- Total Ascent
- 5-6 days in good weather (this trip took 11 due to poor weather)
- Camping at Theatre Flat, Park Pass, Cow Saddle, Fohn Lakes, Dart River
- The walk begins and ends at the Routeburn Shelter
- CA09, CB09
Under the jagged edifice of Mt Chaos in Mt Aspiring National Park stands an isolated lake that shimmers with mystery: Lake Unknown. David Bonham embarked on the classic Five Passes route in a bid to stand on its secluded shores
Up the valley it came, a thundering tidal wave of sound as a furious wind ricocheted along the pass and smashed into the side of my tent. I cowered inside, as I had done for over 50 hours, a prisoner to the wind’s relentless whimsy. I contemplated disaster. Hours before I’d been flooded, and mid-storm I was forced to re-pitch amidst the dips of twisted tussock tufts. Exposed and vulnerable, I didn’t know where I’d go if it happened again.
Nobody can hear you scream on the windswept desolation of Cow Saddle, a pass perched in the backcountry of Mt Aspiring National Park. For two-and-a-half days I sat in my tent listening as rain lashed so violently I wondered if it would rip my canvas. Two creeks, both bone dry on arrival, had burst their banks. Waterfalls on the mountain opposite had increased their flow fivefold; on the rare occasions I managed sleep, the noise of cascading waterfalls filled my dreams with tsunamis.
Fear eventually subsided into reverence. Nature is always in control. She can take us out whenever she pleases. The storm was a humbling reminder of that ever-present fact.
Cow Saddle marked day six of an 11-day mission to reach Lake Unknown. Steve and I were traversing the circuitous route known as the Five Passes, of which Cow Saddle was the third.
The start of the trip was a stark contrast: a rare period of five consecutively sun-kissed days. Veering off the Routeburn Track after roughly 500m, we’d tracked up Sugarloaf Pass before descending into gnarled and mossy beech trees beside a tumbling creek. We’d squelched across plains alongside the Rock Burn and onto Theatre Flat, a huge arena surrounded by mountains that glowed as the sun set on glaciers. Park Pass waited after that, and a steep, scrambling detour to the aquamarine depths of Lake Nerine had me wondering if weather that good could possibly last.
Weather changes moods. We’re creatures of sun, thrivers in the light, and after 60 hours of Cow Saddle canvas confinement, Steve and I were overjoyed to finally be outside again. We climbed over boggy ground towards our penultimate pass, Fiery Col, which at 1546m was the highest point of our walk. The sun sneaked out of the clouds and my excitement at spying a fleck of golden light bordered on ecstatic. Sunshine fosters hope. Its dappled tones beam possibility.
Just a few hours previously, in the midst of prayer (funny how extreme weather events turn me temporarily religious), the prospect of reaching Lake Unknown looked as bleak as the weather. Getting there requires an off-track scramble up steep slopes packed tightly with centuries-old beech forest. A hiker familiar with the area told us the 1.5km ascent took five hours when approaching from the Dart River side. We were warned it was an arduous endeavour, a frustrating snag-fest at times, but it all sounded worth it.
Mist spiralled as we scrambled up the final part of an unstable scree slope to straddle Fiery Col. We descended out of the mist, over slippery rocks and alpine grass, and between the courses of two creeks. Eventually the mist lifted and more marvellous mountains stood as serrated sentinels that dominated the horizon.
In our glee to be outside, exuberance overrode navigation. We were like little boys running around. I detoured to a peak with interesting looking rocks on top. Steve climbed down beside a waterfall. We took our eyes off the weather. In a moment, mist descended and suddenly Steve had vanished.
After 10 minutes of calling I got a response. Steve was higher than expected; I looked at the map and thought he was too high, but maybe he knew something I didn’t. And so I climbed to meet him, further into the mist. We were close to our intended campsite at Fohn Lakes, yet unable to connect the final dot that would land us there.
One hour of daylight remained. Rain spat as we stumbled around a boulder field. We’d climbed too high, but as we tried to get down, we were confronted with sheer slopes seemingly on all sides. There was no other option but to emergency camp. Few places pitched us out of the wind and rain; none got us off the rocks. Eventually I spotted a small patch of flattish ground surrounded by huge boulders. There was room for only one tent, but I was shivering and yawning, well on the first lap toward a hypothermic podium.
We dug up rocks and tried to even out the ground. Getting into the tent involved mild acts of contortionism, but once inside we were surprisingly comfortable.
