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Albert Burn Saddle

7 February 2011

Coordinates 44°23.800′ S, 168°52.679′ E

Tarn on Albert Burn Saddle. Photo D Hegg

Albert Burn Saddle (1681m) is the lowest point in the 10km long range separating the Matukituki River East Branch from the Albert Burn. In spite of its relatively high elevation, it is vegetated to the top on both sides, and provides an excellent tramping route between the two catchments. It gives easy access to Dragonfly Peak, and to the unnamed peak 2127m to the north.

A private hut (Whare Kea Lodge) is located on the ridge just above the saddle, at 1720m of elevation. Built by Trilane Industries in 2002 in spite of opposition by recreational groups [1], it provides luxury accommodation for guided walkers who fly in by helicopter. Only 40m away from the border of Mount Aspiring National Park in an otherwise pristine corner of the Southern Alps, the hut is an awful example of how poorly protected our landscapes are from greed and developement. It is to be hoped that the lodge will be removed once the tenure review process with Mt Aspiring Station is completed.

Whare Kea Lodge (private hut on Albert Burn Saddle). Photo D Hegg


The naming of Albert Burn Saddle is a rather confusing matter, so much so that I believe it warrants a separate paragraph. The first name recorded in the alpine literature was Inglis Pass or Inglis Saddle [2,3], after one of the members of the first recreational party to cross from the Matukituki River East Branch into the Albert Burn (see the history section below). To the local run-holders, the saddle was known as Archies Pass [4,5]. During the 1940s to 1960s, the name Albertburn Saddle was used instead to describe the pass between the North Branch of the Albert Burn and the Wilkin River [6,7]. I don’t know when exactly the shift to the current nomenclature occurred, but the pass between the Matukituki River East Branch and the Albert Burn is consistently referred to as Albert Burn Saddle since the mid 1980s.

The saddle was unnamed in the first four editions of Moir’s Guide, while the (now) gazetted name Albert Burn Saddle was adopted in the fifth edition [8]. For some bizarre reason, the most recent editions of Moir’s Guide North refer to South Albert Burn Saddle [9]. It seems completely inappropriate to deviate from the gazetted name, especially since there is no North Albert Burn Saddle described in the guidebook.

Albert Burn Saddle and Dragonfly Peak from Aspiring Flats. Photo D Hegg


The first recorded crossing of Albert Burn Saddle by a recreational party was completed by H.F. Wright, H.E. Hodgkinson, J.K. Inglis, A.E. Duncan and J.R. Murrell on 3 December 1914 [2,3]. The party of five was on a mountaineering trip with Mount Aspiring as a goal, but they “were 20 days absent from Dunedin, and there was not one day during that time fit for high climbing”. The party reached the Bonar via a new route to the left of French Ridge, probably making the first crossing of the Breakaway. After an aborted attempt on the NW ridge of Mount Aspiring, where they had to turn around near the top of the Ramp because of high winds, they crossed back over the Bonar and split into two groups. Wright and Hodgkinson claimed the virgin Mount Joffre, while the rest of the party climbed Mount French via the north-west ridge [2]

The party returned down valley to Cameron Flat, then set off into the Matukituki River East Branch, over Albert Burn Saddle into the Albert Burn South Branch, down and up into the North Branch and over a pass west of Mt Twilight into the Wilkin River. The whole country between the East Matukituki and the Wilkin was previously unexplored [2].

Being an easy, logical pass between two major catchments, Albert Burn Saddle may have been previously crossed by run-holders or gold prospectors, who usually left no records of their explorations.

Route descriptions

Albert Burn Saddle map. 1 grid square = 1cm. Left click to enlarge

From Junction Flat

Rating: Tramping, off track, moderate                                    February 2010

From Junction Flat in the Matukituki River East Branch, follow the track towards Ruth Flat until it levels off above the bush-line. After crossing a couple of scrubby gullies, leave the track to climb the obvious, easy spur leading towards Albert Burn Saddle. At the 1540m contour, sidle right (south) on animal trails into the head of Hester Pinney Creek, then climb the last steep 100m directly to the saddle.

Time to the saddle: allow about 4 hours from Junction Flat, 7 to 8 hours from the road end at Cameron Flat.


