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Secrets of the Serpentine

Image of the December 2017 Wilderness Magazine Cover Read more articles from the
December 2017 Issue

Snaking over a scenic, tarn-speckled spine between two great parks of the south – Mt Aspiring and Fiordland. By Lauren Schaer

The Serpentine Range is one of those places that is so beautiful you want to keep quiet about it, lest too many people start heading there.

I’m going back this summer, and intend to pitch my tent beside one of its impossibly scenic tarns, the only company expected will be a rock wren or two.

But in the sharing spirit of the tramping community, I’ve decided to spill the beans about this amazing place.

Many people will have seen and tramped a part of the Serpentine Range –its southern flanks can be reached on the Routeburn Track. That’s how I got my first taste of the area.

I’d also visited Lake Nerine on a circuit of the Route Brun and Rock Burn valleys. But my most recent visit was on a traverse of the range from Harris Saddle to North Col. Poring over the topo map, I’d wondered if the exposed ridgeline would prove too technical – I’m a happy clamberer, but not a serious climber. I almost opted out when I found an account of the route online with photos showing mountaineers in helmets. But the full route taken by that group was much more exposed than what I planned and I could always turn back if it got too dicey.

The Routeburn Track provided a gentle warm up. The forest shade kept me cool and I soon arrived at Routeburn Falls Hut with its five-star views down the valley.

At the hut, a tramper smugly informed me that my pack looked heavy. I smiled and replied, “It is,” and then walked on, leaving him to a night in a bunkroom of snorers and farters. Some burdens, I thought, are worth their weight.

It was thirsty work heading up to Harris Saddle. A tour group cooled off in the shallows of Lake Harris as I veered off track around its western shore. Things felt immediately wilder and quieter on this unofficial trail to the Valley of the Trolls. I waved to three trampers setting up camp among the boulders and swamp.

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The view from North Col into the Route Burn North Branch. Photo: Pete Ferranti

Steep crags loomed ahead, hemming the southern edge of Lake Wilson, 200m above. It’s possible to climb that way, but I’d heard it was easier to keep right and follow the eastern stream draining Mt Xenicus. I shifted down a couple of gears and took it slow and steady on the untracked slope. When I reached the head of the stream, at 1480m, I found a gorgeous sheltered basin with a fresh green carpet of moss. Alpine flowers fringed the meandering stream and I was tempted to set up camp right there. But the thought of morning cloud worried me, and I wanted to see Lake Wilson while the weather was clear.

So, after carrying on to the flat top of a spur at 1520m, I looked back to see distant Fiordland peaks filling the landscape as far as the horizon. It was impressive, but a minute’s walk north brought me into the enormous Lake Wilson basin and my jaw dropped at the sight. The twinkling lake sat at its heart and a great circle of rocky peaks formed a silent amphitheatre around it. The glacier-draped Darran Mountains filled the backdrop and not a breath of wind stirred the tussock. I had the place to myself.

I found a small patch of flat ground to camp on, then found a stream and washed away the sweat of the day. Later, in my tent, with the door pinned back, I ate my dinner as the sun set over the hills and the first stars came out.

Next morning, still blissed out on the tranquillity of the area, I made my way north, dropping to a sidle beneath Mt Erebus. Every time I stopped to catch my breath, I looked back at the lake. Still no sign of other people. Still paradise.

I passed a large turquoise tarn and startled a sea gull. Its cries filled the basin as I scrambled over chunky scree towards the ridge. Just east of Pt1807, I passed a shrinking pocket of snow and pressed my fingers into its cold, grainy surface to leave a temporary marker of my trail.

From the ridgetop, the view is across to the Humboldt Mountains and down into the Route Burn North Branch 900m below. The plan was to exit down that valley, but not before going  north over the Serpentine’s back.

Round the corner, the Serpentine revealed herself. She slithered ahead, her back falling and rising as she wound between Fiordland and Mt Aspiring national parks. The sense of space was incredible. To the left, my eyes could follow the Darran Mountains all the way north to where they slipped beneath low cloud and into the sea at Martins Bay. It was a good day to be in the hills.

I sauntered on, in my element: tussock, rock, alpine plants, small tarns and a gentle breeze, occasionally doubling back to avoid small bluffs. I came to a section mentioned in Moir’s Guide and followed its recommendation to sidle east under Pt1715. A rock biv part-way along was worth a look, but not a top 10 qualifier.

At a sheltered tarn, just below Pt1550, were a couple of rock wrens – my favourite birds – bobbing among the boulders. Rock wrens have excellent taste when it comes to location.

Enjoying the tranquillity at Lake Wilson. Photo: Lauren Schaer

Camp was made in a hollow on the eastern slope, and that night I watched the Southern Cross rise over Momus. I used my inReach locator beacon to ask my friend for an updated weather forecast: ‘The wind might pick up the next afternoon, but not to worrying levels,’ he replied.

True enough, there was a fresh breeze the next morning, so I decided not to dawdle. There was a very steep-looking chute in the rock ahead and I didn’t fancy it. Luckily, there was a  gentler route to the west. At the top of this next hill, Pt1550, I was met with an imposing view of all the knobbly rock and steep drops that lay between me and North Col.

The next stretch of the range was perhaps the most memorable. A deep green tarn lay ahead, while opposite a perilously sheer drop pulled the eye down, down, down.

Then came the most crucial part of the route. Moir’s Guide offered great advice about how to avoid a precipitous section by staying on the west side of the unmarked hump between points 1550 and 1555. It was steep enough that I still felt the need to lower my pack on the descent. From there, it was all route scoping and rock clambering. I double-backed a few times, preferring to make controlled moves with good handholds than do anything risky. I was never in a truly exposed position, but it was totally absorbing. By now, the breeze was becoming more of a wind, and I was glad to reach North Col before it got any stronger.

Descending into the Route Burn North Branch, I was in familiar territory and enjoyed seeing the old rock biv at the bottom of the col. It was tempting, but I thought it wiser to do some river crossings before any rain came. It’s a long walk down the Route Burn, and things can quickly become unpleasant if you miss a cairn in the scrub. Then, just when you think you’re over the worst, you come to a vast boulder garden with too many cairns to make sense of. Wading between huge mossy boulders I discovered sheltered water gardens and enjoyed the contrast in terrain. Route finding became simple again on the wide grassy flats.

That night, I camped in a forest clearing by the river and delayed cooking until after the sandflies had gone to bed. It was such a delightful spot that I decided to stay another night and finally reached the Routeburn Track the next afternoon. The compacted trail did its best to shred my tender feet and seemed so characterless after a few days in the wild.

I felt veritably feral next to the pristine trampers at the car park about to begin their adventures. My own adventure was over. I’d made it there and back again and had a wonderful time. And that’s the best any tramper can hope for.

Distance
38.8km
Total Ascent
2660m
Grade
Difficult
Time
Routeburn Shelter to Lake Wilson, 6-7hr; Lake Wilson to tarn under Pt1550, 6-9hr; Tarn to North Col, 3-5hr; North Col to Routeburn Flats, 6-9hr; Routeburn Flats to Routeburn Shelter, 1.5hr
Access
From Routeburn Shelter at Routeburn Road end
Map
CB09, CB10

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