Departing, finally.

Departing, finally. 

January 16, 2018

About to board my flight to New Zealand, just my second foray into solo international travel, or actually international travel at all. After months of diligent research and meticulous planning, I’m anxious to discover what I’ve missed and see what best-laid plans will fail due to circumstances beyond my control. No amount of spreadsheets, trail descriptions, and apps could possibly account for all of the unknowns, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t try- in true engineer-type fashion. And thanks to Instagram, I literally just found another side trip I wanna try to squeeze in. Never a dull moment in my world. 

I’m also beyond excited to see some breathtaking landscapes and experience a new culture. This is a land that’s world-renowned for its outdoor recreation and extreme sports, a country that has topped my wishlist for over a decade. Ninety days in NZ are sure to pass far too quickly.

I’ve spent the last 24 hours laying over in Hawai’i. It’s my second trip to the island state, and my first trip to Oahu. I rented a car and zipped out to the Olomana (aka the Three Peaks Trail), an epic, exposed 5-mile-ish out and back trek. I was totally scared as I dropped off the second peak and climbed the third. Ufta, y'all. The ridge is narrow, and the trail is easy to follow...if you have the nerve. It’s another iconic Hawaiian trail on par with longer treks like Waimanu Valley on the Big Island and the Kalalau Trail on Kauai, but packed into a smaller package. Boy was it worth the extra time, money, and effort. 

And now I’m seated on the plane. (I’ve been typing this brief update as we’ve been boarding.) A middle seat is certainly not what I wanted, but that’s the price I’m paying for not getting to the airport until two hours ago. Oh well, tackling the Olomana was well-worth the tougher accommodations for the nearly 9-hour flight ahead. #noregrets.

 

Great Walk :: Lake Waikaremoana

Great Walk :: Lake Waikaremoana

January 21, 2018

START: Trailhead Shelter @ 0445
FINISH: Whanganui Hut @ 1845
DISTANCE: 42 km
CUMULATIVE: 42 km

The last few days have been kind of a blur, a lot of traveling. It's hard to believe that I landed in Auckland on January 17, just four (long) days ago. Despite losing a day due to crossing the International Date Line, I really wasn't jet-lagged. Touched down around 2300 and just spent the first night at the airport. (I'm a total dirtbag like that.) Spent the next day in Auckland securing cell service, procuring a DOC hut pass, and generally exploring. The weather was rainy and grey, so I got a bunk at a downtown hostel. I caught the bus down to Gisborne Friday morning and spent a night there before catching another bus down to Wairoa and ultimately a shuttle up to Big Bush and the start of the Lake Waikaremoana Great Walk. 

I spent last night at the trailhead shelter and woke to the buzz of my alarm at 0400. Well, that, and a periodic thud coming from somewhere under the shelter. I turned on my headlamp to find a possum hanging from one of the columns. He looked me over, then moseyed on up the trail before I could fetch my GoPro. I love seeing different kinds of wildlife, so I counted that a strong start to my day. I was packed up and hit the trail by 0445. The day just kept looking up, because I came across two more possums, a mom and her baby, just a few hundred meters up the trail. This time I managed a few snaps in the dim light of my headlamp before trekking on with a giddy heart and a goofy smile. "Oh, the things I've seen," I thought to myself. 

The track started off level but quickly became steep as it seemed to go straight up the backside of the bluff. About halfway up the relentless climb, I came to a beautiful, exposed overlook and decided to wait the 45 minutes for sunrise, expecting that the steep cliffs rising above the lake would make a wonderful photo op. In the end, the sun rose further south than I'd anticipated, so I didn't get the golden light I'd desired, but I was grateful for the break nonetheless. 

After that, the track ducked back into the trees as I climbed ever higher. I reached the Panekire Hut just before 9a and was a greeted by a woman whose jaw dropped clear to the boardwalk when I told her where I'd started. She said "Well you're amazing, you are" in a thick Aussie accent. Ha! I had just been thinking that I'm not in the shape I'd like, and she greets me with that. Funny how different our perspectives can be; it's all relative. 

