Tackling the Gillespie Pass Solo | Guest Blog from the Young Adventuress
Since I first moved to Wanaka nearly ten years ago, I really got into tramping, ticking long walks and bigger adventures off my bucket list year after year as I became more experienced. When I saw that the NZ Mountain Safety Council released one of their amazing tramping videos about the Gillespie Pass Circuit this summer, I knew it was my time to tackle it.
A guest blog from the Young Adventuress and her experience of tackling one of the South Island's most incredible tracks.
A 3-4 day tramp in Mt. Aspiring National Park and over fifty kilometres long, with a thousand metres of ascent and descent on the same day over the pass itself, I knew it was going to be really hard for me. But when things get hard are when I thrive. I find a lot of joy in challenging myself physically in the mountains and coming out on the other side.
The Gillespie Pass Circuit is a relatively tricky 3-4 day tramp in Mt. Aspiring National Park. Beautiful beech forests, alpine rivers and meadows, and an incredible climb over the Gillespie Pass itself make it one of the best hikes I've ever done. Also, one of the hardest.
A tried and true diehard solo traveler, I knew I wanted to solo tramp the Gillespie Pass all on my own. I enjoyed the challenge of it. A notorious track that's claimed quite a few lives over the years (all drownings), I knew I was going to be smart about it. The rivers might look blue and picturesque, but they can flood quickly. Even the tiny creeks you cross can turn into torrents quickly. The creek two minutes from Siberia Hut can easily become flooded, making the hut inaccessible.
You can easily opt-out of the river crossings by organising the Gillespie Pass track transport. You can get the jetboat in and out of the Young River mouth and avoid crossing the Makarora River. And you can jetboat in and out of the Kerin Forks Hut track side of the river, both with Wilkin River Jets. You can also fly into the Siberia Valley by helicopter organised by the same guys.
Since I was a bit strapped for time, I opted to fly into the Siberia Valley to start the tramp. Wilkin River Jets flew me in with my pack to the Siberia Hut and a few other trampers keen to take advantage of an epic weather window. Siberia Hut is one of those famous DOC huts that require bookings in advance in the summertime. It's very much a crossroads in Mt. Aspiring, so it's always busy, and it's an excellent base for adventures.
With beautiful weather on the horizon, I knew I needed to escape to the mountains for a few days. To solo tramp, the Gillespie Pass was just what the doctor ordered!
After reading all about it, talking to friends, digging through the Plan My Walk app, and registering my plans, I packed up and headed off to Makarora on the first day of autumn. Don't worry; it was still very much summertime. A fact which I promptly forgot.
Dropping my pack at the hut, I grabbed my day pack and started the walk up to the iconic Lake Crucible, a stunning turquoise alpine lake. Lake Crucible is a popular day trip on the Gillespie Pass; as it's off the main track, a 6-8 return from the hut, it's not all that short of a walk.
The sun was beginning to peak over the valley's steep sides as I wove my away along the most stunning track. I was joined by a kind lady I met earlier who wanted to go up to the lake but didn't want to be alone.
Once you walk along the valley floor, crossing a few smaller rivers and creeks (which can rise quickly), you'll come to a steep climb in the beech forest with one more creek to cross before leveling out in the basin before climbing up a moraine wall to the lake.
Before long, the bright sun was beating down on us, but with the lovely mountain breeze, I didn't really feel the impact of it. Suddenly, as I could see the lake in the distance, I started to feel off. I'm one of those people who struggle to eat in the morning, and I realised I hadn’t eaten enough. Combined with the piping hot weather, I think I was getting a bit heat sick.
Arriving at the lake in the company of new friends and plenty of rock wren, I scarfed down some food, drank heaps of water, and cooled down in the icy lake. I already started to feel better. I was so focused on other parts of the tramp that I forgot the most essential and basic care of myself. Eat well and a lot, hydrate a lot and wear a hat and sunscreen.
