Huxley South Branch, V-Notch Pass, South Temple

Easter 1–5 April 2010

Foiled again by the weather forecast - my third attempt to reach Lake Nerine beyond North Col above the Routeburn. How about something further east? And so after several phone calls and emails, we settled on the South Huxley/South Temple via V-notch Pass.

A 7:30 am departure from Christchurch saw us at Ram Hill car park by lunchtime. David's bike was hidden in the bush near the Temple Stream car park. As we were getting organised, a couple of guys from Dunedin turned up in a 4 wheel drive and were heading up to the Dassler Pinnacles. Never waste an opportunity! Chris chatted to them and persuaded them to drop our packs off at Monument Hut up the Hopkins. The weather was dry. A warm nor-west headwind blew down the valley, occasionally blowing the dust off the river-bed. We plodded steadily up the old 4 wheel drive track for 1½ hours, retrieved the packs from the hut and headed towards the Huxley.

At the Huxley bridge, near the confluence with the Hopkins, we were surprised to find a Suzuki 4WD and a tent, complete with camping paraphernalia, pitched on the other side; we heard subsequently the South African driver had attempted to drive to the Huxley Forks!

We arrived at Huxley Forks on dusk. The evening light on the Neumann Range east of the Hopkins was lovely. As the old hut was occupied by a dad and 3 keen children in for 7 days hunting, we took over the new 3 bunk Officers Hut, and Raymond quickly cooked up an amazing coriander/pesto pilaf, accompanied by a couscous fig dessert.

Next morning, as the forecast had predicted, the cloud had settled in around the tops and it began to rain on and off as we crossed over the North Huxley swing bridge, and started up the South Branch of the Huxley River. The bush gave us some respite from the weather, as we climbed steadily above an impressive gorge for the next 3 hours, but it was never very wet or cold. The tiny two-mattress South Huxley bivvy gave us the excuse to have a lazy lunch out the wind and to put a brew on.

The upper reaches were strewn with recent avalanche debris from a glacier coming off Stevenson Peak. Two hours beyond the bivvy, we reached the headwaters of the South Branch. The cloud had lifted enough for us to gaze up to V-notch Pass on the ridge east of Mt Huxley and to ponder the route up to the pass. The waterfalls coming into the valley were beautiful. Scrub-covered bluffs presented a barrier to any direct route to the pass, but beyond the scrub line, a stream draining Point 2308, east of Mt Huxley, had formed a shingle fan and was the obvious route up onto the tussock slopes below the pass.

After some searching, we found a sheltered spot for the tents in a hollow amongst the scrub and tussock below the bluffs. Chris cooked up a fine meal of Thai lentils with rice, followed by a chocolate biscuit or two. On cue, the rain started just after we got into bed, making the waterfalls crash and bang during the night, but by morning the expected southwester had arrived and the rain had eased.

It was a cool start to our third day. The promised clearance in the weather never eventuated. Mist and low cloud hung around the slopes and peaks for most of the day. Fortunately, we knew to begin the climb on the true right of stream we had eyed yesterday. Above the fan, the stream formed a deep gut. We climbed steadily, until we reached another incised stream flowing in from the true right. After a brief navigation stop, we judged that we were on the broad tussock slopes above the bluffs. Raymond took a compass bearing on the pass. After about an hour of working our way steadily up the slope, keeping below the steeper areas and small bluffs that appeared out of the murk, the tussock slopes opened out into another small basin. A couple of old cairns indicated that we were probably on the right route.

Another navigation stop! Although we couldn't see the ridge above us, we could hear the sound of a stream. Below in the murk we could make out the top of a small bluff, where the stream disappeared out of sight. We judged that we were below the pass, and it was time to climb. Sure enough the tussock disappeared and a scree-filled gut leading up to V-notch appeared in the mist. Climbing close together to avoid dislodging rocks on those below, we soon reached the crest of the ridge.

A cold southerly wind was blowing through the pass. Most of the winter snow had melted, although a large snow bank still remained just below on the Ahuriri side of the pass. From the pass, we sidled across slopes of loose boulders towards the ridge that divided the South Temple from the Ahuriri. Near a patch of snow, we found a sheltered spot out of the wind to eat lunch. It was very disappointing the cloud obscured the terrific view of Mt Huxley. We were reluctant to descend into the South Temple, and for a while we waited on the ridge in hope that the cloud might lift. The descent down the broad scree slopes into the South Temple proved to be straightforward. We worked our way down through the mist towards the left side of the basin and the distant sound of the running water. This proved to be a fortunate choice, looking back later, small bluffs and steep slopes of wet tussock on the right side of the basin would have presented more of a challenge in the conditions.

During our descent, we met two climbers toiling up the scree. They asked how far it was to the top and if we had encountered a family of three, who had set out an hour before them from South Temple Hut. The climbers expressed some doubts about the family’s navigation skills. We replied ‘no’, but as we talked the missing family suddenly appeared in the gloom above us, stopped and waited for the two climbers to continue their ascent.

It was a relief to finally get below the cloud layer. Below us, we could see the upper reaches of the South Temple and the stream draining Gunsight Pass. With Paul out in front, we rapidly descended down the valley. Near the small tarn, we picked up the track on the true left which led through beautiful scrub and gave great views of the broad grassy flats down the South Temple. (NB: the map incorrectly shows the track ending further down the valley just below the confluence with the stream draining Gunsight Pass.)

Should we camp nearby or carry on to South Temple Hut? After some discussion, the prospect of the hut not too far away and a chance to dry gear won out. On the last day the weather began to clear, the walk out to the car-park passed quickly and David disappeared on his bike to collect the car. On the way home, there was an obligatory stop at the salmon farm, and a longer, more leisurely stop at Poppies Café in Twizel for coffee and lunch.

Thanks Raymond for organising and leading the trip, and David for transportation. Chris and Raymond organised the food.

The party consisted of Raymond Ford, David Ramm, Paul Smith and Chris Leaver. (CL)