We started along the path with dozens of other hikers heading along one of New Zealand’s famous great walks- the Routeburn track. New clothes and gear, not a tear or wear mark in sight, marked many as first time hikers, eager to see New Zealand’s backcountry. Overtaking them, we were all heading the same way. But our destinations differed. Entering the Valley of the Trolls further along the track, we would go where few venture.
It was mid December 2018, and the typical New Zealand summer weather was in full effect, but there was snow on my mind. Having just climbed Mt Brewster a few days prior, I knew that snow could linger in the sheltered slopes and gullies for a long while after Spring. It might make it difficult as we had opted to ‘go light’, leaving heavy boots, crampons and ice tools behind, and bet on most of it having melted away.
But I'll get back to that later.
With my friend Joel, we were blitzing along the Routeburn track, and my fitness was faring well with trips such as Mt Brewster behind me. I laughed at each sign indicating the average time to the next significant landmark. Two hours? Make it one!
We soon passed the luxury huts of the Routeburn. The smell of bacon, eggs and sausages seeping out of the building seemed so incongruous with our place in the wilderness. Peering through the windows as we walked by the Routeburn lodge, a privately owned hut for hikers (read: hotel), bedding was changed in the upper floors from hikers about to embark on their next leg of the great walk, while on the level below sat tables neatly arranged in a dining hall as they waited for the next hungry hikers to arrive.
It was stark contrast to our mission, as we had worked up a sweat carrying our heavy packs (with no bacon or eggs), and were about to ‘tough it out’ camping by an alpine lake.
We settle into a good rhythm up towards the saddle, and then as we round the bend, Lake Harris comes into view.
INTO THE VALLEY OF THE TROLLS
Spanning out to fill the huge depression below Conical Hill and Harris Saddle, its light blue edges sank into a deep black core. A body of water in a mountain setting is always impressive, and I often find myself wanting to swim in it, held back sometimes by freezing temperatures (like on this trip), but not always.
It was from here we could catch our first glimpse of the Valley of the Trolls. Off in the distance at the end of the valley, a huge waterfall became our focus. So large, and so far away, the water looked to travel slowly, almost crawling, perhaps even being mistaken for snow at first glance.
But there was no mistaking the snow patches on its right side, in the deep gully we would have to scramble up to access Lake Wilson on top. Snow was once again on my mind, but we would have to get closer to decide our plan of action.
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From Harris saddle, we find the trail leading down to the outskirts of Lake Harris, and make our way into the Valley of the Trolls.
Trolls are often described in folklore as grotesque and ugly beings. The Valley of the Trolls was anything but. You almost expected some mythical band of Viking warriors to come streaming down the valley if it wasn’t for the bright sun and floating butterflies highlighting the valley as a hidden paradise.
Flowers, vivid and bright, streams crystal clear and tinged with light blue, grass and moss soft underfoot, it made me pause to take it all in every dozen steps. Not a single photo I took has done it justice.
Our feet squelch in the moss as we cross the swampy grassland. Picking the path of least resistance, we cross a few small streams and make it to the base of the falls and its neighbouring gully on the right. Looking up, the snow near the top looked solid and filled the gully entirely, but we figured a way through it, or around it, would be possible.
A quick stop to eat and dry our feet a little, examine the waterfall from its base, and then we were away and up the steep gully.
A short rock section was the only vertical challenge as we made it to the base of the snow in the access gully. Without snow in late summer, this would be an easy section.
We looked around and spotted a potential path up the right hand side. This proved more exposed than the first one we encountered, and it would be hard to reverse, but once past this, it flattens out as we top the rounded rocky domes and get exceptional views both down the valley, and also across Lake Wilson.
Surrounded by peaks and sharp ridge lines, stone buttresses and boulders, Lake Wilson mirrored Lake Harris in its colour and tone, but with all the added extras of an alpine wonderland. We begin the process of finding a flat spot to camp for the night.
Our original plan included a summit of Mt Erebus, that was of course until we could see how much snow covered the slopes! It would have to wait, or at least, we would have to bring ice tools and crampons for a serious go at it. The weather was also forecast to turn to rain the next day, so we put off a summit attempt. It’ll always be there for next time!
Waking to low visibility the next morning, we had a quick breakfast and decided to get going to outrun any worsening weather. My mind was now thinking about how to get down.
The exposed rocky scramble we did coming in, now slick from the fog, was something we wanted to avoid. Downclimbing it would be dangerous with a slip leading to a serious fall.
We explored another cairn path that led to a horrible downclimb that was also slippery and went nowhere. Everywhere we looked there were steep drops and deadly bluffs. Turning around, we climbed up again and decided to check the bergschrund, the gap between the snow and the rock, to see if we could find a way through.
With some chimneying and stemming against the ice and rock, we dropped in and quickly shuffled and scraped our way through, not wanting to linger lest the ice decide to collapse in a more twisted version of the 127 hours movie.
Once out of the bergschrund, the decent went smoothly and we enjoyed the valley again, albeit with some more ‘atmosphere’ this time as the clouds boiled above us. It’s amazing how the change in weather can present the same landscape in such a new fashion. Unfavourable weather isn’t always necessarily bad!
As we join the Routeburn track again and join the groups of hikers walking the length of the great walk, I’m reminded of how awesome it is to take a step off the beaten path to explore somewhere new.
I may have had snow on my mind walking in, but walking out the memory of the spectacular place I had visited was all I could remember. That, and bacon and eggs.
HOW TO GET TO THE VALLEY OF THE TROLLS & LAKE WILSON
Take the Routeburn track, starting from the Glenorchy side at Routeburn shelter, just before you reach Harris saddle. From here, take the trail leading down along the western edge of Lake Harris until you reach the boulder field marking the entrance of the Valley of the Trolls.
The trail branching off to the right from the Routeburn track.
Continue following the path, which is often to faint to follow along the swampy grassland, but just keep on the true right of the valley until you reach the waterfall, after which the creek is easy enough to cross without boot removal in normal flow.
Head up the steep gully, taking care on the rock step, and take the obvious path to the top (see note below regarding snow).
From here, you can camp at the outlet, though it is exposed to any wind, or make your way around the lake to find another suitable spot. Various small bivvys can be found amongst boulders, but these can be wet, small and uncomfortable.
DIFFICULTY: Moderate (fitness & route finding skills required)
TIMES/LENGTH: 6-8 hours, 17Km one way.
TOTAL ASCENT: 1360m.
START LOCATION: Routeburn shelter carpark, located HERE.
EQUIPMENT: Free overnight hiking trip PDF checklist.
SEASON: Summer is ideal, other seasons require winter travel knowledge and skills.
WEATHER: Always prepare for alpine weather in any season!
GPS DOWNLOAD: My track from wikiloc is found HERE.
OTHER COMMENTS / TIPS:
► The Valley of the Trolls up to Lake Wilson should only be attempted by people with good fitness and backcountry skills, as well as being equipped with all the right gear.
► Snow will be present in the gully mentioned in the write up until January. As climbers and mountaineers, we were able to deal with anything we came across. The snow can be avoided by scrambling on the right, but it is exposed and a fall would be very nasty. The later in the summer season, the better it will be.
► Remember if you plan to camp at Lake Wilson that it is alpine terrain. A Four season tent or shelter is highly recommended as alpine weather can change fast and winds can be very high with little cover around.
And remember, always LEAVE NO TRACE and take ALL YOUR RUBBISH WITH YOU. Keep the outdoors beautiful!