A Tramping Trilogy: Gillespie Pass
A few weeks back, while the three of us were lazing by the lakeshore near sleepy Omarama, we realized it was time to stop being, well… lazy. It had been more than four months since we arrived in New Zealand, and over two since we met up with Alex and began our full-scale South Island exploration. Though we’d traversed the island several times over, our 90 L packs had remained neglected and the soles of our shoes had seen only a handful of day walks. It was time to load up our gear and head for the hills to participate in the beloved Kiwi pastime of tramping.
New Zealand is laced with an unbelievable number of walking trails, and it’s actually quite overwhelming trying to decide which piece of wilderness to explore. Though we had been eyeing an alpine crossing under the shadow of Mount Cook, an inconclusive weather forecast forced us to look further south. We settled on a 64-kilometer route connecting the Young and Wilkin river valleys in Mount Aspiring National Park, spent a day organizing gear and food, and set off with clear skies and high spirits.
A typically enchanting beech forest cloaks most of the Young valley, the fat and peeling birch-like trunks hanging with moss. The river —boasting that bright blue color we’ve only seen in New Zealand—tempted us with clear pools, though we knew it was painfully cold from our crossing earlier in the day. Every once in a while, we’d come to a wide meadow and get a spectacular view of the peaks all around us.
After seven hours and 20 kilometers, the last part steadily uphill, we came to the impressively posh Young Hut. Though our legs were exhausted and the bunks were inviting, we all agreed we didn’t hike all this way through the woods to sleep in a hostel. After a short rest we hoisted our packs and pressed on for another hour and few hundred vertical meters.
At last, emerging from the last of the sub-alpine brush, we could see the headwaters of the river we’d been following all day. A huge grassy plain spread in a near-perfect circle, culminating in a craggy cirque at the head of the valley. Alpine daisies and large mountain buttercups dotted the pale grass, and cliffs hemmed us in on all sides.
After a predictably delicious mac and cheese dinner, the sinking sun lit up the mountains before dropping behind them. We couldn’t have been happier. This was worth walking for!
The next day held the shortest, but by far the steepest, section of the hike: 600 meters up to the crest of Gillespie Pass. The trail turned sharply up the south side of the valley, orange poles marking the route among the tussocks. The scenery kept improving with every step, and stops to catch a breath soon became chances to soak up the view.
At last the pitch eased and we turned up the ridge to the high point of the trip at 1629 meters, where we were met with more spectacular mountain scenery. It’s something we encounter often here in New Zealand, though the effort it took to reach made this view extra special. Mount Awful dominated the foreground, while Young Peak poked above a ridge to its right hand side. The rest of the Southern Alps stretched beyond, with clouds shrouding the far western reaches, likely from the Tasman Sea just a couple dozen miles away.
We had the whole rest of the day to descend just a few hours, so we lingered on the top of the ridgeline, snacking, chatting, and just absorbing this beautiful afternoon on a high alpine pass. A brief study of the map told us that some forbearing explorer had not had as good a time in these parts: along with Mount Awful, nearby rivers and streams bore the names Mistake, Accident, Shiver, Cramp, and Turnback.
We left our packs behind for the side trip up to Crucible Lake the next morning, which proved well worth a detour. A steep climb through beech forest flattened into a spectacular hanging valley and ended at the rim of a rocky crater. The lake filled the void below, completely full of ice, while the view back down the valley competed for our attention.
Clouds had rolled in on our hike up, and the stark alpine scene surrounding us took on an imposing air in the grey morning light. Given warm blue skies we could have spent hours here, but after photos and a snack we felt satisfied and descended to the cries of a kea and a cool wind.
The trail continuing down the Siberia Valley was even more dramatic than the Young Valley we traversed two days earlier. The rocky peaks here were larger and more abrupt, framing a massive valley filled with bright green grasses swaying in the breeze. Waterfalls thundered down from clefts and wide bowls in the rocks. We stopped constantly to gape at the incredible views in every direction, and Nate could barely make it 10 feet without snapping a photo.
We are always comparing sights we see here to places we’ve visited, lived, or maybe only seen in magazines. Yosemite, Alaska, Switzerland, Thailand, British Columbia, Norway, Ireland, and our home state of Vermont have all come to mind on various points during our travels. Yet, at some point you stop comparing and realize that this is all one place, and that you are here, wandering through a broad, bright meadow under the mountains of New Zealand.
Our brimming love for the wilderness was soon tempered. After reaching camp we pitched our tent and sat down to enjoy… a full-scale attack from every tramper’s arch nemesis, the sandfly. These seemed a particularly insidious breed, and quickly destroyed any hope for an enjoyable rest after a long day. Thousands descended upon our camp, coating any open patch of skin, ready to bite. Dinner was eaten on the run, all three of us pacing about wildly to stay a step ahead of the voracious cloud. After we took refuge in our tent, they scouted out tears in the mesh, leading to an emergency sewing session.
Then, we lay down underneath the gathering rain clouds and realized: yes, this is all one place, and here we are, soggy and eaten alive under the mountains of New Zealand.
The next morning we awoke wet, itchy, unrested, and decidedly grumpy. We packed up and walked out without even bothering with breakfast, fully realizing that all three of us just don’t fit in one tent. But, despite efforts to nurse our misery, the clouds parted and the Wilkin Valley won us over with its gently rolling meadows and forested hills.
Toward the end the walk dragged on, with the highway visible up ahead never seeming to get closer. A final river crossing was an unwelcome obstacle, and a 3-kilometer road walk an unglamorous finish. As is the case at the end of most backpacking trips, we were all exhausted, dirty, and ready for a hot shower and dry clothes.
Once reunited with the comforts of civilization, though, the heavy bags and sandflies and sore legs seemed to melt away. We’re left with memories of glorious landscapes and mountain meadows, ready to explore more of New Zealand’s wilderness. But maybe after a few more days… and a few more pies.