Olivine Ice Plateau, New Zealand, February 2004

Andrew Mitchell, William Landers, Michael Taylor, Andrew Jacob

Andrew Mitchel's photos
My photos

Starting Out
After the short, but interesting, trip over Wright Col and Bedford stream, we were feeling ready to sink our boots into something a bit more strenuous. Back in Glenorchy we met up with Andy J, who was fitting this trip in between a month of climbing in Mt Cook and a planned jaunt to the Himalayas. Damn him! That night we packed and had a last supper and beer at the Glenorchy pub. The next day we were back on the tourist bus, this time getting dropped off on the way to the Routeburn.

We cruised up some tourist tracks along the Dart River, until we reached the Rock Burn. After giving William shit when he took a shine to a DOC girl, who was out trapping stoats ("guys, she's a hard-core wilderness Kiwi chick!"), we ground on up the Beans Burn track with our 15 day packs.

Since Andy had been tapering his training over the previous month by looking down a telescope and eating Tim Tams, and since I was feeling a bit crook (a rotting tooth that the dentist had missed the week before I left - can you believe she x-rayed and filled the wrong tooth?? the real dodgy tooth had to be pulled out the day after I got back to Oz), we took an early mark and pitched tents in a beautiful little flat about half way up the Burn.

The next morning we headed off early and made good time up the track to a warren-like, multi-level bivy rock in a boulder jumble at the head of the valley. We got there just as it started raining. The forecast was for a couple of day's heavy rain so we made ourselves comfortable in the bivy. It was so sheltered in the bivy that the next morning we didn't realize that the front had blown over until Will went outside at 10am. Actually, we found out later that Mike had gone for a pee early in the morning and seen it was sunny but wasn't about to waste good sleeping time just to go walking.

Three Nights in a Leaky biv...
After a hurried packing session we headed up and over Fohn saddle and along a large terrace half way up the side of the Olivine River Valley. Again we took the bludger's option and stopped at another bivvy rock instead of pushing on downriver. That night another front came through and we were pinned down for the next couple of days. This bivvy was cramped and less than perfectly weatherproof but it was still better than being in tents at an exposed campsite. Mike, as always, made the most of things. Despite being in the wettest part of the bivy, he managed to sleep 3 hours in every 4 and declared it "the most relaxing holiday he'd ever had". In the short gaps when we had visibility, we could see large waterfalls had appeared all around the valley and many of these were being blown directly back into the air, probably to fall back in their original catchments and then repeat the cycle.

Finally in the early hours of day 6 the barometer started rising and the wind changed to the south. We emerged from the bivvy rock at dawn to falling snow. It was time to head off. We were initially led astray by an enticing deer trail that petered out in dense undergrowth and bluffs. After some lost time backtracking and downclimbing we reached the Olivine River and headed down to the flats at the confluence of the Olivine and Forgotten Rivers. Lunch at the flats was cut short as the on-and-off sun finally disappeared and the weather settled into a pretty much steady rain.

Just upriver from the confluence, the Forgotten River emerges from a gorge, and the bluffs guarding its exit are formidable. Thanks to some good notes from Moir's however, we located the route up through the bluffs (which was actually a decent enough track) and once above the gorge it was an easy, if damp, trudge up the river flats to the palatial bivvy rock at the head of the valley at dusk. Will, of course, was there first, and had hot Raro ready for us when we arrived. Good stuff Will!

And Three More...
That night another Norwester came through and kept us in place for the following day. This meant more cards, crosswords and bullshitting. Carrying on a conversation meant yelling over the sound of the hundreds of waterfalls crashing all around the valley. The conversation wasn't all BS though, and we learned all about interferometry from Andy, auditory perception from Will and house renovation and how to pass time when you're stuck in a cave from Mike (who seemed to have spent more than his fair share of time trapped in caves during his career as a trog). We also discovered that some Otago Uni students had left a 'hut book' in the bivy a couple of years previously, so we also read that. The bivvy was quite popular and there had been four other parties in over the previous twelve months. Two of those groups had made it to the plateau. Andy J finished the evening by making custard and stewed fruits, which I then managed to burn when he unwisely left me in charge.

Over dinner we discussed our options. Our bludgy days early in the trip were coming back to haunt us and we were running out of time to complete a circuit over the Ice Plateau. So we got ready to that night in case it was clear the next morning.

