Michelle walked the 8-day Gillespie and Rabbit Pass and rates it as a trip of a lifetime. It wasn’t without hiccups; all trips of a lifetime can’t be completely smooth sailing.
The weather bomb forecast did deliver. Rather than spend two nights and two days holed up in a hut in extremely wet weather they walked out and took a helicopter back in later to Top Forks Hut once the storm had passed.
I spoke with Michelle and asked her some frequently asked questions we get here in the office.
What makes this NZ's hardest guided hiking trip?
Three things jump to mind, the length of the trip, the exposure to heights and the fact that crossing the Waterfall Face is so weather dependent.
Eight days is a long time to walk continuously day after day, endurance and fitness is a must. You are exposed to heights, its rugged and steep. It is a 'route" rather than a formed track. Waterfall Face is pretty challenging (with regards to heights and surefootedness) even on the best weather days. If it has been raining or windy it makes it all the more challenging. The combination of these things make it an amazing achievement once its completed.
Is it possible to sign up to this trip as a solo hiker?
Yes, the trip only needs a minimum of two people to run, so if there is another sole hiker or more people interested in the same date we will match you together. There is a maximum of five participants per trip.
How much exposure is on that hike?
Quite a bit! There are three places that I particularly remember. Heading up the ascent crossing over Gillespie Pass on Day 2. It was quite windy the day we did it so occasionally we had to drop down on all fours to buffer against the wind - kept it interesting that’s for sure. The other two spots were heading over Rabbit Pass. First spot, traversing the Waterfall Face, you are attached to a fixed line to get across here. Your guide teaches, leads and assists to ensure everyone feels confident and safe. The second spot is dropping down off Rabbit Pass into the Pickelhaube Valley. Once again you are attached to a fixed line for safety.
How high are the passes and how cold will they get in general?
Gillespie Pass, the highest point is 1600m and Rabbit Pass is 1440m. In the summer months (when you can join a guided trip) you generally wouldn't need an ice axe or crampons but there is always a chance of snow even in summer. Its really the wind and rain that is the problem and it can still get very cold, even in February. Good preparation is the key with plenty of warm gear and wet weather clothing.
As I understand from the website description, you only carry personal items during the hike, not the tent or food. Is this still true if there are only 2 people in the group?
Yes, that’s correct, the guide has all the food organised. The guide carries the fresh food for the first three days and at Kerin Forks at the end of Day 3 a cool box of food has been delivered by jet boat. We can (if you want to lighten your load) even leave your sleeping bag on this day too as after that you wont need it. The boat will take it back to Makaroa and then it will be transported to Wanaka in time for the end of the trip.
Tents / some food / sleeping bags are left in the National Park near by the campsites throughout the walking season and collected again once the season is finished.
Does this mean that from Day 3 onwards that you only carry day packs (without sleeping bags etc)?
Yes, it does, keep in mind though it really will only be your sleeping bag that you are leaving behind, which is then transported back to Wanaka. When I did it I choose to keep hold of my sleeping bag throughout the trip as I preferred to use my own but that choice is yours - there will be one at each night for you if you need it.
Do you cook or are you able to have meals at lodges?
The views certainly make you feel like you are in a exclusive location, but there is no lodge in sight. If you are not camping you are in a typical backcountry New Zealand hut. Your guide will do most of the cooking but they always welcome a helping hand if it’s offered.
Are accommodation fees and food included in the price?
Everything is included, you can basically put your wallet away from Day 1 not to be needed again until you return to Wanaka on Day 8.
What happens if you can not get across Waterfall Face and therefore unable to reach Rabbit Pass?
Flexibility is the key, if your guide determines that it is not safe to cross an alternative hiking route will be utilised and all costs relating to a jetboat exit from the mountains are included. Should the group wish to use a helicopter to exit the mountains (or get back into the mountains like we did) a surcharge ranging between $210 - $430 divided equally between each person in the group is payable. It was well worth it as the weather can’t be helped and it meant we completed the hike.
The months have ticked by since you did this trip, is there anything that has really stuck with you?
While I was doing this trip I kept wondering if I could come back with my husband and friends and do this trip again unguided. I concluded I wouldn’t want to do this unguided, we really benefited from having a guide especially on Waterfall Face with all the technical aspects making it a safe experience.
Climbing the start of Waterfall Face