"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

27 August 2014

The Gap, Korowai/Torlesse Tussocklands Park - 26 April 2014

The distinct notch in a rugged section of ridge on the Torlesse Range known as The Gap is on many Canterbury trampers' bucket list. Being visible from down on the plains only adds to the allure.

Expecting a long day we set off early, an autumn frost greeting us as we left the cosy confines of the car just after 7am. Parking under the big tree opposite the old roadman's hut at the foot of Porters Pass,we set off up the Kowai River, following a well formed 4WD track up the valley. It was easy going up the open valley, and in a little over an hour we reached Kowai Hut. The hut was built to house scientists studying hydrology in the valley, and some of their workings can be seen just in behind the hut.
I took the opportunity to bag the hut, under the guise of leaving our intentions in the logbook. Ian decided to have a look too, while the ladies started off up-valley to find a more sheltered spot to wait. As it turned out an old friend of Ian's had spent the night in the hut, planning to have a go at Mt Torlesse on the day of our trip, so while I filled in the book they had a good old catch up.

Parting ways, we made our way up the Kowai, nicely warmed up now and ready to tackle the more difficult terrain that lay ahead. Beyond the hut the route is untracked and unmarked but, armed with some scant verbal advice, we were confident in our route finding abilities.
Above the hut the river passes through two short gorges, both of which are best bypassed using the grassy terraces on the true left. The first is obvious, with the terrace sloping up immediately beyond the hut, but the second proved not quite so obvious...and we missed it, finding ourselves battling thick scrub on the true right - a position not recommended! - but fortunately we discovered our error after only a short distance and our decision to backtrack and cross was well rewarded as we climbed up onto easy terraces which took us to our next major waypoint, the major forks in the upper Kowai.

We were still maybe 30m above the river when we reached the forks and were forced to scramble down a steep bank to reach the river. It took a bit of scouting about to find a safe route down, look for cairns as there's a couple marking the place to start dropping down. The river here was easily forded and we made a short climb up the slope on the other side where we met the sun for the first time, and decided it was time for a snack. We took a few minutes, just sitting and relaxing in the sun, pleased with progress so far. While the others chatted I poked around just over the crest of where we had stopped, taking photos and checking out the next section of our route, which looked quite straightforward.

From here we sidled along, maintaining our height about 30m or so above the river, making our way through at times thick scrub and working in and out of small gullies. At one point I got separated from the others, having pursued a lead across a steep, loose slip while they stayed below in the scrub. My route took me through bush to a small side stream which was easily crossed, and we reconvened just across the stream at the toe of an easy angled spur that would be our line (or should have been!) up to The Gap.

Initially we climbed gradually, through low scrub, but soon found ourselves negotiating some loose, eroded sections, with one rather exhilarating section of crumbling, knife edge ridge with steep drop offs either side. Ian and Pauline worked their way up this, while I decided it wasn't for me, instead opting for an extremely airy traverse across the face of the slip on one side of the ridge. A fall would not have ended well, but by choosing this route it put me in great position to get a photo of the others negotiating the ridge. In hindsight, all of this indicated we were probably doing things the hard way, which was confirmed when we realised that Alison hadn't followed us up at all but had stayed lower down and was now way out in front having had a simple stroll through flat, open scrub.

