To the Ice Plateaus and Beyond

Maybe it’s the commitment involved in getting there, the satisfaction of realising a dream, the fun had along the way, the attraction of the unexpected and unknown, the company, the seclusion, the beauty. The allure of special places like the Gardens is intense, immediate, magnetic and addictive.


We start in Harihari steadfastly ignoring the soggy, grey rug outside. Jenny reckons the rug is lifting but it doesn’t budge. Next day we get up early but we don’t beat the grey rug. We are in limbo. All packed up and ready to go at a moment’s notice. Jenny is sure the rug is lifting. Mike coins a new term Beaumonting. DJ wears a trail in the asphalt going back and forth to the corner of the main road that has cell phone coverage so he can confer with the chopper pilot in Franz. The day passes in a slow motion blur of cups of tea at the Pukeko Café, Beaumonting about the cloud cover, reading, eating, short walks and card playing. The humidity coupled with the waiting lead to a general feeling of lassitude. Concerned about dehydration we retire to the pub.

Plan B is to tramp around the Lambert and Lord catchments. That would be like eating a rotten grapefruit instead of a ripe peach and, as we don’t have the correct maps, we’d be doing it blindfolded. That night I try not to dream about rotten fruit.

Jenny's gear
Jenny’s gear

At dawn we watch thick white mist rise off the cold water in the Wanganui and mix with the warmer clag hanging in the valley above us. The cloud has never been lower but there is some satisfaction to be had from pacing up and down murdering sand flies.

Out of the gloom we hear the distant hum of an aircraft flying low towards us. The pilot sets his chopper down in a nearby paddock. He is a champion Beaumonter and believes conditions will be better higher up. The pilot is spot on. We are soon soaring over the tops in bright sunshine, chasing tahr and looking for a suitable landing spot on the Lambert tops. Our adventure has begun.

Lambert Glacier

We ascend on a mix of snow grass, scree and the crusty dregs of winter snow. All three surfaces are slippery so we wear our crampons. There is no shortage of rocks willing to come with us so we wear our helmets. To combat the heat we wear our lightest clothes. Mostly the clouds keep their distance permitting us clear views down to the Lambert river and across to the Smythe and Lord ranges in the north. Plan B might have been appetising.

First taste of glacier
First taste of glacier

From the day’s high point a narrow, snowy vantage between some big rocks we look down to the top of the Lambert Glacier (1900m) with Satan Saddle marking out the edge of the Garden of Allah (2200m). Mt Lambert (2430m) towers to our right. We can see the Lambert glacier smeared with crevasses laid out like an over bleached carpet. We rope up and head down.

Carpet side the clouds roll in leaving us squinting into the clag. Fortunately we identified a path around the main crevasses before we lost visibility. The GPS serves as a useful guide but it is DJ’s instincts and experience with glaciers that we mostly rely on as we feel our way cautiously to a suitable campsite. As a bonus it comes equipped with a large flat rock for cooking.

Descending to the Lambert
Descending to the Lambert

Satan Saddle

We wake to white out conditions, perfect for a lie in. By late morning the novelty of reclining in the clammy tents is wearing off so we scuttle onto the camp rock for brunch. Noting increasing patches of blue sky we Beaumont that the cloud may have lifted higher up. Time to head to Satan Saddle for a look.

Satan saddle
Satan saddle

Standing in the middle of the plateau at 1900m I know this trip is well worth the effort. The Garden of Allah and the Lambert glacier stretch lengthways for many kilometres in each direction. They are bordered by crops of snow-capped mountains ranging in height between 21-2400m. The silence is randomly broken by the whoomp and crash of large blocks of ice and snow calving off the bigger glaciers and falling onto the plateau. If there is any noise associated with six jaws dropping I don’t notice. Distant avalanches rumble. There are patches of blue amongst the puffy clouds but it’s mostly overcast so the kind of subdued light given off by energy-efficient light bulbs reflects off the white landscape and bounces off the speckled rocks. A laid back nor-wester is half-heartedly spring cleaning, stirring up fine particles of snow in its tracks.

Garden of Allah
Garden of Allah

From Satan Saddle we can see across to Newton Peak (2543m) and Mt Tyndall (2543m) and down the entire Garden of Allah to Mt Farrar (2424m), the Devils Backbone and the Beelzebub glacier and Icefall Outlook (1763m).

Icefall Outlook, Garden of Allah

The grey rug is part of the furniture. After yesterday’s experience we figure it is clearer higher up the glacier. After a bit of a lie in we have an early lunch and set off. The plan is to walk the length of the Garden of Allah and camp somewhere underneath Mt Farrar.

