AUTHOR: Matai Wells
Recently I was lucky enough to have been awarded a Federated Mountain Club Youth Expedition Scholarship and was aiming to retrace the 1920’s steps of my great, great uncle, Jim Shanks and Dr Teichelmann.
Dad and I stepped off the jet boat on the banks of the Waiatoto River south of Haast with a promising forecast, planning to walk all the way back to Lake Wanaka via the Volta Glacier and East Matukituki ranges. Our plan was to break it up into two missions, with the first winding up in time to get home for Christmas Eve and then part two undertaken as soon as the weather window presented itself.
The first day was a damp wander up cattle tracks. As we were looking forward to a hot evening meal we were alarmed when our stove's fuel pump wouldn’t work. A big problem for day one! We fiddled with the fragile pump for hours as the light faded, until our efforts paid off and hot meals were made.
Day two was much the same with constant drizzle as we struggled our way upriver through scrub and bush with heavy packs.
By the end of day three we had negotiated some awkward bush and riverbed travel to arrive at a great campsite upstream of the Pearson River. Sheltered from the weather by trees, we relaxed as rain pelted down.
The next day dawned cloudy but not rainy, and soon we met a formidable obstacle: the Bettne River. Unable to cross at its confluence with the Waiatoto River, we commenced the uphill struggle to a better crossing 300 vertical metres upstream. Once at the crossing place the sun thankfully emerged for the first time, so we had lunch and dried our gear while we had the chance.
Glad to have the uphill over, we crossed the river and headed down the bush on the other side. Our hopes of an easy descent were crushed by awkward boulders covered in vines and bush, and the drop back to the Waiatoto River took just as much time and effort as the ascent.
By the time we reached the steep banks of the Waiatoto, rain had set in. We plodded up the riverbed, then camped in a grotty campsite above the river. We were soaked and tired, but a hot dinner really boosted our morale!
On the morning of day five we picked our way along the bushy edge of the Waiatoto River terraces in rain. As we headed up valley the bush gave way to scrub, and we were very thankful for the enterprising deer who had left us some trails to follow!
We emerged from the worst of the scrub as the weather cleared and the sun shone, and we arrived at Waiatoto Lake in warm weather. I couldn’t resist a dip in the freezing lake (my Dad could) and an afternoon of relaxing was very nice in this dramatic place, we slept well that night.
So far the forecast had not been the most accurate, but we made use of our hired satellite phone to get an update: tomorrow windy but clear, then NW gales with rain developing. Not ideal, but we resolved to try our luck the next day and turn back if necessary.
Day six definitely lived up to the forecast so we sidled around Waiatoto Lake and topped some bluffs at the valley head. The views were incredible, but Mount Aspiring was still hiding in misty clouds. By midday our new route had ended in impassable bluffs, and the weather was worsening, so we made the most of the scenery before making a retreat back down the bluffs, around the lake, and back to a bivvy rock to sit out the approaching storm.
The next three days we did just that; lay in our sleeping bags and watched an incredible raging storm rip up the lake, while in dry comfort under our rock. The lake rose and the waterfalls defied gravity! It looked like we wouldn't be crossing the glacier to the Matukituki anytime soon unfortunately.
On day ten the wind stopped, the rain eased, and we emerged from our rock to retreat back down the Waitatoto River valley. The creeks were high, and we lost our precious deer trails as a result. Some tricky bush bashing and route finding in the rain took up most of the day, and we finally, with relief, regained the riverbed in the late afternoon.
We were exhausted so headed down the riverbed until we found a flat sandy area to pitch another damp camp. We hastily boiled water and made some Back Country meals, their simplicity being really appreciated! Then we bundled into our tent and slept.
The next day was spent detouring around the Bettne River again, and once again at the crossing place the sun appeared to dry our gear. Unfortunately the weather didn't cooperate enough to allow us to sneak around Pearson Saddle into the Matukituki, so we headed back down to the Waiatoto River to camp.
Christmas Eve was a day retracing of our steps down the Waiatoto valley, out of the Olivine Wilderness Area, and back to the epic Waiatoto River flats. Then from down valley we got a helicopter ride back to civilisation and returned home to some siblings eager for Christmas Day with their dad!
