“Condition of the road?” She shrugged. “Oh I don’t know, we don’t maintain that. Besides, everyone’s vehicles and driving abilities are different.”
This was not the answer I was expecting to hear from a ranger when asking about a National Park road.
“Uh, so… do you know if it was washed out in that last storm?” I asked – I had just spent 4 days in Fox Glacier after several paved roads were destroyed by the storm.
“Well, no, it’s currently open, so I guess the only way to know if you’ll make it is to drive it and find out.”
So I hit the road. I like your style, New Zealand. You’d never hear that sort of answer from a U.S. Park Ranger!
I had been in to the Department of Conservation (DOC) information center, curious if my little two-wheel drive van would make it out on the road to Raspberry Flat, the start of the trail to the Cascade Saddle. The trail was a popular one, but everything I read online said the road out was horrible, and that you should ask locally before attempting it. Oh and car rental companies don’t cover you for any damage that you sustain on that road. Even if you bought the insurance. Sounds like a good road to me!
I picked up a Canadian girl hitchhiking to the same trailhead, telling her “I’m not sure this van’s going to make it, but I intend to find out!” As it turned out, the road was well graded. Nice and flat, boring. But it does have a few river fords, the last one especially troublesome. It wasn’t too much of a problem for the van anyway, though the water splashing up over the hood did cause a moment of panic half way through the river. But we made it through just fine and continued on to the parking lot. My new Canadian friend headed out toward the Rob Roy Glacier viewpoint and I made breakfast - it was now almost noon, but we’ll call it breakfast. I had planned to spend the afternoon hiking for two easy hours to the Aspiring Hut, staying there for the night, and make the hike to Cascade Saddle and the Dart Glacier the next day, spend two nights in the tent up high and hike out Saturday – the fourth day. With a bit of weather coming in on the weekend, I didn’t want to chance fording a river in flood stage with the van, so I decided to skip the hut, make the hike to the top that night, probably arriving after dark, and thus shorten the trip by a day and head down Friday. Also, I found out that morning from the DOC the hut cost $30/night, while camping up at the saddle was free.
The hike to the Aspiring Hut is a nice flat 9km, estimated time 2-3 hours. From there to the saddle is an additional 7km. Estimated time 5-6 hours. If those estimates seem odd, it’s probably because that second bit climbs over 1,200 meters (4,000 feet) vertical in about 4 km (2.5mi) of horizontal distance.
Worst case: I get there by 9pm, set up camp in the dark and be ready to catch some star photos. I left the canopy of the tent in the van, carrying just the rain fly and poles, which can be set up for a lightweight shelter – with plenty of open space for bugs to join you in bed, a nice feature. I hoped that being so high, near the glacier, the intolerable sand flies would not be so prevalent as down low. Leaving the canopy behind saved little weight, and the weight of my pack, camera and tripod was borderline unmanageable for my relatively lazy lifestyle lately. I was really going to suffer on the uphill.
Most of the first bit of the trail is easy, flat walking through farmland. Lots of sheep and cattle to keep you company.
I knocked out the first 9km in just under 2 hours – beating the low end of the estimated 2-3 hour hiking time to the Aspiring Hut. Nice. Break time.
|Mt Aspiring Hut|
Now for the fun part. Into the forest with only a slight rise and I was feeling pretty good about myself. Moving briskly to keep up a good time in hopes to set up the tent by sunset.
Suddenly, it gets steep. Up, up and up I go. I tell myself early on that I will just go very slow and only take extended breaks every hour. I’ll drink water more often as needed, but no putting the pack down until the hour goes by. As soon as I make it the first hour I collapse onto the first seat I can find. I tell myself 10 minutes, which quickly becomes 15, then 20. 10 minutes back on my feet and I’m feeling hungry, despite the large meal 3 hours before. 25 minutes in and I start to feel light headed. I drink more water. Water isn’t the problem. As soon as I stop it goes away. I’ve felt this before, but it’s hard to explain. It’s just an odd weak feeling I get at times when I exert a lot of energy. When it gets bad I start to feel like I’ll pass out soon. Eating a bit of sugar –candy, chocolate, or sweet fruit – makes it go away, nearly instantly. I’ve often wondered if I could push through it, or what would happen if I was in an already terrible situation with no food or snacks, and had to keep moving. Would I actually pass out, or recover? Today, I keep moving, soon it won’t go away until I sit. The feeling subsides and I keep going. In minutes it returns, and I’m a bit disappointed when I absolutely can’t resist pulling half a bar of chocolate from my bag. Perhaps this steep trail, miles into the backcountry by myself isn’t the place for such an experiment anyway. I keep on for another hour or so, I’ve given up on the timing and can’t remember when I started. Finally my body demands I stop for a proper lunch. I look at Gaia, an app running on my phone that has been tracking my time, distance and elevation since I left the Aspiring Hut. The app mocks my progress, saying in two hours I’ve only been moving for one hour, twenty minutes, and traveled only 2.3km.
