Image of the October 2021 Wilderness Magazine Cover Read more from the
October 2021 Issue
Home / Articles / 30th anniversary

Roving through the ranges

Party fording Lawrence River. Photo: Pat Barrett
5-6 days
Lawrence Hut, six bunks; Lawrence Bivvy, two bunks; Reischek Hut, six bunks; Cameron Hut, nine bunks; Top Hut, 10 bunks; Potts Hut, 10 bunks
Both ingress and egress points for the route are in the greater Rangitata Valley off the Haketere-Potts Road. The Potts River has public access marked along its true left bank while access to the Clyde and Lawrence valleys are through Erewhon Station. Permission is required. Phone Colin Drummond 03 303 9739
BW18, BX18

To mark Wilderness magazine’s 30th anniversary, current and past editors and contributors scoured the archives for the 30 best trips we’ve published over the decades. This story, original published in November 2013, was included. You can find all 30 of the greatest Wilderness trips in the October 2021 issue.

Pat Barrett roams from river flats to alpine passes on a circuit of the Lawernce and Potts valleys

Thick fingers of cloud drape the ridges beneath the cloud base lowering into the Clyde Valley.

Our party of five are heading for the Lawrence Valley, a tributary of the Clyde, laden with six days of food and kit for a circumnavigation of the Arrowsmith Range through a mixed bag of passes, cols, rivers, and huts. It’s our annual trip together and we’re keen to find new country in these rugged headwaters. In fact, this is to be a consolation trip as our original intention to journey over the Main Divide to the Mungo and Hokitika valleys was curtailed by a forecast of heavy rain.

As a steady rain patters against our parka hoods we all have a moment of doubt regarding the week ahead – it’s never a nice prospect to start off in the rain. The cool temperatures and added diversion of a mustering party heading up the Lawrence on a heavily laden wagon pulled by Clydesdale horses keeps us moving at a good clip until the tidy little shelter of Lawrence Hut hoves into view. It’s stashed up on the bush edge of a long grassy terrace and provides welcome respite from the rain for lunch. Inside there’s a cosy fug while we eat, down a cuppa then quickly pack to rejoin our route to the upper valley and Lawrence Bivvy where we plan to stay.

By late afternoon heavy rain has set in, dampening down our spirits and raising the river to a level where crossing, though not hazardous, needs careful selection. Cold pervades the valley and new snow is revealed on the high ridges though intermittent gaps in the cloud – it’s not a good day to be out but the dramatic upper valley is drawing near and with it the promise of a cosy night at the biv.

Lawrence Bivvy takes some locating, being set well back from the river on a high terrace and not visible from below. Our party is drawn out across the valley and the rain is unceasing, so it is a relief to spy its burnt-orange façade at the back of the lumpy terrace. On opening the door, I discover the roof leaks, thus reducing the floor area for sleeping. Some of us will have to camp.

Dinner is a rather bleak affair, standing about in the rain, shivering. Some of the party are in a tent, others in the bivvy, yet we all come out for a dinner of rapidly heated dehy amid a landscape of massive black bluffs, waterfalls, and ice shelves.

It’s a grand introduction to this less visited part of the Alps and, though cold and wet, we are enthused to be here and more so with the promise of a better day for tomorrow and our traverse of Butler Saddle to the Rakaia Valley.

Butler Saddle was first crossed by Samuel Butler in the early 1860s when he mistook it for a Main Divide pass and was sorely disappointed when he discovered that it lead back to Canterbury via the Rakaia River. There is no such disappointment for us however, this is our first major pass of the trip and with a fine day and the magnificence of the newly snow-daubed mountains above us we’re anxious to be underway from the cold and still dark bivvy.

View from Butler Saddle to Rakaia River and Ramsay Glacier lake. Photo: Pat Barrett

View from Butler Saddle to Rakaia River and Ramsay Glacier lake. Photo: Pat Barrett

Upwards goes the route, always a test with a heavy pack, but we are early on the march, the day resplendent with the gaunt beauty of the mountains and the shadowy defile along which we climb is varied and grants steady progress.

Avalanche debris, canyons, waterfalls and talus slopes are our fare, pretty much a staple description for this kind of ascent. Higher up we cross the snowline and climb moderate slopes directly to the pass which is now partially obscured by cloud sweeping in on the nor’wester which clings to the western side of the Divide.

Midday sees the crest of Butler Saddle under our feet. There’s good snow cover here and an even snowier route west to access the Meins Knob route to the Rakaia. We head off in the gathering cloud and quickly find ourselves on steep unconsolidated snow slopes. With tussock beneath the snow it’s extremely slippery and after startling a group of chamois at 1900m, which bound away at break-neck speed into the gloom, we decide to return to the pass and descend directly into a feeder creek of Reischek Stream. It’s not the regular route but it works and gets us down reasonably quickly after a bit of a tussle with scrubby gullies in the headwaters.

This stream, though appearing to be rather small, is actually a major feeder of the upper Rakaia catchment and carries a significant volume of water. The lower section is up to 200m wide and, in high flows, could be bank to bank – a frightening spectacle. But we cross with ease and as dusk falls quickly reach the Rakaia and the main valley track which heads downstream to the comforts and charm of Reischek Hut.

