Brilliance of winter mountain tops

Her brows are lowered, glowering.  Her lower lip is thrust out, railing against a reality that’s standing in her way.  She’s expressing a full-on scowly pout.

Sounds like Naomi, yes?

Close, but not exactly.  I’m ashamed to admit that’s me.  That apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.

It’s amazing how visceral the bodily reaction is, how perfectly I mirror my daughter’s expression.  It gives me more sympathy for her plight.  How often is her autonomy has been threatened or her will thwarted?  Kids often get told that their plans are rubbish, or not well thought out, or needing adjustment….wherever along the spectrum of positivity the parent happens to be that day; it all means they don’t get to do what they want.  I know what that’s like.

I had planned a hike last weekend with a friend, but on Thursday the text came: “I’m still snotty and grotty with a cold that just won’t go away.  Sorry for the late notice, but I was hoping it would disappear….”

Bummer.

But the forecast was superb for the mountains, and I like hiking alone.  I was still keen to go.  I was definitely NOT keen to stay home.  “I’m hell-bent on going hiking this weekend!” I declared to Jeremiah.  I’m practicing clear spousal communication, can you tell?  He cocked his brow at the rashness of my decision.

The only problem is that we hadn’t decided where we were going to go, and it was Thursday night, and I hate trip planning…..which unfortunately is part of any trip. Sigh.

I looked at Pfiefer bivvy, working out if I was gutsy enough to find my own way up a creek bed, over a trail-less ridge, and down a scree run.  Maybe not this weekend.

Then I noticed Mt Aiken on the map.  I had been wanting to hike that one for a while now, and the calm wind and sunny forecast made it a tempting prospect.

“I think I’ll hike Mt. Aiken,” I announced.

“How far is it?” Jeremiah queried.

“I don’t know….it’s a day hike.  Starts right at Punchbowl Falls, and splits off from there.”

Jeremiah scrutinized the map.  “That ridge looks a little narrow,” he noted, zooming in on the aerial.  “It might be icy.”  He checked the forecast.  “25 kph wind,” he announced.  “That doesn’t sound very nice.”  His critical view was discouraging.  That’s when my involuntary glower started.  “Well, ‘hell-bent’ as you are on hiking, I think you might get up there and make a bad decision,” he stated, my hyperbole coming back to bite me.

I stared at the laptop screen.  Maps.  I toggled between the aerial view and the topo map, struggling to figure out which were the ridges and which were the valleys.  Ach.  I poured us a beer to see if that would help.  It didn’t, so I went back to the comfortingly tangible job of pulling together hiking food.

Jeremiah started looking at other routes.  Unlike for me, maps are his friends.  “How about Mt Bealey,” he suggested, showing me the features.  There was a big shallow bowl behind the ridge that would make a decent alternative route if the ridge proved to be too sketchy.

Reluctantly I considered it.  I’d feel rather foolish if I got into trouble on a route that I had insisted on taking against my husband’s advice, I was forced to admit.  But I think I can decide for myself when a climb is becoming unsafe, and turn back.  Darn.  Caution and frustrating rationality were winning over autonomy and spontaneity, as always, and I resigned myself to taking Jeremiah’s suggestion.

Thankfully we already owned a good topo map of Arthur’s pass, so I quickly finished tossing my stuff in my backpack and went to bed.

It was sunny by the time I arrived in Arthur’s pass the next morning.  Cold, but a steep climb soon fixed that.  I heard a kea’s screechy call, and admired the long waterfalls coming off the snow-capped peaks.  The route description had said that there was no other safe way down this side than the ridge, and looking at the bluffs, I believed it.

Popping out of the trees, I could see the road far below, and hear the train’s whistle.  Not exactly back country, but the views were panoramic nevertheless.  I climbed through the tussock and reached the first bit of the rocky ridge.  The drop down to the right was a startlingly steep scree slope, so I kept left as much as possible.  Patches of snow began to appear, but they were soft and safe in the sun.  I reached a high point after a cautiously poking my way along a cornice, comfortingly solid under my stick.  I checked my phone—reception, and data too.  I sent Jeremiah a text.  “I’m on the small peak before bealey, going well.  I’m going to tootle along a bit more and check out the next ridge.”  I might as well keep him updated, he was probably afraid of being left to raise two young kids on his own.

