Douglas Neve and the Sierra Range

6-14 February 2016

Copland Rr-Sierra Range-Douglas Neve-Douglas Valley-Conical Hill Saddle-Regina Ck-Karangarua Rr

For nine relentlessly calm, sunny days our party of eleven walked, climbed, sweated, joked and chatted our way around this wonderful alpine circuit. Thanks to thoughtful planning by leader, Geoff Spearpoint, our days covered manageable distances, allowing time for welcome breaks and swims whenever possible. From day-one the scenery was grand and it just kept getting better. This is BIG country. Our campsites all had quite different characters, and all had views that made you not really want to go to bed. Geoff, of course, has this sorted and simply slept out under the stars every night. With a cohesive group of trans-alpine trampers for company, this trip was a very memorable delight, and I feel privileged to have been a part of it.

Going In. Our first two days were easy, ambling up the Copland Track, meeting hordes of happy young tourists on their way back from Welcome Flat Hut and hot pools. We camped on the Copland riverbed the first night and set the tone of the trip with swims and a mesmerising fire. The Sierra Range from here is unbroken high bluffs topped with a spiky, jagged skyline. Impressive! In order to gain a little altitude advantage for the next day, our second camp was part-way up Scott Creek, close to the spur which we followed up on day three. Following pink ribbons from a riverbed cairn, the newly cut route to the tops is an honest day’s work. This climb to Tekano Glacier saddle was possibly the hardest part of the trip because of the extreme heat of the day. We discovered later that the temperature was 37 degrees at Fox Glacier that day. With not enough water, it was a relief to finally slurp some snow-melt on the tops. The drama of the alps is very evident here, looking down into the glacial cirque with its milky lake at the top of the Tekano, and up towering bluffs to Scott Peak and the Sierra Range. The past fifty years of glacial recession is very noticeable compared to my 1964 map. After gaining the ridge heading south we dropped into a scree basin in the head of the Scott for our third night. Sunset views across to the Navigator Range and all the highest peaks along the Main Divide accompanied Gary’s yummy custard and fruit desert, prompting sighs of satisfaction.

Approaching Welcome Pass

The Tops. After a bit of poking around for a suitable route back onto the ridge, it was lovely to put on crampons, get out the ice axes and move onto snow. Traversing slopes below Scott Peak, around many open crevasses, we climbed to Welcome Pass. An advantage of February travel is that all slots are revealed... and revealed they were. Any thoughts of climbing Mt Sefton were quickly dispelled over our lunch stop, due to how incredibly broken up the route was. To continue across the Douglas Neve we roped up. The afternoon was a treat of grandeur, sun, snow, good company and anticipation. So many wonderful peaks to climb! With the sun searing any exposed skin, Chris and Aarn jockeyed for the most interesting facial protection. Camp four was on a rocky outcrop at the southern head of the Horace Walker Glacier. Blizzard and Pioneer Peaks beckoned for the morrow. Gary selected the Presidential Suite for his tent, perched in the gentle breeze on the highest point of the outcrop with 360 degree views that included Mts Cook, Dampier and Hicks. A post-dinner stroll across the glacier for sunset views to the Mt Cook Range had all cameras shuttering.

Rockfall where we’d been the previous day

Day Five was set aside for the ascent of a peak. Blizzard certainly looked impressive from camp, and the map promised an easy snow slope on the eastern side, right up to its final rocky scramble. Wandering down the glacier in crisp morning light, ice axes swinging freely and crampons crunching, is a great way to start the day. Deep crevasses gaping below deterred us from the steeper, more direct slope, and we happily opted to head closer to Wicks Col before turning back to Blizzard. Rocks on the ridge allowed a solid base from which to lean over and view the massive drops down, first to the long, smooth, sloping rock platform which continues to be carved by the Douglas Neve, and then right down to the remains of the Douglas Glacier with its terminal lake. Snow travel ends about fifteen metres below the summit of Blizzard Peak, where climbing continues on ‘Southern Alps choss’. A crumbly chute was selected as the easiest way to ascend, and those confident enough scrambled up. I was one who was happy to have the security of an 8mm rope for the climb to the summit. And what a place to be! Over a brew back at camp there was discussion of weather forecasts, the increasingly chilly wind, and the hogs-backs overhead. The decision was made to move to a lower campsite for the night. In late afternoon light, on softened snow, we returned down to Wicks Col, traversed beneath the alluring balanced rock of Pioneer Peak, and continued down a snow tongue, high above the Horace Walker Glacier. Once back to rock, the drama continued with carved schist slabs, waterfalls, sheer walls and huge rejected boulders which had parted company with the bluffs above. My favourite camp was made in a serene meadow amongst all of this! With a stream meandering through, this lofty shelf provided plenty of flat tent sites and afforded great views across the Karangarua to the Bare Rocky Range. Visiting rock wren topped it off.

