Gardens/Perth River Epic Part 1

I'm writing on the eve of our return into the whelm of the Southern Alps after a much needed week of R & R. In my case, this consisted in getting clambered on by three adorable niblings, doting over the 4th and most recent arrival, spending alot of ime either reclined, on my arse or close to the ground and eating like 15 year old going through a growth spurt. I found myself mooching around the kitchen less than quarter of an hour after a holiday-season-sized meal , inhaling toast, drinking stone fruit or hoovering weetbix.

It's not as if we've been going hungry on our trip. If anything we've over-catered (helped in part by the temporary loss of the 4th party member). But I weighed myself when I got out and was surprised to find I'd lost 6 kgs over the two months of travel so far. Those who know me well can vouch that I don't carry much of a spare tyre, nor can I boast much of what Lyd's calls a doughnut (try bunching your stomach pudge around your navel with both hands), in everyday life- so I don't know where I kept this spare trammel. But I'd noticed Lydia and Allan thinning out gradually and acquiring the wiry lope and gaunt leather faces of alpine animals and Mark commentED I how lean I looked when he joined us. Lydia's doughnut test has proved a useful yardstick of mass-loss ; we are now down to pretzel-size.

Flippant observations aside, we were interested to observe the weight-loss in spite of our generous rations. It suggests that averaging c. 1000 vertical meters per day and 8hrs of walking is clearly something that our bodies have a hard time sustaining. We've been burning up our fat reserves and converting some surplus muscle mass into energy. After a challenging week between the Rakaia and the Godley valleys, we all started observing a decline in the maximum power output of our muscles. No doubt there is a corresponding increase in our muscular endurance. It is interesting to discover the limitations of our bodies as they adapt and optmise to the rigours of transalpine tramping.

After the short unplanned break in Christchurch in mid-December, we set off back up the Rakaia late afternoon on December 18th. The weather was almost as stroppy as when we'd half-walked, half been blown out of the valley a few days earlier. After leaning into a wall of wind for a couple of hours, admiring the scudding clouds and patches of golden evening light, we put up at Thompsons Hut at Washbourne Creek (the hut is private and belongs to Lake Heron station). On Monday we picked up our food-drop at Reischek and further whittled it down : the initial drop was for 12 days travel to Godley Hut for 4 people, we were now 3 and had a passable forecast that should allow us to complete the section in under 8 days. Reischek hut now boasts a literal bucket-load of food for future stranded/gluttonous parties. Don't get to excited, its mostly dehy and peanuts.

Departing the Rakaia from Glenfalloch Station. Wind speed indicated by Alexis`hair.

Departing the Rakaia from Glenfalloch Station. Wind speed indicated by Alexis`hair.

Lydia re-sprained her ankle on the godawful descent off Mein's Knob to the head of the valley. I felt a surge of dread when I looked back to see her lying face-down for what seemed like a minute before picking herself up, but she soldiered on to Lyell hut with typical pluck. After knocking back some painkillers and taping herself up that evening, she declared herself good to continue.

Approaching Lyell Hut

Approaching Lyell Hut

The following day-December 20th- was an absolute blue-bird day. Rejoicing to find our gaiters stiff from an overnight frost, we struck out at 6am for the head of the valley.We wandered up into the gathering day, gazing up at Ramsay face of Whitcombe, basking pink then golden, at Malcolm lording over the head of the valley and at our intended route-a high traverse from McCoy Col to Rangitata Col under Mt Nicholson. We were uncharacteristically quiet, away with our thoughts, excited and a little apprehensive to have finally reached the first major alpine crossings of the trip. If all went well, we'd be camping above the Garden of Allah that night...

A little parenthesis here. For those who don't inhabit my particular bubble of backblock tramping, there are some places in New Zealand's backcountry that have a mythical and magical aura surrounding them. These are remote places of otherwordly beauty. They excite almost religious passion in a particular breed of tramper. Tales of jouneying to them have overtones of pilgrimages, and reaching them of baptisms of fire and ice. The Olivine ice-plateau is such a place, as is the head of the Landsborough river, and the Garden of Eden and the Garden of Allah ice plateaus. Clearly Pascoe recognised this when he named these places).

We raced up easy snow slopes to McCoy Col. I was nearly out of breath by the time we reached the the top but there was no going any slower with the posopects that lay ahead. We lunched above McCoy Col, gazing down with content at our footprints in the snow below and looking across at our route towards Rangitata Col. 50 meters north of us a small cornice barred the way to easier snow slopes under Mt Nicholson. We whacked in a stake to pitch up a few meters, then were surprised to find ourselves on easy ground that led to the Rangitata Glacier. More easy ground led up to the ridge north of Rangitata Col, which we crossed near the 2200m contour before descending nearly due north towards Malcolm Col. On the way up we paused for a breather between two rock buttresses above Rangitata Col and were greeted by a sucker punch view across the Gardens. And beyond the expanses the ice : jagged row upon ragged row of mountains, receding to a smokey haze, and our first sight of the Cook district peaks.