[1] Mountain Clubs appeal QLDC consent for hut. The Southland Times, 16 May 2002

[2] Wright, H.F.: Round About Aspiring – Some trying experiences. Otago Witness, 15 December 1915, p38-40

[3] First ascents and explorations – Aspiring Group. The New Zealand Alpine Journal, Vol IV, No. 18, 1931, page 155. Published by the New Zealand Alpine Club.

[4] p170 in Aspinall, J. (1993) Farming under Aspiring. Published by the Aspinall Family, Wanaka, 267 pages

[5] Aspinall, J.: A runholder, a father, a tramper. The New Zealand Alpine Journal, Vol XX, No. 51, 1964, pages 309-310. Published by the New Zealand Alpine Club. 

[6] Whitehead, V.I.E.: Ascent of Jumbo Peak. The New Zealand Alpine Journal, Vol X, No.30, 1943, pages 53-54. Published by the New Zealand Alpine Club. 

[7] Barrowclough, R.G.: The shortest way home. The New Zealand Alpine Journal, Vol XVIII, No.47, 1960, pages 376-377. Published by the New Zealand Alpine Club. 

[8] p51 in Kennedy, L.D. (Editor) 1984. Moir’s Guide Book, Northern Section, 5th edition. Published by the New Zealand Alpine Club, 103 pages.

[9] p90 in 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


Peaks, Packs and Mountain Tracks, by Scott Gilkison

3 February 2011

Twenty-five, according to Mr. Beverley Nichols, is the latest age at which anybody should write an autobiography. Were this, then, to be reckoned the story of my life, I could only blush and confess that I am two years older...” This is how a 27-year old Gilkison introduces his first book, prompted by the onset of the second World War, and the fear that “it may be that some of us have climbed our last peak in the Southern Alps“.

Gilkison states that the book does not aim to give an official account of expeditions, and that names, dates and places are used only where necessary by way of illustration, in the belief that it is the story which will appeal, rather than the precise detail of history. In spite of this claim, the first two thirds of the books are nothing more than a plain account of first ascents and explorations, written in simple words, and lacking any profound thoughts.

The last few chapters are somewhat more insightful. The sections “On Tramps and Tramping”, “Transport and Locomotion”, “In Defence of Swagging” and “Of Myself” especially tell us about the author’s philosophy, about his love for the hills, his motivations for climbing. We learn that Gilkison considers himself a tramper ahead of a climber, that he loves the torture of carrying a heavy pack over rugged terrain, and that he does not approve of the changes that aircraft access is about to bring into the mountaineering world. “But when that day comes – when climbers with their goods and chattels can be landed at any desired point in the mountains, there to remain until the day when they wish to be called for again – when the pioneer will have his mid-day spell interrupted by a picnic party who have dropped in, by autogiro – then, assuredly, swagging will have lost much of its point and purpose, and I for one will be very sorry.”

The pocket-size makes this a suitable book to take into the hills. I opened it after breakfast on a rainy day, while waiting for the weather to clear at the toe of the Park Pass Glacier. By lunch, I had run out of reading material. A very quick, easy read, entertaining but not particularly insightful, it’s a good book for when you’re tired and you feel there’s only so much your brains can take.


Gilkison, W.S. (1940) Peaks, Packs and Mountain Tracks. Whitcombe and Tombs Limited, 120 pages

Rob Roy Peak, 2644m

19 December 2010

Coordinates 44°27.069′ S, 168°43.600′ E

Rob Roy Peak from the slopes of Mount Alta. Photo D Hegg


Rob Roy Peak, at the head of Rob Roy Stream between the Matukituki River West Branch and the Matukituki River East Branch, is a bulky mountain with a number of ribs and spurs rising to a long, flat summit ridge. The High Peak (2644m) is 350m further east than indicated on the topomaps, at CA11 600691; the Low Peak (2609m) is 800m away to the east of the High Peak, at the head of the Glacier Burn. The mountain divides three glaciers, the Maud Francis Glacier to the north-west, the Avalanche Glacier to the north-east, and the Rob Roy Glacier to the south.

While the peak is not particularly beautiful or elegant, its complicated topography ensures a wide variety of climbs, including the gentle, glaciated south-west ridge, the moderate slopes of the west face, the more challenging rock-climbs on the east and north ridges, and the serious technical routes on the 500m high vertical step of the south face.