I didn’t like that next ridge, as it turns out, so I backtracked a bit, stopped to put on my microspikes and went down and across the big white clean expanse of the bowl behind the ridge. I could see old tracks where someone had gone down on skis, and tracks of a lone hare, but otherwise it was clear and bright, the deep snow smoothing out all the rocks and grass and streams. It’s amazing, gliding along the crusty top of the snow—like what I imagine moon walking to be, but in a much more hospitable environment.

Part way up the next side I put on my snow shoes, climbing a bit of softer snow tipped towards the afternoon sun. It was lunch time when I popped up to the last ridge and trudged up to the summit. The view was exhilarating. Avalanche peak was there to the west, with Mt Rolleston glimmering behind it. In the summer I’m going to come back to the valley beyond Avalanche and walk out the Waimakariri valley I could see below to the south.

Tea time with the Waimakariri river far below.

On the way back down I gazed at Mt Aiken to the north across the valley where Arthur’s Pass village hunkered.  The rocks on the ridge line looked dry, with the snow in the shadier side just behind and below the ridge.  It had only taken me half a day to reach the summit of Mt Bealey; maybe tomorrow there would be time to try Mt Aiken.

It was before 2:00 when I reached the tree line again, and stopped for afternoon coffee. I was carrying that stove and gas can, I might as well use it to the max! The village below was already in the mountain shadow, so I decided to stay put for a while. I had phone reception, so I caught up on messages, thought about life, and lounged in the sun for nearly two hours before finishing the descent through the trees.

I stayed in the Alpine Club’s lodge Saturday night.  “Lodge” makes it sound fancy, but it’s not; more like a rough bach.  Passable and cheap.

Next morning I started up Mt Aiken. It was windy and chilly in the village, but as I climbed it got still.  Odd, but maybe the wind is funnelled over the pass and maybe the trail was sheltered by the mountain to the west?  Anyway, I wasn’t complaining.  I heard another kea.

This climb had less snow than the previous day, as the slope was facing the sun.  The ridge was dry, and wide enough to feel safe from the scree fall to the west and the snowy slope to the east.  These ridges are jagged, the mountain rock being easy to fracture and break apart, not smooth like the hard granite of the Adirondacks.

I picked my way cautiously over the ridgeline, even putting on my spikes for the snow on the last 5 meters before the first summit. A band of cloud hung just over the mountains to the west; I was on the east side of the divide, in the sun, while anyone just over in Otira would be swathed in cloud. I laughed out loud. It was spectacular, it wasn’t even windy, and no one else was up here!

Except a pair of tahr. Or chamois…or deer. I’m really not knowledgeable enough to guess who’s footprints these were, or why they were sidling along the mountain tops.

I looked along the next bit of ridge to the true summit, eyeing up a narrow spot where the snow had blown through the ridge and the possible falls to either side.  Nope, first summit was enough for me.  Jeremiah would be proud of that conservative choice.  I turned around and started back down.

It was a magnificent weekend. Enough risk to make me feel strong and independent, while not enough danger to be stupid. And it was surprisingly nice to be front country—to have time to communicate with some friends and also to think.

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Snowshoe excursion

“That’s not our track!” I protest, as Jeremiah veered off the road to the gravel parking bay.

“Rough Creek Track, that’s it,” Jeremiah affirmed.

“No it’s not; ours must be a little further ahead,” I insisted, dogmatically.  Admittedly, I find the planning and mapping stages of a hike a necessary nuisance, so I hadn’t actually looked at the map all that closely…..  But I thought we were going on a proper track.  When I had relayed our plans to Emma, her exact words were “oh, you’re not going on Rough Creek track, are you?  That’s a gnarly track.”  I wasn’t feeling gnarly.

“What do you want?” Jeremiah demanded.  “Do you want to turn back?”

“No…..no, I want to go on a hike.  Can I just look at the map for a minute?”

It was Rough Creek that we had planned, marked right there on the map.  Darn.

As we climbed though the green beech forest, I kept waiting for the gnarly to appear.  Track wash-outs, blow-downs, thick scrub….. but nothing.  Just a steep relentless climb up rocks and roots to the bush line.  Oh well, I suppose gnarly is a relative term, and Emma had been running the track, downwards.  It certainly would make for a hairy run down, and a breathless scramble up.

