Monday, 27 October 2014

Hawdon Valley + Hut & Walker Pass side trip: 24-25th October

Another trip to Hawdon Hut

I had a plan to spend 4 days over the Labour weekend walking up the Upper Poulter river for a visit to Lake Minchin. Alas, I was once again beset by bad weather: snow flurries and rain in Arthur's Pass made the trip look dodgy. I went to the track start at Andrews Shelter anyway, but found 2 van loads from Christchurch Girls High School (about 20 of them) going on the same trip to Lake Minchin. That would be 21 of us in 16 bunk Casey Hut, and also in the 10 bunk Poulter Hut.

NB: Casey Hut burnt down in 2015 so I missed out on visiting one of my favourite huts before it was gone. 

Snow on the surrounding mountains

Normally that would be fine, as I had my tent but I didn't fancy the idea of potentially tenting in snow so went for another option: Hawdon Hut, with a side trip up to Walkers Pass and the tarn on the pass.

Hawdon Valley with track to Hawdon Hut

Heading up the Hawdon River Valley

 There were a group of German tourists in Hawdon Shelter who looked slightly aghast as I explained I was heading up the valley. No doubt they were thinking more of the crazy kiwis.......Conditions were cold and windy with the occasional light fall of snow during the day, I headed down to the Hawdon and crossed the river.
Hawdon River from track start
There was a dusting of snow on all of the surrounding peaks, I would estimate the snowline at 800 meters ASL. Although it looks sunny it was actually cold, I needed to change into my Merino top for the first time in 2014.
View to SE of Mt White bridge area
I found a good crossing point downriver of the flood wall at the start of the track. The river was moderately deep, but clear & able to be crossed. Normally the the Hawdon has several braids, on this trip it was just the one deep braid this far down stream. It was a lot deeper the next day, just on the boundary of being uncross-able by one person. River crossings are the number one cause of outdoor fatalities in New Zealand so ALL have to be carefully planned.
The Pyramid from the true left of Hawdon river
View upstream from far side of Hawdon river crossing

Jon prepared for the cold

I jumped onto the ATV track which leads up valley, this is the fastest (if not most comfortable or scenic) way to access the upper Hawdon. Using the ATV track will save you a good 30-60 minutes of walking time. Both Surprise Stream and the left braid of the Hawdon were deep so the ATV fords provided the best crossing points.
The famous Hawdon valley 4 W/D track
I was passed by three DOC workers on ATV's, these were the last people I would see until 10 am the next day. The valley was totally deserted.
DOC workers on ATV's, view up valley
You can see the low snowline on the distant ridges, it would be 100-200 meters up the side of the mountain.
Late spring conditions Arthur's Pass region
It looks OK but it was windy and the odd snow shower fell throughout the day.

View up valley towards Upper Hawdon

Snowline along Woolshed Hill

All the mountains along this valley are at least 1200 meters high, some go to 1800 meters.

Rugged ranges behind the Pyramid

Fresh snow on surrounding mountains
There is a great wee bivy further up the East Hawdon, the rough track up this valley is one of the ones that I occasionally do maintenance on as part of Permolat. Permolat/Remote huts is a group of trampers/hunters/fishermen who maintain seldom used huts and tracks, mostly on the West Coast. I clear wind throw, do some cutting back and track marking etc. In fact, Im due a visit to the East Hawdon soon.
View up the East Hawdon from the confluence
 I'm currently looking for a hut to take over as a maintenance task, North Esk bivy has been recommended to me. With a new government incentive you can apply for funds to maintain old DOC huts and tracks through the FMC, this covers materials, helicopter back flights etc. Permolat members are doing some amazing work to maintain huts that would otherwise be removed.

Woolshed hill from mid point of Hawdon Valley
After the second crossing of the Hawdon river the track is on the true right for the rest of the way to the hut. Hard to see but it was lightly snowing when i reached this point.
On the true right of the Hawdon river
Here is an example of the nice (but sparse) formed track along the valley floor.

