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December 2012 Issue
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Butler Range

Ice Lake during the spring thaw. Shaun Barnett/Black Robin Photography

West Coast Stewardship Land

Seen from SH6, the serrated peaks of the Butler Range emerge like carnivore’s teeth above the forest and mist. It’s an impressive sight, even by Southern Alps standards.

The range protrudes like a rib radiating out from the main backbone of the Alps, and lies just north of Aoraki/Mt Cook National Park. Little known and little visited, the range deserves more attention from both trampers and climbers. Climbers will find plenty of challenges on peaks like Mt Whataroa, while trampers will appreciate the sculpted schist gorges of the Whataroa River.

Three huts and valley tracks make the area reasonably tramper-friendly, but as with all West Coast rivers, the Whataroa is not be trifled with during bad weather.

According to the guidebook The Canterbury Westland Alps, explorer Charlie Douglas probably named the range after Whataroa resident John Butler, but it has also been known – more poetically – as the ‘Peaks of the Mist Range’.

1 Butler Junction Hut
Lying near the confluence of the Butler and Whataroa Rivers, Butler Junction Hut (8 bunks) will take most parties a very solid 8hr day, or more leisurely two days, to follow the route up the lower Whataroa River, passing exquisite schist gorges en route. Travel is on the true left until above the Perth River junction where a swingbridge crosses to the true right.

2 Top Butler Hut
Top Butler is reached on a tramping track from Butler Junction Hut in about 2hr. The six-bunk hut is superbly located on a river terrace above a major fork in the Butler River. Ice Lake lies just a couple of hours scramble up the Butler River North Branch.

3 Ice Lake
Hemmed in by the Butler Range to the north and the Main Divide of the Southern Alps to the south, Ice Lake boasts one of the most dramatic mountain settings anywhere in the Alps. During a hard winter, the lake freezes over, and the resulting spring thaw is something to behold. Then, during late September or early October, the infant Butler River issues out of the lake mouth with surprising force while ice floes on the surface jostle against each other.

4 Mt Whataroa
Mt Whataroa (2123m) rises as a great domed spire of ice near the head of Ice Lake. It was first climbed as late as 1949, a sign of its remoteness.

5 Mawson Glacier and Neish Plateau
From Ice Lake experienced trans-alpine trampers can undertake challenging journeys up the Mawson Glacier and over into the neighbouring Godley Valley by way of the Neish Plateau. This route has become increasingly cut up during recent years, and is probably best attempted during winter.

6 Whymper Hut
The Whymper branch of the Whataroa River sees less tramping traffic but is popular with hunters, who usually fly in to six-bunk Whymper Hut. Over the summer of 2003-04, DOC relocated the hut to a site better protected from avalanches. From Butler Junction, allow about 4hr to reach Whymper and be aware the route crosses avalanche paths.

7 Whymper Glacier
The head of the Whymper Glacier is certainly no place for wimps. In 1897 Tom Fyfe and Malcolm Ross (both of whom were in the first party to climb Aoraki/Mt Cook in 1894) made a daring and dangerous descent into the Whymper from Lendendfeld Saddle, at the head of the Tasman Glacier. Of one dangerous point on the route Ross later recorded, ‘Here an almost vertical slab of wet rock, between thirty and forty feet, led in a narrow gulch or chimney, down which a waterfall was pouring. There were no hand-holds to speak of – only one or two cracks in the rock – but I thought I could get down.’ Eventually the pair reached the base of the Whymper Glacier, but experienced further trials in the then untracked and unmapped Whataroa River. To my knowledge, no one has ever repeated their escapade.

8 King Peak
Although not as high as the nearby peaks of the Butler Range or main divide, 1938m King Peak is an impressive pyramid towering above Top Butler Hut. Indeed, it was once known as Pyramid Peak and there’s a fine view of it looking down valley from Ice Lake, too.

9 Seymour Peak and Grey Pass
From Ice Lake, trampers with some trans-alpine experience can make an ascent of Seymour Peak (2400m), on the Main Divide, for superb views over the Butler Valley and neighbouring peaks. From the lake’s southern shore, climb a ridge with a moderate gradient towards Pt 2040m. From there, the route steepens and is a bit more technical.
Nearby Grey Pass (2253m) leads into the Grey Glacier tributary of the Godley, a route that is increasingly cut off lower down.

10 Mt Ariki
At 2193m Mt Ariki is the highest peak on the Butler Range. From the Whataroa Glacier, it’s an easy Grade 1 climb, first ascended in 1949.