The five of us assembled just before 8pm on a small wooden bench outside the Routeburn shelter and posed for a photo. Clean, rested, in good spirits, looking forward to the adventure ahead.
Dan and I had driven over from Dunedin that afternoon in Dan’s car. We had taken the Pig Route up through Ranfuly and on to Alexandra, while being 20km longer, it had made for a speedy trip as it’s not the main tourist route through Lawrence and Roxburgh meaning we avoided all the camper vans and SUVs towing boats into Central Otago.
We met Dylan and Rebecca at the airport, and Mark who had also come over from Dunedin via the normal route. Dylan and Rebecca had stuff to drop off at a backpackers in down town Queenstown, so after a hasty take away dinner, Dan and I headed out to the Routeburn shelter first and had time to get ready before the others arrived in Mark’s car. Despite the late time of the day, the sand flies were still quite vicious and so there wasn’t much stuffing around as we changed from civilian clothing into tramping gear and stashed what we wouldn’t need in the cars.
After the photos and a final check that we hadn’t left anything lying around, we were off, down the hill and over the bridge that spans the Route Burn. Dylan, Rebecca, and myself had an epic 9 day tramp through the Humboldt Mountains planned and were appropriately weighed down. Mark was only supplied for 6 or 7 days so his pack was much lighter, and Dan was only planning to be out for 5 days so his pack was the lightest. However, this was the first tramp he had been on in a couple of years and so his fitness was lacking. I hadn’t tramped since Easter so I was the next least fit. Soon, we reached the turn off for the Sugarloaf track and as we began climbing up out of the Route Burn valley, our lack of fitness began to bite. For those who haven’t done Sugarloaf before, it’s a steady climb up as far as the Sugarloaf stream, after which it becomes a classic unrelenting Otago Grunt all the way up to the pass. Dylan and Rebecca went on ahead. Mark, who seems to be one of those slow and steady machines that can tramp forever hung back with Dan who was really struggling. I ended up somewhere in the middle.
As dusk turned into darkness under the forest canopy, head lamps came on which cast strange shadows off the beech trees. Eventually, the pale greeny-blue moss that grows just below bush line was visible under the glow of my torch and I knew we were nearing the tops. As I stepped out from under the trees, in the blackness it was more a sense of openness that revealed the tussock tops stretching away around me, the trees that had confined my torch beam were now behind me. Only when I angled my torch down did its beam shine on the tussock and the running surface water of the track. Sugarloaf Pass is mostly bog, the track climbing in water courses that drain alpine wetlands. Stars twinkled overhead and in the distance the lights of Glenorchy were clearly visible, but there was no sign of the head lamps of Dylan or Rebecca, so I had no idea how far ahead they got.
Soon, Dan and Mark arrived, their approach revealed long before by their torches. It was then that I caught a glimpse of the beam of a torch high up ahead from someone on the pass… that’s where the other two were. After a brief rest we carried on, climbing up through the tussock and mud. As we finally neared the pass, Dylan’s voiced called us over to where they were sitting on a small ridge just off the track. Having beaten us up there by about 45 minutes they had had time to look around for a place to camp but there is precious few spots on the pass itself. You really have to climb up another 100m to the east to really reach flat dry land for camping on. The wee ridge was narrow, not very flat, and very exposed, but as it was about midnight none of us could be bothered trying to find anywhere else and so we made camp.
Sleep refused to come for me. My tent was pitched on a slope and as I tossed and turned I kept on sliding into the corner of my tent. During the early hours of the morning it rained, only lightly thankfully, and the wind stayed away. I emerged from my tent to find grey skies, the tops of the peaks in the clouds and the Route Burn and Dart valleys full of low cloud.
As we were packing up our tents after breakfast a party of trampers appeared from the Rock Burn side of the pass. They had camped down in the trees and told us there were others still down there. It was a good thing we hadn’t kept going as camping in the trees on the Rock Burn side had been a plan if the wind was blowing on the pass.
