Crossing the Richardson Range

The video is here:

After an excellent stags do with a dozen of Hamish’s friends at his family farm north of Queenstown, I had to get back to Glenorchy (20km distant as the powered aircraft flies). The morning of January 9th was fine and there wasn’t a single cloud in the sky so I really had no excuse not to try and fly back!

Excusing myself from a tree lopping session I dived down steep shingle and into the Moonlight gorge, and climbed out again, before crossing Sheepyard terrace and climbing up a small east facing hill which Hamish had previously flown from and thought might work if I got up early before the valley winds started.

My first (and second!) launch of the day. Route from the Lodge in red

It did look promising, and I set up at a nice spot to launch not long after midday. I took off and things went well, a nice thermal, I drifted with it and over the higher ridge behind. Unfortunately though I didn’t find lift further up and decided to push back to launch, which wasn’t that easy as despite only thermal puffs on launch there was quite a drift. Since it was such a small hill I kind of panicked and decided to top land on the ridge, a tricky proposition with the into crosswind leg going downhill – it was a two touch landing (with a 180 degree turn in between touches!).

I waited for the next thermal cycle and tried again but it seemed I had lost my mojo – I lost height, couldn’t top land anymore, and tried for Plan B – landing on the slopes of Gilbert – but I couldn’t even manage that. I had to wet my feet in Moonlight creek again before I was on my way.

View of the snowy south slopes of Larkins, Mt Butement, and my (near future) route up Mt Gilbert, from above launch

Climbing one of the SE ridges of Mt Gilbert was an aesthetic route

A steep two hour climb followed, up a rather aesthetic ridge which was tempting to fly off. However it turned out to be a good decision to climb all the way to the main Mt Gilbert south ridge, as when I popped my head over, just before 3:30pm, a rather strong westerly was blowing. It made taking off a spicy affair but I managed it on my second attempt.

There was good dynamic lift mixed in with thermic or anabatic lift and I easily managed climb up the ridge most of the way to the Mt Gilbert summit, a great relief after a rather long, hot and sweaty walk. Here I lingered for some time before managing to push into wind a bit and accessing a good solid climb fed from the northern side of Mt Gilbert. I would have loved to take this climb to base – it was looking like another cracker day.

Unfortunately however I weighed up the seriousness of dodging 737’s in Queenstown airspace and reluctantly left good lift to glide off in a westward direction, over the high ground towards Mt Butement on the Richardson Range.

I didn’t encounter any lift on the way but once I was away from the thermal I had a healthy 40km/hr groundspeed, until reaching the upper slopes of Mt Butement where I found myself in the lee and had to slope land before sinking into oblivion.

A nice glide, views of Stony creek. Route from my landing to the pass north of Butement shown

Looking back at Mt Gilbert and the Remarkables from Mt Butement slopes, another great day

The next half hour or so I traversed tussock slopes, keen to get to running water under the pass north of Butement. My rather pathetic half litre bottle only had a mouthful of water left in it, and it was another hot summer day. I crossed several small gullies on the way, some had a trickle of water in them and I even tried sucking some off the silt, but I was pretty confident that if I avoided gaining too much height I’d find good water at the stream under the pass. It is surprising how much water runs, so close to the pass, even after over a month of drought – I was correct though and had a good drink and a quick bite to eat (a few apricots and lollies I think) before climbing up to the pass.

Leeside gusts had been evident throughout the traverse and on reaching the pass the wind was howling. Meanwhile a beautiful convergence line had formed to the east, it looked like you’d be able to fly all the way from Coronet Peak to Wanaka without turning. But, given the 20km/hr developing westerly forecast, I was a little shocked to see a myriad of little hogsbacks to the west!

While it was “all downhill to Glenorchy”, I was at the head of the Bucklerburn (Waller creek to be precise) and still had a long way to go. The feasibility of safely launching or penetrating into the wind in the vicinity of the pass was not out of the question, but the sensible thing to do was to get away from the venturi.

