5 Passes Route Mount Aspiring National Park

This trip had been on my list for a few years. I had been on the Routeburn a few times recently and did a Rees Dart family tramp as a teenager.

I had met a few folks who had done the route, all raved about the amazing country. After reading Geoff Spearpoints “The Great Unknown” a gift from my father in law I was inspired to reach deeper into the backcountry. The 5 Passes doesn’t come close to Geoff’s incredibile trips but we all have to start somewhere. 

We booked this trip in 11months out so had a long time to enjoy the planning and anticipation which is one of the things I enjoy about adventuring. I read lots of trip reports, talked to a few folks, watched trip videos, studied google earth and used my father in laws Moir’s guide book. It was great fun 🙂

I even had to do some map coordinate conversions from NZMS 260 map reference to New Zealand Geodetic Datum 2000 to record the exact locations for the rock bivi’s at Park Pass and on the Olivine ledge. If you need to do the same here is a link to help https://www.geodesy.linz.govt.nz/concord/index.cgi 

Here is the trip planning information Google Earth project

At one stage we had 6 of us confirmed to go but this shrunk to 2 due to broken ankles, a lawn mower vs finger, pregnancy and a cycle adventure. In the end 3 of us jumped on the plane to Queenstown with our COVID masks on. We had a quick stop at the airport village Torpedo 7 store for the smallest gas bottle available and the $40 fly.

The weather was looking ok with a small clear window that might fit the time we would be most exposed on the tops, but it was going to get a little cold which turned out to be a little uncomfortable 😦

We headed to the Routeburn shelter past a group of local tourists enjoying a swim in Queenstown, it looked lovely.

As soon as we got to the road end we were attacked by the sand flies, did anyone bring any repellent? Some nice ladies turned up after a day’s walking and gave us some spray, we didn’t see any more insects until a few hours before getting back.

This was a fast packing trip so we were travelling light, aiming for about 8kgs so we did the last minute car pack cull of things we didn’t need to double up on. We took Grant’s fancy new Jet Boil and gave mine a rest. One of the heaviest things in my pack was my supply of cossients full of avocado, cheese and salima. I can justify heavy yummy food.

I had estimated travel times based on the planning and allowed 5 hours to get to Theatre Flats for our first night. We left the road end at 4.30pm and headed up over the Sugar Loaf Pass 1154m, I was surprised how rough it got once we dropped into the Rockburn. It was a lovely afternoon to be heading into the mountains and soon we arrived at Theatre flats and saw the big rock bivi that would provide some sheater for us. Anthony made a huge boom fire and we lay on the grass and admired the mountain and speeding cloud theatre.

Theatre Flat Rock Biv

This was my first night on my fancy new sleeping mat, normally we have huts for our multi day adventures so I bought a mat. Actually I bought two mats, one was an impulse facebook ad purchase for a cheap mat the other a well researched purchase from my favorite Bivavoic store. It felt uncomfortable paying the extra money for the thicker 10cm mat but it was worth every cent being comfortable and warm that night.

As forecast we got some light rain in the morning, the rock bivi kept us out of the rain just. The dips were starting to reach us as we packed up and headed for Park Pass. It was good conditions for tramping, light rain but clear skies so we could take in the country. We were now off track and following the route, sometimes we saw a few markers and cairns sometimes we just headed up the valley. It got cold going over Park Pass 1176m, we spotted one of the good rock Bivi’s that are a great feature of this country. Going down to hidden falls was a good challenge, we found the route to the bush line but lost it soon after. We bush bashed for a while and tore our legs on the ferns. The sun came out as we climbed to Cow Saddle and then it started snowing as we hit the snow slopes below Fiery Col 1546m. The Fiery rock in this area is super grippy and good to travel over.

Park Pass Biv

As we travelled down from Fiery Col the sun came out again and we got views out over the Olivine ledge river and surrounding country. It was impressive. The day was starting to drag on and travel on the Olivine ledge was hard work, lots of rough travel and a few more rain showers. I wanted to check out the rock bivi at the end of the ledge so we didn’t head up the short route to the Fohn Lakes. The rock bivi was amazing and the sun came out again. We sat there and pondered what to do, option 1 stay in this dry warm safe bivi, option 2 climb another 400m to the amazing alpine lakes and sleep under the stars. Option 2 was risker but potentially offered next level mountain vista’s. It was 5.30pm and the forecast was good so we headed up.

Olivine Ledge Rock Biv

The vista’s were next level, it was gorgeous. I went for a quick dip in the lake and enjoyed my hot raro watching the sun set over the lake edge with the Durans in the background.

