Extended Trip - Saturday 5 January 2019 to Thursday 10 January 2019 (6 days)
Day 1: Routeburn Shelter to Theatre Flats
The day started in sunshine as we climbed up to Sugarloaf Pass, but as we reached the pass rain and gale force winds had arrived. So there were no photos taken (just the one), just a quick dash across the top and down the other side into the shelter of the bush. The side streams into the Rock Burn were flowing quite strongly now, which gave us opportunity to practice our river crossing skills. We crossed in two groups of three - Lynda, Sarah, and I in one group and Terry, Terri-Ann and Tony in the second - which seemed to work well for most other crossings. We reached Theatre Flats camp site at 7pm in the rain; fortunately there was good shelter here for our tents amongst a cluster of trees.
Tramp Duration: 6 hours
Camp co-ordinates: E 1222540, N 5045669
Day 2: Trapped due to rain and high river levels
It had rained all night and was still raining come morning. The river was high and water was cascading off the mountains all around us, so I told the group to stay in their tents until the weather improved. At noon it was still raining and so, after some discussion, I decided it would not be safe to proceed further that day. Morale was low; we were second day in and many had wet sleeping bags and or clothing. There was talk of returning to Queenstown, concerns about getting cold in wet clothing, and concerns about not completing the circuit in time. Fortunately I knew of a shortened route across the mountains which would save us a day. It would require us to bypass Fohn Lake and not climb Sunset Peak, but it would still include all 5 passes. With that information shared, the group was soon all on-board and we all went to bed looking forward to a good day tomorrow.
Day 3: Theatre Flats to Hidden Falls Creek Campsite
The rain had abated and the river level had started to drop, so after assuring the group that we can still complete the trip, we were packed and heading for Park Pass. The river at the base of the pass did not look safe to cross. At first, we climbed upstream for a better crossing to no avail, so it was all the way down again. Just downstream from where we had started, I found a section I thought safe and so Sarah and I coupled up and crossed the river first and the others followed in pairs. The climb up and over the pass was straightforward, but finding the bush track down the other side took Lynda’s expert track spotting skills. The track down to Hidden Falls Creek was long and steep, so on reaching the bottom we stopped for a short break. We hadn’t been stopped for long when two adventure runners turned up after leaving Routeburn Shelter that morning. Their intentions were to reach Split Rock Bivy that night and complete the circuit the following day, i.e. do the 5 passes in two days compared to our six (now five day plan due lost day). What an incredible effort if they succeeded! As we continued up the Hidden Falls Creek, we found a beautiful campsite around 4pm - a little short of our planned site. But as the sun was shining and we had a lot of wet clothes and gear, I was easily persuaded that we should stop and dry out from the recent two days of rain.
Tramp Duration: 8 hours
Camp co-ordinates: E 1219059, N 5051799
Day 4: Hidden Falls Creek to the Beans Burn
We knew this was going to be our best weather day (8th Jan.) and it was going to be a big day with 3 passes to cross. Terri-Ann had also suffered a bruised shin and was talking to her husband about a possible helicopter extraction. Progress up Hidden Falls Creek was quite good at first along the river’s edge until we were forced to climb up into the bush above the river. As we climbed away from the river, I began to wonder if we were on the right track as it did not match my GPS which stayed much closer to the river. However Terry’s phone map app advised that we were right on course, so onward and upward we went. After a slight drop, we broke out onto the river again at the base of Cow Saddle. The climb to Cow Saddle is visually stunning with orange/brown scree on one side, grey scree on the other and tussock grasses rising up through the centre as you climb.
Fiery Col appeared to our right as we approached Cow Saddle. At first, I did not believe it was the pass as it seemed too high, but as we approached the GPS confirmed it. I chose a long diagonal route up the side of the mountain through long tussock, which was hard going but improved as it got shorter and rockier as we climbed. Lunch was had on a rise looking across the scree flats to the scree slopes that form the final climb to the pass. There was some snow at the base of the climb but not sufficient to require the use of our crampons or ice axes that we had carried in especially for this pass. However, I did not regret my decision to bring them as it could easily have been different. Tony suggested we spread out for the climb so scree dislodged from the person above did not fall on the person following, and he promptly got up and started off across the flats to the start of the climb. I followed a few minutes later and slowly gained on Tony as we approached the top of the pass. Tony was aware that I was chasing him. As we approached the top Tony went right onto the black scree and I stayed left on the brown, the brown was quicker so I was able to welcome him as he reached the top. It was hugs and high fives all round as we gathered on the pass to take in the superb views of the surrounding valleys and mountains. Everyone was overjoyed to achieve what we thought was our hardest climb of the trip. Little did we know what was still to come!
