Haast to Hollyford, Part 2

Matukituki to Hollyford

The following day was due to be fine, so we decided to console ourselves with one of the West Matukituki peaks. I had unfinished business with Rob Roy from early 2008 but Allan and Mark had already climbed it so Al decided to head out to Wanaka to sort of some trip admin for the Fiordland section for the night.

We snuck out of Aspiring Hut at 5am the following morning and made our way in the dark to Shovel Flat along the wheelchair-friendly track.

Our intended route was up the western flank of Rob Roy via an old blazed track that starts from the southern end of Shovel Flat on the true left of the river. The track was first cut by Logan Park High School outdoor education students back in 2002-2003, under the direction of John Crawford and Geoff Wyatt, of Mountain Recreation. I had been up the track in 2004 on a year 12 outdoor education trip with John Crawford, and we’d spent a memorable cold night sleeping in rock bivvies in a boulder field under the subsidiary ridge that runs down from Pnt 1971. I have fond memories of ding battle with frozen boots in the morning, and learning one of the elementary lessons of winter mountaineering.

I had no idea if the route still existed, though I knew of at least one party going up the western face since 2004. In the twilight of dawn we struck out into the bush roughly where I’d remembered the track starting and proceeded by instinct and faint memory until we stumbled across the first blazes a couple of hundred meters up. The blazes are an eclectic collection of pink tape, occasional permolat, electrical tape and the odd cut branch, and can be hard to follow, but the route follows a sort of animal logic so we found that we could generally regain it by following our noises. The route wends up between steep slabs in middle of three old slips that can seen from the valley floor, then picks its way through a short section of annoying subalpine scrub and acyphilla before levelling off and giving out onto open tussock tops.

 Lydia tops out above the West Matukituki on the morning of our ascent of Rob Roy. Mts Tyndall and Ansted across the valley above the Pylon on the Cascade Saddle route.

Lydia tops out above the West Matukituki on the morning of our ascent of Rob Roy. Mts Tyndall and Ansted across the valley above the Pylon on the Cascade Saddle route.

We continued due west under the flanks of the ridge running off Pt 1971 where we crossed over through a pseudo saddle onto the glacier and sidled northward to the obvious broad gully that leads to the summit ridge. The snow conditions were perfect, but the day was warming quickly and already small rocks and icicles were skittering down the western faces. We made haste and reached the summit by 1pm. The westerly was well up now, and clouds were banking up to the west but we had unbroken views from Aspiring to the north through to Earnslaw to the southwest. We made good time on the descent, and were back in the valley floor by 6pm, and at the Aspiring hut an hour later; a little over 14hrs and 2500 vertical meters later.

 Mark and Lydia on the west 'face' of Rob Roy, just before topping on onto the gentle summit ridge. The valley floor can be seen 2000m below.

Mark and Lydia on the west 'face' of Rob Roy, just before topping on onto the gentle summit ridge. The valley floor can be seen 2000m below.

Al showed up just after we returned to the hut, laden with ‘luxuries’ (aka vegetables and alcohol), which we gratefully fell upon. We were glad to see him, but instinctively bridled our enthusiasm about our day out as his regret at not having joined was palpable.

The next day was another day of rain, which we spent in the company of a couple of nice Wellingtonians in an otherwise deserted hut. They taight us how to play euchre and we exchanged stories while outside Matukituki rose to its banks as chords of rain fell. The rain continued beating down through the next night. The Olivines were well and truly out of contention, there was nothing for it but to make up for lost time and cross over Cascade saddle, follow Dart river and may be even run the Routeburn to the Hollyford.

The collective mood bounced restlessly between weary resignation and foolhardy wishfulness as we sought to ‘salvage’ something from nearly a month of following well-trodden ‘front-country’ tracks. We enjoyed a beautiful day crossing Cascade saddle, and our spirits couldn’t help but be buoyed by the landscape in it’s sunny-day glory, but try as we might we remained weary and frustrated over the following days.

 On a sunny day, the Cascade Saddle route is one of the most spectacular places I've been to. It's so beautiful that it's hard to take a photo that isn't a cliche.

On a sunny day, the Cascade Saddle route is one of the most spectacular places I've been to. It's so beautiful that it's hard to take a photo that isn't a cliche.

We had hoped to climb Mt Lydia the next day, but the Dart river near the Whitbourne confluence was daunting in the colourless 5.30am twilight: a swift grey slurry that we’d have needed to rope up for. Getting across would have been touch and go. Getting back across in the afternoon, after a full day of melting with rain forecast for that evening could turn into a major ordeal. We returned to Dart Hut with weary and hang-dog and bumbled around for a few hours before glumly setting out for Cattle Flat hut.