A nocturnal wind danced around the mountain, and in the morning mist meandered, but our brains were less hazy. We soon worked out our location and descended to our last pass at Fohn Saddle.
The prospect of a steep 500m descent would have most knees knocking, but our foray to Beans Burn, a tributary of the Dart River, was the easiest part of the day. The paradox of alpine grass: it’s both help and hindrance. I’ve heard how some hikers have fallen to their deaths after slipping on this grass, yet its slippiness can also be used in a hiker’s favour. It pays to plan a route and clutch grass in both hands, not going so fast that you can’t see hidden rocks. Steve and I slalomed down, reaching Beans Burn in less than half an hour.
We rock-hopped downriver until we reached a rock bivouac. It looked like a small Neanderthal dwelling with three small ‘bedrooms’. Previous occupants had carpeted the floor with straw and made a wall from sticks to keep out the wind. Charred walls arched over a fireplace. There was a frying pan and an axe to chop wood.
Dry feet are akin to gold dust for any hiker, but after a bivouac lunch we were instantly forced to kiss them goodbye. Into the river we plunged, unable to find an alternative route. As rain poured down, there was a strange sense of liberation in giving our dry feet over to the persuasive river current. No longer did we have to expend energy to avoid creeks or anything aqua. We just strode through everything.
Clouds closed in, mountaintops disappeared and a thick sleet dressed the valley in a hazy drape. We wove between tussock tufts and vanished into confusing strands of beech forest where we waded waist deep in ferns. We got lost several times. We were saturated and stayed warm only if we kept moving.
Our aim was to reach a flat over which Mt Chaos presided. But as light faded and rain poured heavier, there was no sight of any flat. Hope rose with every hint of murky light between trees, but we were repeatedly regurgitated onto small rocky clearings strewn with logs. Creeks, perhaps quite tame usually, demanded concentration and strategic rock grabs. Their force was surprising given their size, and they slowed us down significantly.
For the second night in a row, we were forced to emergency camp. We were in the midst of a mossy forest cluttered with tree roots. I wrung water out of my clothes, dishevelled and defeated. Darkness cloaked us. We had no choice but to stop when it got too thick, and so set up camp on a bed of roots. Steve spent the night with one root poking into his head. Everything was soaked – even my sleeping bag and mattress.
In the depths of the dank forest, saturated, sore and sleep deprived, I pondered what drives us to the frontiers of exploration, to reach places frequented by few. Is it an egoistic pursuit to be the first or only person somewhere, or is it a drive to reach a place of spacious solitude, a place where we can breathe unhindered?
I’m blessed, or cursed, with an overwhelming urge to see what’s around the next corner, to pursue a curiosity that will never be satiated, an intrigue that draws me forward in the hope that the next corner will reveal everything I’ve wanted to know and see. In seeking this, perhaps I entertain a belief that experiencing it will endow me with wholeness.
My motivation to reach Lake Unknown was about tuning in to the rhythm of myself, away from crowded urban environs, to activate a primal masculinity that only a wilderness scape can, and then to take this ancient fire – a spark usually extinguished amidst the convenience of everyday living – and apply it to my everyday life.
Under the glare of Mt Chaos, on the flat we’d hoped to reach the previous evening, I spied a tumbling creek. It marked a seemingly invisible path to Lake Unknown, and would be our only means of navigation once in the forest. But after 10 days of traversing mountain passes I was exhausted. The last two days of emergency camping and little sleep, coupled with the stress of the 60-hour storm had zapped me.
With the end in sight, I wondered if I could leap the final hurdle. I wondered why I was leaping at all. The trip had become destination-focused after the storm; our first five days were all about spontaneous adventure and Lake Unknown was merely a glimmer at the end of a playful tunnel. But the closer we became, the more narrow minded I’d become about reaching it. My body no longer wanted to crawl through tunnels. It certainly didn’t want to wade through freezing rivers up to my waist, but across the Dart River we went, camping in an idyllic spot amidst a swarm of sandflies. We looked like amateur beekeepers sitting on the shore in our head nets and gloves.
I never made it Lake Unknown. Two trampers passed our campsite and warned us another front was on its way – this one laden with thunder and lightning. If we opted to climb to the lake, there was potential to be trapped there – unable to re-cross the creek to come back down. Instead, we wandered down the Dart and Rock Burn, over Sugarloaf Pass and back to our car.
Vistas un-spied and mists that obscure, these things are what drive adventurers to keep exploring. For the possibility that there’s always something unknown out there, that’s the most exciting prospect of all.