Olivine Ice Plateau
7-15 February 2023
On the 2012 PTC trip to the Olivine Ice Plateau the area was enveloped in cloud so Gary suggested a repeat trip to see the views. Geoff was not keen on repeating standard routes that he had done many times before but there was, however, another possibility. Years ago, Geoff had bashed his way down the Barrier Stream gorge to the Pyke River, but he had never been up Diorite Stream to the Barrier via Beresford Pass, so that became the trip plan. The only trouble would be the notorious Olivine weather. After much deliberation and a three-day delay to get a fine period, we headed for the area. We needed an early start from Christchurch to reach Glenorchy and place a car at Chinamans Bluff before flying finished for the day. A helicopter was the only practical way to get to the Olivine Hut at the junction of the Olivine and Pyke rivers, and it was an exhilarating ride along the Five Pass route of the Rockburn, Hidden Falls and Olivine Rivers.
Day 1 of tramping started with an exciting cable-way ride across the still-swollen Olivine River, then a bush lawyer and cutty-grass traverse to the base of the Olivine Falls. They were just as impressive in the relentless rain as the fine-weather view from the helicopter the day before. We swamp-bashed up the Pyke towards the start of the Diorite to commence the 800m climb to the upper basin—hard going with heavy packs. The rain made everything slippery, small cliff-lines barred the way and supplejack caught on every projection. We finally started to find deer trails but, every time they seemed to level off towards the flats, they would take an abrupt turn straight up the hill. We finally reached the magic 800m contour and traversed to the large, impressive flats, just as the sun came out. We hurriedly pitched tents in an open gravel area before rain come up the valley again.
Day 2 dawned misty as we headed for Beresford Pass into Barrier Stream, with only a 600m climb ahead but a 700m descent. Tough alpine scrub and long tussock slopes led to upper scree where an inquisitive chamois peered over the pass. The view into and across the Barrier River was welcome and impressive with bare, red ultramafic rock around Stag Pass. Navigation down was difficult. Faint deer trails petered out amidst large moss-covered boulders. It wasn’t easy keeping close to the stream, heading to the crossing point at 840m but finally we crossed to find old cairns and a well-defined deer trail down the prominent spur. Luxury! The flats provided somewhat swampy travel, while the forest sections were covered in gaiter-deep moss but were a relief after the day’s ascent and descent. A delightful campsite at the Barrier Forks had to be cleared of deer before we pitched camp in heavy showers. We glanced uneasily at the high, discoloured South Barrier River that we would have to cross in the morning.
Day 3 delivered fine weather and crossing the South Barrier proved easy, some distance above the forks. The vista from the head of the Barrier Flats was inspiring. Darkness Peak was prominent and we could see the full extent of our route underneath Ark, providing access to the Plateau. The bush-line on the ridge that we had to climb didn’t look too far, only 400m but it was a steep 400m and the alpine scrub proved as resistant to pushing as the supplejack climb up the Diorite. Gaining the bush-line was a relief, and gave views of the Furies and Darkness Peak. Traversing and climbing brought us to a campsite above the large tarn at 1400m with impressive views down the Barrier and across to Intervention Saddle and the promise of fine weather for the climb to the Plateau.
Day 4 started with thick cloud on the Plateau that would make navigation difficult and ensured a slow start while we debated the options. It finally started to clear and up we climbed, first along a tussock ridge, then a rocky terrace below bluffs, ending in a dramatic break in the ridge with no obvious way down. The ridge was our only route, so we backtracked, down tussock ledges to finally gain the gully, then up again to slabs on the ridge. The snow route that we could see from the Barrier flats was reached, then it was up into the thickening cloud for the traverse under Ark. Mist had turned to drizzle as we reached the ridge, directly under Ark, too high to descend directly to the Plateau. Threading our way past spires dimly seen in the mist, we reached Pic d’Argent Col, the door to the Plateau. Unfortunately, it was impassable as the snow had retreated, leaving a 20m cliff separated from a 10m wall of snow. Geoff went prospecting left amongst the rock spires, but returned without success. He then joined Raymond, who had found a rock bench higher up the ridge towards Ark. It was steep but provided a route down the cliff face, with some pack-passing and bum-sliding and led to the inside of the snow wall. Step cutting and belaying up the steep face finally gave us access to the Plateau.
