I struggled to find information for this route online. It was all vague and frankly a little mysterious. Initially I stumbled across the track while looking for somewhere that didn’t have an insane amount of avalanche danger, whilst still providing a decent view and a bit of adrenaline. Somewhere in the back of my mind came the famous Greenstone / Caples loop track. I know the ground pretty well after doing a bit of hunting there in the past, so at first I was hesitant to go back, as I know the loop itself is a bit of a ‘stroll in the park’ terrain wise. However, I remembered how quickly that can change once you get off track and venture up above the bushline. So I started where anybody looking to hike in NZ should start; by looking at the doc brochure. It was all as I remembered, however when I looked at the attached topo map, I noticed a route crossing straight through the Ailsa Moutains that seperate the two valleys. All the brochure said was 8-10 hours ‘Steep and sparsely marked, this route is suitable for experienced trampers only.’ I thought “Perfect”.
So all of this went on around 9pm the night before walking in. When we woke up in the morning there was definitely a touch of apprehension in the air. Both of us knew that an alpine route with the current weather was a risky move, but we’re both stubborn as all hell, so neither of us confronted each other on our feelings. It was raining outside and when it wasn’t, ominous grey clouds billowed around the peaks near our home.
I secretly quadruple checked the 3 day satellite projections before convincing Madi, while actually convincing myself that the weather would hold out just long enough to allow us to get up over the saddle and cross the river at the bottom. After a bit of back and forth, we agreed ‘she’ll be right’ and hit the road.
Arriving at the Greenstone Carpark at 4pm, “Quintessential Madi & Fraser” I thought to myself. We quickly jumped out of the car and started the 11 km hike up into the mountains. It was immediately apparent that we had made the correct choice. Towering above us were the Ailsa Mountains, blanketed in the setting sun, as if a higher power was beckoning us forward; que Lord of the rings Montage.
We flew through the 11 kms of valley, arriving at the Lower Caples Hut just after dark. Windows of the hut glowed dimly as we approached from the bush, ragged and sweaty after fighting to outpace the setting sun. We both looked at each other with a little bit of disappointment as one of the bonuses of a mid-winter hike is that you typically get the huts to yourself. It’s not that we’re antisocial, more that we felt like a nice little winter hideaway would be just what the doctor ordered after a hard couple of weeks slogging at work. Turns out it was a just one joker from Tasmania, who proved to be a nice hutmate, graciously suggesting we take the other dorm instead of awkwardly sharing.
After a tranquil sleep in our 700 loft bags – a recent gift from My Dad, the most generous man I know – we set off into the darkness. There is something about rising before the sun that makes me feel accomplished, and on a winters day when that sunrise occurs at 0815, it’s pretty easy to rise like a champion.
So off we trekked, into the gloomy darkness we marched, frozen tussock crunching crisply under out boots. The surrounding mountains silhouetted against a brightening sky gave us reason for pause; just long enough to notice a herd of fallow deer frolicking on the riverflats.
After roughly 2.5 hours of meandering through the dawn, the GPS let me know our route was approaching and that this was the moment of either turn back or soldier on.
Once we started, our stubbornness would make it difficult to turn back. It had all been a fairytale walk up the valley with every piece of nature glistening in winter glory. Now the only thing glistening was our skin as sweat poured down our exasperated faces. We had unwisely chosen to ignore the old adage of ‘Be bold, start cold’ and were soon paying the price. After several minutes of denial we set our packs down and began taking off everything from long-johns to down jackets in favour of more practical merino tee-shirts and sweat wicking leggings / trousers.
The first section of the climb was brutal; 600 vertical meters of unforgiving bush. Decaying beech leaves turned the track into a slip and slide, with our sanity saved only by the tangle of dendritic root staircases gifted to us by those same giants of the forest.
Whilst it took roughly 2.5 hours to battle upward through the bush, lifetimes of highs and lows ebbed and flowed between us. The roller coaster of emotions brought to mind one of my favourite Steven Rinella speeches. He talks about the difference between high and low grade fun, with low grade consisting of the all-too-familiar enjoyment associated with activities like rollercoasters or waterslides; essentially where you easily attain and experience a quick peak excitement and joy that is just as quickly forgotten. In the inverse, high grade fun is obtained through an activity that is almost unbearably difficult, with the ‘fun’ component a delayed gratification that is only realised upon completion; a sort of posthumous enjoyment, if you will.
Emerging from the bushline, we were dwarfed by the surrounding peaks. The dangerous beauty whipped at our senses; overwhelming yet enticing. This curious mixture of pulse-quickening fear and insatiable intrigue is – I believe – the reason people climb mountains at all. Once one foot fell successfully in front of the other in this new terrain, we knew we were capable of conquering this beast and both subconsciously smiled.
We pushed upwards through the sub-alpine tussock, careful to avoid the hyperdermic needles located at the end of each Spaniard Grass blade. Not so suddenly we were in a world of icicles and frozen waterfalls. Carefully minding our feet, we edged slowly upwards along the narrow goat track towards the saddle. Small snow bridges concealed iced sludge pools and after a few close calls, we both agreed that gaiters were a must.
And luckily we did, as the snow became thick I pulled out the old Ice Axe and tested our footing. We held off on crampons, only because the snow was thick and soft enough that we were able to keep footholds naturally. The anticipation built as we climbed higher, both conjuring up endless winter vistas in our minds. After another hour of speculation and sweat we emerged at the saddle, which did not disappoint. Im afraid showing you all a photograph would only dilute your future Steele Creek anticipation; I want you to feel what I felt when you climb that icey goat track.
We tossed down our bags and threw together a quick jetboil meal of noodles, peas and soup – a staple for any outdoorsperson. After 6 hours of arduous ascent, I can honestly say that those fine noodles tasted better than any overpriced gourmet meal in the city.
As we slurped down our masterpiece Madi began noticing that her three-season boots were starting to fail under the harsh conditions; her toes beginning to freeze up with her fingers soon to follow. In my experience, even a good set of gloves struggle to warm a set of previously frozen digits, unless of course you get moving. So that’s exactly what we did. We hustled our way down into Steele Creek, fighting through dense sub-alpine shrubbery for one and a half hours before hitting the treeline. Safe to say, all that descent had warmed us both to the core and once back in the safety of the forest, we stripped back to the essentials.
From there it was a easy bush-walk to the Steele Creek Hut – A true masterpiece of bushcraft, the hut was constructed out of raw beech tree trunks, wire mesh, old sacks and corrugated iron. As we gazed fondly at the signatures from past decades lining the walls, I found it interesting that those scribbles, once vandalism, now offer a treasured portal to the past, whom without, the hut would seem incomplete. I wonder where the line gets drawn between vandalism and historical artwork.
The next day we awoke raring to go, charging down the valley at 0600, we were rewarded by easily the most majestic display of plate tectonics I’ve ever seen. Once an old seabed of colourless shales and sandstones, now revivified by the terrestrial seasons to stand before us a towering giant of colour and wander.
From the confluence, we ambled another 5 hours down the valley and back to our car. Only when we finally unshouldered our packs and collapsed into the car did the magnitude of our newly acquired ‘High Grade Fun’ begin to dawn on us.