As I traversed the bluffs, there were a handful of overlooks that showcased the beauty that qualifies this little jaunt as one of New Zealand's famed Great Walks. Looking back, the initial climb up and over the bluffs was my favorite part. It reminded me of tramping on the Appalachian Trail in maybe Tennessee or the Carolinas. After dropping back down, the vegetation became dense with thick moss hanging from the trees, which reminded me of tramping on the Olympic Penninsula in Washington state. Even after the vegetation thinned out, the lush green tunnel was reminiscent of the Columbia River Gorge, yet another gem in the Pacific Northwest region of the States. And finally the heat and smothering humidity coupled with endless short climbs and descents, climbs and descents, climbs and descents as I weaved my way in and out of drainages feeding the lake- all of that felt like the Kalalau on Kauai. I actually found the diversity along these relatively short 42 k's to be quite inspiring and engaging, including the quick side trip up to Korokoro Falls where I enjoyed lunch. It was a gorgeous, lush nook where the falls drop 22 meters over a stone cliff and into a pool below the overlook. 

I arrived at the Whanganui Hut about an hour ago and have decided to skip the last 4-ish k's to Hopuruahine Landing. It's an out-and-back from here, and the scenery hasn't changed for hours, so I don't expect it will between here and there. Besides, I'm beat. As soon as I got here, I just collapsed on my bunk with barely a word to the other trampers. Haven't had dinner, and don't plan to cook. Probably just eat a few bars and some oreos. (Dinner of champions!) I'll get a good night's rest and catch the water taxi from here in the morning. 

Despite its impressive classification as a Great Walk, the Lake Waikaremoana walk isn't particularly well-traveled. The track is reasonably maintained, though not to the standard described on other Great Walks. There were periods of overgrowth and some muddy sections, but nothing that wasn't easily negotiated. Certainly I saw my fair share of people, but I booked my hut just yesterday without any trouble. (I'd actually expected that I'd have to finish the walk and wild camp somewhere near the road at Hopuruahine Landing, then backtrack for the water taxi tomorrow morning.)

I really enjoyed this tramp, and it was a brutal illustration of just how far out of shape I am (by my standards, anyways). Y'all, it was bad. Tongariro Circuit in just a few short days, and that'll be considerably more challenging (and more beautiful!), though I plan to do that with just a day pack, which will help considerably. New Zealand is amazing so far, and I expect it will only get better as I work my way south. Better get my legs under me.

Great Walk :: Tongariro Northern Circuit

Great Walk :: Tongariro Northern Circuit

January 24, 2018

START: Whakapapa @ 0445
FINISH: Whakapapa @ 2135
DISTANCE: 43 + 5 km
CUMULATIVE: 90 km

Hitching up from Taupo yesterday wasn’t too difficult. Never waited more than 5 minutes for a pick up, though I did chose to walk a fair bit out of town to get to a prime spot to kick off the series of four rides that ultimately brought me to the backpacker hostel at Whakapapa Holiday Park. I managed to mess myself up a bit by staying in one car about 15 k's beyond my turn. Ended up taking a bypass road with an older Maori couple, literally the only car going that way, to avoid backtracking all the way to Turangi. On the sparsely-traveled bypass, we had to drive through a treacherous wet crossing where a culvert was totally blocked, diverting flood water and sending large debris across the road as if it were a full-on river. I imagine that section is going to be totally washed out by the time the water subsides. Gnarly, unpredictable weather and huge, steep catch basins can make any stream impassable. One of the challenges of tramping - and apparently driving - in this beautiful country.

I arrived and retrieved my key from the after hours box, then went over to the backpacker lodge where I found one other person. Jason is a nice guy who also happens to be a Tech alum from Atlanta. Funny we should meet for the first time way out here on the opposite side of the world from our mutual home. We chatted for a while before calling it a night. I had a crazy early wake up call this morning and still needed to prep my gear last night before crawling into bed.

My alarm buzzed at 0400 and I quickly (and quietly) packed up and snuck out. I hit the trail by 0500 under a clear sky filled with brilliant stars. It was brisk this morning, and I walked swiftly to generate some extra body heat while I waited for the sun to rise. Within 30 minutes, I was immersed in a thick, wet fog and couldn’t see 3 meters ahead of me. I walked along like that for an hour hoping it wasn’t a sign of the day to come. It wasn’t, thankfully. In fact, I could say it was too clear. (Never satisfied.) I’ve heard folks say that mountains make their own weather, which usually seems to be a reference to great weather low and storms up high. Today it was quite the opposite- we were above the thick cloud cover with only clear blue skies overhead for much of the day.

