As each new stage revealed itself I considered turning back. With a comrade we would have talked through the options and continued on our way. Alone I felt with each stage I was getting deeper in and further off the beaten track. No mobile reception. The sat phone was a last resort at the bottom of my backpack.The initial hike in along the Mingha River had been pleasant. Braided stream crossings, Lord Of The Rings moss forests, ferny grottos, blue pools beneath rapids and cascading glacial waters, high valley walls on either side. At times I felt like Frodo on a quest. The high point of Dudley Knob gave gorgeous views back down and up valley. Up and down over tributary streams to Mingha Bivouac which was being refurbished by a tradesman and passing hikers. There were quite a few of them. Many were hiking the Te Araroa, a trail that stretches for 3,000 km from the top of New Zealand to the bottom. Some were doing “just” the South Island and others the whole thing. My route in was partly along the river trail of the “TA”. Most were “southbounders”, pairs, couples, solos. Kennedy Falls plunged 150m into a raging torrent below. Walking at a moderate pace, stopping to take photos and eat and drink, it took 4 hours to reach Goat Pass and the very pleasant hikers hut. Then down, following the streamway, criss-crossing to switch sides and sometimes threading the stones in the actual stream. Waterfalls tumbled from on high. Down the Upper Deception River. Deception Hut was true to its title, promised much and delivered nothing – hot, stuffy, full of sand flies, grotty and not even enough ground to pitch a tent outside, in a patch carved out of the bush. I had considered overnighting there but a decision was already made for me. From the later start of the day, 10.00am, it was already 4.00pm. My time estimate for the climb from the hut at 750m to a hopeful camp at Lake Anna at 1750m was about 4 hours. Give or take, a lot of unknowns.
“Ascend the slide upstream of Deception Hut to the scrub line then sidle into the head of the creek” (Good Luck Creek). Guidebook brevity. I finally twigged that a “slide” was a narrow river of talus rocks that had flowed as a landslide from the crumbling cliffs way above. Previously I had learned that these possible routes through surrounding steeps were not quite as vertical as they appeared when you actually started climbing up. This one looked long and very steep, especially the top part. Stage 1. Charlie had taken a nasty tumble in this hostile sort of terrain. I spied out discontinuous runs that were partly vegetated – these stones had been stable long enough for plants to grow around them and so made reliable steps. I linked a few of these then when they ran out I took to the lines of larger rocks – these are most often more stable, but when unstable the consequences are greater. I moved to the right hand side where larger stones met the bush edge then back to the middle and then back right. Up and up. On the smaller rocks it was a matter of moving up quicker than the stones flowed down. There is mostly a strange sense of equilibrium on some “slides” where the rocks have come to rest and when they slide away they don’t go far. I guess the steeper ones, and particularly collapsing moraine walls, are often too vertical to be negotiable. As I approached a narrowing towards the top with a slight sense of vertiginous instability due to a subtle steepening of the angle I was able to crab walk gingerly across to a scrubby gully on the left.
Going any higher on the slide was not an appealing option. Stage 2. The gully was almost vertical but led to a ridge line that looked good. Large tussocks and bushes provided surprisingly secure handholds which enabled ascent. In fact they felt more reliable than some of the rock hand and footholds in the Southern Alps. At the first flattening on the ridge I found a cairn and didn’t feel so alone. A route had been taken this way by others in the past. This was reassuring and a confidence boost. Perhaps Gandalf or Strider had passed up here. The ridge led upwards to about the 1250m level where there was a vague sloping shelf that looked like it could provide access across the face of the valley wall. Stage 3. The scrub was almost impenetrable – at times I had to weave between bushes, at others just bash through, occasionally disappearing into a hole beneath the foliage. Slow. Tiring. Lifting legs up and over too high branches. This was turning out to be a true New Zealand alpine mountain struggle with a bit of everything just to get to the climb. Semblances of overgrown track appeared randomly in the scrub – bliss.
Eventually I could see and then finally reached the upper shelf of the creek, a beautiful stream that crescendoed over a set of falls off the edge of the scarp into an unseen void. I picked out what looked like a possible summit of Franklin above a high shelf of stone.
Stage 4. 6.00pm. Even though a grassy campsite beckoned nearby I felt fit and strong. I had recently put in some long days in the hills and also something about being alone was energising. Overcoming each obstacle, being totally self reliant. In remote country. I pushed onwards, upwards, first over deep tussocks then over scree stonefields without vegetation. The creek disappeared beneath the rocks. Safe and low angle. Just a trudge. Up. I got into a count, 1 to 20, 5 times over, then look up, check the progress, count again, and again. Slow progress. By 7.00pm I had reached a point where the creek reappeared below a series of waterfalls. My phone navigation app indicated I was at 1388m – I couldn’t believe I was still at least 300m lower than the lake. Stage 5. At least the way ahead was clear and the end point for the day in sight. A zig zag line up beside the main fall led through cliffs onto a shoulder. Moss and alpine flowers. The sound of falling water. Colder. Step by step. Look up, pick an objective 20 to 30 meters away, a distinctive rock mostly, reach it, pick another one, like a marathon run towards the end, just one small section at a time, step up, and again, and again. Eventually I made a col from where the lake opened out just beyond – green, beautiful, perched high on the mountain, a reminder of a glacier. A cutting cold wind. Always the weather, glanced out to the west to track changes to the cloud patterns, monitored the higher peaks in the distance to gauge the level of their cloud shrouds, stayed in touch, not a place to get caught unawares. 8.00pm. 10 hours, 15 km, 1400m ascent. Felt good.The days are long in NZ, the evening sun goes down after 9.00pm and there is light for a while after that. Tent up in the wind on a flat spot that had been cleared by other climbers and walled a little with stones. I anchored the tent by threading walking poles and tent pegs through the peg loops and then piling heavy rocks on top of them. Built up the walls a bit more to deflect some of the wind. Wisps of cloud played among the spires of Franklin’s upper ramparts. Jumped inside and cooked up. Warm food and drink, sheltered from the wind, jacketed, beanied and sleeping bagged. I felt cosy and cocooned. As long as the tent held up. The forecast was for ok, not brilliant, weather. No storms predicted. Things can change though.