We regrouped and set about deciding on our approach to The Gap. There is a very large rock outcrop just below The Gap (marked on the map) and we knew we had to sidle around it on the left as we went up. Getting there was the next challenge.
It appeared from our position on the ridge that we might be able to follow it along all the way to the rock, but close inspection of the map indicated this probably wasn't possible as a significant side stream cut through, which would require us to drop down into it and across. Looking around it was likely that we would get bluffed in the broken terrain further up. Confounding the issue was the fact that we couldn't see over a knoll higher up the ridge to determine if we could continue beyond it, so we opted to drop off the ridge early. This initially worked well, as we crossed the side stream and climbed up out the other side easily.
Feeling good about our route choice, we started up a steep scrub covered face towards the rock. The scrub here was quite thick in places, forcing us to weave our way up the face choosing the path of least resistance. It was hard work, especially on stomachs that were hanging out for lunch, but we kept moving upwards and eventually reached the top of the face and found ourselves at the rock outcrop. This was to be our lunch stop, but we wanted to get round it first so we could sit and look up to The Gap as we ate.
It's best, and easiest, to sidle the slopes to the left (as you look up to it) of the rock. Although still steep ground, the alternative is nearly vertical and best avoided. It's a straightforward sidle round the rock, ending in a short, steep climb up to the crest of the ridge running in behind it, and it was here, in glorious sun, that we enjoyed lunch. The Gap looked tantalisingly close, but was still 300m altitude above us, so our work wasn't done yet.

We decided to leave our packs where we had lunch, lightening the load for the final climb and taking just cameras and a bit of water. The climb starts up an easy angled grass slope, before steepening as we met the shattered rock. In places the rock was quite well compacted and made for easy scrambling, while in others it was loose and soft, meaning it was a case of 2 steps forward and sliding 1 back. Ian and I led out most of the way, differing slightly in our approach. Ian's 'go hard then rest' style often left a cascade of rocks tumbling down behind him, while I was more measured, carefully testing the stability of each foot and hand placement before committing. When I looked behind it was obvious whose method the ladies felt safer following!!
There's nothing technically difficult about the final climb, just basic rock scrambling, and after about an hour I found myself stepping onto level ground - we had made The Gap. The others were not too far behind and we were left to enjoy the fruits of our hard work - 7 hours had passed since we left the car but it all seemed worth it as we gazed out across the landscape far below us.
Looking back down the line of our ascent, the view took in much of the Kowai catchment but the real spectacle lay on the opposite side. The Broken River basin stretched out before us to meet the northern end of the Craigieburn Range, with distant Mt Rolleston poking her head up in the background. Even just to be standing there with mighty rock walls rising either side of us was an experience to savour.

Photos taken, we had to make our way down, the hour was getting on and the car still a long way off. We made quick time back down to our packs then back round the rock. From here we discovered the error in our ways on the ascent, as we could clearly see the ridge route we had abandoned on our way up was in fact uninterrupted by the side stream as indicated on the map. I have tried in the photos to show where this better route lies, for those who may venture up this way in the future.
The ridge was a breeze so we enjoyed a relatively straight forward trip back to the car, the only difficulty encountered when it got dark and we had to walk from just below the hut in the dark. We had a couple of headlamps between us so managed it without mishap, except for (perhaps fittingly given the events throughout the day!) taking the wrong vehicle track further down the river and being forced to make a scrambly climb out of the riverbed once we realised we were, yet again, doing it the hard way.

A great day trip, thanks Ian, Alison, and Pauline for the company (and the invite!!). We did it!! - the hard way!!

Looking down the Kowai River as morning sun hits the Big Ben Range
Easy travel along the Kowai River, on the way to the hut

Sometimes following the track isn't easiest - I chose the riverbed 

Approaching Kowai Hut, with Mt Torlesse rising behind

Approaching Kowai Hut

Woodshed next to Kowai Hut

Kowai Hut
Interior of Kowai Hut
Interior of Kowai Hut

First look at The Gap (the U-shaped notch just left of centre), from just beyond Kowai Hut

Heading for the gorge in the Kowai, our goal leading us on

Making our way up the Kowai River

The river narrows as we near the gorge

Rock walls feature as we near the gorge

A look at a section of the gorge in the Kowai

Climbing up to find a sunny spot for a snack

Great wee place to stop and eat, and in the sun for the first time that day

Looking into the broken, rugged headwaters of the Kowai River, Red Peak far right

Snack stop
Negotiating a loose, eroded ridge en route to The Gap 

The Gap looking closer....

