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Stairway to Pisa Heaven

10 March 2020

Words: Dave Mitchell
Photos: Dave Mitchell & Ditte van der Meulen

Drift wood for hire

The Scottish connection

Wanaka town floats at the edge of a beautiful blue lake cradled below a stunning rim of rocky and jagged mountains. They rise up from the lake and valley floor and disappear, snow capped, beyond the far westerly horizon like magic. The only outdoor activity missing from its vast repertoire is surfing and I suspect when a huge westerly is tipping the lake into a frenzy and piling driftwood high up along its eastern shore even that may be possible. Mountain biking came early to the district and just like the town has expanded exponentially with tracks and trail of every persuasion and grade fanning out from leafy holiday home infested suburbia.

Lismore Jump Park - easy as

Great view

On prime real-estate amongst old man pines, the monolithic Lismore Jump Park has materialised for those desiring immortality. Its sculptured clay ramps, tabletops and gap jumps are a wonder to behold. Some may point to a misspent youth, juvenile delinquency and extreme thrill dependency but we say bring back reincarnation. Our only chance to join the fun. While peddling back from the most excellent Black Peak Gelato Shop we spied two school uniform clad kids executing perfect form in the park. We sat and watched their aerial acrobatics, clicked a few images and were stunned and amazed. We should get out more?

Sticky Forest from the summit

Ditte flows

Dave slows

Sticky Forest and Deans Bank

From Sticky Forest's summit, black and blue trails snake their way amongst the kanuka, rosehip and rabbits to the mighty Clutha River's cumec killer edge. Yes it’s all good fun until somebody loses an eye - no no, you just have to be aware that some obstacles and infrastructure are not meant for you, then everything is goodness and light. The big mean rock and the saw-tooth tiger jumps had us scratching our heads in admiration. Alas no riders appeared to show us the way so we took the chicken route. We did find plenty of great tracks to keep us amused on a couple of very windy days though.

Getting to Deans Bank vault

Deans Bank with uncle Albert Town below

Deans Bank

Deans Bank Track was definitely right up our alley, a great flow trail from start to finish with some interesting jumps and multiple series of perfectly bermed corners. The section along the river escarpment and through the old man pine forest is primo and for every short climb there is an endless downhill, surely a trick of light. The one-way clockwise direction is a sensible option alleviating that nagging oncoming collision phobia, just relax, concentrate and ride flat out.

Nothing but up

Dunstan view

Mount Pisa

For untold years I thought this massive bump plonked between the Clutha River and Cardrona was called the Pizza Range and its highest point, Mt Pizza. I imagined Italian tunnelers, water-racemen and gold miners firing up makeshift wood fired pizza ovens up in this remote wind swept high country range. Their meager earnings lavished on imported Italian black olives, tomatoes, pesto, prosciutto di parma and mozzarella cheese. But how wrong was I.

Early morning light

The Mt Pisa access track comes off SH6, half way between Cromwell and Queensbury and heads through Mt Pisa Station to the track-start carpark. On the way in we passed a large mob of NZ's best merino sheep grazing the home paddocks looking ready to deliver their fine micron wool to the Ground Effect fabric mill.

Steep is the new black

A very steep 4WD track leaves the parking-lot and this proved a bad way to warm up on a five degree morning. But with the sun up early and no wind to speak badly off, staying warm would be the least of our problems. With altitude gained came the views and a little less oxygen. Cherry orchards cloaked in fine mesh, and vineyards too - swatches of green amongst the yellows and browns. Irrigation dams as blue as the cloudless sky and homesteads dotted among mature trees, orchards and grapes. A far cry from when I was growing up on the hydro projects and everything was as barren as the royal family.

Valley patchwork

After groveling for well over an hour the Mt Pisa Conservation area arrived at the 1400-meters contour, just where the snow grass and spaniard take over from the hieracium and scrub. A rugged fence-line of wonky posts and rusty wire stretched along its unfolding boundary. We encountered our first stream crossing and a massive rock garden of alpine plants along with grass hoppers for Africa. We filled up our water bottles with the cool crystal clear brew and shoved in an electrolyte tab for good measure as mid-day sun beat down from outer space.

The DOC reserve edge, Lake Dunstan below

We crested the ridge-top at around 1900-meters after a long series of rocky switchbacks where almost all forms of plant life have disappeared. It was good to be on top and the panoramic views made up for the unrelenting climb. A vague 4WD track trundled past our arrival lounge heading left and right along the range top, we took the No-42 that drove north towards Mt Pisa.

Top done & crested

Route 42

Big country unfolds

Mt Pisa at 1963-meters is the highest point of the Pisa Range but it in no way feels like your classic mountain. You finally arrive at a random pile of rocks just a few meters high, after a series of rolling ridges that just keep going up gradually. There is a survey mark on top and some reinforcing rod where maybe a trig once stood majestically, its black and white tail rotor swaying in many a gale force breeze before being blown to maternity. Anyway it proved a good spot for lunch with helicopter views and warm rocks to hang out on. With 10% less available oxygen,  the years of Cuban cigar smoking was taking its toll - a present from Castro and the Cuban Communist Party. Only the 2098-meter blip on the Mt St Bathans Range has offered us a higher ridable climb in NZ and a pile of old black lead acid Edison batteries that once powered a repeater in the early 70s.

Mt Pisa in all its rockidge

Land Info NZ at work

There is always something taller

After lunch it was time to collect our thoughts and another remote hut. Kirtle Burn Hut was our target. We headed west towards the Snow Farm, Cardrona and the indomitable Criffel Range. Alas it's a drop of almost 400-meters and cunningly hidden in a shallow water catchment surrounded by moss and elusive alpine flowers. The hut itself is pure function over form, being just a square box full of bunks. Not dis-similar to a refrigeration container - with aluminum sandwich construction with a well insulated filling. A bit like chip butty. According to the hut book, it is used mainly when ski touring brings the snow down from the south and the Snow Farm rejoices.

Exit Kirtle Burn Hut

Hut wild flowers

Back up the hill

Well the climb back up wasn't so bad and compared with the unrelenting 1600-meter ascent to Mt Pisa we got off lightly. In the afternoon light the tops were looking a bit moonscape-ish peppered with fine white quarts rock and almost crater like with what looked from a distance like an American flag planted at the top of the Prince Burn. From Mt Pisa back to the start of our downhill the eastern rim looks down upon a stunning series of tarns, marshes and massive rock fall. We had missed these on the way up. The downhill commenced and carried on for an eternity, interspersed with the odd gate, stile and ever changing view and perspective. Just all too much to take in at speed.

Moon escape

It's all downhill from there

All up over 2000-meters of steep-steep climbing and a mere 34kms peddled, what a day out and pizza for dinner, no doubt.

No side trips please

Stairway to Pisa Heaven route

Click here to download the Stairway to Pisa Heaven gpx file.