The highlight is the view from Icefall Outlook straight down onto the Beelzebub glacier which curves to meet the Adams glacier at the headwaters of the Adams. For those of you who have not seen an icefall at close quarters they are unlike any other aspect of the NZ landscape. Icefalls are essentially big escalators of moving snow, ice, rock and other debris. The Beelzebub looks a bit like instant mashed spud that is crunchy in places because it hasn’t been properly hydrated. Mouldy instant mashed spud –with a distinct bluish tinge, grey, even black in places. While the icefall literally represents a snapshot in time it also perfectly captures the on-going movement of debris downhill to the river flats below.

Glacier camp
Glacier camp

The weather is deteriorating and it’s forecast time so we halt and make a camp well above running water. We will have to melt snow but we are near some rock walls for shelter and well placed to head back up onto the Garden of Eden tomorrow. As the wind switches to the south snow falls. The others patiently ignore the conditions and dig platforms and pitch their tents beside the rocks.

Beezlebub icefall
Beezlebub icefall

Following yesterday’s pattern the cloud lifts enabling us to fully appreciate the war zone ambience that characterises our second campsite. The mist rising off the rocks reminds me of gun smoke, ice calving off glaciers around us sounds like heavy artillery. As for the sobering sight of avalanche debris everywhere, I’ll leave that to your imagination…

Angel Col, Garden of Eden

Thanks to the southerly we experience our first overnight freeze. The temperature drop is sufficient to make an ice axe indispensable for travel on the slippery snow but not sufficient to deter the persistent morning clag. The forecast indicates this will likely be our last day of fine weather for a few days and the descent to Adams Flats is challenging enough to warrant negotiation in dry conditions. We reckon we have fuel for one more day of melting snow. Therefore we plan to spend the morning taking a look at the Garden of Eden reserving the afternoon for the descent to Adam Flats.

Without our customary lie in we leave camp at dawn, well 9.30am. Our excitement lifts with the cloud cover. As we wander between Mt Farrar and Guardian Peak (2218m) we can see the Garden of Eden stretched out ahead like a giant “T” intersection bordered by high peaks and glaciers with icefalls dripping off the edges. From Angel Col (1810m) we ascend a neighbouring hill and then another giving us line of sight all the way down the Garden of Eden to Adams Col (1951m) and Baker Peak (2259m) the eastern gateway to the Gardens. To the west lies Vertebrae Col (1902m) and Little Unknown (2068m). Reluctantly we head back to camp.

Are we there yet?

The plan is to improvise a route off the Gardens. We have our maps and some advice from Geoff Spearpoint who has sighted possible escape routes from below. Should be an interesting afternoon

Seemingly daunting tasks are best tackled piece by piece. First we need to descend beside the Beezlebub icefall to the Adams glacier several hundred metres below. All the routes look steep, exposed and precarious. DJ goes in search of a slightly easier route better suited our large loads and modest rock climbing abilities. We don’t fancy getting half way down only to discover that returning would be as tedious as continuing. It didn’t end well for Macbeth and it probably wouldn’t for us either.

DJ returns with good news. He has found a route onto some relatively flat ledges that appears to go a good way down as promised by Spearpoint. We make steady progress picking our way along the ledges gradually dropping below the Beelzebub. We come to a large flat rock ledge from which we can look back up at the Beezlebub and down onto the substantial moraine wall that stands between us and the Adams glacier. The glacier could be a giant tub of liquorice ripple ice cream. From a distance it has a bizarrely smooth and creamy texture compared to the icefall, almost as if some manic house frau has scoured it clean of all the debris with a giant steelo pad. Up close the glacier’s texture is more like sandpaper – all frozen lumps and bumps and waves as it churns downhill.

dry glacier
dry glacier

We shuffle across the ripples of grey, white and blue, jumping the deep, wide crevasses. Once we clamber off the mouth of the glacier we cross the headwaters of the Adams. The shuffling descent continues between rocks of all shapes, sizes, colours and textures. We pass numerous waterfalls plunging down from the tops into the Adams. At one point only Mike and DJ can easily get through the maze of large boulders. The rest of us, being less in touch with our inner goat decide we’re better off lowering our packs to them and clambering down unencumbered. I try to help Marie by reaching a hand up to her not anticipating that when she transfers her weight forward to jump off the boulder her momentum will send me backwards into the rocks behind me. After that I leave bouldering assists to Mike.

