Frank and I have been up to Quaker Saddle on the Mt Somers Range on a couple of occasions. Once in snow, via a pleasant spur rising from the head of the east branch of the Stour. The second time was from the ancient 4WD track north of Saddle Creek. We did it in a very masochistic fashion via a 300 m scree climb once we realized there was a no-go zone of consolidated cheese grater scree at the level we’d hoped to exit on to Quaker Saddle.
Some of our trips are worked out on the basis of being able to stay at nice huts and linking them up e.g. our crossing from Comyns Hut to Tribulation Hut previously published on this site. It looked like the best time to do this Mt Somers range traverse with a forecast of still, sunny weather for the day’s travel along the ridge, having two nice huts to stay in and minimal snow to plod through. There was supposed to be a bit of light rain on the Saturday and possibly some of the Monday but as these were 2 short days, it would be OK.
We studied websites to get an idea of how much snow there would be on the range. The Castle Hill webcams give a rough idea for the Eastern Foothills of the main divide. The eastern side of Castle Hill was free of snow all the way to the 2000 metre summit and on the Mt Cloudsley western face snow only had accumulated to around 1700 metres. We were going as high as 1750 metres. It would be a bit chilly so to cover our bases on possibly hard snow, Frank chose to take his 6 point crampons as the angles on the south sides aren’t particularly steep.
With warm feet in mind, I chose to put both options in the car; plastic boots and 10 point crampons which I probably wouldn’t use and ordinary leather boots with the 6 points. We drove to the road end at Woolshed Creek eyeballing the snow levels as we approached the mountains. Mt Somers and Mt Winterslow only had light dustings of snow if at all, quite high up on the mountains.
Leather boots/6 points it was to be. The car park had 9 cars plus 2 van loads of cadets. As our car has been broken into on a previous occasion here, I stashed the plastics in some thick scrub nearby, camouflaged with dead manuka branches lying around. Even on a grid search, it would be hard to spot them.
We set off and as we walked along, a few groups of returning daywalkers made us a bit more optimistic that there would be bunks available for us in the hut. The track was muddy in places but it was only shallow and the improvements that ?DoC had made to the track in these places meant it wasn’t unpleasant.
We kept our noses alert for the smell of woodsmoke and as we skirted the rise of the Burma Rd, we saw various folks. No tents pitched though and someone coming down towards the hut from Morgan Creek. So we chivalrously hoofed it to ensure we would have bunks for the night. The fire was going and the hut seemed pretty full with 2 spare mattresses available.
The cadets were there, they had to sleep outside in tents as part of their experience. Inside the crowd was not a bad bunch – a mix of Continentals and Kiwis. We overheard snippets of advice which made us smile e.g. ‘the cooker heats water faster if you keep adding a little at a time’ (maybe for starting off melting snow over a stove perhaps?) and don’t wear too many clothes in your sleeping bag as this will insulate your body heat from the down and it won’t loft as much so you will stay cooler.
The crowd of 30 or so and various folks stoking the woodstove overnight kept the hut warm but I woke up with a cold. We packed up and left at a respectable hour (for us). The least height gain would involve going up the creek but I didn’t want to chance getting wet feet so took to the spur early on. There were ancient sheep trails and we briefly followed one until it came to the arête of a very extensive slip so on we climbed to the crest or in my case a shortcut to a shoulder and then across to a wee saddle. Frank took time to admire the view and take photos from his high point while I waited for him in the sun.
There were some small rises and falls then a steady climb to 1700 metres adjacent to an unbeaconed trig named TT. On the way up to this point we saw to our surprise, fresh footprints in the shallow and soft snow. We assumed they were chamois hunters who’d come up from the head of the creek south-east of Peache Saddle. As we descended to a low point we saw a pair in the distance coming back towards us, one uncharacteristically wearing a red parka. They turned out to be an English father and son on a day walk with a turnaround time they were respecting just short of the highest point of our ridge. We had a pleasant wee chat. It was a magnificent sunny day with very little wind.