It’s been a long crossing, from dawn to dusk, and we’re relieved to stop at last and bask in the glow of a good day out in the hills, through snow and scrapes, and now at rest to enjoy the camaraderie of our new found home. A warming fire, dinner, radio sched, and bed are the drill this night. It’s a huge improvement on the hardships of the Lawrence Bivvy site.

With the first major pass behind us we are energised for the next task at hand, Peg Col, 2004m. No one is saying much as we head down river before dawn, each lost in his own world of fatigue, aches and pains, and the uncertainty of what lies ahead. By late morning we’ve reached Banfield Hut at the mouth of Jagged Stream – the route to the col. From here it’s a 1300m ascent through scrub, scree, and snow to the col and then a 700m descent to Cameron Hut beneath the Cameron Glacier.

It seems a long way, and it is, but we’re not complaining. The upper valley is a wonderful sight – glaciers perched above bare rock slabs, rolling tussock terraces, rocky spires and yet another family group of chamois, this time one acts as a decoy and walks past us on a nearby scree face while the others race for the hills.

Higher up, we enjoy a breezy lunch and a quick brew-up beside massive boulders before tackling the upper stream bed and ever steepening slopes to the col.

The snow is deep here and our passage slows to a crawl. Behind us rails the wind and rain, swooping in from the Divide to inexorably claim the mountain tops and then the valleys in swirling grey murk. We have no time to lose, even so it’s still 5pm by the time we cross the pass and head down the steep southern flanks, through recent avalanche debris and snow-covered moraine benches to gain the Cameron Valley.

Nightfall finds us inching along beside a moraine wall which we need to cross to access the hut. It’s been a long journey and we’re exhausted. Pausing, we assess the route ahead. It’s hard to make out in the dark, though there’s good moonlight now and we know where we are – we just have to cross that wall.

The group inside Top Hut, Hakatere Conservation Park. Photo: Pat Barrett

The group inside Top Hut, Hakatere Conservation Park. Photo: Pat Barrett

I offer to check it out. “You’re a legend, mate,” says Bryce.

I don’t feel like one as I drop my pack to scramble in a tired, disconsolate sort of way to the top where, in the gale coming over from the valley I can just make out the location of the hut.

I call out the good news to the others and soon we are over to carefully ford the river in the gloom and walk the final 100m to the hut door and freedom from the day’s rigours.

With several tough days behind us and an easier onward route we decide on a half day of rest. There’s little that could surpass this magnificent day where a forever blue sky arches over the mountain citadels while ice-stained gullies plummet to the heaped up gravels on the valley floor, ebbing silently into the easy contours of tussock and scree. There’s not a breath of wind, the peaks seem but a step away and we alone possess their solitary beauty.

But the day still awaits our endeavours, so we move from the Cameron through the head of Spean Stream where the space of the Canterbury highcountry continues to unfold as we gain the easy saddle overlooking a dramatic corner of the South Branch of the Ashburton River.

In nature it seems there is always another rival, as no two mountain valleys are ever the same, yet the embrace of the Ashburton is all so familiar and yet so new. Broken peaks, icy chutes, and channels of scree lead away to the tawny pasture of the upper valley where we trek with relative ease among the spaniard grass to reach the valley floor and beyond to Top Hut, an old musterer’s hut secreted below a terrace. There’s a party of two in residence, but ample room for our group and what’s more a good open fireplace and a stack of firewood to use – courtesy of the last 4WD party that visited this lonely outpost. We readily slip into relaxing around the fire to recount our stories and cook a hearty meal as a starry sky deepens above the valley.

The last pass of the trip lies barely 4km away at the head of Stumpy Stream, a minor tributary of the South Ashburton, and leads via a side stream into Potts River and its musterer’s hut. It’s to be another half day walk for us and I for one am pleased – the weather is on the turn with fierce nor’west gales, rain and snow forecast for the afternoon. Ascending through open country to 1700m is not a pleasing prospect.

With a modest distance between the two huts we elect for a pre-dawn start to perhaps pre-empt the worst of the weather.

A bruised and violent sky rent with layers of cloud heralds the dawn as we plod toward the pass. Thankfully the wind’s not up yet – but it’s coming. At the pass, cold eddies of the gale sweep around us and send us into the Potts where small gorges, gullies, and an extensive terrace lead us to the lip of the canyon through which the river passes. It’s easy travel and by midday we are descending the steep sides of the canyon directly above Potts Hut. It’s empty, rustic, eminently comfortable, and, with a concerted scout for wood, soon warm enough to ward off the curtains of rain which sweep the treeless valley from late afternoon until well into the night.

Such a setting is fitting reward for a Plan B that has been well executed. Though attempts at weather predictions are not always accurate, we are chuffed to have relayed this one into real time with some precision. Our shelter from the storm is well placed for a half-day hike the next morning down ‘matagouri canyon’ – as we come to discover the lower valley gullies are beset with this fearsome vegetation – and over the high terrace above the Rangitata Basin to reach the road and trip’s end.

For now though, there’s another brew on the burner, a sleeping bag to occupy, stories to tell, and a trip roving the ranges to digest.

More photos from this trip…