When I merged with the Tongariro Crossing track near Mangatepope Hut, there were already dozens of hikers ahead of me. They’d been dropped by shuttle to do this relatively short, though definitely gem-studded, leg of the full circuit. It’s an absurdly popular day hike, and shuttles seem to run endlessly throughout the day. I passed dozens of folks as we climbed to the South Crater. Once there, we were standing at the base of Tolkien’s Mt. Doom. The side trail wasn’t marked, so I ended up cutting cross country and kicking steps the whole way up the steep, loose Northeast face. (Turns out the trail actually follows the Northwest ridge. Oops.) It was a relentless slog that took a few hours. I’d kick two steps, slide back one, kick two more, slide back another, rest, and repeat. My legs were thrashed, and I was totally knackered when I finally topped out. I spent over an hour up there exploring the crater rim, taking in the 360* views, and having lunch. I was grateful to find the summit trail for the descent, of which I made fairly quick work.

By the time I got back down, The Crossing was totally packed with trampers. It was like an endless line of ants marching by ones and twos, stopping unpredictably in the middle of the trail, and generally acting a fool. Normally I would’ve been annoyed, but I had just climbed Mt. Doom, and I knew that very few hikers were doing the circuit, so I’d be alone again before too long. But not before sharing the Emerald Lakes overlook with hordes of people. I decided to skip Mt. Tongariro because Ngauruhoe had taken longer than I’d anticipated, and to skip Blue Lake because I was over the crowd. I hadn’t carried enough water from Mangatepope, so I treated water from the exit stream at Emerald Lakes, then kept on keeping on. It was quickly getting late in the day. The rest of the hike was beautiful, but the epic section is decidedly The Crossing, and I’d recommend it to anyone despite the crowds.

It was hot today, maybe 32* centigrade, and exposed. I got pretty burned on my calves, quads, wrists, and the back of neck. Pretty rookie move, not reapplying sunscreen, but it’s a true classic for me. Bring on the skin cancer. I took a 30 minute food, water, shade, and shoes off break at Oturere Hut. It was total bliss. All I wanted to do was lie down, but I had over 20 k's to go and fewer than five hours of daylight to work with. Had to get to it. The sun was finally getting a little lower in the sky and the terrain generally eased. I wouldn’t say I was cruisin’, because I kept stopping to snap photos. I couldn’t help myself. I mean, when will I ever be back there?

As the clouds rolled in and the sun was nearly set, I figured I was done with the “beauty breaks,” but then I got some incredible snaps of the sun setting behind a veil of thin, wispy clouds. It was a brilliant, dramatic red. I’ll never forget it. Seems there’s always another photo to take. Managed to make it to Taranaki Falls, the only other side trip besides Mt. Doom that I’d planned and actually taken, just as twilight waned. That’s especially exciting because it means I can sleep in tomorrow rather than running back up to snap some photos of the falls.

It was after 2130 when I finally finished. Ufta, long dang day. (Sandy Suunto says I took over 65,000 steps today!) Due to its proximity to the track, I’d used the holiday park as a natural staging point. (The Trailhead is literally just across the street.) Stoked I decided to splurge on the extra night. I really like the quaint, comfortable, reasonably priced accommodations, and I finished later than I’d planned, so I’m excited to collapse on a bed with no hassle. In this moment, I’m just sitting on the couch in the common room trying to will myself to shower when all I really wanna do is sleep. So. Tired.

Cook Strait Ferry

Cook Strait Ferry

January 27, 2018

I haven’t done loads of hitch hiking in my life, but I’ve done some, and I’m grateful to have had fair luck in general- both in getting rides, and in meeting pleasant folks. The only exception that readily comes to mind is the time I tried hitching in Arkansas. Boy, that was rough. Walked nearly 20 miles along this narrow, winding, country highway with only about a car every half hour going my way. It took hours and hours for someone to finally stop. And man was it hot that day. But at least I have that very difficult experience to put my other hitch hiking experiences in perspective.

