Paringa River – Marks Flat – Otoko River

5-13 February 2022

Geoff had been planning a return ascent of Mt McCullaugh in Fiordland for a long time. The frequency of storms had created issues on previous trips where extended glacier travel demanded periods of settled weather. The proposed route allowed flexibility to climb high on good days and retreat to valleys on bad days to make the most of variable weather. That appeared to be tested when a red weather warning for Fiordland coincided with the start of the trip. Geoff considered that it was better to get Huey’s tempestuous bad mood over with before the trip than during it! The road was washed out between Franz and Fox, so we were off, but on the less direct road route. We stayed at a back-packers in Haast.

Day 1 of tramping started with an exciting jet-boat ride in Ben Monk’s boat to the Paringa – Otoko Forks. The Paringa had dropped significantly and ran clear above the forks but the Otoko was still discoloured. The other half of the party admired the track work that Jane, Geoff, Raymond and Sven had recently done on the way to Tunnel Creek Hut. The jet-boat put us well ahead of schedule, so we reached the proposed day’s destination of Tunnel Creek Hut at 3pm. Geoff had proposed that the first two days with heavy packs should be short but that meant the second day’s destination was just up the hill, “up” being the operative word. With a bad weather day forecast, the attraction of being a day ahead of schedule was too great, so Day 2 was squeezed into Day 1.

The rock bivouac at the head of the Paringa was only 3km away but 1000m higher. The first section was typical valley-side climbing; pull up on roots, step, then slide back. Point 542 was a welcome respite with a view, followed by a short downhill then uphill ridge travel. Gary had an unpleasant introduction to being the slowest in the party. The team took some of his group gear to lighten his load. Finally, we reached the tussock without having to bash through a scrub belt and began the search for the rock bivouac. It wasn’t obvious but the track-clearing party knew its location and the whereabouts of a helicoptered food drop left from the track-clearing session two months before.

Looking for the best way up to The Buttress ridge. Photo by Jane

Day 2. dawned fine and clear. We planned a traverse of the McCullaugh Range. The guide-book suggests staying on the southern side of the range but a large ravine has become impassable without snow infill, so we opted for two crossings of the range, one past the impressively named The Buttress, back into Tunnel Creek and the second just before Mt McCullaugh onto the summit glacier. The crossings involved finding gullies in the steep slabs that not only could be climbed but matched gullies on the other side that could be descended. Snow slabs in the gullies had eroded in the recent rains, so that ascent meant climbing an increasingly narrow and thin snow tongue and then finding a way onto rotten rock. Time vanished on the first crossing during the route-finding, with belaying at critical points during the afternoon and there was no certainty that the second crossing back to the glacier would be any easier. The decision was made to camp and a site was finally chosen on a series of ledges with an impressive view into the head of Tunnel Creek.

Day 3 continued the Day 2 itinerary with an easy ascent of rock slabs, snow and scree to the saddle west of Mt McCullaugh. By serendipity the edge of the snow in a gully leading down to the McCullaugh Glacier had collapsed at one point, leading to an easy route onto the glacier. Glacier travel threading though obvious crevasses was a breeze compared to the previous day’s antics. We arrived at the turning point for a Mt McCullaugh ascent mid-morning, dropped packs and all headed for the top. The climb was comparatively easy, through the upper crevasse field, belaying onto the rock ridge and then up through loose blocks on the Tunnel Creek side of the ridge. The top was an impressive assortment of blocks with worrying daylight showing through in places but it made for great group photographs with Geoff on the summit for his second ascent.

Finally, it was time for the almost 1000m descent to the proposed tarn campsite. The delays on the previous day worked well for us. If we had crossed as planned, we would have probably descended to the 1800m snowline to camp and the climb back to Mt McCullaugh would have been daunting for some of the party. The double starting day also meant we were still on schedule. The tarn at 1280m was perhaps the best camping site many could remember, providing a great swimming spot and endless photo opportunities with Mt Hooker reflected through a fabulous sunset that evening. Peaks on the main divide were silhouetted against the night sky on the other side of the Landsborough Valley.

