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December 2012 Issue
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Teetering along Toaroha

Descend to Adventure Biv Westland
Cedar Flat Hut, 12 bunks; Yeats Ridge Hut, 4 bunks; Adventure Bivvy, 2 bunks; Mullins Hut, 4 bunks
From Kokatahi take the Upper Kokatahi Rd to Middlebranch Road and follow this to the small parking area and track head. A marked trail over farmland is followed to the beginning of the main valley track

A hard Westland trip requiring fitness, dexterity and navigation skills almost ends in disaster.

Cedar Flat Hut beckons to us across the Toaroha River from its snug setting amid the drooping fronds of tussock which fill Cedar Flat and cascade over the banks onto the river’s edge. It’s mid-summer and the heat is mildly oppressive here, though welcome all the same and a much better prospect than the cool, wet southerlies besetting the east coast.

Jim Worthington, Mike Latty and I have picked a winner it seems by venturing here, over the Main Divide, to take advantage of the reverse fohn-effect of the winds now blowing steadily from the south-east and layering cloud onto the Alps away to the east of us. We are bound for the Toaroha Range on this trip, a notable outlier of the Main Divide. By virtue of its isolation from the main ranges it is completely free of cloud.

Lunch is mooted, for the hut, and quickly acceded to after the steady haul we have been making up the track since early morning from the road end. The walk in has not been without highlights, however, as we have passed along what that indomitable explorer John Pascoe described as one of the most fearsome gorges in Westland, the Toaroha Canyon. This great black and green defile pushes beneath the Diedrichs and Toaroha Ranges, its vertical walls bedecked with mosses, ferns and perching trees, split irregularly by deep clefts through which ribbons of water cascade into the unseen riverbed far below, the nature of which is completely hidden from us but which can be assumed to be totally impassable judging from the roar of the river and the precipices which guard it.

Tramping Toaroha Valley Westland

Tramping Toaroha Valley Westland

We had chatted with an Australian family on the way in. They were heading out after a few days up valley, the smiles of satisfaction and achievement lighting their faces from what is undoubtedly a moderately difficult Westland river trip. Cedar Flats Hut is empty and we briefly consider staying the night, but then we have a lot of altitude to gain if we wish to scale the almost vertical valley walls above the flat to reach the ridgeline. Beyond the hut the track passes through dense stands of New Zealand cedar, their tall straight trunks rising up to a shapely conifer-like crown and looking quite unlike any other forest tree in these parts. Farther up, the river narrows and jets through a fissure in the rock spanned by a high and airy swingbridge. We must be at least 30m up I think to myself as I step onto the wire base of the bridge, leaving the relative safety of the forest edge and sway out over the chasm.

The main valley track continues on, broad and root-strewn, muddy and lumpy, it provides good access until we reach the branch track to Yeats Ridge Hut. Looking like an after-thought, the Yeats Ridge Track cuts off the side of the main valley track at an acute angle, almost behind the trunk of a cedar to which a short signpost is attached. As the sign is facing sharply up this track it is almost invisible, as is the start of the trail. Perhaps the track-cutters are trying, in an off-hand sort of way, to discourage use of this route I wonder as we start up. After five minutes of hard labour we can all begin to see why this might be so – the line of progress is vertical, rough, root covered, and narrow. Overgrown in parts and, yes, typical West Coast.

We are undeterred, slowed-up perhaps, but resolute in our wish to gain Yeats Ridge Hut by evening. It’s only a 500m ascent but with heavy packs, a humid day, and the odd bit of bush-bashing the climb takes a good three hours to gain the open tussock bench above the bushline and push on to the modest little shelter of Yeats, standing in a swampy clearing facing out over the deep clefts of Zit Creek.

The south-east gales reach the hut basin at the same time we do, dropping the temperature and forcing ragged rotor cloud over the ridgeline above.

The hut is cold and damp, unlined and without a fire or stove. It makes for a chilly evening though we are well clad and enjoy a solid meal of stew followed by half a cup of port, courtesy of Jim. There’s a tale or two to share and that great feeling that we are well on the way to the tops after a solid day’s walk in.

Morning brings a clear day, an easing wind, and superb views of the Toaroha and Diedrichs Ranges enclosing the valley and enticing us onwards. A rough ground trail and the odd marker post guide us to the foot of the spur which climbs in a series of uneven steps to the main ridge. At the first flat area we can readily survey the way ahead and the upper Toaroha Valley curling like a green and tawny rope around the foot of the ridges. Sharp eyes can spot Mullins Hut from here and steeply below us, beyond a gulch at the ridge’s end, is Crystal Bivvy, a tiny two-bunker sitting in what looks to be a peaceful hollow next to a small tarn. I briefly entertain the idea of descending to visit, but the way down, though navigable, will take too much time and we have a more pressing engagement, the Toaroha Range above.