At the bottom of a rock gully we hit the river again. A curious tahr comes down to the river’s edge to inspect us. Eventually it decides we’re boring or harmless or both. It gives us a master class in travelling across rugged terrain bounding effortlessly over the piles of rock then traversing to join its mate on the skyline, completing in less than a minute a route that would have taken us the best part of an hour.


Now our way is blocked by a sheer bluff on one side and the fast flowing Adams on the other. DJ removes the remains of an old rope from the bluff and sets up one of ours so we can prussic up to join him. Because of the steep angle of our descent it looks like we’re very close to Adams Flats. Instead we arrive at another gorge/bluff intersection. DJ goes scouting while the rest of us rest.

DJ informs us the route is suitable for us without our packs on. It is not often your trip leader turns baggage carrier. He takes Marie’s pack and Marie and Mike follow. From our vantage point we observe the last section where Marie stops and sits while Mike makes precarious progress behind DJ. The final section involves balancing upright and walking across a large, blank, wet, slippery slab that slopes downhill inviting anyone traversing it to slide off into the boulder filled gorge many metres below.

The advance party decides to set up a belay so that the rest of us have protection for the crossing. The reward for a safe crossing is arrival at Adams Flats. Sitting around our cooker in the darkness we’re tired but elated. Good team work over seven hours and we’ve escaped off the Gardens via a new route. Not a bad way to farewell 2009. My New Years’ resolution is to retire from a career as a bouldering mat. By Anniversary weekend I had broken it but that’s another story…

Cramponing the Speculation Range

On New Year’s Day a lie in seemed appropriate however, heavy rain is forecast. We need to move or we will be doing serious tent time at Adams Flats. The plan is to head over the Speculation range and camp at Speculation creek.

Marie leads straight up through the Dracophyllum dominated bush. It’s slippery underfoot but relatively open and dry. We’re treated to great views back down to Adams flats. As the cloud lowers and it starts to drizzle we don our crampons. We ascend 700 metres through scrub, snow grass and Mt Cook lilies. Frequent pauses are necessary to select the best route and ensure we were still on the correct ridge. The clag, like any good rug hides a multitude of sins including sheer drop offs and dangerous holes. Our arm muscles get a thorough work out as we haul ourselves up through the snow grass.

Wilberg stream
Wilberg stream

Descending wet snow grass presents different challenges. Gravity is not necessarily your friend. DJ leads us down a gully full of hidden holes, rocks and an army of Spaniards. Suddenly we are at the confluence of an unnamed stream and Speculation creek beside a gorgeous waterfall. I pause to mop up the blood drawn by the Spaniards, one of the occupational hazards of following closely behind Tue who is impervious to their needles because he’s wearing trousers. We admire the way the waterfall trips and topples through the mist in a series of tiers alternating with wide ledges beautifully accessorised by Mt Cook lilies, flax, and Spaniards.

It is raining properly as we arrive at a large tussock flat ideal for camping. DJ and I set up the mountain radio while Mike and Tue kindly pitch our tent. I reflect on our trip planning. We practiced crevasse extraction. Mike practiced swimming. He argued it would be useful for the West Coast rivers. This turned out to be a good call. Mike’s superior experience moving through water is handy for cooking, tent pitching, setting up the mountain radio not to mention tramping. We’ve hardly used the crevasse extraction stuff at all. If we’d practiced cramponing on snow grass Marie might have avoided blood blisters. We hasten to sort dinner then dive into our tents as the rain get harder but not before a familiar whistling sound alerts us to the presence of a pair of blue ducks swimming in Speculation creek just below the campsite.

speculation creek campsite
speculation creek campsite

Sunbathing by Speculation Creek

At day break we lie in our sleeping bags listening to the sound of light rain on the tent roof. A lie in seems a good idea. High winds are forecast on the tops so DJ”s decision to declare a pit day is popular. By mid-morning we were hanging gear out to dry in bright sunshine.

Over a leisurely lunch we admire our surroundings which glisten in the sunlight. We play cards. DJ takes photos and Tue reads. We wave at the tahr we bust trying to spy on us from the ridgeline. Some of us get sunburnt. Marie has scrambled eggs for afternoon tea. Mike finally makes progress on his cachet of chocolate bars. In the evening the blue ducks return. Bad weather is forecast. I’m sceptical as it was supposed to be raining today but we enjoyed the best weather of the trip so far. I’m rubbish at Beaumonting. At 8pm the deluge commences.