We were finally away about 1030am, squelching across the bog through the pass. Things were not looking good ahead. The Rock Burn was full of misty rain, low cloud wafting around the great peaks of Minos and Mt Nox. Our plan was to climb up to Lake Unknown but it looked cold and wet up there. Soon we were down to the bush line of the Rock Burn. The undergrowth was saturated from the nights rain and the track ran with surface water. The Rock Burn is a shorter descent then the Route Burn side but is equally as steep. We reached the track junction with the main Rock Burn track which drops down valley to the Dart, and turning up valley almost immediately ran into a giant wind fall across the track which required some acrobatics to get past. I suspected the other parties were camped at the rock bivvys at about the 700m contour of the decent to the river, and sure enough a tent was still pitched underneath the large overhanging rock of the upper bivvy.
A short time after that we were down by the river bank, the usual glacial blue of the Rock Burn was a disturbed milky brown colour from the rain. Watery sun light shone on us as we crossed the side stream draining the northern flanks of Momus but this was replaced by showers as we crossed the first river flats a kilometer up river. I showed the others a secret camp site under one of the clumps of trees, complete with fire pit from many a camp fire. It was then on up through more bush and flats to cross the bridge over the Rock Burn.
We reached Theater Flat at 330pm, crossing in passing showers with a cold wind blasting down valley. Cloud swirled low about the tops, waterfalls seeming to come out of the clouds themselves. This was the place we had meant to climb to Lake Unknown from but it was clear that wasn’t going to happen. Dan didn’t think he had the stamina for the climb, I doubted I did either, and wasn’t keen on an uncertain route through bush and bluffs in the wet and wind. We decided to keep going up the Rock Burn, so after resting under the trees at the western end of the flats we climbed up and past Peak 908 and crossed the rain lashed mid flats.
It was 630pm by the time we pushed out of the scrub onto the final top flats that stretch to Park Pass. It had been a long slow day. Cloud blocked out Park Pass which is less than 200m off the valley floor, but the Rock Burn bivvy was in sight so we didn’t care. As we were making our way up the flats, Mark spotted movement beneath the bivvy. Looking through the lens of my camera I could see it in use by a party of about 4 people. I was the only one of us who had stayed at it before and I couldn’t remember if the biv could hold 9 trampers, as I recalled a rock that breaks up the downstream side into 2 parts. Luckily, before we had even reached the stream crossing before the bivvy, we reached a giant boulder with its downstream side shorn off in a vertical cliff. There was flat, dry ground here with room for our 4 tents out of the wind, so we made camp here instead. The end of my tent stuck out from behind the rock but I didn’t mind, I was mostly protected.
Another sleepless night passed. It rained again in the early hours, the pattering on the fly making me glad we weren’t up somewhere on the flanks of Minos Peak. Emerging from my tent I found sun light inter-spaced by passing high cloud. Perhaps the rain was over for the time being. More disconcerting, however, was the dusting of fresh snow on the upper slopes of Minos. The overnight rain had clearly fallen as powder up there. As the others came out of their tents and saw the snow we were all glad we hadn’t gone up to Unknown.
We were packed and away about 930am and soon met the party who had stayed at the bivvy, coming down valley. After crossing the outlet from the Park Glacier melt lake we had a brief look under the bivvy, and as I had thought, despite the apparent room it would have been cozy fitting 9 under there.
It was a short sharp climb up onto Park Pass. The others were keen on climbing up to the Park Glacier for a look. I had decided on the climb up from the bivvy that I didn’t want to. Three years previously I had done the 3 Passes Route and had visited the Park Glacier then. After 2 nights of no sleep I was feeling extremely weary and wanted to save my strength for the climb to Lake Nerine. Besides, it would give me a chance to dry my tent out after 2 nights of being rained on.
I began pulling my tent out of its stuff bag while the others sorted out snacks and light gear to take up with them to the glacier, and it was then that I realized my peg bag was not in with my tent! It must have fallen out as I was stuffing everything into the bag.
So with another reason not to go up the glacier, I grabbed my walking pole, and after pointing out the route off the pass up to the glacier, I began the decent back down to where we had camped. With no heavy pack on I flew down the mountain, reaching our site in about 20 minutes. I went straight to where my tent had been and there was my small green peg bag on top of a small clump of tussock. I was in and out from behind the boulder in less than 10 seconds. As I was making my way back up stream I could see tiny figures on the sky line as my friends completed the initial climb to the north away from the pass and swung eastwards up the ridge line to the glacier.
