Epics or near-epics in the backcountry are a bit like going to the dentist – generally good after the fact.
So it was with a recent trip I completed with my wife, Shelley. As we hadn’t been into the hills for a while, we decided on a fitness tramp: long, but not too long; a decent amount of altitude gain, but nothing too technical that would mean carrying a heavy pack.
The forecast for the weekend wasn’t particularly attractive. It had everything: sun, rain, cloud, but more wind and potentially snow than we’d prefer.
I told Shelley of a tramp I’d done a few years earlier with my friend Tony Rac. It had been a similar, bitsy kind of forecast. Without knowing much about the terrain, Tony and I settled on a circuit, starting and finishing in the Temple Valley and crossing two alpine passes – one into the Ahuriri Valley, the other back into the Temple. On that journey, Tony and I had a bit of an epic second day, and I was keen to do the double-crossing again but in better form. That was the hope: it’s funny the ironies that life throws at us.
Temple Valley is accessed from near the head of Lake Ohau. In his Barron Saddle – Mt Brewster guidebook, Ross Cullen describes the Temple Stream North Branch as ‘an alpine world in miniature and one of the most accessible and attractive alpine valleys east of the Main Divide’.
The South Temple is more complex, with a number of tributaries and alpine passes offering access into the North Temple, South Huxley, Ahuriri, Watson and Maitland Valleys. The South Temple-North Temple crossing, via Gunsight Pass, is a popular weekend excursion, although it is at constant risk from rockfall on the north side and, in certain conditions, snow avalanches on both sides.
The weekend trip Shelley and I did (and Tony and I) is an interesting, varied, and usually much safer, alternative to the Gunsight Pass route – although it is much longer at two full day’s travel, and crosses two 1900m alpine passes rather than one. (This trip can be also stretched to three days, making use of numerous tents sites rather than huts in the Ahuriri)
To get a head start, Shelley and I decided to walk a pleasant two hours through beech forest to reach South Temple Hut on the Friday night. For those who like their tramps short and sweet, this is a lovely hut to spend a night – set on the edge of a grassy terrace just above the stream.
The South Branch has three tributaries, the southernmost of which propagates from near Mt Maitland, behind South Temple Hut. A steep climb up a grassy spur and then traverse through forest above the river eventually leads to the first of the alpine passes of this trip, just to the south-east of Maitland and between Pts 2222 and 2090. When Tony and I did the trip, we had started late and ended up bivvying on a rather precarious knob of rock before the final climb to the pass, in less than ideal weather. Every gust of wind through the night had me nervously checking that I wasn’t sliding off the edge. Needless to say, it wasn’t a particularly good sleep that night.
Low cloud and a strong westerly chased Shelley and I over the pass, leading down to a branch of the Watson Stream catchment. A falcon flew by at speed, similarly buffeted by the wind. There was still plenty of snow about, and we followed various tongues into the Watson, making for much nicer travel than the steep scree slopes. Certainly by late summer and autumn, this pass should be free of snow.
The Watson Stream catchment drains into the Ahuriri Valley. Before the Nature Heritage Fund purchased Birchwood Station, this valley would have had merino grazing its lush alpine grasses in the summer months. We traversed above a rather impressive, narrow gorge on the true left (a canyoning adventure perhaps) to reach the main Watson Stream catchment, and then another sidle through beech forest, before crossing a wide bushy plateau at 1000m and finally dropping into the Ahuriri.
Since management was taken over by DOC, and Ahuriri Conservation Park created, the Ahuriri Valley has become a popular mountain biking destination, with easy travel and plenty of huts to choose from. At 70km in length, it runs down to the Omarama plains, and has numerous climbing objectives, including the impressive Mt Huxley towering at its head. The second pass Shelley and I were planning to cross was just to the east of Huxley and near V Notch Pass. (To add an extra day to this trip, V Notch Pass can instead be taken into the South Huxley Valley, also a very worthwhile alternative).
Overnight there was heavy rain and near gale force westerlies. And it was cold. We were snug in Hagens Hut, but wondered what conditions we might be facing the following day. By morning, the rain had eased, but fresh snow plastered the tops. The wind was still strong, and spirals of snow were lifting off the windward slopes, drifting east like low slung clouds.
We were concerned about the avalanche risk heading over the pass into the Temple. But, with the alternative a very long walk down the Ahuriri to reach our vehicle, we figured it worth going for a look.
A strange thing occurred when we passed Top Hut. A kilometre or so downriver, I thought I could see something at the hut clearing.
“Either a deer or a person,” I said to Shelley, figuring a deer when the figure vanished in a hurry. A while later, when we were directly across from the hut, a lone person walked out from behind a bush at the edge of the clearing. I waved a greeting. Despite looking straight at us, the man didn’t respond. Dressed head to toe in camouflage gear, he just turned and walked back behind the bush again.
“Hope he realises we’re not deer,” Shelley said, glancing over her shoulder as we carried on up the valley.
Above Top Hut, there is some sneaky route finding required to ensure the best travel upstream. This is not technical country, but an awareness of different options will make for easier travel. (There are no obvious landmarks to allow an easy description, but if travel becomes too difficult, perhaps look for an alternative)
Following the river upstream, eventually we reached the huge scree slopes below Mt Huxley. Just before these slopes, a steep, grassy spur leads up onto broad terraces below the pass that will take us back to South Temple. Once above the spur, the travel is easy, with just a constant height gain to reach the pass.
Crossing the second pass back to the South Temple, Shelley and I were treated to an epic weather spectrum: sunshine, rain, sleet, snow and near gale force wind. Fresh snow was being stripped from the windward side of the pass and deposited to the east. Studying the potentially avalanche prone slopes east of the pass, we were faced with a couple of uncomfortable decisions: whether to, and then where to, drop down to the Temple. Either side of us appeared to be loaded, dangerous slopes, but where we eventually chose to descend, the snow hadn’t gathered as much.
With an eventual sigh of relief, Shelley and I reached easier angled snow again. From there we joined the South Temple track, eventually passing the South Temple Hut and returning to our vehicle.
On my earlier trip, when Tony and I crossed this pass it was almost midnight. We had made a decision to cross at night, when the snow was bonded as well as possible. But in almost similar conditions to Shelley and my crossing, we were buffeted by strong winds and forced to deal with loaded lee slopes. By the time Tony and I found somewhere to unroll our bivouac gear in the Temple, we’d been on the go for 18 hours.
By late summer, the Ahuriri-Temple pass should be clear of snow, and a much more pleasant crossing than Tony and I, and then Shelley and I, had. It also offers stunning views of the south face of Mt Huxley.
Overall – in better conditions – this is a great and, hopefully, epic-free roundtrip. Be prepared for two twelve hour days, sometimes following formed trails and other times having to forge your own path. And despite the irony of getting bad weather over both of my trips, the quality of the route more than made up for it. Maybe, third time lucky?