I caught the first flight down to Queenstown on Wednesday morning and rendezvoused with Dad, Denis, & John. Spent a few hours planning and organising gear before heading out to Glenorchy to start our adventure. The plan was to firstly climb Mt. Earnslaw (2830m) after which Denis & John would head out, taking some of our climbing gear with them, while Dad & I would carry on up the Rees valley for another week of tramping and climbing.
Day 1: It was a hot slog up the Rees Valley from the car to the turn off to Kea Basin and Earnslaw Hut, and then a 500m climb up to the rustic bivvy. Laden with climbing gear, camping gear, and 12 days of food, my pack was the heaviest I had ever carried (estimated 16-17kg) although it was still lighter than the rest! Earnslaw Hut is a 4-bunk bivvy constructed from corrugated iron and beech poles. The top bunks were good old-fashioned sacking slung between poles. We hung some of our food from the rafters to be collected on our way back down - we didn't want to haul to much unnecessary weight up 1200m to the next hut.
Day 2: A leisurely breakfast saw us depart around 9am. We had just joined the track up to Kea Basin when a party of 3 came up behind us. "That wouldn't be Jim Davidson would it?" Turned out that one of the party was one of Dad's old adventure racing team mates! It's a small world. Low cloud hung around the tops in the morning but around 10:30am everything suddenly cleared and we could see our objective: Mt. Earnslaw. Our destination for the night was Esquilant Biv, perched near Wright Col on the shoulder of Earnslaw at 2200m. That meant 1200m of steep track to climb, and Denis & John struggled a little. Crampons were donned to ascend the snow slope of the Birley Glacier to Wright Col, and we reached the hut around 6 hours after setting out. It was a glorious day with no clouds and little wind so we sat outside the bivvy to soak in the grand view and eye up the imposing face of Mt Earnslaw. We squeezed 7 people into the 6 bunks - enough room for sleeping but not much room to maneuver in the cooking / storage area. Water had to be fetched from melting snow 5 minutes away.
Day 3: Up at 6:30am after waiting for Ross's party to leave. Took an hour to have breakfast and get kitted out before heading up the scree slope from Wright Col. From the Col to the summit is a climb of 600m. Denis was in a bad way from the beginning, suffering from nausea and a headache. John (a doctor) was quite worried about the symptoms but Denis insisted on carrying on. From the top of the scree we scrambled along rock ledges following the cairned route. The crux was a boulder called the 'keyhole' where you could either wriggle up a couple of metres through a narrow gap between the boulder and the cliff, or climb around the outside above a very long drop. Denis & I wormed through the gap while Dad & John took the easier but more exposed outside route. From there we popped out onto scree which led up to the summit. 3:15 hours from hut to peak.
Ross's party had taken a different route and reached the top at the same time as us. Spent a long time on top before heading down together. Used the rope to descend the keyhole (mainly for confidence). Reached the col in 2:15 hours.
Relaxed with hot soup at Esquilant Biv before packing up and heading back down to Kea Basin. Denis was still struggling but bravely soldiered on. It was a long descent and my legs were very tired and a little shaky before the end (roughly 3 hours down from Esquilant). We had planned to spend the night in one of the rock bivvys in Kea Basin but when we arrived we couldn't find any clean water nearby so we carried on another 15 minutes to Earnslaw Hut. Some very weary bodies that night!
Day 4: Woke up with extremely tight legs thanks to the 1800m of descent on the previous day, much of it with a heavy pack. Headed down to the Rees Valley where Dad & I loaded Denis & John up with the gear we no longer required such as rope, helmets, and harnesses. Those two slowly made their way back down valley to the car while Dad and I headed further up the valley to Shelter Rock Hut. My quads were screaming blue murder at me so my pace was pretty slow. On top of that I was quite weary from poor sleep and not eating enough over the last couple of days. As is usual at the start of a long trip we were trying to ration our food, but a couple of big days really required more. It took us 1 hour down to the Rees and a further 5 hours to the hut. Had lunch by the river at Slip Flat and had a splash to cool down. Another cloudless day meant hot work. Quickly settled into the flash hut (complete with flush toilets!) and had a proper wash of both bodies and clothes. Other trampers gradually trickled in and the hut was soon full. There were several tents pitched out the front while a few people slept on the floor inside.
