Sunset over Mount Avalanche, Mt Aspiring National Park

KEAS & CHEERS

Adventure, Landscapes, Mountains, Walking & Hiking

Wanaka is the best place to live in the world.
Albeit for 49 weeks of the year….

But for 3-weeks over Christmas and New Year, Wanaka is invaded by holidaymakers with their boats, bikes, barbecues & beers and there’s no better time to run for the hills and to escape the Silly Season….

Mount Aspiring National Park is a refuge. Not just for native New Zealand wildlife, but for those seeking peace, quiet and the increasingly rare opportunity to escape the non-stop chatter of technology. As John Muir, the environmental philosopher once observed, “Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity”. I, for one, could not agree more.

So home to the mountains is where we headed for 4-nights over Christmas, enjoying the hospitality of our friends Stu & Heather at Aspiring Hut and the not so peaceful feathered residents of French Ridge Hut….

Sunrise over mountains and forest, Mt Aspiring National Park NZ

EARLY START. Sunrise over the forest canopy near Aspiring Hut as we begin the hike up to French Ridge Hut.

Hiker on a swing bridge in Mt Aspiring National Park NZ

SWINGING. One of many swing bridges that criss-cross the West Matukituki River as you head deeper into Mt Aspiring National Park.

French Ridge and Mount Aspiring near Wanaka NZ

FRENCH RIDGE. Your mission, should you choose to accept it…. French Ridge winds its way up towards the Bonar Glacier with Mount Aspiring in the background. French Ridge Hut is just below the snow line at 1465m and our home for the night.

A hiker in Mt Aspiring National Park NZ

RIVER FLATS. Strolling along the river flats before the steep climb up to French Ridge Hut.

A hiker crosses a river in Mount Aspiring National Park, NZ

WET FEET. Wet feet are an integral part of tramping in NZ, but given this crossing of the Matukituki was our only river of the day and the water was low, we opted for the luxury of taking our boots off and having dry feet for the rest of the hike.

A hiker climbing up French Ridge Track Mount Aspiring National Park

JUNGLE GYM. The ascent and descent of French Ridge requires a certain skill set….

Small tarns alongside the track up to French Ridge Hut with great views of the West Matukituki Valley. Mount Aspiring National Park NZ

TUSSOCKS & TARNS. Small tarns alongside the track up to French Ridge Hut with great views of the West Matukituki Valley.

A hiker near Mt Avalanche & Maud Francis Glacier, Mt Aspiring National Park NZ

MT AVALANCHE. Heading into the alpine zone with Mt Avalanche and the Maud Francis Glacier set firmly in our sights.

Mount Avalanche and the Maud Francis Glacier at the head of Gloomy Gorge

GLOOMY. Gloomy Gorge looking remarkably bright and sunny with Mount Avalanche and the Maud Francis Glacier at the head of the valley.

Mount Aspiring and the Breakaway (Bonar Glacier)

TITITEA | MOUNT ASPIRING. The 3,033m ‘glistening peak’ at the heart of the National Park with the Bonar Glacier ‘Breakaway” to the centre left.

Hiking in Mount Aspiring National Park, New Zealand

VALLEY VISTA. Spectacular alpine views from French Ridge. Sharp eyes might be able to spot the red speck of Liverpool Hut on the opposite side of the valley (centre left above the bushline).

Hiking in Mt Aspiring National Park, New Zealand

ONWARDS | UPWARDS. The steep climb continues… Mt Avalanche in the background.

Tramping on French Ridge, Mt Aspiring National Park, NZ

RELENTLESS. French Ridge continues to climb ever upwards with the sheer cliffs of Gloomy Gorge and Mt Avalanche to the right.

Hiking above the headwaters of the West Matukituki River and Mt Barff, Mt Aspiring NP.

THE SOURCE. Mt Barff and the headwaters of the West Matukituki River.

A hiker climbs above French Ridge Hut, Mount Aspiring National Park.

LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION. French Ridge Hut, Mount Aspiring National Park. After unloading some gear from our packs we continued up the ridge towards Mt Avalanche and the Bonar Glacier.