Lunch on McCoy Col. Cornice on the left and Rangitata Col in the background.

Lunch on McCoy Col. Cornice on the left and Rangitata Col in the background.

The westerly was well up on the forecast 30kph breeze and orographic clouds were pouring over Lambert Col when we reached the Frances firn below the col. The guidebook warns that camp sites we had hoped to reach on the western side of the col are exposed to the westerly, so we waited a while to see if the winds would drop. They didn't. By 7pm our toes were getting cold so we dug out a platform, pitched the tent and wolfed some tuna spud dust. The winds continued through the night, and, though they can't have exceed 50 kph, Allan's Hubba Hubba flapped and buckled enough to keep me awake for most of the night.

Putting up the ill-fated tent on the Frances Glacier

Putting up the ill-fated tent on the Frances Glacier

Wednesday 22nd dawned clear. We fluffled about delaying the discomfort of cold boots, then digging out frozen tent anchors, and didn't get away till 8.30am. After short climb up firm snow we reached Lambert Col. A nippy morning nor'wester greeted us. Beneath us to the west lay the unwordly expanse of the upper Lambert Glacier leading up towards Snowy Peak,Mount Tyndall and Newton Peak. We had intended to climb Newton Peak before dropping to the original Icefall Lookout (Pnt 1634) to sit out a front for a day or two but soon after we reached the Lambert Glacier we were enveloped in cloud and this, the stronger than forecast winds , and the apparent frailty of the Hubba Hubba, called for a change of plans. We needed to get off the heights into the relative shelter of a valley, and the quickest way that still took us across both Gardens was to descend Eve's Rib to the Perth. And as you'll see, subsequent events vindicated our decision.

Our route looking over Lambert Col onto the glacier. Some of the last decent weather we were to see for a while...

Our route looking over Lambert Col onto the glacier. Some of the last decent weather we were to see for a while...

The clouds parted briefly in the upper Lambert, but only briefly. The cloud thickened, the skies above darkened, and by stealth the damp cloud turned to soaking drizzle. We stopped near Icefall Lookout for a short soggy lunch. Rocks and crags loomed out of the cloud as our field of view expanded and contracted again. A moderate snow slope with a short tenuous neck a week away from being cut off led up to Adams Col. The exposure on the col caught usoff guard. Allan stopped to throw an extra layer on but suddenly he was cussing as he wrestled with his gloves. Seeing that he was clearly at risk of exposure, I doubled the pace as we made for Eve's Rib, little more than a kilometer away now.

One of the clearest moments on the Gardens

One of the clearest moments on the Gardens

We made for the northeast of Pnt 2007 but the route down was cut off by a continuous shrund that extended northward. In other circumstances we might have downclimbed or abseiled but we felt we were better off moving so made for Pnt 2007 in the hope of finding a route directly down the ridge. From the top we were relieved to find an easy route down to easy snow slopes below through deep soft snow. By the time we reached the bottom of the snow leads, we'd warmed a bit and the party's spirits were accordlingly on the up.

This upward trend was not to last. The terrain suddenly dropped off at the snow's end and gave way to alternating spurs and gullies of wet weetbix. After two hours of probing, tentative traverses and dashing between 'stable' rocks, we finally reached the garbage filled valley floor. The upper Perth is a forbidding place. Opposite our precipitous descent route, 1000m cliffs rise sheer out of the valley floor. There is no established vegetation, just a sea of loose rubble and a white ribbon of river.

At 9pm we found a small terrace and pitched the tent. The site was far from ideal but with the light fading fast it would have to do. I willed myself to ignore the fingers of dry creeks running off the scree towards our tent site.

As we hungrily chowed a meal of rehydrated mince and bulghur wheat (yum) in our pits a violent squall ripped out a couple of pegs. I jumped out of the pit and ran around making the guy-ropes 'storm ready'. We then turned in for the night, happy to be snug in our sleeping bags after a testing day.

The wind and the rain picked up and shook our little husk with violent gusts. We lay awake, listening for the low hiss of approaching gusts until around 2am Lydia and I found ourselves getting rained on after a particularly strong gust. ''Shit ! The wind must have ripped up the pegs'' Lyd shouted over the din as she sprung up to check the situation. I gripped the tent to support it against the pressure of the wind and gazed up to see a gaping hole in the tent fly. Bugger ! A pole had snapped and had already torn a gash half a meter long. The rain was coming down so hard that it was like being under a shower head. We had no choice but to bail. Al and I stuffed handfuls of gear into the nearest dry bags while Lyd held up the tent outside. I'd taken shelter behind a large boulder to brush my teeth earlier and it was to the lee of this rock that we now made a staged retreat. We took turns to pull on our now damp layers of clothing and rainwear. All was done in a manic rush of adrenaline fuelled efficiency. Afterwards we reflected that it was like bailing from a sinking ship.

But now its to get going again. The hills don't exactly beckon as the forecast is of the now familiar brand of s**t, but as we've come to say multiple times per day ''there's nothing for it''.

So we'll leave you with a cliff hanger. To be continued in about 2 weeks...