 Al in the upper Dart. A pile of erratics left behind by the retreating Dart glacier force the river braids into a single strand as they skirt around it. The Dart carries a huge suspended sediment load making it hard to cross as you can't see the bottom, and the gravel flats along the length of the valley are often treacherous minefields of sinking sands and dust devils on windy days. 

Al in the upper Dart. A pile of erratics left behind by the retreating Dart glacier force the river braids into a single strand as they skirt around it. The Dart carries a huge suspended sediment load making it hard to cross as you can't see the bottom, and the gravel flats along the length of the valley are often treacherous minefields of sinking sands and dust devils on windy days. 

We had decided to leave our tents with Al’s mum when we received news of the terrible forecast, figuring that we’d pretty much be hut bound. But in a classic example of Murphy’s Law, the weather turned out to be marginal but passable, so that we couldn’t help but gaze up at the Snowdrift and Barrier ranges to the West, and wonder if we’d made the ‘right’ decision. We were a quiet bunch over the next few days (at least by our standards) and often preferring to walk alone that to risk throwing ourselves back in the collective ‘stew’. I spent a lot of time ruminating on the value and pitfalls of ambition, and the sunk-cost fallacy. The weather never broke in earnest as we descended the Dart to the Rockburn confluence. Instead, the days were fittingly eerie and grey.

 Al peeled off at the Rockburn shelter to meet up with a friend at Lake Sylvan, and left with vague plans to catch up with us up the Rock Burn or meet us over in the Hollyford by running the Routeburn the next day (which is what he did). The rest of us made good time up the Rockburn, and our mood improved steedily as we struck out into more ‘interesting’ country. The Rockburn is one of my favourite valleys in the Southern Alps. The aptly named Theatre Flat reminds me of ‘Hell’ in ‘Tomorrow When the War Began’ with its unusual amphitheatric openness, and the parapet biv’ in the head of the valley is a great spot to spend a night. We once came across a dinosaur figurine and a block of Whittakers that someone kindly left under a rock there.

Our spirits sank as we approached the biv and spotted four human figures under it’s giant awning. I’m a little ashamed to admit how reclusive we’d become by this point. The group turned out to be a group of 70+ year old Australian fellas who come out the New Zealand to go tramping ever year. They were great “biv’ fellas”, and put our attempts at Gregorian monk chanting to shame with some wonderful renditions of Das Rheingold and other opera classics that I didn’t recognise.

Yet more plans were abandoned the next day as we decided to pop over to Hidden Falls and drop into the Hollyford instead of traversing the tops over to the enticingly remote Lake Hyslop. We were soon vindicated as the weather turned out to be worse than forecast. On Park Pass, we spotted a couple of trampers coming over from Hidden Falls, one of whose’ gait looked familiar. As we approached, I realised it was Jamie Gardner. Jamie and his friend Christopher Tipper were one their way back from an 8 day foray to the Olivine Ice Plateau. It was a little gutting to hear that the weather had been good enough for them to get to the plateau, but the route onto the plateau that we’d wanted to do, from the north, involves more tops travel and probably wouldn’t have ‘gone’ anyway. We chatted for 20min in gathering rain, before hastily making for the shelter of the bush on the Hidden Falls side.

 A moment of magic before the curtains close in for good on the day. Looking down Hidden Falls from below Park Pass.

A moment of magic before the curtains close in for good on the day. Looking down Hidden Falls from below Park Pass.

Lydia’s father had spoken highly of Hidden Falls, and with good reason. The valley is overrun by deer, and looks a bit sad in places with flats as well mown as suburban lawns, but we had a lot of ground to cover in little time and were very grateful to deer for their excellent track cutting work. In spite of our concern over the time (we were due to meet Lydia’s dad by 9pm at the Hollyford road-end), we stopped for a cooked lunch of dahl, couscous and billy tea for well over an hour before suddenly remembering that we had places to be and hightailing it.

Whether by luck or skill we nailed the navigation out of the gorge at the end of the hanging valley, sidling out over easily ground and open bush on a terrace around the 320m contour. We were a bit premature when it came to descending and got bluffed out a couple of times before eventually resigning ourselves to climbing back to Pt 406 and traversing southward for a couple of hundred meters before descending. We were in full bush mode, soaked to the core and covered in mud and moss with branches hanging off our packs, hunched low to the ground in anticipation of rotten logs given way under foot, intently scanning the ground ahead for signs of deer trails. We struck a final obstacle 100m above the valley floor: a 30m cliff and a deeply incised river blocked our way. Fortunately we found a slippery lead down into the canyon after a period of reconnaissance, and were able to climb up roots on the other side.

We reached the Hollyford highway (it hardly needs an upgrade to be a RON) around 8.30pm and Olympic-walked the last 6km to the roadend. We arrived just as Lydia’s dad and Allan were pulling up, soaked and sore but pretty chuffed with the day’s effort. We’d made it to the Hollyford! After 76 days and 19 main divide crossings, the Southern Alps were behind us.