Day 4 provided an opportunity for Jane, Gaylene, Tony and Raymond to climb Mt Hooker. They started at first light with a long descent into Murdock Creek, followed by a longer climb out. Full packs were replaced by day packs at about 1400m and the ascent of the ridge between Murdock Creek and Clarke River continued. They reached the Hooker Glacier and finally the summit rocks. The snow basins on the Otoko side described in the guide books had ceased to exist, replaced by ice cliffs promising a swift descent into the Otoko River. Gaylene decided that the view from the ridge was more than sufficient, so Jane borrowed her axe for some two-tool climbing, front-pointing for the main eastern summit. Raymond and Tony headed for the western summit on an increasingly loose series of rocks. The summit, unfortunately, was enveloped in cloud for a period but both summit parties eventually rejoined Gaylene after successful ascents, and they headed down to follow the others.

Geoff, Peter, Sven and Gary started considerably later on what was scheduled as a “rest” day. The descent into Murdock Creek and ascent to where the others had dropped their packs was only restful compared to what the earlier group achieved. The descent into the Marks Flat revealed the impressive location bounded by Kea Cliffs and the passes into the Otoko.

Mt Hooker reflected in the Tarn, Murdock Creek. Photo by Jane

Day 5 started out misty and soon turned to heavy rain. If there is any place to spend a wet day in Fiordland then the Marks Flat rock bivouac must be it. We were so glad to be there and still on schedule.

Day 6 dawned fine and we were off for the Lower Otoko Pass. The route up to the pass through the alpine scrub band would have been almost impossible but for tracks made by thar and chamois. We might hate the damage they are doing to the environment but they have some uses. Cloud rose and descended, making for a dramatic approach to the pass through an idyllic alpine meadow. Geoff and Raymond had described the scree descent on the Otoko side from previous trips but those memories vanished as we viewed the vertical descent into what is now a glacial lake filled with swirling cloud like a boiling cauldron, never revealing the full extent of the lake or the feeding glacier. We climbed high above the pass onto a landing-strip sized terrace that ran the length of the lake. Finding a way down from the terrace was difficult in cloud. A route directly down the Otoko looked possible but we chose the certainty of dropping back to the lake outlet. The final effort required another ascent and traverse to below the Upper Otoko Pass avoiding scrub on the direct route. We finally arrived at the magical location of Otoko Lake. The lake is now gravel-filled but the views of the Eye-Tooth Falls, the McCardell Glacier ice-falls off Mt Dechen and the Upper Otoko Pass were incredible.

Day 7 started with travel down the Otoko. This river has a reputation, even amongst Fiordland rivers, for difficult travel. Jane had undertaken a late-night recee and had found a deer trail through the feared scrub. We reached the easier travel under beech forest within 40 minutes, then a combination of Geoff’s unerring sense of direction and with Jane, Gaylene, Sven and Raymond employing their “inner deer” we continued at a reasonable rate down-valley. Stag Flat was getting close enough that the recreational opportunities of some deep pools became irresistible. We arrived at Stag Flat to find that it had been underwater during the recent storm. We were glad to miss that.

Photo by Raymond

The whole troop on Mt McCullaugh

Day 8 Our travel down the feared Otoko had options. We could continue down and out by early afternoon but we planned to separate at the road-end as half of the party were heading further south, while the others would go north to Christchurch. That wouldn’t be satisfactory as an ending. No-one wanted the trip to end that soon, so we opted to continue at a leisurely pace to camp closer to the road-end. We had a fantastic dinner location looking back to the Paringa River, The Valley of Darkness and the Otoko River.

Day 9’s travel started with use of Jane’s array of safety ropes on a rock bluff in the lower Paringa and a refreshing river crossing back to the cars.

This was a fantastic trip to a special area. Geoff’s second ascent of Mt McCullaugh may have followed a gap of 55 years but who’s counting.

Trampers: Sven Brabyn, Raymond Ford, Tony Lawton, Jane Morris, Geoff Spearpoint (leader), Peter Umbers, Gaylene Wilkinson and Gary Huish. [GH]