Te Araroa :: Methven to Lake Tekapo
February 28, 2018
START: Blackford Rd @ 1545
FINISH: Glenrock TH @ 2240
DISTANCE: 35 km
CUMULATIVE: 825.5 km
Finally left town right at 1530 today and caught a ride almost immediately. Seems I can never actually just get in and get out with all of the charging of electronics, and updating of Instagram and my website, and eating of food (all the dang food!). And I wasn’t even done yet. Never enough time, but off I went to tackle a 35 k road walk to rejoin TA.
Within half an hour, a farmer had stopped to offer an unsolicited hitch. I thanked him for checking, and said I wanted to walk. He said, “Oh, good for you.” And he drove off slowly. Some of the views looking out over the braided Rakaia from the road were quite beautiful. Also intimidating. It looked like the river got bigger as I walked the road upstream. It’s counterintuitive, of course, unless it’s raining further upstream, and the clouds sure look like it could be. Crossing my fingers for nice tramping weather tomorrow, and a shot at fording the Rangitata.
Best thing about today, and road walks in general, dry feet the whole way, baby! Woo!
March 1, 2018
START: Glenrock TH @ 0715
FINISH: Potts Carpark @ 2255
DISTANCE: 70 km
CUMULATIVE: 895.5 km
Snoozed for an hour this morning and ended up getting out that much later, so I was feeling pretty doubtful about making the Mt Potts Carpark at the Rangitata tonight. My day started with a climb up and over Turtons Saddle from which I dropped down to A-Frame Hut. I’d considered trying to make it there last night but didn’t wanna disturb anyone who might be staying there. I would’ve arrived around one or two o’clock in the morning. Part of me was hoping the girls would’ve stayed there, because then I might have caught them today. Instead they got an early-early hitch out of Methven and passed the A-Frame at 1100 yesterday, which put them about 22 hours ahead of me. Apparently they stayed at Manuka Hut, which is about 33 k beyond the Glenrock Trailhead, where I slept last night. I’m assuming they made it to the car park early enough this afternoon to hitch, which means it’ll be an epic feat to catch them if I can’t ford the Rangitata tomorrow morning.
But first things first. I had another 60 k to cover before I could even think about scouting the Rangitata. Shortly after leaving A-Frame, the trail turns up a narrow drainage and follows a creek upstream for about five kilometres before breaking away up and over another saddle. That was quite the adventure. I had to ford the stream every fifty or hundred meters and had a few significant stretches where I just walked right upstream fighting the rushing current. It was painfully slow progress. And there was tons and tons of prickly undergrowth choking out the gorge, so it was often a matter of bucking up and blazing right through it. Ouch.
At one point I’d stopped to take a photo and was immediately swarmed by a thick pack of sandflies. That’s one redeeming quality of the whether that I’ve been complaining about: very few sandflies. Honestly though, as much as I hate them, I’d deal with it to get some nicer shots. The first half of today was fantastic, by far the best color and most sun we’ve seen out here since Waiau Pass. (You know, the day after I broke my camera...) I was totally stoked and didn’t mind the resulting hot climbs and bugs.
The latter half of the day was more overcast, which made for a nice walk in cooler weather. The clouds continued to build overhead as the day wore on, and a light rain started as I neared the high point of the Clearwater Track, still about 10 k from the carpark. The sun had just set, and I was debating setting up camp rather than going all the way. As I’m having this internal debate, I pass a tent. I thought that it could be the girls, though that was quite unlikely. They’re more likely in Geraldine or even the other side of the river by now. I gave a shout and heard no response, so I just kept walking. Whoever it was, they were already asleep. Probably a NOBO.
The light rain persisted for the two hours it took me to reach the carpark. I was excited to find a nice camp spot nestled among some big trees. Then the rain magically stopped just long enough for me to pitch my shelter and eat dinner. What luck! I sat there eating and watching the sky. Though the nearly full moon is hidden by thick clouds tonight, I can plainly see those same dark clouds stretched across the sky and all up and down the Rangitata River Valley. Slim chance of fording tomorrow, but we’ll see what she looks like in the morning.
