Olivine Ice

1 May 2000

Mt Aspiring National Park straddles the southern section of the Southern Alps. At 355,543 hectares, it is the country's third largest park, and it lies alongside the largest, Fiordland.

Map of the route

Lying at the heart of Mt Aspiring National Park is the Olivine Wilderness Area, resting against the western edge of the main divide, reaching some seventy kilometres from the Olivine to the Te Naihi rivers. Inside this vast area, all signs of human presence have been removed. There are no huts to provide shelter and no marked tracks to show the way. The area covers some of the most rugged mountain terrain anywhere in New Zealand.

Around about the centre of the wilderness area, and the middle of the Park itself, lies the Olivine Ice Plateau, a five kilometre long lake of frozen snow and glacier ice. My friend Mark Servian had been talking about this place for years, egged on by his tramping buddy Sam Buchanan. It was well out of the way, remote wilderness, days and days to walk in. You'd need ice axes and crampons. It would be full-on, the biggest and most difficult trip any of us had yet undertaken.

In late February we arranged to meet in Dunedin to organise the expedition. I hitch-hike down from Wellington, taking a detour from Highway One into the Mackenzie country, and down through Otago. I ride in air conditioned comfort, untouched by the oppressive heat of a high country summer.

The Olivine River, Fiordland National Park, New Zealand.

Central Otago is burned orange and brown. The land seems to cringe beneath the radioactive assault of a glaring sun. Naked ribs of rock protrude through a mangy coat of pasture. Deep wounds lie open to the sky where streams have stripped away the soft broken earth. The scene lies blasted and desolate, washed in a heat shimmer, from Alexandra all the way out to the coast. How those old gold miners must have cursed this broken land, so hard to travel over, in those days before roads and air-conditioned cars.

In Dunedin there is much to be done. All the members of our party gather; Mark and Sam, arriving from the airport. Bernard Smith, who hosts the expedition at his house in Waitati. Myself, just arrived from Wellington. We are all reasonably fit, and most of us have tramped together before. The only one who has done the basic snowcraft courses is Sam, although I've read the Mountain Safety Manual thoroughly and so has Bernard.

A day before leaving we are joined by Joe Buchanan, Sam's brother, a keen kayaker. Joe worries that he may be the weak link in the team; not as fit or as experienced as the rest of us. He has nothing to be concerned about, as his years of following white water have given him all the skills a tramper needs, and excellent water knowledge. Joe would be our guide during the difficult stages of riverine travel we encounter on the journey.

We get away in Joe's van a little later than we had hoped for on the Monday afternoon. It's a long drive to Glenorchy across the parched Central Otago landscape I travelled over recently. We stop frequently; in Alex for icecream, in Cromwell for a swim, in Queenstown for fish and chips. Mt Earnslaw, cloaked in white ice burnished by the setting sun, stands sentinel at the head of the Lake Wakatipu as we drive the last few kilometres along the unstable Glenorchy road. Our only stop there saw us leaving an intentions form at the DoC office before heading north up the Dart River and into the Park.

Into the wilderness

Bernard Smith and Joe Buchanan take a welcome rest
            in the shade of a high altitude beech forest.

We reach the Lake Sylvan carpark after dark and make camp. This is a very popular place. The Routeburn and Hollyford tracks leave from near here, attracting thousands of fee-paying tourists each year. They are world-reknown alpine walks, and it will cost you a hut booking at $35 per person per night to walk them. You can't camp anywhere but huts and designated campsites, and if you're in a campsite you can't use the hut facilities (unless you pay). And some 15,000 people a year do fork over the money, for the Routeburn at least.

There are no hut fees where we're going, and no other travellers, we hope. Starting from the Route Burn, we hike up the Dart River, reaching the Rock Burn hut in time to share lunch with 30 jet boat tourists. All day we could hear the roar of powerful engines as these big boats run up and down the Dart, delivering to their citified passengers a coddled taste of the wild. Crossing the Beans Burn and heading up-country we leave them well behind and soon even the noise of the engines is replaced with birdsong and the constant hiss of a forest moving in the light wind.

