Evolution of the Arthurs Pass to Mount Cook Traverse

Sunday 17 January 2021, 7:21pm -- alastair.mcdowell

Heading up the Waimakariri River to begin the traverse

Creator: 
S. Spector

"Many Canterbury men know that a tough trans-alpine crossing can be a harder test of competence in unorthodox travel and stubborn endurance than a deal of high climbing" - John Pascoe, one of the fore-fathers of early Southern Alps exploration, in Unclimbed New Zealand, 1939.

The Canterbury Alps sprawling between Arthur's Pass and Aoraki/Mount Cook are just made for trans-alpine trips. While there are great peaks to be climbed in this region - Murchison, Evans & Whitcombe, Malcolm, D'Archaic - the approaches are long and mundane, so in my mind the best way to enjoy these mountains is a traverse. Pick a line that slices through the golden upper headwaters, crossing the high alpine passes between each of the major catchments. 

While mountaineering can become obsessed with summits, transalpine trips embrace the core of what mountaineering is about - moving through mountains. By completely avoiding any summits and instead weaving an intricate & aesthetic line through them, it is almost making a statement that achieving a summit is not always the point of being out there. 

Now that our goal is about movement and not conquest, how can we maximise our enjoyment of that movement? For me that is finding the lightest way to thread through the mountains. This has led me to explore different gear and strategies than is normally taken on these type of trips to move as lightly as possible. 

Fastpacking is the name given to that hybrid activity of trail running and ultra-lightweight tramping. It's very popular in America and Europe owing to well-developed trail infrastructure, and is slowly taking off in NZ, particularly along the Te Araroa trail. Why not apply this style to transalpine travel in the Southern Alps? All we need to add is an ice axe, crampons, helmet and glacier rope. But each piece needs to be optimised as the regular items are far too heavy. Since transalpine trips generally involve very simple alpine terrain, some compromises can be made. For example, instead of boots, one pair of stiff running shoes can be used for the valley to the alpine pass and everything in between. I call this Trailpinism (trail-alpinism), and taking this style to multi-day traverses is a logical progression.

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Testing the La Sportiva Bushido & Petzl Leopard system heading up the Lyell Glacier icefall

Creator: 
S. Spector

Although in the Southern Alps there is not much truly runnable terrain, the lighter you can go allows for a faster walking speed on all terrain, less time spent stopped resting during the day, and less muscle impact so a quicker recovery time overnight. A ruthless & analytical attitude needs to be taken to every piece of equipment to save weight. That applies to footwear, clothing, sleeping, food, water and mountaineering equipment. See below for a review of fastpacking gear.

But first, we must look back to the past to understand how to move forwards.

Early Expeditions

Grant Hunter in his book 'Who Was First?'  recounts that the first to explore the Southern Alps were the Maori, in the search of a trading route for pounamu. Then came the European surveyors in search of the best pass for a road (Arthur's Pass) in the mid-late 1800s. Recreational trips didn't come until later, as clearly a lengthwise traverse serves no purpose in the age of development.

The first recorded trip from the Waimakariri to the Tasman was in Christmas 1934 by Canterbury Mountaineering Club (CMC) members Burns & Townsend. In their account, they acknowledged man's innate desire to walk long distances even as fast land transport was just taking off, and they heeded to a prophesy given by the very first 1932 edition of the Canterbury Mountaineer: "Perhaps in future years a club party will set their time and patience in a trip over the ranges between Arthur's Pass and the Tasman Glacier". So the trip has been a part of CMC lore since the very formation of the club. Back then the Mount Cook village was just known as the Hermitage, after the historic hotel first constructed in 1884, and provides a fitting destination to satisfy one's cravings after a long journey.

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The first Hermitage Hotel in 1884

Creator: 
Hermitage Hotel

The early eras of CMC trips were focused mostly in the local Canterbury Ranges, as unreliable vehicles and rougher roads made for much slower regional travel. As a result Canterbury Mountaineers embraced their local mountains and knew their backyard like the back of their hand, without as much distraction of further afield ranges or exotic overseas expeditions. The Coronavirus pandemic of 2020 now pushes us back to this former time where travel opportunities are limited, and combined with climate change we also try to reduce our travel-related carbon emissions. It's here we realise just how much adventure is on offer in our local mountains.

The 1934 route taken by Burns & Townsend was entirely in the Canterbury Alps - "the icefalls, jungles and gorges of Westland were left severely alone." Their route crossed the landmarks of Whitehorn Pass, Unknown Col, Ragged Range, Rakaia River, Butler Saddle, Erewhon Station (food drop), Havelock, Forbes, Twilight Col, Godley hut (food drop), Classen, Tasman Saddle, Hermitage. Their trip took 12 days' worth of travelling time, a pretty good effort for the first traverse.

