Boys in the Hills (Cascade Saddle)
Every year since I was 9, my dad and I have gone on an adventure for my birthday with my best mates and their dads. This year is my 15th birthday. Dad asked what I wanted to do, I said I wanted to do something that was a bit of a step up on the other years. He left it to me to decide so I talked to my dad’s friend Bob and I came up with the plan to do the Cascade Saddle. We would need clear weather as at this time of year (late April) the days would be a lot shorter and it can get slippery. There is a chance of high rivers and snowfall on the tops of the mountains at this precarious time of year, winter weather systems usually start to set in at around this time of year as well.
Two weeks prior to the hike, I sent out all the trip details to the crew, which included my mates and their dads (1o of us in total). However, it took everyone a week and a half to read the notes on what I had planned. A few started panicking due to the inaccuracies in the estimated distances I had provided and the magnitude of the trip over the time allowed. My dad received numerous phone calls, texts, and messages, but after assessing the situation, we realized we were only 15kms off what I had estimated and decided to go ahead with the trip. The weather looked promising, and we were confident that we could make it.
We received one last message on the group chat from a dad who likes Bourbon. He asked how much he should bring, and my dad simply replied, “I’m not taking any.” The other dads chimed in, saying, “It would be a shame to make it all the way up to the saddle, only to reach the hut and not be able to celebrate our accomplishment.”
After school, all the boys congregated at our house before embarking on our adventure to Raspberry Flats, with Mum serving as our shuttle driver. As we set off just as the sun began to dip below the horizon, Dad and I assessed everyone’s packing and were pleased to see that the packs were more manageable in size compared to some of our previous trips. However, one dad’s pack seemed rather overloaded until he revealed that he was carrying a pillow in it. Another dad, unable to fit all his gear in his giant pack, decided to hand-carry two paper bags from the New World supermarket to the first hut. This was the same dad who, two years earlier, was seen floating across the Wilkin River with a large chilly bin on the waterline to keep him afloat.
At around 6 pm, we arrived at the Cascade Hut that we had booked privately through the NZ Alpine Club. The hut was snug and cosy, and we quickly got a steak slab sizzling over the fire using other dad’s shopping bags.
For dinner, we enjoyed delicious ciabatta steak and onion sandwiches. As we were all gearing up for an early start the next morning, we hit the hay early.
As we settled into our sleeping bags for the night, the warmth of the hut cocooned us, and we began to drift off to sleep. Suddenly, the deafening sound of a chainsaw pierced the silence, causing the hut to shake. One of the dads gave the other a gentle nudge, followed by a finger in his ear and his nostril, hoping to gently rouse him, but he remained sound asleep. We laughed at the predictable situation, but soon the noise became unbearable, and our mirth turned to irritation.
After a sleepless night, we rose at 5:30 am and hastily consumed some nourishing porridge. We set out into the predawn light around 6 am, and within half an hour, we arrived at the newly revitalized Aspiring Hut. The hut was bustling with activity as other hikers began their day.
Although the new hut was impressive, it paled in comparison to the Cascade Hut we had stayed in the night before. Nevertheless, we were eager to tackle the steep face ahead of us. The trail was arduous, with gnarled roots and large steps on a well-defined path. After two hours of hiking, we emerged from the tree line and scrambled up the rocky slope to the top of Cascade Saddle. The ascent was challenging and exposed, but the sky was clear, and we relished the expansive views of the surrounding peaks. As we stood atop the saddle at 1700m, we gazed upon the stunning sight of Mount Tindle, now capped in fresh snow.
As we descended down to the river, we were met with giant shale rock faces on 30-degree angles that made us quite apprehensive. We had seen a DOC video that made it look incredibly exposed and steep, but as it turned out, the camera angle must have been deceptive. The descent was far easier than we had anticipated. Along the way, we encountered the notorious 8 pack of Keas. This pack take great pleasure in ripping apart trampers packs and tents if they try and chill out and enjoy the view in the Kea’s backyard. Luckily we weren’t camping out there or our tents would have been ripped to shreds.
After crossing the river, we made our way up into the cascade saddle, a truly breathtaking part of the hike.
