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Rabbit Pass Trek, New Zealand

Adventures

New Zealand's Rabbit Pass trek, a technical challenge devoid of huts or other niceties, should probably be known as mountain goat trek. Huw Kingston locks horns with New Zealand's "most challenging" trek.

HOP TO IT

Waking to valley mist and sunlight on the mountains above, we porridged, packed and headed away. We passed a couple of Israeli brothers heading down and, with light rain falling, emerged into the basin below the awfully named Mount Awful (2192m), a glaciated peak that dropped a rim of cliffs towards us. More friendly Mount Doris ( 2010m) cowered behind her rotten neighbour.

Marker poles indicated the way to Gillespie Pass – a 700 metre climb up a broad ridge. The higher we climbed, the stronger the wind blew and at times we had to steady ourselves against it. The route actually bypasses the 1500 metre Gillespie Pass, climbing 100 metres higher onto the ridge a kilometre further south. As clouds scudded across Mount Awful we could look way down into the Siberia Valley and across to the main divide of the Southern Alps.

Top Forks Hut

"The sandflies are less worse at higher altitude" proffered Laurence; so in testing the theory we descended to camp in light rain by the Gillespie Stream around 900 metres. Whether it was the wind or the height, they were certainly only occasional visitors.

It took us an hour to descend the steep gorge of the Gillespie into the flatlands of Siberia. We dumped packs for the 3 hour return trip up to Crucible Lake; a classic glacial cwm with hanging glaciers fast retreating to leave scoured rock walls.

THE VIEW FROM UP TOP

Top Forks was in a supreme location, its veranda offering panoramic views of the glaciated twin summits of Mount Pollux ( 2536m) and Castor ( 2518m). Pollux and Castor were twin brothers from Greek mythology believed to have been fathered by two fathers (work that out). This brother thing was getting ridiculous.

After an icy bath in the nearby river we watched the sun dance on the ice before disappearing into the night. Signs in the hut mirrored those in the guide's: ‘The route over Rabbit Pass is extremely dangerous when wet or windy. Do not attempt it if any of these conditions exist. There is significant exposure and fall hazard and many people choose to use ropes on sections.’

Young Flats Mount Awful behind

The following day was indeed wet and windy; emphatically not a day for the pass. Despite conditions, we all set off on a side trip up to Lucidus Lake and beyond to Lake Castalia. At Lucidus, John and the brothers turned back whilst Heather jumped ship to jump rivers with us. It was a wet ascent to Castalia and by the time we reached it, dozens of waterfalls, hundreds of metres high, were streaming off soaring cliffs and a biting wind was blowing. Would our return route be blocked by the rising rivers? Most were OK until the penultimate one; now a raging torrent that I deemed unsafe to cross. Fortunately the sun was peeking out and, after an hour waiting, the level dropped enough to cross safely.

Back at the hut, a guided group had arrived. Guide Michael was leading a recently retired American doctor and his two sons; two brothers…

Taking on the barista role, Michael thrust a fine brew our way and gave us the weather forecast. The following day would see strong winds and light rain increasing overnight with 100mm expected to fall in total. It looked like our chances of getting over Rabbit Pass were dashed.

Despite this, Laurence and I decided we’d at least go to the bottom of the Waterfall Face — the first challenge in crossing the Pass. We were up before dawn to find it wasn’t raining but a decent breeze was blowing. We farewelled all the brothers and others, fully expecting we’d see them later after we’d turned back. A steady 500 metre climb brought us out beyond Snow Bridge Gorge into the open valley leading to the Waterfall Face. Now the thin trail disappeared and we made a route to below the face. The wind was stronger now, spots of rain falling. A ribbon of water cascaded down cliffs for 300 metres off Betsy Jane while a mere 100 metre fall marked the face proper. A face made up of near vertical snowgrass peppered with rock bands.

Man on the crux of the descent after Rabbit Pass

Laurence and I sat on our packs below the face. It was windy, it was raining lightly, it had rained heavily yesterday, it was due to rain very heavily later. What to do? I’ve learned over many years that most land managers tend to over-exaggerate possible dangers. But the guidebook wasn’t written by land managers. And climbing the Waterfall Face was probably the lesser of our concerns. Beyond Rabbit Pass itself, there was a steep rock gut to descend, considered more difficult and certainly not to be attempted in the wet. If we got up Waterfall Face and couldn’t descend the gut, we were very much caught between a rock and a hard face. Getting up Waterfall Face was one thing, descending it something more altogether. What to do?

We sat for 40 minutes even though we knew what we should do. Finally, we shouldered our packs and started off back down.

We’d gone perhaps 400 metres when we were picked out in a spotlight of sunshine. Looking at each other, we laughed and in unison exclaimed "F**k it, let’s do it!", and with that, we turned back toward the face.

CHALLENGE ACCEPTED

Up we went, following earth steps kicked into the grass, meandering into short, greasy gullies and onto short, damp rock slabs. It was certainly exposed and at perhaps 150 metres high, not a place to slip. Whilst the sunlight had gone, the rain was holding off. At the top of the face we emerged above an impressive desolate hanging valley which we followed to the 1400 metre Rabbit Pass itself. By now the wind was screaming. Laurence’s bunny hop for the camera was blown off course.

Diving in the river

From the pass, occasional marker poles led us to climb a ridge. On a couple of occasions, wind gusts laced with misty rain completely flattened me. At 1600 metres one last pole announced our next challenge. We looked down a rock face. Beyond far below, 800 metres below, were the headwaters of the east branch of the Matukituki Valley, but our eyes, like rabbit’s caught in headlights, remained focussed on the rock. I peered over to see a couple of slings in place but we had no rope. "I read in the guide that you go out right on that ledge", Laurence shouted down to me. I looked right and indeed there was a 45-degree ledge. It looked horrible. I started down to find indeed it was. I kicked loose rocks off the ledge in an effort to find footholds, and pulled gingerly on uncertain handholds. I found myself wholly agreeing with the land managers. I spent ages trying to trust a greasy, sloping foothold. In the end, I half bum-shuffled, half down-climbed and traversed out, pulling off handholds as I went.

Laurence started down and mirrored my descent minus the inelegant bum-shuffle. "My sphincter was twitching like a rabbit’s nose" was his memorable statement, when, like brothers in arms, we hugged below the crux.

On safer ground, we descended steeply to the Matukituki, regularly glancing back to our improbable route. We were keen to get past all the river crossings to Ruth Flat before the forecast heavy rain. Wetting our boots one last time, the rain began and we camped soon after. There was plenty of time to reflect on our day and our luck, as we listened to rain on the tent until lunchtime the following day.

With one more camp, our challenging but rewarding week in the Southern Alps was finished with a climb high above Bledisloe Gorge thence down to cross the Matukituki River on a 3-strand walkwire — a high ropes course for free — to finish on the road at Cameron Flat.

We had indeed pulled that particular rabbit out of the hat.

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