French Ridge Hut toilet, Mt Aspiring National Park, NZ

LONG DROP. A loo with a view…. But not somewhere to take a wrong turn in the middle of night!

Waterfalls stream off the melting ice of the Maud Francis Glacier and into Gloomy Gorge.

CASCADES & ICE. Waterfalls stream off the melting ice of the Maud Francis Glacier and into Gloomy Gorge.

Hiking on the upper slopes of French Ridge, Mount Aspiring National Park

THE CLIMB. Hiking on the upper slopes of French Ridge.

A hiker looks at the view of Mount Aspiring from French Ridge

ASPIRATIONAL. The summit of Mount Aspiring peaks out above French Ridge.

A hiker on French Ridge, Mt Aspiring National Park, NZ

TRAVERSE. Traversing the snowfields on French Ridge towards the Quarterdeck Pass.

Mount Avalanche and the Maud Francis Glacier at the head of Gloomy Gorge, Mt Aspiring National Park NZ

GLACIAL. Mount Avalanche and the Maud Francis Glacier dominate the head of Gloomy Gorge.

A kea at French Ridge Hut, Mt Aspiring National Park NZ

JUVENILE DELINQUENT. A young kea caught in the act of trying to turn on the tank water supply at French Ridge Hut. Despite the best efforts of the DOC rangers to “kea proof” the tap, these highly intelligent birds always seem up to the challenge and hikers regularly find an empty water tank upon arrival at alpine huts – drained by the curious kea.

A kea in the mountains of Mt Aspiring National Park New Zealand

SCHEMING…. A mature kea plans its next move…. My Dad would probably assert that the “dawn” chorus provided by the kea at 3am on Christmas Eve was reminiscent of my brother and I waking up as kids in the middle of the night to see if Santa had visited and to open our Christmas stockings. Karma, huh?….

Mountain reflections in a small tarn at French Ridge Hut at sunset. Mt Aspiring National Park NZ

FRENCH REFLECTION. Evening sun lights up Rob Roy Peak.

Reflection of French Ridge Hut, Mt Aspiring National Park NZ

RED SHED. Reflections of French Ridge Hut.

Sunset over Mount Avalanche, Mt Aspiring National Park

SPOTLIT. Mt Avalanche catches the last sun of the day.

French Ridge Hut at sunset. Mount Aspiring National Park NZ

RED SKY AT NIGHT. Pink clouds at sunset above French Ridge Hut.

A panorama of the headwaters of the West Matukituki Valley Mt Aspiring National Park

CATCHMENT. A panorama of the headwaters of the West Matukituki Valley on Christmas Eve.

French Ridge and the West Matukituki Valley Mt Aspiring National Park NZ

DOWNWARD. Heading down French Ridge on Christmas Eve and thinking of cold beer and cheeses!

Cascade Saddle Mount Aspiring National Park New Zealand

CASCADE SADDLE. Another of the Matukituki Valley’s ‘must climb’ tracks.

Clouds above Islington Dome, Mt Aspiring National Park NZ

MOUNTAIN MOODS. Dark clouds shroud the summit of Islington Dome.

French Ridge Mount Aspiring National Park NZ

VENI VIDI VICI. French Ridge: we came, we saw, we climbed – because you can never really conquer a landscape like this!

A hiker in front of a waterfall in Mount Aspiring National Park NZ

CHASING WATERFALLS. A deviation off the beaten track to explore the side valleys of Mount Aspiring National Park is usually well worth it!

Long exposure of a waterfall in Mount Aspiring National Park NZ

SLOW MO. Long exposure of a cascading waterfall feeding the Liverpool Stream.

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CLAGGED IN. Strong winds and driving rain on Christmas Day kept us hut-bound for most of the day… But we were well prepared!

Cooking pancakes in a NZ backcountry hut

FLIP. Pancakes for breakfast on Christmas morning!

Frying bacon in a NZ backcountry hut

EVERYTHING IS BETTER WITH BACON!

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BACKCOUNTRY BUBBLES. Our host with the most – Stu pours the bubbles on Christmas morning at Aspiring Hut.

