The Otira Valley is for serious walkers, botanists and mountaineers. From the Arthur’s Pass road end it looks nothing special; just an open valley heading up to big cliffs that protect Mt Philistine. The beauty of the valley lies hidden around the corner. Little more than an hour from the road and you are surrounded by big mountains, with just a few stone cairns and the occasional wooden pole to show the way. The sounds are those of wind, water, and perhaps the occasional kea.
The Department of Conservation does not encourage tourists to travel this valley. For considerable parts of the year it has avalanche danger, but for those who know what they are doing it can be a wonderland.
I have been visiting this valley for over 40 years. It leads to several readily accessible routes to Mt Rolleston.
First there is the standard Otira Slide route, which, despite its modest angle, has had many fatalities. These usually occur on the descent, when people slip and slide into ice schrunds, or lose their way coming off the Low Peak in mist and head down into bluffs.
And then there is the impressive Otira Face. It looks difficult, and this is enough to keep the crowds away, but by passing the lower bluffs on the true left (i.e. the right looking upwards) there is a lovely rib of firm rock that leads directly to the High Peak. Routes to the Middle Peak, or the direct route to the High Peak that includes the lower bluffs, are more challenging.
On 28 December 2009 Annette and I spent a day wandering the valley, smelling the vegetation, photographing some flowers, and looking up at the mountains. We have done this several times in recent years, and were able to make some direct comparisons with a trip we made on 29 December the previous year.
After about 45 minutes of gentle walking we came to the wooden bridge that not only crosses the river, but also delineates (at least in my mind) the sub alpine from the alpine. Annette pointed out a mountain hebe beside the bridge that was still in bud, and told me that this time last year that exact plant was in full flower. On looking at one of last year’s photos (right) I see she was correct. In fact this year that plant is about 10 days behind last year.
Higher up there is a lot more snow than last year. A thin band of rock at about 1900 metres separating the Otira Slide from some upper snowfields (see photo) is much smaller this year than last, and it looks like some of last winter’s snow will last through to next winter. A few patches are showing pink from last September’s Australian dust storms (yes, the dust does make it across 2000 km of ocean), but much of it is still glistening white from some late spring storms. To get perspective on the scale of things, the altitude gain from the bottom of the slide to the top of the slide is about 600 m, with another 250-300 m of height to the top of Rolleston. And it is a lot steeper than it looks!
Not a great deal has changed here since I first came in the 1960s. The snowfields are more extensive than I have seen them in summer for many years, but perhaps the Otira Slide still has less depth than in the late 1960s. I need to search back for some slides from those days to be sure.