So far in NZ, it’s been wonderful! Left at the same time as the bus walking out of Taupo a few days ago, and arrived in Wellington directly at my hostel at the same time the bus was arriving in city center. Just two hitches, and I was sailing the whole 370 k's. Helluva sweet deal! Road with Kelley and Tina all the way from Turangi, and they were great company for the 4-hour drive. I'd originally hitched north from Whakapapa to Taupo that morning, because I'd planned to take the bus to Wellington. The bus was completely sold out, so I had to turn around and start hitching back the way I'd come. Got to Turangi pretty quickly thanks to Peter, a self-proclaimed gang member. (Not gonna lie, that confession got me wondering if I was in trouble. He turned out to be absolutely wonderful. I kept the conversation focused on his family, mostly his nine(!) children. And he was kind and outgoing the whole hour we road together.) Waited fewer than five minutes before Kelly and Tina pulled over to scoop me up.

Arrived at the Waterloo Backpacker Hostel and met my friend, Sarah, there. She'd reserved a few bunks for us. Got dinner that night and visited the WETA Studio for a tour yesterday. Stayed another night at the hostel, then caught the Interislander Ferry across to the South Island first thing this morning. The ship is massive, and there weren’t a dozen passengers aboard. We had nearly the whole of the ship to ourselves, and the waters were calm. The ride was beautiful! And we saw a bloom of jellyfish from the deck of the ship; they were humming along in the wake. I'd never seen jellyfish in the wild before. These (spotted jellyfish, I think) looked to be quite small from our vantage point high above them.

Had a bit of stress first thing this morning, because I misread the confirmation email. I thought boarding started at 0600 for our 0645 departure. According to the email, 0600 is the final boarding call. Sarah and I left the hostel at 0540 and the walk takes 30 minutes. We had to run the 2.5 k's to the wharf. Our packs were stuffed full, and the race was on. We were both drenched in sweat when we arrived at 0600 on the nose. The boarding agent smiled at us and said they’d begin boarding in about 15 minutes. My eyes opened wide and my jaw dropped. Sarah just smiled at me and said “All part of the adventure, yeah?” We giggled to each other as we checked our bags and took our seats in the waiting area.

We docked in Picton around 1045 and hit the local bakery for some treats before beginning our long hitch down the east coast. We had fair luck today, actually. In fact, we caught our first ride before we’d even reached the edge of town and put our thumbs out. A woman just pulled up and asked if we were hitching south. “Yep!” Jackie drove us the first leg down to Blenheim. From there, we walked to the edge of town and waited about ten minutes for our next ride. A group of foreign winery workers in a dodgy van got us out to Seddon. We began the routine once more, walking out of town along SH1 and thumbing. The next two rides got us maybe 5-10 k's each, which put us in the small community of Ward. Ward is really just a convenience store and some houses. It was about 1530 by this point, and the highway closed each night around 1900 for overnight road work. We still had 90 k's to go, and if progress continued to be choppy, we might fall short of Kaikōura for the night.

Just as we were considering backup plans, Paul pulled over. He’s a road worker who was heading all the way through to Kaikōura. Eureka! We’d done it. Paul was totally awesome. He gave us all kinds of background on the 2016 earthquake (Magnitude: 7.8) that had devastated the region and the ongoing recovery work. The engineer in me found it fascinating, even as Sarah drifted in and out of sleep in the backseat of the truck.

We arrived in Kaikōura at a reasonable 1630 and were able to pick up groceries and maps for the East-West Route, which we’re planning to begin tomorrow morning. It’s a sweet 115 kilometre cross country route through the Molesworth region. So stoked! We’re camping at a beach south of Kaikōura tonight having caught a late-night hitch out of town. Still have about 20 k’s to hitch up the Inland Road tomorrow morning. Expecting it to be a bit challenging, since it’s not a heavily travelled road. Gonna get up around 0600 and try to be out to the road by 0700. That’ll mean a late morning start for the walk, which could make for a long day since it’s 27 k’s to the Clarence River and the first hut of the trip. But those are all tomorrow’s worries. Now, bed.

East-West Backcountry Route

East-West Backcountry Route

January 28, 2018

START: Kahutara Carpark @ 0930
FINISH: Forbes Hut @ 0825
DISTANCE: 27 km
CUMULATIVE: 117 km

Up at 0600 and out to the road by 0700, per the plan. It took over an hour and a half to catch a ride. A handful of cars passed before a truck passed us by, then turned back to scoop us up. Guess we passed the “Drive By Inspection.” By that time, we had been debating skipping the route altogether. The weather wasn’t really looking promising, and I figured hitching out from the more remote route end would be tougher than hitching into the start, so if the rough morning was an indication, I was feeling anxious. Rowdy and Nevada happened along just in time to rescue this little romp.

