Since last year’s decision not to continue with alpine trips, I’ve been pondering how I would manage to keep myself amused during winter. There are two problems with my snow-go policy. One, my friends are all going to be away on snowy mountains when I want to hang out with them. Two, all the good trips involve mountains that during winter might be covered with snow. You can see I am faced with a predicament. How to handle this? Like the good policy professional I am, there is always a framework to my analysis. Stage one is to find out whether it is still possible to have a fun and fulfilling winter without snow. Stage two, if part one proves it necessary, will be to evaluate and reconsider the snowmatorium.
Here are the five tactics I’ve deployed between May and July:
- Eking out the summer. There’s a wonderful window at the end of Autumn where the Great Walk huts become reclassified as regular huts (and hence are cheap) and the weather is still good enough that the days may be fine and the terrain snow-free. Those circumstances came together in early May to allow me and Antonia to boost the Tongariro Northern Circuit in a weekend. It’s really a 2.5 day trip rather than two but thoroughly doable in a weekend in good weather. Two long days with stunning views of volcano territory, relatively gentle altitude gain and slowly changing alpine terrain made for a stellar trip.
- Car camping. Rain warnings spoiled my intentions to hit the Tararuas, so instead I took off one Friday night in May to the Aorangi Forest Park, and had an extremely pleasant time camping in my car. In the morning, I was so relaxed having coffee, reading and watching the clouds roll in over the pinnacles that I almost didn’t bother with the walk. Almost. From the Pinnacles I headed up the track to the spot just before the descent to Washpool Hut (700m gentle ascent). Six hours and a lot of rain later, I was back in the car watching the weather hit the Tararuas, happy to have avoided the worst of it, and was home that evening with a whole Sunday still to spare for city life.
- Making great walks greater. Some of the Great Walks are low enough altitude that they are doable year round. Tom was keen to do Abel Tasman, which is probably NZ’s most famous tramp. But it’s all a bit too comfortable for me, with its big warm huts and highway-like tracks. So to add a bit of challenge I told Tom we’d be doing the Inland as well as the Coastal tracks. This turned out to be an excellent plan: two days of proper tough tramping, starting and ending in the dark, followed by 2.5 cruisey days down the coast once we were pleasantly worn out. This was my longest tramp so far so a good trial for The Big One coming up. After day one, we arrived at Wainui Hut after 10 hours and 1000m ascent to be treated to a pre-made fire thanks to an earlier arrival. But often hut fires are decorative more than functional, as I discovered when I awoke to find an inch-thick layer of ice on the top of the billy and water bottles frozen. Day two was tough – each stage seeming to take a bit longer than expected, and approaching 11 hours travel. But we started the Great Walk proper the next day the appropriate way: a two hour-long breakfast of pancakes and coffee. The rest proceeded as Abel Tasman generally does: offensively beautiful beach after offensively beautiful beach. The full nature of this will be revealed in a probably-award-winning video coming to this blog in the near future.
- Gambling on late snow. It would be unlucky but not unusual to have snow in the Richmond Range in June, but just in case I picked a peak that was slightly lower altitude than the highest (around 1500m) and a route with only a short exposed section. I was gambling that we could get a ridgeline experience without snow. It paid off. There may have been no snow on the ridges but the valley temperature on Friday night was surprisingly challenging. It was universally acknowledged to be an atrocious night’s sleep at Onamatulu campsite, thanks to the clear skies and sub zero temperatures. Saturday involved a long gradual ascent to the ridge through beech forest. A lovely section of open ridge brought my first views of the Raglan Ranges, before we joined the Richmond alpine track (part of te Araroa). Old Man Hut was warm and rewarding after about 1100m ascent. The descent back to Lake Chalice on Sunday was straightforward, after an adventurous 300m descent in the dark. This trip was also a test of whether it is possible to do a South Island trip in a weekend – 3.5 hour ferry, 2 hour drive each way and two full days of hiking – and still be a functioning human at work on Monday. The result: eminently doable.
- Committing to the sub-bushline experience. For the second or third time this winter, I had to concede on Thursday that the forecast wasn’t permitting the mountain-top weekend I sought. So I conceded and committed to the full forest experience – two full days of tramping below the bushline with minimal views. Bush trip 1 was a great success – we went in at Waoihine Gorge, up Cone Ridge (with its five minutes of views) and then down to Neill Forks Hut. This final stage turned out to be a ‘somewhat outdoorsy’ 600m extremely steep descent in the dark, sometimes approaching down-climbing on tree roots. But it was worth it as the hut was empty and very comfortable for the five of us. Sunday’s return down the valleys gave open river views with a good amount of tougher sidling to keep us on our toes and earn our dinner. Bush trip 2 was less rewarding: returning to Aorangi Forest Park but this time to traverse the park. It was a good experience and a great group, but it’s not a tramp I’d do again. Something about the forest was less attractive than the Tararuas. Without the tree roots for stability the tracks were slippery and demanded full mental attention. There was one beautiful section of ridge on Sunday morning with low trees permitting views across two shallow valleys, and some fun riverbed travel on Sunday afternoon. But something about this trip didn’t do it for me. I felt claustrophobic from the forest and craved being up high. The seeds of doubt have been sown about spending the rest of winter in a forest.
So what next? I have two more months to fill before the Spring sets in. Next up is to find out whether winter rock climbing is a thing. Most people say not… I’ll report back. During September Kristy and I plan to do a ludicrous amount of indoor climbing. More on that later. Meanwhile, the snow rolls in and the mountains are calling people away. I am envious.