Alpine Trip – Upper Rakaia valley – Lawrence River

24 – 30 January 2021

The last week of January marked the 12th Alpine Trip led by Geoff and, as always, it did not disappoint. In fact, it was a bit of a magical mystery tour.....

The planned itinerary promised exciting glacial traverses, specifically up the St James, across the Clarke Neve, over the divide and down the Radiant Glacier, traversing around the Lord Range and dropping into the Wanganui to walk out. However, “the best of plans...”

Gary drove us to Glenfalloch Station in a strong nor'wester. We took off, in 3 groups of 3, in a small chopper which boogeyed from side to side in flight, flying low to avoid the higher turbulence, thereby providing fantastic views of the river flats. This saved a day's walk up the Rakaia so we had only 4 hours walk to reach Meins Knob, the prominent T-junction where the Rakaia splits into rivers from the two large valley glaciers - the Lyell and the Ramsay.

Skirting around the base of Meins Knob and crossing the swingbridge, which two DOC workers were upgrading, we crossed the river flats to the Ramsay Glacier terminal lake. We could see the lower glacier, but the tops were covered in cloud and the wind was roaring down the valley. We pitched camp behind the best shelter we could find – behind a rocky ridge. However, the ridge did not facilitate a good night's sleep due to the synchronous symphony of flapping tents.

The next morning dawned with similar weather, the tops all in cloud and the wind still strong. The prospect of climbing up the St James Glacier into the clouds to find a suitable campsite was not compelling. The decision was made to go to the Lyell Hut to await better weather. This involved back-tracking across the swingbridge and up over the top of Meins Knob, a climb of around 370 metres, to drop down to the hut. The track up was fine and well-marked; the track down had disappeared and a gnarly shrub bash and rough boulder descent ensued. It was hard going! But watch this space to learn of the ascent.

The Lyell Hut was under construction – floor, walls and roof intact but no roof flashing or sleeping platforms. Fortunately, mattresses were present. Tony and Aarn pitched their tents to avoid overcrowding the hut.

The next day dawned brighter with the tops clearer, and 7 of us decided to go up and explore our proposed route. The other 2 had chosen to do a shorter walk above Lyell Lake. The route took us up the Lyell Valley, around the terminal lake and moraine terraces, across the bottom of the Lyell Glacier then up the Cockayne Glacier. Travel up the Cockayne was more straightforward than we expected, and we reached the col linking to the St James Glacier neve. Dropping our daypacks, the group explored part of our original intended route from the St James, across the Clarke Neve to the divide, from where we glimpsed our planned exit route to the West Coast.

Descending the St James Glacier down steep snow slopes was enjoyable, but the rocky moraine below the glacier was more taxing. Arriving back at our first Ramsay Lake campsite was a relief after the demands of the route – we had come full circle, but we still had to get back to the Lyell Hut. This involved crossing the Lyell River to avoid the swingbridge and the big climb over Meins Knob. However, the river was flowing fast & furiously with the afternoon snow melt. We kept moving up stream looking for a suitable crossing. Only near the lake outlet did the river gradient reduce. The seven of us linked up to cross a smooth-looking section of the river. To our surprise, the bottom had large boulders and deep holes, making for a tricky crossing. We could not see what was coming! Even Tony and Raymond, the tall ones, got wet up to their armpits. But we made it intact after an exciting and challenging crossing.

The sun was still shining on us, as we walked back downstream on the true right to the hut, allowing us to dry out. A long and tiring 12-hour day!

Day 4 brought continued good weather. Jane and Geoff wanted to clear the track to Meins Knob from the hut so the whole PTC gang got to work with some saws from the hut, Geoff's loppers, Jane's fold-up handsaw and a good dollop of brawn. The whole route was completely transformed with rock cairns showing the easiest route up the boulder-strewn lower section and a beautiful clearly marked track up to the saddle. We admittedly had an ulterior motive.

With bad weather coming, the plans had to be changed to exit east over the Butler Sadler instead of the west coast, via the Lawrence to Erewhon Station. Therefore, we would have to ascend Meins Knob to exit east. That night the predicted rain finally arrived causing some major rearrangements of hut sleeping positions due to the absence of window flashing. The tent dwellers were happily unaware of the hut drama.

Next morning, the storm had passed and we easily made our way up Meins Knob. We then progressed up the slopes above the Knob to arrive mid-afternoon at a rock basin with a lovely grassy area below Pt 1966, overlooking the following panorama: the Rakaia Valley downstream on the right, the Whitcombe Pass Valley across the Rakaia, the Ramsay Glacier and towering cliffs of Mt Whitcombe to the left and, to the far left, the Lyell Lake & Glacier and surrounding peaks. Not often are you in the centre of four major valleys radiating from your viewpoint!

The strong and energetic decided to climb up the basin to the ridge and walk along to the first of the two Jollie Sisters. The lazy relaxed in the sunshine and prepared the evening meal. Two hours later, the group reappeared on the skyline and seemed to be held up in one spot for quite a while. We wondered what was going on. It turned out that Geoff had had a tumble, which resulted in a bang on the head and various cuts to forehead and wrist. When the crew arrived back at the campsite, Jane Liddle, our party's medic, went to work with ‘SteriStrips’ and patched Geoff up rather well!

As we were enjoying an unusual, but rather tasty, blackbean pasta creation from 'Chef Aarn', dark clouds were looming over the ridge and it began hailing as the light faded. We all scrambled into our tents. During the night, we had heavy snowfall requiring banging the tent roofs periodically to remove the accumulated snow.

The morning dawned cold with a freezing breeze and an exquisite powder snow coating over everything from the mountain tops down to our first campsite by the Ramsay Lake. It was spectacularly breathtaking with the surroundings around the campsite completely transformed into an out-of-season winter wonderland.

Because of the low temperature, we waited until the sun hit the campsite to begin our pack up. A nice plod up to and along the ridge, led by Jane Morris, brought us to the top of Butler Saddle. The descent into the valley was arduous because snow covered the rocks and scree, making the footing unsure. There were some beautiful snow wave forms and cones sculptured over the underlying boulders. Finally, the snow disappeared around the creek and steps became more predictable. It took several hours to reach the valley floor and the Lawrence River.

That afternoon, we had a long plod down the gravel flats to a campsite below the Lawrence Hut. There we enjoyed our first campfire of the trip. The next day, we were hopeful that Gary, with a tracker to follow our progress, would realise that we were coming out on the east side rather than the west and a day earlier than planned. So, after a good plod down the Clyde valley and a straightforward nine-person linked final crossing of the Clyde River, we arrived at our familiar Erewhon parking spot. Time for lunch and to dry out tents and wet boots. When this was completed, Gary turned up in the van, having followed our progress meticulously during the week. Raymond kindly relieved Gary of his driving duty on the way home.

Much gratitude to Geoff for organising yet another amazing sortie into the glacial regions of the Southern Alps, to Jane Morris, Gaylene and Tony for wonderful leading and route-finding, to Gary for ferrying us there and back, to Jane Liddle for use of tracker and nursing skills and to everyone for the excellent company.

Trip participants were: Raymond Ford, Geoff Spearpoint (leader) , Jane Morris, Tony Lawton, Gaylene Wilkinson, Peter Umbers, Doug Forster, Jane Liddle and Aarn Tate (AT)

Ascending the Cockayne Glacier. Photo courtesy of Geoff Spearpoint

Working on the Meins Knob track. Photo courtesy of Raymond Ford.

Camp below Pt 1966, near the Butler Saddle. View of Mt Whitcombe and Ramsay Glacier. Photo courtesy of Geoff Spearpoint