Day 5: Low cloud in the morning so we took our time to pack up hoping it would clear. No such luck so we headed off just after 7:30am. A gentle climb up to Rees Saddle then along a tussock bench above the dramatic Snowy Creek to Dart Hut, in cloud the whole time although we could see down to the gorges of Snowy Creek. 4 hours to Dart Hut. Had lunch in the hut, where a party doing their Duke of Ed. gave us a sandwich to complement our cheese and crackers. We headed off with satisfied stomachs and the weather soon cleared to bluebird skies. The Dart glacier was reached after 3 hours, then it was a long hot climb up to Cascade Saddle. By this time we were pretty footsore and weary. From the saddle it was still another 50 minutes along (and up) to the campsite at Cascade Stream below the pylon (at 1560m). Just before reaching camp I had a falcon land right in front of me which was a neat experience. It wasn't worried about me at all despite being less than 10 metres away. That made my day! I was shattered so left Dad to set up camp. Mt Aspiring could be seen clearly from our campsite, as well as Mt Tyndall and Mt Ansted which we hoped to climb the next day. 10 hour day, including a 1 hour lunch break.
Day 6: Alarm went off at 5:30am but it took a few minutes before we actually crawled out of our sleeping bags. Breakfast under a clear sky with the mountains visible in the pre-dawn light. We packed up all our gear, including the tent, and stashed everything in the DoC toilet to keep it safe from raiding keas. Our climb started with a 200m climb straight up the track to the pylon, where we left the track and followed the ridge. Undulating to begin with, the ridge soon deteriorated into steep, loose rock and we reached snow after an hour of walking. Crampons on to ascend the easy snow slopes of the Isobel Glacier towards the summit of Mt Tyndall (2496m). A slight mountain zephyr (enough to warrrant my putting on a coat) but otherwise the weather was perfect. Upon reaching a shingle slide near the top we kept our crampons on as this gave a more secure footing on the small, loose rocks. Even when we reached the summit rocks we kept crampons on, as they bit into the crumbly weetbix-like rock as if it were firm snow. Only the final few metres up a solid corner required the removal of crampons (and a few careful moves). 3:10 hours after leaving camp we had Tyndall in the bag. Fantastic views - the Shotover & Matukituki valleys underneath, mountains all around with Aspiring, Earnslaw, Tutuko, and even Mt Cook in sight. Descending the weetbix rock was rather sketchy and I was glad to reach the snow again.Strolled along the Isobel Glacier to Mt. Ansted (2.5 hours) but didn't quite reach the top. The final 50m or so was steep, slabby choss, and although it was probably climbable we would have wanted a rope & protection (which we didn't have) due to the long drop below. We settled for lunch on the edge of the snow before trudging back along the Isobel Glacier. It was pretty warm by now and Dad was plugging steps in the soft snow. Returned to camp after 9.5 hours. An absolutely magnificent day!
Day 7: Woke to cloud around the peaks which gradually lowered and threatened to rain. Headed down to Dart Hut for lunch (4 hours). Had planned to carry on another couple of hours to the rock bivvy at Cattle Flat but it started to rain while we were eating so as we were rather weary we allowed ourselves the luxury of staying at the hut. The weather gradually cleared and by late afternoon the sun was shining and Mt. Ansted was in clear view up the valley.
Day 8: Low cloud and very light drizzle slowly cleared. The track down the Dart valley was nicely benched through beech forest down to Cattle Flat. Here we shared our lunch with the sandflies before popping up to have a look at the bivvy. Quite a large overhang with a rock wall built in front. Plenty of room to pitch a tent underneath if desired. Daleys Flat was reached in 6 hours, and we pitched the tent at the top end between the river and the track. Hordes of sandflies! All I really wanted to do was sit still & relax but the sandflies were too persistent. We retreated to the tent and later the bush to escape their clutches. Retired to bed early, and although we entered the tent quickly we then spent over half an hour exterminating the sandflies which had managed to enter with us.
Day 9: Cooked breakfast in the bush above the river to avoid the worst of the sandflies, although they still found us. Popped our noses into Daleys Flat Hut before starting through the beech forest. The track around the new lake at Dredge Flat is quite rough in places although there has been enough foot traffic for the route to be easily followed. The massive slip which caused the lake is quite impressive and the outlet/river now flows through the trees on the true left. I started to run low on energy after Sandy Bluff (end of the lake). We hoped to cross the Dart River to head down the true right to the Lake Sylvan track, but the river didn't come to the party. Dad attempted to cross by the Beans Burn but the water was too swift. He tried again below Chinamans Bluff and got most of the way across but was stopped by the final, narrow channel. While Dad was thus engaged I was entertained by a friendly robin feasting on the sandflies which swarmed around our packs. When I sat still it even pecked the insects directly off me! Thwarted by the river, we carried on out to the carpark at Chinamans Bluff where we managed to get a ride out to Glenorchy with a couple of DoC workers. 6 hours including lunch and an hour spent attempting to cross the Dart. Our trip turned out to be a little shorter than planned - 9 days instead of 12, but we had a marvellous time.