A Sweltering Southern Alps Traverse

In late November 2017 I set off from Arthur’s Pass with three other kiwi women, with the goal of walking to Mount Cook Village. We weren’t aiming to complete the most technical route, we wanted to do a cool mission in our backyard, loosely defined as a Southern Alps traverse. 

It wasn’t hard in the ways I expected it to be hard. I’d expected at least one crazy spring storm and a good dose of adversity. Instead we spent many afternoons swimming in clear rivers and alpine tarns, walked through seas of Mount Cook Lilies…and we arrived home with sun tans. It turned out that we’d picked the driest spring in several decades and many parts of the South Island broke rainfall records that had stood for over a century! We had too much food, no injuries, none of us lost any weight and we only used one bad weather contingency day!

A Southern Alps traverse is the kind of adventure that’s on everyone’s radar but often seems to fall by the wayside. Life gets in the way. People sign their first ‘real’ job contracts, have kids or put resources into overseas travel. I first started thinking about a long Southern Alps trip as a teenager. Back then I was just learning how to read a topo map and walk in mellow terrain with ice axe and crampons. The thought of an Alps traverse seemed like a distant dream, almost inconceivable. Fast-forward a few years and I’d gained a bunch of alpine experience, in New Zealand and overseas, and it suddenly seemed totally feasible. I just had to find some mates with the right skills, the flexibility and motivation to head into the hills for a month. A couple of friends immediately sprang to mind.

In March 2017 Inga and I were working together on a month-long NOLS expedition in Kahurangi National Park with a group of university students. As our trip went on we found ourselves talking about the idea of an Alps traverse more and more. Inga had grown up in Omarama with the Southern Alps on her doorstep, and an Alps traverse had also been on her mind since she was a teenager. “Let’s just lock it in. If we both commit it’ll be easier to find two more people. There’s never the perfect time,” I said one evening. We were camped in a random catchment up from Lake Stanley, about to bush-bash onto the Douglas Range. We agreed to lock it in for November and started thinking about who we could recruit to join us for the mission.

We decided a team of four would be best, both in terms of gear (camping set-up, emergency equipment and technical gear) and safety if we needed to split up. In April I started pestering Tara Mulvany while on an overnight scramble in Arthurs Pass. Two cheeky kea spent the entire night trying to rip our tent to shreds and Tara couldn’t sleep, simultaneously trying to save our tent from the kea attack and mulling over the invite to join us for the traverse. She already had plans to work in Antarctica but I did my best to twist her arm. “Come on Tara, how often do you have two people locked in for a mission like this? If you don’t come you’ll spend the entire time in Antarctica wishing you’d joined us!” The FOMO set in and the day after our trip she confirmed via Whatsapp, on one condition: she was allowed to bring toilet paper! I agreed and decided to convince her of the pros of the ‘bidet’ method later! 

A few weeks later Inga heard back from our fourth potential team mate, Anna Loomes. She was in. We had our crew of four and dates locked in for late November, which was still over six months away. 

We all had slightly different backgrounds in the outdoors, with a shared passion for alpine missions. Tara, Inga and Anna had all studied Outdoor Recreation through the polytech in Timaru years ago. Tara had been on several long sea kayaking expeditions, including a circumnavigation of New Zealand, Vancouver Island and Svalbard. Anna worked as an alpine hiking guide in Mount Cook Village and was about to do her first season ski guiding in Japan. Inga and I had spent the last couple of years working in the wilderness expedition industry. This had introduced us to the joys of longer journeys. Our work contracts were typically at least one month long and we’d spend 30 consecutive days out in the wilderness, being re-rationed every 10 days with a new load of food. 

We wouldn’t end up in the same place at the same time until we started walking from Arthur’s Pass. And all of us had someone in the group we’d never met before. At one point when we were sorting out logistics we were spread across four different countries spanning three continents, planning via shared Google docs and over Skype. We put together our route and planned food rations. 

