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August 2013 Issue
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A visual feast

On Mt Oakden's summit plateau with Harper River below. Photo: Pat Barrett
Take the Coleridge and Harper roads from Windwhistle (off SH77 north of Rakaia Gorge) to the head of Lake Coleridge and then across to the Oakden Canal inlet. Permission is required from Mt Oakden Station (03 318 5809) to access this route.
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Mt Oakden, Mt Oakden Station, Canterbury

Standing at the northern end of Lake Coleridge in the central Canterbury foothills is the imposing summit of Mt Oakden (1633m). It’s actually  a twin-peaked mountain with a 1590m low peak lying 800m east of the high peak across a great fault scarp that divides the summit plateau.

The summit features are not the only attractions for climbing this modest outlier of the Main Divide. The Wilberforce River laps the very foot of Mt Oakden which acts as a barrier to the river’s south-eastward progress, sending it coursing off to the south-west before joining the Rakaia farther downstream.

So the scene is set for a visual feast of landscape features when climbing Mt Oakden and more so from its summit ridge stretched out for a kilometre in a north-south direction above the valleys.

Plying the lower slopes of the mountain, however, is not easy. There are many approaches with the least problematic being a direct line from the head of Lake Coleridge where the Oakden Canal brings waters over from the Wilberforce to feed into the lake’s hydro system. There are no tracks or signs here – it’s the perennial solution of, ‘find a line you like and go’.

In this case, my third ascent of the peak over many years, I chose Lake Stream which provided us a foothold on the lower slopes before heading up the unrelentingly steep northern ridge. Tussock, matagouri – that scourge of the Canterbury highcountry – rock outcrops, scree, and finally snow were our fare until the plateau. Brilliant sunshine accompanied us and an unfolding panaorama of ‘wow’ dimensions, that only New Zealand can offer on a faultless winter’s day.

Giant rivers spread below, snowy ridgelines cramming the horizon and every nook and cranny of the watersheds around us, and a cobalt blue lake cutting between the snow-flecked hills of the Coleridge Basin like a great blue torpedo.

It’s grand, awe-inspiring, and it’s time to sit and take it all in. The hike up hasn’t been so bad, steep yes, and a bit scratchy, but quick and to the point which is what I like, so that you can get to the top quickly and enjoy the moment of exhilaration from the peak. Now we get to savour the view from various points along the ridge crest, photograph it, and enjoy a high level lunch – almost touching the clouds.

A great reward for a morning’s exercise and we soak it up from our lofty vantage which, warmed by the sun, is difficult to leave. The journey down is hastened by the discovery of a steep snow and scree chute which deposits us directly onto the lower fanned slopes of Oakden, just 500m from our vehicle and allowing us to avoid the rocky steps on the northern ridge which I wasn’t looking forward to down-climbing.

Late afternoon light is edging onto the lake and hills as we gain the car – the slanting rays etching the contours with vibrancy and colour as they cast deepening shadows out over the lake.

Mt Oakden rears above us, its summit now a distant memory.