I was soon grunting up the slope to the pass and finally collapsed by my gear, making the round trip in 50 minutes. Recovering, I pitched my tent, pegging it down (now that I had recovered the pegs!) and spread the fly out. There was a bit of a breeze blowing across the pass from Hidden Falls Creek so things needed to be pegged or weighted down. That job done, I went for a bit of a wonder, climbing the wee slope to the southwest of the large tarn to get the views into Hidden Falls. Returning to where our gear was I lounged about a bit but got cold so lay in my tent. Tried to sleep but still couldn’t. When the sun shone it was nice, but fast moving high cloud was almost constantly blowing over from the northwest meaning the pass was often in shade. After about 3 hours the others finally returned. They had gone way up, north of Point 1588. Rebecca had some amazing photos of the moraine and the huge melt lake.
After a late lunch we were finally on our way to Lake Nerine about 3pm. We made our way south down the western side of the ridge line following worn trails through the tussock but crossed over the ridge to the eastern side a bit early, meaning we had more of the boulder field around the 1200m contour to negotiate. We were soon through it though, picking up the sporadic cairns that mark the sidle up the ridge. Three years ago I had come from Lake Nerine to Park Pass and had kept high for too long, never seeing the cairns. But today for whatever reason we seemed to hit each one, despite the sometimes hundreds of metres between them. The sun mostly shone on us throughout the afternoon and things would have been very pleasant if not for the wind which remained cold.
About 530pm we crossed the stream at 1500m, encountering our first snow, and made our way up to the ridge overlooking the lake north of the Lake Nerine basin. This lake is a real gem, well worth exploring and taking the long way around its shore. But we were all tired and wanted to reach Nerine so we climbed up through the bluffs on the south side of the lake and sidled across to the saddle west of Point 1594, above a second smaller lake. From the saddle we gazed south out over Lake Nerine and its smaller neighboring lake, sprawled beneath Nereus Peak and Peak 1935. Spectacular.
Large, steep snow slopes dropped drown from the ridge into the basin and so while I was busy taking the photos, the others began descending off to the southwest, away from the regular route which is pretty much straight down to the smaller lake. I caught up to the others some way down, and we picked a steep descent down rock faces between the snow slopes. We got down to the relative flat ground above the smaller lake and picked our way through the boulders to reach the large sloping beach on the north shore of Nerine. We had the option of camping down by the lake, or up near the boulders at about the 1480m contour where a small man made rock wall indicated where others had camped. Worried about possible wind by the water we chose to camp up here, finally pitching tents a bit after 7pm. It had been a long day.
Dylan braved the icy cold waters of Lake Nerine for a swim. I went for a short wander along the lake shore to take some photos but then returned to camp for dinner and to sit in what was left of the sunshine before it disappeared behind the mountains to the west and the shadow overtook us. Rebecca wanted to check out the lake outlet so she and Dylan took off for a quick visit. Dan and Mark were content to stay at camp. After returning, Dylan gave me a couple of pills to help me sleep but they didn’t really work. I think I nodded off sometime before dawn. I should have just sat up and watched the stars whirl overhead as the night was cool but calm.
I awoke with sunlight streaming through the tent at a little after 7am. I crawled outside to find out camp site bathed in sunshine with a perfect bluebird sky overhead. Finally! The others were enjoying a lie in, despite Dylan saying the night before we would be away early, so I enjoyed a leisurely breakfast on a rock in the sun. Finally the others got up and breakfasted.
We were away about 915am, heading along the lake shore for the western pass out of the Nerine basin. It was a straight forward climb up the pass, and then a short distance through the boulders to stand on the edge of the ridge and gaze out over Hidden Falls Creek. The air was cool but the sun shone warmly, the Darren Mountains stood out strongly along the horizon above the Hollyford valley, glaciers and snowfields twinkling in the light. What a day to traverse along the Main Divide!