The map gives no real indication of the terrain that descends into the Horace Walker valley. It is a jumble of large rocks which have broken away from above, over time. The easiest travel is to take your chances immediately below the bluff. Once down onto grasses again, there was no obvious route through the scrub. We settled on working our way down a dry creek bed. This was a fun scramble, with a riot of scented flowering shrubs at nose level for much of the way. The kettle lake in the valley proved to be a glorious swimming hole. Horace Walker Hut is well-maintained and used regularly by hunters. It is obvious from the impact on vegetation that chamois and tahr numbers in this area are quite high. After an afternoon walk to the Douglas terminal lake, and more swims, we camped on the grassy flats downstream of the hut. Communal dinners and sociable evenings are very much part of the ethos of these trips.

A poled route climbs onto the terminal moraine of the Horace Walker Glacier, then ascends to just under 1500m to cross slopes well above the Douglas Gorge. The poles are a bit far apart for easy following, but do continue all the way. While stopped for lunch and an Aarn Pack photo shoot we heard a boom and looked across valley for yet another avalanche. This time, though, it was a big section of bluff breaking off and smashing down in a dense grey cloud of dust. Just to the right of yesterday’s descent. The route continues above ravines and eventually joins the ridge. There is a section on the ridge where travel is tricky and we employed a rope for pack hauling and as a safety line. Our camp at the small tarn—I still call it a wallow—near Conical Hill Saddle provided excellent views into the Douglas River and back up to the seemingly ever-present pinnacle rock of Pioneer Peak. The nearby larger tarn provided a good water supply. The sub-alpine forest here is spectacular, with gnarly old olearia, bog pines, cedar, and dracophyllum. Sitting on the grassy edges of this tranquil tarn felt very Zen.

Coming Out. On many tramps the regress is a bit of an anti-climax. Not this one. The interest and variety continued to impress and appeal. Descent into Regina Creek is steep but the route is well marked and the 3-wire bridge over the river is taut enough to make a comfortable crossing. At the bridge is an excellent swimming hole, sun-lounging rocks included. This became a blissful two hour lunch spot. Then on down, down to the whoopee of the cage crossing of the Karangarua and a gasp of cold fluid at Cassel Flat Hut. That rain and wind never did come. From here we had a well-marked track through gorgeous West Coast rainforest—mixed podocarp and rata, with ponga and ferns beneath—all green and lush and shady and welcoming. Splashing through side-creeks, ducking into pools, wombling on down-valley to our final campsite. This one riverside again, beside the Karangarua. Camp on grass or sand, rata firewood, good, appreciative company. Aaaah, fantastic.

Last day. Outa coffee, long-finished the soup, no more biscuits. You got any chocolate? Last toilet paper! In good spirits we set off down the flats, looking wistfully now and again back up-valley to admire the sparkling dew on the sunlit grasses, and the towering spires of the Sierra Range in the distance. Just a wee way now. Just two hours walk, one last swim, and a short drive to the Eggs Benedict and Coffee at Fox Glacier.

Party: Geoff Spearpoint (leader), Gary Huish, Raymond Ford, Merv Meredith, Aarn Tate, Calum McIntosh , John Allan, Kevin Hughes, Chris Leaver, Tony Lawton, Gaylene Wilkinson. (GW)