valley exist, but the most used are the Classen and the Armadillo Saddle. Both will require good climbing and navigation skills, and in the wrong conditions may prove impassable. In the Godley valley, lying in the north of Aoraki/ Mount Cook National Park, the silvery ribbons of the Godley River merge and divide to form striking patterns on the broad valley floor. From here, there is really only one option: a crossing of Terra Nova Pass at the valley head. Getting there, however, may well be the hardest part of the trip. Rain or snowmelt can easily make the Godley uncrossable, and there are no bridges. However, good huts provide basic accommodation to wait out bad weather.

Many glacier meltwater lakes in the Southern Alps are increasingly challenging to get around; most have grown considerably with recent glacial recession. By far the best option for traversing the Godley Glacier terminal lake is to sidle around the true right (to the left-hand side, facing upstream), but this requires fording the Godley River once again. Sidling around the true left avoids crossing the river, but rockfall and steep bluffs make this very dangerous. A high route over nearby highground is possible, but will require dextrous navigation and good weather. Terra Nova Pass leads from the head of the Godley Glacier, under the imposing helmet of Mount D’Archiac, eventually into the Havelock branch of the Rangitata River, which is liberally laced with small but welcome huts (about a week’s trekking will have elapsed). St Winifred’s Hut is a good spot for your first ‘food dump’ – due to the trek length, you will need to organize a helicopter operator to fly in food supplies on two or three occasions.

The Havelock, and especially its neighbour the Clyde, are very large rivers and can only be crossed during periods of low to medium flow. Hikers should be well versed in river-current crossing techniques, and never attempt fording alone or when the water level is high. During the early days of high country farming, drowning in such rivers was so common that for a while it was known as ‘the New Zealand death’.

Loose rock is another danger. By now hikers will be familiar with the easily shattered greywacke and schist rock that makes up so much of the Southern Alps. The grinding of the Pacific and Indo-Australian continental plates have uplifted New Zealand’s relatively young mountains over the past five million years, raising them a total of 18,000m (59,000ft) – over twice the height of Everest. However, the sedimentary layers of these mountains are eroded at much greater rates than the rock of the Himalaya, hence their more modest stature. From the headwaters of the Clyde, it is possible to traverse the Gardens of Eden and Allah, immense ice plateaus straddling the western side of the Alps. They offer transalpine hiking par excellence, and are likely to be the highlight of your trip. From Perth Col at the head of the Frances valley, access onto the plateau is reasonably straightforward so you can strike out across the glistening plateau roped-up for glacier travel. All is ice and snow, and the silence profound. There are stupendous views back to Aoraki/Mount Cook and north to the lesser known but equally inspiring peaks of Whitcombe and Evans.

However, difficulties multiply when getting off the plateau into the Wanganui valley. The Adams River is very tough bush-crashing along a very sparsely marked route, while the adjacent Lambert Glacier and gorge are impassable. Routes do exist allowing trekkers to sidle around treacherous loose-rock and tussock slopes onto Lambert Spur between the two valleys. Once down in the Wanganui valley, steep banks are clothed in dense forest and the turquoise-coloured river rushes through gigantic schist boulders. Another week will have passed. A marked route of sorts exists upriver, but this is tough going, and parties choosing this route will be thankful to reach Smyth Hut (and its natural hot pools!) near the valley head after one to two days.

The Rakaia valley (where parties can rejoin the eastern route) is reached from the Wanganui after crossing the Bracken Snowfield, a striking area of flat, crevassed glacier beneath the precipitous ‘cloud-gatherer’, Mount Evans, followed by a descent down onto Whitcombe Pass. Like other passes in the Southern Alps, the Whitcombe Pass was once a route for Maori travellers crossing the divide in search of pounamu, or greenstone – a treasured type of jade used for weapons and ornaments. Nowadays, the tracks and huts of the Whitcombe valley provide a useful way to make progress directly northward. These huts, many of them built in the 1950s and 1960s, provide shelter from the often unpredictable and stormy New Zealand weather. Rainfall on the West Coast is amongst the highest in the world – one year, a tributary of the Whitcombe recorded a staggering annual rainfall of 16.6m (54ft).

From Whitcombe Pass it takes two to three days to travel to Frew Hut; Arthur’s Pass is just a week away. Valley-hopping from Frew Hut over Frew Saddle leads to the Hokitika River; from here Mathias Pass is crossed to the Mathias River. Crossing the Rolleston Range to the Wilberforce River, the not-so-distant mountains of Arthur’s Pass draw perceptively closer. The upper reaches of the Wilberforce River offer several choices for reaching the boundary of Arthur’s Pass National Park, among them Whitehorn Pass or White Col. Both lead into tributaries of the Waimakariri River, one of the major valleys of Arthur’s Pass. It is also here that the trip concludes, at Klondyke Corner. Your legs will be weary, but you’ll have walked some 250km (160 miles), and crossed in excess of 10 passes, through truly demanding terrain.



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1) Anonymous User
31/01/2013
Wow, 10 years since this article was published and no comments? Would love to know what time of year you made the trip. I read this initially in the trekking atlas of the world, a great read. My email : mail@jamesleechdotcom

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