On the south-west ridge of Rob Roy Peak. Photo D Hegg


Rob Roy Peak was first climbed by a party of 9 Dunedin climbers on 20 April 1934, via the south-west ridge. Party members were Russell, George and Gordon Edwards, Monty McClymomt, Ernie Smith, Bob Fullerton, George Palmer, Don Divers and Cedric Benzoni. The mountain was named on the occasion after Rob Roy Stream, which drains its southern aspects [1,2]. Five of the party members had previously attempted the peak in late December 1934, and while they were thwarted by the weather on the occasion, they scouted a route to the Rob Roy Glacier, and completed the first ascent of Glengyle Peak [2,3]. On their successful attempt, the climbers used the Aspinalls’ pack-horses to carry their gear from Niger Hut to Wilsons Camp, then proceeded up the creek draining the mountain’s southern aspects to a bivvy site at 1800m of elevation. The climb to the summit (one way) took 6.5 hours from the bivvy site, with a few crevasses on the way – today, the route would be more often than not completely cut off this late in the season. Russell Edwards optimistically carried his skis up the mountain, but found the snow too hard frozen for skiing [1,2].

On 14 December 1954, Paul Powell and Frank Cooper completed the first traverse of the mountain, opening three new routes on the way: the north ridge to the Low Peak, a traverse of the summit ridge from the Low Peak to the High Peak and a descent of the west face to Shovel Flat [4]. For Paul Powell, the achievement vindicated multiple failures on the mountain over a period of three years, although the success was marred by poor team dynamics with his climbing partner [5]. Powell’s first attempts on Rob Roy were up the east ridge; the latter had to wait another decade, the first ascent falling to Graham Bishop and Tony Bowden on 19 January 1963 [6]. Graham Bishop was also first up the north-west ridge of the mountain, with Laurie Kennedy on 20 December 1974 [7]. Kennedy can also claim two first ascents on Rob Roy, since he went on to conquer the north face, with Bruce Robertson, in December 1975 [8]. The most daunting line on the mountain, the south face, was first climbed by P. Glasson, R. Cunninghame and K. Thomson in January 1973 [9].

The Low Peak of Rob Roy from the High Peak. The airy ridge connecting the two summits was first climbed by P. Powell and F. Cooper in 1954. Photo D Hegg


On a different note, during the night of October 25-26, 1978, a large rock avalanche (1 million tons of rock or more) plummeted from the Low Peak of Rob Roy into Gloomy Gorge, filling in the lake in the valley and sending a flood wave down the Matukituki River West Branch, which destroyed Pearl Flat and deposited blocks of ice down valley as far as Cameron Flat [10].

Route descriptions

Rob Roy Peak can be comfortably climbed in a weekend. With its varied routes and outstanding views from the summit, it makes for a very rewarding trip. It is also one of the most challenging mountains in the  Matukituki River West Branch – not because of the technical difficulties (the standard route is easy by all means), but rather because of the rough access through untracked country, a stark contrast to the pleasant ambles to Liverpool Hut or French Ridge.

Rob Roy Peak map. 1 grid square = 1km. Left click to enlarge

The south-west ridge

Rating: Alpine, grade 1+                   November 2010

The south-west ridge of Rob Roy Peak, sometimes incorrectly referred to as the south ridge, is the original ascent route to the summit, and remains the standard route today. Cross to the true left of the Matukituki River West Branch about 300m downstream of Wilsons Camps Stream, then climb up the creek that drains the southern aspects of Rob Roy and flows into the Matukituki at CA11 583631. A 10m waterfall at the 700m contour can be bypassed in the bush on the true left – if on the way down, sidle left into the bush about 5m above the top of the waterfall, until a steep, incised forested gully is encountered, which offers easy travel to the bottom. Travel in the creek bed remains confined and bouldery for a while, until a second series of cataracts and waterfalls is encountered, which requires a wide loop around in open scrub on the true left. Above this last obstacle, follow the shingly creek bed until above scrub line, then climb out to the right (east) to the spur leading to point 1695m. Just below this point, sidle west across the creek’s head-basin, keeping between 1600m and 1700m of elevation, to pick a short but steep gully through the bluffs at CA11 583660. The gully tops out on the ridge half way between points 1691m and 2049m. Drop into the basin to the north, and over a low ridge into another basin south of Glengyle Peak (there are good campsites with water in both basins), then climb to the south ridge of Glengyle Peak about 300m north of point 2049m. Descend 50m on the east side onto the Rob Roy Glacier. It is possible to get to this point directly from elevation 1695m, sidling east under the south ridge of Glengyle – however, the sidle may become unpleasant and dangerous (rock fall) once solar radiation hits the slopes.

