Too Fun in the Two Thumb

TOO FUN IN THE TWO THUMB
Too Fun adventures... this is taken right near the tiger
A dastardly Westerly flow crept across the Island last week, causing us to abandon our exciting plans for skiing on the glaciers around the divide. We would have to stick far east as possible... we thought about heading for the Kaikouras, but unsure about snow conditions there we decided maybe the Two Thumb Mountains which lie between the Rangitata River and Lake Tekapo (and as they are slightly lower and slightly east of the the divide are not generally as exposed to the Norwest weather) were the more reliable bet.

So we spent most of a day scheming and planning on a loop which would carry us on ski and by foot around the Two Thumb Peaks themselves. We left late on Tuesday and drove down to Mesopotamia where we camped. The weather was beautiful in the morning (as predicted) and views up to a very snow clad Cloudly Peak were impressive. We were optimistic about the amount of snow around.

We started up towards Black Birch Creek, crossing paddocks and deer fences with packs festooned with skis and boots proving a tad awkward. As we entered the first gorge of Black Birch Creek we realised there wasn't actually a track and we weren't really sure if there even was a route up this creek! But then we figured there was Dog Kennel Biv at the head of it, so there must be a way up.

After a bit of boulder bashing we climbed steeply out of the stream, then back down again. The river opened up for a bit, then a second gorge appeared. Some careful manoeuvres were required around a slippery, loose cliff face and then we climbed up out of the river and popped out on a lovely beech forested shelf above the gorge. We grinned, this was a perfect start to the 'Too Fun' trip.

Climbing out of Black Birch Stream above the second gorge

Chris with a little bit of gear attached to his pack
On up we came across the ancient Dog Kennel Biv, which is aptly named for its size. Chris's Dad had a photo of this bivouac from over 40 years ago and not much has changed there! We ate lunch under a boulder, then continued up valley out of the grassy flats and on to the snowy slopes leading up to Cassandra Col. We put skins on our skis and headed up steeply in big zig zags towards the Col. It was a big, steep climb and the last part we plugged steps. Finally we emerged over the crest of the Col at about 2300m, the sun was setting and the wind picking up.

Chris at Dog Kennel Biv
Heading further up Black Birch Stream, Achilles at the valley head
A rather delicious wrap for lunch
Just down the other side of Cassandra Col
The descent was worth it though - we skied down Iliad Basin in perfect spring corn carving big turns with our heavy packs. Eventually the tongue of snow we were skiing on ran out and we walked down to a perfect tussocky spot at the confluence of Trojan Stream and North East Gorge Stream. By now grey clouds were looming around the divide and we knew that the Norwest was going to send us scampering east tomorrow.
Descending from Cassandra Col in the fading light
Sure enough we woke to lashing rain and wind. Our little yellow tent was so cosy we were reluctant to emerge and it wasn't until midday that we finally packed up in the rain and headed down North East Gorge Stream. The going was good, except for the occasional squalls that blasted us from behind. We kept glimpsing sun rays on the slopes ahead of us, so we were sure we were walking away from the bad weather.

Morning in the rain in the Trojan Stream
Rock hopping in North East Stream
We crossed Two Thumb Stream and then our plan was to head up to pt 2045, ski down into the basin of Third Waterfall Stream and camp there. We had started the long climb up the tussocked spur when the first large snowflakes started falling. Given that we were already soaked through and it was getting late in the day I was not as impressed by this as Chris.

We slogged up and finally reached the ridge in a near white out, with snow blasting us from the west. Chris disappeared from my view and I was thinking about the numerous happy tussocky spots we could have camped in down below us. Suddenly a small rock outcrop appeared and the figure of Chris huddling behind it. I joined him and the wind stopped immediately. This was a great shelter - below us we could see swirling snow and about two metres from the rock was a corniced ridge which dropped away into the whiteness.

"We could camp here" Chris suggested cheerily. I wasn't sure, but the idea of continuing didn't seem a sensible one, so shovels out we started widening our shelter and building a snow wall on one side to stop all the spindrift coming in. Before long we had made a nice little platform to pitch our tent and I jumped in. It was super cosy inside, although all our gear was soaked. Chris sat outside and cooked, which was a tad miserable given he got plastered in spindrift and spent about 30 minutes trying to get the lighter to work after it got wet.

Our camp high on the ridge in the storm
Eventually we were sorted and snuggled down deep into our sleeping bag. The wind howled outside and the sides of the tent constantly sagged with loaded spindrift, but we were warm in our little cocoon high on the mountain and the lights of Tekapo twinkled far down below us.

