Home / Articles / See more

See more… saddles

Image of the March 2022 Wilderness Magazine Cover Read more from the
March 2022 Issue

Crossing a saddle from one catchment to another is a highlight of any tramping trip. Here are four saddles worth venturing to.

Crossing a mountain range from one side to another is a foundational experience in any tramper’s life. Obviously, enjoying views from the crest of the range rates highly, but there’s also the sense of accomplishment at having passed from one catchment to another, perhaps even over the Main Divide.

Naturally, there are names for those low points on a mountain range that can be walked through: saddle, pass, col, and the less common gap or notch. 

Is there a recognised hierarchy of names associated with passes?

Most trampers probably imagine there is some sort of order, with col, pass and saddle indicating (roughly) the level of difficulty required from harder to easier. Generally speaking, a col might be alpine in nature, and require some mountaineering experience, a pass implies easier tramping and a saddle suggests an even simpler walking route over a broad breach in the range.

In reality, this hierarchy shows little consistency when applied to the names actually used in New Zealand’s mountains. For example, Clarke Saddle, a Main Divide crossing point at Aoraki/Mt Cook National Park, is at 2978m and requires a high degree of mountaineering experience. Compare that with Trudge Col (1530m) in Arthur’s Pass which, while challenging, can be crossed by trampers usually without alpine equipment.

Over the next three issues, I’ll be looking at saddles, passes and cols in turn and describing some well worth visiting.

1. Waipawa Saddle, Ruahine Forest Park

Waipawa Saddle (1326m) offers a straightforward route over the Ruahine Range into the Kawhatau catchment and to the pleasantly situated Waikamaka Hut. From North Block Road, tramp up the gravelly Waipawa River, until picking up a track through the subalpine zone onto the saddle. After a steep descent on the far side, blue duck, buttercups and koromiko lend the Waikamaka Valley plenty of charm, and the blue and orange Waikamaka Hut is also a charmer. Allow 4-5hr each way. 

2. Perry Saddle, Kahurangi National Park

Perry Saddle (900m) is the highest point of the Heaphy Track Great Walk. It’s reached on the first day for those heading westwards. Takahē sometimes frequent the area, and nearby Perry Saddle Hut offers grand views over the Dragons Teeth. For those wanting an even better viewpoint, a scramble up the rough cairned route to Mt Perry opens to vast views of New Zealand’s second-largest national park.

3. Butler Saddle, Hakatere Conservation Park

Named after pioneer pastoralist and author Samuel Butler (who crossed the pass in the 1860s), this high saddle (1870m) requires navigational nous and possibly the use of ice-axe and crampons. Experienced trampers will find it a rewarding route between Canterbury’s upper Rakaia River and the Lawrence, a tributary of the Rangitātā. It’s best approached from Meins Knob, from where a straightforward climb leads up steep tussock slopes to about the 1800m contour, where trampers can sidle around to the saddle itself. The descent into the Lawrence follows a mountain creek, which can be prone to avalanches in spring.

4. Frew Saddle, Hokitika Catchment

Frew Saddle Biv occupies a pleasant tussock basin near its namesake saddle (1308m). It’s part of the challenging but rewarding five-six day Toaroha-Frew Saddle-Whitcombe tramp, which also involves crossing another saddle at the head of the Toaroha Valley. While well-marked and with tracks and huts the entire route, it’s classic West Coast tramping – allow a little more time for slow travel, rugged terrain and the fickle weather.