We gained the 1755 metre summit of the ridge. It had taken 4 hours with a height gain of nearly 1200 metres so we were obeying Naismith's rule as I understand it. We dropped down the north facing ridge towards Quaker Saddle to find a sheltered spot somewhere in the lee of an outcrop. It was 12.40 pm so the sun was just past its zenith. I covered up but underestimated how long Frank would spend fiddling with his GPS, naming his waypoints. We ate our lunches and the sun shifted so that I was eventually in the fringes of sunshine only so had to move to another sheltered sunny spot. At 2pm, he was ready to go. We rose slightly from a broad saddle then turned off down a spur running SW to the 1480 contour. It was fast going in mainly scree. At this level we left the spur and followed another spur down running east to Black Stream.
As we descended, I was tempted by lines of wide scree but Frank said the spur was the best way. It was mainly scree for a long way down then short tussock and celmisia but easy going. We dropped into Black Stream for a drink. From here I could see that any notion of using screes short of going as far as our spur would have meant a possibly tedious sidle through less easy-going vegetation or scree.
We ascended the gentle rise of the saddle between the west and east branches of the Stour then headed downstream into the dazzling rays of the setting sun upstream of Manuka Hut. I had trouble seeing the best route so asked Frank to go in front. We managed to keep our feet dry in the narrow streambed and on dubious mushy bits alongside. We approached the hut and saw it had occupants and freshly cut green wood. Not a good sign.
There were 5 younger people who’d decided to tramp in for a drinking session. The whiskey and Coke were awaiting them on the table. They didn’t want us to stay and we didn’t want to either so they fabricated a tale how the next hut (Double Hut) was half an hour away and although we knew this to be a porkie (we do have maps etc. and have been there from Manuka Hut a few times) we agreed to carry on. They further misinformed us that the hut was empty. In fact, it had 3 people staying on from the previous night.
We left and began walking towards Double Hut. We were still feeling fresh and it’s a flat walk. We zipped along the 4WD track skirting Manuka Lake which was dry. I saw a sheltered wee campsite near a dead standing tree but the thought of a warm hut with soft mattresses made me keep my thoughts to myself. The subtle rise of Finger Stream and then Seagull Lake came and went then it was time to leave the Te Araroa trail and veer directly to Double Hut. We could see it dimly in the distance, nestled at the foot of a small curve. On the way I noticed plenty of dead matagouri in the Swin riverbed but it was too far away to start collecting wood.
We saw spots of light which seemed to progress up the track that leads to Double Hut. Another race to the hut? We approached the hut and saw the fire was going. People were chatting and as I opened the door I saw folks at the table and all the bunks covered in sleeping bags. Hi, are there any spare bunks? Not at the moment was the reply from a young Englishwoman. Oh, does that mean someone is leaving in 5 minutes? No, but there’s an A-frame woodshed you could stay in but we have our dogs in there as well. No worries, I love dogs and we’ll take a look says I.
The woodshed was small but big enough for the cute doggies occupying it. Frank took an extremely dim view to the point of profanity of being offered a shed to share with dogs and expressed his offense. When the young lady suggested we could go to Manuka Hut which was only 5 km away he told her she could shove that up her arse as well. Meanwhile I’m cheerfully and politely ignoring all this and saying, it’s fine, we’ve got a tent so can camp. Frank wasn’t taking the same view as Joseph and Mary on her offer of sleeping with the animals. I guess she was unaware of the dance of etiquette where the occupants offer to share the mattresses or suggest we shift the furniture to accommodate us on the floor. This is usually cheerily declined by the new-comers if they have their own resources.
Frank knows I’m very fussy about campsite selection so he left this task to me. It’s a bit tricky in the dark and one spot looked level and soft but possibly lumpy with grass. Another spot looked more level but firmer and a bit more exposed to the wind. This would have to do. We put up the tent and I attempted unsuccessfully to inflate my new mattress. Frank had to chance it with my rhinovirus-infested slobber to complete the task. As this was happening a chirpy, chatty young Kiwi lady came out to meet and greet. We joined the others in the smoky hut. There were only 3 chairs, all occupied by a party of 2 Belgium siblings and their friend, the Kiwi lass. The English lass was on her bunk, keeping a low profile. Her mates were still out hunting.