...but only because I'd zoomed in - still a way to go

Looking across the valley to Mt Torlesse
Climbing up the steep scrubby face below the large rock, the better route follows the open ridge to the right

Easier ground as we near the large rock

Taken from the top of the steep scrubby face we climbed to reach the large rock. Green is the line of our route, while Red marks the much easier route to the rock, which we discovered on our descent

Looking back down the Kowai from the top of the steep scrubby face. Mt Torlesse rising out of frame to the left, while Kowai Hut is out of sight round the bend in the river 

Sidling round the large rock to reach the slopes leading up to The Gap

Lunch just above the large rock (partly shown behind Ian)

Red Peak (left) with its distinctive band of red scree showing, Junction Peak (centre, small bump), and Mt Torlesse (right), viewed from our lunch spot below The Gap

Surveying the final climb to The Gap

Nearing The Gap, as we make our way up the steep, loose rock slopes

Pauline reaches The Gap

Ian in The Gap, looking across the Broken River basin to the northern end of the Craigieburn Range

Alison reaches The Gap

The team (except me) standing in The Gap

View down the Kowai from The Gap, our lunch spot in shadow lower left centre

Yes I was there - thanks Ian for taking this one!

View down the Kowai and across the Canterbury Plains, from The Gap

Descending from The Gap - much faster than coming up!

Route to The Gap, with red marking the route we took, and the green section marking the better route up to the large rock
Crown Copyright - Land Information NZ

Access: Take SH73 towards Arthur's Pass and park in the layby at the foot of Porters Pass, opposite the old roadman's hut. Go through the gate and pick up a vehicle track heading up the river.

Time: Carpark to The Gap 7hrs (less if you don't follow us!), return 4hrs 30mins

Map: BW21 Springfield

Hut: Kowai Hut (4 bunks)

16 August 2014

Wharfedale Hut & Mt Oxford - 31 May-1 June 2014

Perfect weather was forecast for Queens Birthday weekend, so I hatched a plan to visit the Wharfedale Hut with my wife Julia. We had both done separate tramps in the time since our last outing, so it was nice to be together this time. Wharfedale Hut offered an easy walk in, with the potential for a more adventurous return to the car if conditions were good.

The first sign of what was to await us came as we pulled into the carpark at the start of the Wharfedale Track. It seemed the superb weather forecast for the long weekend had driven everyone into the hills. As we laced up our boots and hoisted our packs I was trying to reason it through - some could be doing a day trip up Mt Oxford, others could be just going in to Ryde Falls, perhaps some are mountain biking the track and won't be staying overnight. The reality, as we were to discover later, was that most were in fact taking the same route as us...and in all likelihood they were all well ahead of us given our post-lunch departure.

Wharfedale Track was formed around the 1880's, when early settlers were seeking a new way to access Lees Valley, all of which had already been taken up by runholders. In those times access was via the Blowhard Track, a long and somewhat indirect route approached from Glentui. A quicker route was needed from Oxford, and so the Wharfedale Track was born.

Tramping the Wharfedale Track is a straightforward affair. The track is well formed and maintains an easy gradient as it winds its' way round the western flank of Mt Oxford, gaining height slowly and reaching its' high point at Wharfedale Saddle, standing at 750m. The saddle is not marked on the Topo50 map, and is at grid reference BW22 221152.
From here the track gently descends to a lower saddle at the head of Dobson Stream. There were numerous sections of eroded track between the two saddles, making the track quite narrow in places. Children who are capable of walking the track should manage these short sections without incident, but it may pay to keep them close just in case. At the saddle here the track branches, giving you the option of carrying on up the spur in front of you to Black Hill Hut, or turning right and heading down to Wharfedale Hut.
We made the turn and started the final leg of our journey to the hut. It would prove to be the most unpleasant part of the day, the track through here was very muddy in places, with significant storm damage across the track forcing us off-track and requiring some flexibility to move around or through the windfall. However it wasn't too long before we saw the welcome sight of smoke billowing from the hut chimney, a sight that quickened our pace to reach our home for the night.