I lost several hundred feet, trashing my brother’s old joggers on the scree slope. They held up rather well but my socks kept getting twisted inside from all the sidling. A line of bluffs had to be crossed – while my route got me past the obstacle I think I took a wrong turn or two, and unfortunately I had to climb back up to pass height. After this the going was much better though and I stopped by a small tarn for another drink and to lay out the wing.

The Bucklerburn, and my way out from slope landing. Note the hogsbacks!

I was concerned about the wind strength but I judged it to be safe enough and there weren’t any surprises once I was in the air, at 6pm. In hindsight possibly I could have climbed higher before crossing the valley, but this is just conjecture – in the end the valley crossing went well and with a flight of under 5 kilometres I cut out maybe half a day of traversing around the valley. Due to the wind coming up the Bucklerburn I couldn’t push any further out to Glenorchy though.

From the air I’d been eyeing up one of the old mining tracks, the key to getting out of the Bucklerburn, if I didn’t want to climb peaks or sidle above a gorge. I had to put in another solid 40min effort to gain a few hundred metres of height up the spur. Once on the track though it was all worthwhile. It turns out this track must have been a water race, which suited me as it was perfectly level. Regrettably we parted ways at a rusty old multiple section pipe, hanging from a 30 metre cable, crossing a steep gulch. I wasn’t game to trust it with my bodyweight so I dropped down to cross below the schist bluffs where I met with a lower track.

Great views of Earnslaw and Mt Head across the Bucklerburn. Note the "seabreeze circulation" cloud drifting over.

The views were fantastic, it was now evening with the hills a mix of golden tussock and reaching shadows. Glaciers on the main divide stretched along the horizon and the meandering river flats of the Dart and Rees were laid out before me, showing me I wasn’t far from home. The clouds were now looking pretty shabby to the west, and it was very interesting to see mid-level clouds with a definite easterly drift coming above me – I put it down to a seabreeze circulation.

Finally at 8pm I reached a hill with a view of the fringes of Glenorchy. I got out the phone and tried to send a text to my brother, who was returning from Queenstown that night, to make sure he stopped in Glenorchy to pick me up. Normally I would have liked to fly home but today there was a strong northerly breeze sweeping down Lake Wakatipu. With one bar of phone reception I tried to send the message but I received 6 messages back from Telecom, telling me I’d run out of credit!

I decided just to go for it. There was only one obstacle in my way – Mt Judah. I didn’t really have the time to push in front of it on foot though so I took off where I was. There was plenty of wind around for sure, but the air was nice, and after gaining a small amount of height I sneakily pushed out towards Mt Judah.

The final stretch! From launch, Mt Judah shown on the left, Glenorchy hidden behind.

Two thirds of the way through the crossing with speed bar giving me only 12km/hr, I came to terms with the fact that I was not going to have the glide to get over Judah, and I prepared to land in the leeside again. But I was most surprised in the next few seconds to find lift. I figured it was a glass off type convergence, from the katabatic air draining out of the Bucklerburn. Whatever it was, I’d take it, whether I deserved it or not!

Before I knew it I was over Judah and in the main valley. Here there was even more wind – I wasn’t even going to make Glenorchy, crabbing down the slope on speed bar. This didn’t matter much though as downwind was a much better landing field, none other than the Glenorchy air strip!

I was careful not to drift too far downwind though, as the wind was potentially strong enough to blow me into the lake! In fact the wind was about trim speed, and I coasted down to a field between the airport and the road for a perfect landing.

After packing up my wing carefully for the last time this summer (I decided to leave it in Glenorchy), I jumped the fence and hadn’t even walked 50 metres down the road before a car stopped and picked me up – it was David, Rachel, and Mum! A great day to cap off this seasons mountain flying.

A final pack up on the Glenorchy airstrip. Just a small hole extracted from the last launch.


About sharemyjoys

Nick Neynens
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