For two days we walk up the broad lower reaches of the Beans Burn, following a marked trail over snowgrass flat and dense beech forest. Occasionally the river enters a steep sided gorge and it is necessary to climb high above its banks over rough country thick with the forest and the vines. Snatching bush lawyer and windfall trees make progress tiresome, and the great weight of our packs, with ten days food each, is telling on knees and shoulders. At the end of each day we are exhausted and gleefully shovel up the nutritious food prepared by the Buchanan brothers.

We are nominally led by Sam. This is his gig, he's the one who has been wanting to go to this place for so long. Sam walks in front, finding the route in the overgrown bush and pushing through obstacles. He's very fit, having just come from a four-month stint on Raoul Island in the Kermedec group, working for DoC. I follow closely behind, and pick up the trail on the odd occasion when Sam falters or takes a wrong turn. Bernard, Mark and Joe take up position behind us, seldom falling far from eye contact. Sometimes one or other of the group will call a rest, and we all gather for a few minutes sitting, catching our breath and letting heart rates subside.

Just down from it's head, the Beans valley widens into a tussocky flat. On the natural right of the river, near the top of the flat, is a large split rock. There are several hollowed out sections to the rock. On the upstream side there are two separate apartments leading off a cave. Someone has built a small stone wall at the entrance to protect from the wind, and a platform has been flattened out and spread with dried snowgrass. On the downstream side - the side we approached from - a small crack in the rock widens to form a cave with a low roof over a similar straw covered platform. There is room for all five of us to sleep here, although it is rather cramped and a cold breeze blows through the open roof.

Across the main divide

The next day, Friday, dawns clear and cold. A failing Northerly blew away the light rain we had the night before and we are able to make a start in good weather.

The foot of Fohn saddle lies only an hour or so from the biv. On the map it is 500 vertical metres to the top of the pass, and standing at the bottom it looks steeper than it really is. The whole way is open tussock grass which provides good hand holds and is soft to sit on.

Each of us takes his own route up from the river. I chose a spur a little steeper than the others, thinking it will gain me altitude quickly. The climb is hard work and within minutes I am soaking in my own sweat, and drinking frequently to keep hydration levels up. While moving I look at nothing but my feet as I haul first one and then the other up, working against the pull of gravity, each step a fight against pain and lethargy. The pack presses against my shoulders, the Earth pulls at my body. This is a matter of application, of sheer bloody-minded resolution to keep going. It hurts, it's hard, it's hot, but I know it won't last forever. I pause when I need to, lapping up the increasingly staggering view, and move off again before I am fully rested. Climbing alone now, the others are but dots below and to the side of me. We can shout to each other, but it uses up energy needed for the climb, so for the time being we are each a world unto ourselves.

The Olivine Ledge, as seen from Fohn Saddle, on the Main Divide.

Sam and I reach the saddle within minutes of each other, then have to wait for the others. Although a perfectly clear sunny day, at 1500m it gets cold in the slightest breeze, and we unpack warm clothes while we wait for the others. They struggle up eventually and we enjoy lunch in a sheltered place beside a tiny alpine tarn.

We stand atop the main divide of the Southern Alps. Behind us, the way we have just climbed, lies South Otago. Water falling anywhere here runs out to the East coast. In front of us is the wilderness area, South Westland. All these rivers run out to the Tasman Sea.

Our plan called for a camp in the upper reaches of the Olivine flats, down below the river gorge. We can see the area from where we stand on the pass. Descending, we are confident we will make it before dark.

But the distance is misleading. The way down is steep and needs careful attention. Feet fall to either side of snowgrass bowls and you can't see the ground you're standing on. There are great rills in the landscape, requiring more climbing than was apparent from the saddle. The going is slow and cumbersome, with the risk of legs falling through holes that look solid, and of turning an ankle in the uneven terrain.

We reach the Olivine ledge, a shelf of fairly flat alpine meadow above the river. Late in the afternoon, worn and rumpled, we reach the rock biv on the ledge. Mark and I suggest staying here the night, but Sam wants to make time to our objective, so we push on. Mark is now very tired, the rest of us little better. But it is only a short bush-bash down to the river.

