The mountains are always calling, and this weekend they were calling over the sound of my cold. After last weekend’s constant downpour foiling my plans to explore Christchurch, I wasn’t ready to let another weekend go to waste and decided to tough it out. Nothing like a little mountain air medicine. In retrospect, backpacking really should be saved for occasions of full health, but I can’t say I regret my choice. I hadn’t been on a true tramp yet so I wasn’t exactly eager to sit it out. So to those of you with better judgement than I, here is my tale.
I went with UC’s tramping club. One of my flatmates also signed up, but other than her, I didn’t know anyone. It was a smallish group of 8, with a fair mix of exchange students and PhD/postdoctorate/working folk. I was the only American on the trip, so it was like a bit of fresh air from my 24/7 environment of young American exchange students (I’m definitely not complaining about that, no one else wants to explore like they do, but it’s interesting to talk to people with different perspectives and backgrounds).
The trip itself was along the Cass-Lagoon track in Craigieburn Forest Park, relatively near Arthur’s Pass for anyone familiar with New Zealand geography. It was a loop track as well, so we would get a fresh view the second day.
Not that it mattered, as when we pulled up to the start of the track, a layer of fog and mist had already settled low across the mountains and mist dotted our coats. Sending silent prayers for a bit a sunshine, we headed off anyways. Barely 20 minutes into the walk, we came across our first stream crossing. Now in the states, it seems like walking with wet boots or getting your boots wet at all is a form of blasphemy that will absolutely ruin your hike. Those thoughts were running through my mind as I sloshed through the slippery stones with the cool water easily wiggling between my toes. But as we forded stream after stream, followed part of the track that was in itself a stream, and dodged along slick rocks, I began to accept my swampy feet. It was happening whether I liked it or not, and the only other option was to turn around. All I had to say to that was one big hell no.
Something I’d been thinking about on this abroad trip came across my thoughts at this point. We fold tiny experiences like these into the build our lives and piece by piece we get the fabric of our stories, the smiles, the shadows, everything in between. There was no telling what experiences I had yet to gather up the trail and the experience of opting out would make a story I didn’t want to tell.
Anyways, there was only one person in our group with dry feet so it certainly wasn’t a lonely experience. The guy with the dry feet had nice leather boots and nice gaiters and an adult job. Some day I’ll drop some money on nicer gear, but for now I love my boots and their weak waterproofing (hey I did hike in them through snow before –and my feet stayed completely dry!).
The stream crossings, as you might guess, were fairly flat. We trekked for a bit across beds of gravel and stone before the foliage started to grow and we were wading through waist high shrubs to follow the trail. I was very glad I’d decided to throw my long pants on over my shorts so I could move without my legs coming out looking I had just had a brawl with the brush. As kind as this stretch was, soon the elevation began.
At this point, I had lost my lens cap somewhere among the stones and shrubs, so I put my camera away to at least somewhat protect it from the mist and myself. My cold also caught up with me on the climb.
To spare you the gory details, I’ll just say my lungs definitely were not at their full capacity and I wish brought more tissues. So between these two factors, the uphill climb was not well documented. But believe me when I say it was a lovely birch forest we frequented across this hike. Narrow, twiggy trees let the soft light filter in gentle flecks across the forest, making the air itself seem quiet, punctuating by splashes of green in the moss and ferns. It was a Narnian-type forest.
Eventually, through the woods and a deceptively long one-kilometer-left-warning, we came to our lunch spot: Cass Saddle Hut. The clouds that were supposed to disperse by early morning were still present, so there wasn’t much opportunity to lounge in the sun. I wasn’t too concerned–I just needed my food (tortilla and fancy tuna in case you were curious. I’m trying to get better at this whole backpacking-food thing).
It was at this point a few in our group began to show signs of fatigue (one person’s knee was hurting them), four hours into around an eight hour day. They were stubborn about continuing, which the whole group questioned, but we continued anyway up into the mist.
We moved on to our viewless view. After the hut, we were out of the trees and onto an open hillside coated in lazy fog. We paused only briefly at where the view was supposed to reveal itself in order to determine that we truly couldn’t see anything. Since we were now divided into a fast and slow group, we split and headed into the final stretch towards our final destination: Hamilton hut. But first, what goes up must come down.
Over long periods of time, downhill honestly makes my legs more uncomfortable than going uphill. They start turning into jello and my brain starts worrying about my knees. But I made it through, mostly by admiring the forest and focusing on keeping pace with who I was hiking with. One part of the forest on the downhill did make me pause–it was a whole forest absolutely covered in Spanish moss (or some similar species). It made me think of Monterey (CA) and the heaps of it that dangles from the pines there.
Just past this little stretch of forest, we ended up waiting around half an hour for the possibly-injured part of our entourage. Still, they wanted to keep going and were surprisingly still in good spirits. Turns out this was their first ever backpacking experience, so I have to give them some credit.
