Stronger than Steele?: Aisla Mountains
Sometimes I feel that planning a tramp is the hardest part of the whole affair. After numerous ultimatums, negotiations and concessions a plan was tentatively laid out; our route would take us over the tops between the Caples and Greenstone Valleys, down to Steele Creek, with the option of heading over Death Valley (sounds appealing right?) back to the road.
Ben mucked around on the date of our departure, so I left him behind to go pick up Hanne and Jakob. By the time I had picked Jakob up from OUSA Ben was still nowhere to be found. Upon ringing him he informed me that he had forgotten to pack his helmet so was still at the flat. Begrudgingly we drove back to pick him up and I took the opportunity to wave goodbye to our other flatmate Olly. Unfortunately on my return to Suzi she refused to turn over. Luckily this wasn’t my first rodeo and after a bit of hammering with an iceaxe under the bonnet she was purring away. The now functioning Suzi sped out of Dunedin headed for Queenstown and then Paradise, full of anticipation and badly sung 80’s classics. Tourist central was our dinner destination but before we could grab some kai Ben insisted on a visit to the candy store to buy some temporary tattoo bubble gum, perfect for a ‘tramp’ stamp he reasoned. Queenstown was also host to the genesis of another saucy story of the trip — Ben and his burger. Some love stories are matches made in heaven but in this case it was in Devil Burger Queenstown. More on that later. Departing that hell hole we made good time towards the Greenstone-Caples carpark, the roads were quiet in the fading light and we reached our destination at dusk. The skies opened at the same time as the car doors so sleeping arrangements were quickly made. Hanne and I crammed in the back of Suzi whilst Jakob and Ben slept under the shelter.
The next morning my legs were sore from not quite being able to stretch out. I still consider this preferable to the fate that befell Jakob, who had fallen off the bench in the shelter in the middle of the night. After throwing back some porridge we hit the track. Soon we crossed the bridge over the Caples, making good progress up the grassy valley. This progress was only slightly delayed by a platoon of ducklings we frightened into the river — we watched in horror as they struggled to make headway against the current, before ending up being carried down by the swirling waters. Woops. It took about two hours to reach the old Birchdale homestead. The place had good indoor/outdoor flow, but lacked in the weather proof department, this was not helped by the creek that runs underneath the ruin.
We stopped at the homestead for a snack before continuing up a track behind that led across some terraces above the ruin before cutting into the bush by Reids Creek. This lower section of bush was easy going and we made good progress upward toward Home Hill Hut. However all of a sudden the bush made a transition from beech to manuka and from easy going to ball breaking. Our packs would snag on the low interwoven branches, making moving uphill a prolonged battle against gravity. This struggle was punctuated by brief sections out in the open which were welcome, even if some of these sections were just treacherous rocky bluffs. Risk of death was preferred over that damned bush.
Whilst snagged in the trees we passed time by alternating between singing ‘Highway to Hell’ and ‘Stairway to Heaven’ depending on how we were feeling about that particular section. Strangely somewhere in one of the choruses I heard a voice that wasn’t Jakob’s bad singing coming from up ahead. It turns out that our singing had the unintended consequence of attracting two young women who had stayed at Home Hill Hut overnight. That’s got to be a first. That point marked the worst of the bushbash being over and soon we were crossing grassland bogs on our beeline to the hut. After a short stint through a section of beech we were greeted by the sight of Home Hill Hut.
The hut is probably about 70 years old, a relic left by mid-twentieth century stockmen. It has recently had some TLC so actually would be quite an appealing place to spend the night despite the dirt floor. It was only 11:30am but we decided to make this our lunch stop as the climb to this point had been hard yakka. My hummus had made an escape attempt from its container, so I took urgent action to lower the containers contents. From the hut we had two options, either head up to the ridge behind the hut or siddle along and climb up a tussock gully. We choose the later and soon we were clambering along the tussocked slope heading in the direction of what a map in the hut had called ‘Bumble Bee Pass’ (we have since had much discussion as to whether it in any way resembled a bumble bee).
It was a bit of a plod but eventually we all attained the ridge that led to the basin below the pass. The weather was clearing and the sun had burnt off most of the fresh snow blanket that had fallen the night before. Ben was not a fan of the heat, I made the wise decision to give him plenty of space as we crossed the basin. He insisted on wearing his beanie as it kept the sun off his head, I was more convinced it was a case of hyperthermia.
The basin slowly ramped up as we reached the pass, until we were climbing on the steep scree that led to the saddle. I had to pause for a second for a chocolate pick-me-up, the heat and the steepness were really taking it out on me. The same was true for the whole group, and I think I speak for everyone when I say we were all relieved to finally catch a glimpse of what lay on the other side of the crossing.