I felt pretty good the following day, so I had a big brekkie and hit the track. Today was the most significant day climbing over the 1600-metre Gillespie Pass. With no water above the bush line, you must make sure you fill up in the last rivers and creeks before attempting the traverse. Retracing my steps back up the valley, the long climb through the beech began, which I found not as steep as expected.
You can walk the Gillespie Pass in either direction, though most people begin from the other side on the Young Valley, while I was attempting from the Siberia side. This means that I had a longer, less steep, but still steep climb up with a super steep descent.
Generally, people say it's harder and longer to walk in this direction. I say it'll be hard no matter what.
The suggested DOC times between the Young Hut and Siberia Hut are 6-8 hours. It took me 12. Holy crap. I'm never usually over these suggested times, and I heard from many people that it takes them much longer to complete than traverse than expected. This means you need to build in extra time, especially once the days become shorter.
When planning to solo tramp the Gillespie Pass, factor in extra time.
Granted, I'm always extra prepared. If I get stuck, I carry an emergency bivvy and even an extra mat if the huts are full. I knew I would be slow after feeling sick the day before, so I just took my time. I was also taking many photos, birding and botanising, two of my favourite things. But still, I was shocked it took me so long to solo tramp the Gillespie Pass, and I regret not starting earlier.
The pass itself was one of the most beautiful days I've ever had tramping.
The views were incredible as you walk along the top, with rock wrens, kea, and pipits to keep you company. Lorded over by Mt. Awful and Mt. Dreadful (someone had a bad day while naming these), the views alone were worth it. The alpine plants were terrific, and all of the delicious snowberries were ready to be eaten by the handful.
I would say it's definitely a track for experienced trampers in New Zealand. It's a lot of root climbing, climbing over boulders, big steps up and down, and very long days. You have to be smart where you step, and hiking poles helped tremendously. There weren't really any parts on the traverse where I felt like I might fall off the mountain, even on the steep descent. But you did need to have your wits about you.
By day three, with wet boots, my feet were peeling and painful. Several of my precious toenails showed imminent signs of falling off; I still felt a bit weak. My quads were killing me, and once again, I should have allowed for more time.
The 20-kilometre long walk out of the valley is meant to be relatively easy. However, it's still very long, with many ups and downs over tree roots in the forest. On another super hot day, I found myself a lot slower than usual. Usually, I'm pretty fast on the last day.
I had booked the jetboat out of the valley to Makarora to skip the last river crossing. The jetboat in and out of the Young Valley is really affordable at only $25. You can also carry on for an additional seven kilometres and use the bridge at the Blue Pools to cross the river. It's an extra 1.5-2 hours, but it means no river crossing to start or finish the track.
To solo tramp, the Gillespie Pass is not an easy undertaking. Even with all of my mistakes, I got fortunate. Even with my experience, you can easily stuff up in the bush with high consequences. While I felt really prepared and followed all of the right steps, there are still quite a few things I could have done better.
I should have budgeted in more time for each day, ensuring I ate plenty of food and snacked a lot more on the track itself. I drank lots of water but could have probably drunk even more and made sure to wear a hat and sunscreen the whole time I walked.
Luckily, I always register my intent on the Plan My Walk app, with friends, and in this case, with transport. It was a fantastic adventure I appreciate all the more in retrospect, and I'm grateful for the lessons I'm taking away from it. To solo tramp the Gillespie Pass might be my new greatest backcountry achievement.
- You can watch our full walk-though video on the Gillespie Pass here
- Start planning a trip for this track in our Plan My Walk app
Thanks for sharing your top tracks Liz! You can find out more about her travels as a solo tramper on her website. Or read her other blog on our website about how to plan for a backcountry adventure or 5 adventures for first time solo trampers.
If you have tips on how to have a safer experience in the outdoors or a place you like to explore, share them with us: Rebekah.Wilson@mountainsafety.org.nz