Mother Nature Speaks: St Arnaud to Hanmer Springs

Thursday, January 25th, 2018

Day 81: St Arnaud to Roberts Ridge, 20km

After studying maps of the TA, we realized that the trail stays low, following alongside the Travers River with a gradual ascent towards Travers Saddle, which probably means a lot of green tunnel and easy hiking. With one look at the topo map of the surrounding area, my natural calling was to find an alternative, more challenging route that goes above treeline and offers views instead of a tunnel. Fortunately Matt shares the same mindset, so we decided to follow the track leading to Roberts Ridge, which would give us a whole day of high ridge walking with opportunities to freedom camp in an awesome spot, and exercise some route finding on the way back to the TA.

Looking back as we rose above Lake Rotoiti

Just before we left the hostel, I realized that I had in fact left my light weight, expensive trekking poles in the back of the truck I’d hitched in. Between my tent, my pad, my pot, and my poles, I’ve really been having some shit luck with my gear. I wish I could have just said fuck the poles, but honestly my crappy knees need the extra support. Just when I was wondering what to do since St Arnaud does not have any outdoor stores, the hostel owners offered me a pair of their old poles. Sure, they were bulky and weighed probably four times as much as mine, but they would do. We left the hostel and grabbed some brekky at the general store caf√©, I called my dad, finalized our hiking agenda, and got ready to walk. Welp, one of my new poles was broken from the get go. So I borrowed Matt’s massive stick for the mellow trek up to Bushline Hut, trying not to be frustrated with the unevenness of only one stick. The hut was a perfect place to snack and fill up on water, and I started chatting with the one older man inside. Turns out he literally just hiked the route we wanted to do, so he offered us some useful beta. When he saw my singular stick and knee brace, he offered me his single pole because he had just broken the other one and was going to buy a new pair anyway. I mean talk about good luck! So now I have two mismatched, kind of broken poles but hey, they work! My joints are happy about it. From the hut, we continued up the ridge as the St Arnaud range really came into view with a dark, angry thunderstorm growing over the peaks.

One of the many basins off Roberts Ridge
Angry storm brewing to the east over the St Arnauds

Fortunately the storm was moving away from us, so we followed the ridge and listened to the deep, echoing boom of the thunder. Eventually we dipped down into the first basin to find a flattish spot to set up the tarp. Apparently Matt’s idea of flat is very different than most people’s, but we eventually found some soft grass with very minimal incline. Something about being off trail, finding our own camp spots, and being above treeline has made this already a very special experience. Also my peanut butter chocolate bar had melted and hardened just enough for me to eat the goop with a spoon while watching the sunset over the peaks in complete silence and peacefulness. Mountain life is everything that’s good in the world. I just pray the sandflies have mercy on me tonight until I can get another tent. That is all.

 

Friday, January 26th, 2018

Day 82: Roberts Ridge to Hopeless Hut, no idea how far

One of our best camspots to date

Ahhh yes, nothing like waking up to the natural alarm sound of a sweet symphony of fifty giant flies buzzing around your head. #tarplife. I won’t lie, bzzzzzzzzzz is a pretty annoying, droning sound, but I’ll deal with it because I’m also watching the sun pop into the clear blue sky over the St Arnaud Ridge while milky clouds lurk in the valley below. God I love being above treeline. What a mystical morning!

Walking above the clouds
So soft I want to jump into them!

The exposed walk along Roberts Ridge to Lake Angelus was a spectacular alpine stroll over rocks with unbelievable views of both distant and near mountain peaks. Once we hit the top of the ridge, I saw the blanket of clouds covering the entire valley with just the summits poking through like fingers in a pair of hobo gloves. Down below it would have been an overcast morning, but high above the clouds were blue skies and a hot sun. The peaks around us were more jagged than anything I’ve seen in this country yet. I really couldn’t have been in a better mood traversing the whole ridge.

Finally some real rocky terrain!
Lake Angelus comes into view!

When we reached Angelus Hut, the lake was begging us to come and swim, so I took a quick dip. This particular hut was located next to the huge, blue Angelus Lake, surrounded by summits and above the valley. I would have probably been enticed to stay, but a 28 bunk hut would have been much too overwhelming for me. So instead we continued past and followed a lightly cairned trail up steep, green tussocks and over loose, red and white scree, talus, and boulders to sunset saddle. From the saddle, I couldn’t resist the temptation to quickly scramble up the 300 meters to the summit of Angelus Peak for some 360 views including Hopeless Peak and Mt Travers.