The wind was blowing a bit, Anthony set up the fly but it was taking a beating from the wind and didn’t last long into the night. It was forecast to be cold and made for a long uncomfortable night, a set of sit ups and a set of star jumps at 4am wasn’t enough to get warm enough. We had frozen shoes and drink bottles in the morning.

Because we were making good progress we wondered if a visit to the Unknown Lake was possible. I led us off in the wrong direction which gave us a good view of the Merkl Glacier at the head of the Beans Burn.

We saw the first people we had seen in a few days before first flat and soon after Grant rolled an ankle. The forecast was for rain later in the day and the climb to the lake looked gnarly. So we flagged that plan. Anthony thought we could make it to the pub to watch the AB’s starting at 9.30 so we matched on across the Beans Burn river, beside the Dart, across the Rock Burn and passed Lake Sylvan.

The beer at the pub tasted good and the breakfast the next morning was amazing. Our gear dried in the sun and we had some fun shopping in town before returning home. Looking forward to exploring more of this area soon.

Trip planning information Google earth project

Full Moon on Tongariro

Chasing the perfect full moon mission we headed north on August 4th and had a cool adventure starting at 10pm and finishing the next morning at 7am.

Get away from the crowds on the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, do it under the Full Moon. This trip we did a loop of Tongariro. With the moon reflecting off the snow we barely turned our headlamps on.

Fire & Ice, Ball Pass Ski Adventure

What makes a great adventure?

  • A quest
  • An unfamiliar environment
  • An element of risk

I turned the big 50 in July and to celebrate I planned a ski touring adventure with my good mates Anthony and Andrew. None of us had ever been ski touring before but we have been on lots of great adventures in the backcountry.

Ski touring looked like a great way to explore Alpine country and spend time in the mountains. As with many adventures a bit of Youtube inspiration is a good starting point. I found a great clip showing a trip on Mount Sibbald, after a message to a mate in Christchurch a plan to stay at Macauley Hut and explore that area was hatched. We booked a week into our calendars and the excitement started.

I started to get a bit nervous about the plan so I signed up for an Alpine skills course, I also explored a few guided options. While my backcountry experience has grown we had never been ski touring and had none of the Alpine gear.

I found a few options that looked nice but most looked like they were aimed at a slightly different type of adventurer. 

I was looking for a quest, unfamiliar environment and some risk. I phoned Axel from Alpine Recreation to see what options he could recommend, after a short chat on the phone he suggested we could do a ski touring trip to Caroline Hut / Ball Pass. With this warning on the website it looked perfect for an adventure. “A solid level of fitness with aerobic training prior to the trip is expected. Ability to carry moderate to heavy backpacks (8-10kg) for 6-9 hours if required. Expect ascents of 800-1200 vertical meters. Some discomfort expected due to long days and exposure to elements. Prior multi-day hiking/trekking/tramping trips through rough untracked terrain are recommended” 

As we got close to our trip it looked like there was going to be a short window of clear weather after some fresh snow then all hell broke loose. 

We didn’t think much about the fire station alarm when it started in Tekapo on Sunday, nek minnit there was a huge forest fire on both sides of SH 80. This closed the road.

We came up with lots of options: do we fly to Mt Cook from Tekapo, do we get a chopper from the east side of the lake. We waited and waited, watched a great film by the Alpine Rec team  https://vimeo.com/ondemand/symphonyonskis that got us more excited to get into the hills. We watched a few instructional videos on how to do kick turns and then the snow arrived.

Tekapo transformed from a dry 20 degree summer holiday location to a winter paradise. We hit the road hoping for a mid day road opening. The focus now was the avalanche danger going to stop us from heading to the hut?

Wednesday morning we were on the move! This was one of those days you dream off in the mountains. Clear skies, no wind and heaps of fresh snow. The landscape is so extreme, it is mesmerising.

We had a full on day to get to the hut, 11 hours of walking, crawling, bush bashing and ski touring. After the first 5 hours Andrew announced he wouldn’t be attending my 100th birthday adventure. We did get time for one beautiful ski run in the fresh snow. A taste of what was to come tomorrow.

Caroline Hut is very cool and in a great spot. I have no idea how they got permission to put a private hut here, but pleased they did. The hut has everything which helps to keep the pack weight down given all the ski touring gear. We are fast packers so big packs are not our thing.

Thursdays is best summed up by our guide Mark’s comment, I think that was the best days ski touring I have had. It was awesome! The snow was perfect, weather beautiful, an excellent day in the mountains. We enjoyed a hot dinner and a whisky to celebrate.