It was soon apparent that there was a good crowd in for the night, and we weren't the last to arrive. In the end we had a cosy bunch of 19 squeezed in to the 8-bunk hut, four couples and a group of 11 Scouts. However in the true spirit of the New Zealand backcountry, everybody made way to accommodate the new arrivals. We were grateful for this as even though we had carried a tent just in case, the forecast was for a -4deg C night, so the hut was sure to provide a warmer night than being out in the tent!
And warm it most certainly was!!! With the fire roaring, 19 bodies, and the fact that none of the hut windows open, we were in fact far too hot to sleep so after an uncomfortable hour of trying, Julia and I decided to move to the floor. This paid off, the coolness of the floor giving immediate relief, and a much better night was had than some of those sleeping on the top bunk platform.

Morning dawned clear and very cold, a hard frost crunching underfoot. I had suggested an alternative route back to the car, suspecting that Julia, always one for adventure, might be a little uninspired by the wander back along the Wharfedale Track. This proved correct and so the plan was set, a return to the car by climbing up and over the western shoulder of Mt Oxford, with a side trip to bag the summit thrown in for good measure.

There is a track marked on the map that climbs a spur on the northern flank of the mountain and this was to be our route up, before descending via the well used track that follows another spur down to rejoin the Wharfedale Track not far from View Hill carpark. The only uncertainty in all of this was the condition of the track on the northern side of the mountain. While marked on the map, when I last spoke to DOC it wasn't one of their highly maintained tracks so given the storms of last winter and spring I was a little nervous that I might be leading Julia into a day of clambering over fallen trees. In our favour was the fact that the ranger I has spoken to indicated that they were hoping to clear this track over summer.
The track starts just behind Wharfedale Hut, and, optimistically in my opinion, indicates it's 2hrs 30mins to the summit of Mt Oxford. My feeling is that you would need to quite fit to achieve this, as the track up is just as long as the 2 tracks on the south side of the mountain, both of which are marked as taking 4hrs to the summit. Julia's not a big fan of travelling uphill, so I suggested it might take us 3hrs 30mins which would work out nicely to have lunch on the summit. She was happy so off we went.
It didn't take long for me to find the first sign of what I was looking for - evidence of chainsaw work clearing the track - and it soon became apparent that DOC had indeed been busy over summer. The track was in immaculate condition, with only one occasion where we had to climb over a tree lying across the track...thanks DOC!! Also, being north facing, the track itself was wonderfully dry underfoot which made for an easier climb.

Initially the track climbed steeply at a constant gradient until reaching the crest of the spur at Pt 945m. From here it became easier going as we followed the crest up and over Pt 975m (and back down the 80m drop after we passed the high point which was frustrating to give up the altitude), before making the final climb up to Pt 1130m, where we gained the ridge that would take us across to the summit of Mt Oxford. The turn off is signposted here, with the option of turning right to head down to View Hill, or left to make for Mt Oxford.
We pushed on, feeling like much of the hard work was now behind us, first dropping down to a saddle NE of Pt 1130m then climbing up through bush, with snow underfoot giving the bush a quiet stillness. We broke out of the bush at around the 1160m contour, sidling briefly on the bush-fringed northern side of the ridge before climbing up over a small tussock knob to a view of open tussocks leading across the tops to Mt Oxford's summit. I was hoping to crest this knob and find the summit immediately in front of us, but instead it loomed large in the distance, about 1.5km away over undulating tussock tops. We were close enough though for Julia to want to continue, the effort already put in demanding the reward of the summit, so off we went again, quickly crossing Pt 1300m then heading for the final 50m climb to the summit. It wasn't difficult at all and we made reasonably quick time, slowed only by the snow underfoot. It was extremely enjoyable tramping across the tops in glorious sunshine after being in the bush the entire tramp so far.
The final climb proved no problem, with the prospect of sitting down for lunch spurring us on, and we reached the summit at 2pm, having taken 4hrs 30mins from the hut. Like I said before, 2hrs 30mins seems a little optimistic even though we were not fast by any means.

