Exploring Earnslaw Burn in Winter
It all started with a conversation with our good friend and client, David. Could we spend a day in the remote Earnslaw Burn valley during winter? The conversation soon turned to planning, and before we knew it, we were stepping onto a helicopter piloted by South Island legend Alfie Speight headed for a section of the valley that sees no sunlight during winter. Enjoy this tale of an incredible winter journey into the Earnslaw Burn (ticking off some of Mt Aspiring National Park’s most spectacular peaks along the way); what happens when clients become expedition companions; and how a hot meal and a strong cognac can get you through just about anything.
Our clients come from around the world. Some clients will purchase just one piece, and others will return many times over the years to add to their collection. The best clients are those that become friends. David is one of these clients. Over the years, everyone in the Romer Gallery has come to know David, and we have often talked about heading out on expedition together.
Earlier this year, the talk turned to action, and David and I hatched a plan to take a winter trip into Earnslaw Burn. However, this was not going to be any trip, our adventure would include a helicopter (of course) and an incredible journey over Mt Aspiring National Park. Specifically, a string of mountains within the national park covering the mighty Mt Earnslaw and Mt Aspiring to lesser-known peaks like Mt Tyndall and Mt Edward. Many of these peaks are regular locations for me on photographic shoots, but they never fail to impress no matter how often I am here. I couldn’t wait to show David my playground.
The great wilderness beckons
Heli lift-off was at 7:15 am to give us plenty of time to get into the mountains for an 8 am sunrise. We were heading to Mt Tyndall (2,496m) first, a location far beyond any access roads, and where the pristine wilderness begins.
Flying towards Mt Aspiring, the sunrise began to light up the scene before us. Emerging from the horizon, a layer of clouds gave us the perfect light to show the contrast between the glow of the sunrise and the grey and white snow-capped peaks. Normally, only me and the helicopter pilot get to see these incredible sights; today, David could share this sight as well
Our adventure was already starting to deliver some spectacular results.
Mt Aspiring National Park puts on a show
After a few circles above Mt Tyndall, we headed west towards Mt Edward. The journey took us above the Isobel Glacier, and Mt Ansted before Mt Edward (2,620m) appeared in the perfect morning light.
I spend much of my time photographing the mountains of the Southern Alps and the South Island’s immense national parks. The early morning is one of the most rewarding times to be here. Today was no exception.
Alfie turned the helicopter south, heading towards our destination, Mt Earnslaw. Setting down in the Earnslaw Burn, we found ourselves in a place that sees no sunshine during winter, a place we decided to call The Freezer.
The Earnslaw Burn
The Earnslaw Burn is a breathtaking valley carved by run-off from the Earnslaw Glacier. The run-off or outwash has “burned” its way through the landscape to form the valley and is now an impressive glacial river offering forest, tussock and waterfalls to explore. If you’re interested in visiting Earnslaw Burn, it is possible to hike the valley from Glenorchy. This can be done as a day hike or an overnight option. While the track is growing in popularity, it is much quieter than the well-known hikes in the area like the Routeburn Track.
Today, we were heading a little further beyond the popular tracks, thanks to our friend Alfie and his helicopter. After farewelling Alfie, we decided we needed a hot coffee before hiking out of the valley.
Hiking the Earnslaw Burn Valley
We were soon warmed up, caffeinated and ready to go. The hike would take us through the valley, where we could explore the grassy tussock plains and swampy wetlands flanked either side by steep valley walls and waterfalls. It was a challenging hike, but I have always found the biggest challenges bring the biggest rewards. In winter, the waterfalls take on a whole new look, far more delicate and quieter than they are in winter. We named one of these waterfalls, The Hanging Garden. It was incredible to think of how few people would ever get to see this sight—except in photographs, of course.
It was a two-hour hike to get out of the valley and up into the sunshine. It was a welcome relief to feel the sun, and we were soon hiking in t-shirts instead of the puffer jackets, beanies and gloves of earlier in the day.
The final point of our hike was another beautiful waterfall where we took some time to recuperate before turning back towards The Freezer. It was time to head back to the permafrost of the valley below us.
Enjoying the finer things in life
Back at the starting point, we warmed up with a hearty home-cooked osso buco. This was followed by a much-welcomed glass of cognac. In my opinion, this is about the best way to end any hike.
I love the wildness of the South Island, but it is something I am never blasé about. Even with all my years’ experience and the knowledge that Alfie and the helicopter are never far away, this is not a place to take lightly. It is an extreme environment and one that can change quickly. If you are not prepared, things can go wrong, and this is often the case for mountaineers of all abilities.
And today, we would experience how rapidly the environment can change. When Alfie arrived at the 4:30 pm pick-up time, he told us we had to act fast and load up. The weather was changing, and we could expect some rough weather to roll in soon. Heading for home, we had just enough time to fly over Mt Aspiring as the light lowered and capture an image of the mountain in the glory of sunset. She is a beauty, and alongside Mt Cook/Aoraki, one of the best places to capture images of wild New Zealand.