15 years later in 1949, McCabe and Morse decided to up the ante, considering that Burns & Townsend had taken a route quite far from the Main Divide at times, they took a route closer to the higher Alps. Instead of crossing low down in the Ragged Range they took Observation Col at the head of West Mathias. From the Lyell they sidled around McCoy Col, Rangitata Col, down into the Frances, then over Disappointment Saddle, skirting the edges of the Garden of Allah & Eden. Instead of Twilight Col, they took the higher Terra Nova Pass north of D'Archaic into the Godley Glacier, and from there the same route as Burns & Townsend to the Hermitage. Over the next 50+ years dozens of parties have travelled a similar route to McCabe & Morse, most parties spending about 12-15 days with 1 or 2 food drops along the way.

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The Arthurs Pass-to-Hermitage party snapped in the Rakaia valley. Left to right: Ray Chapman, Deryck Morse, Bruce McCabe, Bill Hannah, Lofty Byers

Creator: 
G. Gear

Modern Traverses

In the last 2 decades, the revered art of gravel-bashing has fallen slightly out of favour, with many more groups opting for detours into the wild West Coast valleys. This trend is perhaps also due to climate change rotting away the glaciers & snowfields of the Canterbury Passes to reveal yet more loose greywacke, and a desire for more remote wilderness travel offered by places like the Mungo, Whitcombe, Bracken, Gardens, Perth and Whataroa. These areas were made considerably more accessible from the 1960s onwards when deer culling huts, tracks and footbridges were established in many Westland valleys. Many of these huts have been adopted and revived by the Permolat 'Remote Huts' group. Detours to these wilderness areas doubles the length of the trip to 25-30+ days, due to slow gorge & bush travel and worse weather.

Folks have then pushed the boat out even further with traverses of the entire Southern Alps, some during tough winter conditions with skis in the mix. A few notable traverses which all of which stuck pretty close to the divide in the Arthur's Pass - Mt Cook section, and were milestones in their own ways are:

 
Criss-crossing the Main Divide certainly enhances the adventure with contrasts between East & West coast experiences, each with their own challenges. In 2013, three friends and I spent 33 days traversing one such Westland variation including walking the length of the Gardens to the Great Unknown and dropping into the Perth. This was one of my formative mountaineering experiences and I highly recommend such a trip.
 
There have been many more creative traverses completed since. Climbing the highest peaks en route, skiing or packrafting through Fiordland. This type of DIY create-your-own-adventure is clearly part of New Zealand's DNA. 

The frequency of long traverses has increased also. In the 1980s there would be a major traverse every 3-4 years, then from about 2004 there have been trips almost every year. According to Shaun Barnett, that may be as much about people becoming inspired by previous stories, more easily spread via internet and social media, as it is by advanced equipment or new ways of travelling.

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Campsite at McCoy Col during a 2013 traverse

Creator: 
A. McDowell

Sport-Alpinism

Though a central element of alpinism is the pursuit of virgin terrain and first ascents, there is also much to be said for repeating a great or historic classic and trying to improve on the original style. In the 2019 AAJ, Colin Haley describes Sport-Alpinism:"Sport-alpinism is essentially the art of creatively inventing new challenges when the most natural challenge—simply ascending the face of a mountain—is no longer difficult enough to truly inspire a climber or demand all of his or her skill. Climbing solo, climbing fast, traversing multiple peaks, enchaining multiple routes... or climbing in winter are all dimensions of sport-alpinism."

In the theme of Sport-Alpinism, once the natural challenge of simply traversing from Arthur's Pass to Mount Cook was achieved, people have continued to push into new dimensions: winter - the ski traverses; harder terrain - the west coast traverses; distance - the entire Southern Alps and more; solo - Michael Abbot's 5 month odyssey. There is only one dimension that has not yet been pushed: speed.

Herein lies our motivation: a light & fast traverse of a variation on the classic 1949 CMC route between Arthur's Pass and Mount Cook. This forms a stepping stone of our over-arching goal of hybridising the sports of running & mountaineering.

Weather

Weather is an important factor in trans-alpine trips. A bad storm can delay a trip by many days as the large Canterbury rivers become uncrossable. On longer trips, weather forecasts sent to a Garmin Inreach device can help to know when you can afford to push over a long exposed section like the Gardens, but even then, weather about the Main Divide is so unpredictable a localised rogue storm can sweep through and force you to change plans. For example, Allan Brent, on his epic traverse with Alexis Belton & Lydia McLean recalls "a semi-hypothermic episode in weather-bomb on Adams Col, rough descent down Eve's Rib, tent then destroyed by storm in night, 1.5 day scrub bash to Scone Hut." On a multi-week trip you can't pick your weather, you need to set a starting date and take what comes. But if the trip is short enough, you can wait for a good forecast.