Bush track along TR of Hawdon
Walker Pass is at the head of the valley and takes you over the ranges into the Otehake basin, it is part of the Hawdon-Edwards Route. Most people walk it the other way (Edwards to Hawdon) as there are a number of tricky river crossings at the start near the Bealey & Mingha rivers. If you start at the Hawdon Valley and it rains, you could end up stuck for days on the wrong side of the Bealey staring at your car parked 200 meters away.

Classic New Zealand tramping conditions!
Walker Pass area from the Hawdon track

Boulder bash on way to Hawdon Hut

The current Hawdon Hut is the second in this valley, the original hut was burnt down by some fool in 2006 and the new hut was located in a much better location about a kilometre further up the valley. The old hut site is still an excellent spot to camp though, as the clearing is flat and the long drop toilet is still maintained.

Old Hawdon hut location
All that remains of the old hut are the pilings, burnt, and sticking up out of the soil.The new hut is great but the old Lockwood hut had a lot of character. The lesson here: don't leave a fire burning in an unoccupied hut you clowns! That's how this happened.
Hawdon Hut I site: all that's left of the old hut

Walkers Pass to left of centre peak

Hawdon Valley track, hut 500 metres away

Soon after I arrived at Hawdon Hut, the hut was deserted, the last visitor was here on the Wednesday. I had a quick bite to eat, a hot drink and put my gear on my selected bunk for the night. After lunch, I grabbed my jacket and emergency gear and headed out along the track up to Walkers Pass.

View of upper Hawdon valley from Hawdon Hut
Here I am outside the new Hawdon Hut (2007), it is really nice, excellent insulation though there was bugger all wood in the shed when I arrived. I hauled a couple of logs over later in the day and cut them up for future use.
Jon at Hawdon Hut
I had a Kea following me for most of the way to the Pass. The NZ Mountain Parrot or Kea, are wonderful clown's, as well as wholesale destroyers of expensive tents, wind-shield wipers, roofing and other gear if allowed.  In 1950 there were estimated to be over 150 000 of them, they are becoming endangered with only 1500 or so left in the wild. I remember flocks of 10-30 Kea being common 30 years ago, now you are lucky to see 1-3 in a day.

The New Zealand Mountain Parrot: a Kea
The first part of the Walker Pass Track was very nice, flat and well marked. I was immediately put on my guard because that usually means the next part is hilly, broken and indistinct. I was not mistaken...

The track to Walker Pass from Hawdon Hut

Twin Falls stream, Walker Pass track
Once you start to climb the track becomes a mess of rock, roots and steep inclines right up to the Pass....
Track to Walker Pass, climbing...

Downward view of Walker Pass track
Here is another Kea checking me doubt he was thinking more of the crazy kiwis
Kea who followed me up the valley

Walkers Pass Track: view down valley from half way point

Classic sub alpine forest near Walkers Pass
About half way to the top you pass the Twin Falls, respectively 30 and 40 meters high, this is as close as you can get safely due to bluffs.
Fall one: Twin Falls on the Walkers Pass Track

Walkers Pass Track: Twin Falls, Fall two

Twin Falls, a closer view of Fall One, Hawdon Valley
Eventually the beech forest gives way to alpine plants....

Walker Pass Track: Start of alpine zone Hawdon Valley

Me resting near top of Walkers Pass Track
...until you reach the last part of the climb before the Pass.
Track just before reaching Walkers Pass

When you reach the top there is a plateau about a 2 kilometres across, at the far end you can see down into the Otehake Valley and points west.  If you have crossed Walkers Pass you have also crossed the Southern Alps. The tarn pictured below is near the Otehake end of the pass, and yes the water in it is god-damn cold! (hand test not full immersion test, yikes I don't even want to imagine how cold it would be to swim in...). 

I didn't dally for too long as it was snowing, windy and there was low lying cloud about.
Not great conditions to be out by yourself on an exposed mountain pass.

