By Richard, 14 August 2007
Calling in at tramping mission control in Kumara, Quentin mentioned that he was doing a trip with Andrew McCrorie an ex HVTC member now living in the UK and asked if Hannah and I wanted to come. Their plan was to cross from the Styx to the Waimakariri so Andrew could get the bus back to Christchurch and fly home. A three passes trip didn't really inspire me but Quentin had plans to nip up to a couple of remote bivs - Newton and Campbell. We were sold. Hannah and I threw in a bit more food so we could stay in the hills until Hannah needed to fly home.
I like the Styx valley, and it was a pleasant wander on a sunny morning. The river was nice and low so Quentin and I crossed it and went for a visit of Mid Styx hut. This hut doesn't get a lot of use but is worth a visit if you are in the area, it certainly provides you with a different experience from the large new Grassy Flats hut.
At the bombed out side creek that is the route to Netwon Biv, Quentin and I headed up while Hannah and Andrew cruised on to Grassy Flats. It's pretty easy height gain up big shisty boulders and then soft, almost clay-like slips. We climbed into a more open bowl of devastation above the waterfalls and got a bit confused about which slip to climb. Once we resolved this we realised we were short on time and so raced back down to the Styx and up to Grassy Flats to meet the others. An hour and a bit wasted. No biv bagged, bugger. Over lunch on the deck at Grassy Flats we could look up and work out which scrabbly slips we had mucked around on.
After lunch we cruised over Styx Saddle, the first pass of the trip, into the upper Arahura and very soon after dropped off the old pack track down a steep side creek to reach the river. This also being very low we crossed easily and headed downstream to find the route up to Campbell biv. After thrashing through the delightful west coast vegetation, we reached the bottom of the relevant side stream and realised it would be a race against dark. No-one fancied being benighted in a dank scrub tunnel so we went down to Mudflats hut for the night. So far no bivs bagged, the mission was falling apart.
After a good night there we had a tough choice, we could visit Campbell biv but access to the tops from the biv looked steep and we weren't sure if it was feasible, if it wasn't we would be stuck heading back down and then up to Harman hut and over Browning Pass which would be a really boring trade route. In the end the winning option was to ascend the spur directly behind the hut via an old NZFS track. From there we planned to cross a small unnamed dip in the ridge and work our way down into Julia Creek (a major tributary of the Taipo river).
The old track was pretty good going, particularly in the scrub and before too long we were climbing the tussock slopes. The spur gets a bit indistinct above the bushline and it would be very hard work descending in the mist (there is a big cairn right at the edge of the scrub if you do use this route). Higher up the stream basin is made up of gorgeous, flat, carpet-grass bowls studded with big rocks, it would be an exquisite fine weather campsite. It wasn't fine at this stage, so we just hurried across it on a compass bearing in the clag, and made quick work of the final climb up a scree gully and lunched on the unnamed dip in the ridge as hot sun burnt off the clag.
Over lunch we looked at the map to work out how we would get down into Julia creek, then decided that a much more interesting option would be to traverse the Campbell range all the way to Browning Pass. The best option looked to be via benches high above Julia Creek. A very pleasant few hours was spent linking up snow slopes, blocky scree slopes and rocky benches. We always had a good view of Popes Pass but the map seemed to indicate trouble in linking the benches we were on with this route. So it proved, a short stretch of bad steep rock meant we instead had to climb up the snow slopes that make up the remnant of the Axis Glacier to access the crest of the Campbell range just west of Mt Axis. Only Andrew bothered with the short grotty rock scramble to the summit and it was a bit eerie perched on the narrow ridge in the cold clag listening to Andrew drop rocks hundreds of meters down into the Arahura. From this point we stayed on the shattered ridge crest all the way to Mt Harman, in a few places this required some careful scrambling across broken, flaky buttresses. We dropped off the top of Harman and joined the standard Popes Pass route and descended to the tarns that are about 80m above Lake Browning.
It was a claggy night with a bit of a cold breeze blowing which made the bivvy bags a bit less desirable than usual, but it was nice to be travelling light. The cold also helped with getting us up early, and dropping quickly down to Browning Pass - well into punter country there, another group was camped by the lake and we passed a mixed German-Israeli party heading up to the pass. Great to see no animosity there. Pass number four was duly dispatched, it's not nearly as difficult as it looks from below.
The Whitehorn and Harman passes felt quite adventurous when I went over them in deep snow and a gathering storm in 2002, however in the height of summer 2007 it is the heart of the Lonely Planet Loopies Funpark, with cairns every two meters and an enormous ground-trail. It was fast travel and we had time to laze round the hut in hot sun at Carrington hut. With six passes down for the trip we bade farewell to Quentin and Andrew who headed out down the Waimak. Hannah and I headed onwards and upwards to its head.
Waimakariri Falls is a definite 9.5/10 hut, but any values associated with remoteness are diminishing fast as the backpacker set appears to have discovered it. Luckily it was empty when we arrived and we spent an afternoon lazing in the sun on the big slabs around the hut, entertained by the antics of a couple of rock wrens.
We got an early start for our last day in the hills and made good progress up to Waimakariri col, cramponing up the last 100 metres or so of height gain. We had planned to bomb out down the Rolleston river but it was such a perfect day we decided to climb another 200 metres up to a col that looks into the very head of Hunts creek. The snow was nice and hard, the cramponing was good, and once we reached the col the views were to die for. South we could see all the way to the bulk of Aoraki, while to the west we traced our route across the benches high above Julia Creek. To the north range after range was visible. My camera had of course chosen to die at this point which was a bit disappointing to say the least.
The route down to Hunts creek consisted of 1000m of loose rock and scree through a series of basins. We managed to find a few tounges of snow to glissade down which hastened progress. The route down to Hunts Creek hut was pretty good and we nipped across Hunts saddle, the nineth and final pass of the trip and headed down the freshly cut track in Kellys creek. We were well and truly back into moderate country now, so it was a bit annoying when Hannah jumped over a rock and ended up sprawled on the ground with a twisted ankle. Irritation turned to concern when I took her pack and she still couldn't walk properly, this was obviously more serious than some of her ankle injuries. With a few kilometres of boulders and river crossings to go, plus a sidle around a bluff we clearly weren't going to get out that night and the way these injuries tighten up after a night convinced me to go and get help. So what had been a superb trip across nine passes on the western end of Arthurs Pass ended up with me being picked up from the Otira tearooms by the chopper which had first collected Hannah and flown back to Greymouth hospital.
Richard Davies - scribe