Shortly after moving to Christchurch in New Zealand’s South Island over 4 years ago, I read about an enticing peak nestled within the Southern Alps near the village of Arthur’s Pass. I was keen to get up it but life and a dramatic change in fitness got in my way. But after spending the Southern Hemisphere’s summer hiking as many peaks within reach as the weather would allow, I finally felt that Avalanche Peak was within grasp. Only the seasons have turned, meaning shortening days and cooler weather and a risk of wind and snow about the peaks grows ever more likely. I had started to think that it would have to wait another year, when thankfully, some good weather coincided with a day off, and I realised my luck had turned.
And what a perfect day it turned out to be. The little alpine village of Arthur’s Pass is just over a 2 hr drive west from Christchurch, but nestled as it is amongst an impressive mountain range, its weather system is so very different to that of the Canterbury Plains to the east, and even with the MetService website suggesting all would be well, you are never sure what you are going to get until you get there. The west coast road from Christchurch to Greymouth is one of my favourite drives in the country. There are so many scenic routes to choose from in New Zealand, but this is the road I’ve travelled the most and it never fails to impress.
Over Porter’s Pass from where Trig M is reached, past Lakes Lyndon and Pearson, and onwards to the little settlement of Bealey Spur from where the track of the same name begins, the road winds round the towering mountains and along river beds until, shaded by the hulks of Mounts Bealey & Rolleston, Arthur’s Pass appears. Directly behind the village, the steep slope of Avalanche Peak disappeared above.
There are two routes up Avalanche Peak: the Avalanche Peak track and Scott’s track. The first begins behind the Department of Conservation (DOC) visitor centre, and the second begins just north of the village. Due to the nature of the track, it is recommended to only ever go up the Avalanche Peak track, and not to descend by this route, meaning it should either be hiked as a loop track (up Avalanche Peak track and down Scott’s track), or ascend and descend the same way via Scott’s track. My friend and I were both happy to hike a loop, so we parked at the visitor centre and set off on the marked path behind the building that hugged the tree line.
Almost immediately after entering the trees, the Avalanche Peak track sets off on a steep incline through the forest. Several other people were heading up at the same time and the whole way up we were playing tag with them as each of us hiked and rested at our own pace. Early on, a stream flowed down the lower rocks in a series of pretty waterfalls, but otherwise for the first hour, most of the hike involved concentrating on your feet as the best foot hold up tree roots and rock faces was sought out. Despite being physically tiring, I was enjoying the process, although it became a lot nicer of a hike when the tree line was reached after not quite an hour and a quarter. Once out of the tree line, the view in all directions was phenomenal. Ahead on the path, the various lower ridges could be seen snaking into the distance. To the left Mount Bealey, and to the right the glacier-clad summit of Mount Rolleston dominated the skyline, and behind us, the valley below opened up.
It was now easy to see that this hike was extremely popular. With little wind on a gorgeously sunny autumn day, there were plenty of people strewn along the path both ahead and behind us. The higher we got, the steeper the drop-off either side became but it was an easy path to follow. Several bluffs created a dramatic vista, and later on, like so many mountains I have hiked recently, a scree slope appeared near the top. On this occasion, the path picked its way up the side of the scree, making for a winding, though relatively easy passage. In fact, despite being classed as an alpine hike requiring experience in back country navigation, this was actually not really a technical hike. Only as the summit became within reach, did it change quality.
At the top of the path next to the scree field lay a cluster of large boulders that needed to be scrambled over, and then the narrow ridgeline of Avalanche Peak opened up before us. The width varied between a narrow track on a ledge next to some rocks that only 1 person could sidle along, to wider areas that a few people could sit on. As it was, the unmarked summit (1833m/6014ft altitude) could sit about 6 of us comfortably whilst allowing a little space for others to move around us. Summiting just shy of 2hrs 45mins after starting, I joined my companion who had made it in less time, and we joined some others in a spot of lunch at the summit with a ream of mountain tops for company. It was simply stunning, and worth every drop of sweat on the way up.
With the lack of wind, despite being autumn, it wasn’t too cold at the top, and there was little rush to leave. We saw some hikers head off the track onto the lower ridge that leads to Mt Rolleston, and still there were more and more people arriving on the upper reaches of Avalanche Peak. After about half an hour we set off, back across the narrow ridgeline towards the boulder cluster, and here the two tracks split. The Avalanche Peak track had been dotted with yellow poles, but this time, we followed the orange poles down Scott’s track.
Whilst still steep in places, it was a much easier track to follow down, initially dropping off down the side of some impressive bluffs before rolling down a gentle slope towards the treeline. From this track, the Devil’s Punchbowl waterfall was clearly visible across the valley on the opposite mountain, and it remained in view for most of the hike down. It was easy to see the west coast road continue north through the valley from here, and only now as we reached some of the lower slopes, did the wind pick up a little. It took only an hour to reach the treeline again, from where it was just another hour to reach the end of the track on the west coast road.
Although the path wound its way through the lower forest, the canopy was still open enough to afford a good view for the vast majority of the descent. There was still a lot of need to watch footing through tree branches, streams and over rocks, but there was plenty of opportunity to soak up the view and the image of the waterfall changed as the perspective altered and I took my time going down to enjoy this. My companion reached the end of the track a little ahead of me as I had gone a little snap happy, but still, we were back in the village in a respectable 5.5hrs.
Although for most people, Arthur’s Pass village is a convenience stop on route from coast to coast, it does have a few places to sleep as well as a couple of cafes, a small convenience store and a train station, so it is a useful place to make as a base for exploring some local hikes. Aside from the nearby mountains, there are also a few lower-level hikes, and the most popular is the walk to the base of the Devil’s Punchbowl waterfall. The DOC website lists the Avalanche Peak as 4-5hrs each way which is certainly being generous, but it is definitely a hike requiring a good bit of fitness, and the upper sections definitely need respect in poorer weather conditions. But steep as it was, this is now a firm favourite amongst the many hikes I’ve now down in New Zealand.