Barrier Knob Traverse

Gertrude Saddle to Moraine Creek Valley

Fiordland, New Zealand

January 10 - 12 , 2009

Dave and Jill Svilar


Jill on her way to Barrier Knob on the morning of our second day.  Our traverse of the knob provided us with some of our best and worst memories of our second trip to NZ.


"That was fun Davey.  I wish we could do it again."

I could hardly be more proud... and relieved.  We had just descended the dreaded Gifford's Crack and not only had Jill not fallen to her death, but she actually enjoyed the process. 

If we could rewind exactly 10 months to when the NZ doctor told Jill she had cancer that likely had spread throughout her body it would be difficult to conjure up the image of my wife making quick work of some of New Zealand's most rugged terrain.  At that time - trying to look ahead 10 months - I would have been satisfied to know Jill was still alive.  Best case scenario vomitous and bald, but alive.  Even with the upgrade of her diagnosis she had still gone through a traumatic surgery and recovery process that had left her - for the duration of our stay in NZ - with implants that looked and felt like bowling balls.  These didn't make hiking with a pack comfortable and certainly didn't make a steep downclimb any safer.

Instead of using cancer complications as an excuse to stay home and do something lame, like work, she's used it as a springboard to take on new adventures.  After facing the real possibility of death, the uncertainty of cancer, and financial ruin other parts of life just don't seem as scary.  Things will just work out, she likes to say.  On this website it may appear just like any other trip - Jill and Dave go somewhere pretty, sleep on the ground, and start to smell.  However, the Barrier Knob Traverse brought out a new Jill: one who takes ownership of the trip - checks the map, makes sure we're not lost, and assesses potential danger.  She transformed herself from a fun but clueless partner into a fun and competent partner.

We celebrated our successful downclimb of the "crack", but little did we know the difficulties had just begun....

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After patiently waiting out some of the wettest and most frustrating days of our trip we felt a few days of settled weather was a just reward.  Since weather windows are short in this part of the world we set out in - what we thought to be - Fiordland's most spectacular terrain, the heart of the Darran Mountains.

Our heads were spinning from the start.  The scale and ruggedness of the surroundings could only be rivaled by what we'd seen at Mt Cook National Park.  Hiking up Gertrude Valley from near Homer Tunnel it was difficult to imagine an easy route existed to our destination at Gertrude Saddle.  In every direction waterfalls slid down impossibly steep faces fed by the previous week's torrential rains and the glaciers that clung to the tops.  To our surprise we arrived at Gertrude Saddle in less than two hours, and immediately laid claim to a bivy spot on a flat slab protected from any wind.  Taking into account the ease of access, Gertrude Saddle must be one of the most special places in all of New Zealand.  With time to kill in the late afternoon we hiked to the top of Barrier Knob where we feasted on views down to Lake Adelaide, and most importantly, sized up our planned traverse to Adelaide Saddle and eventually the lake itself.

Now that we had taken a closer look from the knob there was only one possible obstacle to bar our path - the infamous Gifford's Crack.  Guidebooks in New Zealand can be vague.  Tramping guides simply said to "leave it for the mountaineers."  Climbing guides showed a photo and said "much easier to ascend."  At DOC (ranger station) the rangers were full of information on the Milford Track (NZ's most sought-after "great walk") but had never heard of Gifford Crack.  When I finally cornered the oldest and most weather-beaten looking ranger he said, "I've been exploring this country for over 30 years and I wouldn't go near that crack."  From my experience hikers and rangers tend to be overly conservative.  What would a climber have to say?  I had befriended a climber from Te Anau earlier in the trip so we stopped by his house for beta.  His advice was typical Kiwi, but at least more promising, "Yeah... yeah.... you'll be fine.  Yeah... yeah..."  Still a true New Zealand trail can be quite heinously steep, so the fact that this "crack" was bolted was disconcerting.  All this uncertainty made me appreciate U.S. guidebooks which attempt to give specific ratings to describe the difficulties.

