Heading for the Hills in Level 2
It is a chaotic mess of boulders that once held up part of the summit of the aptly named ‘Falling Mountain’. They completely smother our route ahead over the Main Divide of the Southern Alps - Tarahuna Pass. Tomorrow we will pick our way across this complex terrain before climbing abruptly to Tarn Col.
As far as New Zealand landslides go this was one of the big ones and in geological terms it happened barely a blink of an eye ago, back in 1929. A 7.1 magnitude earthquake rocked the mountains of Arthur’s Pass for four minutes. The aftershocks were said to be almost constant, lasting another hour and tremors continued for days. It was too much for the then unnamed peak of Falling Mountain, and its 900 metre high north western face collapsed and let loose 60 million cubic metres of rock down the Otehake Valley, some tumbling 5 kms before they came to their final resting place. To put that in perspective it was 5 times larger (in volume) than the famous 1991 Aoraki/Mt Cook landslide that reduced the height of the summit by 10 metres!
Our campsite tonight is spectacularly placed on a tussock clad isthmus which gives us expansive views back down the Edwards Valley and to the boulder fields of the pass. My teenage son has forgotten about his sore feet and tired legs and is scampering around like an Austrian mountain goat bombarding me with questions, trying to make sense of this landscape. It is that sort of place - you try and piece it back together, how it would have looked before this phenomenal event changed it forever.
We have had a great day hiking the Edwards Valley track, calling in to the hut for a brew before continuing our trek through the alpine landscapes of the upper Edwards Valley. Remarkably our feet are still dry. That has taken some strategic swapping to jandals* for three river crossings right at the start of the day. Warning: this can be extremely risky - blowing a jandal that early in the trip would have been a tragedy. There was also one piggybacking incident that I am supposed to keep quiet about too.
My last jaunt in the hills was up to Edwards Hut, just a few days before we went into level 4 lockdown. That trip will always be memorable, as it felt like the stress and unknown territory we were heading into with COVID-19 just fell away the further I walked up the valley. But sadly it was waiting for us, tapping its proverbial foot when we emerged back out 24 hours later. Wandering back up this valley after 7 odd weeks of level 3 and 4 restrictions, which essentially put such forays into the wilderness off limits, puts me in a somewhat reflective but grateful mood.
Our campsite really does have a jaw dropping view. It's been a beautifully clear and crisp day and it will be a freezing night! And a long one too - the main drawback with camping at this time of year is that it does make for a long night in the tent as it is too cold to linger outside for long.
The next morning we make our way over the boulders of the pass and then up the short but seriously upward climb to Tarn Col. The tussocks make vital hand holds as we carefully pick our route up the steep and slippery creek to the col. Once at the col we are rewarded with views of the Otehake wilderness area, Falling Mountain and it’s shattered remains below. The frozen tarn among the golden tussocks, the bright blue sky and the teenager skimming stones across the ice makes a pretty cool scene - we take the time to enjoy it, but mindful that we are in for a big day we press on. We are west of the Main Divide now and subtle changes in the vegetation show it - leatherwood, mountain nei nei and tree daisy clad the hillsides. With the relatively low river level we are able to boulder hop our way up the east branch of the Otehake. Absorbed as I am with the boulder hopping I manage to miss the cairned route up to Walker Pass. I search around for a bit and decide the pass does not look too far away and it's time we had a scrub bash anyway! The west coast vegetation provides some hearty resistance but it's not long before we are back on track, and the teenager is still speaking to me, phew.
It's relatively easy going as we make our way down the track beside Twin Falls Stream, the frosted valley floor deprived of sun at this time of year keeps the temperature low. The descent into the Hawdon Valley gets steeper once back in the forest, with steep rocky sections that demand a bit of concentration at this late stage in the day. Hawdon Hut is bathed in sunlight and empty. I feed the teenager - we still have a 2.5 hour march down the valley to go and I don’t want him to fall apart on me now. Right on time Anne arrives at the hut. With the start and finish of this track being separated by 25kms of road she has come to pick us up and deliver us back to our car at Greyneys Shelter near Arthur’s Pass.
The walk back down the Hawdon is a pleasant surprise. It is a perfect combination of trails weaving through beech forest, open river sections and some striding out across tussock meadows following old 4wd tracks. The teenager really hits his stride on the way out - the talk of hot chips at the Bealey Hotel gets him fired up and he is off! We reach Hawdon Shelter at around 5 pm, so a solid 8 hour day with a few rests along the way.
I look forward to doing this route again, it has all the hallmarks of a classic New Zealand tramp. The vistas are big and grand, the route has just the right mix of challenge and charm. There are two great huts and Falling Mountain reminds you what a dynamic, powerful and evolving place the Southern Alps are - that's if you need reminding!
*Japanese sandals/thongs/flip flops - an essential piece of every New Zealanders tramping kit.