We began crossing tussock ledges to the south, weaving around boulders and gradually descending to the large ledge that runs past Point 1444. Three years prior, I had made the mistake of maintaining altitude on the sidle from Park Pass to the ridge above Lake Nerine, meaning I had had to sidle right through the middle of giant boulder fields on the ridge, and then more on the descent down to the lake, making for very slow going. As it turned out, this time around we didn’t descend right down to the main ledge at about 1420-1440m, instead we made good progress along a much narrower gully/ledge at about the 1500m contour. When our gully ended, after a brief climb down through boulders, moderate tussock slopes were traversed around to reach the gully coming down off North Col.
We were soon climbing up the talus slopes beside the stream from the pass. As we climbed, a twinkling in the stream caught my eye and so I dropped down to get a closer look. Icicles were hanging from under a boulder! As we climbed, more and more icicles and patches of ice were found, showing just how cold it had been up here last night.
About 1540m, the final slopes to the pass are encountered. We had morning tea in the sun, and then grunted out way up the last steep slope, finally reaching North Col at 1130am. We dropped packs off and explored rock bivvys on the pass, manmade rock walls forming the main protection as the bivvys were simple boulders with little in the way of cavities or overhangs to shelter under. North Col must be a miserable place in poor conditions, but not today.
To the east, Nereus peak beckoned. I had stated early on in the planning for this trip that Nereus was very much a goal of mine, and so with the others keen, we made our preparations. Foreshortening meant from where we were standing, Nereus rose up as giant series of boulders and cliffs. It was only later on from the Serpentine Range that we could see steep but relatively straight forward looking slopes leading up the west face to the summit. Instead, my plan was to head up a west-east gully to the north of Nereus which, on Google Earth, lead to the main ridge line to the east of Nereus, between it an Peak 1935.
We climbed up an initial steep snow grass slope, then encountering the first bluffs that towered above us, dropped northeastwards down a scree slope into the gully. The gully was full of snow, a great sheet which dropped down as a series of slopes separate by rocks. On the south side of the gully under the bluffs, rocks climbed all the way up, and so we were able to climb the gully without having to plod up the snow.
A short way into the climb, movement caught my eye. Hopping amongst the boulders was a tiny Rock Wren. We stopped to watch the wren for a while going about its business, a small clutch of moss in its beak. Finally it took off, flying low over our heads and vanished amoung the bluffs above us. This was only the 2nd time I had ever seen these very rare birds so it was quite a thrill.
We carried on, slogging our way up the gully. Finally, we reached the open ridge. I stubbornly refused to look around until I climbed up another smaller hill on the ridge line, reaching the tallest accessible point on the main ridge. Here I finally looked around and drank in the views. Wow. It had taken a bit over an hour to climb up here but the views made up for it.
The actual summit of Nereus Peak rose to the west. To the right of it we could see right around to where Peak 1935 rose as a series of rock towers, blocking the view east. However, everything in between stood out crystal clear. The Darrans with Mt Madeline and Mt Tutoko rose above the Hollyford, then there was the southern end of the Bryneira Range standing above Hidden Falls Creek. In the foreground, Lake Nerine and its smaller neighbouring tarn twinkled a deep blue colour, beneath the rock and snow covered slopes of Peak 1740 on the Main Divide. Cow Saddle with the orangey-red rocks of Fiery Peak were visible above Peak 1740, then to the right of them rose the great glaciated flanks of Posiedon Peak, with Amphion and Minos Peaks further right again. Beyond the great peaks of the Rock Burn lay the Cosmos Peaks on the skyline, with the twin peaks of Sir William and Mt Earnslaw just to the left of Peak 1935.
Looking south from the ridge, vast snow slopes stretched down the Humboldt Mountains to where Somnus reared into the sky nearly 400m higher then where we stood. To the right of Somnus, the great trench which is the North Route Burn was visible right down to Routeburn Flats, above which a large peak rose on the skyline (possibly Mt Bonpland), then Peak 1952 and Fraser Col, beyond which were the Ailsa Mountains. To the right of Fraser Col lay Emily Peak, then Peak 1919, then anchoring the southern end of the Serpentine Range rose Mt Erebus. The Sepentines could be viewed north as far as Peak 1715 before the steep snow slopes of Nereus Peak blocked out the view west.
