Sweaty, bleeding and tired – but Stoked. Despite knowing where we were geographically, we felt lost in the wilderness. We were somewhere in the dense bush of New Zealand’s wild West Coast. Battling the unrelenting undergrowth. The countless dead ends encountered as we searched for a route amongst the bluffed-out ridges, landslips or cliffs. This emulated the description of type 2 fun, a challenge that seemed to be never ending. It was tough going — We crashed through the forest, our pace to a slowed to a mere 0.5km/hr. It’s brutal. We’re dehydrated and hungry, but we’re out here in our element getting amongst the very best of what New Zealand has on offer as part of our ‘Extreme Tramping’ trip.
7 days earlier, in a rush of logistics and gear we’d set out on an epic Covid inspired adventure into the heart of New Zealand backcountry. We were embarking on a traverse through the Olivine Wilderness Area and see us arriving in Neil’s Beach on the West Coast ‘when we arrived’ via the famous Arawhata River. This trip had a few moving parts – Land in Queenstown. Pack as much Radix into our packs as possible. Sort pack rafts and equipment. Get to Glenorchy some 60km away. It couldn’t have been an easier start of a journey into the elusive Olivine. We’d barely bought a Ferg Burger before Huw and Harry from Queenstown Packrafting had tee’d up our logistics and kit and had us standing at the start of the Routeburn Track on dusk ready to get amongst it.
The Olivine is somewhat sacred. It’s the argued home to the mountains of the gods. It’s a place of wilderness and the wild terrain that goes with it. Home to big mountains, bad weather and many failed trips. Choosing the right route can make or break a mission to the Olivine. It’s a paradise out there, albeit, made up of brutal and unrelenting country. It’s a place where short distances turn into daylong ordeals and the ‘should be all good from here’ never quite eventuates into reality. River become roads, in a place like this and our plan relied firmly on our ability to get out of the wilderness by river.
Off we went, clambering into the Beech Forest and quickly moving from the pristine Route Burn Track, over the Sugarloaf Pass and into the Beans Burn. Laden down with gear for our multi discipline traverse. Climbing gear, Ice gear, Rescue equipment, camp equipment, camera kit emergency equipment – and that’s all before we get to the essentials such as food.
From here we disappeared into the back through Theatre Flat, over Park and Cow Passes and dropping into the Olivine River. Up until now it’s been relatively easy going, but the river is elusive as it disappears into gorges, rapids and deep pools – For hours we swam, climbed and negotiated our way downstream constantly crossing It’s crystal clear but freezing cold water from side to side working our way slowly to the confluence with the Forgotten River and an epic little camp spot right on dusk.
The sheer magnitude of the place, it’s beauty and remoteness. Up ahead the Olivine Ice Plateau tried to break through the thick cloud. Finally we’d arrived at our destination, but all we could do was wait out the storm.
Camping out at the base of the Olivine Ice Plateau in a historic Bivvy was a well need respite from the raging storm outside, and the stiff muscles from the walk in. This place was incredible, a giant boulder wedged into the side of the mountain creating a dry and sheltered ‘bush hotel’ We ate, relaxed and recovered from our previous 3 days constantly peering through the clouds to try and make out the Plateau some 1000m above.
From here we were heading into the alpine area. Over the Forgotten River Col after climbing up the final 1000m and working our way through the maze of cliffs, bluffs, snow and streams. The walk up was all time. As we got higher, the sun began to burn off the thick cloud and we could suddenly see where we were. High up above the Forgotten River Valley, the silence of nature occasionally pierced with the sounds of avalanching ice and the crunch of snow under our crampons. Climax peak to the East towered over the Thunder Glacier, the Memorial Icefall ahead & our route North-West down the plateau towards Futurity Rock.
The weather was bluebird and clear. The clouds had dissipated and we were in paradise as we began crossing the Plateau slowly, roped up & constantly on watch for hidden crevasses. The high clouds circled above and began threatening to deteriorate we arrived at the edge of the plateau. We’d successfully crossed over, but the challenge was still ahead. We stood on the edge of Futurity Rock, as the horizon dropped off the edge of the world down towards Lake Williamson far below. We began working our way down the couleur towards the Williamson River and the outflow of the Andy Glacier. As we descended intothe bushline of the west coast we were constantly greeted with massive drop offs, steep tussock lined slopes, creeks and other tricky sections. We traversed high above the cliff that flanks lake Williamson before slowly dropping down to the wild West Coast & it’s relentless bush. The entire way we were in the presence of the most incredible view of the Andy Glacier.
The Williamson River, an unknown tributary to the Arawhata River was our first hurdle. To big for our packrafts we started portaging. The river raged, dropping some 500m (1500ft) in the short distance of the first gorge. It’s inaccessible, but the whitewater potential of this region was evident. was going to be a slog fest through some dense and ruggered forest. As we arrived at the Arawhata River we found the river dropping off the face of the earth – through 10hr gorge. Without a doubt was our route through 10hr Gorge was the toughest of the trip. We stayed low to scout it, a decision that lead to the torment of steep gullies, landslides, bluffs and some ‘extreme tramping’ but magnificent views of the rapids hidden in this gorge. There’s no doubt we will be back with whitewater kayaks. Many hours later the gradient of the river slowly subsided and we jumped into our Pack Rafts. Lashing our packs to the front we started meandering through the Arawhata River Valley and out to the coast. The most beautiful of paddles – The Mt Aspiring National Park in the background, the Haast Ranges on our Right and the Barrier Range on the left. It was the wilderness. As we slowly ticked off the 50kms to the first road bridge at Niels Beach we realized we’d made it. We’d covered the holy ground of NZ wilderness in an epic multi disciplined expedition. Moments later we arrived at the bridge and with-it civilisation 50kms away.
On a trip of this magnitude, surrounded by high exposure situation constantly, safety is no accident. It’s important to be prepared for whatever can happen. You’re remote and isolated traversing through some of the most rugged and wild big country of the New Zealand wilderness. Our journey saw us traveling by water, over ice, abseiling through rivers, using a roadmap of alpine creeks and fighting our way through the bush.
Getting to the Olivine is as much of the challenge as getting across it. Its’ sheer remoteness & with access only permitted by foot our expedition was faced with a real problem – Weight. On a trip like this the bare minimum of equipment required to stay safe and energized is phenomenal. It’s vital to carry the right equipment, keep hydrated and constantly fuelled. Our daily routine included ensuring we broke for a Radix lunch to keep the energy up but make sure we didn’t become clumsy or make mistakes late in the day. An Inreach or Spot is a must if you’re heading out on the mission. It’s also important to make sure you have a first aid kit, emergency blanket and sleeping bag. Weather adds to the mix. Any travel in the NZ Alpine is constantly battling the ever-changing weather situations and this trip was no different. Crossing the Ice Plateau our eyes were constantly watching the changing skyline to beat the encroaching front. To battle the weather it’s important to have the right gear especially when you’re heading out into the bush.
This trip was multiple days of beautiful but tough trekking, enjoying the best NZ has on off, miles from anywhere. Just getting out there and being in nature. In the end we solved the puzzle of the plateau with a solid plan, a very lucky weather window, some stamina and supplies, and it was all time.