Mark Servian, very tired, descending from the Olivine Ledge

Reaching the tree line, we push forward. We are now deep in the wilderness area, and apart from the bivouac, there is no sign that anybody ever passed this way. The forest is thick, strangled with vines and dense undergrowth. The points of our ice-axes, slung outside our packs, catch on the vegetation, pulling us down and draining what reserves of strength we have left. The ground is steep, almost vertical, moving over it is a battle between gravity and the forest.

This is harder even than the climb to Fohn saddle. One by one we stumble through the jungle, looking for a path down to the river. Bush lawyer catches on our clothes and packs, impeding progress. We know from our literature that to keep too far to the south will bring us out above the river bluffs, but pushing sideways through the bush is harder than going straight down.

I am weary, and very hungry. My sholders hurt, I have deep scratches in my hands and forearms, and my knees protest in pain when I put weight on them. But I'm not the worst off. A summer of tramping and cycling has left my body hard, with little extra weight and lots of stamina. Mark, less fit than the others, is near exhaustion, his face lined with strain. He sits at our increasingly frequent rest stops and says little, gazing into the middle distance until it is time once again to shoulder the packs and continue the fight.

When we finally break out to the river it's not a moment too soon. The sun has already sunk below the valley wall and we must make camp in the gathering dusk. We find a relatively flat section of sandy riverbank and collapse. We've been on our feet for over ten hours.

Up to the Col

There has been no discussion of group dynamics or protocols. We all know the planned route, but Bernard carries the documentation, copied from Moir's Guide. Occasionally during stops we ask him to read the relevant paragraphs, indicating which side of the stream is best to travel on, or when we should be looking for landmarks. Sam is the leader and usually walks at the front. But he's an anarchist and doesn't like pushing people around. Neither do the rest of us like to be subject to any authority but our own. This is not an army and we are not soldiers. Discipline is a personal matter.

       Forgotten River Col, showing the tongue of the glacier above
       waterfalls of meltwater.

So consequently we don't get up at the crack of dawn. Nobody has taken it upon themselves to provide the motivation for getting up early. In fact, it seems to be taking us longer to break camp and get moving each day. On the first two we are walking by 10am, 10.30 at the latest. Further into the journey and we don't start until well after midday.

This day we spend the morning relaxing in the sun. I take a shave in the river, much to the bemusement of my companions. Bernard attends to his gear, patching trousers and stitching a tear in his jacket. Mark and Sam relax in the sun, discussing politics. Joe wanders down the river a way, scoping out the route.

By mid afternoon we are ready to go. There had been some talk of moving down to a camp on the flats, then taking the rest of the day off. But it is already too late for that, our planned rest day being taken with the morning's lounging.

We move off in the riverbed, making frequent crossings in the clear, cold water. It's a mountain river, falling rapidly between high rock walls, the riverbed strewn with large boulders, rapids and deep, clear pools. Joe leads the way, finding places to cross that frequently have us wading up to our waists, fighting against the current for purchase in the treacherous bed. This is technically challenging stuff, requiring courage and concentration, but Joe is confident and strong in the water.

Late in the day we break out into the river flats, having clambered around a steep rock outcrop at the mouth of the gorge. A meal of biscuits and cheese and a short swim in the frigid waters leaves us ready for more, and we set off up the Forgotten River gorge.

Sam Buchanan

This is the day's last section. There is actually a track here, visible as a depression in the ground. We fight our way up through beech forest, the leader stopping occasionally to call out to slower members, keeping the group together. In four hours of climbing, scrambling and forcing our way through thick bush we break out onto the Forgotten River and make camp in time for our mountain radio schedule.

We are surrounded on all sides by staggering peaks and rock cliffs, covered in a golden green kind of alpine scrub. Here and there along the high ridge line, dirty white tongues of ice protrude, clinging to sheer valley walls. In only a day I would be standing on similar ice covering the Forgotten River Col.

Ice gives me the fears. Glaciers are big, and very unstable, with house-sized pieces falling from the snout without warning. I've never travelled on a glacier, don't have the skills or the training. The thought of walking on something so big and so mobile fills me with an indistinct sense of dread.