A chilling wind met us at the summit so we hunkered down behind the well constructed stone wall on the summit and hastily ate lunch, took photos, and celebrated our achievement. It was a short lived stay, half an hour was enough, the wind and the time motivating us to get moving again.

We set off back the way we came, cutting a few corners on our way across the tops. Just before reaching the bushline Julia spied a bird soaring on updrafts and air currents which entertained her while I caught up - going downhill now meant it was her turn to be out in front.
We re-entered the bush, making our way back over Pt 1130m then along and over Pt 1124m before starting to drop down the spur to the carpark. It was easy going, but longer than we expected and with a lot more up and down travel than I was anticipating. Closer inspection of the map would have alerted us to this but I had glanced over it and figured it was a straight drop down to meet the Wharfedale Track. Not quite.
The light started to fade as we nearing the track junction, and it was here I made a mistake that left me on my back with a now bent walking pole under me. A simple slip, and a bit annoying coming so close to the end of our tramp.
The final section back along the Wharfedale Track to the carpark was a gentle stroll, guided by our headlamps with darkness drawing in, and we reached the car at 5.30pm having had a great weekend away together, and with the prize of the summit in our pockets.

Cup of tea while enjoying the sun on the Wharfedale Track
Permanent frost alongside Dobson Stream, just behind Wharfedale Hut
Permanent frost in Dobson Stream

Wharfedale Hut

Morning at Wharfedale Hut, with Black Hill in the background

Ready to set off up to Mt Oxford - very cold!!!

Frost outside Wharfedale Hut catching the first rays of sun

On the final part of the climb to the ridgeline which we met at Pt 1130m

On the final part of the climb to the ridgeline that would take us on to Mt Oxford

Above the bushline, between Pt 1130m and Pt 1300m

View across into Lees Valley

Looking back along the ridge, Torlesse Range on the left, Black Hill far right

Puketeraki Range, with its' highest point, Chest Peak (1936m), left of centre

Julia crossing the tops towards Mt Oxford

Summit in sight, but still a way to go before it's reached

The final climb to the summit of Mt Oxford (1364m)

Made it! - the summit of Mt Oxford


View from the summit across the plains towards Christchurch, with Oxford at the foot of the hills

View down to our hometown - Oxford

Ready to get going again after a cold lunch

Looking across the tops to Oxford Hill (1340m), and into Lees Valley

The route back across the tops, Torlesse Range to the left, Craigieburn Range across the background
Torlesse Range, viewed from the tops west of Mt Oxford
First view of the summit - further away than I expected!

Taking the direct line on our way back across the tops

Looking up Shifton Stream towards Chest Peak

Torlesse Range

Julia watching a bird ride the air currents, our line of descent was along the bush clad spur in foreground

Julia watching a bird ride the air currents, our line of descent was along the bush clad spur in foreground

Looking down the spur we descended, Pt 1130m is the bump on the right

Final view across to Ben More, Porters Pass, and Torlesse, with Hutt rear left

Crown Copyright - Land Information NZ

Access: Drive through Oxford, onto Depot Rd, then turn right onto Woodstock Rd, then right onto Ingrams Rd, then follow signposts to the View Hill carpark. The road passes through farm land and passes through 4 gates, leave as found.

Time: Carpark to Wharfedale Hut 5hrs, Wharfedale Hut to Pt 1130m 3hrs 30mins, Pt 1130m to Mt Oxford 1hr, Mt Oxford to carpark 3hrs

Map: BW22 Oxford

Hut: Wharfdeale Hut (8 bunks)