Bracken Snowfield

31 Jan – 7 Feb 2010

“The weather is going to be fine….the weather is going to be fine…etc”, Geoff invoked, and so it was, perfect weather, for the whole of the trip.

Three cars left Templeton at 9.30am on Sunday and by 12.30pm we were ready to walk, having got further than we expected on the dirt road at Glenfalloch Station. Our grateful thanks to Graham Townsend, Mel Huish and Carol Birch who drove the cars back to Christchurch. We heaved on our full packs and walked the short distance down to the Rakaia. We did not go very far upstream before picking a place to cross. The first couple of braids were straightforward but the last one looked quite forbidding. We linked up in groups of 3 and a 4. Chris was in the first group and she was swept off her feet but was held firmly by Geoff and Merv until she regained her footing. On reflection she thinks it would have been a good idea to have removed her gaiters before crossing as they filled up with water. The rest of us crossed without difficulty and we were relieved to have our first hurdle safely behind us. We continued on the true left for 4½ hours before setting up camp on a grassy flat at Cattle Stream. Geoff had a fire going within minutes and we soon had boiling water from his blackened billy. After dinner some of the party went to inspect a 6-bunk hut frequented by hunters which was across the stream and on the flat at the edge of the bush.

Monday morning we continued up the Rakaia, stopping at Louper Biv for some morning tea and to identify the peaks we could see in the distance further up the Rakaia. We left the Rakaia and headed up Louper Stream. There was some climbing over and around boulders and further up crossing and re-crossing the stream but the climb was gentle. We stopped for lunch at a beautiful deep pool and several of the party had a dip. Phil was the keenest, taking every opportunity on the trip to submerge himself with Geoff a close second. As we climbed up to Whitcombe Pass (1239m) there were a couple of small tarns and lots of alpine plants in flower. We set up camp just over the pass, having walked for 6 hours that day. While some of us pottered around the camp area Geoff and Phil went up the face of the slope opposite our camp to have a look into the Sale Glacier and Merv and Aarn went some distance up the moraine to look at the glacier from below. Aarn reported having seen a large boulder tumble down the route.

Tuesday morning, wearing our helmets and harnesses, we headed up Sale Stream, stopping at the bottom of the climb up to the Sale Glacier to fill our water bottles and slap on the sunscreen. Darth Vader became the fashion look with helmet, eye protection and scarf over lower face to protect us from snow reflection. We climbed up the moraine taking care not to dislodge rocks and stopped on the last rocky section to put on our crampons. To my great embarrassment I discovered that I had left my sunglasses at the bottom and Phil and Gary went back and retrieved them. The slope became steeper as we climbed up the snow-covered glacier. There were some slots to negotiate as we got towards the top and Geoff and Phil set up a rope which one by one we attached to our harness before we walked the narrow space between the slots. There were cries of Wow!. Wow! as people climbed over the rock at the top of the Sale Glacier and looked around at the spectacular scene before us. In one direction was the top of the Ramsay Glacier and Erewhon Col, in another the three peaks of Mt Whitcombe and to the left of these in the distance peak after peak, including Aoraki, Newton Peak and Mt Tindall, which had been climbed by some of those on the Garden of Eden trip last year. We enjoyed a lengthy lunch in this wonderful spot before continuing on across the head of the Ramsay to Erewhon Col (2160m). We camped in this area on rock ledges opposite Mt Evans and above the Bracken Snowfield. The rocks held the heat and were warm until late evening which helped with snow melting for water. This was a place to sit and look with the silence interrupted by occasional avalanches from the ice cliffs on Mt Evans.

Wednesday was a day for exploring the area, taking lots of photographs, and having a break from heavy pack-carrying. We had a number of options and decided that climbing The Amazon’s Breasts would be our first foray. We set off a little after 9am, climbed back up the rock, put on our crampons and set off across the head of the Ramsey Glacier and ascended the first breast (2277m). To reach the top required some walking on rock which needed care with crampons on. We descended on the other side of the breast and looked up at the other one. It looked very steep to me but following the others I was soon at the top (2314m). The descent to the Bracken Snowfield looked even steeper. Once off the rock Geoff and Phil set up a rope and one by one some of us had it attached to our harnesses as we descended, facing the slope and kicking our toes in. By the time we were half-way down we all felt confident to do the next part without a rope. The last bit of the descent to the Bracken Snowfield was gentler and some bum-slid while others glissaded. From there we walked across the snowfield and to the top of the Katzenbach Ridge. Here we got fantastic views down the Whitcombe River and of the peaks to the north, including Mt Murchison. We could also see the unnamed lake down below Mt Evans. We arrived back at our camp around 3pm for a late lunch. Geoff, Phil and Gary departed to climb Mt Erewhon but they didn’t find a climbable ridge to get to the top in the time that was left.

