The Five Passes - Mt Aspiring NP
Beech forest,scree and snow grass slopes,valley flats and river crossings all combine with five high alpine passes to complete a circuit,if you wish. Tents and rock bivvies are all that's on offer. The need exists to navigate with map and compass and available track notes. Describing here from the Routeburn track to Sugarloaf Pass, Park pass, Cow Saddle, Fiery Col, Fohn Saddle and the Beans Burn to the Dart River.
It was an independent walk over 6 days with several well acquainted club members. We were away from graded tracks,moving over high alpine passes and camping where it suited. None of us had done this route before.
It was late summer 2001 and we had all arrived at different times and from other varying activities to finally meet in Glenorchy, mid morning. Seven of us were brimming with tales of achievement and misadventure from the previous couple of weeks.
The Routeburn track was our launch point after arriving by bus.The many trampers present weren't to know we were going anywhere different to them as they all prepared to head off down the well manicured track. A few whispers and puzzled looks ensued when after 200M of track we turned right and quickly disappeared into the bush. Then.... total silence. Within minutes we were engrossed in the task of hauling our frames up to Sugarloaf Pass.
Some way up the ridge, Bruce announced he had neglected to bring his cache of dehydrated main meals. It provided us the rare opportunity to pay out on one of our own for such a monumental error. The experience within the group was such that Bruce was not wanting for anything the entire trip. Everyone had at least an extra meal.
Sugarloaf Pass was boggy and cloud drifted in and out to reveal only brief vistas of the surrounding mountains. A short side trip to some tarns a little higher gave others an extended break. Later that day we camped at Theatre Flat in drizzly rain as we prepared the mountain radio for reception.
A beautiful garden area exists on a small rise just upstream of Theatre Flat. There are views up and downstream from there.
A good rock bivvy would house several people from the prevailing weather in the Rock Burn just below Park Pass.
Lunch for us on the second day was high on Park Pass with magnificent views of ice covered peaks ,lush greenery and water streaming everywhere. The rock colours varied all around and scree slopes with boulders as big as cars looked like pebble slides. It still took time to accommodate the scale of the mountains.
The descent from Park Pass is steep but almost completely shrouded in dense beech forest. Some nice campsites are at the base near to Hidden Falls Ck. We took some time and effort to find a crossing of the swollen creek as we wandered upstream. A crossing will bring you out onto scree slopes where you'll be chasing cairns for some time . As you draw closer to Cow Saddle you are forced into the creek to cross several times and will eventually reach the only suitable campsite in the saddle. Enough to hold a few small tents at the junction of two streams.
As we absorbed the weather forecast of a turn for the worse by morning we cast an eye toward Fiery Col (our 4th pass). Not much was said but you knew the minds were ticking fast. It was about halfway through out tramp. The only advantage in returning was that we knew the way.
The night was uneventful and about 10 degrees. A contrast to the same site two years later alone with my partner. We had horizontal rain driving into the tent reducing the capacity dramatically and being single skin, the condensation inside splashed onto us and our bivvy bags with the force of the water hitting the outside. It was raining inside. The streams outside were lapping at the door at midnight and i was expecting to have to pick up fast and run to sit on rocks in the rain till dawn. I fell asleep and nothing happened. Dawn came and the water was gone.
Fiery Col was the highest of the passes we had to tackle. Some snow was stretching up for the last hundred metres or so. Bruce and i had been climbing and tramping for three weeks prior staying in a lightweight, very small tent. We wished we had more room now and the trade off of a bit more weight wouldn't have been noticed given our fitness. We flew on ahead of most of the others who seemed to be lumbering a little in the doldrums. The weather added to the glum atmosphere.The wind in the pass was chilling and we didn't stay long. Once on the other side, in patches of sun everybody perked up and enjoyed the descent to the Olivine ledge. About 3 - 400m down from the col and on the true right of the stream is the beginning of a ledge that appears to be grassed for a couple of k's . The unfortunate part is that the grass is often head height and riddled with holes full of water.
The group became strung out with this as we made progress along the ledge and up several hundred metres again to Fohn Lakes. These are perched between peaks around Fohn Saddle and make a fantastic camping spot. John decided to pitch his tent on a snow patch. It was enough for Noel to bail on him and improvise on his own bivvy with rocks as a windbreak. A perfect night followed. The group was expecting now to stay an extra day at the lakes. It had been a fast trip so far and there were plenty of points of interest.
This fourth morning meant that Bruce and i had to leave the group and strike out in advance to reach Glenorchy and friends with which we were to climb Mt Earnslaw. The Beans Burn was a long valley but we could see how far we could get before dark. The descent of Fohn Saddle was fast and steep. We inspected the rock bivvy reported to be a short way down the river. In two years time i would camp here but not to use the bivvy. It was dank and small. Not far before the swing bridge toward the junction with the Dart we checked out another rock bivvy which was sizeable but someone had almost made a permanent home out of it. We didn't think that surprising given the fringe-dweller type town Glenorchy is. It is only a short distance by boat and foot.
The Beans Burn took all day but there was light left to cross the Dart river. (madness in hindsight). The mad part was that we did it with no boots on.The river was the lowest it had been in a long time. Individually we picked our way over several braids. In no time we were at Chinaman's Bluff (the end of the Rees-Dart track). Three DOC cars were still there at 8pm. Whilst out trapping stoats etc their tents and flys, which had been strung up to dry , were blown through the bush. We gathered them up and stored them in the back of one of the utes.
The breeze present was cool and pleasant. We were tired but didn't think of walking any further. Conditions were fine for camping and maybe a lift in the morning. At the very least we had the bus to catch at 1.pm the next day. Suddenly the breeze stopped and within a minute we were inundated in sandflies like never before. Bruce asked how far i thought Glenorchy was. I hadn't referred to the map. I guessed about 10 - 15 klms. Without a word we picked up our gear and started walking. Hoping a DOC car will follow soon and the chance of a ride.
We were walking till 9.30pm when the moment of truth came. A car was coming from behind. It stopped. The driver was a lady DOC employee who knew many people in bushwalking circles in Brisbane where she lived for 30 years. We had to come all that way to meet people from home.
The sweetest thing was getting back to Glenorchy that same day in time for a piece of bacon and egg pie but alas we missed the pub by minutes.