Shortly after lunch I break through tree line and can finally see the valley below. Hey, I can see my house from here. It’s there, in the parking lot. Somewhere, just over…
Wow that looks far.
What, can’t you see it? It's riiight...
Not much further up the trail before it's time for another long break, this time to admire the scenery.
|Tripod: the original selfie stick|
Soon after continuing on, I start to see people making their way down the steep trail above me. To this point, I had passed only two small groups of people. A few more small groups pass, they’re just out for the day. Most people, not wanting to hike with so much wait, or not wanting to actually camp – not sure which – spend their nights at the Aspiring Hut, make the walk up to the Cascade Saddle during the day, and return to the $30 hut again for the next night. Seems like that would leave no time at all to explore the glacier!
I pass probably 15 people in less than an hour, all on their way down. I also pass a tent, precariously set up on a knoll of grass overlooking the majestic valley and Mt. Aspiring beyond. I’m not sure if they gave up on the hike and plan to spend the night there or if they set up just for the photo, because it really is just that good of a spot.
It takes me until after 7pm, over five hours after leaving the Hut, to reach the high point of the trail, the Pinnacle. This is not the Saddle. That goal is still over an hour from here. DOC’s estimated time from Hut to Pinnacle was 4-5 hours, taking me longer that the approximate time for that leg. I’m not sure who is calculating these ‘estimated’ times, but they are all over the place. Finally, on top, I catch a glimpse of a few kea flying around me.
|Two kea in flight from the Pinnacle along the Cascade Saddle Trail|
The kea - a rare, very intelligent, very brave bird - is the world’s only alpine parrot. That’s right, it’s a parrot -that lives only in high forests and alpine environments. Exclusively found in the Southern Alps of New Zealand, these ground-dwelling troublemakers love to investigate everything in their environment; with their very sharp beaks. Food bags, backpacks, tents, unattended hiking boots, they will rip it all to pieces if you’re not careful. I’ve heard horror stories of kea tearing apart tents and bags while people were away hiking, and many a story of kea pestering people trying to sleep out in the open – pecking at sleeping bags, jumping on people’s heads while they sleep, stealing anything they can fly off with, and just generally being a bother to anyone in the mountains. Oh and they’re endangered and rare species, so you can’t so much as shoo them away. When asking the ranger about the road conditions that morning, she too advised me that kea had been very problematic in that area. When asked what people usually do about them, she responded with something along the lines of “Well, they’re rare and protected, so you can’t do anything. I suppose you’d just have to pick up and move.” So helpful.
For all the trouble they cause, they sure are beautiful birds. Their call, too is stunning and I am content to sit and listen to that call all night. Soon, though they disappear over the next ridge and I carry on toward the saddle. From my location, it’s a half hour down to the bottom of the next valley, then another hour to the Cascade Saddle where the classic Dart Glacier view can be had. I stop at the bottom to fill up on water in a perfect clear, calm stream coming from another glacier, hanging high above in the rocky peaks.
After a refreshing crossing of the same stream, rapidly cooling off my feet in the icy water, I continue along the trail and Mt. Aspiring comes into view once again.
Sunset comes quickly and I soon abandon the trail to try and capture the last light on Aspiring as the sun goes down.
I finish the walk to the Cascade Saddle in the twilight, and begin looking for a place to set up the tent in the dark. This is not an ideal place to camp. Grass tussocks and sharp shrubby plants make a proper mess of the ground, and nowhere can be found flat enough to fit my sleeping pad, let alone the tent. I make due with an uneven patch, more for the photo than for the sleeping conditions. I’ll have to sleep sort of half reclined, sliding downhill toward my feet. By the time the tent is set and I’ve eaten dinner, the stars are fully visible overhead. Many a night I’ve spent lying in the desert staring up at the stars, so many stars, overhead. This, however, is unlike any night’s I’ve ever seen. In the perfect, calm, clear night, the sky is glowing overhead with more stars than I could imagine. Seemingly infinitely more than I remember in the Northern Hemisphere. I try to pick out constellations. Orion is out, though he is low on the horizon and upside down from here. Nothing else looks even the slightest bit familiar. I set up the tripod, light the tent with my weakest headlamp on its lowest setting, and capture a few photos before I try to sleep.
|Night sky and Dart Glacier from the Cascade Saddle|
It’s so dark, I hope for the sliver of moonlight that’s due just a couple hours before sunrise to light up the glacier in the background. I set an alarm for 4 am but sleep very little on the uncomfortable ground, and a quick peak out of the tent at 4 and I don’t even get out of my sleeping bag. The great part about only bringing half your tent is you can admire the scenery from your bed. I do rise as it slowly gets light out, and manage to get myself out of my nice warm sleeping bag and into the frosty morning air only after the light begins to bounce off the peaks and fill the valley below. This was the first time I could really see the Dart Glacier.