We finally started walking by 0930 and had a big climb along a 4x4 road to reach first Bushy, then Blind Saddle. We were frequently in and out of the thick clouds as they rolled up from the Kahutara Valley below. Despite not being able to see any views, we were quite grateful for the clouds, because the climb was steep and the sun was brutal whenever it peeked out. We finally reached Blind Saddle where we had lunch and started down the next valley with clearer skies and a whole world of rugged mountains ahead. With no other souls for miles, it felt as though we had the whole backcountry playground all to ourselves. Love that feeling of solitude. I know many hikers who loathe road walks and take every opportunity to hitch round them. I rather don’t mind them, and today’s was beautiful! I wouldn’t have wanted to cheat the walk.

Sarah was such a freakin’ boss today. She just hiked along up and up despite her pack, which is far heavier than mine, and might actually weigh upwards of half her 45 kg stature. I’m excited to have her along and have been catching myself wondering whether she’s enjoying the walk. She says she is, so I choose to believe her. The creeping sense of doubt comes from my own past experience. I remember all too well my first backpacking trip in the Hundred Mile Wilderness in Maine back in 2013. I’d carried a pack about the size of Sarah’s, and I’d struggled for the entirety of the five day walk. My only backpacking experience prior was trailwork, so I’d been carrying gear that was built to be durable rather than light. I learned my lesson on that trip and have been an avid lightweight tramper ever since, which led to a fantastic experience on the Pacific Crest Trail the following summer.

We busted tail today. Arrived at our hut just before 2030 and dove straight into our evening routine with thoughts of sleep driving our progress. We’re pooped and basically had tunnel vision until we got distracted briefly by an impressive but short lightning storm in the mountains downstream of the hut. It was a welcomed treat after a long day.

The Forbes Hut is situated on a flat above the Clarence River. It’s beautiful here. The clouds are thick overhead and especially so in the mountains beyond the Clarence, which is running a dark brown color and about waist high (the latter beta is according to a few locals who passed us in a truck earlier today). We’ll have to ford it three times in just the first two k’s tomorrow morning, which is the crux of the route. Given the potential weather building upstream in the catchment, conditions could change drastically tonight. Sarah has never forded a river as big as the Clarence, though I have a fair bit of experience with such crossings. I’m planning to leave my pack on the bank as I scout some potential crossing points at each ford. We’re both prepared to turn back and walk the road out if it’s unsafe. Just have to take it a step at a time.

January 29, 2018

START: Forbes Hut @ 0845
FINISH: McRae Lake Hut @ 1820
DISTANCE: 16 km
CUMULATIVE: 133 km

The walk today was awesome! We forded the mighty Clarence thrice without incident, though I can certainly understand why DOC staff and locals were so anxious when we told them our intentions. It was tough, but manageable, still flowing a dark brown and “up a bit” one guy told us yesterday. Depth ranged from mid-thigh to waist on our crossings. And the water was moving quite swiftly even where the surface was smooth.

Each of the consecutive crossings was increasingly more difficult. I forded the first crossing back and fourth five times, twice scouting a few spots, then returning for my pack, then Sarah’s pack, then for Sarah. Since she’s inexperienced and only about five feet tall, we decided it was best to shuttle packs, then link up together to make her crossing as safe as possible given the conditions. On that first crossing, the river got up to about my mid-thigh, so Sarah’s upper thigh, and the riverbed was rough, rocky. That last bit is important, especially given the river’s dark color. A rocky riverbed means difficult footing, and trying to traverse it blind is quite challenging. We took small, deliberate steps and tested our footing diligently before committing to the next step. Progress was slow going, but worth the extra bit of patience. And I had Sarah use one of my trekking poles for some extra stability.

Following the first crossing, I felt confident in my own abilities on the following two, so I just carefully chose a point to cross at each and took the first go with my pack. If it wasn’t ideal, I’d just scout a different route on the return. The second crossing was deeper, but the water wasn’t moving as swiftly and the riverbed was pretty smooth. Not too bad. But the third was considerably more difficult. The water was up to my waist, so Sarah’s mid-abdomen, the riverbed was rough, and the current was swift. We were both feeling a bit anxious, but ultimately confident. All went quite smoothly; we just took our time and over-communicated with one another. Getting across and putting the Clarence behind us was exhilarating. My heart was pumping, and I couldn’t control the characteristically goofy grin that crept across my face. “Onward!”