Adventure Biv, Toaroha Valley Westland

Adventure Biv, Toaroha Valley Westland

The top section of Yeats Ridge, where it joins the Toaroha, steepens and narrows considerably into a sharp prow of grasses and bluffs requiring firm holds and careful footsteps around the precipices dropping into Zit and Crystal creeks. Above this the angle relents and an easy walking ridge resumes, continuing on up to the crest at 1700m. The range top reveals a great panorama of Westland valleys and ridges, all the way south to distant Mt Beaumont and the peaks and passes of the upper Whitcombe Valley. Some of these are still shrouded in cloud, as are the Divide summits to the east in the upper Kokatahi, though the wind has now abated to barely a whisper. A phone call home to my wife Christine gives us an update on the weather. It’s not that good.

A sou’west change is likely in the afternoon and with it cloud and light showers to the ranges, not ideal for navigation in steep, broken country. Zit Saddle, the range’s low point lies just two kilometres north along the ridge so we push on, making good progress until just above the saddle where we encounter a razor-back section necessitating a short scramble and sidle onto 50-degree snowgrass slopes.

It’s not an easy sidle, climbing in and out of shallow gullies, until we can make our way back onto the ridge below a sharp step. As we do so, Jim, who is between Mike and I, slips on the grass and slides into a small gully below. He’s not badly hurt but has several nasty gashes, grazes, and some solid bruising to his backside where he impacted the stream bed. I descend carefully to him, followed by Mike, and we manage to help him up, taking his pack over onto the ridge and binding up his wounds. We are all a bit shaken by his slide and Jim is stiff and sore.

Zit Saddle is near at hand so we traverse the last part of the razorback and drop into the saddle. It’s definitely time for lunch and a re-think of our route.

Though the way ahead, down the range to Pinnacle Bivvy, is still doable, Jim’s fall has slowed him considerably and it now seems unwise to proceed farther on the tops. Fortunately we have a few options, the best of which is to descend, off the range, to Adventure Bivvy, another two-bunk hut lying on the bush edge between Zit and Median creeks and plainly visible some 500m below. Getting there is slow going. More steep grass slopes, deep gullies, and thick scrub crowd the route, though fortunately the lower section has a cut and poled route through it, even then it’s tedious travel climbing in and out of the folded and fractured landscape until we gain the final  broad ridge that leads to the bivvy.

By now we are in thick cloud, the southerly change arrived suddenly as we began to descend and whipped the coastal layer of cloud up onto the ranges obscuring everything in its path.

The bivvy is a welcome bolt-hole and we share a brew of tea with biscuits as the cloud condenses into light rain. Jim is relieved to be able to rest up and attend to his many scrapes and he takes up the prime location on the biv’s sole bunk. On evening, the cloud thins enough to grant as a dramatic spectacle out over Zit Creek into the Toaroha Valley and also to spy Yeats Ridge Hut sitting at a similar altitude to Adventure Bivvy, and incredibly just two kilometres away, in a direct line, from where we now stand. I needn’t mention that those two clicks are not traversable – they lie above the deep, rugged interior of the Zit Creek catchment.

Traversing the snowy tops of the Toaroha Range

Traversing the snowy tops of the Toaroha Range

Banners of cloud drape the ranges, the faint hiss of the river rises on the breeze and the ridge crest appears above us like a spectre hovering in the heavens, allowing us to trace our complete route around from Yeats. By nightfall the cloud has returned, blanketing the valley, and though the late night sky is clear and starry, the dawn brings thick low cloud to the tops yet again.

There’s 600m of altitude to lose from Adventure Bivvy before we can access the main track out to the car and much of this is down another extremely steep bush-covered ridge requiring fitness and dexterity. Unfortunately for Jim he has little of the latter and so spends the descent in much pain, grunting his way down as yesterday’s wounds protest at the unwelcome activity.

Cedar Flats brings a reprieve and a rest, but there is still a long way to go to reach the vehicle. So the afternoon unfolds into a long slow march, interspersed with equally long waits for Jim as he makes his way, with decreasing energy, to the final paddocks and an inglorious end, much later, at Christchurch Hospital’s A&E department.