Waiatoto had beaten us with its wild weather, but I had learnt a lot from the trip, and we were already hatching more plans to attempt to visit the Volta Glacier, this time from the east – and by the 12th of January 2022, those plans were in action…
The walk up the East Matukituki Branch was beautiful, and our hopes were high with a forecast of “fine” for many days. At the epic Aspiring Flats we headed up Rainbow Stream to gain Wilmot Saddle, planning to sidle around to the Volta Glacier via Ruth Stream. Our camp below Wilmot Saddle was stunning, and Mount Aspiring revealed itself for the first time as it glistened in the evening light.
We entered day two to a misty walk to Wilmot Saddle, where we waited for the mist to part before dropping down a very steep ridge into Ruth Stream for lunch. The climb up the old Tartarus Icefall was much easier than expected, and before we knew it we were on the main divide with the Upper Volta Glacier stretching before us.
We took in the incredible view as we crossed the glacier towards Glacier Dome Peak, which we planned to camp on! A few hours later, we were on the ridge of Glacier Dome, feeling tired but elated at the views and clear weather.
It was interesting imagining my great, great uncle here 90 years earlier, and could picture their excitement at being on this epic ridge as well! One thing we noted was the huge reduction in glacier sizes since then, as we had his old slides to compare against.
A nippy breeze blew, so we dropped off the ridge and pitched camp on a platform in the snow. We organised our gear and cooked some dinner with the most incredible views. Our modern day freeze dried Back County Cuisine Chicken Tikka Masala certainly was a step up from Uncle Jim’s 1920’s dried pork and rice!
The air chilled once the sun dipped behind Mount Aspiring so we huddled into our tent for a deep sleep after a very long day.
Summiting Glacier Dome was today’s plan, so we set off up the ridge. Not long later a tricky crevasse was negotiated and we were on top looking across to Mount Aspiring and down to the Waiatoto River valley below.
The weather was stunning, and we lingered on the summit as long as we could. We took photos and dropped off the summit, heading west to a knob for lunch, where we got even better views of the Waiatoto and the Haast range. It sure was interesting looking down on the valley in such different weather!
A long relax was had, but we eventually retraced our steps to the ridge, picked up our gear, and dropped all the way back down to the Upper Volta Glacier, camping beside a tarn near Tantalus Rock to watch the sunset.
We went for an explore down the snout of the Upper Volta Glacier on day four. Travel down the glacier was pretty easy, and when we got to the snout and looked down to the Lower Volta Glacier, we were both surprised! It was just a huge iceberg in a blue lake which didn't connect to any snowfields, and didn't have any outflow. Not the glacier the map claims it is anymore. It’s just waiting to melt.
We scrapped plans of heading down to it due to steep crumbling rock, and instead headed up a peak norwest of the Lower Volta Glacier. From around there we could see Waiatoto Lake, and the possible alternative route we could've taken a month earlier, had the weather been kinder.
We headed back up the glacier to camp excited that the route looked doable, and were thinking up plans to complete the round trip!
We hung around at our camp until 10am before leaving the Volta and returning to Ruth Stream and Wilmot Saddle. A we wandered up Sisyphus Peak we could see clouds forming in the west and feel the norwest breeze strengthening. Camp at the saddle was comfortable, and a midnight wander in the moonlight was surreal.
Walking back down to Aspiring Flats in deteriorating weather we followed the East Matukituki Track back to the Cameron Flat carpark. On the walk out we saw our only human being from both the trips, a trail runner heading to Aspiring Flats. We were very sad the trip was over, but happy at the perfect weather window we had gotten!
These two trips were amazing and both very different experiences! I learnt heaps from each of them and they have left me planning many more trips in the area. The scholarship money from the Federated Mountain Clubs for this trip was well spent as I gained a lot of experience and confidence with help from my Dad.
The generous sponsorship from Backcountry Cuisine made preparing tasty food easy and we are very grateful for their support in providing one of the highlights of each day, dinner!
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