"You will go out in joy and be led forth in peace; the mountains and hills will burst into song before you" - Isaiah 55:12

12 May 2013

Sudden Valley, Arthurs Pass National Park - 30 April 2013

This was a trip that we'd been eyeing up for some time. Each trip up the Hawdon Valley usually ended with longing gazes at the entrance to Sudden Valley, which is one of the major tributaries of the Hawdon. There is an air of mystery about Sudden Valley as views into the valley are blocked by the southern flanks of The Pyramid and a bush-clad spur that stretches out across the entrance to the valley. It's the sort of view that invites exploration - you know there's something good in there, and we were determined to find out what!

A trip up Sudden Valley requires some consideration of the weather as the narrow gorge in the lower valley becomes quite impassable with minimal rain, so unless you're happy getting stuck up-valley, plan ahead. We had what looked to be a very narrow window of opportunity to get the tramp in. Around 50mm of rain had fallen on Sunday night/Monday morning and more was forecast for Wednesday afternoon. Adding the busyness of family life made it Tuesday or bust! A quick check of the latest weather readings indicated that no rain had fallen for 24hrs so we felt confident of making it through the gorge - New Zealand waterways rise and fall rapidly so our prospects were good.

We left the Canterbury plains under a veil of low cloud but arrived in bright sunshine at the very familiar Hawdon shelter around 9.30am, and with just Iain and myself in the party we hoped to make good time to enjoy lunch at the bivvy in the upper valley.
As with all tramps up the Hawdon valley the trip starts with a ford of the Hawdon River and, knowing that we were going to get much wetter once we entered Sudden Valley, we went straight in. We made our way across the rocky riverbed to the true right bank to make use of the stile across the fence that runs across the width of the riverbed. This fence is electrified so use caution if you decide to duck under it. From the fence, a well worn foot trail led across easy grassy flats towards Sudden Valley, the anticipation of entering the valley growing as we made our approach. After around 5 minutes easy walking across the flats we had reached Sudden Valley Stream, which was in good flow although not at all high as it exited the valley and made its way down to join the Hawdon.

The first section of Sudden Valley is a delight, with easy travel along river gravels which, combined with an easily fordable stream, makes for good progress. With each step however the valley narrows, the bush-clad walls closing the valley in, and within half an hour we had reached the start of the gorge. Here the terrain takes on a far more rugged nature - stones and gravel are replaced by boulders, and the peaceful flow of the stream becomes a bubbling force requiring care at each crossing. At this point the route crosses to the true left, marked by a large orange triangle at the bush edge, and briefly follows a well worn track through light bush before emerging back in the streambed.

Travel through the gorge is mostly in or next to the stream. There is no set route, just make your own way up taking advantage of the easiest travel on offer - the ability to boulder hop and find a route through rough, wet terrain is all that's required. Cairns mark the route in places but are scarce.
The gorge is a spectacular place. Vertical walls of rock rise on both sides around you, enclosing you in damp, narrow confines, with mosses draping walls that probably never see direct sunlight.

After around 1hr20mins we found a superb little waterfall gently spilling over the edge of a rock face.Its arcing nature enabled us to stand almost directly under it but not get wet. As we turned to move on up valley we spied the route ahead - a very large marker on the opposite bank (true left) indicated the way up a steepish scree/rock slope. This route must be followed if you want to reach the upper valley, for to continue up the stream bed leads only to the impassable (and aptly named) Barrier Falls, so there was nothing else to do but to ford the river and start climbing.
The rock was extremely loose, so care was needed not to dislodge too many rocks. Iain seemed to spring up the slope with little difficulty while I, weighing probably 25kg more than Iain, floundered somewhat, at times seeming to take 2 steps only to slide back down as far as I'd just advanced. Despite this there was little trouble in reaching the track which sidles through the bush and rejoins the stream directly above the falls.

At this point we were expecting the valley to open up, with park-like expanses promised, but instead we again found ourselves boulder hopping for another 40 minutes before quite suddenly finding ourselves emerging onto an open, grassy terrace bathed in bright sunshine - a stark contrast to the close, damp confines of the gorge. A quick check of the map assured us that the bivvy wasn't too far further so we pressed on, with the prospect of a comfortable place to eat lunch an added incentive, and about 20 minutes later we arrived at the bivvy, exactly 3hrs since setting out.

