By Richard, 17 October 2009
For some reason Fiordland trips play on my mind more than other big trips, something about the legend of the place I suppose. Anyway, the last thing I wanted at 7am on a Monday morning on the boat across Manapōuri to West Arm was a wind-up Canadian toy bouncing around screeching in my ear.
“You guys off to hike the Dusky that is so cool…”
“No? What you up to…?”
“Dunno. Just kinda’ walking North.”
“So you’re just gonna be makin’ trails in them mountains? No way…”
I closed my eyes and leaned back and his voice droned off like a bad case of Canadian tinnitus.
Our plan was to head North from West Arm, and come out when we ran out of food. This probably wouldn’t be regarded as a well planned trip as we had all brought different amounts of food. That’s what you get when you decide the night before.
Moirs describes a route up the Mica Burn from the Wilmot pass road. It sounds Fiordlandy enough, follow some deer trails etc, but Quentin knew of a route that Kelvin Lloyd had taken that goes straight up the ridge behind the power station. So at 8.30am we were mincing our way around the gap between the electric fence and the bank. I found it quite amusing that they protect you from 220,000 volts with a powerful electric fence that requires its own warning signs. I wondered whether the 220,000 volts could arc onto my ice axe. I also thought of Clendon, en route to London and how much he would be squirming being there without lead-lined undies.
After about 30mins my body was still humming and surprisingly warm as I headed up the first mossy gut and ledge system to get through a bluff-line. Ah welcome back into my life Fiordland I have missed you. It’s not a bad route to do once I suppose. Lunch was at the bushline, then it was a grind up to a little saddle on
Quentin had tramped all day with crook guts, so it was a slightly disturbed sleep for me as he got up in the night to talk to relph. Luckily having been to a few bushballs I could sleep through the sound and smell of vomit in the outdoors. The next morning Bruce had come down too, so while Jo and I paced the beach avoiding sandflies they squatted in the tussock with fingers in throats (their own throats in case you get the wrong idea) trying to evacuate breakfast.
As per Moirs we climbed some way up Mt George then sidled on ledges above the Oonah Burn. This is a superb route. The tops of the trees on the valley floor are 700m below you (it feels directly below you!) but the ledges are good and get better. They must have a one way system in place as a panicked deer ran towards us and past us on a separate ledge 10m higher. From the end of the ledges it was uncomplicated to work our way up on to the main divide. There are few better feelings than sitting on the Fiordland divide in the hot sun. Wilderness as far as the eye can see. I could have been in heaven, but for Quentin beside me, finger down throat like Diana after a really bad fight with Charles.
We dropped down to a saddle and as we descended we could see four deer dozing in the warm snowgrass. While watching them, and his feet, Quentin nearly trod on a stag! He seriously got within about 10m before it stood up, shook its head and haughtily wandered away. You wouldn’t need to be in Greg Duleys ballistics envelope to have given that one its beans. More bomber deer trails took us down to the large unnamed lake in the head of the Oonah Burn. It was quite early, but lying in the sun on the short deer-grazed grass stopping seemed like the right thing to do.
The next day we climbed easily up to the head of the Oonah Burn where it saddles with the Awe Burn. Moirs describes some difficulties with the descent route, but it looked OK to us on the map. Good deer trails, of course, took us through the scrub, and then we happened on freshly cut blazes (the wood they had hacked out was still on the ground). This seemed a bit OTT to us. Anyway, we followed them, as you do, and it was obvious they were leading to an alternative route down described in Moirs. Reading it a few days earlier it had struck me as a classic example of where just because someone does something, and survives it shouldn’t be promoted as a route. So it proved. I gave up at a sloping, slippery ledge with no holds, while Quentin and Jo went further without packs. They gave up, still 80m above the stream, with just a ladder of small tree roots below them. This is as it is described in Moirs. If I was editor I’d remove nonsense like that. Anyway, we climbed back to the main spur and found more blazes. We were starting to think that these guys didn’t have a clue where they were going and had just blazed everywhere they had walked and this was confirmed when we reached the lip of another bluff and the blazes went backwards and forwards along the edge of the bluff. Ridiculous. Anyway, if you can read a map it’s pretty obvious where the best line will be, so we abandoned the blazes and dropped down through the best looking line. A lot of zig-zagging and reconnaissance was required to be fair, but it’s all straightforward on-route. Down in the Awe Burn, three deer stared at us from across the river while we had a break and removed a large amount of forest from down our tops. The Awe Burn was very easy Fiordland travel and pretty soon we were at the base of the climb to