I walked freaking hard today. Even the climbs, which kicked my butt, I just powered right along through them. Once I finally hit the road walk section passed Manuka Hut, I was doing like 5-6 k/hr from there all the way through the Clearwater Track and down to Mt Potts Carpark. Today was a mix of everything from difficult tramping tracks to easy tramping tracks to mellow road walks. It was kind of a fun challenge to hike it all today.
March 2, 2018
START: Potts Carpark @ 0815
FINISH: Royal Hut @ 1915
DISTANCE: 9 + 24.5 km
CUMULATIVE: 929 km
I was awoken this morning at 0700 by a swarm of sandflies buzzing about and biting my face and head, so I got up thirty minutes earlier than I’d planned. The good news was that it seemed to have rained very little overnight. Still plenty of clouds overhead, but not especially threatening. I made a game time decision to skip my planned Mount Sunday side trip and head straight down toward the Rangitata River to scout the conditions and consider a crossing. (It would’ve been far more prudent to not even go down there, since it could easily begin dumping rain at any moment, or worse, it could’ve already been dumping rain somewhere upstream.)
The Rangitata is a large braided river that Te Araroa Trust has designated one of three Hazard Zones. These zones are considered too dangerous to be included as part of the trail, so skipping them doesn’t compromise the integrity of a thru-hike. I’d already road walked around the Rakaia, which is another of the Hazard Zones, and was planning to walk around the Rangitata if I couldn’t ford it. Personally, I want to maintain a continuous footpath and walk the full length of the South Island. Guess that makes me some version of a purist. Walking around the Rakaia included about 70 k’s of road. Walking around the Rangitata would be twice that distance, so I wanted to at least have a look.
From the Potts Carpark, the river looked to be extremely low, which I assumed was a mirage resulting from both the terrain and my distant perspective. After walking nearly 4 k out into the valley, I confirmed my suspicion. I want to be clear that I don’t recommend that anyone should try to ford this river, or traverse
(1) The Rangitata has a large, steep upstream catchment that can lead to flash flooding even when skies overhead are clear;
(2) I’m generally regarded as a pretty quick walker, and it took me two hours to traverse the whole of the valley with nearly half of that time spent in the critical zone among the many large braids;
(3) Summit Fever is real, and it kills people all the time;
(4) It is far safer to consider a crossing with a group of people than as a solo venture (more eyes, more accountability, more support).
I learned Summit Fever as a mountaineering term that describes the increasing temptation to keep climbing even as conditions continue to deteriorate around you. And of course, Summit Fever gets more intense the closer you get to the top. Many capable and highly experienced outdoorspeople have perished because they were unwilling to turn back when they should have. Keeping perspective is tantamount: the mountain isn’t going anywhere, the extra walking is no big deal, you only have one life to live. Before I head out into tenuous conditions, I always define my bailout parameters. If this happens, we turn around. If that happens, we turn around. Doesn’t matter how marginally the parameter is breached, or how close you are to your goal. You. Turn. Around. End of story.
If after reading all of that, you still wanna hear about my strategy and experience, then by all means- continue.
After reviewing the maps, I decided to take a bearing directly across from the carpark to the Two Thumbs Trailhead on the opposite bank, because that route is the most simple and would take me right through the braids. That’s perfect, because more braids means fording multiple smaller rivers rather than one large one, which in theory makes the crossing as safe and easy as possible. The pitfall is that if the river comes up, it’s possible to get caught between braids which could ultimately grow together and sweep someone away. There were eight braids that I considered major, and they ranged from just below the knee all the way up to my lower abdomen. Each braid generally gets increasingly deep and challenging until you ford the main river, then the crossings generally get progressively easier. The trouble is that the relationship from one crossing to the next isn’t strictly linear, so you don’t really know how the next crossing compares to the last. And there are a number of factors that contribute to the crossing’s level of difficulty: water color, water level, water velocity, riverbed material, etc. The next crossing could always be the most difficult until you’re standing on the other side of the valley with all crossings behind you.