For the rest of the hike, I ended up walking with a Polish chemist postdoctorate. She’d done her studies in so many places across the globe.. I was a little inspired. That part of my life is rapidly (seemingly) approaching and talking to her was a reminder that the crazed comings and goings of exchange students doesn’t mesh well in the real world. So I tucked that thought away and reminded myself that I in the moment I am an exchange student and to enjoy it (I haven’t had any problems with that…).
The forest spit us out into a new river bed and after short walk searching for the blessed orange triangle, we finally reached the hut. The hut was tucked into a small clearing set amongst the trees that overlooked the river flowing below, with its red paint job standing out in the greenery. Smoke coiled from the chimney and its porch was already decorated with trampers’ gear.
The instant we arrived, everyone greeted us with warm welcomes and big smiles. The hut was packed and I was briefly overwhelmed by the amount of people filling the walls and the sheer heat in the room (who needs hot springs when you have a backcountry sauna), but the friendliness of my fellow trampers quickly guided me to one of the last free bunks out of the 20 inside. I threw all my gear down and didn’t even get any dirty looks for getting in people’s way. Honestly, most people were probably more focused on dinner than me. But the spirit in the hut, I want more of it–the sense of community there, even if for a night. Perhaps that’s the reason I love carrying a heavy pack up a mountain. Those who bear the weight know that everyone they see on trail each carries that little bit of insanity and there’s kinship in that.
We made dinner (I got to use my stove again! For a moment I thought I was going to burn the hut down with the huge flame I made, but the hut made it through the night) and then just relaxed. Nothing can reach you in the mountains so there’s no point in worrying. Instead you exchange stories.
When we went to bed, the heat in the hut was still so intense that I ended up sleeping without my sleeping bag. The heat and the sounds in the hut (there were plenty of snorers) should have made for a restless night, but I slept fairly well in spite of everything.
The next morning, the serious backpackers were out by seven. We took our time and headed out around 9, after a classic oatmeal breakfast. I tried at this point to take pictures of the inside of the hut, but every time I went into the room with my bunk, there was an old man changing. I took it as a sign and took a few quick, sneaky pics of the rest.
In my head, without ever looking at a map, the way out was downhill. I was wrong. We crossed a few swinging bridges in the beginning and strolled through the beech forest in the glow of morning light, but the ups and down quickly established themselves and the trails became less tamed. It started with mud saturating the trails like a swamp and the rest waited until after our snack break. We made quick work of the trail to the first hut, the snack break, and decided to power through to the next hut for lunch.
The trail spit us out onto a rocky river basin. The hills edging the river were dotted with scree slides or masses of uprooted trees and boulders, evidence of why you do not hike this trail in bad weather. We had mostly split into groups of two and I was with the Polish chemist; we used our map estimations to traverse the river and make it to the “exit” on the other end, which we found only by cairns (some felt a little too camouflaged) and the occasional orange triangle indicating a trail entrance on the river bank.
When we did make it off the river and back into the forest, the trail treated us to more uphill. Needless to say, I did not document this well, as I was trying to remind myself how to breathe. Sometimes it’s only the thought of food that keeps you going. It’s an excellent motivator, especially when your maps skills weren’t as good as you thought. You see, on the map the trail crossed three streams. At the first stream crossing, we stopped to check the map and quickly decided that yes indeed, that had to have been the third stream crossing. So close! Yet.. we came upon another stream. We decided that was fine, as we had to have been just off by one and the hut was only fifteen minutes away. Then another stream appeared. Third time’s the charm I guess. After that stream, we did finally make it to the hut and took an hour nap waiting for the rest of our group. The sun had come out and for a moment we forgot our aching hips.
However, when we stood up to leave we remembered them. Stopping was definitely a mistake, as all my tired muscles stiffened with each step. It was a good thing the view wasn’t very far. I’m glad at least our second day was sunny because I would have been extremely disappointed to miss this view.
It was all downhill from here. I lingered in the back, taking way too many pictures of mountains and the open hillside. Eventually, the trail dove into a dark pine forest before the vegetation shifted back to the familiar beech and the beautiful halos of light in the canopy. After two full days of walking we made it to the final hut, which turned out to be five minutes from the parking lot, a parking lot where we spent an hour waiting for the tired, sore couple to catch up to us. They made it with surprisingly good spirits. Keep your head up folks, that’s the secret to improve any situation.
Sorry if this week’s words seem rather rushed–I’ve actually had a lot of school work this week and haven’t had a lot of time to sit down and write. I wrote this quickly before I leave to take a test (mind you, it’s Saturday..). Some weeks are just better than others. Almost broke down and threw in a lazy quote.. but not yet, not yet.
“What do you fear, lady?” [Aragorn] asked.
“A cage,” [Éowyn] said. “To stay behind bars, until use and old age accept them, and all chance of doing great deeds is gone beyond recall or desire.” – J.R.R Tolkien
Update: I was so rushed I realized I forgot a title. Fixed that.