About to descend down to the lake
Red and white scree an route to Sunset Saddle
Tempting route up to Angelus Peak!
Looking down at Lake Angelus from Angelus Peak
A beautiful tarn coming down from Sunset Saddle
Sweet rocks on the descent
Looking down valley to our descent
Steep screeeee

The peaks were so much more jagged and craggy than anything I’ve seen in New Zealand yet. The route down from the saddle was an amazing, steep rock hop past waterfalls and two other tarns in a huge, green valley before descending a ridiculously steep scree field to the trees below. My knees were just about ready to explode by the time we arrived at Hopeless Hut, but I loved the adventurous, off-trail route. After a refreshing swim in the river, a round of cards, and some noodles, I tell asleep on Matt at the table. Clearly I was wiped, and crawled into bed by 8:30.

 

Saturday, January 27th, 2018

Day 83: Hopeless Hut to Travers Saddle, some distance

Hit 2000 kilometers today!

Damn I slept like a baby last night, passed out at like 8:30 and woke up at 7:30. I love a good night of hard sleep! Seven minutes into the walk back to the TA on the Travers Track, I realized I’d left my headlamp hanging on the bed so I quickly turned around to see if I could recover my abandoned gear. Unfortunately the hut must have eaten my torch because I couldn’t find it anywhere, but I quickly forgot about it as I started back down through the forest. The first eight kilometers of the day were green tunnel track next to the Travers River until reaching bushline near the Upper Travers Hut.

Just past Upper Travers Hut
Matt hanging out in the Travers Saddle
Wouldn’t you want to climb Travers too? The right ridge looks climbable!

Just past the hut, the track opens up into the meadow in the Travers Valley with views of Mt Travers and Kehu Peak all around. A very steep, grassy route brings you to the Travers Saddle where I stopped for a much needed snack break. Looming to the right was 2,338 meter My Travers. We didn’t know of any particular route to the top, but neither Matt nor I could resist the temptation to see if we could get to the summit. From the saddle, the right ridge looked doable, so we set down our packs and started the trek over talus and scree to the base of the gully leading up to the ridge. The rock got super steep and super loose really quickly, with some minor scrambling moves interspersed between scree, but I made it to the ridge saddle no problem. From there, the terrain continued at a pretty steep incline, and showed no signs of stability whatsoever. I’m a fairly experienced, confident person when it comes to sketchy routes involving scrambling and loose rock, but typically I have some prior knowledge about the rock character and preferred route. However, I had neither of those pieces of beta, or a helmet for that matter, and found myself feeling unusually sketched out when every rock I stepped on or touched moved beneath my body, asking the question: is this risk worth it? I really hate admitting defeat or feeling like a pussy, but I hesitantly concluded the safe decision for me was to not continue.

View from my perch

So about 700 meters up, I found a comfortable spot to post up and enjoy the outstanding views while Matt made a strong attempt for the summit. I envy his confidence and lack of fear, and also respect my ability to know my limits and when to trust my instincts. Everyone is different. Anyway, I was just starting to get a little chilly as the sun dipped behind the peak, and I had just finished off my bag of crispy peas when I heard rocks falling from somewhere. I imagined the mountain was crumbling on its own free will, but was relieved to see Matt pop out on the ledge below me. I called for him to wait up and began the loose descent. Turns out he made it to the summit via a sketchy 5.5/5.6 solo face climb, almost fell when a loose rock pulled out, and descended an alternate route further north, hence popping out below me. After hearing his story, I feel better about my decision to stay put, and even better that Matt made it down safely. There can be a fine line between pushing yourself and being stupid, especially when the consequence for stupidity can quite literally be plummeting to your death. Fortunately the rest of the descent wasn’t bad at all. I always need to remind myself that coming down is rarely as scary as I think it’s going to be when I’m going up. So thanks Travers for that reminder, the sketch factor, and a true taste of what New Zealand’s mountains are all about. It’s one thing to walk on a trail and look at mountains all day, but truly another beast entirely to be on them, building a much more intimate relationship, and understanding their surface. And this is just the first of SO MANY MORE MOUNTAINS!!!! I cannot WAIT to continue exploring this new playground, challenging myself, getting puckered again, and getting to know this amazing island. The remainder of our little adventure was a super fun rock hop across the gully and a quick walk back to the saddle where we set up our best campsite yet…in the grass right in front of Travers.

