Shaun Barnett

Across the alps

Some 130 years after Jakob Lauper and John Whitcombe made the first nightmarish traverse from Canterbury’s Rakaia River to the West Coast via Whitcombe Pass, a pair of New Zealand adventurers revisits the territory. Louper Stream, a misspelt memorial to the Swiss-born explorer, has carved a steep but, by Southern Alps standards, relatively straightforward route up to the pass from the east. Beyond the crest, difficulties multiply.

Written by       Photographed by Shaun Barnett

The southern alps form one of the most mountainous and heavily glaciated landscapes in the temperate world. Rising to more than three kilometres in height, the peaks that make up this 600 km chain of mountains have proved a daunting challenge to cross-island travellers.

Although Maori regularly traversed the Southern Alps to collect pounamu (greenstone) from the West Coast, the first written accounts are those of European explorers. One of these accounts, of a crossing made by John Whitcombe and Jakob Lauper, reads as a tale of epic hardship and suffering. In 1863, the pair crossed from Canterbury’s Rakaia River over a pass which now bears Whitcombe’s name, and descended to the West Coast, enduring 14 days of violent storms and extreme deprivation.

Lauper recorded their entire journey, the narrative being published in July 1863 in the Canterbury Gazette. Almost a century later the historian and writer John Pascoe revived the diary as a small book, which was published by Whitcombe and Tombs in 1960. Over the Whitcombe Pass is a slim volume, long since out of print, but its contents left me sufficiently enthralled to plan a trip retracing Whitcombe and Lauper’s steps.

In the 1850s, Canterbury had several well-established European settlements, with Christchurch the largest, but the West Coast was yet to have its first permanent town. In 1860, James Mackay had arranged purchase of the West Coast from Maori for 300 pounds, thereby making it an official part of Canterbury—to be known as West Canterbury.

Gold had been found at Buller in 1859, and there was speculation that more would be discovered further south on the West Coast. Enterprising Canterbury settlers foresaw the need for a good route to the Coast—one over which they could transport sheep and supplies to future settlements. The mouth of the Hokitika River had been partially explored and was deemed suitable for a harbour.

But the Southern Alps formed a formidable barrier to trade, and shipping lines from Australia seemed as likely to provide the necessary link. The Christchurch Press warned that without a pass the West Coast was likely to become “an offshoot from Melbourne and will belong to Canterbury only in name.”

Ivory Glacier, near the head of the Waitaha River west of the main divide, sheds small icebergs into Ivory Lake at its terminus.
Ivory Glacier, near the head of the Waitaha River west of the main divide, sheds small icebergs into Ivory Lake at its terminus.

Maori used several transalpine routes to reach West Coast pounamu areas. One of these—Harper Pass—crosses a low saddle from the Hurunui River in Canterbury over into the Taramakau River on the West Coast. Leonard Harper and Andrew Locke, escorted by three Maori guides, became the first Europeans to cross the Southern Alps by this pass in 1857, and by 1862, a party led by Herbert Howitt was beginning work on a pack track.

From Christchurch, however, this route was somewhat circuitous, first heading north near present-day Culverden, then into the Hurunui, which drains Harper Pass itself, and finally into the long gravelly reaches of the Taramakau. Although pack-horses were later used on the crossing, there were several places where the poor beasts became mired in swamps (see New Zealand Geographic, Apr-Jun 1990), and generally the route was not suitable for a road.

In early 1863, Thomas Cass, chief surveyor for Canterbury, enlisted Whitcombe and Lauper to seek a new route. John Henry Whitcombe was a provincial surveyor, originally from Devon, England, who had also worked in India. Jakob Lauper hailed from Canton Freiburg, Switzerland, where he had worked as a mountain guide—an ideal background considering the precipitous country where Cass was now sending him.

The headwaters of the Waimakariri were the obvious place to begin a search for a pass, as this river provided the most direct route inland from Christchurch. But Whitcombe apparently persuaded Cass to let them investigate an already known pass at the head of the Rakaia River.

This pass had been reached once from the east by Samuel Butler, in February 1861. Butler and a young surveyor, John Holland Baker, were searching for new pastoral country, and after exploring the Rakaia River reached a broad, flat saddle at the head of one of its tributaries, now known as Louper Stream (see New Zealand Geographic, Oct-Dec 1990). Beyond the pass (named Rakaia Pass by Butler) was dense Westland rainforest, riddled with gorges, and the two explorers quickly saw this was no country for sheep. They returned to Canterbury without attempting a full crossing.

