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February 2015 Issue
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50 best tramper’s peaks: mountains A-B

On top of the world on Avalanche Peak, Arthur's Pass National Park. Photo: Mark Watson
We’ve picked the brains of those who really know the country to create this list of must-climb peaks for every Kiwi tramper. All 50 are climbable without rope, all 50 provide a darn good challenge and all 50 are magnificent. Start ticking them off now…
Words and images by: Alistair Hall, Matthew Pike, Shaun Barnett, Pat Barrett, Nick Groves, Ray Salisbury, Geoff Spearpoint and Mark Watson


Avalanche Peak, 1833m

Arthur’s Pass National Park

At first glance, Avalanche Peak appears rather daunting. Its bush-clad eastern aspect towers over Arthur’s Pass and the summit itself cannot be seen from the highway at its base.

For keen and experienced trampers, Avalanche Peak is an excellent first foray into the alpine zone. Part of the mountain’s appeal is its relative accessibility. There aren’t many mountains in New Zealand where you can park your car outside a café, get your caffeine fix and then wander 100m down the road to the start of the track.

Likewise, the pub across the road from the car park makes an excellent spot for a celebratory meal and drink after a successful ascent.

Two to three hours hard graft up Avalanche Peak Track lands you 600 vertical metres above the village and with stellar views of nearby peaks Blimit, Cassidy and Mt Aicken. Another one to two hours along an increasingly narrow ridgeline pops you out on the summit, where the southern side of Mt Rolleston and the Crow Glacier dominate the landscape. For a moment, it’s easy to believe you’re on top of the world.

The descent from the summit is no less impressive than the ascent. Taking the longer but easier Scott’s Track means ever-increasing views of the nearby Devil’s Punchbowl Falls, and a gradual shift in vegetation from alpine lichens to lush mountain beech forest.

For the more adventurous, it’s possible to ascend Avalanche Peak, traverse across Lyell Peak and descend via Mt Bealey. If an overnight adventure appeals, drop from the summit down to Crow Hut before walking out via the Waimakariri River.

Time 8hr Grade Moderate

Mt Adams, 2208m

Adams Wilderness Area, West Coast

In the south west of the South Island, where SH6 cuts across the toe of the ranges between Harihari and Whataroa, a giant seaward-facing outlier of the Main Divide stands more than two vertical kilometres directly above the highway. This massive summit is Mt Adams, its high peak topping out at 2208m, whereas the highway, where you will start your ascent, is barely above sea level at a paltry 70m.

With statistics like this to underpin the effort involved to reach the summit, you can be assured of a long, hard push to capture this remarkable peak.

It’s remarkable for several reasons. Firstly, it is the highest summit directly accessible from the highway anywhere on the West Coast. Secondly, the view is absolutely awe-inspiring and stretches from Mts Cook and Tasman, all the way through the Adams Wilderness Area to the far distant summits of the Whitcombe Valley. Thirdly, the seaward view rivals that of the Alps with a panorama of lakes, wetlands, braided river, and the long slow sweep of the West Coast where the ever-present rollers of the Tasman Sea cast their spume on the beaches.

And lastly, if it is possible to cover the superlatives of this mountain in only four major points, the remoteness and beauty of the upper mountain are reason enough to attempt the climb; where the landscape changes from deep forest cover, to tussock fields, gravel, rock, and ice.

The climb begins up Dry Stream to the second major feeder where a marked track heads onto the spur on the true left side of this feeder to eventually gain the open tussock – it is very steep. This is South Westland and bad weather on the tops can be serious, not to mention making route finding extremely difficult and, possibly worst of all – no view!

Ice axe and crampons are essential at any season, as the small ice cap glacier needs to be traversed if you want to gain the high peak which is 500m south-east of the middle peak.

Going lightweight and putting in a high camp at around 1600m is a good option. From there you can make the summit and out to the road in a day. Make sure you are fit and go!