The track had started in the middle of that green valley, where Lewis Pass Rd runs through the mountains.

We had planned a different hike for this weekend, but there had been new snow fall in the Mt Potts area, and the avalanche risk was “moderate.”  “Moderate” is too much for us avalanche rookies, especially because our whole planned track was under steep slopes.  So we had switched plans to Lewis Pass late Friday night after dropping the kids off with our friends.  There was very little new snow here.  In fact, when we popped out of the trees and looked up at the open alpine, I thought we had carried the snow shoes for naught.  I could see patches of bare rock all the way up.

Turns out those snow shoes were essential.  Just the ticket in fact, and we were feeling quite smug about having the right gear for the soft snow exposed to the afternoon snow as we trudged up to the saddle.  We paused at the saddle to send Emma a message, saying that we were, in fact, at Rough Creek.

The amazing thing about winter hiking in New Zealand is that hardly anyone does it. We saw one set of old foot prints on our way up, and the decent down the other side was pristine. Pristine, crisp, and fast on the hard cold show of the south side of the mountain—it’s quite the feeling of power, zooming along on top the crust, gravity assisting on the decent, with snow capped mountains quietly standing in every direction.

We left our snowshoes at this pole just where the snow abruptly ended; no need to carry them down to the hut and back up again the next morning.

We reached the intense green of the beech forest again, and descended just as much as we had climbed on the other side, down to Cristobel Hut.

It’s a nice little DOC hut in a clearing on the river, and no one else was there.

We lit the fire, made some coffee, spread some mattresses on the floor, and broke out the chocolate.

The next day we retraced our steps up through the woods, but took a different line through the snow to the saddle. The sparkles on the snow were big, maybe frost crystals that had grown over several nights, more like stars than I’ve ever seen before in the snow.

At the saddle we again marveled at the expansive view, appreciated by us alone, and crunched down the now-hardened snow to the bush line.

It probably sounds stuck up, but it’s an amazing feeling to get out into the mountains where no one else is.  It makes you feel strong, intrepid.  The open physical space somehow facilitates a better head space.  It’s a potent antidote to the ease of suburban living, to the numbing routine of vacuuming and squabbling kids and asphalt.  We’re so lucky to live in the sparsely populated country, always close to the mountains.  

People soup

“Yikes, look at that car park!  We had better carry that tent!”  Carrie counted a dozen cars as we rolled into the muddy paddock that was the start of the Toaroa valley track.    And the group just organizing themselves to set off was about 10 college kids debating whether they needed two or three liters of marguarita mix, on top of the Raro and vodka that was already packed.

Of course, it WAS a holiday weekend (God save the Queen! And keep those birthdays rolling), and the east coast forecast was miserable drizzle and cold rain for three days straight.  West Coast, uncharacteristically, was meant to be blue skies.  We were also headed to a well known hut within 4 hours of the road that was famed for its hot pools.  Blue skies + long weekend + accessible hut + good hot pools = popular.

On the way there Carrie and I indulged in some much-needed womanly communion, covering the gamut of husband-dreaded topics (relationships, pregnancy, woman in careers, mama guilt….).

Just before the hut is the longest wiggliest swing bridge I’ve ever crossed. Not that I’m complaining! It sure beats wading the river, and we saw a pair of whio (rare NZ blue ducks) from the vantage point of the bridge.

Much refreshed in mind (though ready for a rest in body), we arrived at the hut just in time for afternoon tea.

The hut residents looked us over and quickly.  ‘The hut is FULL!” they declared cheerfully.  “Absolutely chocker!”

There’s an old historic hut that sits right next to the modern hut at Cedar Flats, a two-bunker… it had five people already in residence!

We set up our tent in the field, then sipped our tea before strolling up to the hot pools, which were on a side stream above the hut.  “People soup!” Carrie chuckled, as we tried to guess how many of our fellow trampers were already thronging the pools.  As it turned out, we got a turn in the pools while they were quiet.  When we got back, the whole field was covered in tents.

The hot pools really were FANTASTIC.  I have been roundly disappointed with natural hot springs many times before.  In my imagination they should be like my childhood pop-up book with Japanese macaques calmly poking their heads up and down though the clear steamy water, snow encrusted mountains surrounding the serene pools.  In reality all the natural hot pools I’ve visited have been ankle-deep in slime (bacteria like the warm sulfury water) and swarming with ravenous blood-sucking sandflies.

