5 Passes Trip 

Fohn Lake • By bernieq. Licence: cc by-nc-sa.

I first heard of this trip when a member of the CTC was turned away from doing the 5 Passes and Frank and I said we would be happy to do it with her. In the end, the others doing it had to undertake it at a different time from when we had originally planned so Frank and I went to Stewart Island and began our love affair with that island that receives an annual autumnal consummation. 

I got in touch with Gary and found out there were 12 people keen but 2 dropped out, leaving a party of 10. For a trip of this nature carrying 5 day packs over 5 passes, there is a need for pack fitness especially and one of the people who had dropped off the list, had recently been unwell and unable to work on adequate pack fitness for the trip. 

Gary did a superb job of organising gear, pickups, rendezvous and best of all, the 4 evening meals. As it was a trip involving camping above the bushline with a Nor-west forecast he wisely arranged for Minaret tents. Having a big party, he choose MSR white spirits burning stoves, carrying one principally as a spare although an advantage of MSR’s over Colemans stoves is that they can be repaired in the field. He also took 2 billies for flexibility, meaning we could have brews while the meal billy was unavailable. 

Eight of us took off in 2 vehicles on the Thursday night before Easter Friday and met up in Geraldine at the Subway as it was getting towards 9pm. We were meeting Dorota and Witold at Glenorchy the next day. We had a little stop by the canal to eliminate a scraping on Kevin’s wheel which turned out to be a piece of shingle lodged in the brake shoe somewhere. The chosen campsite by Lake Pukaki near the salmon farm turn-off was excellent, being a soft nest of pine needles with options under the trees or in the open. It wasn’t as cold as I feared or covered in snow at all. 

The following morning we checked out the wx forecast at the visitors’ centre in Glenorchy which seemed to be unchanged, predicting light rain on the day we were to cross Park Pass, possibly some the next day and then again on the Tuesday afternoon after we came out from the Beans Burn. Gary worked out that it was better to get the side creeks that drain into the Rock Burn crossed in fine weather and at least then we had the option of a jet boat rescue if the Beans Burn became uncrossable. We met Dorota and Witold and had a well-enjoyed civilised lunch at Glenorchy. I could only manage half my lasagne so took the balance in a doggie bag. 

Here comes the cold half of the day • By aardvark. Licence: C.

Gary gave out the gear at the road end and I got off very lightly with just the utensils, some soups and a dessert as well as from my share of the Minaret. I was teamed up with Yvette who is the perfect tent-mate, small, non-snoring and very considerate. Pity I can’t say the same for myself! We crossed the bridge and then a few metres on I realized I’d forgotten my lasagne so bludged the keys off Kevin as it wouldn’t be worth considering coming back to a sealed up car with 5 day old lasagne! 

We were in tourist-land with a $900,000 shelter. I passed a chap coming out to the road end who looked extremely sour. Maybe he’d been on a solo mission in remote country and was having trouble coping with the washed hoards. The party was waiting for me at the subtle junction which is thus to avoid loopies bimbling up to Sugarloaf Pass by mistake. It soon became apparent there was a glaring disparity of fitness in one member, Barry. Alas, tennis and Sunday day-trips do not make a man pack-fit. Moral of the story to all leaders, the Spanish Inquisition is required when members say they’re fit enough for a tramp and you don’t have class one data on this. Tends to be a guy thing, they tell us in the MSC. 

Anyway, Gary wasn’t keen to do the 10% attrition thing so we carried on. As Aarn said, it’s nice to go slow and enjoy the pace and frequent stops. Ah, says I, you won’t be saying that when we’re stopped on the way up to Park Pass in the forecasted rain. We got to Sugarloaf Pass after nearly 700m height gain and met another party of 3 at the bushline. They were going to basecamp at Theatre Flats and enjoy day-trips. We dropped down to the junction with the Rock Burn tracks. Formerly quite hard to spot with windfalls but now nicely maintained by DoC. We crossed the 2 potentially troublesome side creeks on the slope of the valley, now placid with dry feet for the rock hoppers and soon after noticed a red beech area in a lessened gradient. I says to Yvette this would be a premium site to camp for a small party as this is a mild microclimate because cold air flows downhill instead of pooling as it does in the valley. Even better it came with 2 little rock bivs! We never saw the other party again so they may have bivvied here.