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SEASONAL SCONES. Heather prepares a treat fresh from the camp oven for trampers at Aspiring Hut on Christmas Day

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CRAZY CLIMBERS. A party of Korean trampers depart Aspiring Hut in torrential rain heading for Cascade Saddle. We had a sweep stake on what time they’d give up climbing and return to the hut, but we never saw them again – we hope they dried out and had a warm Christmas night in their tents!!

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THE CAKE COURSE. White port and Christmas cake conclude our 6 course backcountry degustation on Christmas Day!

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COSY TOES. It’s not just our socks keeping us warm…

The Milky Way over Mt Aspiring National Park New Zealand

SILENT NIGHT. The skies finally cleared on Christmas Day to a spectacular starry nightsky – here’s the Milky Way seen from the deck of Aspiring Hut.

Aspiring Hut

BOXING DAY. What a difference a day makes. Waking up at Aspiring Hut to clear skies on Boxing Day for the walk home.

 

 

 

Mountain reflections in an alpine tarn at McKellar Saddle, Greenstone - Caples Track, Mount Aspiring National Park, New Zealand

THE CAPLES CAPER

Adventure, Landscapes, Mountains, Walking & Hiking

Escaping into the mountains away from the humdrum of modern living has always been a great way for me to recharge my batteries, although chasing a couple of spritely septuagenarians for 30kms up the Caples Valley is also an excellent way to drain the batteries!….

Stu & Heather are exceptional tramping companions, so whenever we get the chance to join them for a hike it’s always a treat…. not least because Stu – as a retired Department of Conservation ranger – frequently has the key to the DOC staff quarters in the backcountry huts and so tramping soon becomes glamping!

Our trip into the Caples Valley in Mount Aspiring National Park began with a river crossing course run by Stu on the Rees River near Glenorchy. An afternoon of wading back and forth across the glacial braids of the Rees – sometimes up to our armpits – was the “warm up” (well, as warm as a glacial river can be in spring) for 3-days hiking in the valley.

Hikers crossing a river, Glenorchy NZ

PEDESTRIAN CROSSING. Learning the art of safe river crossings with Stu on the Rees River near Glenorchy and discovering that frigid glacial rivers are are best crossed as quickly as possible! Thankfully a warm NW wind acted as nature’s hairdryer to keep mild hypothermia at bay…

The weather forecast wasn’t flash and we were expecting a couple of “hut days” – playing cards, reading books and drinking cups of coffee – and so it was no surprise when we awoke at Mid Caples Hut to low cloud and rain. However, after only a single cup of coffee, the skies brightened and we decided to stretch our legs and wander up the track…. a wander that ended up being 32km to the top of McKeller Saddle and back on a spectacular, sunny spring day!

Greenstone River, Mount Aspiring National Park, New Zealand

THE GREENSTONE. The spectacular clear, green waters of the Greenstone River, Mt Aspiring National Park – near Glenorchy.

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GREEN FLOW. The Greenstone River flows into Lake Wakatipu.

Caples River, Mount Aspiring National Park, New Zealand

THE CHASM. A ‘knickpoint’ in the Caples River forces the water through a spectacular deep, narrow chasm.

Mid Caples Hut, Greenstone - Caples Track, Mount Aspiring National Park, New Zealand

TOTEM. A rustic welcome to Mid Caples Hut.

Low cloud in the Caples Valley, Mount Aspiring National Park, New Zealand

MISTY MOUNTAINS. Low cloud and mist was not a particularly auspicious start for a full day of tramping.

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CANOPY CLOUD. Morning mist drifts across the forest canopy.

Caples Valley, Mount Aspiring National Park, New Zealand

GRANDEUR. The Caples River drains the Ailsa Mountains, Mt Aspiring National Park.

Hikers in the Caples Valley, Mount Aspiring National Park, New Zealand

CAPLES CONVOY. Hiking through the Caples Valley on the way to McKellar Saddle.

Crystal clear waters of the Caples River, Mount Aspiring National Park, New Zealand

PRISTINE. The crystal clear glacial waters of the Caples River – home to some decent sized brown trout. Next time I’ll bring my fishing rod …. and scare them all away!…

The Caples Valley, Mount Aspiring National Park, New Zealand

FRAMED. The Caples Valley, Mount Aspiring National Park.

