Saturday, January 3, 2009

What We'd Come for: Over Butler Saddle

It rained all night, with thunder and lightening frighteningly close.

We left Evans Hut on the flooding Cattle Stream and headed up-river in the wind and rain. The Rakaia was raging after two days rain following two days sun. The sun had melted snow and glacial ice and now the rain was flushing it off.

We hoped to wade the rockin’ Rakaia, but moving upstream we found it channelized, steep and scary. Indeed, there were no eddies and a raft crossing was not possible until we’d reached the stream coming down from Butler Saddle, our route into the Lawrence Valley.

Color coding signaled the quality of gravel bar walking: green meant go, on firm and level cushion plants. Yellow meant slow, on mossy rocks, a bit hard. Red meant stop, on cobbles coated in red lichen.

I used the wind pump to inflate the raft, packed everything and ferried over meter high waves to the other side. Depositing ths load on the far bank, I walked upstream and returned for Peggy.

“It looks fun.”

It was fun, and with two of us paddling we rode over quickly and easily, between a heft Class III drop above and a two mile long crashing roller coaster below.

The rain stopped briefly and we ate lunch, rolled up the raft, and packed up. Puling off my dry suit I ripped the neck gasket then pulling off my rain jacket beneath that I ripped its shoulder seems. It would be a while before I could repair those.

The opaque, glacial side stream rushed steeply down its boulder choked bed. The flow was thick and white. We had to cross, but it wouldn’t be easy.

Finally we found a wide spot, but the round boulders and swollen current made wading possible for only half the 25 yard distance. The rest of the way was boulder hopping on wet rock in the rain.

“This is stupid! I don’t wanna do this!” she called out after I had made some long leaps in sequence.

I dropped my pack and jumped back to the crux gap, jumped that, took her pack and re-crossed. Then back to her I stood knee-deep and helped her make the moves.

“I don’t want to do any more crossings like that!” she admonished.

We moved up the clear water tributary, with her in the lead. She seemed to delight in working her way up the creek and its short drops and cascades, following animal trails when the water was too steep.

“How do these animals get over these boulders?”

We went higher and came to an avalanche cone that choked the creek bed. The creek came out of a large snow cave at its base.

“That looks bad! We might fall in a hole.”

“Nah, it’ll be firm, like ice.”

“Which side should we follow?”

“The left looks good,” she said and led off.

The snow went fast and easy. It was odd that the avalanche debris included so many rosette plants, a growth we usually think of as tropical.

“I guess that’s just New Zealand – a mix of jungle and ice. That guy Smiley said that the weather changes so fast it’s like three seasons in a day.”

Leaving the gully we followed animal trails into the brush. At first we thought they were deer trails. But then they steepened up substantially and threaded a very narrow arĂȘte between two gorges.

“What are those?”

My head was down and I was grabbing woody plants and hoisting upwards when I looked up to see what Peggy was referring to. Across the main gorge were half a dozen, shaggy brown goat like animals, low in stature and beefy in build.

“Not sure. Either chamois or thar. I think they’re thar, a Himalayan mountain goat.”

“How do you know?”

“I googled them when I was researching this route after reading some guys blog about his traverse of the South island.”

Soon we found their beds and their droppings along a thin slice of solid terrain in otherwise empty space. We were climbing steep vegetation again, but this time it was woody and had sporadic trails.

As the arĂȘte narrowed to a Thermarest width, dropping precipitously, if bushy, down either side, it looked like the trails ended. Still Peggy moved confidently behind me. The thar on the other side – more than a dozen we could now see – watched us curiously.

The trails ran out. It looked wrong but we kept to the steep ridge line, grabbing handfuls of podocarp brush to pull ourselves upward.

The rain increased.

“Let’s traverse over there!” I pointed to a grassy shelf below the final scree field leading to the pass. But this would be the worst bit – steep, wet, cliffy below, and raining hard.

Halfway into the exposed traverse, something pokey got Peggy. “Ouch, damn it! I don’t know whty let you bring me here!!” That was it. It had finally got to her.

Ahead a few yards I was into even more pokey things, “spaniards”, a weird native relative of the carrot with needle sharp leaves, like a yucca or an agave and located on cliff sides.

We got off the traverse, through the pokey grass with its army of spaniards, and onto the scree. It stopped raining and we put on another layer.

The climb up went on and on, past fabulous views and weird alpine plants, the likes of which we’d never seen before. Like the narrow strip of coastline, wild New Zealand also lies atop its mountains where no exotic plants, sheep, or cattle – just thar and chamois – live.

Around 7 PM, our normal time to make camp, we reached the summit of Butler Saddle. We wer both apprehensive to see the other side as neither wanted to camp high, trapped by darkness and verticality.

But to our happy amazement we found snowfields leading downward for over an hour. A vertical distance that had taken four hours up we descended in two.

“Can we make the hut?”

“I don’t know. It’s after nine and looks like a couple miles.”

But I had misread the map and within forty minutes Peggy spotted the miniature hut, called a “biv” and no bigger than a tent, really, nestled in the tussocks.

“Wow, I can’t believe it,” she said, “that’s twice today I saw something before you did.”

It had been a full day of big-river crossings, high passes, wild brush, canyons, cliffs, snowfields, and gorges. In one day we had more adventure than all eight days we’d spent on the Paiane Circuit in Patagonia.

And Peggy was elated. Until she smelled the biv.

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