Although it rained overnight it looked passable at dawn so we set out up to the Forgotten river Col, which is the gateway to the Ice Plateau. Within an hour it had started raining, then sleeting, and we were thoroughly wet. To make things worse, my old faithful pack, which had been complaining during the trip, finally came to grief as both shoulder straps tore off the body. It was time to back off, we headed back to the Biv sodden and despondent. That evening, as I restitched my pack, the weather gods laughed at us and gave us sunshine.

That night we again reassessed our situation. Given the time and food constraints, the following day (day 9) would be the last chance we would have to get over the Ice Plateau. For the first time I really regretted not bringing either a satphone or mountain radio (as most people do). It would have been good to have some certainty about the weather. We would try hard to get over the plateau the next day, and if we had to back off, we would take the piker's exit back along a series of valleys parallel to our entry route, called the "5 Passes".

Despite the need for an early start, the best concession we could get out of Will was a 5am alarm. William can run/cycle/paddle through the bush without stopping for days on end, but turns into a gibbering wreck if he has to get up before dawn. The problem was solved by some quick sign language when Will had his back turned. Alarms were set for 4am. Good thinking Andy.

Over the Olivine Plateau
The next morning we packed up and got ready in the dark. There was some cursing from Will and chuckling from the rest of us when Will discovered what the time really was. Then karma struck and Andy's headlamp refused to work. After wasting time trying to get it going again we were finally out at 6am; walking in close convoy to share light from the remaining torches.

By sunrise we were making good progress, and despite a steady NW wind, the sky was mainly blue. However, by the time we reached the snow line we could see out over the ranges to the north, and the view was less than encouraging. Black clouds were boiling on the horizon and this added a sense of urgency as we roped up for glacier travel.

Since it was Andy and myself with the most NZ weather experience, we quickly went over options. The discussion was brief as I think we both knew that some bad stuff was brewing, but we didn't want to admit it to ourselves. The plan that finally came out was to get up high, into the cloud where we'd be above the freezing level and not exposed to soaking rain. We'd give it half an hour or so, and if it was too bad, retreat back down to the Biv.

Weeks before, sitting in a beer garden in Sydney with plates of hot wedges and schooners of cold Coopers sitting on the Olivine maps, we had discussed the climbing options on the plateau, and it had seemed the most important questions were which peaks to climb and how many days to stay. Instead we were scurrying across the plateau as fast as we could in a whiteout, with a thumping storm brewing.

We bunched together at the col and worked out a nav plan. We were headed to the Joe River, so we needed to cross the plateau itself and work our way up a series of snowslopes on the Memorial glacier to Solution Col, which was the watershed between the plateau and the Joe River. From there we needed to traverse and descend the Twin Icefall glacier to the Joe.

It was a pretty intense day. Going was, although strenuous, was initially easy, with Andy leading off and plugging steps through the new snow. Then it was my turn. As always, walking though a whiteout is a unique experience. You are in a tiny bubble world. You can't see the ground or sky and it is even hard to tell if you are heading uphill or down. The only sounds were the roar of the wind and the rattle of snowpellets on goretex. Occasionally crevasses would rear up out of the gloom and then disappear behind.

Once over Solution Col things got more interesting. Just as the weather really began to crap out, we were faced with  with a large icefall, a maze of crevasses and visibility down to little more than a ropelength. I pulled the GPS out but then put it away when I realised that I'd never actually used it in NZ and didn't even know if I had the right map datum or if there was a positional offset. Idiot! Luckily we had a lot of good nav experience in the team, and although things got tense at times, everyone kept focused and had good input into the nav and routefinding.  Luckily, too, the wind wasn't as bad as it could have been. Still, we often had to hunker down to avoid being blown off our feet, and when we occasionally regrouped to discuss nav, we had to yell at the top of our lungs to be heard. The navigation and routefinding was fiddly and we used all sorts of tricks to get through. Andy's long experience reading glaciers was particularly welcome.

Eventually we worked our way onto a rock ridge that was the exit from the glacier and descended out of the clag and into the rain. As visibility increased we could see the walls of the upper Joe Valley, which are truly incredible and gave off a sense of evil and menace. The walls rise straight up from the glacier to the mountaintops and are vertical or overhanging for a 1000m, with water weeping from a thousand slashes in the rock.

On reaching some small flats next to the river, the tents went up and we crawled in wet and tired at 9pm. We'd been on the go for nearly 15 hours and, barring brief exchanges to discuss nav, we'd only really stopped twice briefly: once to rope up and a second time to take the rope off. Mike's night was particularly unpleasant as his packliner had leaked and his sleeping bag was sodden.