We sat up there for quite a while taking in the views, I would have been happy to stay all day! Mark, meanwhile, was looking longingly at the summit of Nereus. Mark was the only one of us with actual mountaineering experience, and had brought crampons up. So after agreeing to meet him back at North Col, we watched as he headed off onto the snow slopes and he was soon just a distant figure picking his way up to the summit.
The rest of us decided to head down as it was now 2pm. Going down was much faster than going up. Despite all of us being in shorts, I decided to give glacading down a go. I gave the others a quick lesson then took off down the first slope. Despite ending up with shorts full of snow it was a fun slide down. The others soon joined me at the bottom of the first slope, and so we all slid further down the mountainside. We ended up walking the last part of the gully, past where we had earlier down climbed into it, hoping it would lead back to North Col, but the gully was dropping much lower down into the large gully coming off North Col. So, instead, we climbed up to the south and sidled around to reach the tussock slopes which lead down to North Col.
We arrived back about 245pm for a late lunch. It was only a few minutes later that Mark was spotted dropping down the final slopes to the pass. He told us that he had summated, then dropped down the western slopes, completing a traverse right over Nereus Peak. The rest of us were happy to have just made the east ridge so it had been a successful afternoon all round. Ahead of us lay the Serpentine Range. Dan, who had only planned to be out here for 5 days, was supposed to leave us here by dropping down the North Route Burn. But, now feeling mountain fit, he was confident he could stretch his supplies out to 6 days, so all of us would be heading south to Lake Wilson.
Our destination for tonight was one of the 2 large tarns on the map, preferably the southern one just south of Peak 1550. Ahead of us was 2km of rocky and bluffy ridge line. We got underway about 3pm, climbing to the southwest up a series of scree and tussock ridges between bluffs onto rolling rock ridges and patches of snow on the main ridge line. Here we stopped again as Dylan, Rebecca, and Mark all wanted to climb Peak 1796. Dan and I waited by the packs and went for a wee explore while they were gone. It tuned out they just found false summit after false summit as the ridge line snaked up to 1796 so they went a couple of hundred metres before turning back. Reunited, we began heading south.
We were up at about 1680m to the south of Peak 1796. The first couple hundred metres of travel was on a broad rock ridge, intercut with snow banks. A low flat hill of rocks was at the southern end of the 1660m contour. On the eastern side, fearsome bluffs dropped away into the North Route Burn. We were staying well clear of them! Instead, we skirted on the western side, negotiating along the ridge via small rock ridges, crossing banks of snow as required. Between 1660m and Point 1555 the main ridge line was a chaotic mess of ledges and small bluffs. We stuck to the ridge line but I sometimes wondered if traversing lower snow slopes dropping down into the head of Swamp Creek would have been easier.
Around Point 1555 we ended up dropping off the ridge line to traverse a series of rock slabs and jumbled ledges west of the ridge. At one point, the ledge we were on narrowed to a tiny width, share bluff above with a craggy drop of about 3 metres down to the next shelf of rock below. Dylan hugged the cliff and got past fine. I took one look at it and realized there would be too much of me and my pack hanging out in open air for comfort. I managed to shimmy down a rock chute to the lower ledge while the others passed above. By the time I got around the rock I found the others waiting down at my level as their ledge had dropped down to it as a rock staircase. By about 6pm we were on tussock slopes west of the ridge, above the first large tarn which drains into Swamp Creek. It had taken an hour to reach here from the 1680m contour, barely 800m away as the crow flies. Lying on the tussock in the late afternoon sun we realized what a daunting place the Serpentine Range was and how lucky we were to have perfect weather for the traverse.
Carrying on, we hauled ourselves up onto the main ridge line which was then easily climbed via tussock ledges between rock outcrops onto Peak 1550. Peak 1550 was an interesting place. A broad and flat plateau, it consisted of giant rock slabs inter-spaced by small patches of grass. There was couple of tiny tarns, the last remains of winter snow. You could probably camp up here on a still night if you were lucky with the weather. The 360 degree view was incredible. The ridge to the north that we had traveled along looked a chaotic mess of rock and snow, with the shadows cast by the evening sun making the bluffs on the ridge look impassible. The route we had traveled was unrecognizable. On the southern end of the flat top we could gaze along the Serpentines. Peak 1697 reared above us, boulder strewn slopes rising into giant bluffs above a deep saddle running west-east across the ridge. Peering over the edge of bluffs which dropped into the saddle, our destination for the night, the eastern tarn, lay in a wee bowl far below us. Just the small matter of descending to it.