Sleeping in our bivy bags made for a fantastic night at the saddle.  Stars were out for the first time since Christmas and the air was uncommonly still.  We retraced our steps back to Barrier Knob - this time with full packs - and lounged in the morning sun on top.  A cruise ship which looked more like a miniature toy drifted around distant Milford Sound.  Innocent cumulus clouds boiled around Fiordland's highest peak, Mt Tutuko.  Below us - yes below! - scenic tourist flights buzzed through Adelaide Saddle.  For a moment we were kings.  Most people we knew were shivering through winter tied down to jobs to pay mortgages or chasing after rug-rats.  This may be us next year, but for now we were free.  Completely alone in such a magnificent place with barely a thought or care in our heads...  except for Gifford's Crack.  Could we descend it?  I wish the answer had been "no."

We finally made our way - pleasantly - to Adelaide Saddle by early afternoon.  The moment of truth.  I told Jill to wait at the saddle and if I come back with my pack then it was too hard, and if I come back packless then I made it to the bottom.  The downclimb took much longer than it should have.  With each move I wondered how Jill would handle.  It was certainly a no-fall zone but nothing harder than 4th class moves.  I know Jill could downclimb it with ease if she could keep her head.  I deposited my pack and scrambled back up to where Jill was already waiting at the beginning of the difficulties.  I warned her that the first few moves were the crux - be careful.  She downclimbed quickly and said, "Easy.  I hope there's more places like that."  And so it went, she made quick and "fun" work of the obstacle.

Lake Adelaide is set in one of the most scenic bowls in all of New Zealand rimmed by steep walls on each side.  From a distance it looks to be the perfect place to frolic along a lakeshore on the rare sunny Fiordland day.  However, as we approached we found the most tedious walking of our entire trip.  Ground cover was thick and, at times, thigh deep making it impossible to see our next step.  We ignored suggestions for "bivy rocks" and stumbled our way to what looked - on the map - to be a large flat area near the lake.  The uneven, bushy, mushy ground yielded nothing for a camp.  Luckily our bivy bags gave us flexibility and we were able to make a very rudimentary camp.  I wasn't pleased about sleeping on a lopsided rock with 10 foot drops on either side and began to pout.  Jill calmly smiled and told me to stop acting like such a spoiled little girl.  Indeed, when I stopped and took a deep breath it was easier to appreciate our surroundings.  It was a wonderland: crashing waterfalls directly overhead and views of the dramatic peaks surrounding Lake Adelaide.  We had one of New Zealand's finest valleys completely to ourselves. 

The following morning we lounged in "camp" waiting for the sun to hit, thinking the descent down Moraine Creek to the Lower Hollyford Road would be smooth and quick.  Mistake.  Our map showed a trail for the last four miles, so we figured after a tedious few hours down to bushline that the final miles would be a cruise.  We were correct about the difficult walking above bushline - at one point it was easier to ford shin-deep down river -  but our trail that was supposed to be easy turned into a heinous 'schwack.  Over, under, around windfall and overgrowth in a forest that was more jungle than trees - we sweated like pigs. 

By the time we reached the road we were covered in dirt, broken twigs, and lacerations of various sizes.  We took the score: the trip down from Lake Adelaide had taken three hours longer than planned, we were tired, grumpy, dehydrated and completely out of food.  Worse, our car was parked 20 miles up valley.  The extra time it took to reach the road meant that there weren't likely going to be any cars going by this late to give us a lift.  We wobbled for a couple hours down the deserted road and finally came to a tiny, family owned establishment called Gunn Camp.  At this point we were willing to bribe and possibly resort to violence in order to get a ride back to the car, still 15 miles away.  We offered the owner all our money ($20) and beer (one bottle) if he would be willing to give us a ride.  Luckily, he was covered in sandflies and was probably looking for an excuse to do something other than stack firewood.  The feeling of sitting on top of rolling wheels propelled by something other than our legs was incomparable.  He told us entertaining stories, like the time the camp's water source was fouled by a dead woman who had met her end on an unsuccessful tramp of the Routeburn in a creek just above camp.  When we reached the Scepter we inhaled a bag of chips, drove back to where our bags were stashed back on the Lower Hollyford Road and passed out in the back of the wagon.

