There’s two ways to go tramping in NZ, corral up some best friends, or singular friend, become totally organised, and take off. Shared adversity builds lifelong friendships and you can enjoy excellent companionship out here.
If you don’t have friends, or it’s not quite the right timing for them, you can avoid being hostage to other people’s needs and just take off by yourself. No sharing of experience but if you enjoy your own company you can do things at your own pace.
I’ve played it both ways, plenty of trips with others but I’m just as happy to follow my own path just now. Who else wants to spend two weeks in ‘ol Nelson Lakes National Park at the end of April/early May.
It’s actually not a bad time, the tourists and holiday makers have evacuated, I haven’t seen a solitary person since I left the hunters at D’Urville Hut on the morning of Day 3 and it’s now Day, err, 12.
Yes, you have to enjoy your own company.
On days like today it’s maybe better not to have a more reluctant companion, it seemed so innocuous when I set out on another 1000m climb, this time the popular Travers Saddle, the weather, humm, missed the forecast this morning, clearing, perhaps.
Then there’s the wondrous sight to the Sabine Gorge, you could just about jump across, is there a river somewhere, the sound of rumbling water, almost unseen, some distance below.
The climb, well, another climb, I’m getting used to them now, this is the fourth 800m+ climb of the trip and I’m feeling frisky.
It soon became apparent that I’d missed a major ingredient of today’s weather: that’s fresh snow up there. I get to it around 1400m but it’s no big deal, I’ve zipped up my raincoat, donned my second beenie and it’s out with the gloves. Somehow it doesn’t seem so cold. There’s the odd gust of wind, the snow, seems about 150mm thick, deeper in the drifts.
As it flattens off towards the pass the wind really gets up, I’m blasted with snow blown up off the ground, oh, it is also snowing in flurries.
The poles are 20m apart here once I get to the highest point and they need to be. I’m not taking a celebratory photo because that would mean taking a glove off, not a good move with the windchill, and in any case this is as strong a wind as I’ve experienced, well, at least since the last time I was here back in 2000.
Back then I climbed to the top, similar wind, more snow, I made it some way over and down the other side, half an hour away from the hut, tried to wipe snow off my glasses and, ping, the plastic frame broke into a number of pieces, just as that happened I looked down the now not inconsiderable slope I was going down, a huge gust and that slope looked awfully shiny.
Shiny, shiny, shiny.
(That’s the reason I’ve been lugging crampons and an ice axe with me on this trip, they could kinda come in useful when there’s more icy conditions but it looks like later in May is when I might really need them.)
Back then I thought what the hell, I might have been only 30 minutes from Upper Travers Hut but I couldn’t be risking the descent, it’s super steep for 150 metres with no easy option so even then being old and wise I turned around and plodded back down the hill to West Sabine for a second night and the next day walked out, down to Sabine at Lake Rotoroa and then basically ran out around the lake, the last stretch in the dark, one huge day without glasses. Then the following day I walked the 10k down to the highway at Gowan Bridge in the morning and hitched, obviously without good eyesight, back to Nelson to procure myself some better vision.
Moral of the story: I’ve worn metal frames ever since.
Today, the snow might not be as deep and it was fresh so there wasn’t ice but the wind, well, it was stronger if that’s possible. Half a dozen times I was plonked on my arse, my 90kg frame plus the extra weight of my admittedly now almost food free pack blown over, I’m walking like a spider, close to the ground, I can feel the snow on my chin, it’s hacking at my eyes like a sandblaster.
Every brief lull I check the route, it’s mostly easy going, not steep yet and not so much snow, it’s mostly blasted away, then both hands shielding my eyes I walk crablike to the next pole, the gusts last for a few minutes, no motion in the forward direction possible, I turn my back into the wind.
But I know two things here.
It’s not viciously cold except for the windchill factor, so once I get out of the wind it will be much easier, I’m well equipped for these conditions, except for the ferocity I’ve survived this a few times previously.
And the snow is fresh and if anything, wet, ie, easy walking.
Still if I did have a companion I’m not sure they would have as serene a demeanour.