Cascade Saddle Route: Alpine Tramping (Hiking) Series | New Zealand


The Southern Lakes area has been
sculpted over time by colossal glaciers to form some of the most remarkable
terrain in Aotearoa. The remaining landscape holds some of
the most beautiful and challenging tramping routes in New Zealand. One of the more hazardous adventures takes you right past Dart Glacier for an
extraordinary alpine experience. The Cascade Saddle Route is a 17
kilometer, 8-10 hour alpine crossing that connects West Matukituki Valley with the Dart Valley. DOC recommends to only attempt
the pass from the Matukituki side as ascending is much safer than
descending. It is a very challenging and technical climb and numerous deaths
have occurred here, so you will need advanced tramping (hiking) experience to navigate the path safely. The best time of year to cross Cascade Saddle is middle to late summer. Snow and steep terrain have contributed to multiple fatalities so this will be the safest period to give it a go. It isn’t recommended to attempt
the crossing outside of this period due to the high amount of snowfall it receives. The average daily summer temperature
sits around 5-10 degrees (C) and you can expect approximately 200 days of rain per year. It’s important to remember that you will be in an alpine environment which means there is
a good chance you will experience heavy rain, strong winds, snow and freezing
temperatures even in the height of summer. So, you’ll need warm and
waterproof clothing as well as a good pair of tramping (hiking) boots. A Personal Locator Beacon (PLB) is also highly recommended on this route. As with all
walks and tramps (hikes) in New Zealand make sure you ‘Leave Your Intentions’ with a
trusted contact and inform them when you’ve finished your tramp. You can find
out more about ‘leaving your intentions’ at the Mountain Safety Council website. Starting at Raspberry Creek car park you
will need to walk two and a half hours up the valley to Aspiring Hut. This is
the official start of the route so factor 8-10 hours of tramping from this
point. The first section through the bush is quite steep but you are well sheltered in here.
Near the top of the bush you will need to cross a stream. There’s no
bridge available so this will take a bit of care and scrambling to get across. The
rocks can get slippery when wet and it can flood during heavy rain making it
impassible so be prepared to wait or turn around if crossing is not safe. Use
the bush line as a decision-making point as the track drastically changes into an
expert route. Leaving the bush also means you’ll be left highly exposed to any
incoming weather and there is no shelter for the next 6-9 hours. Look
toward Mount Aspiring and if the weather looks poor, or if you are unsure about
your ability, then you should have some lunch, enjoy the view and turn back around. From here, the route becomes narrow, steep and very exposed. You’ll need to use your hands to essentially climb up many
sections of the track. Just follow the orange poles to find your way. The track
becomes slippery in wet conditions and a fall from here can be fatal so watch
your footing and turn around if the weather deteriorates. If snow is present
at this stage it is not recommended to proceed any further unless you have
crampons and an ice axe and most importantly, the skills to use them.
Slipping in snow here has resulted in people falling several hundred meters
off the cliffs below. As you climb higher you will be rewarded with a beautiful
view and great photo opportunities. Just be extremely careful and pay constant
attention to the cliff edge. Don’t put yourself at unnecessary risk by
searching for that perfect photo spot. The final section of the climb is the
most dangerous and you’ll find signs here warning you of this danger. The track
zigzags above several bluffs and there is no room for error here. You will need extreme care and concentration to safely navigate this
section even on the best day. But the risk of falling is especially high when
snow or strong winds are present so again if snow is present and you do not
have crampons and an ice axe do not proceed past this point. Roughly four hours after leaving Mt Aspiring Hut
you’ll reach the highest point of your journey This is another good decision-making point. So, reassess the weather. Remember, you still have six hours of challenging tramping
to go, including four river crossings. So, turning back may be a safer alternative
if conditions are poor. Otherwise if you are prepared to camp, the Cascade Creek
campsite is only one hour away. Finally, assess how much daylight hours