In the morning the sun was out, but so was the wind. It buffeted around us, sending swirling spirals of snow up into the air. We investigated the wind loaded slope below us, I was very hesitant about skiing it but after Chris dug around we decided it was actually pretty stable. Cautiously we skied down into the valley, quickly reaching gentler slopes and slushy snow.

Our camp in the morning after digging out most of our gear
Dropping down from our camp
Fine skinning in the next basin
Tranisition on the ridge (not the crazy windy one!)
Looking back to our camp (on top of bump to left) and our ski tracks down into the basin
Gentle slopes above Second Waterfall Stream

From this valley we then skinned up another ridge and dropped down some icy wind blasted slopes into Second Waterfall Stream. The snow cover was good in this basin and we were able to leave on our skis as we climbed up to a saddle which would take us into Blind Spur Stream. It all seemed great until we reached the saddle and then suddenly the wind became incredibly strong. It took me straight back to the Pisa Range during this year's Godzone. 
There was a smooth snow slope and then a big corniced drop into the valley below and the wind was trying very hard to suck me and my skis straight over the edge! I ripped them off, lay on the ground to zip up my jacket and then crawled my way up to Chris who was crouched behind a boulder higher up. He had found a wee break in the cornice where we could ski down.

We gingerly crawled to the edge where the wind abated a little, put on our skis and skied down into the relative shelter of the basin. I felt pretty frazzled by the experience, so we skied on down the hill to find a tussock spot for lunch which was less windy. Huge 'whirling willies' swirled around the peaks above us and the clouds above raced by.

Another delicious wrap with aoli and spinach greens (the last of these sadly) and we felt re-energized for a high traverse to Stag Saddle. The snow was a mixture of hard wind pack or deep mush which your skis sank down into. Fortunately for me, my weight, ski width and pack size all combined to mean I generally stayed above the snow and could actually ski, where Chris sank down deep and face planted regularly. It is very rare for me to find the going easier than him, so I shamelessly revelled in it.
Chris having fun in the soft snow, Stag Saddle behind and left
Stag Saddle was windy (surprise) and the day was getting on. Royal hut beaconed from the valley, so we slid on down the valley on a mixture of delicious spring corn combined with aforementioned slush. We got a long way down the valley by skiing on a mixture of snow and snow tussock (which slides remarkably well) and eventually stopped at the babbling brook which leads into Bush Stream.
Chris enjoying the tussock skiing
Happy times in the walking to the hut
On reaching Royal Hut we had a gear explosion in the setting rays of sun, trying to dry soaked everything, including our beloved "Spoonbill" sleeping bag. Royal Hut was a great spot for the night and we slept very well in the relative calm of the hut compared to the flapping, spindrift filled night before.
Royal explosion at Royal Hut
The sun was out again in the morning, but so was our now constant companion - the wind. We enjoyed a swim in Bush Stream and drying out on a rock and then continued on up the Te Araroa Trail enjoying being hikers for the day. Near the highest point on the Te Araroa Trail we turned left and skinned up a snow filled basin on the side of Mt Pattisson. From there we descended to the end of the spur that runs off Mt Caton. We created (with just a small amount of vegetation flattening on Chris's part) a small platform to pitch our tent.

Warm enough for a dip!
Hiking a section of the 'Te Araroa Trail'
Skinning to a saddle below Mt Pattisson
Chris fighting the wind, or trying to fly
By now the clouds were really blowing in and the air was unacannily warm. We suspected the Norwest was out to get us again. Sure enough, another blustery night in the tent. In the morning it was sunny, but the peaks were covered in whirling spindrift. We decided to try and sneak in a final ski run - we had had more ambitious plans but given the weather we opted for Mt Caton. The valley was relatively sheltered again, except for the occasional squall that left one lying on the ground stinging all over from being hit by a million tiny ice needles.


Our camp in the morning... looks sunny
We skinned up the valley admiring some beautifully formed spherical snowballs which had deposited themselves on the valley floor. As we climbed up we could see great plumerols of snow being blasted off every rock pinnacle along the ridge. The snow grew firmer as we reached the higher slopes and it seemed like it was going to be a good ski run down.
Mt Caton basin, Brabazon Saddle in the background
In the upper basin I caught up with Chris and applied layers of Goretex to try and stop the occasional ice blasts from being so painful. We looked up to the ridgeline where the wind was howling.. "shall we look into the eye of the tiger?" I suggested. Chris agreed and we dumped our skis and armed ourselves with ice axes to approach the beast.