Sunset coming soon!
Transforming
Moon and sunset over Travers

We’ve basically been sitting here eating and watching the clouds move up the valley, down the valley, seclude us in a cloud, disappear, turn dark, then white and fluffy, it’s pretty crazy. The moon is currently directly above the Travers summit too, and the sunset is more epic than anything I have ever laid eyes on. Majestic isn’t even good enough to describe this scene. I’m in awe of the purple, pink, and blue hues over not just Travers, but also all the peaks to the south. Every second the sunset seems to become that much more epic I don’t even know where to look! Aaaaaahhhhhhhhhhh!!!!

 

Sunday, January 28th, 2018

Day 84: Travers Saddle to Lake Constance, 17km

Waterfalls en route to Lake Constance

I woke up this morning to the sun rising into the valley shining on Mount Travers. A few other hikers walked by while we were packing up camp and came over to say hello. An American man from California named Phil came over and wound up hiking with us for the entire steep, forested descent towards West Sabine Hut. We lost elevation very quickly as the valleys here are all super low. There were a few other TA walkers hanging out at the West Sabine Hut, so we said hello and continued on our way. The next stop was Blue Lake Hut. We followed the river for quite some time, then re-gained the elevation we had lost earlier via a mellow forest. Blue Lake was unlike anything I have ever seen. It was once known for having the cleanest water in the world, and even though the water quality has since degraded, the lake still has almost 100% optical purity. The lake and all of the water in the surrounding areas is so clear that you can see everything perfectly on the bottom. It almost looks like there isn’t any water, you just see the green algae and brown rocks. It was crazy.

Blue Lake
Optical purity!
Approaching Lake Constance. Hiked over the cliff on the right

After Blue Lake we were hot and sticky from humidity, and were itching to get to Lake Constance for a swim. From Blue Lake we had a short 45 minutes uphill walk to the edge of Lake Constance, which is a deceptively massive body of water. To get around the lake, we climbed a steep scree field, and traversed a cliff before descending back down to the lake. At this point, clouds had started to appear but the sun shined through just enough for us to indulge in a dip.

Lake Constance

By the time we were done swimming, the clock said 4:30 PM. We had initially considered continuing on over Waiau Pass and pushing all the way to Waiau Hut, since we had only covered 13 km that day. As we were trying to make a decision whether to camp at the lake or continue up the trail, we heard very loud, rumbling thunder bouncing off of the mountain walls of the cirque containing the lake. Where there had once been blue sky, there was now very dark, scary looking clouds in every direction. I am still trying to understand the weather patterns here in New Zealand, and so far my only conclusion is that there isn’t really a pattern. It’s such a small island that weather comes and goes very rapidly, and the forecast predictions are usually not very accurate. What I have been seeing recently is black clouds building and then dissipating quickly. However, that was not the case with these black, deathly clouds persistently lurking and growing behind these craggy peaks. After seeing some fierce lightning and hearing heaps of more intense, frequent thunder, we decided to set up the tarp near the far edge of the lake bed on a soft, mossy spot. Our only problem was the ground being essentially a bunch of rocks covered in a mint green moss, and consequently did a poor job at holding the stakes. But we gave it a go and settled in for the evening. I remember saying “I hope it storms to justify us stopping!” right as we were crawling underneath. Well, Mother Nature must have heard my wish, because about 20 minutes later, before we heard or felt anything, we saw the rain rise over the peaks and creep down into the valley from the direction of the nasty, black clouds from earlier.

Rain coming in hot!