However Gary had a very nice spacious spot for us soon after on the valley floor with absolutely flat tent-sites. I was so fussy we just about missed out as I was hoping to get a mossy spot for Yvette for she only had a scrap of my spare closed cell foam mat to sleep on but she was very stoic. That night we were treated to a mince and pasta meal for the non-vegs. Barry confessed to discarding half his cupful so who was crazier – he for tossing it over his shoulder onto the beech leaves or me for gleaning the edible bits?

We carried on up the Rock Burn in the morning on a well consolidated trail, sidling above the river to the west of point 905 and crossing a footbridge to enter Theatre Flat. It had a park-like appearance with beech forest clinging to islands of rocky outcrops and a rock biv somewhere which we didn’t check out. We stopped for morning tea at the end of the flat and seeing as I’d enjoyed leftovers for breakfast; I had my breakfast of ProNutro – a GE cereal guaranteed to turn me into a fine little Springbok.

We ascended a trail to bypass point 908 on the west and I got all disorientated, with the sense we were heading south not north but a glance at the map explained it all. As we carried on up the valley, it began to spit and lightly drizzle but Gary had planned for a stop at the rock biv just below the start of the climb up to Park Pass. At one of the catch up points I feasted on snowberries. Barry gave me his tent part to carry. Someone was carrying his share of party food already. Where I work has a painting of a scene at the foot of the stream draining from Amphion Peak – a tramper boulderhopping across on a fine day but alas, it was wet and no one was going to pull their camera out at this iconic moment for me. Those boulders were treacherously slimy. 

Everyone clothed up at the biv for a lunch break. Barry finished his lunch all too soon, it was noted and then he was chivvied into putting on one of my 2 pairs of overtrous as he was shivering. We set off up the hill and then Aarn asked Barry to have a good think about whether he should carry on as it was hard work for him. Barry was still fine so we continued with his doffing my annoying overtrous that catch at the knees on the uphill. With wearing my dri-ducks underneath, this is not an issue. The sign at the Pass had us scratching our heads as it was not aligned to the direction of travel for the descent so Gary parked us up by a boulder while he reccied then recalled where to go for the steep 500m drop down to Hidden Falls Creek.

At the bottom he led us to yet another lovely campsite in a grove of trees alongside the stream. In the background was an open scrubby area. There was a bit of run off from the dripping trees as it began to rain. Kevin and I talked about making a fire but I was not feeling inspired in the conditions however we persevered. Fortunately there was a large tussock nearby and when I reached within it, I encountered handfuls of nearly dry tussock which I stored in my folded space blanket. With this and other dry kindling Kevin and I found, we got a magnificent fire started that was contributed to by all and enjoyed for a further hour past the state of embers.

Gary kept busy with the stove, producing another tasty meal of rizoni with lots of chunks of salami. I stuck close to Barry and received his leftovers from his cupful. Then some of us had more I found in the billy when I went to clean it. I am forever astonished by how little some people eat on tramps. I guess it’s vice versa for my gluttony but on my Fiordland traverse I would eat at least 250g of uncooked starch alone every night. In the morning I rehabilitated the fireplace to its vegetated state as there were already 2 fireplaces in situ but in dripping sites.

We set off up the valley, heading for our third pass, Cow Saddle. Barry let us know he was ready to abandon the trip and head out the way he’d come. Gary was obliged to accompany him so we divided up gear to enable this. I was manic with joy at this development. Aarn and I became co-leaders but in reality we actually had a good solid team of peers. I realized we were approaching ultramafic territory with vibrant orange rock in the distance. Cow Saddle was boggy and very flat. We discussed the options of approach to Fiery Col and decided on the direct route we could see all the way up though the other option over point 1149 would have gone too. Round here we met a young couple who’d caught up to us from camping in the valley after coming over North Col. In typical Kiwi fashion, he’d gone to school with my second cousin.

