Trip Report – The Bracken Snowfields – Ivory Lake Circuit
By: Stanley Mulvany (Invercargill 16/1/2016)
In November 2014, Paula and I attempted to reach Ivory Lake via the Tuke Valley and turned around on top of ice-bound Mt Beaumont in the face of deteriorating weather. Then by a process of mental telepathy we independently proposed another trip to approach Ivory Lake via the Wanganui River, Bracken Snowfields, Seddon Col and exit via the Hitchen range. Matthew Humphries and Reece McKenzie were keen to join us.
On 2nd January 2016 we set off from Invercargill in Reece’s Hilux double cab for the 8 hour drive to Harihari where we stayed at the local hotel. Reece did all the driving, bless his soul. We dropped off a bike at the last farmhouse on Waitaha Road. Next morning the hotel manager came with us to the road end in the Wanganui valley and drove the car back to the hotel.
On 3rd we set off up the true right of the Wanganui River to Jones Flat mostly walking on slippery wet rocks on the side of the river. The highlight of the day was the flying fox across the river just past the Lambert Junction.
From here it was a short walk to Hunters Hut. When we arrived there was a pile of possum fur drying on a bunk and gear spread around the hut. Presently a girl from Belfast and an American schoolteacher from Balclutha arrived. They had been here a few days trapping possums.
On 4th we set off up the true left of the Wanganui River to Smyth Hut. We read reports of slips and difficult travel just before the hut and travel times varying from 9-12 hours. Soon we came to Poker Bluff and took the high route mentioned in the guide, which was a rude start to the day. Next we came to the ‘Gut’ that we down climbed with a distinct lack of grace at least on my part. This was a crumbly slot of greywacke rock. Sensibly, Paula and Matthew lowered their packs on a rope. Then it was an interminable slog up and down loose rocks in the riverbed to Devastation Creek. A lead up through the bush marked by mossy cairns took us into it for maybe 50 meters above the creek. On the other side we had difficulty in finding the track, as it was not marked on the map or signposted. Eventually we took an unmarked trail into the bush on the other side and this was the route. Further on were a series of slips to Smyth Hut in an island of bush in the middle of the riverbed. It took us 9 hours.
The hut was a welcome sight, a typical 6 bunk DOC hut in good condition and clean. A few minutes below it were the hot pools, deliciously warm which we soaked in. I noticed in the hut book that Henriette Beikirch had stayed here on 2 and 3rd December 2012 on her traverse of the Southern Alps, having come from Reischek Hut over Erewhon Saddle, to walk out down the Wanganui for a resupply. What a tough woman!
Next day we had an early start leaving at 5.00am by headlight following up and around huge boulders to the Vane/Evans junction. We knew this would be a difficult crossing and were not disappointed. We eventually forced a crossing and started up the easier boulders on the true left of the Evans to a small lake and beyond it the Evans Glacier. Then it was a slow grind up to Full Moon Saddle at 2098m. It was very hot and dazzlingly bright. Reece had gone ahead kicking steps, a power machine. The scenery was superb, to our left Mt Evans 2620m with the massive Shelf Glacier breaking into the Wilkinson and straight ahead the line of the Whitcombe valley and to our right the Amazon Breasts.
After a short rest we roped up for crevasse travel and headed for the Katzenbach Ridge. The route guide suggested cross a spur at 2020m and this took us to rather steep snow slopes, step enough to need a rope. Further on we dropped down snowfields and missed an easy descent to lower shelves below us and reached a nearly vertical snow face and rock walls. We decided to climb up through the gathering mist to the tops only to find frighteningly steep rotten rock ridges just past peak 2068m. Clearly, this was not the way and after studying the map we decided the route must be well below us. Down we went again this time to the left of the big drop and sure enough here was the snow lead. About 100m below we found a lovely patch of tussock for our tent.
Paula and Matthew had to dig out a platform just below us for their tent. We had been on the go for 13.5 hours.
On 6th we struck camp at 7.00am and descended snow and rocky slopes down and to the right to the large gully below peak 1826m. Presently we came to a spur flanking the steep gully/slip, and after a reconnaissance we worked our way down leftwards into a steep boulder slope to a shelf far below us. From here a steep drop off took us to easier slopes down to Lake Wilkinson. Here we walked around the lake and crossed the outlet easily, then around the far side and up to the west of Agfa Knob.
