The Five Passes Adventure beyond the Routeburn

A post-Christmas 2017 weather window provided the opportunity to tackle one of the finest trans-alpine routes I have ever done.

The Five Passes tramp covers an area of spectacular alpine terrain north of Queenstown and east of Milford Sound. The route connects with the famous Routeburn Track.

Our first day saw us arrive at the trail head early evening and walk to a camp site beside the languid and inviting pools of the lower Rock Burn. Dart River Jet have a base set up near here. The rock must echo to the sounds of whooping and diving here on a sunny day.

the Rock Burn

A walk through an enchanted sapling forest led to views across the Dart River to Chinaman's Bluff in the fading light.

The following morning I walked up the tourist trail to see the narrow chasm that the Rock Burn roars through before emptying into the deep pool.

The Mt Earnslaw massif, with the prominent nipple of Pluto Peak capturing our attention, reared up the Dart River, over Chinaman's Bluff as we passed left towards the Beans Burn

Then we were into the Beans Burn...

In this part of the world, there is no shortage of waterfalls seemingly designed for spectacular effect, with massive vertical drops.

After saying farewell to the last marked track that we would see for a few days, we emerged onto the Beans Burn upper flats. Following a quick sniff at an enormous but sandfly-ridden rock bivvy, we headed for the headwaters to set up camp for the night.

The next day was a steep climb up the grass slopes to the left of the photo above, headed for Fohn Saddle. Gravity was relentless as we clung on to vegetation to move upwards, each step calling on our reserves of energy.

Looking back down the Beans Burn

After a steady two hour climb we reached Fohn Saddle to be rewarded with new vistas, including the sloping Olivine Ledge, leading to our next climb, Fiery Col.

Looking up towards Fohn Lakes, which would elude us this trip. We are heading left to...
The Olivine Ledge, with the Olivine River visible below.

Stopping for lunch high on the Olivine Ledge, I managed a sneaky swim in an alpine tarn, refreshed for the climb to come.

Looking back down the Olivine Ledge towards the now tiny tarns where I enjoyed a refreshing lunchtime swim
The final stages of the climb to Fiery Col.

As we crested Fiery Col, it became obvious how it had earned its name. Bright orange rock was in abundance.

Looking back at Fiery Col, the low point at centre left.

At a point beyond Cow Saddle, we settled for the evening before a gloriously variegated beech forest, alongside Hidden Falls Creek.

The walk down Hidden Falls Creek saw us going back into the forest and becoming particularly concerned to spot the humble rock cairns that marked our route.

Park Pass appeared on the horizon and we carefully unlocked the code of cairns and weaving ground trails that would guide us to the ascent.

Park Pass, low point on the left skyline.

Our fourth pass of the trip brought us its own version of spectacular.

From Park Pass we headed to our destination for the night, Lake Narine.

Looking back at Park Pass Glacier while passing small lakes on the way to Lake Narine.
Camp site at Lake Narine.

The next day dawned moody, with weather closing in as we departed Lake Narine.

We traversed across to North Col, finally made use of our the crampons and ice axes that had been weighing us down, and descended steep semi-permanent snow, into the north branch of the Routeburn.

By then we were in persistent rain. After initial easy travel below the col we encountered thick scrub and struggled to unlock the code to easy travel. Slippery rocks added to the treachery, but we eventually navigated the sparse rock cairns to find a good ground trail. This was followed by terrain varying between frustratingly large grass mounds and enormous ancient moraine boulders. Our senses were heightened by the lush scents released from the scrub by our barging bodies and the garish colours lurking in the foliage.

As we reached the river flats and started to feel hungry, we realised that Moir's Guide mentioned a rock bivvy nearby. We hunted out Hobbs Bivvy and had a very pleasant lunch sheltered from the rain.

We camped with the tourists at Routeburn Flats that evening and enjoyed a pleasant two-abreast walk in the rain along the Routeburn Track to the trail head the following day.

Route details

The Five Passes comes in a variety of route permutations. Ours went like this:

Lake Sylvan track

Beans Burn

Fohn Saddle

Olivine Ledge

Fiery Col

Cow Saddle

Park Pass

Lake Narine

North Col

North Branch of the Routeburn River

Routeburn Track

The remote aesthetic

The Five Passes has become very popular for such a remote route. Doing it during the week after Christmas, we saw another pair of trampers at the start of the Beans Burn (our second day), met a family party of four travelling the opposite direction on Hidden Falls Creek, then a party of eight and a party of three at Park Pass and Lake Narine (day 4). Other parties have experienced similar traffic. So not busy by any normal sense of the word, but you may have to stray further into the Olivines to enjoy the full remote aesthetic. The upside of all this traffic is that cairns and ground trails are well established for much of the route. We were often relieved to exit difficult ground to find a clear established trail in front of us.

As experienced trampers with largely clear weather, we had little difficulty picking our routes. Route notes from Geoff Spearpoint's Moir's Guide North were invaluable in reaching sound decisions and finding rock bivvies and camp sites. I use the Backcountry Navigator PRO GPS mapping app on my Android phone. Seems like cheating compared with how we used to do it, but getting your precise location on a NZ Topographical map obviously eliminates many potential navigational errors. Keeping the phone in flight mode and finding the setting that keeps GPS active only when the screen is on will keep the battery alive for days. One of our companions used an InReach Explorer to download a weather forecast for our location. It was wrong. Just applying an experienced eye to the sky and memory of the last seen MetVUW forecast led to more accurate conclusions. A satellite communications device like the InReach also serves as an emergency locator beacon, which is highly recommended, as much for the benefit of hardworking volunteer search and rescue staff as it is for saving your own skin.

Created By
Peter Taylor

Report Abuse

If you feel that this video content violates the Adobe Terms of Use, you may report this content by filling out this quick form.

To report a Copyright Violation, please follow Section 17 in the Terms of Use.