There was a small crystal blue tarn far below us on the far side, at the end of an impossibly steep run of scree. This foreboding descent made Hanne a little apprehensive as she had expressly told the group that she did not like steep slopes or scree. Only way to overcome fear is to face it? She didn’t really have much of an option, we certainly weren’t willing to give up the gains we had just made. The team nominated Ben with his crash helmet to go first. If anyone was going to survive it was going to be him, and if it didn’t go as planned the country probably already has enough Classics graduates right?
Despite our fears the slope turned out to be quite enjoyable. I gave Hanne a lesson in scree running whilst the boys enjoyed the show sunbathing far below beside the tarn. The spot was exceptionally tranquil and the water was impossibly inviting. Ben insisted on taking the opportunity to apply my ‘tramp’ stamp, a mission in of itself. A few silly photos and a bit of a dip later we were once again on the move towards the tarn by pt 1395. This cirque was just as tranquil as where we had come from and had the advantage of plenty of flat ground that would be perfect for camping. Alas we did not have tents so we could only appreciate the opportunity.
The climb to the last pass was not overly significant in light of what we had already done that day, it was simply a slow uphill grind. Some slushy snow provided entertainment on the way up, but for the most part we retreated into ourselves to draw the necessary energy to overcome this last obstacle.
I reached the top of the pass first and decided to mark my accomplishment with a new cairn. One by one the others followed until Ben finally stumbled up to join us. We plonked ourselves down for another well deserved break at a spot that gave us a fleeting glimpse of the not insignificant descent we would have to undertake to reach Steele Creek. In the distance we could see a lake glimmering like a jewel in the bosom of the Aisla Mountains. Our route to the creek took us down another steep scree slope, which of course we sent action man down first with his helmet. Hanne had gotten the knack of the whole scree thing by now so we made good progress with our descent.
We followed the scree down and the gully eventually closed around us as a waterfall fed a bubbling stream beside us. Normally such an enveloping would be worrisome as it felt like we could plunge off a waterfall at any moment. However we had it on good authority (the internet) that before that happened we would be able to climb out. Now this was true, although it involved a rather dodgy scramble up a rocky scrubby gut into the forest. Ben went first, doing a little twerk dance to get through the branches that snagged him. Jakob went next and tried to dislodge various rocks on to me. I followed, making sure to remove any rocks wedged in branches and between trees. Once I reached a secure position I would help hoist Hanne up using her ice-axe and we repeated this routine several times on the way up. The top of this gut delivered us into the forest, which we cut through to avoid the more gorgey part of the stream. The hillside was quite steep but we managed to avoid any bluffs, it was just a matter of crashing through the undergrowth one step at a time.
In saying that we were pleased to break back out into the open of the streambed. The bed took us down quickly and eventually became one with Steele Creek. Jakob had been trying to make a break away attempt from the peloton before I barked at him to wait up. I then proceeded to ignore my own advice and trotted on without the others down the side of Steele Creek. I sat down and waited for the others but they did not come for some time, which miffed me off at the time. In a huff I stomped back around the corner and saw the group finally wombling towards me. I did my best not to sound TOO grumpy. In retrospect this frustration was the result of what by this point was nearly a 12 hour day, which results in a little bit of moody tiredness. This was rather a theme of the trip, being tired and moody, then laughing about it later. All together again we followed the TL of the creek downstream before Ben spotted some opportune trees that bridged the creek to the TR, the side the hut was on.
We clambered over these keeping our boots dry. The river flats on the other side made for easy walking and soon we could see puffs of smoke coming from the direction of the hut. Steele Creek Hut is a four bunker that stands on a terrace above the river. Arriving at the hut after 12 and a half hours of walking I was greeted by a couple from Nelson, Marie and Forest. After I informed them of our travels and the size of our group they graciously offered to sleep in their tent for the night, they had only come up from Steele Lodge that day. This felt like a strange reversal of karma from Ben and I’s experience at Brodrick Hut earlier in the year. As Ben approached the hut he loudly exclaimed “is there any room??”, whilst Marie and Forest were just inside (I quickly explained the situation and he shut up). Forest and Marie had started the fire and we all crammed into the hut for a bit of well deserved chill out time. I presented Forest with a copy of Antics 2019 which he eagerly received as he had just finished his book and needed something to read whilst they completed the TA. After spinning yarns for about an hour hunger finally overtook my exhaustion and I asked the others what we were doing about dinner. Forest and Marie left us to this business and soon we were doing relays stirring pasta and building the fire. The pasta was then demolished before we hit our pits for the night, but not before Ben could read us a bedtime story about Clare Peak…
The next morning we had a slightly later start, getting out of the hut by 8:30am. Hanne and Ben had decided that they didn’t want to go over Death Valley so they would split from Jakob and I and go back down the Caples instead. With this settled we made our way back up the creek the way we had come the day before. Just past where we had come down off the pass the track entered the bush, undulating along the contours and rising with the creek. It continued this way until the track crossed the confluence of the outlet of the lake we had seen earlier and Steele Creek, then crossed over the spit of land that separated the heads of these respective valleys known as Tongue Spur. From here the track started a steeper climb and this really got the sweat pouring, not least because I was playing catch up because the others had left me behind at our last stop.