Tara was sea kayak guiding in Norway and then headed to Western Australia to spend a month working on a farm. Inga was working in Alaska. I was between Iceland and Alaska, squeezing in as many outdoor adventures as possible. And Anna was ski guiding near Queenstown. The month before departure we received the great news that we’d get support from the FMC – a youth expedition grant. NOLS also subsidised part of the trip for myself and Inga, as part of an awesome fund they have to support the personal skill development of their instructors. 

I felt a little nervous about the weather in the days before our trip – we’d had two weeks of consecutive sunshine and I wondered if a monster storm was going to come our way. We all rocked up to the cafe in Arthur’s Pass in shorts, skirts and jandals. On night one we only made it around seven kilometres up the Waimakariri River to Anti Crow Hut, where we happened to bump into one of the FMC exec members, Di Hooper! It felt so good to be on our way, with nothing but a couple of friends and a month in the mountains ahead.

On day two we headed up Harman Pass and over Whitehorn Pass into the Wilberforce River to Park Morpeth Hut. Tara was feeling the burn – she’d just spent the entire month before our trip training hard in Western Australia…sitting on her bum in a tractor! The rest of us had been a little more active and Anna had even made an impromptu summit of Mount Cook via the Sheila face just two days before we started our traverse. Day three was a short one, just down the valley and up Griffith’s Stream. The next morning we headed to Hokitika Saddle, with a quick side-scramble up Mount Ambrose with sweeping views out to the Tasman Sea. We had a great bum slide off Hokitika Saddle. 

We spent night four at Mungo Hut and continued downstream before climbing up to Bluff Hut for our fifth night. Then we headed over Frew Saddle and down to Frew Hut and the Whitcombe River on day six to meet up with Mike Detlaff from Hokitika, who had kindly offered to carry in a stash of food.

He met us with an epic feast of fresh venison, tasty greens, salmon and cream cheese. Top bloke!

We continued up the Whitcombe River to Price Flat Hut, where we laughed at the hut book. Groups of male kayakers had been writing asking where all the women were. We giggled – four mountain women and three of us single. We were a little gutted not to have some male company, the banter would have been great! We continued bashing our way through deep scrub before popping out in the alpine zone near Whitcombe Pass.

From there we headed into Lauper Stream and the Rakaia River.

By the time we crossed over to the East Coast and the Rakaia River we’d had nine bluebird days in a row. We had settled into a routine of getting up and walking, setting up camp, cooking dinner. The Southern Alps summer vacation was in full swing.

We picked up more food on day nine. Big thanks to Ben Patterson from Wilderness Wings in Hokitika for delivering our homemade plywood boxes which were waiting at a backcountry airstrip about 2 km upstream of Lauper Biv, stuffed full of food. We had also sent a bunch of technical gear in for the rest of our trip: ropes, snow stakes, some pro and other odds and ends. We camped opposite Lyell Hut as the Rakaia was too tricky to cross.

We’d planned to take our rest days when forced by the weather but since the sun had been shining the entire trip we decided to take a day off. So we spent day 10 chilling out in the sun, eating uncooked brownie mix and looking at topo maps. Anna almost collapsed into a peanut butter coma, Inga fixed her gaiters and we all rested our bodies. We were in good shape and excited about getting into the snow, which was ridiculously soft.

On day 11 we left camp at 3:30am and scrambled through a sea of moraine in the dark to try and catch the snow before it got too soft. Even with alpine starts we were post-holing through soft snow and travel wasn’t very efficient.

We made our way to McCoy Col via the Lyell Glacier and set up a snow camp at 10:30am. We’d aimed to get into the Garden of Eden and Allah but the weather had started to clag in. We started to discuss different route options for the next few days.

We made the decision to skirt around the edge of the Gardens to avoid getting stuck up there in high winds.

We crawled out of our sleeping bags at McCoy Col and negotiated an awkward cornice in the dark (the Anna Loomes Step –  Anna had done an amazing job cutting a step the night before which was frozen solid in the morning and made our ascent much easier) before sidling beneath Mount Nicholson and then climbing to a high point overlooking the Lambert Glacier.

It was almost full moon and stars twinkled in the sky as we took our first steps. Slowly the sun rose and golden morning light shimmered on the snow around us. Then we were left with a magical, clear day in the mountains.

