Hiking Gillespies Pass in the Southern Alps of New Zealand

Friends from all over the South Island of New Zealand managed to get together for three days to hike the Wilkin – Young route over Gillespie’s Pass. At 1500m right in the heart of Mount Aspiring National Park, this rather taxing hike could only be described as spectacular despite the changeable weather we experienced.

We all met and spent the night at Makarora, a small pastoral settlement on the banks of the Makoara River, there was lots of chat, catching up on gossip and sorting out hiking gear and food. The long term weather forecast was dodgy, but we figured good keen southern women could handle anything.

My husband decided to come along as the token male at the eleventh hour for which I was pretty happy about, as a cold front was washing up the country, his life long mountain experience wouldn’t go amiss. The possibility of off loading some of my gear on him is a plus. Plus it’s always good to have a man about the house.

We were all pretty keen to climb up to Lake Crucible a small mountain lake on Mount Alba; this would be a full day side trip. To save a day we elected to take a fixed wing aircraft into the Siberia Valley early in the morning, dump our packs at the hut and go ‘DO’ Lake Crucible that day, and we would leave a car on the other side of the Makarora River for our return journey.

After a good sleep and a healthy breakfast we took the 25 minute flight into the remote Siberia Valley and surprise, surprise, the valley did not at all resemble its name, no austere grey rocks and rubble, no salt mines, bogs and stunted undergrowth. The valley floor was a mass of wild flowers; the rugged mountains soared high above us, with many hanging valleys and glaciers. A delightful mountain stream gurgled its way across the valley to drop down the steep mountain side to the Wilkin River far below.

This had to be heaven – until we took our off boots to wade the cute little stream that intercepted with our nights accommodation – wow! It was colder than cold. After warming our numbed feet we dumped our packs on bunks in the hut and set off along the valley floor absorbing the sheer beauty of the place.

The markers turned abruptly up out of the valley into the beech forest for the 880m ascent. The steady up hill seemed relentless; I had just finished a stint of night duty so wasn’t on top form, all body functions were ass about face, this was the hardest work I had done since I had had my babies, whilst my school teacher daughter loped effortlessly uphill I figured the relevance of age. Oh yeah – I had been in denial.

Coming out of the forest at the tree line gave us all a new lease of life. The sky was blue, the midday sun was beating down, the boulders got bigger and the scree became more unstable. Over a moraine mound and there was Lake Crucible, and wow! It had real ice bergs, no need to do that Antarctic trip that was on the wish list. This was a photographer’s heaven. We settled on a hot rock to enjoy lunch surrounded by this amazing panorama, crickets croaking around us the alpine grasses smelling sweet, Kea’s circling high in the sky eyeing up a free lunch, sorry guys not today.

What an amazing day on top of the world – tired and weary we made our way down the steep mountain side, along the valley floor to our very welcoming mountain hut and yeah we had it to ourselves. And the very best thing about the husband coming along, besides his great company and mountain experience, is that he loves to carry in red wine, I myself would do water and hope it would turn into wine, but somehow that doesn’t happen.

The next morning we woke to rain pattering on the tin roof – ‘damn’ the cold front had come through. Wrapping up in all our wet weather gear we looked up into the mist shrouding the steep route up to Gillespie Pass and it did not look at all welcoming. During the 550m ascent from the hut, the rain continued pelting down turning to sleet the higher we climbed, snug under all the layers of poly prop, gortex and water proof boots we plugged on into the mist and on reaching the summit where it was zero degrees the cloud dispersed long enough for us to take a few snap shots of the great views of the Southern Alps. Stunning is all we could say mainly because we were slightly short wind.

Over Gillespies Pass we plodded and down the 550m descent into the Young Valley, the rocky track wound its way down the mountain side awash with Alpine flora, gentians, ourisias, buttercups, the Mt Cook Lillie’s had just finished blooming but their dead heads stood tall on healthy stems, small ferns grasses and mosses mingled with the rivulets of water running down the steep mountain side all good enough to drink.

The Young Hut was so welcoming set on the valley floor surrounded by soaring mountains, 100 pictures later we wrung out our wet top layers and hung them up to dry, which they didn’t, warming up we cooked up some truly gourmet instant soup followed by packet pasta, but sadly no wine tonight girls.

A few games of cards by candle light, lots of jokes and gossip – we hadn’t run out yet, we turned in for the night. Only to be woken by crashing thunder followed by flashes of lightening. The bounce rate off the mountain side had a wow factor. It was consistent and so loud you felt the mountain side would crumble.

The next morning was a valley walk out to the Makarora River where we had left our car on the other side. The forest was magnificent, the ferns and mosses thriving in this wet environment. The thunder and lightening didn’t let up as we trundled down the track over gushing streams holding hands terrified of being swept into the raging river below.

Around midday at the insistence of our lone male we stopped to have hot soup and soggy bread and 4 hours later we arrived tired, wet, hungry and happy at the swirling mass of water, the Makarora River – no way could we wade across. There was a small shelter with only a roof so we decided this was it for the night, not quiet the Hilton – but we all had excellent down sleeping bags.

It was then that we spotted a red button on the side of the structure and a worn out notice saying “ring this buzzer and the National Park Office will answer”!! With fingers crossed that they hadn’t closed early, we rang that buzzer, and lo a human voice, no music, no press one for a jet boat hire, 2 for human resources and 3 for bookings. They could send a jet boat up for us but were so sorry it would cost $40.00 each, I’m sure we would all have paid ten times as much to get to the other side. The ‘other side’ had taken on a new meaning, hot shower, dry clothes, good food, and the all enticing warm dry bed.

The trip back down river was scary but our trusty boat driver was so experienced and confident we merely clung onto the rails till our fingers went numb and rolled with it; the boat was tossed like a match box in the ocean. But a hot shower changes everything, with renewed energy and zest we devoured huge steaks and salad washed down with no not pure organic mountain water, but beautiful mellow truly palatable New Zealand Merlot.

Elaine and Richard Bryant are born and bred Kiwis, experienced in the natural outdoors and love overseas adventures. They are independent and fun loving with a passion for finding that idyllic corner of the world sometimes overlooked by those seeking outdoor adventure travel experiences. http://adventurealive.com

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