This post was intended to be a trip report on the Lathrop Saddle/Zit Saddle circuit on the west coast of the south island. That's not the case but we had a lot of fun and ticked off a few firsts for the memoirs. The trip started late on Friday night as we left work with a car full of gear and drove over to the coast. Arthurs Pass was blanketed in snow on our way through and by the time we parked up at the start of the Styx Track temperatures were below zero. What would have been a relatively peaceful sleep in the car was interrupted about 1am when some enthusiastic locals arrived for some four wheel driving and light refreshments. Alas, I wasn't feeling on top of the world as we set out at first light the next morning across the frozen muddy fields before the track proper.
Having walked out of the Styx only a few months earlier, we were well familiar with the first four hours of the terrain into Grassy Flat Hut. The ice covered rocks and frigid river made for a more technical walk than our previous experience but we were feeling good upon reaching the hut for some lunch with the sun finally warming the valley a little. With the climb up to Browning Biv still ahead of us we only stopped for five minutes before finding the turn off and starting up towards the saddle. The path is great all the way to the river and then things get harder very quickly. A rock scramble ensues for the better part of an hour until the track veers away from the water and up, up, up. Think nature's stair master meets low level rock climbing and you'll be questioning having left the beautifully flat Styx Valley in the first place. After 45 minutes of sucking air and convincing myself I was almost there, I was greeted by a home made sign at the side of the track. "Browing Biv. If you're just about buggered, you're just about there."
The view was worth the climb as we stopped for a quick drink at the tiny Biv and surveyed the river now some distance below us. So far our times were well within what we had read on other trip reports and we thought we had plenty of time to pop over the saddle and down to Top Crawford Hut on the other side based on other people's times. Unfortunately that was not to be the case as we would find out a few hours later. It was another hard slog up the spur through a reasonably overgrown but easy to follow track that took a straight line to the saddle itself. We didn't hit snow until almost 1500m and it wasn't until we were well on the saddle that we needed to pull out crampons and axes to keep moving. We had been another hour and a half at this point and the chances of making it down the other side before dark were becoming increasingly slim. As we dropped over the south side of the saddle we found that the snow on this side was sitting a lot lower down the slope and created some steep, slippery slopes to negotiate before hitting the bush again.
The route heads right from here with sparsely placed poles (a bit of a contrast from the Styx side which is really well marked) and we sidled around and down the slope rather carefully on the frozen snow. From here we front pointed straight down for three pole lengths as the sun started disappearing behind the mountains. We could see the hut down on the flat but the track winds down and through some bluffy terrain which was slow going in the snow. By the time it was totally dark we could no longer see any markers but had dropped into the safety of the bush line. I hadn't really appreciated the lack of lumens my head torch provided until I was trying to navigate down this section of the route. We were both a bit reluctant to keep moving as it was clear that our overall goal of making it to Zit Saddle and back to the car in only 48 hours was unrealistic with so much snow so we found a flat spot to camp instead.
We didn't have a tent for the trip so we had brought along a bothy bag in case we needed some emergency shelter. The night was clear so we ended up sleeping on the bag and the rest of our gear and packs rather than inside it but it was nice to know if we got cold we could throw it over ourselves again. After melting some ice and snow for dinner we settled in for a romantic night sleeping under the stars in between the tussock. I had a new appreciation for how warm my Fairydown 20 below sleeping bag was after sleeping soundly for 10 hours only to wake and find every piece of gear frozen solid - including the outside of our sleeping bags. Having realised that putting frozen boots on is near on impossible we set about defrosting them over the open flame of our cooker - probably voiding the warranty and doing permanent damage at the same time.
We had decided the previous night that in the interest of not worrying my Mum it would be best to turn around rather than keep going and be a day overdue at the other end. Trying to do a four day tramp in three days was always going to be 50/50 so we weren't entirely surprised to be trekking back up to Lathrop Saddle that morning. Conveniently our steps had frozen overnight creating a perfect staircase back to the tarns and over the other side. With nothing but time for a change we made a leisurely journey back past Browning Biv and down to Grassy Flat Hut where we demolished most of the food we hadn't gotten around to eating the previous day.
With no one but us in the hut for the night we made the most of the varied reading material and fire before turning in for our first sleep on an actual mattress in three nights. The walk out the next morning was, as always, motivated by thoughts of a hot meal back in Hokitika. But first we had to slip and slide our way back down the river and all of the frozen rocks along it. If you're looking for 101 ways to break an ankle - head this way in winter and have fun. Back at the car it was disappointing to know we'd have to be back with more time to complete the whole circuit but it was nice to have a cheeky night spent out in the open just to test the comfort ratings on those sleeping bags for a change. If you're thinking of heading this way in winter you'll need to be confident with your ice axe and crampons and give yourself extra time to get over the saddles through the snow. The route is well marked to Lathrop Saddle (and then not so well from there on) but expect a certain degree of bush bashing along the way. We were 10-11 hours to where we camped and would probably recommend 13 hours from start to finish if you're trying to do this in one day in winter.
Car park to Grassy Flat Hut: 4 hours
Grassy Flat to Browning Range Biv: 1 hour 45 mins
Browning Biv to Lathrop Saddle: 1 hour 30 mins
Crossing Lathrop Saddle: 30 mins
Daylight in winter: 9-10 hours
In New Zealand we don't go hiking, walking or frolicking in the wilderness - we tramp.