As the rain began to fall on the thin green tarp, the wind picked up dramatically. Within a few minutes, two of the four corner stakes were ripped straight out of the unstable ground. Matt and I each picked a corner, and managed to get the stakes back in. Meanwhile, the rain increased in power and volume, as did the wind. Before we knew it, heavy rain was being blown sideways into the tarp as it flapped around like a baby bird learning how to fly. We quickly decided to put on our rain gear, and throw anything we wanted to stay dry into Matt’s “happy sack”, also known as a giant clear trash bag. By the time we had secured ourselves and our gear the best we could, the two corner stakes, and another middle stake, ripped out yet again. These winds were VERY strong. As we were both laying horizontally, soaking wet, completely holding the stakes down at this point just to ensure the whole tarp didn’t fly away, we realized the rain had turned into Gobstopper sized hail. Hail! We hadn’t seen hail in New Zealand yet, and we’re DEFINITELY not expecting that. We both just looked at each other like OMG WTF IS HAPPENING, somewhere in between laughter, disbelief, and genuine concern that we might lose our shelter and put ourselves at risk for hypothermia. In the height of the storm, Matt stuck his head out of the tarp and just goes HOLY SHIT YOU HAVE TO SEE THIS. I look out, and what had previously been a small, graceful white waterfall gliding down the valley wall was now an enormous, mean, violent, powerful flow of muddy, brown water crashing in plumes onto the rocks below. I’ve literally never witnessed such an intense, rapid change in natural conditions. The now massive, dirty waterfall was so dramatic that I truthfully felt a little freaked out. Added to my list of concerns was the entire lake flooding over, flooding the valley, and swallowing me, Matt, and all of our gear. Then dying of hypothermia. These may seem like over-dramatic concerns, but for someone such as myself who is generally not super comfortable around water to begin with, they didn’t seem over the top. Fortunately to my relief, the whole storm started to dwindle and die out after thirty crazy, exciting minutes. Once the rain and wind lightened enough to venture out from the tarp, we re-secured all of the stakes, and simply stood in awe at the brown waterfall. Even though the storm had stopped, I was still not convinced that the overflow wouldn’t totally flood us out. Matt was pretty certain we would be fine, but to ease my worried mind, we spent the next thirty minutes walking around and assessing the scene. Upon closer investigation, the waterfall was clearly draining right into the lake, which had risen for sure, but was still faaarrrr from where our tent was. So unless another bigger, longer, mega-storm hit, we would be fine. I still wanted to search for a secondary back-up campsite just in case we had to bail, but eventually agreed to stay put. Plus, by this point I was hungry, wet, and cold, and very ready to put on dry clothes and make some dinner. The weather more or less cleared up, and we got a gorgeous pink and purple sunset view over the lake straight from the tarp. Ask Mother Nature for a storm and she will deliver, god damn! Thanks for the epic memories!

The storm has gone!

 

Monday, January 29th, 2018

Day 85: Lake Constance to Waiau Hut, 13km

Looking back at Lake Constance going up Waiau Pass
Closer look!

First of all, I have to mention how unbelievable the stars were when I woke up to pee in the middle of the night. All of the weather had passed, leaving a perfectly clear sky full of endless constellations and epic sights of the Milky Way, and a gorgeous reflection of the bright moon on the lake, all encompassed by the peaks of Lake Constance cirque. I should have marveled longer, but instead I stumbled back to the tarp in a half-asleep trance. I managed to sleep for a few more hours until the warmth of the sun awoke my smiling self. Camp was packed around 9 as we began the incredibly steep ascent to Waiau Pass. I’m talking basically using all fours to climb kind of steep, with lots of scree, unstable tussocks, and loose rock traverses.

Looking up to the top of Waiau Pass

The descent from Waiau Pass was just as exciting, offering a plethora of options for class 2/3 moves down slabby and flaky rocks.¬†Eventually we arrived in the valley and followed alongside the Waiau River on rocky traverses interspersed with forest. After the crazy storm last night, there were lots of mud slides too that acted like quick sand when you stepped. There also wasn’t much of a track anywhere, so the adventure to Waiau Hut was just a game of where to put your feet as you navigated in a generally southern direction. By the time we reached the hut, it was already 3pm. The terrain was so slow, we had only covered 12 kilometers in 6 hours! The next hut was still another 25 kilometers away, so we decided to stay out at the brand new 6 bunk Waiau Hut. To make up for a shorter day, we did the burpee challenge.

Back in the valley

We definitely got some weird looks from other hikers, but hey sometimes you just have to work out! I followed up the workout with a swim in the river, then took a solid Deet bath because the sandflies were out of control. I layered up and we found a relatively calmer spot away from the bug party to cook dinner before going to sleep.

 

Tuesday, January 30th, 2018

Day 86: Waiau Hut to Boyle Flat Hut, 43km

Valley views

Fuck yeah man I feel awesome after a long, solid, crusher, cruiser day. We’ve been having so much fun fucking around in the mountains off of the TA that we figured it would behoove us to crush some kilometers to catch up today, especially after our early finish yesterday. Our weakness is definitely being too leisurely in the morning, so we made a point to organize our shit last night and actually set an alarm for 5:30. The sun was just coming up as we finished packing and were, for the first time, legitimately on trail by 6:20. The crisp morning air was amazingly refreshing and I found myself wondering why we haven’t done more early morning walks. By 9:30 we had already crushed 15 kilometers of forest, tall wet prairie grass, and multiple river crossings. The only unfortunate thing was the realization that Matt had left his big, stupid tarp in the hut! Which means we are down one tent, one tarp, a sleeping pad, a pair of shoes, a headlamp, basically a whole backpack, and a pair of poles. The bright side is our bodies are healthy, and we will be in Hanmer Springs tomorrow so we’ll be able to dish out some cash to fix our gear woes. Anyway, the trail eventually turned into a 4WD grass road called the St James Walkway that led us through the wide open valley to Anne’s Hut. The sun was perfectly hot and a light breeze made for some of the most enjoyable cruiser walking. By noon we were more than halfway so we stopped for a long lunch break at the beautiful hut located in the open valley with vegetated peaks all around. After some snacks, coffee, and a game of Jenga we continued on the mellow, grassy trail very gradually climbing to Anne’s Saddle before descending to the Boyle River. We followed another open grassy track through the valley and got to Boyle Flats Hut by 6, just in time for a dip in the river before dinner. I’m definitely glad to be sitting after 43 kilometers, but I feel energized and happy thanks to this pristine day I just had.