But this spring was more silty than slimy, the water mysteriously satiny with swirling black particles.  The sulfur water turned by bracelet from silver to bronze in a matter of minutes–ah, the power of chemistry!  It really was good and hot too–steam rose all around us, only slightly obscuring the view of the snowy peaks.  It must have been too cold for the majority of the sandflies, and the college kids didn’t pile in until we were finished.  The hot water was seeping from a spring on the opposite side of the freezing creek, but with the good hot soak we could bank enough body heat to bolster us during the splash back, rinsing, and reclothing process.

Clear starry skies delivered a hard frost in the morning.  The water from our breath had frozen inside our tent, and was snowing down on us by morning.  I wore every scrap of clothes that I had, and was warm enough.  We crowded into the hut with the rest of the gang for breakfast, then set off for a day-hike quest to find snow.  I had carried my snow shoes and was determined to use them.

The trail was a no-nonsense shortest route to the a mountain saddle.  Read that as STEEP.  When you go straight up it’s amazing how fast you gain altitude.

Low down we crossed this stream that joined another and went through a gorge. Can you see the blue of the water? The color of the water is amazing.

The big trees ended just at the first patches of snow, and Adventure Biv greeted us, cheerfully orange.  What a spot!  We almost wished we had carried our stuff up the hill last night to be able to perch there.  Almost….except the climb was really steep and the water at the bivvy was all frozen.  The exit sign on the inside of the door cracked me up….as if you could exit that structure any other way!  Government regulations I suppose….

We ate our lunch in the sun, feeling like sultans, then moved up into the snow just as cloud cover obscured the sun.  I had really wanted to get to Zit saddle, but the going was slow with the soft snow hiding the path and pockets of air beneath the tussocks.  It was still fantastic though; the snow brings back good winter hiking memories from the Adirondacks.  In the end we just went a little ways beyond the bivvy, looked at our watches, and decided to play it safe with day light and go back to the hut and the hot pools.

Couldn’t resist trying out this tree perch.  A rata tree, I think, that was hosting lots of other species of greenery in its branches.

The next morning on our way out we decided to try the flood route.  Most people walk the river bed, as we had done on the way in, but there was a marked (if not as well maintained) trail higher up the bank in case the river is too high to walk.  The boulders had been slick and icy on our way in and we decided to try our luck with the flood route on the way back.  It was quite vertical!  But the tree ferns were amazing, and I kept trying my hand at IDing the big podocarp species NZ is known for–rimu, totara, miro, as well as others like kamahi and rata.  If you didn’t know better, this place would look tropical.  Certainly exotic, if not warm.

As we drove back over the Alps towards the east coast the clouds got thicker and the roads got wetter.  It was still raining, same as when we had left Saturday morning.  I’d like to say that we were thinking compassionately of our husbands who had been minding the kids on their own over the long wet weekend, but….

 

Mission: Wharfedale by bike

This doesn’t look like Wharfedale hut, does it? There are some NZ huts in lovely settings, but this, alas, is not Wharfedale. It’s the beach at New Brighton where we started the day, with Jeremiah and his friend Ben cutting up deer meat after the previous week’s successful hunt, and me bringing the kids down to the beach for a play.

Actually, nothing really went wrong. The track was just a little bumpier than the kids are used to, it was a warm day (read that as fatiguingly hot to Mr. Red-faced Milo), and as the afternoon wore on the lollies had to come at progressively close intervals.

Naomi was at the point of stopping and sitting on the ground when we hooked her up to Daddy’s bike, after which her demeanor changed completely. “Let’s go, Dad!” she shouted, cracking the proverbial whip as she bounced cheerfully along.

The four-wheel drive track crossed the river at various places, but as it was a warm day, wet feet weren’t a bother. Naomi waited at the river’s edge like a princess, reaching up her arms for her lift over after the bikes had been transported.  She was wearing her “biking skirt,” which means it was short and poofy enough not to get dirty on the tire.

Milo did really well, even through the last bit of uphill single track that required lots of bike pushing, but I could hear the desperation mounting as we rounded every corner: “Are we there yet??” “Almost,” I kept saying, as I inserted gummy candies into his mouth and pushed his bike from behind. Finally we heard voices through the trees and knew we were well and truly almost there.

