January 19- Sugarloaf Pass- the 1st Pass
We packed up our backpacks and loaded them into the car in preparation of heading to the trailhead for the Five Passes Route. As I was getting ready I was approached by an Israeli guy who was also staying at the motorpark. He needed a ride to the trailhead for the Routeburn Track, which is at the same trailhead we're going to, so we had no problem helping him out. I've been looking for opportunities to repay some of my hitchhiking good fortune so this was a good start.
The trail began immediately by going uphill. A fairly constant grade for about 1500 ft to the top of sugarloaf Pass, the 1st and easiest of the 5 passes we will do on this tramp. My knee felt great with the brace on it (and 3 Ibuprofen), and Nick was able to go considerably faster than he has thus far, so we made excellent time for the first time on any hikes we've done out here. We had gone over some small things he could change about how he hikes, which actually seemed to be making a difference. And his endurance seems to
be improving, so all these things together made today an excellent day of tramping.
We crossed Sugarloaf Pass and descended the other side, down into the Rockburn valley. There were a number of blown down trees and washed out pieces of mountainside to navigate across, but we continued to make good time getting down the the valley floor. Once there, we only 4km to go to the area where we wanted to set up camp. Theatre Flats, a huge open meadow with grand views of the mountains all around. We set up camp near a Rocky Bivy and cooked an amazing dinner of breakfast burritos (Eggs, cheese, sausage, and potatoes wrapped in tortillas). This location is amazing, the weather is perfect, and this is one of the most beautiful places that I've ever pitched my tent. January 20- Park Pass- The 2nd Pass
Through a small miracle I had managed to keep my boots dry through the whole first day and 2 hours into today as well. It's not that I mind hiking in wet boots, but it's a bit of a luxury to have them this far into a tramp with no bridges. No matter,
there were about to get soaked. We were climbing to Park Saddle, following the narrowing river as we went, and came to a place where we had to cross. I told Nick to just get in and cross the water as it was safer than jumping from rock to rock, but felt that having dry boots just a bit longer would be worth the risk for myself. I made it across the first two large rocks sticking just out of the quickly moving water, and then lined up the jump to the final one. It was a long way, but I was feeling confident and made the leap. The feeling of satisfaction as I landed squarely and exactly where I wanted to quickly turned to unhappiness as the very large rock shifted under my weight and crashed off it's perch and into the whitewater. Of course I went with it. Fortunately, I landed on my feet in the torrent and the rock did not pin my leg, but unfortunately my only water bottle came off my backpack and could be seen bobbing away down the river. I was supremely glad to see it caught in a small whirlpool some 20
yards downstream where I was able to retrieve it. Disaster averted, but wet boots acquired.
After crossing the saddle, we descended very sharply down an incredibly steep tree-covered slope. I'm continually amazed at the slopes tree will grow on. But due to the extreme slope, places where the hillside has slipped under heavy rains is common, so we had to negotiate many areas of landslides with rocks, fallen trees and tree roots, and general disarray in our path.
Once at the valley floor, we had several more uphill miles to do to get to where we wanted to camp, and of course it started to rain. We made alright progress until we hit a huge boulderfield with a tangle of rocks ranging from the size of small cars to small trailers scattered on top of each other. The wetness made the rocks slippery and treacherous. I was almost to the end of the rocks and back to the grass when my boot slipped out from under me, sending me headfirst down toward a large gap between two boulders. I grabbed for anything to stop the fall and ended up slamming a hiking pole and my wrist into a
rather sharp rock, which stopped me from falling the 8ft of so to the bottom of the gap. My wrist tingled for some time after and has some nasty gashes and bruising, but it isn't broken and for that I am grateful. I'm also grateful my teeth aren't scattered amongst the boulders either.
We continued another hour through the rain to the tree line where I had heard about a rock bivy that wasn't marked on our map. After 20 minutes of searching for it I found it and we crawled inside to find a dry cave-like place where we'll spend tonight. It's nothing fancy, a house sized boulder with a natural 10ft wide x 15ft long x 5 foot high opening under it that keeps the water out. But it will be good to sleep under with this rain. January 21- Cow Saddle- The 3rd Pass
We decided to take it easy today, but wanted to get a bit further up the valley to make going over the 3rd and 4th Passes tomorrow slightly easier. So after a leisurely morning we headed out from the cozy bivy around 2pm. The rain had stopped overnight, but
of course resumed as soon as we took our first steps. Soon I was soaked, but we pushed on towards Cow Saddle, the 3rd Pass of the trip. At the saddle there seemed to be no suitable place to camp since it was all flat soggy ground or large rocks. Eventually we found a place where we set up tents and tried to dry out again. The rain would pester us for the rest of the evening, making dinner and everything else more difficult. January 22- Fiery Col- The 4th Pass
Fiery Col was our task today, the 4th Pass of the trip, and we were camped right at the base of it, which meant we began the uphill immediately this morning. The pass sits between Fiery Peak (composed of very red rock) and Tantalus Peak (composed of grey granite) and the way the rocks have crumbled off the mountains and merged together creates a very interesting landscape. There's also a sulfur smell coming from the mountainside that adds more uniqueness to this area.
