Moist, wispy clag mopes lethargically around us as we pitch our tent on a small, snow bald outcrop at 2451m. Scott Peak towers above us blocking the view across to Welcome Pass but not our main objectives the Douglas Neve and Mt Sefton. The former a glistening collection of crusty white wrinkles hinting at the plethora of crevasses laid out like an enormous three dimensional jigsaw puzzle. The latter glowering in the distance shadowed by its’ more muscular neighbours, La Perose, Tasman and Cook behind.
We make our first brew and drink in the pale late afternoon cloud filtered sunshine savouring the peace and quiet. A tranquillity underlined by the fact that not long ago we were in the midst of the bustling hive of activity down at Fox Glacier on a day where low cloud prevented scenic flights or glacier walks leaving the colonies of bored, dazed tourists to drift about updating their Facebook statuses, rescheduling bookings and consuming the contents of local cafes.
Inactivity invites cooling off so sunset is observed from inside the tent. Our vantage point does not diminish its quiet drama. Nothing offsets a glowing sun dipping below the horizon in a dazzle of pink, yellow and orange better than the stark, cold whiteness of permanent snow.
Ascending Mt Sefton and descending the Horace Walker
By 5.30am we are making our way cautiously across the crisp snow to Welcome Pass as the sun resurrects as an orange glow in the east. As the last stars fade away we rope up for solving the puzzles on the Douglas Neve. Up on the west ridge proper we enjoy views across the Southern Alps and down the Copland and Douglas Valleys. The peaks of the Landsborough Wilderness Area are tantalizingly close and Mt Aspiring is a familiar pyramid on the skyline.
The first part of the ridge is skinny so we tiptoe across as if on a slack line one foot placed very carefully in front of the other with no downward glances. We decide to keep the rope on pausing to reassess on a flat spot at the lip of a large crevasse. Friends used a running belay system to climb the top part of the route back in November, pitching it is the other option although it would slow us down. Snow conditions help narrow our options. The snow is too hard for snow stakes. Ice screws will go in now but if the sun hits the slope they may not be reliable on descent. Weighing this information up against slope angel, exposure and length of ascent plus how we are feeling we elect to climb using both our tools and keep the rope on.
Right arm, left arm, right foot, left foot we ascend in a steady rhythm. I count off each movement, each puff of breath, hyper aware of each placement. DJ is under strict instructions to seek out rest spots at regular intervals. Higher where the terrain offers less relief DJ manages to dig out a small platform and we take one final rest before topping out at a small saddle 50m below the summit. Able to stand upright at last and free of the risk of sliding into oblivion we savour the view for a few minutes before we crest the summit.
Our descent is the reverse of the ascent one hand, next hand, one foot, next foot. The snow remains in the shade and very firm with patches of blue ice. Soon we are back at the narrow ridge line which is trickier to retrace because it is now sun softened. We sink in and slide around, not a great feeling when the exposure on both sides is significant. Our concentration holds and we are soon descending to the Douglas Neve and plodding through softening snow towards our camp.
A long, hot afternoon of step- plugging down the Horace Walker glacier follows. Old footsteps come in handy when we need to ascend to Wicks Col in order to avoid the ice fall, they remain helpful as we sidle round and drop onto the glacier once more. By now we’re sinking into the snow up to our thighs and sliding about partly due to tiredness but also unexpected changes in the snow’s texture as it begins to refreeze as night closes in. We make the most of the thin tongues of snow that enable us to avoid the moraine for as long as possible.
We’re committed to reaching the floor of the Douglas Valley as there is no chance of camping amongst the stacks of huge boulders. They range from the merely wet through to unstable. To our right a huge slab of smooth rock lumbers down to the valley floor like a giant fluro-coloured, aqua slide. It looks evil. However, it does provide us with a natural boundary on one side, we have to either go down beside it or sidle to our left.
After a few hours of descending we’re able to increase our pace slightly as the boulders get smaller and mix with the grizzled scrub providing greater stability to trade-off against the random pockets of empty space between the rocks. The old moraine does not fall gradually or gracefully to the Douglas preferring to drop abruptly to the river as if chucked over a cliff by an enormous dump truck. By now we’re in the puzzle solving zone though and after a few false starts we select a feasible route that enables us to swing our way to the welcome shingle flats dotted with rushes and more boulders that mark the valley floor. Head torches light our way across the boulder strewn flats to Horace Walker hut.
Walking out via the Douglas and Karangarua
We wake to an overcast day and news from the hunters based in the hut that rain is due in the afternoon. We need to complete our high sidle round to Conical Hill, down to Regina Stream and into the Karangarua Valley today or risk being stranded in the beautiful Douglas valley. The route is marked with warratahs although this doesn’t make our 600m tussock ascent any easier. Great views back down the Douglas to the hut and up the Horace Walker to Mt Thompson help soften the blow of an unforgiving ascent. The traverse is interesting punctuated as it is with significant but seemingly random dips into ravines. Keas keep us company as do the occasional hare. We spot a tahr while eating our lunch and waiting for the clag to lift. After yesterday’s hot, muggy conditions today the air has a definite chill to it.
We gain the ridge near Conical Hill from where the descent begins and it looks like we might get to Cassel Flats in good time, we can actually see the hut. Experience has taught us not to count chickens though which is just as well because getting from our high point past the final piece of ridge turns out to be the biggest challenge of our trip. After scouting around and retracing our steps a few times we conclude that a sizable chunk of the ridge has fallen away. Sidling is too dangerous so we try tunnelling through the scrub. DJ burrows first then I push our packs up through the hole he makes. Our ice tools follow separately. While DJ reassembles tools on packs I tunnel up to join him. Technically back on the ridge we rock climb the crux section trying to ignore the exposure. When it’s safe to stop I do so. DJ reverses our rock moves to ferry each pack across. I wait anxiously for his reappearance.
In the bush again we follow a marked route down a muddy trench characterised by more supersized drop offs. For every 100m of descent we stop to rest and thank our lucky stars we have so far failed to take a tumble. As the terrain flattens we traverse through dense bush to emerge finally at the three-wire bridge that marks Regina stream. It’s been a long, tiring day so we don’t appreciate the lush Westland rainforest as much as we could have. Time seems to stand still as we trudge onward munching jelly beans repeating the mantra “I’m going to stay upright”.
Our last hurdle is the cableway over the Karangarua River. We are pleasantly surprised to find it is in good running order and easy to manoeuvre. We walk slowly through the twilight to Cassel Flats hut. We share its shelter with a party of four Otago University students on the first day of a 12 day Xmas epic. Their idealism, enthusiasm, and good humour a perfect tonic. When you are bone tired sleep is elusive, but listening to the buzz of mosquitos and the patter of rain falling on the roof of the hut it felt good just to be horizontal and dreaming of our next adventure.