Stepping Out with Joe
The next day we got up late and had a shouted conversation over the rain. We would move a few kilometres downriver to a rock biv where hopefully we could wait the weather out. At midday we started out down the Joe and scrambled across a rock bridge made of boulders. Meanwhile the sky had cleared and we had sun. In sunshine the Joe Valley was transformed into a beautiful series of waterfalls that fell from vegetated ledge to vegetated ledge, but I was frustrated because I couldn't take a photo as my camera had jammed. Over lunch we rechecked the maps and Moir's guide. It seemed that there was a small river flat halfway down the river, so we decided we should push on.

Going was slow. The Joe River didn't so much have scrub as dense undergrowth. And it was tricky and deceitful stuff. Instead of good old straightforward Aussie scrub that stands tall and dares you to get through it, and then flays you back to the bone in a fair fight, what we had in the Joe was devious. It all looked beautiful: sun dappled beech forest and apparently easy going. However, just as you were about to step off a log, a lawyer vine would reach out and grab you around the neck, or wrap around your ankle, sending you sprawling. Or maybe you'd put all of your weight onto a burly log, only to have it crush like wet cardboard. Worst of all though, were the holes. You'd take a step onto seemingly solid mossy ground, but instead of it holding your weight, your foot would punch through and you'd discover you were 15 feet in the air, suspended on logs balanced between boulders. Once, both my feet disappeared at the same time and I ended up sitting astride a (thankfully) strong log. Luckily my gonads cushioned the fall, otherwise I might have hurt myself.

Andy seemed to be doing it particularly tough. He is used to dancing up technical rock and ice routes, so slogging through jungle was obviously not something he was enjoying. At one stage we heard a loud cracking sound and turned around to see him shaking a dead tree until it fell over. Then, a few minutes later, he caught up to us on the ridge and yelled at the top of his lungs "FUUUUUUCCCCKKKK!!!" Instantly he turned red and started mumbling apologies: "I'm sorry, so sorry, I haven't done that in years. Sorry". From then on he was transformed back to his normal, chirpy, implacable self. No, actually he became "Scrub Andy" and developed a sudden enjoyment in cheerfully pushing through the densest undergrowth he could find. He also started giving everyone helpful suggestions on how best to handle different vines and trees and where the best route was. We spent the rest of the day resisting the urge to insert our ice axes up his nose.

Anyway, we didn't really seem to get the knack of things. The Kiwis would probably laugh if they knew, but on reaching the flats, after a solid 8 hours on the go, we'd covered little more than 4km. Luckily the flats, although small, were a great campsite. We lit a small fire where it could be washed away by the next flood. The fire actually proved difficult to get burning because everything was so wet - credit should be given to William for finally managing it. Dinner was particularly well earned that night, and we finished off with a slug of whiskey to celebrate. Even Will had the smallest of drams.

The next day (day 11) also dawned clear, but we were full of trepidation because the notes in Moir's said that from this point on the going became slow and difficult. But when we started out there were no problems. We spent the morning working our way down the riverbed, with the sun out and the river rumbling away on our left. It was very similar to Blue Mountains canyon boulder-hopping, only the boulders were scrubbed free from moss and there was fantastic grip. The Kiwis obviously don't know how to boulderhop! As they went, Will and Mike discussed the merits of shooting different rapids in kayaks, while I tried hard to take a 'Macpac catalog' photo in the hope of getting a new pack, but without much success,. Lunch was at a pretty clearing in the sun, and then it was over some bluffs, a bit more bush bashing and out to the Williamson Flats at the confluence of the Joe and Arawhata Rivers. Sandflies descended on us as we pitched camp and we retreated to our tents as soon as dinner was over.

Arawhata Dreaming
Since we weren't completely sure about the weather, we decided against crossing over the Whitbourne Glacier to the Dart River, as this would have taken us two days. Instead, we headed up the Arawhata River. After a bit of unsuccessful wading though bush looking for a mythical 'blazed deer hunters route' we reached some river flats. From there it was an enjoyable afternoon up the Arawhata riverbed. Although strenuous, the going was interesting and varied. Andy termed it "horizontal climbing" and rated some of the moves. There were all sorts, including face moves, laybacks and even a nice grade 14/15 hand/fist crack that needed hand jams and torquing boots. He insisted that another strenuous thrutch was "V2", whatever that means. All done with 25kg packs. The only unpleasant section of the day was the final 200m to the Arawhata bivy rock. Here, at last, we came up against some honest-to-goodness scrub, but we had the last laugh and outsmarted it by wading right up the middle of the river.