On McCabe & Morse's 1949 trip, of course they didn't have forecasts, so they walked into Carrington with 60 pound packs, only to be hut bound for the next 4 days in torrential rain, eating most of their food. Luckily, they had brought a rifle and over the next week subsisted on venison steaks, a Canadian goose, and hare soup.

Our Route

After spending some time traversing more of the Canterbury valleys during a 3-week ski traverse in the spring, and reading of all the history about those early expeditions, I became inspired to attempt a similar line in a lightweight style. Instead of 33 days, as my first trip had taken, or 21 days as the ski version spanned (5 days of which stuck in a storm), I wondered how quickly a direct line could be completed in good weather. A measured out a direct route to be about 200km distance and 12,000m of elevation gain, crossing 6 passes between the 6 major catchments. 6 passes, 6 days, I thought, with long stretches of valley travel in between.

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Scrambling through waterfalls in the upper reaches of Unknown Stream

Creator: 
S. Spector

We would need to average 35km and 2000m of elevation gain per day. My companion was Sam Spector, who had been in contact with me about a similar trip, so I convinced him to join me and he turned out to be a great partner for the job.

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At Observation Col, between the West Mathias and Cattle Stream

Creator: 
S. Spector

To achieve this, we needed to wait for a perfect forecast since any rain would put a crossing of the Rakaia, Godley or Murchison rivers in jeopardy. I already had a food stash in St Winifred hut, we could fly in food to Lyell Hut with the CMC hut building crew, and the same pilot happened to be taking hunters to Mathias Hut. 3 food drops for a 6 day trip meant only carrying 1-2 days of food at any time. It almost felt like cheating! We waited for the elusive "6 day high" all through December, and finally on December 12th, it arrived. An entire week of clear, calm weather.

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Walking up the Garden of Allah towards Tyndall and Newton Peak

Creator: 
S. Spector

The route we chose was a variation on the 1949 Morse/McCabe line. Instead of the common Harman/Whitehorn we decided on a more direct crossing above Barker Hut into the Burnet stream. Instead of dropping down the Frances glacier, we took a higher route through the Garden of Allah & Eden crossing between Tyndall & Newton and popping over Schrund Punk to Disappointment Saddle. As we planned to cross Mt Acland rather than Classen Saddle (access is more difficult around the Classen lake nowadays), crossing Twilight Col made more sense than Terra Nova. We faced a dilemma about whether to finish via Murchison or Tasman. We eventually decided on the Murchison as an expedient finish and to explore a new valley. However finishing via the Tasman Glacier would be a great finish and slightly longer.

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Descending from Mt Acland into the Aida & Murchsion Glaciers

Creator: 
S. Spector

In summary the route taken was:

Day 1: Klondyke Corner - Waimakariri River - Carrington Hut - White River - Barker Hut - Col above pt 1529 - Burnet Stream - Wilberforce River - Unknown Stream Hut (40km/1700m)
Day 2: Unknown Stm. - Unknown Col - North Mathias River - Mathias Hut (food drop) - West Mathias Biv (29km/1500m)
Day 3: West Mathias - Observation Col - Cattle Stream - Rakaia River - Mein's Knob - Lyell Hut (food drop) (31km/1900m)
Day 4: Lyell Gl. - Rangitata Col - Lambert Col - Mt Tyndall/Newton Peak - Schrund Peak (col to east) - Disappointment Saddle - Havelock River - St Winifred Hut (34km/2900m)
Day 5: Havelock R. - South Forbes - Pt 2094 - Separation Stm. - Godley River - Eade Memorial Hut (27km/1600m)
Day 6: Mt Acland - Aida Gl. - Murchison Gl. - Tasman Gl. - Ball Road - Mt Cook Village (51km/2600m)
 
 

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Route map

Creator: 
NZ Topo Map

Fastpacking Gear Review

Here I will give an example of the gear I use and recommend.

Footwear: La Sportiva Bushido II trail shoes (305g) are robust on rocky terrain, scramble well, and rigid enough to accept crampons. Bridgedale waterproof storm socks keep my feet warm on icy river crossings and travelling through wet snow.