Navigation was then an issue through the maze of crevasses in fading light and thick cloud, with GPS, compass and dead reckoning finally leading to rock ledges and camping possibilities. Multiple camp possibilities were viewed and discarded before pitching tents near a small tarn, then enjoying Peter’s dinner, well past our normal bed-time.
Day 5 was an unforgettable delight. Clear blue sky and views in every direction we turned elicited “wow” reactions. The ramparts of Ark loomed behind us, the Darkness Peak face dominated across the névé of the glacier that dropped in fascinating patterns of ice towards the Andy Glacier with Mt Aspiring always a landmark to the east. What a breakfast spot. It took a long time to soak in the atmosphere before packing up and starting the traverse of the Plateau. First, was the strenuous climb up Little Ark before the jaw-dropping descent to the main Plateau. Lunch was enjoyed before the panorama of Gable, Passchendaele, Destiny and Climax Peaks, bisected by the Memorial Icefall. We dropped packs to inspect Forgotten River Col, the entry point of the 2012 trip, surprised to find covering snow had vanished, leaving only ice. Then the climb to the col at the head of Blockade Stream, for a campsite with views down Forgotten River to 2736m Mt Tutoko and Madeline in the Darran Mountains.
Day 6 started slowly after a windy night. An overcast morning cast doubt over the wisdom of navigating the high route through Desperation Pass, but fortunately, the cloud cleared to sway the decision. The descent into the head of Blockade Stream was steep and brutal to about the 1400m contour, but not as bad as the climb back up the scree slopes to Mt Gates. The best thing that could be said was that there was an end to it. We sidled below the peak, found our 2012 campsite but decided to go further and start the descent to the Derivation névé. Geoff made the inspired decision not to follow our previous route but swing far right near the cliffs. Possible campsites were investigated but a rock bench 80m above the névé provided a vantage comparable to the first night on the Plateau. Looking back up Mt Gates, over dinner we could see our footsteps and the crevasse maze that we had avoided on our descent.
Day 7 was the critical day to exit the Plateau. Desperation Pass had been our preferred route. The climb to Mt Watkins was easy by comparison with the 2012 trip, as at least we could see where we were going. The continuation of the route to the right of Stefansson Peak was obvious this time but the drop-off down to the Margaret Glacier looked precipitous. Geoff and Raymond went for a recce while the rest sat in the sun and baked, or moved to the shade and froze. Finally, the two appeared, but to the left of Stefansson Peak. They had climbed down the ice of Desperation Pass but, coming back, had investigated an alternative snow slope on the north side of Stefansson Peak to see if it linked up. It didn’t quite oblige, but a rock gully did provide a connection that was vastly superior to the standard route. With a short traverse on snow, belay down the gully, traverse on snow and a few more gullies we were down, looking back at the ice swirls on the face of the pass. The traverse of the remaining Barrier Range along to Seal Col was almost trivial in comparison. Complacency led to an incident as we descended towards the tussock when Sonja fell into a snow-filled crevasse that Raymond had crossed. When trying to help, Gary also fell in. Fortunately, only dignity was injured. We were grateful to reach tarns and broad tussock benches overlooking the Dart Valley, to camp just as a heat-induced thunderstorm engulfed the range behind us.
Day 8 started with another photo-fest with the Barrier Range behind and the Dart River valley set out before us. Finally, it was time to descend to meet other people on the Dart River Track. The bush provided a challenge as deer avoid the bare rock slopes above the Margaret Burn, so don’t make trails. Also, there were many small gorges concealed in the terrain. Reaching the Dart was a welcome relief but crossing the Margaret Burn was challenging due to flood damage since our 2012 trip in the area. We finally crossed the Dart on the three-wire bridge installed by the Back-Country Trust, into tourist territory. There was a lot of helicopter traffic as we proceeded down the Dart. An explanation came when a helicopter flew low overhead in the dark and landed next to our tents to enquire about a missing hunter.
Day 9 required a mere hour to reach the car near Chinamans Bluff.
This was a fantastic trip to a special area. Each valley had its own character that offered seemingly unsurpassed scenery, until the next valley was possibly better. The drama of the entry at Pic d’Argent Col and the exit over Desperation Pass, in hindsight, only added to the experience.
Trampers were: Raymond Ford, Sonja Risa, Geoff Spearpoint (leader), Peter Umbers and Gary Huish. [GH]