The tarn on Walkers Pass
The photo below is of Walker Pass on a nice fine day from the website...
Walker Pass in fine weather, Otehake end

And here is a view of the whole pass area from the knoll heading down into the Hawdon Valley, this photo is from Backcountry Bibles as part of the classic Edwards-Tarn Col-Hawdon Valley trip.

View of complete Walker Pass from Hawdon Valley end

Afternoon view of Hawdon Valley, snow falling

Meanwhile, back at Hawdon Hut... 

I was surprised to have the hut completely to myself, I felt sure that it would be bursting at the seams by the evening, but I passed the night in quiet solitude. I imagine the bad weather put a lot of people off a visit to the valley. I chopped up a good load of wood and had the fire going...even though the hut is big it was quite cosy after awhile.

Interior of Hawdon Hut

I dined on some cheese, olives and crackers for an entree, freeze dried BCC Lamb and Vegetables for a main, a couple of hot drinks and a good nine hours of sleep. My new down sleeping bag was a great success, man it is warm, almost too warm, so I opened it out and used it as a quilt.

I heard several Kiwi calling during the night as well as a Morepork (a type of native Owl) who was sitting on a tree branch right outside the hut.

Tasty repast: Roast Lamb and Vege with mashed spuds
DOC have been heavily trapping rats, stouts and possums in the valley and it is obviously having an effect, I have never heard as much early morning birdsong before anywhere in Arthur's Pass. We often give DOC stick about how they do things wrong but sometimes they really get things right.

Good job DOC!
Morning view of upper Hawdon Valley
I had a quick breakfast of "Pog" and headed out, there had been a good frost overnight, luckily I had drawn some water the previous night as the tap on the water tank was frozen solid. I got it going before leaving by giving it a good whack with a stick to break up the ice.

Hawdon Valley: Wide expanse of gravel, typical Southern Alps
Below is a shot of the frost on the grass, this is just down valley from the old hut site.
Heavy frost on grass
The sun doesn't reach the valley floor until 10am most mornings, here you can see the sunlight making its way down the  mountains at 0830.
View looking down valley, Hawdon Valley
You pass a couple of old dry stream beds along the track, some obviously haven't seen any water for a long time as they are covered in a striking red moss, like in the shot below.
Hawdon Valley, dry riverbed, with moss covered rocks

Crossing sidestream on Hawdon track
There are some very attractive short sections of track through the bush they make a nice change to the boulder and gravel bash most of this track consists of.

Beautiful riverside forest track in Hawdon Valley
The river level was slightly up, moderate level or up to my knees, nothing to worry about with a bit of care and planning. Bear in mind that my knees are about a meter off the ground.
River crossing point mid valley
The main channel of the Hawdon has shifted: it used to run down the extreme left of the valley, now it is following the true right and centre channels. Last time I was up here in 2013 this riverbed was dry, it is now suprising deep, up to my knees at least and swift.
New course of Hawdon River

Jon in the Hawdon Valley, nearly at the car!

The end of another good trip, not what I had planned it was still a good use of my time. I really was surprised to have the hut to myself overnight, I put it down to the weather on the Friday, as I saw 34 people heading up valley over the course of the Saturday morning.

If any of you are looking for a great first tramp or easy trip, a tramp to Hawdon Hut should be right up your alley. A word of caution though, watch the weather as even a moderate amount of rain will make the Hawdon impassable to all but large and experienced parties.

Access: Turn off SH 73 at Mt White bridge, take the road to Hawdon Shelter. The track starts next to the shelter, fords Hawdon River and continues up valley to the hut and Walkers Pass.
Track times: 4 hours to Hawdon Hut, another 1.5 hour to Walkers Pass
Hut Details: Hawdon Shelter: shelter only, open fireplace, toilets: Hawdon Hut, serviced, 18 bunks, water tanks, fire box, wood shed, toilets
Miscellaneous: Hawdon River is prone to flooding in rain and dangerous if in flood. There are at least 5 mandatory river crossings on this track.