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August 2011 Issue
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An eyrie among the mountains

Camp on Cascade Saddle, Mt Aspiring NP, Otago. Photo: Nick Groves
6 to 8hr from car park to camp near saddle.
Along western side of Lake Wanaka to Raspberry Flat car park. Easy track to Aspiring Hut (2 hr), where track to Cascade Saddle starts.

Stars filled the sky from one silhouetted mountain to another as we settled into our tent nestled among the tussock for a quiet night camping up high.

During the night my companion woke me to say that the weather was on the change. Marie was somewhat anxious with the prospect of a steep, slippery descent back to the valley from our exposed camp. She had been lying awake listening to the sounds of thunderclaps echoing around the mountains.

“Only avalanches,” I sleepily replied and promptly fell asleep again until dawn broke, calm and clear for our ascent of nearby Plunket Dome. From our high camp on Cascade Saddle this ‘beginner’s peak’ provided an ideal playground for a first-time crampon user.

Cascade Saddle, situated between the Matukituki Valley to the west and the Dart Valley to the east, provides a vital link between these two important tramping valleys. Many parties cross over this high pass in a fairly solid eight- or nine-hour day.

Aspiring Hut on the valley floor often gets crowded over summer, so why not take a tent and aim to camp up high, far from the maddening crowds? The well-marked, but definitely steep and exposed track to Cascade Saddle reaches a maximum elevation of 1800m after around four hours of steady slog.

Over the all-to-short summer months these upland basins are adorned with a myriad of alpine flowers, starting with large, white mountain buttercups in December and January and finishing in autumn with delicate gentians and clusters of snow marguerites clinging to the many tarns that occupy old glacial depressions around the saddle.

The saddle, at a height of 1524m, is named for a dramatically plunging stream that leaps some 200m over the lip of the scarp that drops precipitously to the valley floor 1000m straight below.

Westwards, across the deep cleft of the Matukituki Valley, is the highest of them all, the elegantly soaring pyramid of Mt Aspiring/Tititea.

Closer at hand, Plunket Dome rises 670m directly north from the saddle with the ice tongue of the Dart Glacier curling around from behind. To the south, more complicated terrain culminates in 2496m Mt Tyndall, providing an all-encompassing mountain vista from this eagle’s eyrie.

There is no shortage of campsites to choose from along the broad tussock shelf leading to the saddle, the only dilemma being which tarn will provide the best sunset reflections of Mount Aspiring.

Water is readily available everywhere, and suitably dry sites can be found except in bad weather, in which case you shouldn’t be here in the first place. There is usually also a toilet along the track, if it hasn’t been blown away by the ferocious winds that frequently batter these altitudes.

Set up camp, make a big brew, and wait for magic to happen across the valley at sunset.