After an early alarm I dressed up warm and began the walk to Lyell Lake, the ultimate reason for this trip. The lake sits at the outlet of the Lyell Glacier, and along with the Ramsay, are the northern-most valley glaciers in New Zealand. If I came away with only one image from this adventure it was to be of this lake and its spectacular surrounds.
A million stars twinkling in the sky were mirrored by the snow sparkling under the light of my headlamp. As I crunched my way across the firm snow the impressive peaks at the head of the Rakaia began glowing with first light, leading me to pick up my pace. After 30 minutes or so the lake edge emerged from the relative darkness and I couldn’t quite believe what I was seeing; the scene was everything I had dreamed of and more.
My first sighting of Lyell Lake
Lyell Glacier and terminal lake; Mt Nicholson (2,367m) and Malcolm Peak (2,512m) are the two prominent peaks at the rear
An aerial perspective of Lyell Lake
The Lyell valley viewed from the lake outlet downstream towards Lyell Hut
Lyell Lake was fully frozen save a small area at its outlet which reflected the entire mountainous surrounds. I must’ve spent a couple of hours around here both taking photos and at times just standing still and taking it all in. Once the sun arrived in the valley floor I set off to explore the head of the lake but eventually turned back due to the large amount of rockfall dislodging from the mountainsides in the sun’s heat.
I returned to Lyell Hut for a late lunch with the thought of climbing Meins Knob that afternoon. After taking a while to find the route (it’s around 5-10 minutes walk downstream of the hut) the steep icy snow again put me off going any further. Furthermore it became apparent the tarns I’d intended to photograph would be well and truly frozen and completely buried beneath snow. They’d need to wait to a future trip.
I decided to head back up to Lyell Lake for sunset opportunities, but it ultimately proved uneventful. Following the return walk in the dark I tuned into the nightly mountain forecast on the hut radio, which confirmed the snowstorm towards the end of my trip was on track. The thought of trudging through 35 km of snow on my last day, coupled with the risk of snowmelt and raised river levels, was cause enough for me to change my plans. So rather than staying at Lyell Hut I’d leave tomorrow and head down valley as far as I could.
The end of a wonderful day in the Lyell Glacier valley
One last sunrise. As I again made the journey up valley in the dark there weren’t quite as many stars in the sky as yesterday. Instead I could make out some wispy high cloud, which boded well for photography. And so it turned out to be; if I thought the previous morning was epic then nothing prepared me for this.
First light at Lyell Lake (click image to purchase print)
The beautiful light and colours kept on giving
The view in the other direction (click image to purchase print)
The lake was frozen solid and safe to walk on, although I didn’t risk walking too far out!
Returning to the hut I packed up and with some sadness made my departure. Immediately my boots got wet crossing to the true-left and they were to stay this way for the rest of the trip. Eventually I again reached the rocky moraine of the Ramsay Glacier but this time headed north and picked my way towards a frozen Ramsay Lake. After dropping the pack and briefly exploring the surrounds I forded the lake outlet (which was reasonably shallow) and had lunch on the other side.
Ramsay Lake and Mt Whitcombe (2,650m); this old weather station and lake level recorder has seen better days!
Heading downstream I passed under the ramparts of Jims Knob and within 1 km or so the snow petered out and I crossed a mix of boulders, gravel and subalpine gardens. Soon after fording Lauper Stream I reached the 2-person Lauper Biv, which is often used by those heading up to Whitcombe Pass and over to the West Coast. Around another 1km downstream, the Rakaia comes in close to the valley side and some boulder scrambling under an eroded bank is required. A further mix of gravel bashing and grassy meadows then follows.
I arrived at Evans Hut under grey skies just before sunset. The conditions looked ripe for snow but no flakes were falling as yet. The forecast had said snow down to approximately 800m, and with Evans Hut sitting around the 740m contour, there was every chance I’d miss it. Overnight I slept reasonably soundly but in the brief moments I awoke I listened out for precipitation but heard nothing.
Morning dawned and to my surprise I discovered it had indeed been snowing; a blanket of several centimetres coated the ground and surrounding beech forest. The remaining 18km was to be a cold one. While I wasn’t apprehensive about walking in a blizzard (many years experience both tramping and skiing provide good tests for the limits), I was increasingly concerned about the potential for melting and the Rakaia River to rise, meaning my only way out and home would be cut off.
Evans Hut: the afternoon before / the morning after
The 18km proved to be a long trudge. One foot in front of the other, counting off the kilometres one by one. Over five hours I only paused once for a brief drink, being keen to get to that last river crossing of the Rakaia as soon as possible. Arriving at the first braid I was thankful to find the river hadn’t risen too much; there were multiple and swift channels to cross but none more than thigh deep. My walking pole came in handy for stability.
With some relief I finally reached my car at 1pm. Just a few hours later the river became completely impassable.
An epic adventure complete
After all the years of dreaming and planning for this adventure it was the best of feelings to finally make it happen. Travelling solo in the depths of a cold winter had been both a mental and physical challenge, but one which I thoroughly enjoyed. I can now understand why during my research I’d found so few photographs of this place and why it’s so seldom visited. For those willing to test their limits, some epicness awaits.
Trip undertaken 4-8 July 2022. Here’s a highlights reel of those epic moments. If you have any questions, please ask away in the comments!