Alpine Route, Mt Richmond Forest Park | August 2016

Winter. Actually, midwinter.

Somehow I feel this winter is more bleak than previous years, it’s wetter than any of the last three, and more consistently overcast. It rained every day for three weeks, then a week off, then back to the precipitation. Of course, it’s showers more than rain most of the days.

I’ve been sitting inside. Work is slower at this time of year so I’ve been spending time on finishing off my ’100 Days Walking Te Araroa’ paperback version. My editor suggested a few changes, mostly incorrect tense used, or changing the tense in mid-sentence, or breaking long sentences down into shorter chunks.

That all finished I did another check read through the 294 pages of a pdf. More fiddling. There are about 12 words on each line but if there was a big one at either end, or both, that meant there were strange gaps between the words. That needed to be rectified to my eye, words changed, or reordered. Also some extra lines written to bump a heading to the top of the next page.

Sorry, this is tedious enough to read about, but I slowly slumped in front of my screen, getting less productive. Man, I’ve been working on this, first the e-book, now a paperback for 15 months. I am well over it.

I’d always intended a midwinter break and the timing was obvious — during the Olympics when people are distracted and you can slink off unnoticed.

I started this tradition when I went off to Nelson Lakes during the Sydney Olympics, I was living in Australia at the time and had no desire to have to deal with the jingoism. 2004 and 2008 were both visits to Stewart Island. 2012 I was biking down from Cape York on my last four months living in Australia.

This year?

Stewart Island was a possibility again, maybe, it’s good walking in winter, no one else around and no issues with deep snow or avalanches. But there’s plenty of travel, both time and expense involved.

After some consideration I settled for something closer to home. There is snow about but I’m going to attempt the Alpine Route at the back of Nelson. Head south to St Arnaud.

I’ve packed my ice axe and crampons, 12 days’ food, and I’m raring to go.

Here’s my route:


Click to view larger topographic map

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Day 1 | Rocks Hut, almost like coming home

Day 1. Walking up to Dun Saddle it started to snow, big flakes. | winter trip, Alpine Route, Mt Richmond Forest Park

Not surprisingly there was no one in the hut, just a forlorn weka, investigating all the sudden noise. I have a feeling there will be plenty of solitude on this trip.

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Day 2 | Browning Hut, yup, that's winter all right

Morning Day 2. Rocks Hut in the snow. | winter trip, Alpine Route, Mt Richmond Forest Park

Snow!!

Well, that wasn’t a surprise, it was forecast. Around 10 cm covered everything in the morning, 1° C inside the hut.

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Day 3 | Starveall Hut, hill climbing on the agenda

Day 3. There's 8 crossings of Hacket Creek. Not enough water to get the inside of the boots wet. | winter trip, Alpine Route, Mt Richmond Forest Park

Actually there were some sights along the way: some mature kanuka, up the hill a patch of massive tree ferns, mountain cabbage trees, some filmy ferns, and less than 100 m from the hut, still in the forest, just as I was getting into the snow was a small fern bank covered in tiny icicles.

You get these wondrous moments.

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Day 4 | Slaty Hut, get those crampons on

Day 4. Tasman Bay on the way up Mt Starveall. | winter trip, Alpine Route, Mt Richmond Forest Park

I listened to the mountain weather forecast just after the news at 5 am, which offered a forecast as good as you could hope for, four fine days with little wind. Yippee!! Maybe the fine weather might even last a little longer.

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Day 5 | Old Man Hut, I'm feeling somewhat old myself

Day 5. Mt Richmond in the distance, from Old Man. | winter trip, Alpine Route, Mt Richmond Forest Park

Overall, the most amazing experience, a perfect winter’s day to go with the fine vista in every direction.

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Day 6 | Mid Goulter Hut, one of my favourites

Day 6. Old Man Hut was cold!! | winter trip, Alpine Route, Mt Richmond Forest Park

I sensed it was cold in the morning and glanced at my thermometer, argh, -5°C. No wonder I didn’t want to get up.

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Day 7 | Lower Goulter Hut, a "rest day"

Day 7. Frost in the Goulter River valley. | winter trip, Alpine Route, Mt Richmond Forest Park

The highlight was the considerable tranches of mature kanuka forest. The valley must have been burnt off at some stage, maybe as part of the Wairau valley burning by the moa hunters some centuries ago.

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Day 8 | Mid Wairoa Hut, climb every moutain, ford every stream

Day 8. Looking up to Red Hill and Top Wairoa Hut up the Wairoa River valley. | winter trip, Alpine Route, Mt Richmond Forest Park

My body might be in an ageing state, but its limitations are overcome by my mind’s ambitions.

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Day 9 | Top Wairoa Hut, plenty of ventilation

Day 9. Some scrambling on slippery rocks on the way up to Top Wairoa Hut in the Wairoa River valley. | winter trip, Alpine Route, Mt Richmond Forest Park

There’s plenty of ventilation with the open fireplace chimney. No point in lighting a fire, firewood is hard to procure in this area and there’s a few notes that mention that because the fire smokes profusely you are required to leave the door open, which kind of defeats the whole purpose of heating.

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Day 10 | Top Wairoa Hut — rest day

Day 10. Seemed like the weather to stay another night at Top Wairoa Hut in the Wairoa River valley. | winter trip, Alpine Route, Mt Richmond Forest Park

When I awoke during the night I couldn’t hear rain. Maybe it was snowing.

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Day 11 | Hunters Hut, a smashing it out day

Day 11. Climbing up the ridge on the way to Mt Ellis and over to Hunters Hut. | winter trip, Alpine Route, Mt Richmond Forest Park

Then when I thought it couldn’t get any harder I had a few hundred metres where it was thigh deep, turns out being entirely energy sapping.

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Day 12 | Hunters Hut, err, is this another rest day?

Day 12. Day off. Mt Ellis and yesterday's route over to Hunters Hut. | winter trip, Alpine Route, Mt Richmond Forest Park

No need to scurry on, in fact little chance that much scurrying with my leaden limbs.

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Day 13 | Porters Creek Hut, mooching along

Day 13. That's Porters Creek Hut, the orange dot in the distance. | winter trip, Alpine Route, Mt Richmond Forest Park

For some reason everybody else I know is too busy to take 15 days off work in the middle of winter to climb some big hills, lugging a decent sized pack, and staying in uninsulated huts with excessive natural ventilation.

I’m not sure I’ll convince anyone when they read this account either.

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Day 14 | Red Hills Hut, last night

Day 14. The right branch of the Motueka River. Off for my last night out, at Red Hills Hut. | winter trip, Alpine Route, Mt Richmond Forest Park

Despite that early flustering around at Porters Creek Hut and the creeks, it turned into the hard work as usual kind of day.

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Day 15 | Home sweet home, Nelson

Day 15. View of the Wairau River from near Red Hills Hut. | winter trip, Alpine Route, Mt Richmond Forest Park

In winter the stakes are raised: more clothes and equipment to carry, cold huts, a lack of serendipitous companionship, unless you take your own.

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Day 3 | back home, already

The drop down through the forest was straightforward, easier in the downward direction than the alternative.