Upon reaching the hut they both completely revived, swinging on the ladder and noisily claiming bunks. The glorious people with whom we shared the hut just smiled and tolerated the mayhem, even chatting back at times.

For some reason Milo was convinced that salamanders lived in the stream at the hut, and even fancied he saw some as he reached down for skipping rocks. We spent a pleasant few minutes aiming stones at a rock while Daddy cooked dinner.

“When can we get up?” they inquired at sun-up, in a resonating whisper. “Shh! Everyone else is sleeping!” we admonished them. Rustle, rustle. Giggle, squeal. Those wonderful people on the bottom bunk didn’t even voice a complaint.

The bike out was slightly down hill, and therefore easier. We managed to pause from swatting sand flies for long enough to get a group photo before we set off.

The water looks nice, doesn’t it? It was “fresh,” as they say here. Translation: COLD. Jeremiah gamely jumped off the rock three times before I got a suitable photo.

A tramp with our Weatherproof Brits

“I know a really great hut, up on the Banks Peninsula, an easy walk in for kids–want to book it for a weekend with the families?” It was probably three months ago that Ian suggested the plan. This particular DOC hut is so enormously popular that it has a booking system, so you must lock in a weekend trip well in advance, and you can’t reschedule in the event of rain. Good thing we were going with the Weatherproof Brits. Come rain, hail, cloud or shine, they will cheerfully follow through with the plan.

First off, one must wear one’s best pink attire for hiking. Fashion makes for happiness.

It doesn’t matter that the pink gets covered up in red wet weather gear–it’s what’s on the inside that counts.
These totara trees aren’t flexibly blowing in the wind. They are permanently deformed, buffeted by near constant wind until only the shoots that emerge on the leeward side survive.

It was only an hour’s walk to the hut, but the blustery sky was starting to glower and spit, and it was good to duck inside–still warm from the previous residents.

The kids carried in fire wood and we stoked the pot belly stove all afternoon, watching clouds envelope the hut until it felt truly remote.

It turns out that logs make good fort building materials, and the kids contentedly set up shop. Adults drank coffee, I knitted on a hat.

I baked rolls for dinner. I like the Pittsburgh stove, a little reminder of home, and warm winter houses. I like New Zealand, really I do, but the home heating is furnaceless, mired in the dark ages of single pane windows,and uninsulated floors.. It was a treat to make a room warm enough to comfortably wear short sleeves.  The windows in the hut are better than those in our house.

Jeremiah baked ziti for dinner. Our English friends had to google ziti during our email planning to figure out what it was. “Lazy man’s lasagna,” we described it. It was yummy, again done on the Pittsburgh stove.

The composting toilet was very civilized, and didn’t smell, despite heavy usage. The only improvement I’d suggest would be to turn the window to the view side.

Bed time for Bonzo. We put the younger kids to bed in the top bunks and took out a deck of Quiddler and a bottle of beer for the evening.

Emma said we were the noisiest family she has ever shared a room with. Jeremiah snores (clearly), and apparently Naomi and Milo talk in their sleep. I slept through nearly all of it.

The stars came out during the night and the next day “dawned clear and fresh as could be, blue sky and never a cloud, with the sun dancing on the water.” Now we could fully appreciate the view from the hut windows.

A short walk into the hut means we can really go luxurious with the breakfast. Sausages and eggs with cinnamon rolls (again, complements of the wood stove).

Here’s the whole gang, ready to roll out in the morning.

A family weekend, enhanced all-round by the company of friends.

Alpine again: Hawdon to Edwards

“We could walk in to Hawdon hut Friday night,” Jeremiah suggested early in the week.  I recoiled.  It’s autumn now, and nights are Cold.  And Dark.  River crossings would be in the cold dark….  Late entry to a cold, dark hut….  Ug.

“Um, that doesn’t sound like very much fun to me,” I grimaced.

“Ok then,” Jeremiah acquiesced, raising his eyebrows.  “But if you want to do that hike, it might be worth the three hour walk in the dark.”