Big Wet

We wake to easily the heaviest rain of the trip. We have little option but to lie in. Later we discover we had 270mm+ in 24 hours. In the afternoon we are no longer sleepy so I turn on my imaginary iPod and listened to The Smiths “Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now” while scribbling random fiction for the Club journal. DJ studies the map which is an excellent way to gain perspective. Would I rather be at the bottom right of the map on Cloudy Peak Range, Disappointment Saddle or Argument Creek? I think not.

The rain eventually starts to ease around 6pm. Mike swims out to boil water for dinner. Jenny and Marie’s tent doubles as a games room. The forecast indicates a southerly front will push the rain away. The plan is leave the second it does. Everyone is a bit over lie ins.

Whio blue duck
Whio blue duck

Chilling on the Willberg Range

At dawn we can hear rain on the tents. It is tempting to lie in. But our impatience means we brave the rain. Today we must follow Speculation creek over a pass and gain the Willberg range which we will follow to Harihari.

First up is that morning ritual familiar to trampers everywhere. Cross a freezing river to ensure dry socks are wet thereby extinguishing any memory of sunny rest days and all feeling from feet. This snap freeze heralds the start of a long, cold day. After a week of northerly weather patterns Mr Southerly is with us in his various guises – a chilly breeze in the valley and an icy blast laced with sleet on the tops.

About 30 minutes up Speculation creek we spot a rock bivy and some tussock flats. An ideal camp site for staying dry while cooking. Good thing we didn’t find it earlier, it would have been a shame to waste Mike’s training. We ascend. Speculation creek turns into Avalon creek which we follow till we top out on the snow near Avalon Peak (1796). The cloud seems to like the company of Mr Southerly just as well as the northerly so navigation remains challenging.

travelling stream side
travelling stream side

At our high point, even partially obscured by cloud the route off looks too steep and exposed. We back track and select another route. The sleet is doing a fine job of exfoliating exposed skin. Jenny digs out her 10 years old and never been worn fleece. A bit later, while temporarily out of the wind, we pause to do star jumps while Tue puts on his over trousers.

Over a col and we descend via a stream stuffed with slimy rocks, scree, mud and the occasional patch of snow grass. Crampons can be useful on snow grass but they are a bit of a mixed blessing on rock. Eventually we bottom out at the confluence with Willberg river. By now we are hungry enough to endure the additional chill associated with pausing to eat. Somehow Tue manages to also find the time to don his polypropylene long johns.

My body is like an old car trying to start on a frosty morning as we head off again following the Willberg river up to a saddle to gain the Willberg range. Now we have an interminable stop start traverse in light rain and poor visibility. We locate a large tarn on a flattish piece of ridge suitable for camping. Days end sees us performing that other great tramping ritual, the hugely comforting wiggle into dry clothes and a sleeping bag after a cold day on the tops.

Wilberg tops
Wilberg tops

Descending West Coast Style

It’s our last day so our habitual lie in is cut short by the lure of the beer and pizza available in Harihari. At first glance the Willberg range looks benign. It is a series of gently undulating golden hills with tussocks rippling prettily in a gentle breeze. This picture is deceptive. The slippery tussock masks the same random holes and precipitous drop offs that characterise the Speculation range. Our routine in this terrain is to ascend and traverse in order to descend. We start to encounter animal trails more frequently, trails made by two legged animals.

We reach Mt Willberg (1245m) late morning. A trig and a cairn distinguish it from the rest of the ridge. We plunge down through thick leatherwood dominated scrub. We can see the outskirts of Harihari 1000m below us. Mike and DJ lead the way following warratahs, bits of coloured tape and ancient Forest Service markers. To our surprise and relief the track is well used and marked. Initially we tunnel through mud. The bush is thick and wet. Sometimes we lose the track due to tree falls but Mike and DJ are masters at finding it again. The rest of us have mastered the art of stealing quick rests.

The bush is a spectacular assortment of lush punga, mountain cabbage trees, vicious bush lawyer and ropey vines. All the big trees are festooned with epiphytes giving them the slightly desperate “look at me” feel of underdressed over made up cougars in a bar. As we drop lower the bush is drier and the bush lawyer and vines dominate. The vines are good at catching our packs and ice tools but make great handrails.

Descending to Harihari
Descending to Harihari

We drop out of the bush into Harold creek. We must follow the creek for 2 kilometres then it’s down the main road to Harihari. A few curious locals stop for a chat but nobody offers us a lift so we walk to the Harihari Motor Inn. The big Harihari loop walk is done and dusted but we don’t want to risk dehydration so we retire to the pub…



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s