Frank and I did this trip 17 years before. Even then it seemed a big ask to compress the distance we traveled in the first 2 days into the return to the car on the third day but we had managed it. Now 17 years on with us in our 7th decade he was proposing it again. I was keen to revisit the trip and the biv plus bag a new hut (the private Hamilton Hut in The Waimak Gorge) so away we went. We walked in to Black Hill, running in to Dave Pratt and partner and had a snack then left at 7.16pm and carried on down to Salmon Creek Biv, needing to put on our headlights halfway down the hill. It is always better to do this trip at a time of year when there’s no concern with wasp nests. We got to the biv at 9.20pm. It used to be a lot quicker but the forest has dominoed itself out of existence in some places and there are unstable rocks underfoot instead of forest floor.
We had a leisurely start up Salmon Ck at 10.15am. On the walk in, we had noticed stream levels were low as it hadn’t rained much so we were optimistic about traveling up Salmon Ck easily with its being low. Unfortunately this was not the case as snow melt and hot weather made the water higher than expected and also cold. So cold that Frank soon announced his feet were numb in his trail shoes which were well ventilated with extra holes from wear and tear. He was having to place his numb feet very carefully and slowly in the slippery creek.
To avoid prolonged immersion in the creek we elected to cut through scrubby sections of riverbank. I had chosen warm gloves over resilient gloves: possum merino versus polypropylene. Not a good choice as I couldn't wear these fragile gloves so my hands and especially wrists got repeatedly scratched in the same places, with having to shove and elbow my way through the scratchy regenerating beech forest.
Just before our lunch stop, I slipped over in the stream and banged my cheekbone on a rock. I was glad to sit in the sun against a rock and relax. After this the stream had become warm enough so that it became pleasant. We arrived at the base of the saddle at 3pm and discussed our strategy to get up there. It was imperative to avoid gullies choked with fallen trees so a spur looked like a good route. I took the lead over consolidated talus to approach the forest edge. We traveled up a deer trail but Frank pointed out that the direction of travel was following a gully that didn’t go in our direction and advised sidling more north.
So we sidled and then followed a defined small spur up towards the saddle then Frank sidled north again directly to the low point of the saddle itself, taking an hour to get there from the bottom. We didn’t hang around but dropped down the slope. A small stream flattening out would be our signal to sidle north to gain a clearing. We found a way down the steep bank of this stream where there was a tiny trickle of water and crossed over to a deer trail going up the other side.
After a while we realized things had changed in 17 years. Travel up to the saddle and down had been in reasonably open beech forest but this sidle was another animal: we were subjected to a long stretch of nasty beech regen. Pig rooting gave us some respite then we got onto one of their trails out to the clearing. I built a wee cairn to aid us on our return journey to this entrance the next day. It was now 6.10pm.
We traveled easily across the flank and a steep-sided gully following a trail down the slope from the forest edge. In a marshy section there was a small trickle of mainly inaccessible water. I recalled the plentiful bulbinella (Maori onion) growing here on the slopes on our previous trip across. We stopped high above at the edge of the final gully we needed to cross and Frank pointed out where the non-visible biv would be on the other side of the beech forest downhill just before a drop off in slope. We had hoped to visit the Hamilton Hut en route to the biv but having traveled so slowly in the stream and through the forest to the clearing, this was not a possibility. There was a fringe of matagouri along most of the gully so we moved down the gully then back up to a viewpoint at 720m to check out a flank dropping down the side of the gully to see if it was clear of scrub all the way down. Fortunately it was clear on the true right edge up against the forest. We took a trail down to a flatter area to where it petered out and pushed our way through the continuation of the forest edge.
The understory was once again thick but we were encouraged by a scrap of tape though no track was evident. We decided to just shove our way down to the stream and travel upstream looking for a cairn. We found one and then another upstream. Here we filled out water carriers as from memory there was no water close to the biv. Frank was dubious about the first cairn but I pushed into the bush and found a track going uphill so yelled out to Frank that I was going to follow this up to the biv.
I got to there at 7.45pm, took off my pack and looked inside. The biv had been relined and rotten timber had been replaced by Craig Benbow and friends in 2016 plus a toilet had been installed. There was a lot of junk in the biv, including a replacement perspex window while the original window was just lined with building paper. Fadges were filled, awaiting an eventual helicopter ride out. I built cairns and placed cruise tape to indicate the track down to the stream through extensive pig rooting.I grabbed a hut billy and went down the steep track which I recalled from the previous trip, to the stream to fill it and have a wash as it had been a warm day. With the crowded biv it was a good idea to cook outside and in the approaching dusk, this was pleasant enough.
We retired for the night but I woke at 2.30am and couldn’t get back to sleep with worrying about how on earth we would be able to travel back in time for work the next day. We would have to get up early so after 2 and a half hours of not being able to go back to sleep I woke Frank at 5am for an early start to our return journey. At 7.15am we began retracing our route back to the pig trail in the forest and slowly followed it and the pig rootings back to the foot of the ascent to the saddle, crossing the steep streams in the same places. Frank traveled higher up the slope towards the saddle but there was no advantage. I had commandeered our neck muffs to protect my wrists and hands this time for the interminable shoving through the regen.
We gained the saddle and Frank put me in front. I eschewed any possibility of ending up in regen or choked gully and led us eventually back to the small spur we’d ascended the day before. Frank didn’t appreciate this but I preferred it to the possibility of scrubby undergrowth. We left the spur again and sidled back towards the edge of the dry gully then dropped back down the wee deer trail to the open talus slopes. We were thirsty and went to the main stream for lunch but it wasn’t flat enough so carried on downstream to a lovely shady area. The stream was nice and warmed up. We splashed down to Salmon Ck biv and had a snack. It was a hot day so I immersed myself in the stream and tipped water over my head for the climb out. It was 4.30pm.
I didn’t need my headband with these cooling measures but Frank got hot as he reckons they would only serve him for the first 10 minutes. We climbed slowly up the steep face and reached Black Hill hut for another good snack and brew to last us for the 4 hours walk out to the car. It was 25 past midnight when we got there. We left for home at 1.15am and I announced I was heading straight to bed fully clothed at 3am to get up nearly 5 hours later for work. Neither of us had any wish to travel through the regen again which is a shame as it is such a direct route to the biv. Frank had sustained big rips to the top of his pack and both his shirt and trousers. Maybe next time we’ll go over Chest Peak itself.