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Cascade Saddle

30 July 2010

Coordinates 44°28.554′ S, 168°37.468′ E  

Cascade Saddle

View from the Pylon: Cascade Saddle at centre image, Mt Edward to the left, Governors Ridge to the right. Photo D Hegg

Cascade Saddle (1524m a.s.l.) is the lowest point on the ridge connecting Mount Liverpool to Mount Tyndall. To the west, moderate angle slopes descend to the Dart Glacier, at the very head of the Dart River. To the east, vertical bluffs drop abruptly into the lower Cascade Creek, a major true-right tributary of the Matukituki River West Branch. Cascade Creek is a hanging valley which drains the northern aspects of Mount Ansted and Mount Tyndall; it precipitates into a spectacular 200m waterfall, Heads Leaps, just to the south of Cascade Saddle. The waterfall is named after Bernard Head [1], first man to climb Mount Aspiring and to cross Cascade Saddle, while the creek derives its name from the waterfall. The saddle was named by Head [2].

Because of its eastern precipices, Cascade Saddle is not a viable pass. However, a popular tramping route crosses the north shoulder of Mount Tyndall about 2km south of the saddle, then drops into Cascade Creek and crosses the divide between the Dart and the Matukituki Rivers just south of Cascade Saddle. The hanging valley above Heads Leap offers great campsites which make an ideal base for ascents of Mount Tyndall, Mount Ansted and Mount Liverpool.  


The first crossing of Cascade Saddle from the Matukituki into the Dart was completed on December 27th, 1911, by Bernard Head with guides Jack Clarke and Jim Murphy. They climbed the slopes to the north (true left) of Cascade Creek, and exited onto the ridge of Plunket Dome probably about 400m above Cascade Saddle (see map below, route 1).  

On the night of the 26th, they camped on a small flat spot at 1050m of elevation, just above bush-line on the east side of the saddle. Head wrote in his diary “Lovely spot but not much room to walk about. Had to clear away space for camp. Did not pitch the tent but pulled it over us.” Head’s narrative continues the next day: “A very stiff pull to where they [Clarke and Murphy] had left stores yesterday. In places had to cut steps in grass, if one could call it by that name. Slopes very steep and had to almost go on all fours […]. Crossed some very soft snow and then had to take to rock which was good, but steep with swags. Had to rope on it. Snow was proper route but much too soft. Top of pass 10.45am. Took photographs and excited at seeing Dart Glacier below us. Saw above the Cascade which is a ‘hanging’ river and cuts its way through the rock. It is chiefly fed by snow on the hills around [3].”  Head, Clarke and Murphy descended to a campsite on the valley floor just below the terminal face of the Dart Glacier, which was at the time near the junction of Snowy Creek. It took the party 3 more days to walk out to Aitkens Station near Glenorchy – a walk that was not at all easy as there was no track down the Dart River [3,4,5].  

The canyon of Cascade Creek and Mount Aspiring. Photo D Hegg

Head’s route was difficult and never gained popularity. An easier but more convoluted route became established some time during the next two decades, which involved climbing to Shotover Saddle, then sidling into the head basin of Red Rock Stream to reach the north shoulder of Mount Tyndall above 2000m of elevation (see map below, route 2). Because of the length of this route, a bivvy was usually required near Shotover Saddle [6].  

An alternative route directly above Cascade Hut was pioneered by C.E. Smith and L. Ward in the 1930s; it became the “Ernie Smith route” after being blazed and cut by Smith and A.P. Harper in 1939 (see map, route 3) [6]. The Ernie Smith route was by no means easy, and was initially accepted with scepticism by other climbers. Sim wrote in 1939: “Some years ago, when a party at Cascade Hut were pondering the weighty matter of breakfast, two unexpected and rather care-worn individuals suddenly dropped in on them. They were C.E. Smith and L. Ward who, making the crossing from Snowy, had essayed the direct descent from Tyndall to the Hut. The snow grass had plagued them, the bluffs bewildered them, and darkness at length pinned them fast for the night well above bush-line. But C.E. Smith was still convinced that this is the route, and when the Official Camp booklet passed it by without mention in favour of the Shotover Saddle route, this was a challenge not to be lightly ignored. So, leaving his store tent in charge of a deputy, he sallied forth with his cutters, and the “Ernie Smith track” came into triumphant being” [7].  

The “Ernie Smith route” is steeper than the Shotover Saddle route, but it is much more direct, and became the standard route over Cascade Saddle until the late 1950s. In 1951 Gilkison wrote of the Ernie Smith route that “it is now fairly well accepted, but is not an all-weather route by any means […] Attempts to find a deer trail crossing the ridge lower still have not so far met with any success, although some real “Death or Glory” routes have been forced across the steep slopes above Cascade Stream. Whoever works out a practicable direct route to Cascade Saddle will prove a real benefactor” [8]. One such “Death or Glory” route was probably the “Hernia Route” mentioned by W. Hunt in 1951 [9], which was described in the Aspiring hut book, but never made it into the alpine literature.  

The route currently in use is the “Cullers Route”, presumably pioneered by O.L. Wynn and P. Child in 1957 [10]. It originally started about 1km down valley of Aspiring Hut (see map below, route 4a), until a track was eventually cut directly above Aspiring Hut.  