you have left. With six hours of tramping to go you don’t want to get caught in
the dark. The descent into the campsite quickly begins. It requires you to travel
over Schist slabs and small scree slopes. The Schist is quite hard to get a good
foothold on and can be very slippery when wet. Test all hand and footholds as
the Schist is crumbly and rock can easily break off when holding on to it.
Cascade Creek Campsite sits at the bottom of this descent and it’s the only
place you are permitted to camp on the crossing. There is a toilet available here so be
sure to use it to keep the track tidy. Just past the toilet you will
need to cross a river. This can be a gentle stream or a raging current
depending on how much rain or snowmelt has occurred throughout the day. Make
sure you’re familiar with the ‘Mutual Support’ technique to safely cross the
river if it is in flood. The next section is fairly straightforward as you traverse toward the actual saddle. Stick to the marked route as you will pass
near Cascade Basin which has many steep drop-offs. You’ll be highly exposed to any wind or bad weather up here, and cloud or fog can
reduce visibility. So make sure you can see the next route marker before leaving
your current one. Mount Aspiring offers amazing views on a nice clear day. Just
keep a close eye on any loose items as the ever-charming Kea are often spotted
wandering around up here. As you move off the saddle you will start your descent down past Dart Glacier. This section is deceivingly time-consuming as the area
experiences frequent landslides and avalanches, which constantly reshapes the terrain and buries route markers. You’ll need good route finding experience and
look out for any remaining markers or rock cairns to help you find the safest
way down. Take care on this descent as the ground isn’t very stable and you’ll
find walking poles will be a huge help. Upon reaching the Dart Valley floor you will follow the Dart River all the way down to Dart
Hut. The last three rivers before Dart Hut are prone to rising fast, which can make
them difficult to cross safely. These rivers rise faster in wet weather but
also during nice warm days as the snow at higher elevations will melt
increasing the river flow. You’ll need to be aware and prepared for this
before you start your tramp. Pack some extra food, warm clothes and a head torch.
Bring a tent or basic shelter as you may need to wait overnight for river levels
to drop, even if you are only doing a day walk from Dart Hut to the glacier. Finally,
do not attempt to cross the rivers if they are swollen or in flood. Arrival at Dart Hut signals the end of Cascade Saddle Route but keep in mind you’ll
still have one to two days of tramping before reaching civilization. Crossing Cascade Saddle is a challenging route that requires a high level of tramping
fitness and experience to complete, but it is a rewarding adventure for those
that are prepared and have adequate experience for the trip. Aim to give it a
go from late December to early April. If you don’t think this track is for you or
if snow is present on the pass then try out the Rob Roy or West Matukituki tracks.
Talk to DOC staff at the Tititea / Mt Aspiring National Park
Visitor Centre in Wanaka to get up-to-date track conditions. Finally make
sure you check out the official Mt Aspiring National Park weather forecast
at before you go. With enough preparation, experience and the
right weather conditions you should have a pretty amazing alpine adventure! #MakeItHomeNZ


11 Responses

  1. Jirka Havel

    February 25, 2019 10:54 am

    Are you sure about the name of the campsite?? Cascade creek campsite? Is it DOC?? Can’t find any info about it. Thanks.

  2. niallcconnolly

    February 27, 2019 3:56 am

    I did this in 2015 with someone I met at Aspiring Hut. It's good to have company to spot you on the way up and with route finding on the way down the Dart through the moraine. I can recommend going down the Rees Valley after that (and I had no choice at the time). Very informative and accurate video. Didn't get to see Mt Aspiring but climbed it a year later!


    April 23, 2019 2:48 pm

    It's like watching a movie trailer that gives away too much plot. Watching this I feel I have been there and done it, without the blisters.

  4. Toruko-ishi Bravo2Zulu

    September 28, 2019 10:03 am

    I'd rather visit caves of NZ. Lava and limestone speleology.
    Not just an odd sea cave tourists are boated into. I'm not
    interested in NZ glacier caves due to their collapse hazards.
    My sport information of NZ comes from, [email protected]


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