With Christmas falling on a Tuesday in 2018 that meant that there was a weekend between work finishing and Christmas day. A perfect window to do a trip halfway between Wanaka and Christchurch, a midway point for Ryan and I before heading to Dunedin. We initially had plans to climb a mountain, but then Riki caught wind of our plans and we thought it might be fun to include him. Due to his training for Coast to Coast and the possibility of hurting himself, his inclusion came with the caveat that we avoid snow and ice. To accommodate this we had to think up a new plan…
With plan b, we opted for a high alpine tramp followed by a packraft. We would head up the South Temple Valley, crossing through V-Notch pass into the South Huxley, stay in the Biv there, walking out the next morning to the Huxley Forks then packraft back down the Huxley and Hopkins to the Temple Valley campsite… then back to Dunedin to do some Christmas shopping!
So after work on Friday I made some last minute purchases (including Riki’s present from Ryan) packed up the car with all the toys I needed for Christmas as well as Riki and we headed south. We joined Ryan the next morning at the Temple valley campsite up the head of lake Ohau.
By the time we sorted out gear we got going at around 10am… not before we presented Riki his Christmas present though… an Ice Axe. Well, we just figured the reason he didn’t want to go in the snow was because he didn’t have the right equipment! We had it on good authority that there could be a chance of snow around the pass at that time of year, so we thought it was wise to take an Ice Axe each. Anyway once we finally got moving we started to make good time up the valley. The weather forecast which was looking a little average for 3pm (about when we expected to be on the pass) wasn’t looking too bad with lots of blue sky around.
The lower valley floor was covered in red mistletoe which I’d never seen in New Zealand before but it gave the forest a real christmassy feel. It took us about 2 hours to get to the South Temple hut and then it was really off into a bit of the unknown. Unfortunately for us the weather forecast was now fulfilling the predictions and clouds were gathering at the head of the valley, right to where we were heading. The higher in the valley we got the less distinct the track got and the scrub got thicker and thicker. At one point where on the map the trail ends we took a wrong turn and got off the track and had to do a bit of scrub bashing. To make matters worse the weather had really deteriorated and my jacket was already feeling cold with the weight of the water soaked into it sitting against my skin. Thoughts of resorting to plan c were discussed, but we chose to persevere, for at least another hour or so.
For our perseverance we were eventually rewarded, we managed to climb up a spur through some thick scrub which lead straight to a well worn track completed with markers! After only 30mins later the sun made a reappearance and the rain abated for the time being. Our spirits were up again and we were very soon at the head of the valley, picking our way up through some snow grassy but easy going bluffs. Nothing like a little bit of exposure to get the heart pumping! It was actually really warm going, and bright. We knew this was not going to last long as we approached the saddle and we were blasted by the wind with a few random snowflakes when we arrived.
From the saddle it was pretty easy going across to the V-notch, which was a lot more obvious than I thought it would be. “Easy going” did include crossing a snow slope, so out the Ice axes came and we were pretty glad to have them. A bonus for Riki, who got to practise some new skills with his new tool. The snow slopes we crossed were quite steep and the snow just icy enough that we had to kick steps into it. The V-notch now presented itself right in front of us.
Ryan was first to approach the edge, and his hesitation had me slightly concerned. I followed closely, had a look myself and instantly understood the hesitation! There was a cornice, and a snow slope with a good run out. Over the edge of the cornice was near vertical for about 5-6m. This presented us with a problem. We had a throw rope and a harness, but it wasn’t really sufficient for solving this particular problem. Ryan admitted later that he did consider turning back, but in the end we worked out we could probably get around with minimal issues. At the edge to the snow slope the snow had melted away from the edge of the rock and cliff’s around so we sort of just walked around there. We tried to brace ourselves off the edge of the snow but it was not going to work. Instead we decided to down climb the rock about 3 or 4 steps until it was “flat” enough to cross back into the snow. There the snow was still steep enough that we had to kick steps for 80-100m vertical. At the end of the snow chute, our feet were pretty cold from all the step kicking, and as we started to get moving a bit faster on the easier terrain we suffered some excruciating pain from the feeling coming back!
Once through the tricky bit, relief and excitement set in, we successfully had made it through to the South Huxley and we would more than likely be able to complete the loop! Next problem to solve was now to get down to the valley floor. After some extensive internet and google maps research, I determined that we needed to head out to the left to firstly avoid some big cliffs and secondly the scrub. We successfully negotiated our way down which wasn’t as easy as it appeared… there was some steep ground and some sneaky bluffs nearby to keep us on our toes. Finally at 7pm in the evening we had a chance to sit down and have some lunch!
It was just a simple wander down the river bed to reach the tiny little two person bivy. There was just enough daylight to make up some hot drinks and some tea, before we managed to cram ourselves into the Bivy quite neatly infact. It was a big day, and my estimation of 17km had blown out to something like 32km and 10 odd hours so sleeping wasn’t much of a problem!
Day break came with the promise of clear weather, but there was a lot of cloud still hanging around in the valley. We didn’t muck around for long before we were on the move again down the valley. Progress was good down the valley, there was a couple of tricky little sections where the track had washed out. With a combination of good trail finding skills and a couple of cairns here and there we reached the Huxley forks in bright sunshine, and were greeted with white, fast moving water.
I will admit now I was a little apprehensive about this part of the trip. Mainly it was not knowing what the river was like as well as the fact I had never tried out my 2 person packraft with three people let alone three people with gear too! We picked a spot just a bit beyond the convergence where the wave trains looked a little bit less white and exciting. After stuffing some food down our throats and the excess gear in the boat, we jumped in the deep end. I sat at the back with the double blade paddle, while I had Riki and Ryan sit on opposite sides of the boat, each with a single blade paddle.
It was definitely the deep end we jumped in, somehow we managed to maintain control for about 100m of consistent wave train but the boat did not feel balanced at all. The load wasn’t distributed very well at all and it was bending, Riki and Ryan were both struggling to do any meaningful paddling, and I was battling for control at the back of the boat. Time for a change, we switched things around, and sat three in a row, me as far back as I could, Riki as far forward as he could and Ryan sandwiched in the middle. This worked out much better, and it was just as well as the next section of rapids was a mess of fast moving white water, requiring quick decisions and smooth control. It was very exciting paddling, so exciting I almost needed a break after about 5 minutes! Things eventually mellowed out a little, but not completely as we soon found out by first getting stuck on a rock, then tipping out when we came free.
The Huxley is a fast moving river with quite a bit of descent so we covered a lot of ground very quickly and were into the Hopkins in no time at all. We were meet with a bit of a headwind, but in just two and half hours and about 20kms later we were pulling the boat out of the water and packing up for the short shuttle back to the cars. I think first time packrafter Ryan was quietly impressed at how fast the raft got us out of the valley! No time for mucking around too much as we convoyed onwards to Dunedin for Christmas to reflect on our successful little trip!