Five Passes, Four Girls

Words and Images: Stephanie Lambie

Location: Mt Aspiring National Park, Otago

I first met Selena five years ago in our first year at Otago University, but our history started 62 years earlier when our grandfathers tramped together on many adventures through the Southern Alps. The most memorable of those being a two-week epic to the Olivine Ice Plateau on New Zealand’s West Coast.

Having spent most of our respective childhoods outside, we decided in a moment of madness to retrace the steps of our grandfathers, and return to the Olivine Ice Plateau. Soon enough, however, we realised that we had very few of the skills required for that kind of expedition. After revising our plan, we settled on a more modest excursion through the kind-of-famous-but-not-really Five Pass Route in Mt Aspiring National Park. The plan was to complete it in four days, with four girls and slightly insufficient three ice axes.

The Queenstown region over the New Year period was absolute chaos and overflowing with people, to the point that even Glenorchy, quite literally on the way to (admittedly, a very pretty) nowhere, was teeming with people. So many, in fact, that after tramping up the Dart River for four hours we came across tour upon tour of tourists in fun yaks, locals on jet skis and holiday makers in jet boats. Speaking from experience, it is advisable to remember that, when crossing the Beans Burn, one should look left, right and then left again to avoid getting skittled by a jet boat. Had we forded the river 15 seconds earlier, this article could have possibly been an obituary.

Some time later, we forgot about the jet boats and tourists, and continued our way toward the first of the Five Passes. At every break, we were busy reading and rereading Moir’s Guide North so that, when the time came to begin the first ‘technical’ route of the trip, we would know exactly what to do. On the ascent to Fohn Saddle, Moir says, “Climb a small gut on the true right of the river”. Despite knowing the instructions by heart, we, in eager anticipation to begin the climb, saw an obvious gut (which was in hindsight by no means small) and thought, ‘Yes. That’s it.’ It wasn’t. We only realised this about half way up when two of us got stuck and were unable to get back down, and so our only option was to keep heading up. We decided to divide and conquer, sending the other two a different way. We reconvened an hour later on a small ledge, somewhat relieved to be with life and limb. The theme song of the climb (and consequently the rest of the trip) became Coldplay’s, The Scientist, “Nobody said it was easy... No one ever said it would be this hard…”.

To celebrate having survived the first of our five passes and losing only one map, a few marbles and gaining a lightly sprained ankle, we decided a swim in some ice melt would be a sound method of making us feel alive again. Although, I can only imagine the disdain felt by a group of two who wandered past our swimming hole. Here they were, two days walk from anywhere, only to find their wilderness experience disrupted by a group of rowdy girls, whooping their way through a swim. To their credit, the pair allowed us a brisk nod before heading on their way.

Saving weight had always been a priority for us, unsure if we could handle the tramp without packs, let alone with them. As a result, the sleeping arrangement was the most archaic orange tent fly you could imagine. The fly is highly functional in the bush where there are tall trees to pitch it from. But above bush line on the Olivine Ledge, trees are few and far between, let alone two near one another. While I would say that the team designated to setting up camp (which included me) did a fantastic job, it was hard to get past the fact that the fly, pitched with two walking poles at maximum extension, was but centimetres from our faces when lying flat. Needless to say, the fly did little to keep any of us dry that night, even though it was a rain-free experience.

Three of the five passes on the third day sounded like a much better idea in the planning stages of the trip than on the day itself. And yet, it now had to be done. On the top of Fiery Col, the second of our five passes, we were delighted to find a small patch of snow, making lugging our ice axes worth it. We were going to be so safe on this small snow slope, once we had figured out which way around to hold the ice axes, the side of our bodies to plant them on and how to divide three ice axes between four people (three-quarters of an ice axe each?). We descended slowly and carefully down the slope, stopping to take obligatory photos with the ice axes in as many different angles as humanly possible with the team looking happy, sad, nonchalant, pensive (the list goes on).

On the descent from Fiery Col to Cow Saddle, we enjoyed being educated by our resident ‘Fun Fact Authority’ as to why Cow Saddle was called Cow Saddle. She informed us that the tarns were the patches on the cow hides that the giants had used to lie over their steeds (presumably the mountains) before riding them (the giants weren’t in a rush to get anywhere, apparently), a long time ago before the kiwi had flown to New Zealand from Australia (another fun fact). After being passed by two groups of much older trampers on the way down Hidden Valley, which was only mildly demoralising, we found ourselves at the bottom of Park Pass. The spur that the rough track followed required us to channel our inner spirit animals (the tortoise – for all of us) to make it to the top.

On the fourth and final day, it rained. Which was just as well, or we probably wouldn’t have wanted to leave. There is nothing quite like the pitter patter of the rain while trudging down a valley. This day was the only day that there was an official track, those reassuring orange markers nailed to trees guiding us on our way. However, the unfortunate truth of having a track is an increase in traffic, which comes with an increase in general wear and tear on the track. As such, three of the four of us found ourselves swimming in waist-deep mud at least once during this day. And then there was the fifth and final pass; the smallest of them all. There is something about the final hurdle; it makes some people have all this ‘get up and go’, and others want to complain loudly every step of the way. It had the former effect on my three friends and the latter effect on me.

The last ten minutes of the route follows the Routeburn Track Nature Walk. I have never felt so ridiculous in my life, as we limped past the nature walkers, dressed in expensive and oh-so-clean outdoor gear, while we were covered in mud, carrying big packs and funny looking walking sticks with odd spiky bits that were far too short for anyone. I couldn’t help but think that the other people must be asking themselves what we were doing so wrong to come off the Routeburn that dirty and requiring all that gear.

If only they knew.

A true traveller, Stephanie Lambie doesn’t believe just visiting a place is enough, choosing instead to move her life from continent to continent on a half-yearly basis. She occasionally finds the time to return to her homeland and one true love… the New Zealand Wilderness!