Moirs Guide North tells Serpentine Range travelers to drop down a scree slope to the tarn. We shortly found it and began to descend it, but quickly stopped. The slope was a chute full of loose, crumbly rock and large scree. With nothing to hold onto, the slightest movement sent a shower of rock down the chute. With 5 of us trying to descend it would have been quite dangerous for whoever went first. We climbed back out of the chute and made our way to the southwestern edge of the plateau where the ground dropped away less steeply. Sure enough, we were able to descend a surprisingly gentle slope of tussock and rock ridges down to the western end of the saddle, before swinging east.
We finally reached the eastern tarn about 715pm. By now, a strong wind was blowing through the saddle from the Hollyford, with the saddle acting as a wind tunnel. We were all feeling pretty tired. Making our way to the foot of the lake there were some exposed camping spots on the tussock near the outlet of the tarn. Dan and I had started putting up our tents when Mark came over saying there were slightly better camp sites north of the outlet. We moved our stuff over, finding a small grassy gully which rose from the outlet, slightly protected by a low rock ridge, which then dropped down amongst rocks to a 2nd small melt water tarn tucked under a snow bank under the hill. We set up our tents, either in the gully or amoungst the rocks, doing some excavation work to build up rock walls on the upwind side of the tents. As the wind blasted over the rock ridge and the temperature dropped, it was certainly a better camp site.
I actually slept that night. Not great amounts, but enough so that I awoke groggily at 7am to a strange sound. A rasping pattering on the tent fly, quite unlike rain. There were strange dark shadows around the base of the fly, particularly on the western upwind side, and the fly bulged down slightly as if a weight was pushing on it.
Unzipping my tent inner and then fly, I stuck my head out… into a winter wonderland of driving snow! The ground was covered in several centimetres, the large rocks were covered in a white dusting. Wind was blasting flakes past, reducing visibility to a few dozen metres. What the hell! I pulled on my rain gear and boots and went out for a look. Everything had its upwind side painted white. The rock walls we had built were nearly covered in snow drift, which was spilling over and causing my tent fly to bulge inwards. Misty cloud filled the North Route Burn but through it I could see a vast coating of fresh snow sprinkled over the adjacent northern Humboldts across the valley.
Damn! What do we do? Should we emergency decamp and flee down into the North Route Burn? Descending tussock slopes slick with snow did not appeal, but neither did getting stuck here. Without leaving his tent Mark consoled patience. The snow shouldn’t last and it was better to stay put. Dan, ever cheerful, had a good laugh from the open fly of his tent. Dylan yelled questions to Mark using me as in message transferor as I was the only one silly enough to leave the warmth of their sleeping bag. The consensus was to stay put and see what happens.
As I was up, I snapped some photos and then scooped the snowdrift off my fly before returning to bed to read my book. As the morning wore on the snow turned to sleet and then sleety rain. Getting up again about 1130, the snow on the ground was fast disappearing. The cloud had lifted to the top of the peaks and while there was still a good dusting on the flanks of the mountains it was obvious the snow would be gone soon. We made plans to head out early afternoon so there was nothing to do but have a leisurely lunch.
By the time tents were packed and we were ready to go at 1pm, the snow was gone. Grey clouds swooped over the mountains and a bitterly cold wind lashed us with the occasional spit of rain but the snow, it seemed, had passed. We climbed up the slopes out of the pass to the southwest for about 60m and then turned south, dropping in and out of gullies filled with boulders. Much of the initial slopes to the east of Peaks 1697 and 1715 were boulder strewn, although later tussock slopes soon opened up inter-spaced with the odd patch of scree. We more or less maintained altitude, sidling along towards the next saddle at Point 1410 at the head of Humboldt Creek.
