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Rainbow Stream and Wilmot Saddle

5 November 2010

Wilmot Saddle coordinates 44°22.263′ S, 168°49.764′ E

Campsite on Wilmot Saddle. The east face of Fastness behind. Photo D Hegg


Rainbow Stream is the largest tributary of the Kitchener River, a branch of the East Matukituki River; it runs north to south and flows into the Kitchener at Aspiring Flats. To the west, it is enclosed by the steep ramparts of Moncrieff Peak and Fastness Peak, on the Main Divide of the Southern Alps. Rainbow Col is the low point between the two peaks, but it isn’t a practical pass to the Volta Glacier, defended as it is by huge vertical cliffs on the east side. Wilmot Saddle (1682m) is the low point at the head of Rainbow Stream, between Fastness Peak and Sisyphus Peak. To the north of the saddle, Ruth Stream flows into the Matukituki River East Branch at Ruth Flat.

Rainbow Stream and Wilmot Saddle make a popular weekend trip in combination with Sisyphus Peak, one of the best viewpoints in the Matukituki Valley. The route up Rainbow Stream however is threatened by avalanches from the south face of Fastness, and is better avoided in spring or early summer.

Campsite on Wilmot Saddle. Mt Aspiring in the background. Photo D Hegg


Bernard Head explored Rainbow Stream on his second trip into the Matukituki River East Branch, with guides Jack Clarke and Jim Murphy in November 1911 [1]. Head named the creek “Wilmot Stream”, after Mr. Wilmot of the Survey Department in Dunedin, who had given him much assistance [2]. Presumably this is the same E.H. Wilmot who later held the post of surveyor-general of New Zealand between 1914 and 1920. In his diary, Head wrote that Wilmot Stream was “choked with avalanche debris”. Soft snow and high avalanche danger prevented the party from reaching the pass at its head [1].

During the summer holiday 1930/1931, E. Miller, H. Boddy, J. Shanks and R. Pinney ventured into Wilmot Stream again, and after climbing to Wilmot Saddle, they completed the first ascent of Sisyphus Peak. They then descended to Ruth Flat, before returning down valley via Bledisloe Gorge. Not knowing that the valley had been explored and named by Bernard Head already, they renamed it “Rainbow Stream”, because of “the iridescent effect of the morning sun on the spray of seven high waterfalls” [3]. Their name was accepted by the New Zealand Geographic Board of names, while the name bestowed by Head was eventually transferred to the saddle at the head of the valley. Miller mentions that Rainbow Stream contained “two permanent snowfields with ice caves, and a herd of 16 deer, which fled before us and gave us the clue to a saddle around the corner at the head of the valley” [3].

In 1969, a tragedy befell the valley, when a tramping party was buried by an avalanche that plunged off the snowfields of Fastness, 800m above [4]. This was followed by a hair-raising rescue operation two years later, when two hunters became bluffed on near vertical terrain below Rainbow Col. In steady rain, a cliff rescue team was flown onto a narrow ledge higher up the mountain, and winched the hunters to where they could be airlifted to safety. The whole operation was concluded in worsening weather, with the pilot struggling to load the rescue party onto the helicopter because of high winds. All the rescue equipment had to be abandoned, and “the keas [sic] had a ball for the next week, until the gear was finally retrieved in a slightly chewed condition” [5].

Rainbow Stream Map. 1 grid square = 1km. Left click to enlarge

Route description

Rating: Tramping, off track, moderate                       April 2005

See the notes about the Kitchener River for access to Aspiring Flats. Ford the Kitchener River, then follow Rainbow Stream, crossing as necessary. Where the creek forks at CA11 655762, leave the main creek bed to follow the true right branch. At 900m of elevation, the route swings to the north-east up spurs and shelves, finally sidling diagonally up scree slopes to reach the saddle. Wilmot Saddle offers excellent campsites, but the nearest water is about 5 or 10 minutes lower down, by small bluffs to the south west. Sisyphus Peak is only minutes away, along an easy, broad ridge. Note that this route is exposed to avalanches from the south face of Fastness, and is not recommended in winter or early summer. Times: Aspiring Flats to Wilmot Saddle, 4 to 5 hours; Cameron Flat to Wilmot Saddle: 1 day.

Wilmot Saddle can also be reached from Aspiring Flats by traversing over Sisyphus Peak (see the notes about the latter). This route is longer, and while it is completely safe, it would be unpleasant on the way up because of the thick subalpine scrub.

See Moir’s Guide North for the northern access to Wilmot Saddle from Ruth Flat [6].


[1] Typescript account by Bernard Head of his expeditions to the Matukituki Valley. MS-3184/002 in Hocken Library Archives and Manuscripts.

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

[3] Miller, E.: On the Spurs of Aspiring. The New Zealand Alpine Journal, Vol IV, No. 18, 1931, pages 216-226. Published by the New Zealand Alpine Club.

[4] Powell, P.: Rainbow Valley. The New Zealand Alpine Journal, Vol XXIV, 1971, page 126. Published by the New Zealand Alpine Club.

[5] Bishop, D.G.: The Rainbow Rescue. The New Zealand Alpine Journal, Vol XXIV, 1971, pages 121-125. Published by the New Zealand Alpine Club.

[6] Spearpoint, G. (Editor) 2005. Moir’s Guide North, 7th Edition – The Otago Southern Alps. A tramping and transalpine guide from the Hollyford to Lake Ohau. Published by the New Zealand Alpine Club. 260 pages.

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