Beyond that, there was a big climb up and away from the Clarence River Valley, then down to Elliot Stream, which required a fair amount of bushwhacking through some nasty briar bushes for what seemed like kilometre after kilometre. We traced the Elliot Stream all the way to its headwaters, then followed a goat path up and over a small rise to the beautiful, remote Lake McRae. Looking down on such a pristine sight, and having all of the route finding from the day confirmed in that instant, brought both relief and rejuvenation. I was floating and absolutely knackered, all at once. We sat down and just took in the amazing view, during which time we decided that we couldn’t be there and not have a dip, so down we went. Some clouds had finally come out, which - just for these very brief moments - was unlucky. But we’d come all this way and weren’t about to let a few clouds keep us from a swim.

All that was left at that point was to follow the south shore of the lake, then break away at the northwest corner and follow a drainage down to the McRae Hut. It sounds so simple when I write it out like that, but it didn’t feel so simple in practice. Trust me, it’s been a day. Gorgeous, and remote, and challenging. All my favorite things. Feeling so grateful right now, and excited to be sharing my world with a dear friend, which is something I’ve rarely done. (Mostly because I compromise so much in my professional life that I find it exceptionally difficult to compromise in my personal life. Been that way for a decade now following a specific catalyst, but that’s a story for a whole other blog.)

The heat and sun were grueling again today. Have done well protecting my arms and neck/face with clothing, but don’t have long pants to prtoect my legs. As we’re heading westward, the backs of my legs have taken quite a beating, and I’m getting small blisters on my calves despite applying sunscreen repeatedly. Gonna do an early morning tomorrow to try and beat some of this heat. Big, exposed climb up and over Robinson Saddle to get down to Molesworth Cottage Campground.

January 30, 2018

START: McRae Lake Hut @ 0645
FINISH: Molesworth Campground @ 1920
DISTANCE: 22 + 1 km
CUMULATIVE: 156 km

The day was all clear again, and there was little shade on the route. Got an early start to try and avoid the worst of the sun on the long climb to Robinson Saddle, but we missed the spur ridge and went too far up the drainage. When we realized our mistake and backtracked, we’d only lost about a half hour. Probably didn’t actually make much of a difference, since the sun had already come up above the ridgeline, and it was already hot, hot, hot. But it was annoying anyways. Just part of the process on a cross country route like this.

The ridge climb was long, steep, and open. It was absolutely beautiful, and quite challenging. Most of the climb was along a relatively broad spur ridge with a few knobs to scale, but the last bit was a traverse along braided goat paths on a steep side slope, then the first bit of the descent into the Robinson Creek drainage was quite steep too. I was anxious thinking about Sarah negotiating the slopes with her enormous pack, but she’s exceptionally capable and just took her time making her way up and down. Finally reached the more gradual valley walk by mid-afternoon and continued along for another hour in search of nice shade trees for lunch. Finally found a lovely streamside grove where the valley widened out, and we stopped for about an hour to eat and nap.

Just a lazy creek walk and a few roads between lunch and the Molesworth Cottage Campground, our final destination for the evening. And of course all of that sounds easy enough. In reality, it was the walk that never seemed to end. The valley just winded this way, then that. And there were dozens of creek crossings where the banks cliffed out and became impassable. By the time we reached the campground, we’d been walking for over 12.5 hours. The last half dozen kilometres were especially slow. Sarah has a few blisters on her feet that have popped. Looking pretty rough to me, but she wants to keep going. She’s carrying a pack that weighs nearly what she does. (I know because I shuttled her pack, then gave her a piggy back ride across the last of many creek crossings today to save her from taking off her shoes again.) I mentioned the possibility of catching a ride out tomorrow with one of the other campers who are staying here, and she flatly rejected the notion. No quit in this woman. I admire her so much and am so happy she’s here.

I’m having my own struggles as I work my body back into thru-hiking shape. Between the burn, the bugs, and the briar, my legs are totally thrashed. The freakin’ bugs out here are loving me, and the sun continues to be intense. Still, nowhere I’d rather be. I absolutely love this stuff.

