Lees Creek in Winter: a ramble in the Raglan Range
12-15 September 2008
The Raglan Range is parallel and east of the St Arnaud range; I had never been there and jumped at the chance when it was advertised on the fixture card. The actual tramp started on a drizzly Friday afternoon with a five kilometre walk on a gravelled Rainbow Road from the Rainbow Ski Field car park to a swing bridge which crossed the Wairau River. While the 8.2 km track up the Lees Creek to the Lees Hut was advertised as taking three hours, we had been warned by locals that it may take longer given that the recent heavy snow had brought down many trees. And so it turned out; not only did the trees cover the track at many points but they had also fallen onto the one swing bridge that crossed the creek. The judicious use of a pruning saw by Neil relieved the pressure on the bridge and we all crossed it and pushed on up the track by the river. As we advanced, the amount of snow on the ground increased, particularly in the numerous flats near the hut. It was with no small relief that we reached the hut an hour after dark and hastily lit a fire to warm everyone up.
We were five in number in a very comfortable four-bed hut so we needed to take turns over the next three nights to sleep on the floor. The night was cold but Saturday morning saw a significant improvement in the weather with clear blue skies. The Lees Creek splits into two branches just under a kilometre upriver from the hut and we decided to explore the south branch that day. We followed the creek over the snow-covered flats on the true left until we entered beech forest shortly before the junction. There was an old trail to follow, but this was hidden in parts by snow and broken branches so we ducked up and down to the stream to avoid the smashed saplings.
After nearly a kilometre of the beech, we emerged into a large flat partially covered in snow with great views of the west side of the Raglan range and up the south branch to a point where it split again. The next section was very rewarding tramping, keeping mainly to the true left, gently climbing the valley with snowy flats interspersed with beech groves. Towards the head of the valley, the snow drifts near the creek became very deep, so we climbed 20-50m up to clamber over a boulder bank and then kept our altitude until we reached the point where the creek once again split. The map indicated that the western branch climbed steeply up to 1700 m to terminate in two tarns; we however opted to climb up through beech following the true left of the more easterly branch as it tumbled down in a series of waterfalls from a basin above.
Once we reached the basin, we stopped for lunch at 1490 m to enjoy the view eastwards into the snow-filled basin leading to a saddle that can be used to cross over the Raglan Range into the Branch River and a number of other destinations. On our descent through the trees we were startled by the sound of an avalanche on the other side of the valley. It wasn't a large one and the snow flow stopped quite quickly; however the boulders it dislodged continued to bounce down the side of the valley right through the boulder bank we had climbed through just before lunch. It wasn't a hard decision to stick to the true right bank for the first section of our return even if it meant struggling through some deep drifts. Following that we retraced our steps to return to hut shortly after 4 pm.
The next morning again dawned fine for our visit to the north branch. We crossed the main creek and followed the true right across the flat and into the trees until we reached the junction. Here we picked up an animal trail that led us parallel to the true right of this north branch but about 20-40 metres above the stream. Once again this was fine for a while until the trail became obliterated under a mess of snow and bent and broken beech saplings. It was then slow bush-bashing for the next hour through the trees and recent avalanche debris until eventually we dropped down to the stream at about the 1250m mark. Progress from here was easier and after a couple of 100 metres we came out onto deep, thick, hard snow which made walking over it a pleasure. In fact it was almost pure pleasure at this point: views of mountains on three sides, patches of beech surrounded by snow, weird ice forms as we walked over the remnants of snow and ice slides, all lit by brilliant sunshine. Once we got into the basin we decided to climb the side of the valley on the true right of the stream. We climbed over scree, snow and rocks to reach 1500m, where we perched somewhat nervously on the slope and ate our lunch. Coming down was much more fun and we scree-ran and then slid the last 100m down the snow to the valley floor.
We attempted to find a better route on the return trip to the hut but inevitably ended up in bent snow-laden saplings again and we bush-bashed our way down, only finding a decent animal track close to the edge of the bush.
The weather on Monday as we walked out was almost perfect as we proceeded slowly down the valley, stopping often to look back and admire the view. The whole area had been a delight in the late winter conditions and many of us were inspired to return in summer to do some of the round trips which involve pass-hopping from valley to valley.
Party members: Neil Challands (Leader), Helen Beaglehole, Colin Cook, Janette Roberts, Russell Cooke.