The next day was Christmas day. A dark and claggy day, but not as bad as forecast. The Moirs route up to the outlet of
Moirs reckons it’s easy to find the pass across the main divide to Ānehu stream, you just follow the scree slope up. Well the whole valley head is scree so with a cloud ceiling 10m above we were going to need more than that. Through thick clag, I managed to deliver us up to the couloir that splits the bluffs. That piece of work cheered me up a bit, but the couloir didn’t. It was very steep – we would have been on front points if using crampons – but luckily the snow was in good condition for tramping as we didn’t have crampons. Above me in the murk I could hear the reassuringly rhythmic sound of Bruce and Quentin punching their way skywards, but as any geeky white kid trying to dance will tell you, you need confidence to have rhythm and I had none. I ended up bashing seven shades of shit out of most of the steps. I had to have a little lie down over lunch to get some composure back. As it was a main divide pass, the Upper Ānehu was actually clear. All the clag was stuck on the east. It is a stunning upper valley, well worth a visit. Here the Moirs route heads North via a series of western valleys. The likes of the Camelot, the Cozette Burn and
The upper Ānehu is well guarded by bluffs, but obvious on the map is a line of weakness. Regular Fiordland avalanches and earthquakes have lined this gut with all sizes of rocks. We clambered up this and it provided an easy route back across the divide into the Omaki cirque. The head of the Omaki is a wild place. Towering bluffs, rent by crazy faults. It is part of the main divide and we crept along it in the clag. We couldn’t readily see down into the Omaki itself, though we could sense that a parachute would be required for further exploration, although we could see out to the west. We camped next to a rugged little cirque lake under Mt Fanin. It had been a long xmas day.
I have to admit that my first thoughts on getting a glimpse of the spur we were going to take up to the ridge top was that it looked horrendous. Lots of bluffs and the very orangey snowgrass (a sure sign that’s its short!). But before proper study could be made the cloud descended. In the night the wind and rain, that was forecast really developed. The tent was bending a bit. Perhaps because of being in a cirque the wind tended to come from all angles so the tent was getting wrenched quite a bit. Luckily we had a sheltered campsite as we could hear it roaring over more exposed parts of the cirque wall. Come dawn we clearly weren’t going to be working a new route today. We had a fairly lengthy and vigorous debate between the tents, that was really only kept seemly because everytime it got too heated a big gust of wind carried away the angry words. My view, which was shared by Quentin and Bruce was that we didn’t have enough food to have a pit day, and fail to work the new route and then still get around the long way. Jo reckoned she could see a weather window in the forecast that non one else could, and had confidence that the route would go. She also refused to get out of bed, which made the debate academic.
Needless to say this put me in a filthy mood which not even the Dirty Dancing sound track on my I-pod could break me out of. At about 5pm Jo decided she would climb the spur to check it out. So her and Bruce disappeared into the storm. Quentin and I were concerned for their safety and immediately began putting dibs on their possessions. Just when we were about to get out and set the radio up they returned and pronounced the spur to be good travel. More importantly we could stay in the tent while they set up the aerial and cooked dinner.
Come morning and Jo’s ‘weather window’ had materialised. Claggy but dry and still. How jammy is that? How good is that! I was still in a dark mood, still, we nipped up the spur, and guess what they were right it was a sweet route. Part way up I started to get happy and suddenly began enjoying the unknown, which is what it’s all about. I suspect it was the knowledge that it was easy to retreat that cheered me up. It was awesome to be up there traversing the main divide, although the clag kept the views to a minimum. At one point a nasty looking thumb of rock had to be sidled by dropping on to the south face of the cirque wall on bomber snow slopes, part way across these the clag dispersed, what a magic sight. A special wild place. The ridge mainly comprised of big granite slabs that offered unlimited friction and was a joy to walk across, though there was some easy snow too. We easily dropped down the ridge to a prominent bench above
After the elation passed we had a big argument about whether to carry on to the Kepler track via another non-Moirs route up a very steep gut and some more tops. Quentin wasn’t keen, the others were so they left it up to me to decide. In the end I decided that the forecast did not support further tops traversing and that I would rather save that route for another trip. We did take a side trip up to
A free boat ride back to Manapōuri with our $75 beer was a great end to the trip!