We reached the cluster of wee tarns on the saddle after about an hour twenty’s travel. From the saddle there was a nice view down Humboldt Creek although the Hollyford was full of fast moving wafty cloud. There were patches of blue to the north but they came and went in rapid succession. I went for a wonder around the largest tarn on the saddle to take some photos and concluded that, depending on which way the wind was blowing, this would possibly be a more sheltered camp site then the large tarns to the north due to the proximity of bluffs
After a brief rest we carried on. From 1410, the spine of the Serpentines can be followed all the way to Peak 1807. We climbed away from the saddle on a series of tussock ridges which rose onto rocky Point 1489 before a brief descent again dropped us down to another tarn. From here it was up and up via tussock ledges through rocky outcrops, snaking through a multitude of small bluffs. At various points we had to climb up through a series of 2-5m high bluffs but there always seemed to be a tussock ramp or a set of easy ledges to use. As we kept to main ridge line I became increasingly aware of large bluffs to the southeast on the Route Burn side of the ridge. A series of moderately easy looking slopes making their way south dropped further and further away as we climbed higher. But even they terminated in a rapid up-shunting of slopes, ridges, bluffs and boulder fields to the northeast of Peak 1807 so I had to keep telling myself the ridge line was the correct route.
As we climbed higher we were also being blasted by the wind again, which earlier we had been mostly sheltered from lower down on the eastern side of the range. Up here it was strong and bitterly cold, only the heat from our exertion keeping us relatively warm. Up around Peak 1604 a vast boulder field straddled the ridge line. We plunged into it, making slow progress, but at least shelter from the wind could be found amoung the larger boulders. On several occasions we found the way ahead blocked, either by a wall of boulders towering over us, or from a yawning gap below a smoothed sided boulder beneath us. There was quite a bit of backtracking, toing and froing to find a route.
By about 530pm we were up in the cloud on the flanks of Peak 1807. Visibility dropped down to a few dozen metres and rather than press on to the summit, we sidled around the eastern slopes. A vast snow slope provided easy travel through the rocks and allowed us to drop down, via boot skiing and glacading to the saddle between Peak 1807 and 1795. Here, we were just low enough to peer out under the cloud over the Lake Wilson basin to see the lake far off in the distance. We had nearly made it! There was just the small matter of getting down into the basin!
From a small ledge we could see very steep snow slopes plummeting down beneath the southern slopes of 1807. We began picking our way down a series of rock and scree between bluffs and the snow slopes. As we made our way down the rocks more snow slopes came into view around to the east, slightly gentler then the slopes to the west. Mark, Dylan, and Rebecca, who were out in front, began following a rock ridge down between the two slopes. I pointed to Dan to keep going around to the east, hard under the bluffs. Finally, we were far enough east that there was a clear snow slope beneath us all the way down to more rocks far below. I climbed up onto the edge of the snow, sat down, and with ice axe tightly grasped, pushed off. It was an exhilarating slide down the slope, whizzing past the other three on the ridge. A large rock in the middle of the slope caught my attention but I whizzed past it by several metres. I braked hard near the bottom of the slope and came to a stop a few metres from the rocks. Standing up, I walked east for a few dozen metres and then slid down a 2nd, gentler slope to reach the bottom of the snow fields.
Dan soon joined me having successfully glacaded down himself, and then we had to wait a few minutes for the others to join us. Apparently they had had some excitement higher up with Dylan nearly careening into that rock in the middle of the upper slope, but we all got down safely.
We now dropped down through rocky terrain to eventual easy country around about 1530m where a large melt water tarn lay in a sheltered spot. We were tempted to make camp here as it was getting on to 7pm, but there weren't really any flat spots. The ground was all small rocks, and most of it was sloping or wet with surface water from melting snow. We would have to do serious excavation work to make room for our 4 tents. Carrying on we reached tussock ledges and ridges at about the 1500m contour. After some indecision we eventually decided on one of the ridges to pitch our tents on.
It was about 8pm, it had taken us 11 hours over 2 days to reach Lake Wilson from North Col. The lake lay spread out beneath us, white caps and squalls blowing across it's surface, yet where we were the air was calm. The peaks to the west were protecting the head of the basin from the wind blowing over from the Hollyford. After dinner, the weather had lifted enough for me to climb up the hill a bit to watch the sun set through the cloud. I had visited Lake WIlson 4 years prior on an in and out visit and the head of the lake had been full of snow that trip. This was quite the different experience, sitting up here on my rock enjoying the view down the lake. Tomorrow Dan and Mark were heading out. I had a decision to make as to weather to keep going or head out with them.