View from Cascade Saddle into the Matukituki River West Branch. Photo D Hegg

Route descriptions

The crossing of Cascade Saddle is a very rewarding alpine tramp. While the trip from Aspiring Hut to Dart Hut can be completed in one long day, most people will choose to split it into two days and camp in the hanging basin of Cascade Creek – for no other reason than to enjoy the spectacular scenery without having to rush through. A word of warning though: the route to the pylon from the Matukituki is steep and exposed, and is not an all-weather route. On steep grass and rock, it becomes treacherous when wet, or covered in snow and ice – especially on the way down. In winter, the whole slope is avalanche prone. Unfortunately, this route has claimed a number of lives over the years. The trip is best done from Aspiring Hut to Dart Hut, to climb the steep section on the way up.

Cascade Saddle route map. 1 grid square = 1km. Left click on map to enlarge. Numbered routes are: (1) Bernard Head, Jack Clarke, Jim Murphy, December 1911, (2) Shotover Saddle route, (3) Ernie Smith route, (4) Cullers route, with current track (red line) and original access (4a)

Aspiring Hut to Cascade Saddle

Rating: tramping route, hard                                  February 2010  

The track starts directly behind the hut wardens quarters at Aspring Hut, and climbs steadily through the beech forest, drifting progressively to the left. About 400m above the valley floor, the track sidles horizontally to the south to cross two incised side creeks – this is a good place to stock up on water – before climbing again to reach a prominent spur. Just above the bush-line, there is a good flat terrace with great all-round views of the whole Matukituki River West Branch and surrounding peaks. This look-out point is worth a visit in itself, and makes for a safe, easy trip in most conditions.  

Beyond the look-out point the route steepens as it climbs through snow-grass bluffs and up small rocky steps; however, its is still marked with poles, and a reasonable ground trail can be followed the whole way. After a couple of hours of steady climbing, it’s a sudden relief to reach the north shoulder of Mount Tyndall, at the 1800m contour, just below a 1.5m pylon erected during Easter 1957. Here the route bends to the south, and after sidling across some smooth schist slabs, it drops 250m to cross Cascade Creek above the canyon.  

A good ground trail now heads north, gently climbing up and down through small alpine basins before crossing the Matukituki/Dart divide about 200m south of Cascade Saddle. The whole section between Cascade Creek and Cascade Saddle offers excellent campsites.  

Times: Aspiring Hut to look-out point above bush-line: 2 to 2.5 hours; Aspiring Hut to the Pylon: 4 to 5 hours; the Pylon to Cascade Saddle: 1.5 to 2 hours.  


Cascade Saddle to Dart Hut  

Rating: tramping route, moderate                       February 2010  

The western side of Cascade Saddle is a lot more straightforward than the Matukituki side. The route crosses the north ridge of Mount Ansted about 200m south of the saddle and winds its way through short alpine vegetation and moraine deposits down to the Dart valley floor. Poles first, then cairns mark the route the whole way. On the valley floor there are lots of shingle banks to climb up and down as cairns lead the way through morainic terraces, always on the true left of the Dart River, before reaching pleasant river flats with good campsites west of Mount Ansted.  

After crossing a major tributary draining the western slopes of Mount  Tyndall, a good track sidles gently up-hill through the sub-alpine scrub before descending to the bridge over Snowy Creek, and Dart Hut.  

Time: about 4 hours from Cascade Saddle to Dart Hut

Nepali prayer flags in the small basins near Cascade Saddle. Photo D Hegg


[1] p65 in Moir, G.M. (1925) Guide to the tourist routes of the Great Southern Lakes and Fiords of Western Otago. Otago Daily Times and Witness Newspapers Co., Dunedin, 85 pages

[2] Wright, H.F.: Cold Lakes HinterlandThe New Zealand Alpine Journal, Vol III, No 10, 1921, p19-24. Published by the New Zealand Alpine Club.  

[3] Accounts by Bernard Head of his expeditions, including the first ascent of Mount Aspiring. MS-3166/007 in Hocken Library Archives and Manuscripts.    

[4] Pembroke to Paradise via Matukituki and Dart Valleys. Lake Wakatip Mail, 9 January 1912

[5] An Alpine Explorer – Captain Bernard Head’s Tour. The Press, 26 March 1912

[6] Craigie, A.R.: Route Guide – Cascade Hut to Dart HutThe New Zealand Alpine Journal, Vol VIII, No 27, 1940, p167-168. Published by the New Zealand Alpine Club.  

[7] Sim, A.J.: Camp Three. The New Zealand Alpine Journal, Vol VIII, No 27, 1940, p155-166. Published by the New Zealand Alpine Club.  

[8] p73-74 in Gilkison, W.S. (1951) Aspiring – The romantic story of the Matterhorn of the Southern Alps. Whitcombe and Tombs Limited. 80 pages  

[9] Hunt, W.: Aspiring and Earnslaw Traverses.  The New Zealand Alpine Journal, Vol XIV, No 38, 1951, p64-66. Published by the New Zealand Alpine Club.  

[10] Craigie, A.R.: A new route from the Matukituki to the DartThe New Zealand Alpine Journal, Vol XVII, No 44, 1957, p96-98. Published by the New Zealand Alpine Club.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Gerard permalink
    6 July 2014 9:31 pm

    Great blog and photos Danilo!
    I have climbed Mt Tyndall recently, via the Cascade Saddle route. I’m curious about the Shotover Saddle route. Do you think it is a practical/safer alternative to the Cascade when crossing from the Matukituki into the Dart?

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