Snow in Them Hills!

What's all that white stuff?

What’s all that white stuff?

New Zealand has over 950 huts in its remote backcountry. What a number for a landmass only a hair larger than the state of Colorado! Kiwis began constructing huts in the late 1800s for sheep musterers, miners, and loggers, but the system really took off in the 1960s and ’70s when deer culling reached its height. (Yes, that’s what it sounds like.) Today, huts are home to trampers, hunters, skiers, scientists, and anyone needing some shelter from the storm.

Such was our plight when we stomped onto the porch of the John Tait Hut in the Nelson Lakes National Park. The threat of rain had turned into an onslaught and after two hours in the deluge, we were soaked through. Inside, a young Canadian tramper was getting a fire going. We hung our clothes over the stove and laid our soggy boots out to dry.

Tori was on a yearlong working holiday in New Zealand and had spent a great deal more time in huts than we. She made herself at home while we fixed our AlpineAires. At this point in the trek, Dad and I didn’t have much to talk about except to speculate on what flavor of ice cream we craved the most. So it was a shock to our systems when Tori had lots of things, other than ice cream, to speculate on. It was the chattiest evening in quite some time.

Breakfast was inhaled with the knowledge that we’d be climbing into a chance of snow showers above 1400m. Tori took off in a hurry and we weren’t far behind. For the moment, the weather held and soon the mountains opened into a wide, tussock valley surrounded by a craggy fortress. We stopped for a snack at the Upper Travers Hut where a friendly kea greeted me at the outhouse.

My mama warned not to trust the likes of him. These endangered thieves on wings are the only species of parrot that live in the alpine. Leave anything unattended – a notebook, camera, entire backpack – and they’ll be on it in a flash, flapping away with your passport before you know it. I hurried back to the hut where I’d left my pack sitting open on the porch. I grabbed my camera and waited for him to come steal something for a great Facebook photo. He didn’t.

Uncooperative kea.

Uncooperative kea.

Above us, the mountains seemed to welcome the building snow clouds like long lost friends. The two go together, even in the height of summer. All this time I’d worried about missing winter in the Rockies and yet here I was about to get it in the Southern Alps! The climb up Travers Saddle was short and steep. At the top, a fierce wind let us know our place in the world.

You should know that no easy climb is ever left unpunished. The opposing side of Travers is torturous at best – a purgatory of scree and loose dirt before a long down climb through tree roots and rocks. Before long, the windy flurry gave way to rain. And it was a frog-strangler. We plodded through the podocarp forest hoping that with every turn we’d see the hut around the bend. Then, the friendly, welcoming scent of smoke broke through the wall of rain. The West Sabine Hut came into view and Tori had the fire going.

The drying lines were full of wet tramping gear. Two Russian ex-pats made room for our boots around the fire and told stories about hiking in the Caucasus Mountains.

Morning broke fine and clear with snow on the tops. After my usual pot of oatmeal and freeze-dried fruit (thank you, Natural High!), we walked up the river to the Blue Lake Hut. Blue sky, white mountains, green hills, grey rock, clear water. There have been a lot of mornings in the last three months, but this one was the most memorable. When we reached the hut at the edge of its namesake, it was at overflow capacity. At 11 am! The Wellington Tramping Club was having a “hut day.”

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Sitting at the table was a woman we’d met over a month ago at the Waitewaewae Hut in the Tararuas. We had discussed the differences of tramping and hiking over breakfast. I never did get her name – either time – so I shall call her Betty.

Betty and the fifteen other trampers were waiting for the snow to melt up high before continuing on. When I told her we were headed over Waiau Pass, she nodded and said the club had made several attempts at it in the past, but were always turned back by the weather. They seemed to treat Waiau with a certain, unexpected deference. I would later learn why that was. With some encouragement from the experienced locals, we decided to participate in “hut day.”

I staked out one of the last bunks. There were at least a half dozen other TA trampers headed this way. Generosity only goes so far where a good night’s sleep is concerned. Hut Day is not as exciting as it sounds. It’s essentially an exercise in discipline to not consume all of your food as you sit at the kitchen table, waiting for dinner time. I took a nap and dreamed of steak.

Several other TA trampers showed up early in the afternoon, all Americans. None of them had heard about Waiau, either – other than it was there and we must go over it.

I awoke before sunrise. I could tell others were lying in their bunks, awake, and waiting. No one wanted to be the first up. An alarm sounded on someone’s wrist. Movement. Then life. The hut was a bustle of cooking, packing, dressing, and chattering within minutes of the bell. Pavlov trained us well.

We said goodbye to the Tramping Club and set off. It was a good morning to climb. And climb we did. First up the long scree hill to overlook the mighty Lake Constance where not a whiff of a breeze ruffled its clear, placid surface. Dad had the very unfortunate theory that we were done for the day. I assured him that that was the easy part.

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An hour later, the mountains entrapped us on all sides. Snow still lined their peaks and we looked up an even longer scree hill. It was so high, the top, if there was one, disappeared into heaven above. We began, following snow poles up and up. My head bent down, I veered too far to the left and found myself on the wrong side of the loose rock. Traversing back, the entire hill began to slide underfoot like a moving carpet. Oh, shit. I shouted at Dad to stop where he was while I ran laterally across the sliding scree to safety, back to the solid tussock barrier and a snow pole.

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Up and up, up and up, up and up. Until the scree ended and I saw, even higher up and up, the top. There was some three to five inches of snow on the ground. I kicked steps and climbed into the sky. When I at last reached the top at nearly 1,900m, I nearly forgot I was on an island in the South Pacific. Mountains everywhere. As far as you could see without squinting into the brilliant sun.

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But the way down did not look so kind. In fact, it looked like a bad place to be with fresh snow. Although there was no need, Dad and I told each other to be careful. In most places, the snow was deep enough to avoid slipping on slick rock and I sank step after step down the mountain. Following snow poles, the ridge suddenly stopped. There was no more ridge. There was a cliff. With a bright orange snow pole at the bottom. Who would put it all the way down there?

Baking in the afternoon sun, the long rock wall glistened. Knowing it was somewhat useless, I glanced about for a better way down. There wasn’t. I stowed my poles, turned around, and climbed backwards down the rock face, hoping the foot holds were solid. Safely at the bottom, I held my breath as Dad leaned backward into the wall and bumped down the cliff, his pack scraping against the rock, and his heels barely catching on the narrow ledges.

I later Googled “Waiau Pass” and was not surprised to see the keyword “death” attached to it in the results. In 2013, a British tramper on the TA lost his footing and fell somewhere on this section of trail. His body was discovered two days later. I soon found myself reading a forum in which a host of kiwi trampers bashed the ill-prepared “foreign tourists” (aka American and European thru-hikers, many of whom are Triple Crowners) and their complete lack of competence in the New Zealand backcountry.

Competence is a moot point as accidents can happen to anyone, anytime, anywhere and most of the thru-hikers I’ve met are quite savvy on New Zealand style tracks. Preparedness is perhaps more appropriate (case in point: one American tramper asked me if Waiau Pass “was supposed to be hard” shortly before leaving the Blue Lake Hut.) For thru-hikers, Waiau Pass is just a 7 km section of trail in a 3,000 km walk. I think in instances like this, the adventuresome tramping mentality and the goal oriented thru-hiking mindset are dangerously incompatible.

All the same, we’re not dead yet and Waiau Pass will live in my memory as the most worthwhile and incredible moment on the trail. After three more days in the backcountry, we hitch-hiked into the resort town of Hanmer Springs where I abandoned my long-standing rule to never soak in a hot tub on a hot day.

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