The weather was forecast to change on Friday so we potted our route down to Cove stream, this is where we had a few scary moments. The wind picked up and we had to break out the ski crampons, after a few technical issues we were able to ski up the ridge and across the crust to safety. It’s interesting the mind game when you get in these situations, I keep reminding myself that we had all the gear and we just needed to keep calm and follow the plan. Hard to do when the adrenaline starts pumping.

As we got back to the car Andrew confirmed he was definitely not coming on my 100th birthday adventure and we reminisced about some of our mellower adventures.

Nelson Lakes, 5 passes D’Urville to St Arnaud

After finishing our Travers Sabine circuit we started planning our next visit to Nelson Lakes. There was talk of St Arnaud to Lewis Pass, after a few conversations and some map study that route seemed an under utilisation of the beautiful alpine country on offer. I plotted a route from D’Urville hut up the valley over Moss pass, over Waiau pass then heading east on to the St James range, along the ridge that includes Clarence pass, then south to Paske saddle, through to the Begley then over the high ridge at Cotterell peak, down to John Tait in the Travers, out to St Arnaud. It made a great looking loop.

I started searching for trip reports and couldn’t find anything for the middle section from Waiau to Paske, I reached out to the Nelson Lakes backcountry group and got some good intel but still no reports. I sort the advice of Danny G, he wisely suggested ridge travel in the area is tricky, best to stick to the passes.

Our flights were booked for early December, the snow had been melting fast which was good news for our high route but the weather was not looking flash. The day before our flight the water taxi phoned to say it wasn’t running due to high water levels, DOC staff were unable to travel up the Sabine due to flooding. Suddenly our trip was postponed. We headed north to Ruapehu and found good conditions for some mountain time and rescheduled our trip.

Rebooked for the end of January this time the forecast looked excellent. We flew early Friday and were getting eaten by sand flies at lake Rotoroa waiting for the water taxi to speed us up the lake. We shared the taxi with a nice couple from Nelson, Nigel and Michelle, they were also heading to Blue Lake up the main Sabine route.

Travel up the D’Urville was beautiful, Anthony led us up the river to avoid the track sidles, then used his deer hunting skills to follow tracks across the river flats. It was hot so being in the river was perfect.

We made good time up the valley and were at the bottom of Moss Pass within 4.5 hours. I had read a few reports about Moss since Danny G had recommended it as a detour to our Travers Sabine circuit last year, the climb is 1,100m and after our experience of the 800m West Sabine to Travers pass climb I expected the worst. The climb started steep with a bit of time on all fours, soon the slope eased and we were rewarded with superb mountain views that took your breath away. On the pass we saw the many different mosses that give the pass its name. From the top we had great views across the park, Cupola stood out high on the Travers range to the North.

We climbed down the steep shute and across the very slippery grass to our first views of Blue Lake, the afternoon sun was creating huge shadows in the valley.

There was a good group of Te Araroa hikers and a couple of others doing smaller trips, after a good explore around the lake and a wash down stream in the river we grabbed our mattress to sleep under the stars.

On Saturday we had the first of our off track sections, after Waiau pass we headed east up the eastern headwaters towards the northern part of the St James range, we had a bit of bush bashing to get above the scrub then the travel was nice right upto the last 100m of climb on to the ridge. The ridge was gnarly and the planned route looked questionable for the North heading ridge section, the lower east heading section looked good, exposed to the south but a path on top. Looking back we should have had an explore but it is always better to be safe in these areas. So we headed south on the ridge looking for a place to drop down into the Clarence via the scree slopes. We found a good route down and did a bit of scree surfing.

The headwaters of the Clarence are a wonderful backcountry area, I wonder how many folks travel in here? Down the river we found a steep gut heading upto to Paske saddle. This was the third and last of our big climbs of the day. It was nice to get to the top and eat another of my fabulous croissants filled with avocado and salami. We had been going for 9 hours so we were getting tired, we headed down to the river via the bush towards the east. We lost the cairns before the bluff section. After the hut the travel was easy to the Begley and up the pretty track on the true left. The sun was setting as we passed the valley heading up to Begley saddle, looks like more wild country to explore there. We arrived at the hut after dark, washed in the river and were greeted by Ben who had been baking fresh bread on the fire, warm bread was a nice treat with dinner.

We needed to get to St Arnaud by 5.45pm to make our flight so we set off early the next morning, the day was beautiful again, three days in a row. It was 26 degrees at 7.30am, straight into regular filling of the hat to cool down. Travel up the Begley was good, at the top of valley we turned left to follow the creek towards Cotterell peak. There is one 30m waterfall that has a good route up on the true left (the left hand side of the flow of the river, right hand side looking up towards Cotterell) to get around it.

