Steep Forest & Waterfalls – Lake Roberts

“On a Mish” #101 Steep Forest and Waterfalls. Lake Roberts. Fiordland National Park. 20.3.2011. One of the challenges I really enjoy about going on a mish is that fact that once you are out into the wild you have to keep going because there is no option B. A simple conversation between guides led to an epic day battling steep forest and waterfalls, and a situation where I did ponder giving up but that would have been no use to anybody! In my quest to get to Lake Roberts which is nestled in the mountains high above the Fiordland side of the Routeburn Track, I found myself in a rather interesting predicament…

An excellent bonus to working on the Routeburn Track is working with a group of like-minded outdoorsy people. After the work is done each night on the track we would usually kick back and chat about missions into the surrounding mountains. I quickly learnt that the missions around the track become a game of one-up-manship amongst the guides.

Lake Roberts sits isolated in a large basin guarded on all sides by the steep rocky peaks of the Ailsa Range and was a place none of the current guides had been to. The alpine lake is the unseen water source for the very impressive 174 metre high Earland Falls, biggest waterfall encountered on the Routeburn Track.

I had the opportunity to open up and then afterwards clean the lodges on the Greenstone Valley with the Milton Rotary Hiking club walking the track. This was an excellent gig to get with Ultimate Hikes as you have the opportunity to start from the lodge because you aren’t guiding anyone to it.

My job started once the group arrived at McKellar Lodge later that day, so I decided to head onto the track a day earlier so I could ‘Quickly sneak up the hill to Lake Roberts’.

An early-ish start had me on the coach with another lucky bunch of guided walkers bound for the Routeburn, and we were all treated to an adventure perfect bluebird day.

On the drive to the start of the Routeburn I realised I had forgotten my camera and only had my phone (back in the day kids phones didn’t take epic pics like they do these days!). Oh well, better than nothing and it was something I could use to document my journey.

From the car park I raced ahead of the guided group, and down to Lake Howden and it’s DoC Hut (RIP). I had a quick catch up with the Ranger and told him what I was up to, then I dropped off any unnecessary items to save on weight. After hiking the track around the northern end of the lake I took to the bush and that’s when the real mission started.

My rough plan was to follow Pass Creek and then climb up to and follow a ridge heading east into a basin dotted with small tarns high above Lake Howden. This went by without any issues, and I managed to gain height quickly through the steep bush. During the climb I came across old marker tape in the trees, someone had visited this area a very long time ago. Eventually I got above the trees and climbed into the basin.

Above the wide basin the terrain steepened dramatically and soft tussock became broken cold grey rock. I looked above me to see a very obvious saddle that would lead to Lake Roberts. Now all I had to do was get up to it.

The last push up to a small saddle was on bare rock slabs with a drop off that kept me on my toes. In places I would cross small slabs covered in little stones. It was like hiking across the kitchen floor when it is covered in marbles, with the added risk of a massive death drop below. After some very careful scrambling across the rock plates I got onto the easier ground on the ridge below Peak 1777m, and got my first view down to the lake.

Earland Falls Rumbling Below Lake Roberts

Along with the lake the views all the way down the Hollyford Valley to the Tasman Sea were unforgettable and in every other direction stood massive Fiordland peaks. Some views make themselves at home in the epicness section of your brain and this was definitely one of those views!

From the saddle the scramble to the lake was easy however this was only the halfway point of my mish. Now I had to get back down to Lake Howden.

I scrambled back up to the ridge from the lake, and then I carefully down-climbed the steep rock on the other side into the basin with the small tarns. The view back over to the Key Summit Ridge was awesome and I could see the tiny dots which were other humans enjoying the perfect conditions in Fiordland National Park.

From the basin instead of following the same route I took in the morning, I looked at my map and decided to head into a steep gully north of the ridge I followed to get above the treeline. Big mistake.

I bashed my way down to a point where the terrain steepened and the Horrid Spaniard in the gully was so savage I didn’t want to climb back up through it. This meant I had now committed myself to the route down the gully.

The way down was a mix of steep forest and waterfalls, not the type of terrain most hikers want to be in.

There were very few easy sections and at one point I realised I was not in a mini canyon and down was the only option. After crossing and recrossing the cold water of the upper reaches of Pass Creek, I arrived at an area of steep cliffs and waterfalls. There were very few ‘safe’ options for me to take but I did see easier terrain on the opposite side of the stream above the waterfalls, but the only way to get to it was to sidle a moss covered rock wall with a watery large drop below it.

The wall seemed like it had plenty of plants to grip onto, and I nervously began the slow traverse, inching my way towards my target. Within seconds I realised that the hand holds had a ‘limited time offer’. Each time I kicked my feet into and gripped at the spongy wall I could feel the foliage slowly pulling out. What was probably less than a minute felt like hours as I kept pulling chunks of moss off the wall and watched it drop into the waterfall about 30 metres below. This was one of those times when you wish you could hit the reset button and start the mish again!

I finally got to the easier ground, and took a few moments to catch my breath and slow my heart rate. After the sketchy wall I wanted to stay as far away from the stream as possible so I scrambled up into the forest and thankfully the rest of the way down didn’t involve any more deadly situations.

I’ll never forget the faces of the unexpecting Routeburn Track hikers I came across as I burst out of the bush covered in mud, moss and scratched on to the well manicured track. I must have looked like I had lost a fight with barb-wire fence!

After getting back on the track I headed down to the DoC Ranger’s hut for a cup of tea and to digest what I had just been through. After calming the nerves with a drink and a yarn I hiked to ‘work’ at McKellar Lodge.

The lodge was a sight for sore eyes after the rather taxing day I had had, and it meant my day was over.

I cleaned the lodge so it was ready for the Rotary group in the morning, then fell asleep on a mattress beside the fire within seconds. I was so spent from the day that I wouldn’t have moved even if the famous McKellar Lodge ghost stopped in for a visit. A solid sleep is a sign that the mish must have been rather epic!

New Zealand. What a place to explore!

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