Time Two days Grade Difficult

Mt Alexander, 1958m

Otira-Kopara Forest Conservation Area, Canterbury

A good track leads up to Camp Creek Hut from Lake Brunner Road. The track continues steeply to the tussock where large tarn troughs at about 1300m offer idyllic campsites. Beyond, the ridge climbs and narrows to more exposed travel on rockier terrain, with scree sidles in places that can be used to avoid rocky schist blocks along the ridge. Then climb up to the rocky blocks that make up the summit.

Camping on the summit is possible and makes for a stunning place to wake up, with views from Lake Moana to Mt Rolleston, and of course the whole Taramakau stretched out below you.

Time 2-3 days (6-7hr to tarns; 4hr to summit) Grade Moderate

Great views towards Rakiura’s interior from Mt Anglem. Photo: Mark Watson

Great views towards Rakiura’s interior from Mt Anglem. Photo: Mark Watson

Mt Anglem, 980m

Rakiura National Park

If you’ve been committed enough to make it to Stewart Island for some tramping, then you might as well try to take in its highest point. While it’s only a diminutive 980m, it’s a long uphill hike from sea level and if there’s been much rain it can get pretty muddy. While it’s possible to camp near the summit, it’s a windy and exposed place, so most people make the climb from Christmas Village Hut, two days walk (12 hours) from Halfmoon Bay. Not only do you walk through some interesting vegetation zones but the view of the remote and rugged interior of the island and north to the South Island are well worth it.

Time 4-5 days Grade Easy

PIX: Anglem_vert_MW or Anglem_MW CREDIT: Mark Watson

Cap: Great views towards Rakiura’s interior from Mt Anglem

Angelus Peak, 2075m

Nelson Lakes National Park, Tasman

Angelus Peak provides trampers with a worthy destination for an afternoon’s scramble from Angelus Hut. From the hut, take the poled Mt Cedric Track, then branch off towards Sunset Saddle on a cairned route. From Sunset Saddle, at about 1900m, it’s a straightforward scramble to the summit of Angelus, with a couple of rockier sections to negotiate. More adventurous climbers might like to tackle the ridge leading directly up from Hinapouri Tarn.

The summit offers good views over Robert Ridge, the Angelus Basin, Lake Rotoroa and the higher peaks of the Travers Range.

Time Two days Grade Moderate

Mt Armstrong, 2174m

Mt Aspiring National Park, West Coast

The 1700m climb from road to summit on the Brewster Track is a bit of a grunt, following a long spur which is consistently steep, but never too demanding. There’s a chance to get some good scrambling practise in and climbers are rewarded with gorgeous views of Mt Brewster, the Tasman Sea and the unmistakable sight of Mt Aspiring. This is either a long slog of a day-hike or a moderate two-day tramp with the option of staying at Brewster Hut.

Time 1-2 days Grade Moderate

Descending through karst landscape below Mt Arthur. Photo: Nick Groves

Descending through karst landscape below Mt Arthur. Photo: Nick Groves

Mt Arthur, 1795m

Kahurangi National Park, Tasman

A fair proportion of those who live in Tasman Bay will have spent a satisfying day climbing Mt Arthur. Graham Valley Road (currently for 4WD vehicles only) knocks off the first 900m of ascent. From the car park it’s an easy stroll through sub-alpine forest to Mt Arthur Hut before the fun really begins.

The trail follows the north east ridge, skirting sinkholes, some of which drop hundreds of metres below the surface. Then a steep finale takes you to the summit ridge with views of the much wilder, harder-to-reach summits spread across the park.

Time 7hr Grade Moderate

Bannister, 1537m

Tararua Forest Park

Hidden deep in the northern Tararua Range, Bannister is a challenging tramper’s peak that’s typically traversed during a number of possible crossings and circuits. It’s a steep and craggy summit, typical of the slightly more rugged northern part of the range and the section between its summit and Waingawa requires a cool head for heights. Many parties have used a rope to haul or lower packs on this section over the years.