The way up to Fiery Col was straightforward and scenic with the different coloured rocks. There was the odd cairn here and there. I got a drop in blood sugar and munched on a handful of Kevin’s sugary scroggin plus a can of fish for staying power. The others had gone on ahead and were waiting in the lee at the col. Dorota mentioned she and Witold were not used to travelling in a large party with frequent stops in inclement weather for members who had lagged behind to catch up. As we descended from the col into the head of Fiery Creek, visibility improved and we could see our route onto the Olivine Ledge, a lead that takes us to our ascent route, namely the true right of the stream that drains from Fohn Saddle.

We caught up to the couple yet again and jabbered like magpies around them, discussing the route. After their peaceful solitude, no doubt this was a culture shock for them and they would be wise to keep their distance. We were slightly handicapped by the realization that one of our maps, printed from the computer had become damp with the ink running and the other printed map didn’t have the Fohn Lakes as Kevin hadn’t been aware it was on our itinerary. I only carried 2 of the 4 topos so I was missing this section as well. However with our maps, savvy and the 2 models of GPS receivers, navigation was achievable if time-consuming due to our consensus style of leadership. Of course being competently led by Gary would be quicker but less satisfying. 

At the confluence of the 2 tributaries of Fiery Creek, we came upon a charming campsite, now in the golden afternoon sunlight. 2 older chaps had set off from Cow Saddle that morning, squandered 3 hours correcting a navigation error and set an early camp in this magic wee spot. We carried on through intermittent scrub and tussock which made for slower travel, realizing we wouldn’t be making it all the way to the Fohn Lakes as scheduled for our evening camp. We crossed a deeply gutted stream with a faint trail and began to look for a promising campsite for our 4 tents. Everywhere seemed to be boggy but Witold reccied and returned affirming he’d found a suitable place complete with small tarns and the stream we had to cross the next morning to ascend to Fohn Saddle. 

That evening, the weather deteriorated again at 3am and I was wakened by the wind pushing the side of the tent. I got up, tightened up the guy ropes and took the stove and Aarn’s breakfast into the shelter of our vestibule. This cunning move meant I could stay put dry throughout the breakfast brews and machinations until it was time to emerge and pack up the tent. We crossed the outlet stream from the larger Fohn Lake and with the help of Paul’s ancient inch to the mile map which he’d marked with the route description from Moir’s Guide, worked out that a direct ascent to Fohn Saddle was possible.

With more consensus style nav we worked out we’d need to cross the stream to the true left at about the 1260m contour. With the available visibility and the GPS’s this was achieved. I cautioned Witold who had taken over the lead against choosing a route involving steep sidles above the stream on slippery tussock but he assured me he knew about this and many other cautions we were issuing. Well, if you must follow someone in the clag, it may as well be a man from the Eastern Bloc as they have a reputation for outdoor competence! I checked with the group to make sure everyone was adequately clad for the crossing of the col as this was bound to be quite windy and unpleasant in the drizzle. It would be no time to linger and adjust clothing. With the wind behind us it was not too unpleasant but threatening to push our two tiny ones off balance at times.

Over the col, I took a bearing but the main party followed the GPS’s while I travelled on my bearing keeping an eye out for cairns but there were none. An obvious terrain feature, a basin, confirmed our position and we began our descent to the valley floor of the Beans Burn also using the terrain features on the other side of the Beans Burn as our guide for positioning ourselves. We worked out the best route would be to deviate more east at the 1200m contour to drop down the spur on the true right of the creek draining from the saddle. At a flattened section just before the final drop off, Aarn reccied to the left to no avail and the main party chose the right side of the slopes and we all dropped down through verdant scrub and a bit of a steep narrow chute which was quite fun in its own way. It wouldn’t be nice to go up though and an internet search says something about a dry creek bed.