Then the travel is easy on the alpine plain, the headwall at the top looked pretty intimidating but was much easier than it looked. The rock was very grippy. There is a cool luna looking spot on top of the headwall, we headed south to the low point on the ridge just north of Cotterell peak. The view from here was again one of the classics all the way down to the lake.

Some more scree surfing and a long bash down the ridge towards John Tait got us to the Travers for a much needed swim. It took 5 hours to get here and we had 25km to run out. We jogged, power walked and enjoyed the beautiful sections the valley has to offer, I had a swim every hour to keep cool, it was a fabulous way to spend the last hours of our adventure.

We had enough time for a swim, pizza and beer before heading back to Welly.

We covered 120km over the 3 days and traveled for 31 hours.

Day 1 30km to Blue Lake 7.40

Day 2 50km to Begley 14hours

Day 3 40km to St Arnaud 9.30

Thanks to the following for trip info

Nelson Lakes National Park Begley Saddle

Trip Report – Nelson Lakes 1 2012

Pass hopping to St Arnaud

Belvedere Pk

https://www.facebook.com/groups/1361399183905056/

https://www.instagram.com/tararua_mountain_running/

Les Molloy for maps intel and encouragement.

Route

SK Main Range 2019 report

Dear Swallow, on your commemorative weekend I finally completed a Main Range SK on my third attempt. A huge thank you for all your inspiration and guidance. It was four years ago that I first heard about SK from yours and others reports. I was captivated by the intense adventurous spirit. At the first SK talk night at the Cross I become more engrossed in the SK spirit. You generously provided your tips and encouragement to all of us regardless of our ability. I must admit I’m yet to find the second gear you described experiencing half way on your SK’s and BG, this might have something to do with our differing fitness levels 🙂 Watching you run on Tuesday nights or speed past at an event was a beautiful thing, you glide like a wild cat. You are a legend!

Dear Anna my beautiful wife, thank you for supporting me to do crazy adventures and get the time in the mountains I love. You drove to Ponds Road to collect me from my first failed SK attempt and looked after me while my ankle healed. You consoled me after my second failed SK attempt when I lost the mental game and gave up on the challenge. The painting of you with the Tararua Range in the background is one of my most special treasured gifts. I often reflect on how much I love you and our life together when I’m in the mountains and hope it makes me a better husband when I return. You put up with a lot so I can chase my passion of being above the bush line with the wind in my face and views for miles. Thank you

Dear Ruba, Rose and Lila our three amazing daughters,On the weekend we went on a great adventure in the Tararua range, we completed a route called the SK main range. Trampers started trying to complete the route over a weekend many years ago, some of our running group have completed it with no sleep and in under 24 hours.We had an incredible adventure, hiking through the night on the spine of the lower North Island. We could see Mt Ruapehu, Mt Taranaki, Kapiti Island, Wellington harbour and Lake Wairarapa. The sunset was beautiful, it looked like the goblin forest was on fire.

I love the time we get to spend together in the mountains. When you are not with me, I think about you and your future. I want you to be happy. For me happiness is living a full and inspiring life. Find the things that make your heart sing and do them. Push yourself to your limits, mentally and physically, your spirit won’t soar from playing safe and being comfortable. Doing the SK was one of the hardest and most rewarding adventures I have been on. I hope you get to experience something like it. Love Dad

To my fellow adventurers Marta, Anthony and MichaelThank you for your company, support and adventurous spirits. We all enjoy the same drug of intense backcountry adventure. Without you guys, it would be a much less enjoyable experience. Classic quotes of the day were, Marta “once we get up Crawford we only have half a SMR and half a Southern crossing to go” and ” this part is new. Never been here before. It has to be an addition…” Michael “I think it is an advantage not knowing the route or ever being in the Tararua range before”. Looking forward to our next mission 🙂

Trip breakdown

Location Time Weather Fun Factor
Putara 8.30am Magic 8
Arete 2.30pm Magic 10
Andersen 8.30pm Magic 10
Maungahuka 12.30am Magic 5
Kime 4.45am Cold 1 micro nap time
Kime 7.45am Magic 8
Alpha 10.45am Magic 7
Kaitoke 4.30pm Magic 3 very tired, sore feet
Travel time 28:58    

GearSalomon 20L packSalomon bootsGaitersWaterproof jacket and over trousersAlpine Series hooded Alpha jacketWoolen hat and glovesLong top and bottom polyprosMerino long top2 600ml water bottles and 2L bladderWalking polesSun hat, sun screenEmergency bagFirst aid kitPLBHead lamp with spare batteriesCell phone with view ranger and route gpx loadedMap and compassGoProFood30 scoops of tailwindBackcountry smoothies 2Bars 10Cheese mini brie 10Chocolate mini bars 12

Video flyover of the route