We made quick work to the saddle and didn't wait around too long there before heading down the other side. Clouds were
building and we'd had enough of tramping in the rain yesterday, so we wanted to try to make it to camp quickly in case bad weather did return again today. It never did though, and instead we experienced pleasant sunshine, warmth, and dryness for the next few hours of walking. A welcome change from the past 36 hours.
We got to a spot along the Olive Ledge at the base of Fohn Saddle where we set up camp... at 3:30pm! Well ahead of estimates and earlier than any time we've gotten to camp so far this trip. I guess our pace as a group is improving. So with lots of time and good weather I contented myself with reading my book among the tussock grass. So nice to finish hiking early in the day and be able to enjoy some free time. January 23- Fohn Saddle- The 5th Pass
The alarm went off at 7am, but we chose to ignore it until 8. Then we shivered outside the tents as we waited for the sun to come over the ridgeline to dry our tents off and warm us up. So at the crack of 10:30am we
hit the trail, hardly something to be proud of. But we didn't have too far to go today so we weren't in a big hurry.
By noon we had reached the Fohn Lakes, two alpine lakes that sit near Fohn Pass. They are in an incredible setting with a cirque of towering peaks and ridges on 3 sides and a view out to the ocean on the other. This was the most beautiful place we have been yet on this trip and so we stopped and sat on a bluff overlooking the water for about half an hour, enjoying the view that only the three of us would get to see today. It would be this evening before we would see any other people. We had already gone 2 and a half days without seeing another soul out here, we are truly in the wilderness.
From the lakes we made our way over to the saddle where we took a moment to enjoy completing 5 mountain passes in 5 days. Quite an accomplishment for us, especially Nick and Andrew who have not done any tramping in this remote or rugged type of terrain before.
Then we descended
from the pass to the valley below, which turned out to be one of the more stressful descents that I've done. I'm not sure if we lost the path or if the rock cairns just stopped for most of the way down (I looked for them for quite a while anyway), but we ended up going down about 1500ft through heavy tussock grass 5ft high down some very steep bluffs. It's bad because you can barely see where your foot is stepping and slipping can result in tumbling or sliding a very long way, sometimes hundreds of feet. I've been on some scary stuff before, but this one had me pretty worried. In the end we made it though and quickly made our way the 3km down the river to the rock bivy where we'll spend tonight. January 24- Down the Beans Burn
We had a long day ahead of us so we planned to start early. And to my surprise we actually hit the trail a mere 15 minutes after our target time.
We cruised down the track, covering the distance along the river in great time. After 4 hours we stopped for lunch and
I took some time to re-bandage my knee. I've been wearing the knee brace I got from the doctor, but it seems that it isn't meant to be worn for 7-10 hours of heavy hiking every day, or to be worn while soaking wet, or some other factor because the elastic part wrinkles behind the knee when it bends and after countless footsteps it has been slicing into the back of my knee. It's a price to pay for having the stability to to walk on the trail with minimal muscle pain, but after yesterday I was wincing with each step because of it. So today I used medical tape to secure gauze padding over the cut areas, and now I only feel the brace crushing the gauze and tape into the open wounds with each step. Slightly less painful. I just can't seem to win with this knee.
Eventually we reached the end of the Beans Burn (Burn is a term for a river in NZ) that we were following, where it joined with the Dart River, and we began following the Dart out in the direction of the car. This was also the direction of a celebratory
hamburger and beers that we've been dreaming about for several days now. We had been going for about 6 hours, but had 3 more to go today to make it to the place we wanted to camp, just a few hours from the road end. Unfortunantely 2 of those hours would be hard bush-bashing through some really gnarly stuff.
We were exhausted by the time we made it to camp, but very pleased by the distance we covered today, by our beautiful and solitary campsite along the river, by the warm and dry weather, and by the general sense of accomplishment for being almost finished with the 5 Passes trip- a difficult one even by New Zealand tramping standards. We even stayed up to watch some stars tonight. January 25- Back to Civilization
The sky was beautiful when I woke up this morning, but an hour later as we were packing up camp the wind began to gallop down the valley, signaling a change to come in the weather.
We took 2.5 hours to hike the remaining distance out to the road end where we met an Israeli couple camped there who I convinced to
drive me the 5 miles up the road to where we had left our car 7 days earlier. Once I had the car, I went back to get Nick and Andrew and then we began the hour drive back to Queenstown where we'll stay tonight. During the drive we reveled in our success of completing the tramp, and also eagerly looked forward to a hot shower, a big meal at a restaurant, clean clothes, and a dry bed. After 7 days in the bush I know we looked and smelled fairly uncivilized, so the shower would have to be the first priority.
I had a first shower at the hostel, a "pre" shower to make me "pre"sentable in public for going out to FergBurger, a hip burger joint in Queenstown. And I would follow that one up with yet another, longer shower later just to enjoy hot running water after what seemed like such a long absence from it.
It's kind of odd, being on the trail I am quite content in most everything: eating fairly basic meals, being at the mercy of the dry, wet, hot, or cold weather, finding unimaginable comfort just by crawling into my
sleeping bad at the end of a long day, and even wearing the same wet socks day after day. But when the end of a tramp is in sight and real comfort is just a day or even hours away, you become excited for it like a kid at Christmas. That was definitely my feeling today.
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