It was an easy descent from the pass followed by a short climb up onto the Olivine Ledge, which would have taken us to the Fohn Lakes. Part way along, I stopped and announced that we had to climb the mountain ridge to our right if we were going to get over Fohn Saddle today and get down into the Beans Burn valley by nightfall. The climb looked daunting and no one really wanted to do it, but we only had two options - climb up and over this mountain ridge and get back on programme or continue onto Fohn Lakes and finish a day late - so up we went. As we passed the tussock line onto rocks, climbing became even steeper. Fortunately the rock surface was like very coarse sand paper which provided excellent grip for our boots. We climbed to 1613m to get around the head of a stream gully before sidling around towards the pass. It was around this time that Terri-Ann texted her husband to call for a helicopter to meet her at the pass as her leg had swollen somewhat since the accident. Only to be advised helicopters are not allowed inside the Olivine Wilderness area unless it’s an emergency situation. We had a tricky descent of 100m to get to some tarns just to the west of Fohn Pass and then find our way through some very undulating terrain to reach the pass. Reaching the pass was quite emotional for all and the view down into the Beans Burn valley was a huge relief. It was a long and difficult trip down due to the steep drop and thick tussock. We reached the valley bottom around 9pm and immediately started looking for places along the track to put up tents. To Sarah’s dismay, she discovered that she had lost her tent pole and pegs from the side of pack while sliding through high grass descending from Fohn Saddle. Fortunately we had plenty of spare pegs amongst us and, with three trekking poles and an ice axe, I managed to get her tent up. By the time I had erected my own tent and cooked some dinner, it was 10.15pm and I fell asleep immediately afterwards without cleaning the dishes or, more importantly, sending an In-reach message to Hazel confirming location and status.
Tramp Duration: 13.5 hours
Camp co-ordinates: E 1223979, N 5057898
Day 5: Upper Beans Burn to the Dart River
Today’s aim was to get back on programme. The trip down the Upper Beans Burn was slow as the most direct route inland often lead us into impenetrable bush and the river bank was not always negotiable. It was not until we got past the Split Rock Bivy on the true right of the river did the going improve. The weather forecast for that evening was 6cm rain easing to 17mm by 6am Thursday morning. After lunch, rain started falling quite heavily in the mountains above and we began to worry about not being able to cross the Beans Burn where it meets the Dart the following day and not making it out on time. Margaret had earlier advised that Dart River Jet Boats pick people up from the end of the Beans Burn, so at 2.30pm I texted Hazel to organise a pick-up for us. At 3.00pm Hazel advised no pick-up possible unless an emergency. We reached our planned camp at 5pm, but with the threat of the river rising overnight, we pressed on with the aim of crossing the river that day to ensure we make it out the following day. We reached the river just as the rain seemed heaviest. Tony and Terry inspected the river and didn’t like the look of it, but I could see some rapids further upstream indicating shallow water and so recommended we have a look see. The river was wider and shallower here with a safe run-off to the far side making it a good place to cross. Lynda, Sarah and I lead the way; the river was upper thigh height with a moderately strong current but we were soon safely across. Once we were across, Terry, Terri-Ann and Tony followed. Terry had a slight slip but recovered quickly and as he reached the bank, we were all greatly relieved to be on the homebound side of the river. Camp that night was amongst the trees and after helping Sarah with her tent, I managed to get mine up and get my In-reach message out by 9pm. Message said "Hi don’t need jet boat have crossed Beans Burn should get out tomorrow."
Tramp Duration: 12 hours
Camp co-ordinates: E 1227529, N 5046184 (Better camping on north side of river.)
Day 6: Beans Burn / Dart River confluence to Routeburn Road
Alternating between sunny tussock grasses alongside the Dart River bank and easy bush tracks, we worked our way down the Dart River. As we approached the Rock Burn River, we made several attempts to penetrate the thick bush to find the track to the Rock Burn River Bridge. I believe we did actually find it, but it had so much tree-fall it was impassable. We tried working our way upstream to the bridge but this was blocked also by large boulders and a narrow gorge. Two Dart River Jetboats full of tourists came upriver and stopped just below us. We asked the driver if he knew the way up to the bridge and he advised that it is better to cross further downstream than try to reach the bridge. Once across, we found a much improved track and, after a few hundred metres, an intersection with a sign showing Lake Sylvan to the left and Rock Burn Bridge to the right. Tony wanted to check out the bridge, so we dropped our packs and headed upstream to the bridge. The bridge spanned the Rock Burn as it squeezed through a very narrow and deep gorge, which would be very impressive in flood. There was faint sign of the track continuing on from the bridge, suggesting that most people cross the Rock Burn further down as we had done.
Back at the intersection, we picked up our packs and continued on to Lake Sylvan. As 2pm approached I began to worry we would miss our 4pm shuttle pick-up and so suggested to the group that I should rush ahead to secure our ride. Lynda was already ahead and, on reaching her, I suggested we both rush on together. The track was now fully graded and as we passed day walkers, we knew that the carpark could not be far away. On reaching the carpark and knowing we only had a 1km road bash to the main road, our pick-up point, we stopped for a short break. We reached the pick-up point with one hour to spare - just enough time to dry out our gear before the shuttle arrived.
Tramp Duration: 7 hours
Group members were Tony Walton, Lynda Langridge, Terry Chubb, Sarahh Hart, Terri-Ann Scorer, and Robin Houston leader & scribe.