The Caples River, Mount Aspiring National Park, New Zealand

SPARKLING WATER. Sun glints off the waters of the Caples River.

New Zealand robin bird, Mount Aspiring National Park, New Zealand

MAKING FRIENDS. A young New Zealand robin follows us through the bush.

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STRIKE A POSE. A mature male robin.

The Caples Track sidles through the lush green beech forest of Mount Aspiring National Park, New Zealand

LUSH. The Caples Track sidles through the lush green beech forest of Mt Aspiring National Park.

An alpine stream on the Greenstone - Caples Track, Mount Aspiring National Park, New Zealand

FAIRYLAND. Small creeks cascade across the track on the climb up to McKellar Saddle.

Mountain reflections in an alpine tarn at McKellar Saddle, Greenstone - Caples Track, Mount Aspiring National Park, New Zealand

McKELLAR. A view worthy of the 16km uphill hike – McKellar Saddle did not disappoint and neither did the weather!

McKellar Saddle, Greenstone - Caples Track, Mount Aspiring National Park, New Zealand

JEAN BATTEN PEAK. Rugged views on McKellar Saddle.

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BUSHLINE. Jean Batten Peak dominates the view at McKellar Saddle on the Greenstone – Caples Track.

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IN REFLECTIVE MOOD. The Ailsa Mountains reflected in an alpine tarn at McKellar Saddle.

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DIVERSE. Wetlands, rainforest, waterfalls, ice and rugged peaks make up the diverse landscape of McKellar Saddle.

Alpine wetlands at McKellar Saddle, Greenstone - Caples Track, Mount Aspiring National Park, New Zealand

WETLAND. The alpine wetlands of McKellar Saddle.

Reflections in an alpine tarn at McKellar Saddle, Greenstone - Caples Track, Mount Aspiring National Park, New Zealand

PANORAMIC. McKellar Saddle in all its glory on a fabulous spring day.

 

An alpine tarn at McKellar Saddle, Greenstone - Caples Track, Mount Aspiring National Park, New Zealand

LAYERS. The diversity of the landscape at McKellar Saddle – from snow clad peaks to rainforest and alpine wetlands.

Hikers on McKellar Saddle, Greenstone - Caples Track, Mount Aspiring National Park, New Zealand

THE LONG WALK. 16km up means another 16km back down to Mid Caples Hut.

Alpine panorama from McKellar Saddle, Greenstone - Caples Track, Mount Aspiring National Park, New Zealand

ALPINE VISTA. The distinct u-shape of the glacial carved Caples Valley.

The Caples Valley seen from McKellar Saddle, Greenstone - Caples Track, Mount Aspiring National Park, New Zealand

Native beech forest, Caples River, Mount Aspiring National Park, New Zealand

VALLEY VIEWS. Beech forest lines the banks of the Caples River with views across the Humboldt Mountains behind.

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OLD MAN’S BEARD. Lichen clad beech trees in the Caples Valley.

View from Mid Caples Hut on Greenstone - Caples Track, Mount Aspiring National Park, New Zealand

ROOM WITH A VIEW. The mountain panorama from Mid Caples Hut.

Evening shadows fall across the Southern Alps from Mid Caples Hut on Greenstone - Caples Track, Mount Aspiring National Park, New Zealand

SHADOWLAND. Evening shadows fall across the Southern Alps at Mid Caples Hut.

Icebergs in the Tasman Glacier Lake, Mount Cook, New Zealand

VANISHING LAND

Landscapes, Mountains, Walking & Hiking

Aoraki | Mount Cook National Park is home to the largest remaining glaciers in New Zealand’s Southern Alps, but if you want to see them for yourself, you’d best get there quick!

When a bucket list trip to ski the Tasman Glacier turned to custard due to wild weather, it provided the chance to explore the spectacular Hooker and Tasman valleys. Today, the end of both these valleys are marked with large glacial lakes which even offer boat trips to tourists to get up close to the huge icebergs that drift in the icy waters, but as little as 30 years ago these lakes did not exist. It’s a stark reminder that there may be little left of these giants in another 30 years, and fine excuse to spend the day taking photos!