The Arawhata rock bivvy was spacious and sheltered and already occupied by a quiet kiwi named Dave. We had a bit of a chat, but mostly he kept to himself. He was headed out over Waipara saddle the next day.

The Arawhata bivvy rock is quite venerable, and has had a 'hut book' since the early 80s. The book made interesting reading, with a surprising number of parties being trapped by storms and having to be rescued. The bivvy itself was popular, with an average of 4 or 5 parties passing through each year; many doing a loop over the Arawhata, Waipara and Matukituki saddles. While we read the 'bivvy book' dinner was cooked and then Andy pulled out his masterpiece dessert: a date cake with rich chocolate and port sauce to go with it. Bloody fantastic Andy! It tasted even better as we drank tumblers of whiskey mixed with mountain stream water.

Passing Out...
The next morning (day 13) we worked our way up the riverbed until we reached a terrace above the scrub. From there we headed over tussock grass and snow slopes to Arawhata saddle. The weather had begun changing rapidly as we ascended, and by the time we were at the saddle, a strong wind had built up and low clouds and mist were tumbling up our ascent route.

The snowslopes on the other side of the saddle looked steep and exposed, and since Mike and Will hadn't had much experience climbing steep snow Andy, ever safety conscious, made the call to pitch the descent. So, after a quick lunch we pitched off downclimbing leads, with Mike and Will coming down on prusiks in between Andy and myself. It was frustratingly slow and cold, particularly since it eventually turned out to be relatively easy going, but finally we made it off the snow. After some downclimbing through some bluffs, and a couple of routefinding issues, we reached Liverpool Biv and Civilization.

Over a snack we discussed our options, finally deciding to push on into the dusk to get to Aspiring hut. We wanted to complete the round trip to Glenorchy, and to do so we needed get as close to Cascade saddle as possible to get over the next day. So we dropped down the track to the valley floor and plugged along into the night and building rain, eventually reaching the hut a bit before 10pm. At the hut we cooked dinner, which pissed off some English backpackers who were sleeping in kitchen/dining room instead of in the bunkroom. One girl crankily stomped off into the bunkroom mumbling obscenities. Hey, it's an NZAC climbing hut and she was staying in the kitchen!

That night it rained heavily and in the morning we were woken by a loud American woman crapping on about nothing in particular. We avoided her by staying in our sleeping bags until she went away. Going over Cascade saddle in a Norwester wasn't an appealing option, particularly for me as I was also pretty tired from lack of sleep due to my toothache, so I wasn't too fussed when the consensus was to head out to the road end at Raspberry Flats.  So, after lunch we ambled the final two hours down the valley to the Wanaka shuttle bus pickup point. All the way down we were thinking about beer, pizza and all of the other pleasures that civilization has to offer. And the beer did, in fact, taste pretty damn good.
Andrew Mitchell

I [APJ] worked out a few numbers:
[Apologies in advance for being so anal!]
Costs (In approx Aust dollars)
   Total:     $1030
  Food:      $320
  Accom:     $55
  Transport: $75
  Other:     $30

Distance/Height gain
 Day  Place                  km    H+    H-   t[hr] km/hr
 1    to Beans Burn         13.5  230   120   7      2.3
 2    to Split Rock biv     8     360    -    5.75   1.4*
 3    to Olivine Ledge biv  5     640   380   5      1.3
       (Fohn pass)
 4,5  in Ol biv             -      -     -    -      -
 6    to Forgotten R. biv   12.5  590   590   12     1.1
 7,8  in FR biv             -      -     -    -      -
 9    cross Olivine Plateau 11    1320  1640  14.5   0.8
       (Forgotten R col &
        Solution col)
10    Joe R to fire camp    5     50    270   8      0.7
11    to Williamson flat    8     60    260   8      1.1
12    to Arawhata biv       8     520   80    10.2   0.8
13    to Aspiring hut       11    1140  1520  13.3   0.8
       (Arawhata saddle)
14    walk out to road      7     30    110   1.6    4.4*
Totals                      89    4940  4970  85.33  Av=1.2km/hr

Key: H+=Height climbed, H-=Height descended
     t=walking time, incl lunch and breaks
       *=no lunch break on these days
     Av speed does not include day 14

We started and ended at 380m altitude surprisingly, so our total height
climb and descent was over 5000m in 10days (including all the rocks we
climbed around, over and under!), we crossed four passes and
reached a max altitude of 2284m at Solution col (higher than Koscuiszko)
We spent 85h20min walking at an average of 1.04km/hr.
And all in untracked, rarely visited country, Woo Hoo!