Weather is supposed to come in as early as tomorrow night and stay through Thursday and Friday. Word is that the Severn River might come up. That’s hard to hear, because it means we’ll need to bail south toward the Molesworth Road before completing our route, and possibly skip the cross country section over Point 1763 on Thursday from the Saxton to the Severn Hut. Our DOC camp hosts were quite helpful with reviewing the second half of our trek. They’re going to give us a weather update tomorrow morning before we depart around 0900, so we’ll see what that says and go from there.

I’ve generally been quite lucky in the backcountry and have only had to bail a handful of times. We’ll just take this one day at a time and see how it goes. At least we have a bailout plan and some extra food if we need to hunker down. Of course, the other (way bigger!) bummer is that the Blue Blood Supermoon will be obscured, and we may miss it all together. Gah, I’d be so bummed! I remember I was totally elated when I realized I’d be in the path of totality on this trip.

Brutally hot again today. Grateful for the cool evening and the lack of bugs. Hoping I can sleep well tonight. I’m knackered (again). Falling asleep now as I watch a satellite shoot across the sky directly overhead. I think that’s the coolest. Can’t say it enough: I love being out here.

January 31, 2018

START: Molesworth Campground @ 1030
FINISH: Saxton Hut @ 1600
DISTANCE: 19 km
CUMULATIVE: 175 km

Today was the easiest by far, so our late start wasn’t as stressful for me as it otherwise might’ve been. The weather update only confirmed what our camp hosts had speculated yesterday, so that’s a bummer. And they seemed quite anxious about us being out there. Sometimes it’s hard for me to tell how concerned I need to be in these situations. I generally find that others are overly cautious when they relay information (and so am I) because they don’t know my experience or abilities. So how worried should I be about the weather, exactly? It’s hard to tell without getting to review it firsthand. Guess we’ll err on the side of caution as we evaluate the changing conditions in real time.

The road walking was pleasant and mellow today, and the overcast skies with the persistent breeze made for a nice, cool day. (In fact, today would’ve been the perfect day to traverse from Saxton to Severn Hut.) Saw some big birds of prey soaring around the passes and ridges, maybe hawks and falcons, though one looked an awful lot like a bald eagle. (Are those even in New Zealand?) One falcon flew up from the tall grass just adjacent to us on the road. He was beautiful, and his talons were massive! That was cool.

Arrived at the Saxton Hut by 1600 despite our late 1030 start, and we decided to call it a day in preparation for an alpine start tomorrow morning. Gonna be a helluva climb! This hut is really nice, and quite modern. It’s situated on a cliff above the confluence of the Boundary Stream and the Saxton River, which we easily forded thrice on the walk up the valley. The route description says that we’re to follow this side drainage up to Point 1763 tomorrow. I expected the climb would be immediately obvious from the hut, but upon referencing the maps, I discovered that we’ll actually be hiking about a kilometre north along the Saxton before turning into the correct side drainage.

Found out today that this is Sarah’s very first backpacking trip besides working at Open Sky. I wish I had known that; probably would’ve selected an easier trail, and I certainly would’ve done a shakedown of her gear. Ah well, she says she’s happy to be here and enjoying the trip. We really have seen some amazing things these past few days. This is a stunningly beautiful route. Part of me, and I think all of her, is glad I didn’t know, because we probably wouldn’t be here right now.

Looking out over the weather and reviewing the projected angles and bearings of the moon during the total eclipse, it looks like we’re off by one night on all counts. The weather, obviously, is challenging versus the completely clear skies and brilliant moon last night. But also the high ridges surrounding the north, east, and west sides of this hut look like they’ll block the moon even if the clouds don’t. There are some low spots and patches of blue sky that are giving us some sliver of hope. Time for bed now. Guess we’ll see (or not) soon enough.

February 1, 2018

START: Saxton Hut @ 0900
FINISH: Molesworth Road @ 1110
DISTANCE: 7 km
CUMULATIVE: 182 km

The total eclipse escaped us, as the moon was buried behind thick clouds for the duration; however, we were fortunate to catch intermittent glimpses of the partial eclipse, and I’m grateful for that. We missed the blood moon by about 20 minutes, a true heartbreaker. I wouldn't say I was demoralized, but gah...so close.