We sat and enjoyed the view over the Garden of Eden and Allah ice plateaus before continuing down the Frances Glacier and into the Clyde River. A trip into the Gardens would have to wait for another time.

In hindsight it’s easy to look back and ask ourselves why we didn’t do more side trips since the weather was so good. 

When it’s so sunny, in the back of your mind you’re always thinking ‘It must be turning bad soon, we’d better keep moving’. We kept to our shared vision of making the top priority a point A to point B journey.

Another wide east coast river valley was a welcome change from seas of moraine and scree in the upper catchments. After feasting on free food at McCoy Hut two of us headed to a sweet swimming hole for a dip. The Southern Alps summer vacation continued!

Our 13th night was spent camping in a nor’wester with dust swirling all around. Our alarm went off at 3:45am and we went for a wander up Mount Nolan where we found some epic scree running, seas of matagouri and counted 20 animals!

Around this time the days started to blur. I personally find something special about trips that are 10+ days long. On any outdoor trip, in the first few days you are transitioning out of the urban world. And the few days before you return home your mind is already starting to come back to the urban world. You need a solid chunk of time in the middle that is neither, where you can be fully present in nature. On long trips you become part of the landscape instead of merely rushing past. You get to really live out there – get into routines, have a slower pace of life, see life from a whole new perspective.

The sunshine continued and we headed up the Havelock River to Growler Hut where our next re-ration was waiting for us. We’d started a tradition of taking a group photo outside each hut we passed. 

The 20-something huts on our trip became a highlight of the journey.

Many of the hut books on our trip dated back 20 years, illustrating a strong connection to place. It’s not just the physical place but the stories, the characters and the lessons that combine to make your experience.

The journey was a good reminder that we have so many special places in our backyard. So many New Zealanders have moved through the same valleys and added stories to the mountains. I came away with a stronger connection to the Southern Alps and a greater appreciation of our unique outdoor culture in New Zealand.

We continued heading east via the Forbes River and Twilight Col, down the Butcher Glacier and into the Godley Valley.

In the Godley Valley we finally walked in raincoats!

At Red Stag Hut we picked up another stash of food which had been driven in by 4WD by Inga’s neighbours in Luggate. The Godley River proved tricky to cross and I was regretting our decision to not bring a packraft. It took a couple of hours of scouting until we finally found a spot where it was crossable.

The end was in sight now and we were almost a week ahead of schedule. Our plan A route was to take the Joie de Vivre and Classen Glaciers to get access to the head of the Murchison Valley and Murchison Hut. With a storm due to roll through in a few days time, however, we decided on a more conservative option. We’d have to leave some routes for future adventures.

We scrambled up Rutherford Stream and over Armadillo Saddle into the Murchison.

At this point we had two main options – leg it out to Mount Cook Village or make our way onto the Tasman Glacier.

Some patchy weather made us decide to just head out around a week early instead of risking getting stuck in the mountains. A couple of the crew had promised to be back in time for family Christmas!

Feeling small in the big landscapes.

We spent a night camping on the edge of the Tasman Lake before continuing down valley to spend our final night at Liebig Hut. The sun was still shining.

Before we knew it we’d tackled the matagouri, negotiated the moraine and were sitting on the edge of Tasman Lake looking at tourist boats.

A tour-operator, Doug, pulled into the shore with a group on board and said he’d be back to pick us up. He took us the scenic way across the lake, whizzing past some sweet icebergs.

We soon found ourselves at the pub in Mt Cook Village with no tales of epic survival to share!

This journey reminded me of the beauty of getting to know my own backyard intimately. 

Let’s toast to simple living and spending as much time as possible outdoors with good people, in wild places. Happy adventuring!

I would like to thank the FMC for the Youth Expedition Scholarship, NOLS for supporting myself and Inga through the Instructor Development Fund, MAProgress for providing live GPS tracking during our journey and Em’s Power Cookies for fuelling us through the alps – most of us ate 3 Em’s Cookies per day for the whole trip!