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  • Writer's pictureMason Gardener

Copland pass - Historic route

A current guide


In his book ‘Aoraki Tai Poutini: a guide for mountaineers’, Rob Frost expresses to the reader that the historic route of the Copland pass should only be done, “with very good reason…”. Alternative access to the shelter via the ‘Jubilee route’, sidling under Madonna and Fitzgerald pass (now being dubbed the modern route), is a much more user friendly approach. This access greatly mitigates most of the vertical glued in moraine that is encountered while approaching up under copland stream. I won't go into detail on this approach as we tackled the Historic route. However, an excellent video showing this new ‘modern route’ has been uploaded on youtube which I will link at the end.

Sunday morning we set off from Wyn Irwin, as always, beginning with the march along the beaten tourist track towards Hooker lake. We humored ourselves with the absolute state of the Whitehorse campsite. Tents strewn everywhere, looking more like a himalayan base camp than the start of an hour long flat meander. Arriving at the third bridge we could finally leave the tourism behind and get to business. We sidled the western side of Hooker lake, being aware of the hazard hanging directly above us. Not a place to stop and have a picnic. Roughly 45 min later we were through, current lake levels were extremely low so dry feet and fast travel were a nice surprise. From the end of the lake it is approximately 1 km of bashing up easy moraine to the base of copland stream.

We started up the stream on the true right, moving between large boulder to large boulder. It is hard to say if any of these spots could be described as ‘safe’, but they definitely give slight reprieve from the constant uphill charge while underneath the ominous vertical walls. We continued to move between car sized boulders while sticking directly in the stream. We covered ground fast and got through the worst of it in under 20 min. A prominent buttress forks the gulley into a creek and a shallow loose dry gut on the left. We started up the left gut, being careful not to knock loose rock on each other. Sticking to the climbers right of the gulley we could stay well protected by the buttress.

Continuing up loose rock for 50m led us directly to the rope and wire that Jane Morris has kindly relocated. The rope is in an ideal place for access onto the terrace, and multiple exits do exist if you don't want to be climbing above one another.

(It should be noted that getting up this gulley is not difficult - in fact less steep compared to ‘garbage gulley’ on the Tasman. It however, is extremely risky and is still a roll of the dice on how much you trust glued in moraine. We went through this passage 30 hours after the last rain and felt comfortable that things were locked up well ‘enough’.) Total time spent in copland stream gulley was 30 min.

After gaining the grass terrace, we moved up the rocky ridge for another hour or two. No real problem was found here, and all obstacles could be turned easily on either side of the ridge. A handful of cairns mark the way up the ridge, until you meet the shelter at the very last moment around 1960m. Copland shelter is something special. Built from what appears to be an old grain silo, this small four bunk hut affectionately dubbed the ‘bean can’, is strapped down to the ridge via a series of cables, wires and willpower! It is a minor miracle how it has survived the abuse from generations of storms, because even in 40 km/h winds we thought we might take off.

From the latest weather report, we knew wind and rain was going to progressively get worse throughout Monday morning. Initial plans to make the pass at sunrise were beginning to fade as I felt the hut rattling. We left the hut at 4.30 am as it began to drizzle. An hour later we were at the pass, I poked my head over the ridge into a 45 km/h westerly rain torrent. I regathered the boys on the lee side to prepare them for the ordeal that was to follow. I knew that if we were to turn back to the hut, we would inevitably be spending the next 3 days sitting out a massive storm in a tin can.

From what I had researched, a 50 m swath of rock guarded the pass on the western side. I believed that even with poor visibility and sub optimal conditions I could get us down and into the Copland valley. Without too much route finding difficulty the obvious weakness tends directly down the face for 10 m and then veers down climbers right. There are good rock horns on the ridge if you were to bring a rope. After the step, there are a couple of bluffs which can be turned easily. Although if you had light it should be very obvious where to go. No doubt we probably made it slightly harder for ourselves than need be.

Once down off the face the west coast expanse surrounds you. Although hidden from sight, we had no trouble meandering our way down the rest of the way through easy boulders and shallow permanent snow fields. Light came as we approached the flat terrace where we could see our exit onto the true left of the tributary stream before the ‘zig zags’. We descended down easy grass slopes on the true right as we thought we could see a slip which may have taken out the mountaineers track. This turned out not to be the case once we got closer. The polled track route begins basically where the boulders meet the grass 1350 m. From here the track is surprisingly well beaten in. The valley walk to Douglas rock hut is fairly overgrown but obvious, it took approximately 5-6 hours to reach the hut from Copland shelter. 2 weeks prior to our arrival Douglas rock had a makeover, with new corrugated iron, fully stoked firewood stores and large forestry clearings to improve surrounding views. A lovely spot to have morning tea. Thanks to everyone involved in this restoration!

The rain properly started settling in around 10:30 am. We had heard bad news about some of the tributary streams, that after only a few hours of heavy rain can become uncrossable. We got a wriggle on towards the Welcome flat hut. The track had recently been recut so we blasted down the valley at some speed. As expected the rivers, especially around Scotts stream, were really starting to rise (mid thigh in some spots). Definitely not a spot you want to be after a few more hours. 2.5 hours after leaving Douglas rock we crossed across the churning copland river bridge and into Welcome flat hut. Fortunately for us, the hut only had 5 people staying so we had a very rare and peaceful evening lounging in the exquisite hot pools, without the standard hustle and bustle which normally comes with a 30 bunk hut.

156 mm rainfall fell in 24 hours at Welcome flat. The Hut warden was adamant on checking the state of the track, so a sleep in was had. We set off around 10am once we got the all clear. 4 hours later we had blitzed out to the car park with grins on our faces, what a trip!

Approximate times:

Wyn Irwin lodge - Copland shelter

5-6 hours

Copland Shelter - Douglas rock hut

5.5 - 6.6 hours

Douglas rock hut - Welcome flat hut

2 - 3.5 hours

Welcome flat hut - Car park

4 - 6 hours

Copland shelter:

When we visited the shelter the radio was not working, we believe the antenna was broken. We have let DOC know that this needs to be fixed, but it would be worth making sure prior to heading up.

100l water tank at back of shelter.

There are no toilets at Copland shelter so bare this in mind - pack in pack out...

Gear we took:



Ice axe


230g standard can of Jet boil gas - Worked for 3 people (2 nights/3 days) eating radix meals for dinner, hot muesli and coffees for breakfast and ran out on the last day halfway through a boil for coffee.

Beta for modern route:

Great information for the alternative route.

Hitch hiking:

Due to the sheer admin of dropping a car on the west coast and then driving back to Mt cook, let alone speeding up the melt of the very glaciers that we walk on, it makes sense to do this whole trip via hitch hiking. However, since covid I feel that this ‘generally reliable’ form of transport has become rather challenging. Getting into one of the glacial towns (fox/franz) is rather easy from the car park, but after this point the challenge begins. It took us many hours to get out of Fox and then Franz. You should probably be prepared to spend a night here if you are out late, giving yourself a whole day to get back to Christchurch the following day.

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