In the heart of the Southern Alps of New Zealand lies one of the absolute transalpine classic trekking routes. The 3 Passes – It is revered by many as one of the great back-country hikes the country has on offer. It’s remoteness and reliance on perfect conditions means many a trip is sent back due to high water & wild weather. This January we set out to experience one of the classics.
It was nothing out of the ordinary for this part of the country, but the visibility was minimal as we pulled off SH73. The windscreen wipers were raging against the barrelling rain as we stared out of the windscreen up the somewhat wet and stormy looking valley of the Waimakariri River. Barely able to make out our route in the distance, and reliant on the somewhat promising weather report, we decided to head up with the idea of turning back if it didn’t improve. We loaded our full packs on our backs and set off embarking on a classic NZ Alpine route – The 3 Passes.
Our route would see us traversing Harman, Whitehorn, and Browning passes. This route is a challenging hike, encompassing 3 mountain passes, endless river crossing and some wild backcountry terrain. The trip begins with wet socks immediately, the first river crossing of the Waimakariri River right out of the car park, sets the scene instantly. As you work your way the 4-5 hours up to Carrington Hut the magnificence of Carrington Peak starts to emerge through the foggy skyline. From here the true nature of this ‘walk’ begins to emerge. The track heading up the White River with the first test – If your party in unable to get across the river here, it’s likely that the future river crossings will be impassable. Wise advice. Once you’re over the White River, the ascent begins instantly climbing up the Taipoiti River towards Harman Pass. It’s starting to get pretty wild and remote. Countless river crossings and scrambling over an endless stream of large boulders up through a tight gorge. Eventually, the gorge opens up into the magnificent basin, surrounded by waterfalls and the most spectacular scenery right below Harman Pass. A moment to take it in before a short tussock bash takes you up and over the pass.
With Harman Pass engulfed in cloud, the team wolfed down a quick feed just in time to see the cloud part and expose where we were. An incredible view down Mary Creek towards the Taipo – Not our route – Instead we headed South-West gaining more elevation upward towards Whitehorn Pass, the alpine crux of the route. Eventually, the path becomes snow as we reached the edge of the snowfield of Whitehorn Pass. Here it’s important to take care of the steep icy slope ensuring the team watched out for crevasses. As the cloud crept back in blanketing the pass in a thick mist we worked quickly through the exposed area, scrambling up the loose rocks to the Whitehorn Pass. With no chance of a view we dropped into the Cronin Stream and began the descent down out of the alpine area. As we dropped the temperature warmed and the skies cleared exposing the magical spot we were exploring. Huge peaks towered above us, waterfalls cascading off the giant bluff. It was spectacular. A few hours of sliding down alpine scree, wandering through scrub and tussock saw us arrive at the Park Morpeth Hut – an epic little hut on the edge of the Cronin Stream and Wilberforce Rivers. The Hut Book here goes back to 1999, full of history and legendary back-country names.
We woke on day 3, downed a Radix breakfast and headed out of the hut to be greeted by clear blue skies. The weather gods had played ball and we were treated to some beautiful weather. From Park Morpeth Hut we headed West up the Wilberforce towards Browning Pass. This was the crux of technical hiking of the route. A steep zig zagging trail up through a rocky and loose terrain. An hour of slogging up the hill and the entire crew was sitting on the edge of the world looking back on the East Coast and ready to drop off the Western Side of the Alps. We’d crossed the 3 passes and from here it should be plain sailing down to the road end, or so we thought. Following the headwaters of the legendary Arahura River, we descended quickly towards the Harman Hut and onwards to the Styx Saddle. Crossing the Styx saddle and into the Styx River proper. A night and the luxurious Grassy Flats Hut before starting the final few hours down the Styx. Not long into the final walk, the track disappeared into a sea of huge landslides and slips. Completely washed out. The river was high meaning the riverbed was impassable so we started to go high, bush bashing and clambering our way through the wild West Coast Bush. Many hours and muesli bars later we arrived at the Styx Valley Carpark. Tired but stoked – Grateful to have been granted a passage through one of the historical classic trans-alpine crossing routes.
3 Passes Alpine Route
Total Ascent: 2795
Approximate distance: 53km
NB* Styx Track currently closed due to landslips.
Images shot on Canon R5.