During our roadtrip throughout the South Island over Christmas one of the adventures we had planned was to camp on Cascade Saddle in Mt Aspiring National Park for New Years. Ever since we learned about this track when it made the list of the 20 Most Dangerous Hikes on Outside Magazine we couldn’t help but see for ourselves. The iconic ‘path to nowhere’ is a view not many people experience due to the warnings given about the treacherousness of this hike. With 12 deaths over the past few years its no wonder it has garnered that title.
The night before we drove in from Wanaka and slept in our car at the Rainbow carpark. This is the hub for Mt Aspiring National Park and the entrance to many incredible hikes and huts nestled throughout the park. It was a beautiful morning that started off walking through farm fields filled with livestock along the flowing Matukituki River. The further we walked into the park the bigger the mountains around us became. Having never truly seen Mt Aspiring up close I was anxious to see its iconic peak.
After 2hrs of an easy walk we arrived at Aspiring Hut. Just as we were walking up we spotted some familiar faces – Jenna & Ilya! Fellow Canadians we had met a few weeks before who had also moved to New Zealand – I couldn’t believe we ran into them here! After a quick water re-fill the four of us set off together up the steep rooted path through the forest.
Along the trail we caught up on each others recent adventures and chatted about our favourite South Island spots. It was great to be hiking with friends as it’s usually just Jordan and me on the trail! They had planned to walk back down that day so it was going to be a big day ahead for them. While our packs were heavy with overnight gear, I was happy we were only making the one-way trip. With 17km and a 1500m altitude gain ahead of us plus 300m climb down onto the Saddle this would be one of the toughest day hikes for us in New Zealand.
The first few hours were a vertical climb through the dense forest under the shade of the trees. Just after lunch we emerged from the tree line into the scorching hot sun. While the heat was intense, the exposure meant we were rewarded with incredible views of the valley below where the river snakes between the two mountain ranges. Finally we had a perfect view of Mt Aspiring where French Ridge and Liverpool Hut were also visible.
We stopped to snap a few photos and then realized we still had 700m of vertical climb to go! It was difficult to see how we were going to navigate through the bluffs as the trail was rough and zigzagged through the tussock. It wasn’t long before the trail turned into a rock scramble up slat rock that was equivalent to rock climbing roughly a grade 12! With heavy packs on our backs that made the moves even more difficult.
Half way up we came across the famous lookout on the knife edge ridge. This was the image we had seen back when we first arrived in New Zealand and must have spent the next 30 mins snapping photos of each other 🙂 With rock on one side and tussock grass on the other, walking out to the endless point made my stomach churn just a little. With wind racing up the mountain too it wouldn’t take much to loose your footing and slip off!
Continuing on up through more rock scrambles we began to close in on the summit. About a hundred metres to the top we passed the warning signs signalling this next section was dangerous due to the huge exposure and consequences of falling. This is where many of the deaths have occurred, especially when the rocks were slippery and wet. Luckily it was a hot dry day so the risk was lessened but I could see why navigating this in bad weather could turn ugly.
Just over the ridge line and around a small snow patch we reached the ‘summit’ called the pylon. With panoramic views of Mt Aspiring and the Dart Glacier this quickly became one of our favourite hikes in New Zealand! Just in front of the Dart Glacier was Cascade Saddle where ‘Heads Leap’, a 1000m sheer rock face lead down to a valley. That was where we planned to camp to be right in the middle of this amazing natural environment.
At this altitude, the cheeky New Zealand Keas could be seen flying and squawking about, provided heaps of entertainment. Although we couldn’t leave our gear for too long for fear they would get into it and likely fly away with something! Keas are notoriously curious and can get into things you wouldn’t think a bird could! We hung out here for nearly an hour with Jenna and Ilya taking in the views and enjoying this incredible place.
From here we split from Jenna and Ilya. They returned back down the mountain to Aspiring Hut and we began our decent towards Cascade Saddle. As we reached the river, there was an impromptu campsite with an long drop where a few other parties had setup their tents. We decided to continue on, crossing the river to get a more private campsite with better views. It was another 30mins or so of hiking up and down along the small creeks fed by melting snow patches. A group of a dozen folks were camping out at the farthest river point but we decided to fill up our water bottles and continued on a bit further.
After passing another couple, we finally found a nice private, sheltered area next to a perfect food cooking rock with views of Mt Aspiring and the Dart Glacier. Setting up camp we cooked up some meals and enjoyed a glass of red wine as the sun set for the last time in 2015! I wished we could have stayed another night here. It truly was such a magical place and an incredible place to spend New Years. Reflecting on what a great year 2015 had been, we gave a toast to 2015 and retired to the comfort of our tent.
Within a few minutes though of settling in to the tent we heard our camping cups ‘clinking’ together. That seemed odd as we had everything protected under the fly of the tent, but sure enough when Jordan popped his head out a cheeky Kea dragged one of our shiny cups towards the cliff edge! Jordan leaped out of the tent to shoo him away and decided it might be best to cover up our shiny tent pegs too while he was out there. If they managed to pull a few of those out our tent could collapse on us in the middle of the night!
For the next 15mins Jordan listened intently for any more movement, slapping the sides of the tent and making noise to scare them off just in case. I had heard stories of Keas being notoriously curious but didn’t think they would be brave enough to come under the fly! Eventually they must have given up as nothing was taken by morning.
Having gone to bed early, we decided to wake up to greet the first sunrise of 2016! It was a fiery pink sunrise that kissed Mt Aspiring’s snow capped peak as the sun rose through the valley. We debated going down to the Dart glacier to explore further on, but didn’t have the right equipment with us to tackle the ice and snow. Next time I would definitely give ourselves a few solid days to explore the peaks surrounding the saddle and the glacier!
Sad to leave such a beautiful place, we packed up our tent and gear and re-traced our steps back towards the river and up to the ‘Pylon’. We hung out for a bit up at the peak to soak up those incredible views one last time before facing the deadly section again. We both came out unscathed but the down climb definitely proved to be a bit more challenging with a big pack on. Nearly 4 hours later we were back on flat ground and made the final 6 kilometer walk along the Matukituki River towards the carpark, passing a few waterfalls along the way. With another scorching day beating down on us a dip in the glacier river was the best way to cool off!
I’m just going to say it, this was the BEST hike we have ever done in New Zealand. It is definitely challenging but the rewards are far worth it! If you want to get the best of New Zealand all in one hike – then put this one on your list! Just be sure to give yourself lots of time and do it in the proper weather conditions. 🙂