Climb the Rob Roy Glacier, always about 200m below the ridge, weaving through crevasses to gain the south-west ridge of the mountain at 2450m of elevation. This route may well be cut off in late season.

Rob Roy Peak west face route topo. Photo Jaz Morris

The west face

Rating: Alpine, grade 2-                   November 2010

The west face of Rob Roy Peak offers a short, pleasant climb up moderate snow slopes in early season. From the Rob Roy bivvy rocks, sidle to the south under bluffs for 400m, then climb easy slopes to a broad shelf at 1800m of elevation, just south of point 1971m. A short but steep slope leads to a break in the bluffs above and across a spur onto another broad shelf, at 2100m of elevation, at the toe of the west face. From here, there are a number of routes leading to the summit ridge; snow slopes are generally continuous in early season, but turn into rock slabs later on. Mountain conditions will dictate the choice of the best line. A good route starts at CA11 587687 – it’s a 240m climb at a steady slope of 42 degrees to the summit ridge. Another route of similar difficulty is found at the northern end of the west face, and leads directly to the high peak.

Rob Roy Peak west face. The route follows the couloir to the right of centre image. Photo D Hegg


[1] Benzoni, C.C.: Trip to Matukituki Valley Easter 1935. Russell Edward’s personal papers, MS-1164-2/86/1 in Hocken Library Archives and Manuscripts.

[2] Edwards, R.: Mts Glengyle and Rob Roy (first ascents). The New Zealand Alpine Journal, Vol VI, No. 22, 1935, page 156. Published by the New Zealand Alpine Club. 

[3] Edwards, R.: Chtistmas Trip 1934-1935. Russell Edward’s personal papers, MS-1164-2/86/1 in Hocken Library Archives and Manuscripts.

[4] First ascents and explorations – Matukituki Valley. The New Zealand Alpine Journal, Vol XVI, No. 42, 1955, page 174. Published by the New Zealand Alpine Club. 

[5] Chapter 11 in Powell, P. (1967) Men Aspiring. AH & AW Reed, Wellington, 183 pages

[6] Bishop, G.: Tiger Country. The New Zealand Alpine Journal, Vol XX, No. 50, 1963, pages 116-122. Published by the New Zealand Alpine Club. 

[7] Bishop, G.: Rob Roy revisited. The New Zealand Alpine Journal, Vol 27, 1974, pages 30-31. Published by the New Zealand Alpine Club. 

[8] Robertson, B. and Kennedy, L.: Matukituki East-West. The New Zealand Alpine Journal, Vol 29, 1976, pages 27-29. Published by the New Zealand Alpine Club. 

[9] New climbs, 1972-73. The New Zealand Alpine Journal, Vol XXVI, 1963, page 100. Published by the New Zealand Alpine Club.

[10] Bishop, G.: A flash flood in the Matukituki. The New Zealand Alpine Journal, Vol 32, 1979, page 82. Published by the New Zealand Alpine Club.

Rob Roy bivvy rocks

18 December 2010

Coordinates 44°27.051′ S, 168°40.977′ E

Rob Roy bivvy rocks and Glengyle Peak, from the water supply. Photo Jaz Morris


A cluster of bivvy rocks in a boulder field above the bushline, on a terrace above the Matukituki River West Branch, at 1260m of elevation on the western slopes of Rob Roy Peak. At least 4 rocks have been turned into bivvies, offering indifferent shelter for 6 to 10 people. The most comfortable rock is the largest boulder, at the lower edge of the boulder field; it sleeps 3 or 4, mostly dry but not in a southerly. Three rocks higher up sleep one to two people each; only one overhang looks like it would be dry in any weather, on the downside it’s a claustrophobic hole that is too tight to sit up. A pot and a shovel are stored under one of the overhangs, and water is available from a small tarn 20m to the north. The Rob Roy rock bivvies are seldom visited since they are out of the way, and are really only useful for ascents of the west face of Rob Roy Peak, or of Glengyle Peak.

