High rivers ... lessons learnt.
Day 11 of the Otira to Mt Cook leg of my Southern Traverse
Day 11: Lawrence Hut -> Growler Hut: crossing the Clyde and Havelock
Sod’s law: the one day I needed dry weather the most is the one day we get real, persistent rain. It doesn’t seem to be making any difference to the Lawrence as I leave the hut, the riverbed still empty, dry. But soon puddles form and waterfalls begin to cascade out of the cloud onto the tops of the valley floor fans. A 5km plod ensues down the Lawrence river bed to the Clyde - frightening: foaming and churning down its elevated channel. However, some scouting finds a braided section just upriver of the confluence, and channel-by-channel I start to cross, dropping some 700m downriver in the process, until only one channel remains between me and the flats on the opposite side. What makes me nervous is that by this point the channels are beginning to recombine behind me. Crossing rivers like this means finding a good gravel bar allowing travel across the river or channel in a downstream direction – working with the force of the water, not fighting it. The problem with this is that this makes the crossing points effectively unidirectional. Returning by the same route would mean working upriver, against the flow, or scouting for a new route further downriver. And in my case I’m running out of viable downriver to scout. Thankfully a crossing point presents itself, and I’m soon shivering on the far bank, wet to the waist, but pack at least dry.
These rivers, it is clear, are a different proposition to Fiordland. There the rivers are just as strong and the flow just as dangerous. But there the situation is clear: the riverbed visible through the water. Either the river is crossable or it is not, and the tramper can see which is the case. In these huge Canterbury rivers by contrast, the milky, glacial waters mean that only secondary indicators of depth are available: the form of the ripples, the stops, the current - a guessing game to all but the expert.
The Clyde has shown me the limit of what I can comfortably cross. The Havelock, many times larger on the map, seems likely to be beyond my capabilities under current flows. The map comes out and alternatives are considered: Curtis Memorial Hut upriver on the north bank – the same bank as I’m currently on. A good plan B for today and a place from which to later scope onward routes.
The Havelock, however, proves to be smaller than the Clyde, and a more obvious crossing available. Just upriver from the confluence, a 4WD track crosses the river via a series of small shingle islands in the single broad river channel. All goes well until the last – the current has undercut the far bank of large rounded river rocks, and the full force of the flow picks and tugs at me as I try to scramble up this loose face, waist deep in the cold milky flow. To make things worse, am intermittent but strong nor-wester has picked up in the last minutes, gusts threatening to knock me off my feet even on dry land. I struggle to retain my balance as I climb the unstable slope; rocks come loose in my hands and I tumble backwards into the flow, bashing my knee and soaking myself and my pack as I kneel up to my shoulders in the river. I feel the force of the water picking me up, dragging me across the boulders below, downriver towards where the flows recombine beyond the islands. As with all crossings I have my ice-axe securely tied to my wrist, and I hammer its pointed handle in between rocks, levering myself again upright against this anchor, scrambling to my feet and onto the bank – again shivering and soaked to the skin.
A very rapid change of clothes ensues in this exposed spot, whipped still by the gale-force winds blowing down the valley from ice-caps beyond. Food is gobbled to replace energy, but despite all an immense fatigue has set in, and I’m trembling from head to foot – whether from fright or cold, I do not know. Stomping rapidly upvalley into the wind, forcing the heart to work and blood to flow through cold limbs. But the crossing has taken a lot out of me, and even before the hut I’m flagging, my bashed knee seizing up. A short climb and sidle round an undercut section of scree face is the last straw, and I reach the hut exhausted. 1pm it may be, but this Pom goes no further.