Ice blue glaciers on Mount Sefton, Mount Cook National Park

THE WALL. A wall of blue glacial ice on Mount Sefton – an impressive view from our motel window at Mt Cook Village.

Sunburst over Mount Cook, NZ

SUNBURST. Morning sun lights up Aoraki | Mount Cook at the head of the Hooker Valley,

Glacial ice on Mt Sefton, Mount Cook National Park, NZ

SCULPTED. Glacial blue ice on the flanks of Mt Sefton.

Fluting on Mount Cook, NZ

FLUTES. Fluting on Mount Cook – created as melt water forms channels in snow and ice.

Aoraki Mount Cook, NZ

THE CLOUD PIERCER. Aoraki | Mount Cook (3,724m).

Icebergs in the Hooker Glacier Lake, Mount Cook, New Zealand

BERGLAND. Icebergs carved from the face of the Hooker Glacier litter the Hooker Lake with Aoraki | Mt Cook shrouded in clouds in the background.

Hooker Glacier, Aoraki Mount Cook, NZ

TERMINUS. The abrupt blue ice cliffs that mark the furthest reaches of the ever retreating Hooker Glacier.

Hooker Glacier Lake, Aoraki Mount Cook, NZ

CARVED. Mt Cook at the head of the Hooker Valley, carved by millennia’s of ice.

Mt Sefton & Mueller Lake, Aoraki Mount Cook, NZ

WILDERNESS. Wild weather & landscapes, Mueller Lake & Mt Sefton shrouded in cloud.

Hooker River, Aoraki Mount Cook, NZ

RUMBLING THUNDER. The Hooker River drains the meltwater from the Hooker & Mueller Glaciers.

Aoraki Mount Cook, New Zealand

AORAKI | MOUNT COOK. Evening sun lights up summit of NZ’s highest peak.

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TASMAN PANORAMA. Evening sunlight glints off the icebergs floating in the Tasman Glacier Lake.

Icebergs in the Tasman Glacier Lake, Mount Cook, New Zealand

ICE BLUE. Wind blown icebergs congregate downwind at the outlet of the Tasman Lake, Mt Cook National Park.

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RETREATING WORLD. It’s only within living memory that the Tasman and Hooker Lakes have formed. As little as 30 years ago these vast lakes were still part of the glaciers of the Southern Alps.

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GRANDSTAND OF ICE. Tasman Lake, Mt Cook National Park.

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SHAPED BY NATURE.

Icebergs on Tasman Lake, Aoraki Mount Cook, NZ

ICE GALLERY. Wind blown, floating icebergs form a gallery of blue sculptures on Tasman Lake

The Milky Way over Mt Cook Village New Zealand

SOUTHERN SKIES. The Milky Way over Mt Cook Village.

Kayaking on the West Coast of New Zealand

WESTLAND WINTER

Adventure, Mountains, Walking & Hiking

Winter on the West Coast is hard to beat. Clear blue skies, panoramic views of Aoraki Mount Cook & the Southern Alps, relatively few tourists and mercifully few sand flies…

Early winter can be a SAD* time of year in Wanaka. The ski fields are waiting for the first snowfalls of winter to arrive and a low, damp, cold layer of inversion cloud can hang over the lake and hide the sun for days on end. It’s the ideal time to get out of town on a  road trip to find some blue skies, and a pilgrimage across to the West Coast is becoming an annual tradition for us….

*Seasonal Affective Disorder

Road on the coastal West Coast of New Zealand passes through forest

SH6 – The Haast Highway – cuts through ancient coastal podocarp rainforest

West Coast New Zealand Coastal Forest

Beach | Forest

Hectors Dolphins West Coast New Zealand

Hanging out with the locals – a pod of Hector’s Dolphins catch a wave at Ship Creek. These are amongst the smallest and rarest species of dolphin in the world.

West Coast Beach New Zealand

The Wild West Coast, Ship Creek.

Reflections in a lagoon on West Coast NZ

Okarito Lagoon in reflective mood

White heron West Coast NZ

GONE FISHING… A white heron focused on the job in hand

Sunset and waves West Coast New Zealand

Light shafts at sunset.