To our right, we could see down into the Aspiring Valley from a height of 1400m. The alpine country was simply awe-inspiring, with its vast expanse of tarns and tussocks. As we reached the top of the hill, we caught our first glimpse of the Dart Glacier in all its glory, a magnificent sight to behold. Just 50 metres to our right, there was a sheer 1000-metre cliff that dropped straight down to the valley floor.
We all gathered and settled down to a hot lunch, warming ourselves against the wind chop coming over the tops and across the glacier. After a satisfying meal and hot drinks, we began the main descent of the day, down off the tops and into the bottom of the Dart Glacier. This part of the hike was a traverse across a tricky mountain face, where even those with poles had them out for support. The terrain was tough, and the boulders were slippery, making it a challenging journey. The descent took about an hour and twenty minutes, and we finally made it out onto the flats.
From there, it was a relatively flat walk through the valley to the Dart Hut, with the stunning view of the glacier still visible in the distance. Upon arriving at the Dart hut, a 32-bunk accommodation, we assigned the other dad to a room at the far end of the hut in the hopes that the distance and walls would muffle his snoring.
As the rain started to pour in, we all felt the chill and yearned for a wash. We braved the weather and headed down to the Reece River for a quick dip before settling in for some card games and banter. The other dad indulged in some bourbon, and we capped off the night with a hearty dinner.
Knowing that we had a busy day ahead, we retired to bed early. I had initially estimated that we only had to trek 15 km to reach our destination, but upon closer inspection, we realized it was actually a gruelling 27 km. We had arranged for a friend from Wanaka to meet us by running in, so we were determined to stick to our tight schedule.
At 6:30 AM, we began our hike up the Dart Track towards the Reece Saddle. The valley was stunning, and the 600-meter ascent to the top of the Reece Saddle was surprisingly quick. The trail levelled out for a bit before dropping us into the Reece Valley. The initial descent was steep and shaly, but it gradually levelled out.
After walking for a couple of hours, we realized we had only covered 7 kilometres. Though we knew the valley flats would be faster, we still felt like we had a long way to go to reach our goal of making it home. Finally, we arrived at Shelter Rock Hut after an hour of walking. To beat the Department of Conservation rangers’ personal best time of 3 hours and 20 minutes to the hut, we had to sprint the last few kilometres. We arrived at 3 hours and 15 minutes, feeling a sense of accomplishment.
We sat down and had an early lunch, cooking up the last of our freeze-dried food and whatever else we had left. With no more stops, until we reached Fergburger, we knew we needed to fuel up. The hike may have been challenging, but the reward of a delicious burger was waiting for us at the end of our journey.
As we hoisted our packs back on, we brimmed with optimism, determined to conquer the final stretch. However, after trekking the first kilometre, our enthusiasm waned, and the exhaustion set back in. We entered a serene forest with enchanting waterfalls and bird songs, and we retreated into our own thoughts, pushing ourselves forward one kilometre at a time as we gradually descended down the valley.
En route, we encountered our friend who had run ahead to pick us up. We eagerly inquired about the distance left, and he replied, “Only 14 kilometres left.” Even though we knew it was approximately the same distance, we couldn’t help but feel crestfallen, realizing we still had a few more hours of walking before completing our mission.
With only 10 kilometres left, everyone’s feet started to throb, and some of us even experienced cramps. Desperate for relief, we shed our shoes and trudged barefoot through the rocky terrain, crossing rivers and muddying our feet. Despite the discomfort, we found comfort in the solidarity of our shared struggle and the anticipation of the van waiting for us at the end of the trail.
After 46 hours of non-stop adventure, we finally made it to our destination – Fergburger. Despite 15 hours of moving time, 2800m of alt gain and 57 km of hiking, we were all ecstatic to sink our teeth into the famous burgers. However, as soon as we got back into the van, our phones started buzzing, bringing us back to reality. But for that one-hour journey back home, we all dozed off, content with the memories of the best trip yet.
The trip was an absolute blast, and we couldn’t wait to plan for the next one.
Timing references for fellow trampers
Day 1- Raspberry Creek to Cascade Hut 1.5hrs
Day 2 – Cascade Hut to Dart Hut 9hrs
Day 3 – Dart Hut to track end 8.5hrs
Total distance – 57kms
Total Alt Gain – 2800m
All Images by Luka Cowan