East-West Backcountry Route

East-West Backcountry Route

January 28, 2018

START: Kahutara Carpark @ 0930
FINISH: Forbes Hut @ 0825

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

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

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

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

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.