And I really did want to do that hike.  I’ve been eyeing it for a couple years now, ever since I walked in to the hut by myself one warm summer evening and peaked up over the edge of the trees to the alpine meadow beyond.  It had been sunny and calm, idyllic conditions that rarely happen in the mountains, and the little tarn with the path wending through the tussocks had been so inviting….  The book said the route continued over a couple mountain passes and then down into a valley beyond.  It would entail two nights out and lots of climbing, and a hitch hike at the end.  It would be a good one to do with a capable mountain man like Jeremiah.

“Well, maybe if the weather for the next two days is perfect, then it would be worth the wretched Friday night walk in,” I consented.

We planned two other less ambitious routes, and I waited until Wednesday to look at the weekend forecast.  I was shocked to see a big fat high pressure system sitting over the whole of the Southern Alps.  Sunny and calm for three days straight.  Probably worth that three hour walk in the dark!

Jeremiah’s frozen breath shown in a ragged cloud in my head lamp. Cold dew drops sparkled on the grass, and the riverbed rocks clattered under our feet. We were looking for the four-wheel-drive track up the river bed, but more often than not we lost it. Not that it mattered….the hut was three hours up the river. We turned off our lights and the moon lit the world in silver and black. We tromped through the water, then turned and splashed through the winding river again. We heard a noise and stopped to listen. It was the chirpy chortle of a kiwi bird. “I’ve never heard one in the wild before!” I exclaimed.

“I smell smoke! The hut must be close!” Walking in the dark had been a lot more pleasant than I expected, but I was still ready to shuck the wet boots, and smoke held the promise of a warm hut. We clomped up the steps and a startled face peered out the window. Poor guy. It’s disconcerting to have newcomers show up during the night when you have been sound asleep. We apologized and moved our stuff quickly to the adjoining bunk room. It was cold, and I snuggled into my sleeping bag fully dressed, a wooly cap on my head.

The next morning we slept in until 7:30, cooked our oatmeal, and slid our feet into our wet boots. Just as the sun reached the hut, we set off.

Selfie! Jeremiah and Molly were here, Hawdon Hut, May 5th, 2017.

We climbed in the dappled sun through the beech trees until we reached the alpine zone. The hut would be somewhere on the right of the valley there.

It was frosty in the shadow of the mountain when we turned on to the alpine meadow this time, and the icy rocks were slippery.  We passed a couple picturesque tarns, but they were NOT enticing for a swim. This one had its first delicate coat of ice crusting the top.

We waited until rounding the next bend before we stopped to admire this view and have our morning tea (or morning hot tang, as Jeremiah chose), airing our damp socks in the sun.

It’s a good thing that the man has a sense of humor. He almost “stepped in a puddle up to his middle and never was seen again!” Well, that might be a slight exaggeration, but the patch of mud that looked solid turned out deeper than expected, and I couldn’t stop giggling. I never have
been a very sympathetic soul.

Soon after that the trail took a turn up another shady valley with a steep rocky stream, crisp with frost. We did eventually pop out into another alpine platueau, Walker’s Pass, where Jeremiah spotted the second chamois of the day.

What better thing to do in a pristine alpine meadow than a head stand? Well, a cart wheel would be better, but I’m rubbish at those. Those tough little mountain plants may look soft and inviting, but they’re actually quite prickly on the scalp.

At the end of the meadow the trail drops off abruptly to this massive scree field below. This is on the Divide, the watershed between the east coast and the west coast, and also the location of the biggest fault line in New Zealand. The scree slope we slid down is in front of the appropriately named Falling Mountain. The landscape is bizarre, like a gigantic pile of rubble in a war zone or maybe Mars. Not a lot of stability in the environment here.  It is ridiculously fun to slide/walk DOWN a scree slope, but punishing to traverse.  Thankfully, our route went down.

We paused for lunch out of the rock fall zone (we hoped), realizing that it would be an unfortunate place to be should another earthquake happen. The low autumn sun tucked behind the surrounding mountain peaks, and we spent the next two hours in the shade, poking around for the trail under overgrown tussocks and crossing the river repeatedly.

A cloud pushed ominously down the valley behind us as we walked.

Finally we saw trees ahead, and the hut just beyond some wonderfully constructed over-marsh walkways. There was smoke coming from the chimney–the promise of warmth.

That cloud never did extend all the way down the valley to the Edwards Hut where we spent the night, and the next morning was again blue sky. The hut was inhabited by two Frenchmen and an Irishman, all working in Christchurch. I like the company in the huts; it often has an international flavor, and the accents are as colorful as the opinions.