Canterbury’s Rakaia River drains a vast area on the eastern slopes of the alps, and in places can be a thunder­ing, glacier-fed torrent. On horseback, in April 1863, Lauper and Whitcombe rode into the headwaters of the river. With them were two other men, who were later sent back to Christchurch with the horses.

In 1863, tents were made of one layer of heavy cotton and would double in weight when wet. Whitcombe abandoned the idea of carrying a tent, considering it an unnecessary burden. Lauper, concerned at their few supplies, convinced him a small amount of sugar would be desirable, to add to tea. At the mouth of Louper Stream they counted out biscuits, two a day each for 14 days. They shouldered awkward loads of blankets, biscuits, billy, rope, tobacco and tea, then set off on foot towards the Rakaia Pass.

[Chapter Break]

In 1996, 133 years later, with companion Rob Brown, I reach the place in the Rakaia River where Whitcombe and Lauper crossed on horseback. The pass is lost in the maze of mountains, and the first drops of rain splatter heavily on our coats. To reach Louper Stream without the aid of horses, we first have to find a suitable ford to cross the Rakaia. The river rushes by in a swirling grey flood, discoloured by the rock flour ground by glaciers looming ahead in the mountains.

We choose a place where the current is dispersed over a wide stretch and edge into the river, linking arms against the force of the water. Having difficulty judging depth, we gingerly work our way downstream, letting the current help our progress. Rapids below us boil menacingly, and the water rises to our chests. I gasp at the cold and hope the river will not get any deeper. Drowning was once termed “the New Zealand death,” because in the young colony it became the biggest killer of settlers chancing swollen rivers like the Rakaia. For modern-day trampers, the main cause of accidental death is still drowning. Luckily, we have chosen our ford well and reach the far bank wet but safe. Ahead lies Louper Stream, leading to the pass, now known as Whitcombe Pass.

Named after the Swiss guide, Louper Stream was misspelled on early maps, and the spelling has stuck. Lauper was born to the mountains. His first work in New Zealand was as a gold prospector, but he later became a guide and had already crossed Harper Pass twice before setting out with Whitcombe. In contrast, Whitcombe seems to have been ill-suited to life as an explorer and was heavily reliant on the skills of his Swiss companion. Lauper’s job was made the more difficult by having to challenge Whitcombe’s greater authority with his own better judgement.

The two men reached Rakaia Pass without undue effort and believed they now had an easy ramble down the Whitcombe River to the West Coast. Lauper wrote: “We were . . . cheerful, and considered we had passed the worst part.” He could not have been more wrong.

Before night fell, they sought shelter on the pass but could find none. They were forced to pass the night seated on an exposed rock and soon regretted leaving the tent behind. Lauper records: “It snowed without ceasing the whole night. Several times . we had to shake the snow off our blankets, whenever it got too heavy.”

Whitcombe and Lauper imagined that the worst of their journey lay behind them as they started to descent what is now called the Whitcombe River. They were gravely mistaken. Constant rain, impassable gorges, impenetrable forest and a lack of food reduced the poorly equipped pair to desperate straits. Tracks and huts remove much of the hazard for travellers in the area today.

The Whitcombe is no less severe a location today. Truck-sized boulders choke the river, and the dense rainforests of Westland smother the terrain, clinging to all but the steepest slopes. Soon after draining the pass, the Whitcombe River quickly gathers enough water to make a crossing almost impossible as it tumbles through a series of spectacular schist gorges.

Tracks and huts have since cushioned the difficulty of travel in the dense West Coast rainforest, but when Whitcombe and Lauper made their crossing they had no such luxuries. Many times they had to ascend high above bluffs to avoid crossing the river. Progress was as slow as five kilometres a day.

Without a tent, they had no choice but to sleep on rain-soaked ground, and they could not keep their provisions dry. In the persistent rain the sugar dissolved and their biscuits turned into a soggy mess. This was no route for a road—it was barely passable on foot!

In the same misty conditions which greeted the explorers, we struggle up the twisted confines of Louper Stream. There is no marked route on the map, and progress requires us to cross and re-cross the stream, sometimes scrambling around huge boulders.

At the pass, we quench our thirst from the saucer shaped leaves of the Mount Cook buttercup, the world’s largest. We shelter under a rocky overhang to inspect the map before heading down-valley. As the sheer, plunging walls of the Katzenbach Ridge loom on our left we reach a track cut first by veteran explorer Charlie Douglas, who intermittently blazed a route between the years 1892 and 1899. His tracks later fell into neglect and by the 1930s were virtually overgrown. Not until the 1960s did the New Zealand Forest Service re-cut this track and build five basic huts in the valley for deer cullers. Culling operations saw the first network of tracks and huts established in the New Zealand mountains, and they remain a valuable legacy today—arguably the best but system in the world.