For the Rangitata today, I found that the current was swift, the water was up a bit, and the river has a shifting shingle bed, which makes for a very challenging combination. Before I set out, I defined my bailout parameters: (1) dark or muddy water; and (2) water flowing over the tops of my trekking poles. If the water was dark or muddy, I wouldn’t even get in. That’s a major red flag and flood indicator. If the water was high enough to be flowing over the tops of my trekking poles, then it’s nearing the center of my body mass, so that was my mid-ford turnaround parameter. It didn’t matter how many fords I’d completed, how close I was to the other bank, how little over the poles the water was rushing- I’d simply turn around and walk the 135 k’s along the road. One life to live, remember. They’re only kilometres.
The fifth braid turned out to be the main river, and consequently the most sketchy. It was at the extreme edge of what I was willing to do. We’re talking within an inch and a half of my turn around depth. I’m standing in the middle of this rushing river, fighting to maintain my footing on the shifting rocks and seriously considering backtracking when I shuffle my feet a short distance forward and start to rise up slightly out of the water. I shuffle forward again and gain another couple inches, then finally have enough to stability to step forward, climbing up and out of the river. I stood on the opposite bank with tension in my jaw and face, hands and arms shaking, heart rate rapid, and breathing fast and shallow. I could feel pure adrenaline and anxiety pumping through my veins. That was an experience. I hoped beyond hope that there wasn’t anything bigger, because then I’d have to turn back and do the fifth one again.
Fortunately the sixth, seventh, and eighth crossings gradually got progressively easier, so it looked as though I was through the crux. I could see that I was getting really close to the Two Thumbs Track, the reconnect of Te Araroa. Summit fever time. Each time I came over a small rise and could hear water flowing, that anxiety crept up in my body. And each time, the crossing was manageable. It was exhausting going through that fight/flight/freeze response over half a dozen times in about 45 minutes, then having to will myself forward. You really can’t see what you’re up against until you’re right on top of it.
I would say I pushed the limit a bit on that crossing. If it’s been raining at all, or looks like it might be upstream, I wouldn’t bother even going out there. And if you do, let the color of the water be your gauge. I could see the bottom at all times, though my depth perception was distorted on the deeper crossings. That’s a minimum gauge. The saying here in New Zealand is: If in doubt, stay out. And it’s for real.
The rest of the day was characteristically straightforward. Feels like I hiked two very different days from Potts Carpark to the Royal Hut. The Two Thumbs Track started with a walk up Brush Creek, which is truly a pick-your-poison kind of adventure. On the one hand, you have ankle buster rocks all along the drainage. And on the other, matagouri and other prickly bushes that grow thick and high on the banks. I hate them both, so I split the difference. That’s the nice thing about pounding pavement: they’re easy kilometres, even if a bit hard on my old body.
One shortcut today wasn’t enough, so I tried to skip a seemingly dumb 150 meter straight up, straight down climb that avoids a narrow gorge in Brush Stream. I figured I could probably either ford the creek or walk right up it. Wrong. That water was blasting through the gorge. I walked out into it and could feel the power of it nearly sweep me off my feet. My morning experience had made me a bit cocky, apparently. I reluctantly backtracked to tackle the (obviously necessary) climb. As I worked my way up the steep slope, I turned back to see none other than Rob Lord turning the switchback below me. He looked up with a big grin and shouted: “What?? The girls think you’re behind them!” I told him all about my morning on the Rangitata, and we swapped stories about how we each came to be there.
He had morning tea with the girls in Geraldine today. They’re zeroing to wait for better weather to go over Stag Saddle, the TA high point. (They’re gonna be surprised to see my name ahead of theirs in the hut books. Wish I could be there to see their faces.) I didn’t realize the weather forecast had changed. I was supposed to have good weather tomorrow for my climb over Stag, but now it looks like showers for the next four days. Today was supposed to be the worst, but it was pretty much fine, so we’ll see. I’m willing to start late tomorrow and do a short 14 k to the next hut, or even layover all together in order to get nice views on Stag. I could probably use the rest anyways. Today was my shortest day since leaving the girls at Hamilton Hut, and I’m still totally shredded. I’m even starting to meet hikers in the next bubble. Today I caught up with Cyborg, Pizzafoot, Samuel, Sandra, Matt, Miranda, and Alex. Rob and I shared the Royal Hut with the latter five. It’s cool getting to know more and more folks.
