Nov 17 day 78 Upper Travers Hut to Waiau Forks freedom camp 7:00-6:00 23 km
Woke up to Grant, the hike leader, stoking the fire in the wood stove, and before too long the crew started rustling about. I packed up, made oatmeal and coffee (can have all I want now that Grant gave me an extra cylinder of isobutane). I really like the hikers from Australia so I had a second cup of coffee and talked with them when I really should have been trekking. Ideally I wanted to get to Waiau Forks to camp, but that required first an early morning climb over Travers saddle which is 1700 + meters and then, late in the day, Waiau Pass which at 1800+ meters is the highest point on the South island part of the TA. So regretfully I said my farewells and started the climb. A sunny clear day as I climbed up out of the bush to open ground. All around were snow capped peaks, so the climb up was glorious. I made it to the top within an hour and started the long descent to the Sabine River valley. The winter snows, avalanches, and rock slides had pretty well taken out all the poles marking the lower part of the decent so I followed tracks and cairns and eventually found the trail through the woods to the West Sabine Hut where I crossed the river and made my way up to Blue Lake. Like the Travers, the Sabine is clear and fast running, so much fun to to spend a day walking beside it. At its headwaters is Blue Lake which, according to the sign, is the clearest, most optically pure freshwater lake in the world. Not sure about that, but it is beautiful and absolutely transparent. I got there by 1:00 so decided there was enough daylight to make the trek over Waiau Pass. The trail took me past Lake Constance which rivals Blue in color and beauty though getting around it required some hard climbing and narrow ledge hiking. The last bit was on a gravel beach at the water’s edge which was magical. The waters coming into it came across a wide flat plain that the trail followed. It gradually narrowed to a canyon surrounded by high snow-capped mountains with not anything that looked like a pass in evidence. The trail markers then made a sharp turn and went straight up the side of one of the mountains which might have had a little bit of a dip in altitude compared to the others, but hardly something to name “pass.” The initial climb was on loose gravel so each step slid back almost as much as it went forward. After an hour or so, I got the the first leveling off, though there was much more altitude to gain. In mid-winter this is a high avalanche risk area, and I’m not sure what conditions reduce that risk in the spring, but soon I was crossing snowfields on the way up, and once on the top, it was all snow for about a third of the very long descent. Fortunately some people had been through in the last day or so, and I was able to follow their footsteps down. I’m not sure how deep the snow was, but I would sink to about mid calf on each step. With cold feet I finally got below snow line, followed the western branch of the Waiau River to where it met the eastern half, and (after 11 hours of hard hiking) I pitched my tent in a beech forest beside the river, built a small fire to dry out my shoes, and gratefully crawled into my tent and sleeping bag, ready for a hard night’s sleep.