Taking in the views from the upper Rob Roy bivvy rock. Photo D Hegg


The bivvy rocks on Rob Roy were discovered by climbers, probably in the 1960s or 1970s; Paul Powell and Frank Cooper came across an overhanging rock after their descent of the west face of Rob Roy Peak in December 1954, but there is no way of telling if this was one of the rocks in use today [1]. The bivvies have been used by the guiding company Mountain Recreation for at least 20 years [2]. The track leading to the rock bivvies was also cut by the guiding company, and is locally referred to as “Geoff Wyatt’s track”.

Approaching the Rob Roy bivvy rocks. Photo D Hegg



Rating: tramping route, moderate                         November 2010

Rob Roy bivvy rocks map. 1 grid square = 1km. Left click to enlarge.


From Aspiring Hut in the Matukituki River West Branch, follow the track up valley to Shovel Flat. A couple of hundred meters out of the forest edge, the track descends small escarpments from alluvial terraces down to the river flat proper. Leave the track at the bottom of the escarpments and aim straight to the east to cross the Matukituki River West Branch in the middle of shingle flats. Once across the river, pick up a rough track in the bush, marked at the bottom with a well concealed orange triangle behind a fallen log, downstream of a large windfall area. The track is lightly marked with flagging tape and climbs straight up the hill until it emerges at the bottom of an old slip. Keep zig-zagging up the slip, bypassing two steps in the bush or scrub to the right (south), until hard under an obvious overhang near the top. Here the track exits the slip to the left (north) and zig-zags through the sub-alpine scrub before it peters out in the alpine tussocks. Aim diagonally up the hill in a northerly direction towards a cluster of large boulders at the toe of the obvious band of bluffs. Time: from Aspiring Hut to the rock bivvies, allow about 4 hours.

The main bivvy rock offers some decent bouldering, with Islington Dome in the backdrop. Photo D Hegg


[1] p99 in Powell, P. (1967) Men Aspiring. AH & AW Reed, Wellington, 183 pages

[2] p90 in Hersey, P. (2009) High Misadventure. New Zealand mountaineering tragedies and survival stories. New Holland Publishers, 166 pages.

The Canterbury Westland Alps

18 December 2010

A climbing and transalpine guide

A combined publication by the New Zealand Alpine Club and the Canterbury Mountaineering Club

Finally it has arrived – the long-awaited guidebook to the Canterbury and Westland Alps, the last ‘missing link’ in the coverage of the Southern Alps, fresh from the press in November 2010. With a whopping 295 pages, this is the biggest of the NZAC publications – a fact explained not only by the size of the area covered, but also by the inclusion of transalpine routes. The guidebook I had always been dreaming of, which combines tramping and mountaineering routes in a single volume, whereas further south the planning of transalpine trips requires at least two guidebooks (Moir’s guides South and North for access up valleys and over passes, and the NZAC climbing guidebooks for routes to the tops).

The area covered extends from the Macaulay River to the Avoca River east of the Main Divide, and from the Whataroa River to the Kokatahi River on the west side. Some of the most significant regions included in the guidebook are the Arrowsmith Range, the Garden of Eden and of Allah, the Bracken Snowfield and the summits of Mt Evans and Mt Whitcombe. For many of these regions, no guidebook had been previously compiled, while for other areas, existing guidebooks were well and truly out of date. When planning trips into the Arrowsmith Range for instance, I had so far been referring to John Pascoe’s guidebook ‘The Southern Alps’, published in 1951, and to the 1967 New Zealand Alpine Journal.

It is difficult to review a guidebook when I have only done a few trips in the region, and I haven’t had a chance to properly put it to a test. A few facts however are immediately obvious: the volume is thoroughly researched and carefully edited; a quick read of those routes I am familiar with reveals no mistakes, and the coverage of each valley shows no gaps. All grid references are reported in both the old system (NZMG) and the new one (NZTM) – this must have taken a HUGE amount of work. The grading system is the open-ended ‘Mount Cook’ system, accompanied by a rock climbing grade according to the Ewbank system if required. Committment grades are not included – just as well, since I think they are both pointless and misleading. The relevant paragraph in the introduction on page 16 is spot on and well worth a read.