After a near-restless night due to high winds (including gusts that shook the whole hut!), Sarah and I decided that it’s not prudent to carry on over Point 1763 to Severn Hut. The sky is thick with dark clouds, and the rain has begun with a severe storm forecasted for tonight. The rangers at Molesworth said the Severn River could flood, which would trap me and Sarah with no safe bailout route- assuming we safely make it up and over to begin with. Given that we don’t have a reliable forecast beyond tonight, that the climb over to the Severn is going to be brutal, and that there are no reliable bailouts from there, we decided to end our trip at the Saxton Hut. We walked back down to the Molesworth Road, fording the Saxton thrice more en route, then hitched out to Hanmer Springs.

We’re both quite disappointed having had considerable trouble letting go of our own attachment to pressing on, but I’m adamant that we’ve made the right call. It doesn’t take much to turn this kind of remote adventure into a dire emergency. There would be no help for us if something happened on the steep climb, or the treacherous-looking descent, and there is just no sense in risking it besides satisfying our egos and curiosity. It was difficult to let go of our desire to finish. The hardest part is not KNOWING that it’s necessary. By the time it’s absolutely obvious that you have to turn back, it’s almost always too late to do so safely. I think ego is what gets people into trouble in the backcountry, so I try to always at least be aware of mine and then balance my desire with the conditions. I usually err on the side of pushing the envelope and going for it, but I try to make sure that I’m not just unconsciously chasing the proverbial summit. And I always have a bailout plan.

Sarah spoke to feeling guilty for holding me back, which I can understand. If I were on my own, I would’ve combined the last two days into one and gone over to the Severn Hut yesterday thereby avoiding the treacherously windy climb today. Then I’d be poised to complete the route. The trouble is that there’s a series of slips on the Rainbow Road, so I might not have been able to get out from there. And I wouldn’t have known it, because I wouldn’t have talked to the rangers at Molesworth. I just would’ve cruised right by without a word en route to the Saxton Hut. And if I had stuck to this same itinerary, I’d likely have tried the climb if I were alone, but that would’ve put me in a dangerous situation if I’d made it and the Severn does flood, as I’d have to ford it multiple times to bail. So I think everything happens for a reason. Not only am I glad to have shared this experience with my dear friend, I’m grateful that having her along has encouraged me to be more thoughtful and prudent in the execution of this trip. We were meant to share this trip, and all is as it should be because we did.

The rain was coming down in thick sheets that the high winds were blowing horizontally down the valley. It was an impressive sight and experience as we made our way back to the road. The skies cleared a bit as we waited for a ride under cover of an open-faced corral adjacent to the Molesworth Road. (Not really much cover, since the strong wind gusts were blowing rain into the shelter every few minutes.) It was over two hours after reaching the Molesworth Road before we saw the first vehicle heading our way. We ran out to the roadside and threw out our thumbs, and the wind nearly knocked us over while we waited for the car to approach. Can’t imagine how much worse it would’ve been up high, and the weather still seemed to be gathered around what would’ve been our crossing point. Despite the clearer weather down in the broad valley, the mountains around us seemed to be holding the storm.

Fortunately they stopped, and Gordie rolled down his window and asked with a big grin “What on earth are you two doing out here?” We told him we had been run off the East-West Route by the storm and were trying to get to Hanmer Springs. They cleared out the back seat of their truck, threw our packs in the covered bed, and off we went. Gordie’s son, Rob, was the driver, and they were both wonderful company. They filled us in on the environmental history of New Zealand, including the history of introduced predators and the current efforts to rollback their sweeping negative impact. Really enjoyed talking to them.

There was blue sky and sun for much of the two hour ride out to Hanmer Springs. It was hard for us to see, because it was causing us to second-guess our decision. That said, the wind was absolutely relentless, and that was the true danger. It was howling and tearing branches off of trees. There were even about a half dozen trees that we saw during the drive that had been recently split down the middle, presumably by the high winds. That alone would’ve made the climb (and especially the descent) quite dangerous.

Gordie and Rob dropped us in town center, and it didn't take long for us to find our way to a bistro lunch and some ice cream. With rain likely to roll in this evening, we set out in search of accommodations. Tried the backpacker hostel first, and they were booked up. We were ready to go elsewhere when Yoko offered us a holiday home (read: Air BnB) for just $76 NZD. The house included unlimited wifi, a shower, and laundry on-site. It was a helluva deal, so we took it. It was amazing to feel a little spoiled after a trying day in the backcountry.