West Coast Beach New Zealand Long Exposure

Watching the sun go down, West Coast NZ (long exposure)

Misty Mountains Southern Alps NZ

An easterly flow spills cloud over the Southern Alps – clagged in back home in Wanaka!

West Coast Beach New Zealand

SURF’S UP. The wild, rugged West Coast

A bridge spans a lagoon on the West Coast of New Zealand

Three Mile Lagoon

Forest reflections West Coast New Zealand

Podocarp forest flanking Three Mile Lagoon

Forest reflections West Coast New Zealand

Podocarp forest reflections in Three Mile Lagoon, with easterly clouds spilling over the Main Divide (cloudy in Wanaka)!

West Coast Beach NZ with views of Southern Alps

Classic West Coast

West Coast beach New Zealand

Frothing.

Oystercatcher on beach

Foam bath. A variable oystercatcher hunts for shellfish on the tide line

Sunset West Coast New Zealand

Orange glow

Moonlight reflections, Okarito Beach

Moonlight reflections, Okarito Beach

Kayaking West Coast New Zealand

Slicing through the glassy water of Okarito Lagoon

Kayaking on Okarito Lagoon, West Coast New Zealand

Tranquility.

Mount Cook

Aoraki, the cloud piercer.

Mount Cook reflections on West Coast

Ocean | Rainforest | Ice | Rock

Kayaking West Coast NZ

Into the wild…. Kayaking up the Okarito River

Kayaking on the West Coast of NZ

Thorney looking pirates!

Kayaking on the West Coast with views of Mt Cook, West Coast New Zealand

Winter on the West Coast. Magnificent.

Kayaking on the West Coast of New Zealand

Glassy.

Kayaking on the West Coast of NZ with views of Mount Cook, NZ

Ocean to Alps. Kayaking on the glassy water of Okarito Lagoon.

Haast Pass Highway Mt Aspiring National Park

Homeward bound. The Haast Highway cuts a swathe through Mount Aspiring National Park.

 

Brewster Hut & Haast Pass, Mt Aspiring National Park

Climbing & Karma on Mt Armstrong

Walking & Hiking

The karma couldn’t have been better. Earlier that morning we’d stopped in the dark to help two young tourists change the wheel on their rental car, so we were convinced the Mountain Gods would be smiling on our planned hike up to the Brewster Glacier….

We reached the forested slopes of Mount Aspiring National Park on the Haast Pass Highway at dawn and glancing up at the mountains could see blue skies through breaks in the cloud and felt confident that once the sun was up the mist would burn off, as the weather forecast had predicted.

Hikers cross the Haast River, Mount Aspiring National Park NZ

A chilly crossing of the Haast River at dawn, Mount Aspiring National Park NZ

The Brewster Hut Track begins immediately with a crossing of the Haast River, which after heavy rainfall can be impassable, but today the flow was light and we barely got wet ankles. As this is the only river crossing on the Brewster Track we had a cunning plan to keep our boots dry so crossed in old trainers which we then hid in the bush and changed into warm socks and dry boots (not the normal Kiwi attitude)!

From the Haast River the track climbs steeply through lush, native beech forest and for most of the way is a jumble of gnarled tree roots and moss covered rocks. It can be quite a scramble in places and we were happy to be carrying relatively light packs with just enough gear for staying overnight in the hut, rather than camping gear including a tent etc.

Hiking through native beech rainforest, Mount Aspiring National Park, New Zealand

Hiking through lush native beech rainforest

Hiking track through forest, Mt Aspiring National Park

The track to Brewster Hut winds its way through gnarled roots and moss covered rocks under the ancient canopy of native beech

After climbing consistently for about 90 minutes with plenty of scrambling up steep sections of track, we emerged from the forest at the bushline to find low, damp and thick cloud blanketing the mountain with visibility down to just 20 or 30 metres. What were the Weather Gods thinking?! Had they not seen me change that flat tyre in the cold and dark for the damsels in distress?

Surely the cloud would burn off? And anyway, it was only about 10am in the morning which still gave us a good 10 hours of daylight – plenty of time to hike up to the Brewster Glacier and back to the hut before nightfall, as planned.