Overnight the wind must have abated. I had journeyed deep into slumberland.
Dark cloud layered the western sky above the ocean. Mt Murchison, heavily glaciered, stood above the pack in the south west. Overhead was mostly clear. 7.30am. Packed up camp, hid all my stuff under a small overhang and covered it with rocks so the cunning keas couldn’t tear it to bits. I sidled around the lake on scree then ascended another stonefield to a high col on the narrow ridge separating Franklin from the peak above my camp.
The view down the other side was magnificent, a huge drop to a hanging snowfield. A braided river silvered in the morning light up into a range of lower mountains. In a scene of quiet, slow drama valley cloud spilled over passes between mountains. Stage 6. In places the narrow spine across the col was knifedged. I scrambled carefully along, up and down, ledges one side, over a pinnacle, across a slab, down, along a line of footholds. A gaping abyss on both sides. Switched on. A few loose rocks kicked off. Crampon scratches from winter ascents. To the last col before actual Mt Franklin. Weather was holding, a breeze from the west wasn’t bringing the gloom any closer, Murchison had a cloudy head by then but it wasn’t getting lower or spreading to other peaks.“From the col above Lake Anna climb via the steep South Face and South Ridge (an excellent route)”. Close up it looked doable without a rope and gear and a buddy. Not as steep. A line of scree, always a line of scree, appeared to lead up to a traverse line right to a sharp ridge that spired up to the first summit. Stage 7. Each stage flowing into the next, like an adventure puzzle, piece by piece. I climbed, at last felt like I was climbing, route finding, moving up. Through the loose stones that fell away below over a drop. Out along the traverse line and then to the ridge. Up carefully. Gently move up on rattly holds. New Zealand weetbix rock. Up the arête. Move after move on black and grey. Always downclimbable if things got too deep, too out there. I wondered what it would be like in winter, in snow and ice, maybe more solid, glued and frozen together. First summit. Along to the next, and the next false summit. Finally to the last, but no there was another away over further yet. And eventually the cairn on the true top. Mountains and valleys in every direction.
Nothing higher. Plummeting depths all around. I could see my campsite beside the jewel green lake way below. Rested a little. Kept glancing at the clouds and monitoring the wind. Ate and drank. Photos. A great sense of achievement. Thrilled I had pushed through each stage on the way up, into the unknown. With other people we would have done the same, most probably without using a rope, made the same decisions. On my own I had been singularly focused. Flowing through at my own pace was liberating.
Down. I was keen to get down. Through the now known territory. Before the weather changed. Down the climbing sections switched on. And relaxed and so easy down the screes, slid down with gravity. 10.00am second breakfast in camp. Packed up. Retraced my steps. Spent time photographing the flowers and plants beside the waterfall. Endless stonefields.
A small deer in the tussocks. Across the scrubby shelf I happened upon more of the old track.
Found more cairns to follow, some that I’d added a stone or two to make them memorable for the return journey.
Lowered myself down the tussock gully back onto the “slide”. Like a grey river ready to carry me away. I sought out the gravelly runs and slipskied down mostly in control. Walking poles became ski poles. Then the larger stones that didn’t move were more laborious, slower. A fraction of the time. 2.00pm at the base.
Lunch. A plan was hatching – to get back to Arthur’s Pass at a reasonable time. This would enable me to make the most of the following day’s good weather forecast to climb Mt Rolleston. So I pushed on back up Deception River. Passed marshals in high vis vests, yellow sign posts through the river, helicopters overhead, a team of officials and medics at Goat Pass Hut and timing stations – all being put in place for the famous Coast to Coast race the next day. Across NZ in one or two days. International multi sport event. 1000 participants run, cycle, kayak. $1000 each. My feet got hot. I worried about blisters. Tired trudging with a lightness of heart. Easy going downhill. New Zealand mountain hikes always take longer than expected. It’s difficult to internalise the scale.
7.00pm. Back at the car. 11 1/2 hours. Camped at the DOC campground beside the road in the village. Packed ready for Rolleston. Bed. Slumped into stillness.
4.45am. The alarm went off. Without even opening the door of the tent to check the weather I turned it off. Wonderful, soft slumberland. My legs were heavy. Best horizontal. Rolleston would still be there.
Later that day. Over coffee the weather up high had clouded in. Visibility would have been almost zero. A lucky decision. Rest.
The 100 Peaks Challenge. I’d never heard of Mt Franklin. Not a must do mission. Not necessarily the best climbs or the tallest mountains. More a guide to encourage people into the mountains. Thank you NZAC for this centenary initiative. A structure for a lifetime of forays across The Ditch. Now my list has its own scratchings and additions.
Postscript – the following day I overnighted at the NZAC lodge with a noisy crowd of Coast to Coasters (slept in my tent on the quiet grass outside to escape the snoring and 4am comings and goings).