A guidebook wouldn’t be complete without a few omissions, and this one is no exception, the standard route up Arrowsmith from the South Ashburton (one of the easiest up the mountain when on form, see NZAJ 1967) and the west face of The Marquee being some of the most notable ones. Such omissions are fine, since it is not humanly possible to include every known route in a guidebook, and it is good to have a few blanks left open for exploration and the use of map-reading and imagination. As long as some dumbwit doesn’t come along and claim a first ascent of a sixty year old route up Arrowsmith just because there’s no route description for it…

The guidebook contains a comprehensive introduction including information on grading, trip planning, geography, geology and a history of the exploration and climbing in the region. Those climbers who lack common sense will benefit from reading the sections ‘Using this book’ and ‘Trip planning’; the romantic paragraph on transalpine travel (p21-22) is a pleasure to read, and sums up well the joy of transalpine trips. Last but not least, the book is illustrated with a wealth of superb pictures. Not only are both editors skills photographers, but even old, historical images are rendered to top quality standard. Just one of those little things that make the guidebook stand out above most others in the series.


Cook, Y. and Spearpoint, G. (2010) The Canterbury Westland Alps – a climbing and transalpine guide. Joint publication by the New Zealand Alpine Club and the Canterbury Mountaineering Club. 295 pages

Early Runholding in Otago, by Herries Beattie

17 December 2010

When the first pioneers ventured into the interior of Otago in the 1850s and 1860s, they were motivated by either one of two main drives: the quest for grazing country, or the search for gold. Both activities have left an indelible mark on the history of the province. Gold prospectors scoured nearly every river in the region, no matter how remote – their activities however were short-lived, and had all but ceased within 20 years. Today, all that’s left of gold prospecting times is a myriad of names on the map, and a bunch of abandoned machines and buildings. Runholders, on the other hand, occupied every piece of land that was even vaguely suitable for sheep, burning forest and shrub-lands if necessary. They pushed into the main valleys and up to the toe of the mountains, stocking the high country, which they took on lease from the crown. Many of these leases still run today. Every tramper desiring to explore remote ranges will sooner of later have to ask for permission to walk through private land to access the conservation estate beyond. Likewise, any curious outdoor enthusiast who starts reading about the history of his favourite stomping grounds, will soon find out that this is intimately tied in with the antics of the early run-holders, who in many areas preceded trampers and climbers by several decades. This volume is not only highly relevant to tramping in Otago and Southland; it casts light on a chapter that is often neglected in the history of exploration of the region’s backcountry.

The 158-page volume is divided in three parts: 1 – “A composite picture”; 2 – “A particular scene”; and 3 – “An official view”. The first part starts with a chapter on the origins of run-holding, where the Australian concept (which was ‘imported’ to New Zealand by early settlers who often relocated from across the Tasman) is compared to similar establishments in other areas of the world, mainly North and South America. A strong anti-american sentiment in the author comes across quite strongly in the first pages of the book. The following chapters deal with the nature of the country in its primitive state, prior to grazing; the most  important animals on pastoral runs (horses, cattle and sheep), and with the (surprisingly varied) multi-ethnic work-force striving to make a living from the land.

The second part describes life on Puketoi Station from the station’s diary, which was filled in almost daily from 1858, when the run was first occupied, until 1869, when the run was sold. A unique document and an invaluable piece of history. The third and final part looks at pastoralism in the broader context of early settlement of Otago, the local government and legislation. The latter dictated not only the size of runs in different parts of the province, but also their tenure – and the bizarre concept of ‘lease from the crown’ that still holds today.

In this book, the author does not give a detailed history of each run in Otago, when it was taken up and by whom – a wealth of would-be-interesting information that falls outside the scope of this work. Beattie paints a picture of the life on the stations instead. We get to learn about the first dwellings, what they looked like and what materials they were built from; about the hardships endured by early settlers and animals alike when trying to adapt to a new country; and about countless anecdotes that broke the monotony of everyday life, often recollected by old-timers in newspaper articles half a century later. We are indebted to Beattie for jotting down a slice of history of the back-country of Southland and Otago, which is still highly relevant today.


