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A quest for grandeur

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December 2020 Issue

Erik Nilsson climbs high above the Routeburn Track for a different perspective of the famous track and a chance to escape the madding crowd

Our motives for spending time outdoors come in many shapes and forms. Sometimes it can be an intimate experience. Finding pleasure in the details of little things: marvelling at a field of wildflowers or the smooth rock of a deep canyon wall.

Often we venture out in pursuit of solitude. Hiking along the banks of a gently-flowing river as it meanders through secluded beech forests, far from the nearest road or building.

But sometimes we journey in search of grandeur. Seeking out expansive mountain ranges in hopes of experiencing the raw strength and drama that the land has to offer.

This is a tale of the latter. An excursion rooted in finding new heights, and pushing physical limits.

Our planned mission was a three night route that would see us looping around the Somnus and Momus branch of the Humboldt Mountains. We would traverse the Serpentine Range all the way to North Col, then pick our way to Lake Nerine and eventually Park Pass before turning south down the Rock Burn to eventually link up with our point of disembarkment via Lake Sylvan. The trip would include approximately 15km of untracked ridge travel and two nights spent high in the alpine.

Goodbye crowds

It was with a spring in our step that my hiking buddies and I elbowed our way through the throng of people standing in front of the bridge that marks the start of the Routeburn Track.

We didn’t mind the crowds because we knew that in a few short hours we would have left the people behind, well on our way to finding solitude deep in the Mt Aspiring backcountry.

We could already picture ourselves trudging along the spine of the South Island’s Main Divide, through alpine tussock, along exposed and jagged ridgelines, past sombre, unspoilt alpine lakes.

As we sweated up the switchbacks climbing out of Routeburn Flat, we were greeted by the peaks that would be our home for the coming days. The Humboldt Mountains soared dramatically to the heavens and beckoned us to join them.

Fleeting glimpses of mist-shrouded mountains temporarily reveal themselves during the approach to Lake Nerine, nestled high in Mt. Aspiring National Park. Photo: Erik Nilsson

Within a few hours, we approached Harris Saddle and skirted Lake Harris knowing our time to deviate from the Routeburn Track had come. At the westernmost point of   the lake, we struck north, following a lightly trodden footpath, into the Valley of The Trolls. Rumour has it that the large and mysteriously-shaped boulders strewn throughout the length of the valley are trolls-turned-stone.

The boggy ground of the valley sucked and tugged at our boots, and by the time we reached the waterfall draining Lake Wilson, at the head of the valley, we were glad to be walking on fine solid rock.

Parallel to the falls (hiker’s right), an obvious gully marks the way to the upper basin. The large and calm Lake Wilson greeted us as we crested the final steps of the climb.

With plenty of daylight remaining, we decided to cross the calf-deep outlet of the lake and scramble up the unnamed peaks above its western shores, heading north along the Serpentine Range.

We were all struck by the beauty and the feeling of wildness of this place. Less than three-kilometres south, the bustling Routeburn Track wound its way along the mountain slopes. But up here, we may as well have been the last people on the planet.

No trails mark the route from this point on, but the weaving Serpentine Ridge proved an affable companion. Only a few times did we find ourselves gingerly looking for footholds on exposed outcrops of rock. For the most part, the wide tussock ridge is an absolute pleasure to saunter along.

In typically dramatic Fiordland fashion, the slopes to the west plummeted 1500m to the Hollyford Valley, with the Hollyford River twisting and turning flowing onward to the Tasman Sea.

Across the deep and wide valley, the imposing Darran Mountains loomed menacingly. The ice-capped crown of Mt Tutoko, Fiordland’s highest mountain, protruding above the rest with blinding shafts of light reflecting off its glistening summit.

With a stellar weather forecast, and hardly a gust of wind, we opted to set up camp on a high point along the ridge.

As the sinking sun dipped towards the rim of the Darrans, we were treated to a bout of what can only be described as pure mountain magic as everything around us was illuminated in a golden haze.

Morning light

A clear night, such as the one we had, is often accompanied by a significant drop in temperature. Sure enough, our water bottles were filled with icy slush but we eagerly shuffled out of our sleeping bags to see what the day held in store.

As we gained a vantage point above our campsite, the sight was nothing short of amazing. An impenetrable cloud inversion had covered the North Branch of the Route Burn as well as the Valley of The Trolls and Lake Wilson. At low points along the range, the sea of dense fog seeped over the ridge like flowing water and cascaded down towards the Hollyford Valley, evaporating before it reached the bottom. The display held us enchanted as we silently ate our breakfast.

Eventually, the sun’s rays dispersed the layer of clouds and, in the quickly warming dawn, we set off northwards again.

: Setting up camp along the rugged shores of Lake Nerine. Across the lake giant crags protrude from its cold depths. Photo: Erik Nilsson

The going was easy towards North Col. The tops of the Serpentine are sprinkled with picturesque tarns and on all sides the views are consistently gorgeous.

By noon we were walking in the shadow of Nereus Peak and casting glances down the length of the Route Burn North Branch. Following wide rocky benches at around the 1500m contour, we skirted the mountain on its northern flanks.

Curious rock wrens skipped and played amongst the boulder fields, occasionally lunging themselves into short-lived flights whenever our presence became too intrusive.

After no more than a kilometre along these benches, a set of small cairns marked the straightforward route over the spine of the ridge and down towards Lake Nerine.

By now, afternoon clouds had settled around some of the surrounding peaks and the constantly-changing scenery created an eerie effect as the lake drifted in and out of view.

We arrived at the flat rocky shore of the lake and across the water giant horizontal crags jutted hundreds of metres defiantly into the sky from the silent surface. Resembling old battle scars, they showcase the enormous strength of the geological forces at play in the region. The lake drains at its eastern end, from where, amongst giant granite slabs, breathtaking views of the Rock Burn   and Theatre Flat can be had.

After yet another frigid night spent at 1500m we began our final day of alpine hiking. Aiming for the small lake north-east of Lake Nerine, altitude was gradually gained until Pt1594. We made our way back down the opposite side of the knoll, to the rocky basin just north and west of it. The area is dotted with small tarns and a pretty alpine lake that is worth spending some time examining.

Altitude was lost as we made our way out of the granite bowl and onto, at times, uncomfortably steep tussock-covered slopes. With snow, or even rain, traversing this exposed section of the mountain would be treacherous and a different story entirely. For us, however, hiking cheerfully under a blue sky, there were no issues.

At Park Pass, we spent some time exploring the rolling tops before making quick work of the steep descent into the Rock Burn. We finally found a flat spot amongst the tufty lumps of grass of Theater Flat, while rain clouds gathered over our campsite.

Our last day was largely spent hiking along maintained trails with the soft patter of rain escorting us through the underbrush where we occasionally caught glimpses of whio frolicking in the rapids of the quick-flowing river.

At the Sylvan Campsite, I drew the short straw and set off at a slow jog towards our car, a few kilometres up the road, happy for the opportunity to reflect on the past few days’ exploits. We couldn’t have wished for a better setting for our pursuit of grandeur.

Total Ascent
Car park to Serpentine Range campsite, 6-8hr; To Lake Nerine, 8-10hr; to Theater Flat, 5-7hr; to Routeburn Road end, 4-6hr
Routeburn Road end

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Serpentine Ridge (gpx, 33 KB)

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