Near the top of Mt Caton the wee pass we reached looks directly West. It was impossible to stand, we crawled to the edge and peered at the howling storm, it was a dark grey colour and roared like a lion. It was then we also noticed that back down valley we could see great dust clouds hurtling down the Rangitata and out to the coast. This really was a tiger!!
Near the head of the basin... dust clouds becoming apparent
We zoomed back down to our skis as the hailstorm began. The snow was very nice and we descended quickly on our skis, the wind blasting all around us. Then we heard a crack and thunder rumbled around the valley. The rain and hail increased and the Norwest was really after us this time! We ran back to our gear stash, threw it all in our packs and headed down towards Crooked Spur hut.
Heading down fast ... ferocious wind storm escaping photography
Rain and thunder in valley, Chris still smiling
We had to sidle around steep tussock slopes and then on down the spur to the hut. The valley reverberated with the wind and thunder and it was a magnificent feeling to close the old tin door of the hut and have a shelter over our heads. We cooked up some noodles and then Chris said "What was that river like to cross on the way out last time you were here?" I remembered Bush Stream being a steep mountain stream, fine at normal levels but this could be a problem...
We hurried to pack our gear and then headed out into the storm. We were pretty keen to get out that night because Chris had a fairly important meeting the following day. The ridge is steep as it drops down from Crooked Spur and we scurried along aware of our pointy metal skis poking up into the air like lightening rods. Down in the forest we relaxed a little, until we caught sight of the stream.

The Bush Stream had become a raging torrent, a mixture of big snow melt from the warm winds and now rain from the deluge as well. Neither of us felt at all comfortable to try and cross, but then Chris being Chris spotted a fallen tree across a rapid further up river. Without really thinking he shimmied out onto the log and then almost completely submerged himself in the fast flowing river as he grappled with the trunk.

He made it across and then back, grabbed my pack and then came back. It was only then that I suddenly realised what a stupid idea this was. Directly below the trunk was another partially submerged one, with the full force of the flooded river rushing into it. Falling in there would be a very bad idea, and shortly after that the river entered a series of nasty looking rapids. Work commitments or not, for me to try to cross this log was a huge mistake.

On saying this Chris agreed with me immediately, only now he had to go back across twice to get the packs. Fortunately by now he had worked out a technique of bridging between both the logs until he was across the swiftest part of the current and could touch the ground again. The sky was lit up around us by flashes of lightening and it definitely wasn't the first time this year I have been reminded how easy it is to make mistakes in the mountains if you let your guard down.

We sullenly trodded back up the hut thinking through many unappealing contingency plans of escape, only to conclude that by far the most pleasant and sensible option was to spend the night in the hut and see if the river had gone down in the morning. We had several more brews, read old Antics magazines and ate chocolate. Just before it got dark we walked back down to the river to discover all that had happened was it had risen further! So we collected some good bundles of firewood and climbed back up the hill for a cosy night in the hut.

The wind howled most of the night and I hoped the old Crooked Spur Hut was reasonably well attached. After a fairly restless night we woke early to see if we could still make it out in time for Chris's meeting. Down the spur we went in the beautiful sunrise, calmer now too. But the river sounded ominous from afar. True to the sound it was still too big for us to safely cross.

We sighed. We would have to go with plan b (there was also a plan c, d and e). We would climb back to the hut (now for the third time), back to the stream from yesterday, then climb up over a saddle onto the Brabazon Ridge. We would descend that back into the Rangitata River thus avoiding any river crossing, but necessitating a 1700m climb, ugh!

We climbed as fast as we could, Chris having removed most of the gear from my pack. The sun was up and it was even quite calm! The calmest day we had had... maybe the Norwest tiger was going to let us escape after all. We ran along parts of the ridge, looking up occasionally to glimpse the sparkling clear mountains on the main divide.
Beautiful tops travel along Brabazon Ridge, pity we were running late!
Eventually we reached the end of the ridge and could see a steep but easily descendable tussock spur all the way back to the car. Now it was hot and we sweated as we leaped across the final fences and dodged cow poos in the farm paddocks. At the car it was a hasty transition of gear tossed in a smelly mass pile in the boot, a quick glance back at the Two Thumb range and then we put the pedal to the metal!

So ended our trip. Chris managed to organise a meeting later in the afternoon. The tiger let us out. We had fun. We made the right decision in the end. End of the story. Till next time (-:
Enjoying a calm moment on the way home

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