Eventually the track burst out of the forest and into the sub-alpine scrub zone. A poled route had us cross the creek numerous times as we wound our way towards Steele Pass. The scrub cut our knees and tried our patience. The heat was making Ben exceptionally grumpy and was not doing wonders for the rest of us — and yes, he was still wearing his beanie.
We considered if it was quicker to just follow the creek but it was never quite as easy as it looked. Nevertheless the pass was slowly looming larger and larger before us. A few snack/water breaks were necessary to keep the troops motivated on the way to the top. I gave Hanne a few handy pushes on the way up and delivered my best motivational speeches. After a few 10 second pole oxygen breaks we finally crested the pass and we were greeted by the sight of the Fraser and Kay valleys on the other side of the Caples.
We cheered Ben on from the top of a rock on the pass. This had little effect but soon enough one foot in front of the other reunited the group. We continued on for another 100m for a better view of the Caples before stopping for lunch. Whilst we nibbled on hummus and crackers Forest and Marie caught up with us and we all looked relieved to be done with that climb, they then continued on with the route whilst we soaked up the rays. Ben had wrapped himself up like a mummy to avoid the sun, he had already gotten a strawberry tan on the exposed parts of his hands.
The poled route took us off the pass and sidled along a steep and slippery tussocked slope towards the bushline. We took our time here as any mishap could have been rather permanent. Forest and Marie were having lunch at the edge of the bush and we leap frogged them before beginning the more knee jarring descent in the forest. This was painful but as with everything it is just one step at a time. Eventually the track flattened out and spat us out opposite Upper Caples Hut, much to our relief. Jakob was looking pretty pooped and wasn’t altogether convinced with the idea of continuing up to Kay Creek Hut. I proposed we go investigate the turn off sign whilst the others waited at the junction and make the decision there. As we walked it was clear our minds weren’t in it to win it so we decided to take the lazy option and go back down the Caples (plus my camera was sort of broken so I wouldn’t even be able to take photos!). Reunited with the others we had a convention as to what to do next. This was when Ben started to reveal the fantasies he had been entertaining since leaving Queenstown involving a burger. Somewhere between his description of dripping BBQ sauce and succulent breast we stopped him and said we’d make the decision at Mid-Caples Hut. I think the rest of us knew this really meant waiting till we got there to tell him we were staying at the hut for the night but we had to keep his hopes up. The march down the valley was swift and uneventful in comparison to the terrain we had just conquered. We collapsed sun-scorched at the hut, relieved for the sanctuary.
There were a couple of people at the hut, including Forest and Marie who had overtaken us at the junction. There was a younger man from Auckland, an old hand, a pair of sisters from Christchurch and a bike-packer from California. However we weren’t in much of a social mood upon arrival. I opted to go to the exceptional swimming hole on the other side of the Caples canyon, whilst the others refused to budge. The water was sparkling blue and refreshing, washing all the days worth of sweat downstream. Revitalised I returned to the hut and soon we started on the ‘mexican’ dinner we had planned. This went down a treat and had Forest staring in awe although I think it was a little spicy for Jakob.
After dinner I ended up sitting outside with the sandflies and the bike-packer for an hour or so as the sun set discussing every controversial environmental topic imaginable. As it turned out she had actually met the guy that made the Hutbagger website and I was a bit star-struck. Eventually the hordes of sandflies overpowered us and we retreated inside, where I found the others playing Exploding Kittens with the other hut occupants. I watched on, and we were all amused when Ben declared that the Israeli woman who had arrived at the hut later than us was the ‘Kitten Mistress’. It seemed he had divided loyalty between that burger and someone else… We placed bets as to which way he would walk the next day, further up the valley with his mistress or out to his burger?
We had an even lazier start the next day, before beginning our two hour walk down the valley. This was mostly uneventful other than our curious attempts to find shortcuts and the resulting swamp hopping. Perhaps the most entertaining incident was when we reached the 1/2 hour to the carpark sign which of course we took as a challenge. Ben steamed on ahead with me in pursuit, we virtually ran up the track and maintained a controlled fall down the hill before we spilled out into the carpark in a sub 20 minute time. We both agreed it was definitely a 30 minute track. The others followed eventually and soon we had everything neatly packed in the car ready for our departure.
On the drive out I think I killed a baby bunny and this got added to my kill tally along with the ducklings, although I dispute their deaths and whether I was actually at fault!
The trip over the tops was punishing but could easily be broken up by camping or staying at Home Hill Hut. I think it is truly a new classic route that I would wholeheartedly encourage others to undertake!