My phone battery died in the cold of the night, so I have no photos of the walk out down the Edwards valley.  It’s a shame, because the beech forest was green and inviting, and at the bottom we rounded a bend into an eerily frosted section of the river that never sees the sun at this time of the year.  A mist hung over the frozen rocks and I half expected to come across a kea picking at a dead deer or something even less savory and more haunting.  I was glad when we finally turned the last corner back into the sun and I could shake off the spooks.

The guys we had spent the night with at the hut had a car at the Edwards Valley end, and they generously offered to give us a lift back down to the Hawden.  No need to even hitch a ride.

We picked up the kids at Emma and Ian’s house, and it turns out that they had enjoyed their weekend in town as much as we had enjoyed ours in the mountains. Check out this cake decorating! Milo had picked up a book from the library all about elaborate Christmas cake designs with reign deer made from frosting and other such horrors. I advised him that I’m not good at cake decorating, least of all Christmas cake decorating, and he would have to consult with Emma for that skill. Thanks heaps, Emma!

 

Green mountain therapy

Ah, the New Zealand Alpine. I’ve missed it. It’s been nearly a year since I’ve been tramping, but my back is feeling much better and I planned a weekend hike with some girlfriends. We headed up to Lewis Pass Saturday morning and lucked out with the weather.

We were looking for a not-too-difficult tramp that included least a little high country, so we settled on a morning walk with just day packs up to the Lewis Tops, lunching in the alpine tussocks, then back down to the start of the St James walkway where we’d pick up our overnight packs and head to a hut for the night. My hiking companions this weekend were Steph (Australian) and Irmana (Spanish).

When you look closely at the alpine ground covers, you have to be impressed with their variety and toughness. I had on a coat and gloves, and it wasn’t even winter. These little guys get alternatively scorched by the sun, frazzled by the gales, and petrified under snow….and yet they look cheerful. Some are even making berries.

The Lewis Tops walk continues for a few miles over this ridge line. There is a hut up here somewhere, a tiny “bivouac” two-bunker.
About 12 hours after starting you eventually reach a bigger hut in a valley (so the map says). I’m going to come back some day and do it. Some gloriously still day. Maybe the wind stops up here on occasion? It was remarkably chilly up where the clouds were skimming low and we were glad we had decided NOT to tent up here. But I’ll be back.

Lewis Tops

It was hard to turn around, but turn around we did. “The path goes ever, ever on…over grass and over stone….and I must follow, if I can….” JRR Tolkien.

The good part about going down is heading back into the trees. Lots of people don’t like hiking through forest because they find it boring compared to the outlook of the tops. But I don’t get tired of the GREEN.  Especially the dappled green of a sunny day.  I just love it.

The St James walkway has very luxurious swing bridges. We crossed two of them. You don’t take bridges for granted on NZ tramps, as may of the trails involve wet-foot crossings!  I had promised the girls a flat hike in, but I obviously mis-remembered from last time.  “Undulating” would describe the route better.  I have to say it felt flatter on the way out, on rested legs.  

Across one bridge sits a little clay man on a stone (yes, he has man parts), laughing at you as you bounce across the bridge. Whatever he is made of weathers pretty well; I remember him there from a couple years ago!

Cannibal Gorge Hut. So named because lots of human bones have been found in this valley, a trading and raiding route for Maori tribes coveting greenstone from the west coast. There’s speculation that the people were eaten after losing a battle. I wonder what Man tastes like. Ug. This hut has never been one of my favorites, maybe because of the name, or maybe because last time we were here it was completely infested with mice.

No matter about the Ghosts of Cannibals lurking nearby. We lit a fire and passed a cheerful evening. Did you know that Old Man’s Beard lichen makes an excellent fire starter?

The frost was heavy on the grass in the morning, the first I’ve seen this year (being a city-dwelling low lander these days).

Frost is beautiful, when you’re personally warm at least.  Which I was.  Hurray for good gear (thanks to Jeremiah for that).

A three hour walk in the morning brought us back out to our car. This part of the forest has green above and green below, a mature southern hemisphere beech forest. They’re good for pondering, these forests. Is there something inherently contemplative and restful about the color green? It seems that way to me.

So, I’m back in the hiking business.  It’s great.  Really great.  I feel like I have my identity back.