March 3, 2018
START: Royal Hut @ 0920
FINISH: Camp Stream Hut @ 1430
DISTANCE: 14.5 km
CUMULATIVE: 943.5 km
I was in no particular hurry to get going this morning. In fact, I was the last one up for the first time this trip. Didn’t even stir until 0730. I’d decided that I was willing to wait for good weather to go over Stag Saddle, which is TA’s high point, even if it meant laying over at Royal Hut today. I figured I’d keep an eye on the sky and try to time the 4.5 k climb with a promising patch of blue sky. I didn’t see any reason why I should hurry along, since I have more than enough food and the girls are now behind me laying over in Geraldine. None of us wanna miss the views. Feels like we’ve already missed so many these last few weeks.
It wasn’t looking very good this morning, then the sky just suddenly started clearing. I could see blue sky down the valley and coming my way, so I gathered my gear and hit the trail. The weather on the climb was clear and hot, absolutely gorgeous. The clouds started to roll in again once I hit the Saddle, but the views in all directions were brilliant for a few beautiful minutes. I decided to have an early lunch and see if the clouds might break again. I waited for an hour, and it was looking pretty hopeless, so I carried on following the ridge down rather than the valley. The ridge walk is a “fine weather alternate” to Te Araroa. As I walked down it, I enjoyed incredible views down to Lake Tekapo and out toward Mt Cook. The sun was shining down on the lake, though I was experiencing intermittent periods of moderate rain. I was surprised by the quality views and totally satisfied with my choice to follow the ridge.
Then one period of moderate rain turned to heavy rain, and that heavy rain turned into a persistent downpour. I was racing down toward the Camp Stream Hut and trying to protect my camera, phone, and iPod as I went. The latter was yet another water casualty, but at least the other items were fine. Curse this fickle NZ weather. It rained hard for over an hour. I arrived at the hut to find it full to the brim with hikers and wet gear. “Well, I’m coming in,” I said. We were all able to squeeze into the tiny space, but I’d left five more hikers on the saddle and figured they’d be along shortly. We were all lucky that the rain finally let up, and the sun even eventually came out.
Everyone decided to go on except me and this guy Ray. Neither of us was keen on camping in the rain tonight, and I didn’t feel like blasting the next 35 k’s to town only to arrive late and not be able to find accommodation. Plus I was happy to have a rest day. I’ve been hiking hard for days now, and my legs are feeling it. I’ll get up early tomorrow and try to cruise the last bit into town in time for lunch. Should be relatively easy walking.
March 4, 2018
START: Camp Stream Hut @ 0620
FINISH: Lake Tekapo @ 1315
DISTANCE: 34.5 km
CUMULATIVE: 978 km
The vibration alarm on my watch woke me up at a few minutes before six. I quickly turned off my phone alarm before it could buzz. I sat up reluctantly and was greeted by a full moon shining through the tiny hut window. Nearly 35 k to Lake Tekapo. Time to get moving. No one else had stirred, and I was trying to be quiet, but the hut door was loud and creaky. I didn’t know whether to leave it open to the cold as I made a few trips in and out to gather my things, or to close it each time and make a ruckus. I did a combination of both. I wanted to make town in time for lunch, so I was walking by 0620. My pack felt way lighter than I expected, so I made a quick trip back to the hut to do a final sweep. Wouldn’t be the first time I’d left gear behind. Couldn’t find anything, so I figured the rest day had just done me some good.
Difficult to find the trail on the first bit, but once I rock hopped the first few stream crossings, I found a nicely worn path and started cruisin’. It was fun to walk by moonlight for the first half hour or so. Then as the sun was peeking over the ridge, I came across Rob who was just finishing his pack up. We hiked together the rest of the way into Tekapo and arrived in time for lunch. There was a line for fish ‘n chips, so we hit the supermarket first and had a big feed. (And I returned to the market four more times before finally hitting the road. #allthefood) Had hoped for WiFi and an outlet at lunch, but one of the servers came running over and shewed me off when I tried to plug in my electronics. I thought that was kind of odd since I was a customer, but I didn’t argue. Their place, their rules. Instead I went next door where they charged me two dollars to charge up. Ah well, guess that’s the deal in a small tourist town. They didn’t seem very keen on TA hikers either. No biggie. I was only looking to get in and get out anyways. Hoping Twizel tomorrow will be more chill.