We shelter at Neave Hut, a tidy six-bunk tin affair. Outside, the valley walls stream with waterfalls and everywhere the forest drips following a recent deluge. The but provides welcome relief from the rain. Under similar conditions, Whitcombe and Lauper were camped on sodden ground. Lauper wrote: “It rained without ceasing; we had not one dry thread on our bodies. I tried my best to light a fire for a long time without success, but succeeded at last, and kept up a good fire. I slept little and the night appeared very long.”

By this time the explorers were left with only one useful blanket, Whitcombe’s having become fly-blown. They were travelling through one of the wettest places in New Zealand, where annual rainfall exceeds 10 metres. Daylight was short, and approaching winter chilled the ceaseless rain. Exhausted, hungry and constantly wet, the two men reached a huge steep-sided boulder, where the swollen, heaving waters of the Whitcombe River cut in against it. To the soaked, exhausted men the boulder seemed insurmountable. The only possible route was to climb high above the river, clinging to the forest on the steep ridges. Lauper resourcefully led the way: “We scrambled on the whole day, going to a great height across a very dangerous point, and then down the opposite side . . . when we got down again to the river-bed night had come on; it had taken us a whole day, with the hardest work, to advance about 200 yards.”

Glaciologists are the main users of remote Ivory Lake Hut these days. A century ago, Ivory Glacier was a kilometre or two long, and smooth, ice-scoured rock indicates that it extended to the hut site. Surprisingly, after years of gradual recession, this year the glacier has abruptly shrunk to only a few hectares of ice that no longer even reaches the lake.

Swing bridges now span the river where crossing is necessary. Nevertheless, even modern tracks have not totally relieved the danger. Several unbridged side streams flood after rain, and even the track itself is constantly torn by fresh slips and landslides. The Department of Conservation periodically maintains the huts and tracks in the valley, but it is a never-ending task, as recurrent storms soon undo the hard work.

Whitcombe and Lauper eventually emerged from the gorges and reached the sea, only to find that the Maori village they had counted on for food for the return journey had been abandoned. Neither was there any sign of a ship which was due at the Grey River. After some scratching around, Lauper found a few tiny potatoes and some Maori cabbage, but it was scant nourishment for two starving men. While cooking the potatoes, Whitcombe commented, “You have lost a great deal of flesh, Jakob; how do I look?” Lauper responded that he did not look so very bad, but later wrote: “. . . in reality, he could not be recognised—his eyes were sunk deep in his head, his lips were white, and his face as yellow as a wax figure; you could, so to speak, almost see his teeth through his cheeks.”

The two men spent another day reaching the banks of the Taramakau River, to the north. That night they slept beside a large fire which Lauper had managed to light, despite the rain. Fearful of starvation, Whitcombe decided next day to cross the Taramakau by lashing together two old discarded canoes. The men knew of a Maori village north of the river (near present-day Greymouth) where they would be able to obtain food. As the Taramakau was in dangerous flood, Lauper protested against using the canoes but finally acquiesced. The attempt was to end in tragedy.

They had not got far into the current when the canoes filled with water. As they sank, the current pushed them towards the Tasman’s breakers. Whitcombe was a good swimmer and, after yelling for Lauper to follow, made for the shore. Lauper, however, was not able to swim, and instead clung to a semi-submerged canoe as he was swept into the sea. Eventually, he was thrown to shore, and by clinging to driftwood managed to haul himself from the raking grasp of the retreating waves.

Lauper discovered Whitcombe’s lifeless body further along the shore. He commenced digging a grave with his hands, finding it very difficult in the coarse, stony sand, but finally succeeded in excavating a shallow scrape. After wrapping Whitcombe’s body in the blanket, he covered it with logs and carefully marked the spot. He wrote: “I had got tender-hearted during this sad performance, and I felt tears roll down my cheeks.”

Starved and exhausted, Lauper made his way up the Taramakau to Lake Brunner, where he met the Howitt party working on the route over Harper Pass. After a day of recovery, the dispirited explorer returned to Canterbury over this pass and made his way back to Christchurch on horseback. The entire journey had been in vain. Whitcombe had lost his life for a pass which today is infrequently crossed and has never seriously been an option for a road. Only one year later, in 1864, Arthur Dudley Dobson crossed the pass which now bears his Christian name. At first, Dobson considered the route impractical for a road, but later surveyors found ways of negotiating the steep Otira valley on the far side. Canterbury finally had its road route: Arthurs Pass.

