Adventure: Hiking Lewis Pass to St Arnaud (Part 3)

Note — This is part 3 of 3 in a series. See part 1 here and part 2 here.

Day 5: Friday April 8

Start/End: John Tait Hut/Angelus Hut

Distance: 18.2km

Elevation Gain: 1000m

Time: 7 hours

Trail type: Riverside walk, forrest climb, steep solid and loose rock climb

Conditions: Overcast with high ~1800m cloud, trail/route well-marked but last 500m climb up significant wet/slick rock

Difficulty: Moderate

I started from the John Tait hut in good spirits because the weather forecast for rain had ended up with heavy rain overnight that cleared before morning. A high cloud and wet track were left behind, but it appeared there would be no significant risk of not making Angelus hut. The Cascade track is one of four paths to climb to Angelus hut but the only one from the Travers valley, so if it hadn’t been good conditions I might have needed to cancel the last leg of my journey. As it happens I made short work of the river walk from John Tait hut to the Cascade track junction in about 2:30 hours and then settled in for the long climb. Other than one guy I shared the hut with I only saw 2 others on the trail before reaching Angelus hut. Of the four paths to Angelus hut the Cascade track is the least used because of its difficulty and placement only really useful for someone doing a Travers side short loop from St Arnaud or someone hiking from Waiau Pass over the Travers saddle (like I was). Otherwise the Mt Cedric Track, Speargrass Track, or Robert Ridge track would make more sense.

Most of the mid day was spent slowly gaining elevation walking up a river valley through trees and avalanche residue. At some points the trail markers were heavily re-routed around clusters of fallen trees and I spent a few minutes at various points finding the route. Eventually I was rewarded with a clearing at the head of the river and views up to a pretty waterfall.

Unfortunately, my fears of what the final ascent would be were confirmed. The last 500m from the valley floor to Angelus hut is a steep track mostly winding along the waterfall and has large sections of slick rock and larger loose scree. It was also the most vertical of the climbs I had done although much better cut and marked than the Waiau Pass. It took about an hour to cover the final ascent and I made it to Angelus hut before 4PM, which was the earliest completion of any of my days. Angelus hut is a well maintained, popular stopping point, so there were about a dozen of us that stayed there overnight and there was already a nice fire going. I put up my wet boots and clothes to dry and enjoyed typical hut banter, a game of cards, and some route planning for the next day. I managed to find another hiker who was planning to ascend Mt Angelus in the early morning as well so I felt pretty good about my final hiking day plans.

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Route for most of Friday and Saturday, including approach to Mt Angelus (we did end up descending more of a grid NorthWest path through scree than the magenta route)
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An early morning break near the junction to start the Cascade track towards Angelus hut. This was my last low elevation walk of Nelson Lakes — along the Travers river track.

 


Random views from the Hukure valley: standard orange triangle tree markers for the trail, Super Mario style mushrooms along the track, gentle waterfalls of the Hukure river

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Looking back over the top of the Cascade Track over the Hukere valley. The last steep climb finished at the bottom right of this picture.
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Views over to the Hukere valley to the St Arnaud range in the distance. Clouds are just starting to turn pink before a beautiful subdued sunset.
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From the main deck of Angelus hut looking over Lake Angelus to Robert Ridge.

 

Day 6: Saturday April 9

Start/End: Angelus Hut/Robert Ridge Carpark

Distance: 16.2km

Elevation Gain: 700m

Time: 7 hours

Trail type: Mountain peak summit (rock scramble/climb), dirt and small rock ridgeline, steep switch-back forrest descent

Conditions: High elevation cloud, clear underneath with rare spots of sun, route to Mt Angelus marked with some rock cairns, Robert Ridge very well-marked and easy going

Difficulty: Summit=Moderate+, Ridge=Easy

The morning cloud at 6:45 was too low to see anything so we waited to begin our Mt Angelus ascent until 8:00. We ended up gaining one other hiker to make a group of 3 to try the ascent. I had scouted this route before my trip and was expecting it to be a half-day return trip. The route itself is fairly straight forward through Sunset Saddle, but the final ascent along the ridge from the saddle to the peak of Mt Angelus would require grade 2-3 rock scrambling/climbing.

