Rabbit Pass (Dec 27-Jan 1, 2016)

I know, Dylan and I have been super slack about posting lately.  My apologies, and I promise we do have a good excuse which will come to light later on.  But for now, I shall share our latest epic trip to date: Rabbit Pass.

This was Dylan’s pick for Christmas this year, and somehow I finally agreed (after years of him suggesting it and me saying No!  I’ll never do it).  I think I only agreed after one of our more experienced OTMC members said we’d be fine.  For those of you who are unfamiliar, it’s considered one of NZ’s scarier and more dangerous trips (at the time of the trip, I was actually not aware of a very recent fatality, a lucky thing too otherwise I may have had second thoughts!).  Many people choose to do the trip with a guide.

We chose Dec 27 as our starting date, and had been watching the weather forecast obsessively the week prior.  Luckily, it was looking quite good.  Only on day of rain was forecast for Dec 31.  We planned the trip to take 7 days including a rest/rain day in the middle.

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Rabbit pass 2

Dec 26 we camped at the Cameron Road end, and met our companion Adrian on Dec 27 at 7:30.  We left our car at the car park, and drove Adrian’s car to Makarora to make our 10:30 jetboat.

We were dropped off at Kerin Forks on a stunning day.  We dropped our packs and missioned up to Lake Crucible, as Dylan and I had missed the lake when we did the Gillespie Circuit in 2012.  This was as good of an opportunity as any to try and tick it off.

Let’s just say you can do Kerin Forks to Lake Crucible and back in a day, but I don’t know that I’d recommend it.  It took us 10 hours (we think it’s about 28km) without packs.  And it was hot.  But we did it and I can definitely see that it would likely be a highlight of the Gillespie circuit.  All 3 of us were pretty stuffed by the time we had made it back to Kerin Forks.  Too stuffed to try to get over to the hut.  Instead we just camped next to the Wilkin (ohmygod so many sandflies).

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Swimming in Crucible Lake – first equal in our ranking of coldest lakes (tied with the Bryant Glacier terminal lake)

Dec 28 we had a bit of a lie in, and made our way over to the Kerin Forks hut.  On the way, Dylan and I stopped and had a much needed swim as it was clearly going to be another hot day.  Then we were off to top forks hut.  It took us a pretty solid 8 hours to get to top forks hut (from our campsite at Kerin Forks).  That included a much needed stop for a swim (even Adrian jumped in!).

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I’m told this is a native Greenwoods Orchid.  Pretty stoked to have spotted this little beauty on the way to top forks hut.

Dec 29 we had another day trip, checking out lakes Diana, Castalia and Lucidus from top forks hut.  This was another spectacular day, and we got away from the hut in good time to get some of the climbing out of the way before the heat of the day set in.  We made it up to Castalia in good time, having a nice long lunch and a much needed couple of swims in the spectacular lake.  Once again, even Adrian had a swim.

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Pretty massive avalanche observed on the way to Lake Castalia

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Dylan showing us how you really swim in Lake Castalia

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Team photo at Lake Castalia

We then wandered over to Lucidus via “the adventurous” route.  We ended up going down some pretty steep and rocky scree (especially near the top) which was reasonably exciting.  Once we made it down, we came across some beautiful flat mossy spots that would be perfect for camping (if one was so inclined) and were rewarded with some up close views of the glacier and a massive avalanche we had witnessed that morning.  We then had a deceptively long (~1 hour) trip boulder hopping around lake Lucidus to the outlet and intersect with the track.  Luckily, it was actually not very steep, and in fact Lucidus has some quite nice beach in spots.

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Descending a rocky ridge at the Northeastern corner of Lucidus lake

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I have to admit I found the green colour of Lucidus absolutely stunning

We then headed back down to top forks hut where we had some more swims, chatted with the 8 million people that were staying there/passing through to camp up near lake Diana/stoating etc.  It was later in the evening when 2 blokes who had attempted Rabbit Pass that day returned after an unsuccessful attempt.  They had gotten partway (maybe 1/3) of the way up the waterfall face when one of them became really freaked out and they had to turn back.  Rarely do I remember seeing someone who looked so afraid – and keep in mind this is after at least 3 hours of walking back to the hut.  We assume that they probably went the wrong way, but it certainly put some doubts in our minds.  I have no idea how experienced they were, but they didn’t look like tramping newbies, and they were reasonably solid lads.

Dec 30 was our “rest” day.  We got another early start and made it to the flats at base of the waterfall face at about 11:30 after a long and reasonably vigorous climb.  Luckily, we were able to observe a guy ahead of us climbing the face as we walked up, and he was conveniently wearing a bright flouro yellow packcover which allowed us to keep easy track of him and the route he took.  He was absolutely motoring up the face and we were impressed at the good time he made.

Meanwhile, we decided to have a very long and leisurely lunch (though truly all of us were a bit nervous so eating was kind of a challenge) while we studied our copy of Moir’s.  We then laid around and procrasta-rested and procrasta-packed our packs and then we finally had to walk up to the face and give it a go.  We had re-packed and adjusted our packs so that they were very tight on our backs (as per the guide we had met at Top Forks Hut’s recommendation).  I had also removed my camera which usually hangs off my front chest strap, and put it inside my pack as I suspected I’d want to keep my chest as close to the rock face as possible.