[Chapter Break]

To gain some sense of the spirit of Lauper and Whitcombe’s journey, Rob Brown and I decide to complete our trip to the West Coast via a little-used route. Once we reach Wilkinson Hut, about halfway down the Whitcombe Valley, we abandon the river and cross over to Ivory Glacier in the adjacent Waitaha Valley. Reaching the Waitaha requires a traverse to the Price tributary of the Whitcombe, followed by a crossing of the Lange Range, which separates the two valleys.

Few visit the small red shelter that is Price’s Hut. The log book dates back to 1967, when the but was built, and for some years there are no entries.

A narrow ridge looks to provide a feasible route to the top of the Lange Range, and we make good progress up the tussock-covered slopes. Above us, the mountains of the main divide rear in a spectacular jumble of broken peaks and soaring cliffs. Below, the Whitcombe twists like an angry serpent, and we appreciate anew the accomplishments of Whitcombe and Lauper. Further up the ridge, a steep notch, with shattered, loose rock, halts our progress.

Clinging gingerly to loose boulders, Brown leads, dislodging rocks which thunder hundreds of feet into the gully below. He reaches the far side, and now it is my own turn. I edge my way across the loose slope, kicking steps in the unstable surface, acutely conscious of the drop below. Reaching the safety of the snow beyond, I claw my way up on to the range. Beyond the crest, Ivory Glacier looms out of the mist, spilling in a vast contortion of snow and ice into the lake cradled below and dotting its pea-green waters with miniature icebergs.

The sun emerges, briefly hot, then vanishes as clouds swirl over once again. We hurriedly descend scree slopes to the hut, just visible as a tiny blue speck on the lake edge. Ivory Lake Hut boasts a well-stocked cupboard and a comfortable old armchair in which I relax as Brown reads sections of the log book. We pass the afternoon feasting on surplus food left by previous parties.

West Coast rivers collect water so rapidly that by the time the treeline is reached many, such as the Whitcombe, are too large to ford safely. A rain gauge on one ofthe tributaries ofthis river has recorded the highest annual rainfall on record in New Zealand-14.1 metres. Despite such disincentives, trampers and adventurers will continue to savour the challenges posed by forays into this mountainous region.
West Coast rivers collect water so rapidly that by the time the treeline is reached many, such as the Whitcombe, are too large to ford safely. A rain gauge on one ofthe tributaries ofthis river has recorded the highest annual rainfall on record in New Zealand-14.1 metres. Despite such disincentives, trampers and adventurers will continue to savour the challenges posed by forays into this mountainous region.

Flowing from the outlet of Ivory Lake, the Waitaha River begins as a graceful waterfall but quickly enters three gorges even more rugged than those of the Whitcombe. The tracks are more difficult, too. While sidling high above Windhover Gorge, we can hear the muffled roar of the river boiling somewhere in the blackness below. I marvel at how Charlie Douglas and his faithful dog forged routes in such places.

Time has brought changes to the forest since Douglas’s day, none of them good. Possums are a big problem. In Westland, where the forest is dominated by rata and kamahi—canopy trees favoured by possums—whole forests are collapsing. Possum-control funds are limited, and remote valleys such as the Waitaha are not priorities for the Department of Conservation. In one section of track we encounter a fallen tree every 20 metres.

One of the effects of canopy collapse is increased erosion. Sidling high above the second gorge, we are faced by a yawning 30-metre gap where a slip has gouged out the track. Loose boulders stick out of the slip-face like raisins from a steamed pudding. Brown chooses a high route, while I select a lower but steeper one. Inching my way across the slip, I can kick in only the most meagre of toe-holds. One crumbles beneath me, and in a panicky move I leap towards a ledge, using momentum to carry me across. Only luck keeps me on my feet as I land on the ledge and make my way across to the track.

Unbelievably, the weather holds for yet another day, and we reach the road and, finally, the West Coast. After eight days we have completed our crossing of the Southern Alps. According to the but log books at Price’s Basin and Ivory Lake, we are the second party in 27 years to have used this route. Some of Westland’s Valleys have never been traversed, including one fittingly named after Charlie Douglas. As we gaze back towards the sombre ramparts of the mountains, I pay a silent tribute to Douglas, Whitcombe and Lauper—explorers who dared to take on one of the wildest landscapes on earth, the Southern Alps.

More by

More by Shaun Barnett