West of Agfa Knob, we entered some awful subalpine scrub and spent a lot of time and sweat fighting our way up Seddon Creek to the scrub line. Matthew described this as “diabolical and demoralizing”. I would have used more colourful language. I think Paula may have used some ‘bad words’! In the jungle I lost the knob of my monopod Leki pole which was a bit annoying. Higher up we got back to the creek and found it much easier. Turning a corner we came in view of North Seddon Col, a moderate snow slope leading to a symmetrical curved col. I set the pace for this as it was getting on in the day and I figured we needed to climb the 500m plus in no more than 2 hours if we wanted to have enough daylight to descend on the other side and find a decent campsite. So off I strode zig zagging up the steeping slope. Near the top I crossed onto a rubbly rocky ridge and stopped to put on more clothes as it was now quite cold and cloud was drifting in. Reece passed me and got to the col at 8.00pm and myself shortly afterwards. I was anxious to press on as visibility was deteriorating rapidly..
Over to our right below peaks 1956 and 2058 was a narrow snow gully now obscured by cloud and down this we headed for several hundred metres to camp on a wide shelf below the snowline at 1460m. It has been a 14.5 hour day. We even had some tussock and were sheltered by huge rocks. It was a relief to be over as clearly the weather was packing up now.
The following day dawned cloudy with the tops hidden. Off we set crossing Stag Creek and following down tussock slopes and benches to opposite the cliffs bordering Ivory Lake across the river. We could see the hut perched far above. To the east of it was a spur that led easily to the hut. Much to our surprise the hut was full with a hunter and a tramping party from Canterbury. They were all very nice and helpful and the hunter made us a hot drink. The 4-day weather forecast was poor so we decided to forget about the Hitchin Range and go out via the Waitaha and to head down straight away to the Top Waitaha Hut, which was empty. The descent was straightforward and we arrived after 3 hours. That evening the rain set in.
On 8th we woke to rain and the river in flood and pooling around the hut door. Luckily the hut is on piles so water does not enter. This was providential, as we needed a rest day in any case. By lunchtime the rain has stopped and we even had some sun peeping through the cloud cover. We knew that travel down the valley to Moonbeam Hut was difficult and there was no real track before Chainman Creek where the track started to Moonbeam had been recut by the Permolat people last year.
Next morning the river was down but we still needed to cross together. Then it was mostly along the river and into the bush around bluffs on the true right. Eventually the river dropped off in a series of waterfalls down to the Chainman junction. Here the Windhover Gorge started and a track headed up a spur above it and then dropped steeply down to a footbridge over the Waitaha. Another hour took us to Moonbeam Hut. This took us 9 hours and was somewhat tiring with all the scrambling up giant boulders and dense scrub.
Later that day the Christchurch party arrived from Ivory Lake so we had a full house that night. Reece and Matthew camped outside. Next morning an early start saw us traipsing off in drizzle, boulder hopping on greasy rocks by the river. I took a fall and bruised my hip and Matthew fell into a pool. Everyone has bruises on their legs from falls. Thankfully after an hour we left the river and started a massive sidle on the slopes all the way down to Kiwi Flat Hut. It was not the most pleasant of country with lots of up and downs and the river a long way below us. Then it was down to the Morgan Gorge to cross on a swing bridge and a grind down the lower Waitaha. Here, I managed to climb along some river cliffs after missing the track over them. It was somewhat scary as a watery death was waiting below me.
Arriving back at the farm Reece had left his pack and biked off earlier. We were all sore and weary and Matthew’s feet were destroyed. An hour later Reece arrived in the car having biked 40 kilometers to Harihari to get the car. That evening we drove to the Porter Lodge at Fox Glacier and next day back to Invercargill.
Acknowledgments: Thanks to Paula, Reece and Matthew for your great company and a great trip. To Reece especial thanks from all of us for doing all the driving and biking back to Harihari when the rest of us were very tired.
Posted By: Narina Sutherland