Lunch was scheduled at yet another rock biv. We travelled briskly down tussock alongside the Beans Burn then had to scramble through scrub although there were signs of slithering over rocks however this was a bit gymnastic for the party. Normally people would ford the burn to avoid this but it was a bit up and grey from the recent and continuing light rain. We arrived at the biv and 8 sopping trampers were distinctly unwelcome to a couple who were spending a pit day there. It was draughty anyway so we spurned the lower chamber and went round the corner to another biv. Our couple (from Heretaunga TC) realised we were only stopping for lunch, not to camp, and decided to be sociable so got pumped for gen on possible campsites as we once again weren’t going to reach our planned campsite – the large clearing just before the marked track. They were keen to pump us in return but we were running behind schedule so couldn’t return the favour as comprehensibly. They were gob smacked by my sandals as I rushed off to catch up with the group.

They thought a clearing opposite a waterfall had potential. We carried on after our damp, slightly draughty and darkened luncheon stop bypassing several suitable sites as it was early in the day still. Shortly after 4.30pm, Dorota and Witold who had been the advance guard, stopped at a gently sloping glen opposite a pretty 142m waterfall. This was our place and it proved excellent as the cold air rolled downhill leaving our site frostfree in the clear night that ensued. Water was a wee way off though and we would have had sufficient for the morning if a kea hadn’t come prowling and chewed a hole in Aarn’s bottle. I was going to be mother and put everything under shelter the evening before but decided some people need to find things out the hard way… Paul (his hearing aids had given up the ghost) hadn’t heard the querying call I’d made before giving away the last of our supply so had to go fetch some more.

2 hours and 4km later we reached the large clearing where we’d hoped to camp. It was in the shade and very frosty. Lucky we didn’t camp there. As it was, all the tents, including Aarn’s own design had experienced condensation and with the damp bags, some had felt the cold. I inadvertently had 2 bags, one being a very light Macpac Pinnacle which was thankfully water-resistant and very appreciated in the conditions. This point being a marker of a zone, the party chose to stop in the frosty shade instead of persevering to the sunlight at the other end of the clearing. So everyone got a little chilled then moved on through the warm sunlight to climb up a little on the sidling, now marked track and stopped at a weakly warm high point to regroup with some wondering aloud why we hadn’t stopped in the lovely sunlight back down the track.

 Just after the footbridge my thoughts strayed to how Gary was getting on. Suddenly there he was with a story to tell. He and Barry had gone out via Sugarloaf Pass, the quickest route. Barry had caught the bus home minus half his food which had been jettisoned on the steep climb back up to Park Pass. Eating had been a challenge for him and our strong, competent leader was a good choice to be the one to help him carry his gear and accompany him out. Our main concern, the Beans Burn was easily forded so after a sunny lunch fighting off sandflies and running into the young couple who’d stayed at the lower draughty chamber of the Beans Burn rock biv, we crossed with only the tinies getting their plimsoll lines wet. It was good to have Gary in front again leading us on the only awkward terrain on the trip, alongside steep washed out banks of the true right of the Dart.

He set a brisk pace to have us out in good time for the drive home. We stopped briefly at the Rock Burn bunker, a brown concrete monstrosity set low. Frank and I had stayed here one time during a mouse plague. We’d got a cranking fire going and spent a happy night watching mouse antics including an impressive traverse of the fireplace by one. Lake Sylvan was dropdead gorgeous, a mirror of peacefulness. Then it was back into touristland with fragrant foreigners taking strolls minus backpacks and parkas and the Sylvan Flats carpark. Gary laid down the law to his passengers about not stopping until Geraldine. I was glad to be with Kevin. We lasted until Queenstown and the petrol station. We arrived home at 1am after Kevin survived my fiddling with his PDA, trying to send a text. He only ran off the road once!