Alpine Trip - Marion Plateau

3-11 February 2018

“Cyclone Fehi devastates West Coast” and “Dart Track Closed” don’t sound good two days before the planned alpine trip to the Marion Plateau, plus the combination with a super blue blood moon seemed to promise an inauspicious start. Where else could we go? “No problem, it’s only the Snowy Gorge bridge” says Geoff through his information sources in Glenorchy and off we go.

Day 1 involved a leisurely start for the twelve of us from Christchurch, an obligatory stop in Fairlie, some civilized food in Glenorchy and on to Chinamans Bluff to distribute party gear. The pack weigh-in produced some unpleasant surprises, but at least this year we had a graded track to get used to our loads. Merv still got an escort for the first 10 minutes so he didn’t repeat last year’s acrobatics. Camping a few hours in at Surveyors Flat allowed the first campfire.

Day 2 was up the Dart River and allowed us to inspect the damage to the track caused by the 2014 landslide at Slip Stream and the resultant lake. The section around the lake itself felt like a work in progress and there were muttered curses as we zig-zagged up and down around massive boulders with occasional glimpses of the original flat track below us. Flood debris in the side-stream bridge handrails and views of the Dart River showed how high the water had recently been, but it was still high and not dropping. Plan A had been to cross the Dart River, and ascend the Whitbourn River to Key Dome, but that looked increasingly improbable. Plan B was to use the Cattle Flat bridge. This was a welcome sight, and the large rock biv looked palatial as we moved in.

Day 3 was the almost traditional second day of rain. Another night in the rock biv sounded attractive compared to navigation in the cloud and a wet snowgrass descent into Blue Duck River. The day was spent on a side trip to the bridge, reading, a swim for some, and a diabolical dice game introduced by Diane called Zilch.

Day 4 dawned fine with fresh snow on the tops and we were off. Across the bridge, up the river, and then the climb to the bushline through open beech warmed us up while some small tarns and a Bidi-bid problem for Merv provided a rest. A long sidle to about 1400m then provided a view down into Blue Duck River. Hmm, quite a drop down steep tussock. Glad we hadn’t tried this yesterday in the wet. Some sidling, above some bluffs then a long descent to the valley floor. Great campsite on the flats at the head of the valley. Three kea turned up at dusk, then calls high above, now five, up to eight by dark. Don’t worry, they will go by nightfall. Some hope! We went to bed, they started to play. Push the tent when they land on the ridge. Throw things when that doesn’t work. Will they ever go to sleep? The morning revealed the damage. Aarn’s ice axe had been carried well up the valley. The stove bags had been pulled from under large rocks spilling contents well up the slope. Holes were ripped in tent flys and groundsheets. Great, the birds were cheerful, but the people were grumpy.

Day 5 was the climb to Boys Col on the Main Divide. First up to Key Dome, past some fantastic tarns on the ridge, patronized by Liz and Gaylene. Crampons were donned for the snow ascent to the long Key Dome ridge. Crevasses on the climb to Boys Col were large but navigable with the last being bypassed by Geoff’s cunning, almost subterranean, bergschrund along the rockface. And then we were there! The Marion Plateau with views across to the Darrans with incredible cloud formations, concealing then revealing. We set up camp with half the party on the West Coast, opting for evening sun, and the other half on the East Coast, hoping for morning sun. Geoff, Raymond and Gary went for an evening recce of the crevasse field towards Mt Lydia for the following day.

Day 6 was full of anticipation and possibilities. First was the 2517m Mt Lydia ascent but the last 20m proved too far with a major gap before the summit ice-cap. Sidling around to the ridge provided most of the views, however, with tantalizing views down to the Snowball Glaciers, Joe River, Williamson Flat and the Arawata. That took care of the second objective. Then it was back to Boys Col for a brew, lunch and Calum’s stand-up comedy. Geoff’s third objective was a recce around the north of Mt Ian to the planned route over O’Leary Pass. Most of the Marion Plateau looked easy travel, but the crevasses on Mt Lydia had been massive. The lost weather day created a problem if we had issues getting to O’Leary. In the end the call was made to descend to Key Dome using the soft afternoon snow. We set what must have been a record for the number of people swimming in a ridge tarn before a delightful alpine meadow camp

Day 7 revealed Geoff’s change of plan. Rather than retracing our steps into Blue Duck with the tussock ascent we had been dreading, Geoff proposed reversing our original plan and drop into the Whitbourn. That involved a narrow ledge we had heard about and then commitment to crossing the Dart. What if it was still in flood? There was no Plan B. Photos of the ledge did not do it justice! It was eye-watering. Geoff and then Raymond went down to cut steps. Then it was our turn. No belay, just support the person in front, help the person behind. Everyone focused, concentrating. What a relief to reach the easier(?) slopes beyond, then down, down, down. The Whitbourn valley was pleasant by comparison but everyone was still edge. What about the Dart crossing? It was still coloured but only gaiter deep. Another swim and a brew. What a relief before the track bash back to the rock biv.

Day 8 repeated our trip back to Surveyors Flat. It was an anti-climax of a sort, but amazing for the lack of tourists with the Rees-Dart still being closed. A DoC ranger was surprised at our appearance, both in numbers and, possibly, maturity. (Liz calculated our average age at 63).

Day 9 completed our journey to the road end and civilized food at Glenorchy. Another great trip, inspired leadership and memorable comradeship.

Trampers: Raymond Ford, Calum McIntosh, Diane Mellish, Merv Meredith, Tony Lawton, Chris Leaver, Geoff Spearpoint (leader), Liz Stephenson, Aarn Tate, Peter Umbers, Gaylene Wilkinson and Gary Huish. (GH)