I managed to cook our voluminous dinner of pasta, home-dried dehy veggies and a feta/sun-dried tomato topping while the party occupying the chairs finished their meal. The Belgiums then sat on a bunk which meant we could finally sit down and enjoy our meal. Meantime the hunters returned. The fire which died down, began to smoke so the door was opened. I added sticks which caught and gave a yellow flame – end of the smoke for the time being. Eventually it was time for bed. I had cunningly brought in my sleeping sheet to warm up and changed into warmer layers for bedtime. Frank accurately predicted a frost-free night with the wind up a bit.
We had a reasonably warm night with a bit of flapping from the wind so frequent waking but it was OK as I had jammed in blue-tack earplugs. My new mattress seemed to be a bit more comfortable than the incumbent. We went to go in the hut but some bright spark had bolted it so when I began to climb through wide open window, the Kiwi lass rose and kindly unlocked it for us. We breakfasted and packed. The others headed off, the party of 3 and their lovely dogs (which had slept in the hut) to try their luck at hunting.
I got more wood from the edge of the river bank and then we headed off back to Manuka Hut. The occupiers were leaving as we arrived so we greeted them cheerfully as they headed off. No query on whether the hut was full or if we had camped etc. I inspected the hut. To my surprise it was immaculate apart from a poorly stocked woodshed. But at least all the offensive green stuff had been burned. With my constantly running nose, I was out of toilet paper so purloined some from the bog. The supposedly resident gecko there didn’t come out for a decko.
We travelled back up the head of the E. Stour and over the saddle to sidle on slopes on the true left of where Black Stream joins the main valley stream. We ascended above lines of matagouri and sidled the occasional scrubby defile. At the first gully we dropped down on the edge of a little slip just upstream of an attractively gorged junction with the main stream. Everytime I’d looked down into the E.Stour, it had looked pleasant-going with wide flat shingly banks but the prospect of being trapped by the unceasing belt of matagouri higher up the slope was daunting. It was a picturesque spot so we climbed out of this unnamed side stream into north-facing sunshine for lunch. Here we saw a cairn on the opposite side of this wee stream indicating travel up the edge of the slip. We’d left it prematurely and paid with a short descent through some scratchy scrub as we’d dropped down the bank.
The sun played its trick by dropping down to the ridge as we finished our lunch. We followed a cairned route down to the E. Stour. The other time we had come this way, we’d noticed snip marks. The route had consolidated more and had less scrub intruding our passage than before. We boulder-hopped in sunshine down to the West Branch junction and passed close to the remnants of a very derelict ancient hut nestled in a low spot. Then there was a discussion on what route to take to get back on to the Burma Rd. Frank opted for a low saddle between two hillocks directly in our path. I plumped for going up the fenceline to gain the ridgeline just uphill of Mt Somers Hut. We both emphasized the unnecessary height gain of the other’s suggestion. I got my map out: Frank’s route would mean losing 50 m, my route would mean losing 85 m and was less direct so I followed him. Anyway, he said, it’s not as if we are a couple of weak-kneed couch potatoes.
We climbed to the low saddle. On the other side it was thick with gorse. That gorse isn’t marked on the map. It wasn’t last time either, says I. Yes, we’d done exactly the same thing on a previous trip but somehow come through it and lived to tell the story. So off I went in search of the weak line. Frank spotted it and shoved through a bit of an animal trail through occasional dead and flattened gorse. I followed gingerly, mindful of the fact I was wearing gaiters and long johns whereas he only had thin nylon trousers. I eventually caught him up when he’d exited the prickly stuff. We’d seen plenty of small black pebbles of poop but I wasn’t sure what had caused the lines of dead gorse.
We crossed a pretty stream which gave me a final chance for a good drink then reviewed our route options. Frank picked the steeper spur would have more run-off so lower vegetation. We climbed and crossed to said spur then carried on up this to reach the Burma Rd right where the link track is posted that joins on to the Mt Somers Walkway. When we started coming in, we used to use this shortcut but at that time there was barely a foot trail that was difficult to follow, then it became a consolidated track and now there were signs and a marker pole. I congratulated Frank on his spot-on navigating and we set off back to the car and to retrieve my boots from the scrub. They weren’t easy to find. Everyone had gone, save 2 cars.