Nelson Lakes

Aug 19-20, 2017
Angelus Hut at Nelson Lakes National Park, New Zealand

Only a week ago on August 19-20th, 2017, Bryan and I completed an overnight hike to Angelus Hut in Nelson Lakes National Park in Tasman, New Zealand (our route at the end of the post), where spring is still a half-formed idea on the horizon and fresh snow is still falling in the mountains. Because the forecast had been a blustery 50-65 km/hr winds and well below freezing wind chill, we decided to hike in on the more protected Speargrass Track, which meanders 11.2km along Speargrass Creek, with a first half  that is wooded and flat, and a second half that gains the majority of the altitude up to the Robert Ridge junction. From the top of the ridge, we descended to Angelus Lake, and made our way to the hut alongside the lake where we would overnight. The next morning, we descended along Robert Ridge, facing icy traverses and biting winds, and the steep but perfectly switch-backed Pinchgut Track, making it back to the carpark an hour before sundown.

We started up Speargrass Track in the morning around 8a, as a beautiful walk in the woods. The track was well marked, and fairly dry (only a few patches of mud). The first main creek crossing was flooded, and there was a marked flood detour. Bryan, unwilling to loop and ascend the extra 50m, spent a good 15 minutes trying to build a bridge against this current. I stood back with my arms crossed, extremely confident that this was a terrible idea. Some minutes and wet shoes later, we were on our way up the detour.

Starting up Pinchgut Track towards Angelus Hut

Around 11a, we arrived at the Speargrass Hut, a 12-bunk cabin at the forest’s edge. This photo was taken outside the hut, where the field was covered in speargrass. We lunched and basked shortly in the sun before continuing.

The next portion of the hike included the majority of our elevation gain of the day. The blazes on the initial part of the trail right after the Speargrass Hut turnoff were extremely hard to find and follow, and we found ourselves off trail on a dry, rocky hill with lots of prickly plant life. After some unsuccessful bushwhacking in an attempt to find a suitable detour, we headed back towards the creek, where we rejoined the trail.

What followed was a pleasant but slow ascent up the creek. There were numerous creek crossings (which weren’t my favorite that morning – I was still feeling a bit unbalanced after the mountain biking episode, sad story for another day perhaps). Around 1350m, we hit snow, and gaitered up. This photo shows a view down the creek valley.

The rest of the ascent was much like this, through beautiful untouched snow. We were the first people (and only, we later found) to hike up that day. Everything was so sharply alpine once we hit snow. The transition was crisp, immediate, and complete.

Finally, after several false saddles, we met up with the Robert Ridge trail, and descended into the bowl that housed Angelus Lake and Angelus Hut. This hut was huge and comfortable. There was a wood stove for heating, which we employed to “dry” our wet socks and boots, and melt snow into water. The ascent having taken more time than expected, due to getting lost and snow, we cooked and cleaned up as best we could in the twilight and hour subsequent before heading straight to bed.

Given how beautiful the weather was in the morning, we decided to chance the Robert Ridge route on the way down. We first had to clamber up the 100m or so back up to the ridge from the Angelus bowl. With our lack of adequate equipment (we had microspikes and ice axes – no crampons), the long ridge traverse that followed took a significant amount of time and energy, and was by far the most dangerous part of this hike. I definitely dangled for a long minute on a slippery slope, hanging by my ice axe (I love you, ice axe), unable to find purchase on the hard snow. The overnight cold had stabilized the snow to such an extent that we were barely able to punch footholds into it. At some point on this initial traverse (which feels like it took us hours), we met an ascending couple. On their crampons, they breezed by us, crossing what we had just laboriously traversed in only minutes.

After the initial traverse, the rest of the ridge hike looked more like this. The ridge broadened up, allowing us to walk on the flattened top. There was some minimal cornicing as the wind picked up. The middle section of the ridge was very exposed, and we encountered the forecasted 50km+ winds. Long stretches extended before us, where there was little desire to stop, adjust clothing, expose skin; the goal was to trudge on, with our gloves to our faces to keep the wind out.

We finally found the end of the ridge, and a view of the valley beyond.

The snow eased into mud into grass, and before long, the warmth was soaking back into our appendages. The vapor barriers we had put into our boots earlier in the day had turned into moisture traps, literal bags of water, in which our tired feet slipped and squelched.

The descent down Pinchgut was mild and easy. The switchbacks were plentiful, but of perfect grade. There was a good view of Lake Rotoiti and St Arnaud, where we had stayed the night before. The pier off Lake Rotoiti houses a giant tangle of fresh-water eels, who sit eerily and chubbily by the wooden pillars, mouths open, waiting for the occasional food scrap to fall nearby. Soon, we were engulfed in patches of woods. Trees! We hadn’t seen those for a while. The air was warm and moist, windless. Before long, we had descended the last 400m back to the trail start, from where we had diverged only the previous day.

Overall, it was a satisfying but more challenging hike than expected. The rather technical traverses over hard snow were hard for us with our minimal gear. There was some minimal boundary brushing, but I felt reasonably safe the whole way. Special thanks to my ice axe (seriously, what would I do without you), Bryan (for punching many many footholds), and Bumper Bars (for bringing butter into the alpine).