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.