Sudden Valley Biv in its current form was built in 2007, replacing the very rundown original biv that was built in the early 1960's. It has 2 bunks, with mattresses, and a small table - just the bare necessities. The biv sits at 960m, nestled at the bush edge a short distance back from the stream on the true right bank. Unfortunately its' location means it sees very little sun so, despite being just 6 years old, already has mould growing over the ceiling. A quick scan of the hut book reveals many similar comments about the location - a spot on the opposite bank would have been ideal but the terrace there is a little lower so perhaps more prone to flooding.

After checking out the biv and signing the hut book we decided to sit out on the terrace in the sun to eat lunch. It was an idyllic spot, warm sun and no wind - a perfect day in the mountains.
We had briefly entertained the idea of heading a little further up the valley as the mountains at the head are spectacular but as we sat eating lunch we noticed a large bank of cloud building up in the south. It had rain written all over it so, not wanting to get wet if we could help it, we cut lunch short and started our return to the car.

As it often is, the trip back seemed a lot quicker and it wasn't long before we were at the top of the scree slope below the falls. Iain again led the way while I gave him plenty of head start to avoid bombarding him with loose rocks. No problems were had and we continued on through the gorge. Our progress was good and we were surprised to exit the gorge so quickly - how different it seemed to just a few hours before when we were picking a route up through the boulders.

Usually we find the last section of the Hawdon River to be a mind-numbing plod along the river gravels but we felt none of these usual feelings on our way out of Sudden Valley, despite travelling over identical terrain. Instead we felt enlivened, partly by knowing we were only 30 minutes from the car, but also by the knowledge that we'd just experienced a spectacular valley and had it all to ourselves. As it turned out we were just in time - just 10 minutes down the road steady rain was falling, and had been on the plains most of the day. We truly did have the best of it on this day.

Entrance to Sudden Valley and The Pyramid (1608m), from the Hawdon riverbed

Iain stows his jacket after 10 minutes - superb tramping weather!

Sudden Valley Stream, shortly after entering the valley

Someone's been very busy! - building site in the lower Sudden Valley

Sudden Valley Stream in low flow

Approaching the start of the gorge

Bigger boulders and narrower valley as the gorge nears

Sudden Valley Stream gaining force

Skirting round boulders as we enter the gorge

An easier section of the gorge, but still wet feet and slippery rocks 


Standing at the foot of the waterfall

Looking across from the waterfall to the route up the scree slope

Fording the stream to reach the scree

Iain leads the way up the scree

Emerging from the bush sidle above the falls

Pleasant travel above the falls

View of the top of Barrier Falls

As close as I dared - looking over Barrier Falls

Arriving in the open upper valley - apologies for the flare (I think lens was a little fogged up)

Sudden Valley Biv

Interior of Sudden Valley Biv

Lunch out on the terrace, with southerly approaching

Iain tackling the scree descent

View from the top of the scree down to the stream
Crown Copyright - Land Information NZ

Access: Drive on SH73 from Christchurch towards Arthurs Pass. Turn right at the marked turnoff to the Hawdon Valley and Mt White and follow signs to the Hawdon shelter.

Time: 3hrs to the bivvy

Map: BV21 Cass

Hut: Sudden Valley Biv (2 bunks)


  1. Nice photos,
    last time I was in there we did a day trip up over Pyramid and down a good scree into Sudden Valley.

    1. Yes that trip over The Pyramid would be a good one...also I'd quite like to climb out of the head of Sudden Valley, head along the Polar Range, then drop down into Discovery Stream and out down the Hawdon (or reverse) as a nice round trip.

  2. Good report, another on my to do list as the last 3 times Ive planned to go there there were already big parties heading that way.

    1. Thanks Jonathon. There are campsites around the bivvy if you were so inclined, but if there were large parties ahead of you then you might be out of luck. Great trip to do, hope you get there.

  3. Great memories. Did this tramp 8 years ago today, preparing for Te Araroa trail.

    1. Nice one! And thanks for commenting...it gave me reason to re-read the post and, like you, it brought back good memories.