|A perfect sunrise over Dart Glacier and Mt Edwards (left)|
After the thrill of the sunrise wears off and I force down some oatmeal despite not feeling the slightest bit hungry, I pack up the tent and decide to move it an hour back along the trail to the ‘designated’ camping area – a nice flat section below the Pinnacle complete with a helicopter-serviced vault toilet. That must be an exciting flight.
|Not a bad view from here either!|
I reset camp and make another breakfast now that I’m actually hungry – 11 am. Back down the trail toward the Dart. My plan from here gets a bit vague: My only real goal is to reach the actual, active glacier. I hope, however, to cross over high up on the glacier to access the white ice and explore some of the features in or near the icefall. I had read reports of other hikers walking this way to the ice, and it looked feasible from many photos online, but now I’m not so sure. As the lower glacier has been melting, a massive hole has developed between the retreating ice and the sheer cliff of rock around the curve of the glacier.
As I follow the trail closer and closer to the glacier, it looks less and less possible to access the ice safely. I continually break away from the trail, wander out toward the glacier for a better look, and retreat to the trail, less happy with what I find each time. The trail generally seems to follow the direction of the glacier, eventually entering the valley below the ice to connect to another track somewhere beyond. At the very least, I know I could hike all the way to the valley and probably double back to hit the glacier. Likely with a river crossing in there somewhere. Sounds like a lot less fun than Plan A. However, Plan A is just not happening, so I continue on down the trail, finally breaking away and sliding down a boulder talus field within the last 300 meters of the glacier’s terminus.
|Looking down on the terminus of the Dart Glacier|
Here, it is a sad looking glacier. Little ice is showing except for that which is broken and falling apart, the rest covered by thick moraine of rocks and boulders the size of small cars. I come to within spitting distance of where I suspect the ice begins and I take my bag off to sit down. I’m running very close to my turn-around time, having left tent, bag, and all but a few layers at the campsite, now some 4 hours or more away. I came here hoping to spend nearly the entire day exploring the ice, and I have under an hour before I must turn back. I fall into a depression thinking about why it I even need to walk on the glacier, that certainly now it won’t change anything. This goal of mine to walk on all the glaciers I can – What good is it, really? Why even continue the project? I actually consider turning back right then – 3 meters from the glacier itself – and not counting it. When I look at the time, I realize I’ve spent over half an hour sitting there staring at a goal that had seemed so important, so inspiring, for days leading up to it. Now it just looked like a pile of rocks. I’m too far from camp to give me time to walk the kilometer or two across slopes of rock-covered ice before I would even glimpse the white ice of the upper glacier. It’s the first time I’ve ever been within close proximity of a glacier – rock covered or not – and felt anything but excitement that I was getting to explore one more glacier. I sit in silence and watch a few more rocks melt from their perches on the icy slopes and plummet into the outlet river below. Standing up, I leave my camera, my pack, crampons, everything I had brought so far with no purpose other than this glacier, and walk out among the boulders that still ride the Dart toward the end. Scrambling atop slipping and sliding rocks, I catch a small sight of dirty ice below any time I slip on loose rocks and push the moraine down a slope. Aside from that, there is little to tell me that I am in fact on top of a glacier.
The long trail back is a lonely one, but near the saddle several kea join me and cheer me up with their playful calls. They are beautiful birds, for all the trouble they cause.
|Kea in front of the Dart Glacier as seen from the Rees-Dart trail|
Finally returning to my tent near dark and I’m grateful to see the kea have left it undisturbed today. I barely manage to cook dinner before I crawl into my sleeping bag, not to emerge for some 12 hours. It was a glorious night after having slept so little the night before, and I am in no hurry to start the hike down. I have welcome company for most of the walk in the form of a small Israeli woman, and upon returning to the Aspiring Hut, the ranger gives me a good weather report, and tells me I can camp outside the hut for $5. The next morning my Israeli friend walks out with me, and somehow convinces me to add on an extra 4km to hike up to the viewpoint of Rob Roy Glacier nearby. Afterward, we'll spend a few days hiking and climbing together, and she shows me photos from the deserts and mountains around Israel. Just one more place I'll need to visit some day!
|Bridge to Rob Roy trail|
|Rob Roy Glacier|
Dart Glacier Statistics
Type: Apine Valley Glacier
Location: Mt Aspiring National Park, South Island of New Zealand
Source: Cirque below Mt Maori, fed by avalanches and hanging glaciers around the cirque
Width: Just over half a kilometer
Flow: Upward of 50 cm per day below the icefall, higher within the icefall, much slower closer to the terminus
Access: Via Cascade Saddle or perhaps more wisely via the Dart Hut side of the traverse
Vanishing Ice: An Introduction to Glaciers Based on a Study of the Dart Glacier. Bishop, Graham and Forsyth, Jane. Published in 1988 for the New Zealand Geological Society