Thursday we departed the Bracken, heading off over Full Moon Saddle and down the Evans Glacier. The top part of the glacier was covered in snow and walking was easy but lower down it was icy and there were quite large crevasses. Geoff led the way through this area warning us to take care and get a good grip with our crampons. We moved off the ice onto moraine, stopping for lunch by the head of the Evans River. A further period of walking on rock and then we were down at a grassy flat where we camped for the night. It had taken us 6 hours to get there and so we had plenty of time to enjoy the area. We occupied ourselves by bathing in the river, clothes washing, sunbathing and exploring the area. In the evening a couple of curious kea paid us a brief visit keeping a safe distance from us and we talked of how much fewer these birds seem to be in the mountains than people remembered from years past.

Friday, we split into 2 groups with Geoff, Phil, Gary and Merv heading up the Smyth Range and Aarn, Kevin, Yvette, Chris, Joy and Sue heading down the true left of the Evans River. This was our longest day, about 8 hours in all. Not far down the Evans we headed up into the thigh-high scrub as the river was gorgy. Progress was slow and spaniards were plentiful. When we came to the steep side of a stream heading down from a major waterfall we headed down the ridge back to the Evans and then followed close to the river to Vane Stream. There were cairns marking the route across the Vane. It was not possible to link up as crossing involved moving across swift sections to the rock havens at intervals. Aarn went across to test the route with his poles first and then each of the women was assisted by Aarn or Kevin to get across. Not far down from the crossing Vane Stream and the Evans River merge to become the Wanganui River. Now we were on a route but it was still slow going as there were large boulders to negotiate and climbs up into the bush for some sections. In one place it was like caving as we crawled under some large boulders with the entrance marked by an orange spot on the rock. We arrived at Smyth Hut at 3.45pm expecting the others may be wondering where we had got to but they hadn’t arrived. Kevin, Aarn and Joy went off to visit the hot pools 5 minutes down the track while Chris, Yvette and I talked to two hunters who were staying at the hut. They had flown in by helicopter with a companion who was off looking for signs of deer. Chris asked if they could make us a cup of tea which they very obligingly did. Within 15 minutes we glimpsed the rest of our party making their way down Smyth Stream towards the swing-bridge across the Wanganui, near the hut and they were soon with us. The hot pools down by the river were fabulous—big enough and deep enough to sit a number of people in together and we weren’t even bothered by sandflies. Reluctantly we set off again and walked a further couple of hours down the river before stopping to camp at a stream past Devastation Gully. Now the bush was taller and there was lots of rata in flower. Firewood was plentiful and we sat around a fire again, complete with a string of fairy lights. Geoff produced toasting marshmallows after dinner.

Saturday, we continued on down the Wanganui using track fixtures such as iron ladder and chains to get up or down tricky sections,. There was an area of interesting sculptured rocks and rapids not far down from our camping spot. Here we came across the first of a number of kayaking groups. Some of us watched as one kayaker got caught under a fall of water and turned over several times. He came out and went down the river a short distance before getting out but the kayak went much further and had to be tracked for some distance. A helicopter was ferrying kayakers and kayaks up the river and one came uncomfortably close to Kevin as it was landing, without any warning to us. When we reached the cableway one by one we were winched across to the true right. Now we were sometimes in bush and sometimes boulder hopping beside the river. We came to a great swimming hole, away from the main river, mid-afternoon and enjoyed having a dip before camping a short distance further on. Chrys Horn joined us for the night having driven the van over from Christchurch that day. It was our final night of sitting around our campfire and we all thoroughly enjoyed Phil’s pasta meal with satay sauce which included fresh vegetables Chrys had carried in.

Sunday, we walked the final 4 hours down the river, almost to Harihari. Chrys drove us to Hokitika where we had lunch before our drive back to Christchurch. We’d had a fantastic eight days with no injuries and plenty of time to enjoy each of the spots we camped in. Chris and Geoff provided the other tasty and varied meals with interesting extras such as spicy garbanzos.