It was freezing cold that night. I awoke in the morning to more grey skies with the cloud down around the tops. After breakfast and packing we headed off and it didn't take long to reach our first puddle completely frozen over with ice. Dylan attacked it with his ice axe, breaking off great chunks. Yup, it was cold!
We climbed to the east to look out over the deep gully at the northeast corner of the lake beneath Mt Erebus. Any trip around the lake needs to negotiate this gully. Climbing in from the north isn't difficult, but the eastern sides involved a climbing sidle up very steep slopes. We pulled ourselves up without incident and were soon making our way around boulder fields beneath the great cliff above Point 1578. I spent some time inspecting boulders, looking for a rock bivvy that I knew was up here somewhere. South of the boulders a broad gully ran south which contained snow and a melt water tarn, and I got a shout from Dylan that he had found the bivvy up on the slope of the gully. Sure enough, under a boulder which looked southeast towards Mt Xenicus was the bivvy rock, roughly where the K is of "Lake Wilson" on the topomap. Good to know for next time.
As we made our way southwest down the ridge, the panorama of the lake stretched out beneath us. The air was cold and still blowing from the northwest. After an hour and a half we reached the lake outlet. We had a good look around, including down the rock ridge which juts south above the outlet waterfall with a magnificent view down the Valley of the Trolls towards Harris Saddle.
Conical Hill was in the cloud, with cloud wafting in over the saddle. My decision was made. We had been going to drop down the Routeburn to Sunny Creek but that would be full of cloud as well. Dylan and Rebecca weren't feeling it either, so all of us would head out today.
We dropped down the gut to the east of the falls, first on snow, then wet grass and rock, reaching the flat ground of the Valley of the Trolls by midday. It was during the descent when I saw the 2nd Rock Wren of the trip fluttering amoung the boulders. Off down the valley we went, sticking to the stream bank. The going was fairly easy although the swampy area east of Point 1390 required some care so as not to fall in deep tarns.
We were soon climbing through the boulders that fill the mouth of the valley when movement off to the side revealed three rock wren fluttering amoung the scrub and rocks. I love these little birds so what a treat seeing 5 of them in the past week! We negotiated our way around the western shore of Lake Harris without incident, following a faint ground trail. There wasn't any pest traps here this time, like there had been 4 years ago, but the valley must receive just enough visitors to keep the trail from reverting back to tussock.
We hauled ourselves up the slope and reached Harris Saddle by 1245pm, meaning we had made fast travel from the Lake Wilson waterfall. Now on the Routeburn Great Walk we were back in amoungst civilisation with a steady stream of people going in both directions, to and from the saddle. We must have been quite the sight as we headed down the hill towards Falls Hut, disheveled from a week in the hills, with our large packs festooned with ice axes and other gear , overtaking slower Ruteburn walkers in their activewear and sneakers.
We reached Falls Hut at 130pm and stopped for lunch on a picnic table on the deck. The hut ranger came out on his way to somewhere and took one look at us, immediately recognising we were not Great Walkers, and asked us where we had come from. We filled him in on our trip and he said it was wise we were coming out, pointing at the weather forecast on the hut bulletin board. More snow forecast for today and rain the rest of the week. Hooray for summer!
We carried on down the Routeburn, finishing it by all jumping in the river to the bewilderment of some Japanese on the bridge. After a feed of Burger King In Frankton we said our goodbyes, and Dan and I headed back to Dunedin.
So, our grand trip around the Humboldt mountains ended early by basically being the Three Passes route, but with a traverse of the Serpentine Range instead of the more classic North Route Burn. Despite the fairly crappy weather, one and a half days of sun out of 6, it had been a hell of a trip. Lakes Nerine and Wilson are as spectacularly beautiful as ever, and the Serpentines are incredible. I defiantly want to go back to walk the range south to north for what Im sure would be a completely different experience. Anyway, if you have made it this far then thanks for reading!