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The Waterfall Face

And then we were off.  To be honest, it was pretty straightforward.  There were more marker poles than we had anticipated (at least 5).  Also, there are a lot of foot marks in the dirt which makes the route pretty clear.  Dylan did a great job being pathfinder though!  I was also very pleasantly surprised that there were at least 3 or so places where we could stop and have a rest and even take packs off, which really helped to break up the climb.  Yes, it was a climb – most of the face is spent hanging on to short bits of grass and scrambling on all fours across rock face.  Yes, the last few metres is just that little bit hairier, but overall we found it to be just fine.  There were no tears.  No moments of panic.  Just concentrated climbing.  And then we were at the top!  Jubilation and group hugs all around (especially as Adrian had attempted the pass some 15 years ago but had to turn back due to poor weather conditions).

I think the reason we found the face straightforward and very achievable was the good weather conditions, more people doing the trip (making the track more obvious), better marking, all of us having a good head for heights, knowing what to expect (consulting Moir’s Guidebook, studying the map and route described), and experience.  Having done things like Waiua pass, Glacier Burn, Brewster Glacier, Mt. Titiroa, Lake Nerine (the three passes), Lake Mavis, Canyon Creek (the unnamed Lake above), and the Otehake meant that we had plenty of experience doing some high, steep, exposed climbing.

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Rabbit pass – Dominated!

Once we had recovered from our jubilations of simply arriving at the top, we spent some time taking in the scenery, taking photos and then went along to find a spot to set-up camp.  We pitched our tents, made some hot drinks and soup and had our celebratory octopus lolly (reward lollies are a key incentive for tramping)…  and then it started raining.  And it rained all night.

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Adrian is going to quit his job, and instead start a new career testing out $17 Warehouse tents in NZ’s most rugged backcountry settings

Finally, sometime in the early morning hours on Dec 31, the rain cleared and we were once again greeted with spectacular weather.  We had a reasonably slow start as we spent a bit of time exploring the Pearson Saddle and trying to see the west coast.

We also spent plenty of time taking in the spectacular Rabbit Pass (definitely not just procrastinating the descent, which we suspected would be even hairier than the climb).  It was pretty amazing.

The climb down from Rabbit pass is definitely an order of magnitude scarier than the waterfall face.  Climbing down steep, horrible, rotten, crumbling schist was not fun.  I can’t imagine how anyone who had trouble with the face would handle getting down.  Also, though the route down is clearly marked and we had some rope to lower our packs down, it was still very very tricky.  We spent ages trying to work out how to get across the worst bit – Adrian scouted out the route which eventually ended up being across a scary looking gut, a climb around a bluff, and then some more climbing down towards the next marker pole which appeared to need to be reached by a near impossible route.  Dylan lowered the first pack down (the rope got tangled, of course, and we just ended up throwing our packs off the ledge in the end – not recommended, btw).

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We have to go down there?  (the next orange marker pole is on the right side of the image)

We eventually all made it down, and our packs did too.  We did lose 1 ice axe (mine) and a walking pole (also mine) as they didn’t quite make it far enough and were in a rather unreachable gut.  The ice axe was a bummer, but I was truly lost without my walking pole.  I’m not going to lie, I rely on my pole heavily in uneven terrain, and especially that descent down to the flat.

Fortunately as we were making our way down, Matt and Craig (Auckland tramping club members who we met at Top Forks Hut) caught up with us and graciously lent the use of one walking pole (saved me!).  We ended up making camp with them that night at Ruth flat, and they taught us the joys of pics peanut butter sachets (didn’t know this was a thing until then!) and salami that has 200okj of energy per 100g (it’s pretty much a solid log of fat).  These 2 keen trampers/climbers were doing a 9 day link up of the Gillespie and Rabbit Pass.  We all went for a much needed swim at Ruth Flat, and celebrated NYE by running and hiding in our tents at about 8 pm when the sandflies finally became unbearable.  At least I finally achieved my goal of nearly 3 years – to spend NYE tramping (the rationale is that NYE always sucks and never lives up to the hype and so we might as well be tramping because tramping is always fun).

Jan 1 2016 dawned another spectacular stinking hot day.  We parted ways with Matt and Craig early in the morning (as they were much faster than us) as we tackled the bledisloe gorge track.  We reached the 1000m contour line and even though Dylan was keen to head over to the Albert Burn saddle and eventually Dragonfly Peak, Adrian and I had had enough (Adrian’s mat had succumbed to a sharp rock on Dec 30, and I had started thinking about burgers).  I maybe would have been tempted to go check out the Rock of Ages and Turnbull-Thompson Falls, but…  well, we can save those for next time, eh?

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Crossing the Kitchener Creek

In the end, we’d made the right decision.  IT was stinking hot!  We had lunch at Junction Flat next to the Kitchener river, and Dylan had to stop and “wallow” a couple of times to cool off.  About 40 min later, we had a prolonged stop as Dylan dealt with a bleeding nose (it looked like a small animal had been butchered next to the track after we left) – which we attributed it the heat.  It ended up being another 8 hour day and we were very glad we didn’t attempt Dragonfly.  What really saved us (me) was the swim in Homestead Creek next to the carpark at Cameron road.  There is nothing quite like being able to go for a swim at the end of a long, hot tramp.  It meant we actually felt remotely human when we drove into Wanaka looking for burgers at about 7 pm on Jan 1 (Wanaka on New Years Day – never a good idea but somehow it’s always where Dylan and I end up).

We then had to drive Adrian back to his car at Makarora, and then made our way back to Dunedin.  All in all, it was a pretty epic journey, and one that I’m glad to be able to say that I’ve done (considering the notorious reputation).

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Amazing sunset over Lake Hawea

Did you get up to any exciting trips over the holidays?  If so, please share in the comments below!

Happy tramping!

 

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