We picked our way easily enough to the ridge line, loosely following rock cairns to a point about 150m below the summit. We then carefully climbed/crawled/scrambled over 3 knobs/sub-peaks which had a fair bit of danger to them. Thankfully none of us needed a pack because this was a side trip (although I did still have my emergency locator beacon with me just in case), so we only had to balance our own body weight. The final 50m ascent was a steep small scree climb to the peak but had no risk of slipping or falling. Views from the top were not great as we had reached the high clouds of the day, but all of us had a good sense of accomplishment as Mt Angelus was the first > 2000m peak we had climbed at 2075m. This represented over 400m of climbing from the hut and just under 2 hours to get there. We enjoyed 15 minutes of waiting for the clouds to move (they didn’t) and checking cell reception (for me the first time I was able to contact the outside world for 6 days) before choosing to descend the loose scree instead of climbing back down. Great fun was had by all as there were several sections with deep enough small rock/dirt to go “screeing” which is very similar to skiing except through dirt and rock. Due to the ability to rapidly descend via the scree we made it back to the hut by 11:30 — just in time for me to take a quick swim in the 4-6C water of Lake Angelus.

After grabbing a hot lunch and the rest of our gear, the 3 of us set out on a very very fast pace down Robert Ridge to the carpark. DOC puts the track time at 6 hours; we made it in 3:30 including about 30 minutes of picture and rest stops. I was pretty much running down the Pinchgut Track which descends about 500m and we finished in about 30 minutes. We had excellent views over the Nelson Lakes valley and Lake Rotoiti and it felt good to end the 6 day hike on such a high note and minimal wear and tear on my body.

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Early morning high cloud over Mt Angelus. The ascent from this direction was too difficult without full climbing gear so we took the more standard approach by obtaining the shadowed ridge in the background on the right and then following that ridge to the peak.
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Bright sun and mood at the top of the summit even though the high cloud prevented expansive views.
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Awesome view from our return trip from Mt Angelus to Angelus hut. Once we got below the cloud line the Hinapouri Tarn in the foreground to the left made for a beautiful picture with the rolling mountain side extending towards Lake Angelus in the background. The hut is not visible but is just over the ridge in front of the lake.
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Midway through the Robert Ridge descent; large white fluffy clouds make a nice contrast with the bright blue sky, yellow tussock covered hillsides, green algae filled tarns, darker green forrest, farms, Kahurangi National Park in the distance, and grey/orange rock ridge
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The Mt Angelus / Robert Ridge crew

 

Summary

Start/End: Lewis Pass/Robert Ridge Carpark

Distance: 114.4km

Elevation Gain: 4400m

Time: 6 days, 7-9 hours each day

Trail type: Everything from field/forrest walking to morraine bouldering, scree climbing/sliding, and rock climbing

Conditions: Mostly sunny, one day walking in rain, some high clouds preventing extensive views from Angelus but otherwise spectacular views from Waiau Pass, Lake Constance, Blue Lake, Travers Saddle, and Robert Ridge

Difficulty: Moderate+, just enough to make it epic, not too much to make it scary

This trip was pretty epic and the weather worked out better than 9/10 times one might take this specific 6 day hike. Special thanks to Janel (and others) who adjusted schedules and dates so that I could take advantage of this weather. Cheers and much adventure to those who I crossed paths with on the hike, and best wishes to all who read this account with your own adventures!


Firsts

As a sort of post-mortem, I have collected a list of “firsts” that I accomplished on this hike:

  • 6 day solo hike. Previous best = 4 days
  • Solo camping (yeah, I’d never spent a night truly alone in the wild before…)
  • 2000+ meter summit (Mt Angelus)
  • Using a true outdoor toilet — i.e. a literal hole in the ground
  • Making a cup of tea at altitude (harder than I thought with the wind!)
  • Making the call to err on the side of safety instead of pressing on (after dark on Wednesday)
  • Longest distance on foot with no mechanized assistance (114km). Previous best = 56km
  • Swim at altitude (1650m in Lake Angelus)
  • Leading a group on a route (not sure why those other 2 guys trusted me, but we made it up Mt Angelus!)
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2 thoughts on “Adventure: Hiking Lewis Pass to St Arnaud (Part 3)

  1. Amazing trek, James! Your photos are awe-inspiring, and the narrative so interesting! You and Janel are accomplished adventurers! Surely, this blog needs to be translated into a giant coffee table book!

    Like

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