Hiking through the mist on the Brewster Track, Mount Aspiring National Park, New Zealand

Hiking through the mist on the Brewster Track

I mentioned that we were travelling light….

It was about now, as we started to wade through the sodden tussock grass, that I began to regret not packing some of the gear which would usually accompany me on a longer tramp. I’d naively been lulled into a false sense of security by the fine and dry forecast… no need for gaiters, right?

Wrong.

Within 5 minutes of hiking through the soaking tussock, water had cascaded down my legs and my socks, sponge-like, had readily soaked up the moisture and my boots were drenched from the inside out.

Travelling light… No spare, dry socks. Oh bugger.

But, we were only 45 minutes away from the hut which would surely be above the cloud and we could dry out there before the onward hike up Mount Armstrong and across to the Brewster Glacier.

Brewster Hut in thick, low cloud

Brewster Hut in thick, low cloud with visibility down to 20-30m.

After about 2.5hours of climbing we arrived at the hut on schedule to find visibility down to less than 20m and the cloud thicker and damper than ever. And it refused to lift.

7 hours, 3 cups of tea, 2 cups of soup, 2 sandwiches, half my chocolate ration, and numerous trips to the long-drop for a pee later, the cabin fever really set in and we decided to go for a wander up the hill towards the summit of Mount Armstrong – just for a change of scenery.

All hope of reaching the glacier that day had gone, but on the upside my socks were now dry.

About then the Weather Gods woke up and karma kicked in. The clouds slowly began to clear to reveal tantalising glimpses of the towering mountain peaks and glaciers surrounding us. We climbed onwards towards the summit of Mt Armstrong and the clouds continued to clear.

The Brewster Glacier, Mount Aspiring National Park

BITTERSWEET: Clouds clear to reveal the Brewster Glacier, Mount Aspiring National Park

Hiking above the clouds, Mount Armstrong, Mount Aspiring National Park, NZ

Hiking on Mount Armstrong waiting for the clouds to lift.

Campsite with a view, Mount Armstrong, Mt Aspiring National Park, NZ

A tramper finds a campsite with a view (well, now the clouds have cleared), Mount Armstrong

Hiking down to Brewster Hut at dusk, Mt Aspiring National Park

Returning back down to Brewster Hut at dusk

Mount Brewster and the Brewster Glacier

Mount Brewster and the Brewster Glacier. The ancient path of the glacier is clearly evident where the rock has been smoothed and rounded by the grinding and erosion of the ice.

Reflections of Mount Brewster in an alpine tarn, Mount Aspiring National Park NZ

Reflections of Mount Brewster (2516m) an Topheavy (2076m) in an alpine tarn

Returning to the hut, the silver lining of the days cloudy weather was apparent as the sunset lit up the last of the passing high cloud for a magnificent display.

Sunset at Brewster Hut, Mt Aspiring National Park NZ

Sunset at Brewster Hut, Mt Aspiring National Park NZ

Sunset at Brewster Hut, Mount Aspiring National Park, NZ

Watching the sunset at Brewster Hut

Sunset over the Southern Alps

Sunset over the Southern Alps. A slight halo (or sun dog) around the sun can be seen as ice crystals in the high cirrostratus cloud refract the light of the setting sun.

Whilst I had left out some essential gear, I hadn’t forgotten the whisky, and after dinner we enjoyed sitting out on the deck under the stars with a few nips of single malt until it became too cold. It was a full-house at the hut – which we’d suspected might be the case – but we’d borrowed the key to the 2-bunk Brewster Bivvy from a friend at DOC in exchange for agreeing to clean the toilet and the hut before our departure. A fair trade we reckoned for a night away from the snorers and rustlers back in the main hut!

Brewster Hut and the stars of the night sky under moonlight

Brewster Hut by moonlight at 2AM.

Brewster Bivvy & Southern Alps under moonlight and stars, Mount Aspiring National Park

Brewster Bivvy under the light of a full moon

The next morning we awoke to the pink glow of a mountain sunrise and clear skies. After a couple of coffees, we completed our domestic chores for DOC, and headed up Mount Armstrong again. We didn’t have time to traverse across to the glacier this morning, but watched a mountain guide sidle around to the ice and and made a mental note of the route for next time.