 

Wednesday, January 31st, 2018

Day 87: Boyle Flat Hut to Hanmer Springs, 13km

Amongst efforts to get on a better schedule, we woke up early and hit the trail by 7:30. I honestly wasn’t feeling 100% so I moved pretty slowly through the thirteen kilometers of basic forest track before arriving at the Boyle Village Education Center. At this point we needed to replace or fix a tent, a tarp, a sleeping pad, a headlamp, a backpack, a pair of shoes, poles, and socks. So we made a few calls to make sure that Hanmer Springs would have what we needed to avoid a long, 3 hour hitch into Chirstchurch. We got picked up by a girl from Chicago who dropped us off at a hostel by noon. The hostel was full, so we found a room at the Larchwood Motel and dropped off our crap before setting off to find gear. Matt quickly found a pair of shoes, but the other stores had nothing. Not much time passed before I was craving wedges, so we stopped at Robbie’s Pub for fried potatoes and a burger. With full stomachs, we stopped by the fudge store for some sugary dankness at a discount thanks to the voucher I picked up at the motel, then strolled a bit out of town to the hardware store for other assorted gear. Before long I was drowsy and hot, so we cruised back to the room to check interwebs, shower, chill, and make stir fry. I wanted to see the lunar trifecta, but the sky was so cloudy I couldn’t see a thing. Overall, a chill, relatively uneventful day.

 

Thursday, February 1st, 2018

Day 88: Chill Day in Hanmer Springs

Ahhhhh sleeping in a real bed is always such an amazing experience. I woke up around 7 feeling very rested and ready to take on the day. Our plan was to pack up, finish some last minute errands, grab something to eat, and hitch back to Boyle Village so we could be at the trailhead tomorrow morning. Well, what have I learned about plans??? You can have one, but chances are your plan will be totally fucked. Today was a prime example of this important life lesson. Despite having put our laundry in the dryer last night, our clothes were still sopping wet by the time Matt had finished cooking an amazing eggs and bacon breakfast. Given my limited clothing while on a thru-hike, my only outfit options while waiting for laundry include a towel or my birthday suit. So I had no choice but to wait for my clothes to dry before leaving the room. However, after four cycles, the dryer was deemed broken. Fortunately the owners were kind enough to throw our ragged hiking clothes into their dryer, and yet it was almost noon before I was able to fully pack up and check out. Once reunited with my skort and purple tank, we headed into town so I could mail off my broken tent, busted pad, and extra shoes to their various destinations. The next move was to sit outside and order a fresh chicken salad at Monteith’s while Facetiming my mom and dad. Eventually 3pm rolled around and we started thinking about cruising back to Boyle Village. There had been a giant tropical cyclone storm heading this direction, but today’s weather was nothing but blue skies, warm temperatures, and gusts of warm wind. So I figured hitching back would be easy. But after making a few phone calls, we discovered that the only place to stay in Boyle Village was super overpriced and closed at 5. Unfortunately, camping was out of the question because I just mailed away my tent and sleeping pad, and there was no way we could make it to Boyle Village by closing time. Our remaining option was to snag a room at the Hanmer Backpackers Hostel, and casually finish our errands in town. We dropped packs and proceeded to buy four new fudge flavors with a second voucher, and finish resupply at Foursquare. I really wanted to rent this ridiculous four-person pedal carriage, but unfortunately showed up thirty minutes past closing, because apparently everything closes very early around here.

Hostel hang outs

Our American friend Phil was also staying at the hostel, so we spent the rest of afternoon hanging out on the patio, enjoying the nice weather and chatting. I blogged a bit, Matt fucked around on the guitar, and I cooked a mean beef and veggie penne pasta. It’s been real, but I’m ready to get back to the mountains tomorrow!

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