Time 3-5 days Grade Moderate

Ben Lomond, 1748m

Wakatipu District, Otago

You won’t be alone climbing this peak. For many, it’s a refreshing hangover cure as well as a classic day-trip for the outdoorsy Queenstown holiday maker. It can be climbed from the town itself, but many cheat and skip the first 450m by taking the gondola. By the time you reach the saddle you’ve left the tree ferns well behind and a final steep surge to the summit gives views back to Lake Wakatipu and Queenstown as well as the likes of The Remarkables, and Mts Earnslaw and Aspiring.

Time 6-8hr Grade Moderate

Gertrude Valley from Barrier Knob. Photo: Mark Watson

Gertrude Valley from Barrier Knob. Photo: Mark Watson

Barrier Knob, 1879m

Fiordland National Park, Southland

New Zealand has many classic tramping summits achievable in a day from the road, but Barrier Knob tops my list as the most classic. Reaching its summit of jumbled diorite blocks is a singular ascent through montane Fiordland and it’s do-able by any tramper with ice axe and crampon competency and basic route finding ability.

I’ve been to its summit many times, but probably the most memorable was my first visit in 1997. I’d arrived at Homer Hut that morning. It was the first of what would become many trips to the Darran Mountains over the years and I had a whole month ahead of me to climb and explore.

I asked the nearest person what was the best familiarisation trip I could do on my own.

“Barrier Knob,” came the immediate answer. “You’ll need an axe and crampons, and it’s probably worth chucking in a helmet; rock does come off the bluffs above from time to time.”

Thirty minutes later I wandered into the lower reaches of Gertrude Valley – the Darran Mountains’ most-used gateway – and was entranced.

Apart from a couple of brief sections of lichen-draped beech forest, the walk to the summit is completely above the bushline. The scale of the surroundings and the architecture of the peaks make it incredibly scenic. Waterfalls cascade from Talbot’s snowfields high above the Psychopath Wall, and ahead the valley terminates in a gigantic parabola of rock carved by glaciers, that forms a wall linking the massifs of Barrier Peak and Mt Crosscut.

The valley is escaped via a rough track (marked with the occasional cairn) and you gain height rapidly as the route weaves through snowgrass, scree and impossibly grippy diorite slabs until you reach the icy water of Black Lake, cradled in a basin of rock shortly below Gertrude Saddle. It’s a great spot to stop for a break before the final climb to the saddle.

In situ cables point the way up the whaleback of rock above the lake, followed by a small boulder field and a short climb to one of the best views in New Zealand. The western slopes of Gertrude Saddle plunge steeply into the Gulliver Valley. To the left is Mt Talbot and to the right; Barrier Knob. It’s hard dragging yourself away from the saddle sometimes: on a calm day it’s an idyllic spot, with warm rock slabs, alpine plants and a view that makes you keep on gazing.

It’s worth making a move though, because the view from Barrier is even more rewarding. The route follows rock slabs, snow grass (extremely slippery and the route is exposed in places) and finally a brief snowfield.

As a Darrans’ first-timer, arriving on that rocky summit was to view a new world. The panorama stretches from Mitre Peak – only a few kilometres distant – to Mt Pembroke and the ivory giants Mts Tutoko and Madeline; to the classic rock climber’s mountain, Sabre Peak. In between, endless rocky peaks top the range, and at their feet, distant lakes twinkle, encouraging you into the next new valley.

Time 4–6hr Grade Moderate

Bream Head / Te Whara, 488m

Bream Head Scenic Reserve, Northland

On the peninsula that is Whangarei Heads, a line of eroded volcanic plugs stab into the sky – these include Mt Manaia and The Lion. The highest, however, is Bream Head which rises steeply from the Pacific. Rather than walk the full five-hour route between Urquharts Bay and Ocean Beach, the quickest route to the summit is via the track up and over to Peach Cove, with its renovated hut and great swimming.

This steep, grassy track pushes through regenerating manuka for about an hour to gain the saddle. Once you’ve caught your breath, head east, traversing the main undulating ridgeline along to the top. Begin the steep descent towards Ocean Beach; only then will you notice the detour to the top of Bream Head, where spectacular coastal views await.

Time 2hr climb Grade Easy