A day's easy walk takes us to the head of the Forgotten River, under the Col. From a distance we see the bare rock walls looming above the valley. An ice cap sits at the very top, spewing waterfalls of meltwater down into the river. Beyond that foreboding wall of rock and ice lies our objective, the Olivine Ice Plateau.

The Olivine wilderness is rarely visited on foot. Each year a few hardy mountaineers and deer hunters brave the long walks and high passes to enjoy serenity and sublime views. In places like this it is possible to believe you are the only people left on a still-pristine planet. We took five days to walk in, alone amongst ourselves the entire time. But five times a day less physically inclined tourists fly over the Ice Plateau in light aircraft operating out of Milford Sound, some thirty kilometres away to the southwest. It is annoying to think of so much effort expended to hear the constant buzz of aero engines and know that you are not as alone as you had planned.

We spend a comfortable night in the Forgotten River Rock Biv. This is built in a hollow under an overhanging rock, and a well-made stone wall fences out the elements. There is room inside for several parties the size of ours, and a small creek runs through the biv providing easy access to water. In here is a small notebook, left as a log by a recent climbing party who had to entertain themselves for a week, waiting for inclement weather to clear. We lounge indolently and eat, resting in preparation for tomorrow's climb.

The ice

Rising the next morning to a perfectly clear day, we sort through our gear, discarding all but that necessary for a day trip. Collecting mountain hardware, food and drinking water we set off on the 800m climb to the col.

Ice cave in the side of the Forgotten
River glacier. Bernard Smith can be
seen climbing up out of the mouth.

We reach the col after five hours pushing up steep country. Great spires of dirty blue ice loom above us, the broken and constantly moving snout of the glacier. A cave has formed against the rock wall of the valley, and Sam moves in to explore a possible route up onto the col. The floor of the cave is covered in boulder-sized chunks of fallen ice, and I keep a respectful distance. The ice still frightens me, more so now I am under it and can understand its true scale.

There is no route through the cave, and we retreat a little. Bernard tries a steep rocky gut and finds it affords access to a rock ledge above the col. We move to follow him one at a time, standing clear of falling rocks dislodged by the climber above, and calling "clear" or "moving" to warn the others.

At last we reach the col and are able to climb down onto the moraine covered margins of the glacier. Spread out in front of us is a storm tossed sea of ice, serac spires breaking like waves against the rock walls of the valley. Occasionally a loud report echoes as an unseen chunk of ice breaks and falls.

We stop to fix crampons, then move off cautiously over a soft snow surface. My main fear, that of hidden crevasses, is easily assuaged. There has been no snowfall here for perhaps a few weeks, all the large cracks are open and visible. Getting used to the unfamiliar feel of spiked feet takes a few minutes, but I move with growing confidence as I realise the incredible tractive power of crampons on snow. I am not going to slip, and I will not fall.

After a short walk, threading between crevasses, we breach the top of the col and look down on the Olivine Ice Plateau. A wide, flat expanse of pristine white snow stretches out to the ring of peaks that wall in the lake. In the thin air distances are foreshortened, so it looks like the work of a moment to walk clear across the plateau. A glance at the map reveals that the other side is more than three kilometres away, and looking closely we can see a morass of crevasses, needing a full set of ropes, snow stakes and harnesses to cross. We don't have the gear to go any further.

All our planning and work has taken us to this place, days of hard tramping and climbing. It seems almost an anti-climax to reach it. And now there is nothing to do but shake hands, gaze about and share a toast to ourselves from the bottle of whiskey I brought for the purpose. Breathing the cool mountain air I reflect on the last few days, the hardest and most remote tramping experience I have had. We have walked some fifty kilometres through untracked wilderness, climbed a sheer rock wall and walked on a glacier. To get home we have to do the whole thing again, in reverse. It will seem easy having done it once before.

The Author, Malcolm Hutchinson, posing for Bernard Smith's camera, on the Olivine Ice Plateau,
Mt Aspiring National Park, New Zealand. Monday 28 February 2000.

Malcolm Hutchinson. Wellington, May 2000