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Reading through this account you might get the feeling that a Barrier Knob Traverse trip isn't for everyone.  To me, it had it all.  Incredible terrain, great camps, uncertainty, misery, and best of all - great companionship.  Much of the first weeks of our trip to New Zealand were spent rectifying the toll the past year had taken on our relationship.  At the end of this trip we smelled like usual, but our sense of camaraderie and "togethernss" had never been stronger.  They say what doesn't kill you makes you stronger.  Amen.

The weather was good as we left the trailhead, but the torrential rains of the previous week still hadn't worked their way out of the area.  Dave crosses the first footbridge which was flooded.  When we came back this way a month later this bridge was 10 feet above the dry creekbed.


We took our time, hiked slowly and still got to Gertrude Saddle in only two hours.  We stopped at lower Black Lake for a snack and to dry our feet.


Luckily, with a little work and sunshine we were able to mostly dry our feet and boots.  We never developed a taste for the wet boot tramp.


With time to kill we hiked to the top of Barrier Knob before sunset.  Jill looks out on a sea of rugged, glaciated peaks and Lake Adelaide below.  The view from here was the best we had during our trip in New Zealand.


So much fun to be had in the snow.


A bit apprehensive at first, Jill learned how to put the brakes on using her ice axe when glissading.  The Gertrude Valley, Upper Hollyford and Scepter below.



Scenes near our bivy spot on Gertrude Saddle.


Jill cozies in at our bivy on Gertrude Saddle.


View from Gertrude Saddle down to Milford Sound just before dawn.


Sunny skies and good adventure makes happy couple.


Retracing our steps from the previous evening back to Barrier Knob, this time with full packs.


Dave reaches the top of Barrier Knob.


Looking down on Adelaide Saddle and Milford Sound.  Scenic flights were flying over the saddle beneath us, a weird sensation.


Gifford Crack!  As you can see, not really a crack, but still a very attention-getting downclimb.  Jill sends it with ease.


Moving along above the wondrously beautiful shores of Lake Adelaide.  The tedious walking started shortly after we stopped here for a break.


Yes, Jill really is that excited about her dehydrated Lamb Fettuccine dinner.  Long, hard days make hungry hikers.  This rocky, lumpy, bushy spot was the best we could find for camping.  Any discomfort was nullified by our surroundings, like Lake Adelaide and the Sabre which supposedly has some of NZ's best alpine rock routes.


Reflection of peaks in a tarn near our camp.  The tarn was only a couple hundred meters from camp but took 15 minutes to walk.


Princess Jill sleeps in the weeds at our makeshift camp.


Dave on the lumpy rock does the same.  Notice the cairn (route marker) to his right.  A bit uncomfortable for sure, but on the bright side there wasn't another human being for miles in any direction.


Some may be surprised to know that a plucking kit is an essential item in any aspiring female alpinists' pack.


Dave celebrates sunhit.  We mistakenly lounged around at camp thinking the trip down from here would be straightforward.  Oops.


Jill and Dave on some of the easier terrain encountered on our unexpectedly difficult hike back to the road.


Don't worry Jill didn't actually strike this cheesy pose in real life.  I made her do it.


Things start to get fun as we head down the Moraine Creek Valley.


Low-grade bushwhacking.  The hard part here, above bushline was seeing where you stepped due to thick ground cover.


Only Jill's head is visible as she piles through large bush.  Things got so bad that forward progress was completely halted, so we opted for...


.... the creek.  At this point we didn't care so much about wet feet, especially since a maintained trail was just ahead.  Right?


Wrong!  We weaved, bashed, and ducked down what was supposed to be a trail.  The most sustained, miserable hiking I've ever done.  By the time we reached the valley we were physically and mentally spent.  Unfortunately for us our car was some 20 miles back up the road.


Carrying part of the forest on my pack.  Not shown are the tiny lacerations all over the exposed portions of our bodies.  Grunting through the muggy rainforest produced a thick, pungent sweat on our bodies.


When we reached the road we were glad to see that someone else felt the same way about the trip to Lake Adelaide.

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