Beattie, H. (1947) Early Runholding in Otago. Otago Daily Times and Witness Newspapers Co Ltd, Dunedin, 158 pages

Sisyphus Peak, 1859m

12 November 2010

Coordinates 44°22.539′ S, 168°49.940′ E

View into the Kitchener River from the summit of Mount Avalanche. Sisyphus Peak at top centre image; Wilmot Saddle to the left. Photo D Hegg


Sisyphus Peak is nothing more than a small bump on the east ridge of Fastness Peak, 600m south-east of Wilmot Saddle. What it lacks in topographical prominence, it fully makes up with its stunning views – located in the Matukituki River East Branch just to the east of the Main Divide of the Southern Alps, it is an ideal pedestal from where to admire the imposing eastern aspects of Mount Aspiring, Popes Nose and Fastness Peak. Add the ease of access to the equation (the summit can be easily reached on a weekend trip, no mountaineering skills required), and you have all the ingredients for a very popular tramping destination.


Sisyphus Peak was first climbed by E. Miller, H. Boddy, J. Shanks and R. Pinney on 30 December 1930. Taking advantage of a break in a long spell of appalling weather, the  party of four Dunedin climbers walked into the head of Rainbow Stream and reached Wilmot Saddle. Here, Eric Miller wrote “Between us and the [Bledisloe] gorge lay a rocky range, culminating in an easily accessible peak [Sisyphus] some 500 feet above. As it was possible simply to stroll up to the rounded top without climbing, some of our enthusiastic mountaineers thought it beneath their dignity to make the ascent, but when finally persuaded to do so, were more than satisfied with the view from this particularly well placed vantage point. In commemoration of Pinney’s escapade with the boulder a few days later [the next day in fact], we have named this peak Mount Sisyphus, and I venture to predict that in years to come it will be the most frequented in the Matukituki district. The grade to the summit is exceptionally easy…” [1].

In Greek mythology, Sisyphus is a king condemned to push a boulder up a hill in eternity. The accident that prompted the naming of the peak happened on December 31, while the party was descending the northern slopes of  Wilmot Saddle to Ruth Flat. Miller gives further detail about the accident “When descending the smooth through of a waterfall, Boddy brushed his pack against what proved to be a balanced boulder and set it in motion after him. Without warning it threw him somersaulting down the hill, smashed his ice axe into matchwood, and made for Pinney, who had just time to dive over a small waterfall, on top of which the boulder came to rest. Unfortunately, he landed on his chin at the bottom and took the count. […] In such circumstances Pinney had the advantage of two more languages than the rest of us, and had recently attended some dog trials, in a receptive frame of mind” [1].

On New Year’s day, the party had an alpine start to climb Ruth Ridge to the Volta Glacier, but was forced back by a nor’westerly storm. The climbers just made it down Bledisloe Gorge before heavy rain set in, then had to wait a couple of days for the rivers to drop before being able to reach the Aspinalls’ Homestead [1].

Route descriptions

Sisyphus Peak map. 1 grid square = 1km. Left click to enlarge


From Wilmot Saddle via the north-west ridge

Rating: tramping, off track, easy                           April 2005

A 20 minute stroll along a broad, easy ridge

To Aspiring Flats via the south ridge

Rating: tramping, off track, moderate                April 2005

This is a good, safe route, the only obstacle being a belt of thick sub-alpine scrub above the bush-line. Because of the latter, I would recommend the south ridge as a descent route only. Rainbow Stream offers better walking up the hill.

From the summit of Sisyphus Peak, follow the crest of the south ridge, scrambling over the top of point 1723m. Lower down, pick up deer trails and leads through the tall sub-alpine scrub; once below bush-line, stay away from the ridge proper and veer gradually to the right, aiming to hit the valley floor at the top of Aspiring Flats. See the notes about the Kitchener River for access to Aspiring Flats. Times: approx 4 – 5 hours from Sisyphus Peak to Aspiring Flats, 7 – 8 hours in the opposite direction.  There is no water on this route.

From Ruth Flat

See Moir’s Guide North [2].

View from Sisyphus Peak: Rob Roy Peak, Mount Avalanche, Mount Aspiring. Photo D Hegg


[1] 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.

[2] 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.