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Trip Reports 2018-05-00-Isabelle-High Ridge

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This article was first published in the Tararua Tramper Volume 90, no 5, June 2018

Waterfall to waterfall to waterfall to …

May 2018

“Should I bring my rope, Franz?” “Ah, no Joe.. I don’t think we’ll be needing a rope”. Franz’s alarm gently chirped before 5am. First by headlamps, then guided by a brilliant red sunrise, we trudged over to the saddle between Isabelle and Holdsworth. We descended the main (right, or west) branch of Isabelle Creek, easily sidling (and occasionally sliding) waterfalls. Two enormous boulders, one which blocked the valley forcing the stream (and us) through a water-cascading tunnel, were the standout features. We noted ample good campsites in the pleasant middle reaches, as well as a huge (~200m) grassy slip off W the toe of Mt. Isabelle, which could provide faster, simpler access into the head of this valley.

A high sidle on the right bank brought us to the “upper Isabelle forks”, where the lesser (left, or E) Isabelle Creek branch suddenly joined its sister by a spectacular, pluming 45-50m waterfall. This spilled freely over blank cliffs into a deep pool. We managed to climb, with contortions, up through a hole behind a huge boulder, to this pool at the base.

We then boulder-hopped down to the first creek on the left coming off High Ridge, dumped our packs at this confluence, and carried on down past the initial pair of gentle flats, then the beginning of the lower gorge of this main branch, to about ~350m from the Waiohine. There, a smooth-sided waterfall (with the promise of a high, time-consuming sidle) stymied further progress. (I reminded Franz of the rope that I had offered to bring ; and he reminded me that, being May, it was probably too late in the season, & in the day, to chuck our packs in and paddle after them!) As a consolation, I was able to look down onto the spot I had got to, working my way up from the Waiohine, a few years ago, so at least I’d viewed this same waterfall from top and bottom, and had ‘joined my dots’ …

Retracing our steps to our packs, we climbed to the top of the main 50m waterfall, via a rising sidle of the steep TL spur. We topped our sidle at ~650m, Franz picking the ledges between bush-clad bluffs, then managed to drop down towards the lip of the waterfall. While I hung onto to a tree spotting where we had stood by the plunge pool below, Franz found an exposed hands-and-knees ledge where we could crawl between vertical bluffery above and below, down into the safety of the upper stream. My pack kept getting caught on the sharp overhanging rock. I might have mentioned my fore-gone rope … again. Anyhow, this appeared to us to be the only feasible way (ropeless) to reach the lip of the stream, so we felt rather fortunate.

Our rising confidence about now being able to easily travel this section up the left branch of Isabelle was dashed by another impassable waterfall around the corner, which led us up on a very slow, frustrating, sketchy left-bank sidle. Some more rope-muttering. Luckily, we found passable rock to slither back down into the stream. 200m of tight, crevasse-like stream work then slowed us right down. Escape routes on this section were non-existent, like much of this stream branch so far. A couple of waterfalls we fortuitously managed to climb like scaffolds because slips high above had sent trees and debris down into the drain.

Inevitably, another impassible waterfall stopped us, and we managed to sidle once more between the left bank bluffs, including over the lip of another waterfall from another small creek coming off High Ridge. Just past this, it was “a tiny ledge too far” for Franz, as he made me reverse on hands and knees again back across the greasy, tilting ledge he had happily just coaxed me across. I believe we had another conversation about my 30m of 7mm dynamic, which, at that point, would have been a better friend than Franz …

We followed this side-creek up until we could clamber up onto, at last, easy terraces and ledges, after which, we were then able to regain the Isabelle. For the next ~700m, the stream was broad, graveled and pleasant, but the valley began to close in. A well-metaled TR creek, emanating from a huge active slip, seemed to offer a route up to Pt. 1430m – noted for the future. Before this confluence, we had got our first glimpse of Franz’s goal of the trip: the big upper waterfall. From 400m away it was impressive, and as we closed in on it, it became “gobsmack”. It was like being in the base of a Fiordland cirque that had been translocated into the Tararuas. An arc of vertical and overhanging grey cliffs, with bare peaks above, and with a spout of water pouring through a fissure, landing on off-vertical bluffs below. Easily the most memorable sight I can recall in the Tararuas. We managed to touch the base of the falls. Of “the pool of water” mentioned in the Tweedale recovery account, there was no sign. Just large angular rubble and blocks, so presumably this pool had been geologically redecorated. I climbed high up a ledge on the TL for more photos, and we had a late lunch, before heading back down to try and find a way up onto High Ridge.

We clambered a good scree cone before reaching scrub-infested beech, beginning a rising sidle under the base of the cliffs. Sometimes we needed to drop back down when our progress was stopped, but we managed to forge a steep, generally unpleasant, scrub-filled “route” up an aręte, bisecting bluffs noting evidence of a single blazed shrub. Then a gut, through a wee ‘saddle’, and finally into and up an easy, pleasant basin falling due W off Pt. 1253m.

From this, we gained the High Ridge tussocks, and commenced trench warfare with the wind. The wind was so strong and exhausting, that we arranged a temporary ceasefire, and sidled the thick scrub just inside the lip of Totara Creek for while. It was far preferable! We actually got blown up at a decent jog onto Pt. 1330m, and I had to grab the High Ridge sign and hang on as I went sailing into it …

It was 11 hours return from Powell back to a now-shaking Powell, a quick cuppa, Belgian biscuits (Franz didn’t know that they used to be called German bickies back in Kaiser Bill’s day), a soup each, then we shouldered our full packs, with headlamps down to the carpark by 7.15pm. So excluding the Powell ‘teabreak’, a fairly relentless, memorable 13 hour day. Franz earned a chicken dinner with Riesling for his gold-star ledge-bashing efforts.

Given the country, I thought we travelled fairly quickly, with mainly “gobble ‘n go” stops. Franz and I had both descended Chamberlain Creek on (separate) daytrips, and I’ve descended the headwaters of the Hector River. Some terrain in Isabelle matches, and in a couple of places exceeds, those trips.

When I return here, I’ll definitely be wearing some gaiters.

Franz may bring a rope.

Party members
Franz Hubmann TTC (leader), Joe Nawalaniec (scribe)

Page last modified on 2020 Apr 27 03:51

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