Clothing: Pick a good forecast so you can get away with fewer clothes, but adapt to the forecast so you can still handle an unexpected storm: Macpac Eyre T-shirt, Macpac hooded Prothermal, Macpac Nitro mid-layer, Macpac Tempo rain jacket. For legs, stretchy polypo/elastane long-johns to pull over shorts when it gets cold. Thin Macpac Dash leather gloves for scree & snow. T8 Sherpa shorts have handy waistline pockets. Visor cap and Julbo Monte Bianco sunglasses.

Pack: A new Macpac 15L vest-style pack designed for fastpacking. Integrates features from trail running vests into a pack large enough for multi-day trips. Large pockets on side and front mean all your food and devices are within hands reach so you never have to stop. Well balanced for running, like an Aarn pack. 2x 500ml soft flasks in front pockets – I add GU electrolyte tablets to one and keep fresh water in the other. Easy to fill up in streams and never carry excess water like you do with a large reservoir.

Sleeping: Macpac sleeping bag (370g) with Sea 2 Summit compression sack (46g). The lightest setup I have found, as there are no zips and contains high quality down, yet still plenty warm enough for sleeping in huts in summer.

Cooking: Aluminium 450ml pot (50g), Home-made Methylated spirits coke can cooker (10g), plastic bottle of methylated spirits (30ml per person per day). 1 tablespoon of methylated spirits heats up 2x 500ml pots of water for a dehydrated meal & hot drink. For a more stable and powerful system, the new Jetboil Stash is lightweight and compact at 200g for 800ml, 40% lighter than other models of the same capacity.

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Methylated spirits cooker with aluminium pot

Creator: 
A. McDowell

Alpine: Black Diamond carbon distance Z poles (284g), Camp Corsa aluminium ice axe (205g), Petzl Leopard FL aluminium crampons with dyneema cord linking system (384g), Petzl Sirocco helmet (170g). 10 metres of 6mm dyneema cord, harness (120cm dyneema sling + 1x locking carabine) for glacier travel.

Food: Radix dehydrated meals –  high fat content from coconut oil means lots of calories for less weight. Bring 2 of the foil packets (breakfast + dinner) and re-package all others in compostable bags to reduce trash on the trip. Other food items include fruit leather, salted nuts, jerky, crackers, dehydrated hummus, home-made energy bars, GU Roctane powdered fuel mix, chocolate milkshake powder (premix milk powder, cacoa powder, sugar in a compostable bag). See more tips on packing food for an expedition. As the intensity on a trans-alpine trip is in the ultra-endurance category, fats and protein are as important as carbohydrates to provide the amount of calories necessary for long days and for overnight recovery.

Electronics: Phone doubles as topo map (NZTopo app) and camera. Petzl Actik Core headlamp (6-450 lumens) is USB-rechargeable. To charge these, a compact Cygnett 5000mAh battery bank (110g). Coros Vertix GPS watch helps with navigation and has incredible battery life - I tracked the entire route on GPS using the UltraMax longevity function and the battery lasted until 100m beyond Ball Road carpark in Mt Cook.

Emergency & Miscellaneous: PLB, first aid kit, SOL bivvy bag (130g). Always need backup and shelter even on lightweight missions. Half bamboo toothbrush. Skinnies concentrated sunscreen. Gurney Goo anti-chafe gel. 2m strapping tape. Lip balm.

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Gear used for transalpine fastpacking

Creator: 
Nick Allen

Food drops

A significant way to save weight is by pre-caching food drops. Rakaia Helicopters helped us stash a bag of food at Mathias and Lyell huts a few weeks before the trip on existing flights to these huts with other hunting or DOC groups. Food stashed in St Winifred Hut (Havelock valley) from a previous trip was unfortunately eaten by other parties, but some hut spaghetti kept us going. St Winifred hut is accessible by rugged 4WD truck. Godley Hut is another common location easily accessible via 4WD or bike. For trips taking West coast valleys, food drops can be walked into Frew Hut or left at the Whataroa road-end. Relying on scavenging hut food is a dubious strategy and is best saved for a pleasant surprise on a hungry day rather than factored into the plan.

Final Words

Minimalism is knowing how much is just enough. Be smart and don't cut the safety margins too fine, safety is first, but with all outdoor activities there is a level of risk accepted. The lighter you go, the more risk you are taking, so be sure to acknowledge the limitations of your gear and operate within those boundaries.

There is something beautiful about choosing your own path, like an artist painting a deft red line through a topographic canvas, and the evolution of traverses between Arthur's Pass and Mount Cook and beyond is testament to this.

Those early expeditions were explorations of the land, today they become explorations of the mind. What is possible? Adventure-racing teams are capable of pushing hard day & night for 5 or more days over multiple disciples with minimal amounts of sleep. Who knows how quickly this route could be dispatched if you applied that same adventure-racing mentality?