Trip Gradings – What They Really Mean


My feet ached. Every muscle in my legs and down my back screamed “enough!”. I cursed every gram of all the little extras I had packed. All banter, conversation, identifying bird calls, pointing out unusual plants, and dad jokes had ceased some time ago. Just the sound of six pairs of heavy boots thudding on the track, the scrape of foliage against packs, and heavy breathing.

Every few metres I would lift my gaze, desperately searching for the next yellow marker. Losing the route earlier in the day was a cue for some light-hearted banter. At this moment, eight-hours later, announcing the need to back-track would be followed by a lynching. There were numerous magnificent native trees towering over us, presenting plenty of places to swing a rope.

Overhead, the canopy of one of the most stunning beech forests in New Zealand protected us from the summer sun. Native birds called out as we passed. I didn’t care. We could have been anywhere. I was totally focused on the next rock, exposed root, or broken branch ahead. Each one another obstacle to be sized-up, energy summonsed, cleared, and then forgotten.

Seemingly endless traverses were the most demoralising. Our feet fought for grip as we struggled across the steep, sloping angle of the ridge, desperately trying to stay upright on the ground covered in a layer of damp, dead and greasy beech leaves. Ironically, I was partially dehydrated – despite passing Lake Chalice and crossing several small streams. Perhaps I’d been fooled by the coolness of the forest earlier in the day. I had forgotten to drink until it was too late.

The track guide classified the Old Man Circuit, Richmond Park, as “Advanced”, or “Track is mostly unformed, may be rough and steep. Track has markers, poles, or rock cairns. Expect unbridged river crossings.” All true, but a more appropriate description would read “gut-busting climbs, morale-sapping traverses, and knee-popping descents until finally arriving jelly-legged and dehydrated at a corrugated, 5-bunk hut”. 


Incredibly, after ten hours effort we were on the same contour line as our parked van, two ridges away. Although we had climbed above 1,500 metres on two occasions, we had also descended to as low as 700 metres at Lake Chalice. Officially we had scaled over 1,150 metres only to negotiate the equivalent downhill. Unsurprisingly, I kept that fact to myself.



By way of comparison, “advanced” grading is also applied to the 20km route from Makarora to Young Hut on the Gillespie Pass Track. Here trampers follow a clear path all the way from start to finish and ascend a mere 400 metres in elevation. This implies a much less intense adventure. If you had just completed Old Man Circuit, you would wonder what all the fuss was about.


Unfortunately, the route is way further south than Richmond Park, and well into the rugged Southern Alps. Consistent with that alpine environment, weather changes can bring plummeting temperatures, rain and as we were to discover, snow. In late November. Within an hour of setting off from Blue Pools car park, numbingly cold rain began to fall. Slippery conditions made hauling ourselves up the chains alongside the slip at the Young River a major exercise, sapping our energy. Crossing what were once insignificant streams had become alarmingly challenging.  Halfway, one of our party irritated an old injury and we were forced to abandon the trip. Several hours later we emerged onto the grassy flats with snow lining the surrounding hills less than a couple of hundred metres above us. Our submission for grading would have been “beanies and gloves essential, keep four layers very handy, expect very slow progress in rain. Horrendous river crossings”.


Officially, the same gradings, but distinctly contrasting experiences.


Walks with the “Easy” Trip Grading


At the other end of the spectrum, “Easy, Walking Track” is described as Gentle walking. Some tracks suitable for mountain biking. Track is mostly well formed; some sections may be steep”. These words are applied to Roy’s Peak Lake Wanaka, and Te Waihou Springs on the outskirts of Putaruru.


Aptly described as gentle walking, Te Waihou has boardwalks and frequent signs with interesting facts. Even the few wooden steps have handrails. This is pushchair country so take the toddlers – if they get tired just stick them in the pushchair.  Enjoy three leisurely hours meandering alongside some of the clearest waters in the world and get to enjoy some “forest bathing”. Altogether a truly rejuvenating, restful experience.



Te Waihou is nature doing her thing. Its purity is evident in the clarity and fascinating blue hue.  Appreciate that the water you see flowing beside you has been filtering for up to 100 years before it erupts from the underground spring. To add some perspective, the waters nearby began their journey decades before the start of World War II. No micro-plastics here.


Unsurprisingly, this natural treasure or taonga demands respect. The temptation to swim is huge, but even if you were arrogant enough to ignore the signage and selfishly indulge yourself, the water temperature seldom reaches above 11 degrees.


Apparently, wandering along the boardwalks of Te Waihou is in the same category as scaling Roy’s Peak near Wanaka. Both are described as “Easy”, but provide very differing, dare I say contrasting experiences.


If there was a scale for effort involved versus world-class vistas, Roy’s Peak would be up there with the best. Personally, I’ve taken in these magical views from the summit on two occasions and would gladly make the 5-hour return trip anytime. The gravel 4WD farm track switches and climbs through grasses and alpine tussock, offering uninterrupted views of Lake Wanaka stretching out below. The higher you climb the more breathtaking the panoramas, from Wanaka township to the top of the lake at Makarora, and the road to Haast Pass.


It is popular.  Most walkers stop just below the summit on the eastern side and queue up for the now famous selfie from the top of a small ridge, with the sparkling blue Lake Wanaka as a backdrop. Amazingly, many folks miss out on the 360-degree views from the summit, only about 200 metres further up. The view of the Southern Alps from here must be one of the most unique spectacles anywhere in New Zealand. To the northwest the wide, meandering Matukituki river valley leads its way to a mass of ice-topped peaks, dominated by the 3,033 metre Mt Aspiring/Tititea. To the south the slopes of the Crown Range and Pisa Range look deceptively gentle compared to these rugged peaks to the west.


But this is no amble along the banks of the Te Waihou. “Suitable for mountain biking”. Who are they kidding? Downhill maybe. After a helicopter ride to the summit. No way can it be described as pushchair or toddler friendly. The trail begins almost as soon as you step out of the carpark alongside the main highway. It starts with a climb. In fact, apart from a small section within sight of the top, and a 50-metre section midway, it literally does not stop climbing for 8 kilometres. Te Waihou Springs it is not.


Admittedly it is a 4WD track with plenty of switchbacks, but be prepared to surmount 1,239 metres, one step at a time. It’s hardly Mt Aspiring but come prepared with water and food, as even for those with reasonable fitness will feel some pain. I have witnessed a reasonably experienced tramper decide to stop halfway to “enjoy a leisurely morning tea” and to “take in the views” and meet us on our return. I have also seen some impressive heel blisters. Let’s just say that wearing new footwear is unwise.


In summer this east-facing track will get hot, especially if there is no breeze, and there are no water-stops. But with the peak summiting at 1,559 metres, it can become very windy and cold at the top.


And then there is descending. Losing a toenail is a very painful way to find out your shoes are a tad too small, or not appropriate for a continuous 8km descent on tired legs. Compensating these issues, you do get to enjoy looking out at the view all the way down. And then, within 15 minutes of starting the car engine, you can be in Wanaka supping on a cool, cleansing ale and munching on some hot chips, while enjoying the view of the lake and Roy’s Peak in the distance.


OK, so maybe my comments have been a little tongue in cheek. Trip gradings are meant only as a very generalised guide, and plenty more detailed research is necessary if you want to understand what conditions you may encounter. Obviously, doing the homework before venturing into the wilderness will significantly improve your experience. Regardless, with summer here, it’s time to get out there – as we say, “actions speak ……”


I chose to use Backcountry, Jetboil, Macpac and Keen products



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