Brewster Bivvy at sunrise, Mount Aspiring National Park, NZ

Brewster Bivvy at sunrise

Haast Pass and the Southern Alps at sunrise, Mount Aspiring National Park, NZ

Sunrise over Mt Aspiring National Park, Haast Pass and the Southern Alps

A hiker leaves Brewster Hut at sunrise, Mt Aspiring National Park NZ

A climber leaves Brewster Hut at sunrise, Mt Aspiring National Park NZ

The 2 hour walk back down to the car seemed more of a scramble than the hike up, but we were rewarded with spectacular views of the Southern Alps – views which had eluded us the previous day.

Hiking down to Brewster Hut, Mount Aspiring National Park, NZ

A Sunday morning stroll on Mount Armstrong with Brewster Hut below

Hiking along the ridgeline of the Mt Brewster Track, Mt Aspiring National Park

Descending down the Brewster Track, Mt Aspiring National Park

Hiking along the ridgeline of the Mt Brewster Track, with the Haast Pass Highway below

Hiking along the ridge line of the Mt Brewster Track, with the Haast Pass Highway below

Hiking along the ridge line of the Brewster Track

Hiking on the Brewster Track with native rainforest in the valley below

Despite arriving later than anticipated, karma had finally played out on Mt Armstrong for us with a spectacular sunset, night-sky and sunrise. More importantly, it taught me an important lesson – never entirely trust the Weather Gods in the mountains and always pack gaiters and dry socks!

Panorama of Mount Aspiring National Park and the Haast Pass from the Mt Brewster Track

Panorama of Mount Aspiring National Park and the Haast Pass Highway from the Mt Brewster Track

A hiker is dwarfed by the huge Dart Glacier on Cascade Saddle

The Cascade Saddle DOMS…

Walking & Hiking

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.

Mountain biking into Mount Aspiring National Park New Zealand

Mountain biking into Mount Aspiring National Park

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.

Hiking in Mt Aspiring National Park

Hiking up the steep slopes of the Matukituki Valley to Cascade Saddle

We spent an enjoyable evening with Stu & Heather, but had quite a late night due to more DOMSDrinking 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.

A paid of young kea

A pair of juvenile delinquents (kea) looking for trouble!

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.

Piwakawaka - the NZ Fantail

Piwakawaka – the NZ Fantail. Fast, flighty and almost impossible to photograph!

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.

Panorama of the West Matukituki Valley in Mount Aspiring National Park New Zealand

Panorama of the West Matukituki Valley on an overcast day

Hikers with a view of Mount Aspiring National Park New Zealand

Great views of the West Matukituki Valley, despite low cloud obscuring the view of Mount Aspiring

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.

A hiker climbs the steep slopes of the Cascade Saddle Track in Mount Aspiring National Park

Scrambling up steep sections of the Cascade Saddle Track, Mount Aspiring National Park

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.

A hiker is dwarfed by the huge Dart Glacier on Cascade Saddle

A hiker is dwarfed by the huge Dart Glacier on Cascade Saddle, Mount Aspiring National Park

Hiking over Cascade Saddle with spectacular views of the Dart Glacier

Hiking over Cascade Saddle with spectacular views of the Dart Glacier, the track is visible to the lower left of this photograph.

Hiking in New Zealand - The Dart Glacier, Cascade Saddle, Mt Aspiring National Park

The Dart Glacier, Cascade Saddle. Mt Aspiring National Park.

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!

A hiker climbs down a rock face in Mount Aspiring National Park NZ

Descending steep rock slab on Cascade Saddle

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….

The West Matukituki Valley, Mount Aspiring National Park Under Low Cloud on the Descent from Cascade Saddle

The West Matukituki Valley Under Low Cloud on the Descent from Cascade Saddle

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 DOMSDefinitely 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.

Mount Aspiring at the head of the West Matukituki Valley, Mt Aspiring National Park.

And here’s one I prepared earlier…. Mount Aspiring (3033m) & the Bonar Glacier at the head of the West Matukituki Valley, Mt Aspiring National Park.