Monday, July 19, 2010

Three Passes

I'm not sure why, but the Three Passes has never held much allure to me. Maybe it was the plod up the Waimak, or the awkwardness of transport at the other end. Maybe it was the valley travel, when around Arthurs Pass I always yearn to be on the tops. But regardless, a few days ago it happened anyway, sort of without thinking, a semi-drunken proposition at a party to run the Three Passes in a day in winter, which Greig Hamilton cruelly held me to...

5:30am: The river bed is crunchy. The stars are so bright and so uniform that it is like the deity has put a colander upside down on our horizon. Though with torch on and head down the fog of our breath leaves us stumbling on the slippery stones. We expect to get wet early, but the frozen mountains are bonding firmly with the water this morning. The braid of the Waimakariri that normally crashes into the bluff just upriver from Klondyke Corner has vanished leaving only a worn channel.

We stick on the true left, navigating by the vague silhouette of Mt Stewart and the patterns of alluvial gravel. The comfort of our lives becomes dependant for an hour on the whimsical gradation and deposition of rocks. When we hit a line of beech, we know we have crossed the Crow and we move on upriver, finally crossing just before the rough fan of Greenlaw Creek, which I remember from daylight sometime, and popping out at Carrington close to dawn.

7:40am: We leave the Waimak and head up the White river, underneath the Clough Cableway, where Greg slips, sucker punching his kidney on the only rock in the vicinity. I pause for a quick photo of Mt Murchison, the highest point of Arthurs Pass National Park.

The Taipoiti is good going, a lack of water, and good footing. Frozen waterfalls pause breathless and the canyon closes in, but ascends only steadily. Rock Wren live here, but this time of year, they will be deep in their bouldery tunnels wrapped in a lifetime of collected fluff from dead chamois. I look back to Mt Harper with interest in the long ridge.

Onwards and upwards. The Ariel Tarns are snowed over, hidden for the winter, but the Whitehorn snowfield is in good condition and the sun is rising behind us, tickling the backs of our ears with a hint of warmth.

We plunge down into the dark Cronin. Blue glacial ice hangs high on the true right. A sturdy remnant. The sepia 1970's shots in the Arthurs Pass Visitor Centre show this glacier plunging boldly down the face. THe going becomes hard, soft snow over hard rocks. We stumble our way down the valley until we reach a point where the reflected heat of the river has been enough to melt a narrow path of snow along its length. We boulder hop quickly towards Park Morpeth Hut at the junction of the Wilberforce.

12pm:Browning Pass was originally proposed as a road link. What were they thinking? With crampons on running shoes I was only too aware of my limitations. The slope is like that of a volcano, you ease up it until it steepens and you are committed and have no choice but to continue.Greig has much more experience on steep ice than me and following his crampon steps was very excavating exercise. I needed to make sure!!

The crater rim reached I collapsed with the view of the frozen Lake Browning, a vista seen many times before in tramping magazines. While back down the precipice (ok the exaggerations are growing) the Wilberforce stretched away down to the plains of the Rakaia.

We stopped here also for our team photo, squinty and rattled...

From here it was all down hill first into the headwaters of the Arahura, blocked occasionally by frozen gullies of snow. Then onto the well kept old packed tracks around Harman hut, where dracophyllums and mountain cedars give the bush character. The track to the tussockly Styx saddle can be run with ease, and then all of a sudden you can see the sea. Well down valley over Lake Kaniere towards the Hokitika coast.

4.40pm We leave the Oasis of Grassy Flat hut bathed in light. This is the best hut of the lot situated in a large basin with shear but well spaced ridges rising all around. I promise myself to come back one day, to explore the side track that heads up to Browning Biv and the tops beyond.

6.30pm We arrive finally at the road end, having succumbed again to our torch light on the short winter days. Penny is there instead of Dad, and it is great to see her. Nothing left to do, except fish and chips in Hokitika and the long drive back to Arthurs Pass. A great day out.