Anyone who has hiked up and over Cascade Saddle in Mount Aspiring National Park is probably familiar with DOMS. By which I don’t just mean the Dramatic, Outstanding Mountain Scenery….
This was our first hike of the summer as tramping had taken a bit of a backseat as we had been Doing Other Mountain Stuff (but not DOMS). A big ski trip to Japan in February and biking the Old Ghost Road before Christmas had meant training had been focused on activities where I was less likely to aggravate my dodgy knees, and the 3-4 hour descent from Cascade Saddle was a surefire recipe for a week of anti-inflammatories and ice packs.
Taking advantage of a rare window of good weather (this summer has been a shocker), and the fact that our good friends Stu & Heather were the duty wardens at Aspiring Hut, we left Wanaka after work on Friday and mountain biked from Raspberry Creek car park to the hut. The 1-hour bike ride along the West Matukituki Valley is spectacular, and always serves as the hors d’oeuvre to the main event deeper into the mountains of Mount Aspiring National Park.
We spent an enjoyable evening with Stu & Heather, but had quite a late night due to more DOMS – Drinking Old Mature Scotch – plus a pair of noisy delinquent juveniles (kea!) which decided it would be hilarious to race, bang and crash around the hut well into the small hours! The next morning suitably fuelled on coffee after a restless night, we began the steep 3 hour hike up towards Cascade Saddle. Our original plan had been to climb with a tent and spend the night at the top of the Saddle, but the weather was marginal (so much for the weather window), with low cloud and light rain forecast. So we were travelling light with only day bags – a good move in hindsight given we had zero kilometres of tramping in our legs.
The first 90 minutes of climbing was through temperate beech rainforest and we were really excited to see – and hear – so much birdlife in the forest. The West Matukituki Valley has had an ongoing predator trapping programme for the past few years as well as the Department of Conservation’s use of 1080 poison to control introduced pests, i.e. stoats, possums, rats and mice which all threaten the native wildlife. The use of 1080 is controversial, but the results are obvious to see with native birdlife returning and thriving once again in the Matukituki, thanks mostly to the efforts of a small team of dedicated volunteers. On the hike up from the valley floor we saw or heard kea, kaka, kakariki (NZ parakeets), NZ robins, bellbirds, karearea (NZ falcon), fantails, tomtits and riflemen.
Emerging from the forest and now above the bushline we were rewarded with panoramic views of the valley below, although low cloud obscured the iconic views of Mount Aspiring / Tititea and the Bonar Glacier.
Above the forest and into the tussock of alpine zone the track was less well formed and is what DoC refers to as a “poled route”, i.e. a roughly formed track which is marked by a series of orange poles. It’s also where the real climbing starts with some very steep and exposed rocky sections which have claimed multiple fatalities of poorly prepared hikers in wet or icy conditions.
After around 3hours of steady, steep climbing and scrambling we reached The Pylon, the figurative and literal high point of the day (approx. 1800m). The Pylon was once a trig point and although still marked on the topo maps there’s no actual structure to be seen anymore. Crossing the ridgeline and looking down into the Dart Valley is nothing short of spectacular and the barren, glacial landscape is in stark contrast to the lush, forest clad slopes of the Matukituki Valley.
Low cloud was rolling in and out of the Dart Valley which made for misty, moody photography as we descended the steep, slabby and loose track to the Cascade Creek which is fed by the Isobel Glacier to the South. We had originally hoped to walk across the plateau to Cascade Saddle itself to enjoy the view of the flowing blue ice of the Dart Glacier, but with thickening cloud and with a hint of rain in the air we decided to turn around and head back to Aspiring Hut before the descent became too wet and slippery. Even in the generally dry conditions the descent back down to the Matukituki Valley is tricky and exposed, so I regularly employed the DOMS methodology of down-climbing: Descending On My Seat!
Upon our return to the hut we were greeted by a very excited Heather who had spent the day counting and banding NZ robins and had encountered one of the original birds which she and Stu had captured on the Routeburn Track 10-years ago. This veteran bird was one of a number of robins that had been relocated to the West Matukituki to help re-establish the Valley’s population. For a robin to live to this age is remarkable and is further evidence of the success of the pest control operations in this corner of the National Park.
9 hours had passed since we’d departed the hut that morning, and we had been walking for about 8 hours. Not bad going for the first tramp of 2017. We were both very pleased to have left the heavy camping gear behind, but somewhat nervous of how stiff and sore we might be the following morning….
After an early night with only a wee nip of whisky and mercifully quiet keas, we were pleasantly surprised to wake up feeling quite fresh. So, after a couple of coffees we packed up our gear and biked back to the car. The night before we had been nervous about a dose of the Cascade Saddle DOMS – Definitely Old, Major Stiffness – but our legs felt good on the bikes. We naively thought we had knocked off a challenging 9-hour tramp with no prior training completely unscathed.
Oh, how wrong we were…
Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (otherwise known as DOMS) hit hard on Monday morning when neither of us could get out of bed without wincing, and lowering to sit on a chair (or the toilet!) was akin to torture. And DOMS is the gift that keeps on giving… despite stretching, recovery bike rides and as many magnesium supplements as our aching bodies could absorb it was 3-days before we could move freely again without a grimace.
So, be warned. Cascade Saddle has many potential dangers, from delinquent keas and exposed rocky bluffs to a nasty does of the DOMS which will sneak up on you when you least expect it.