MITRE / MT OWEN

My rehardening programme began in the Tararuas. It had been six weeks since I'd finished the Te Araroa trail and I'd become particularly fond of such luxuries as mattresses and hot water on tap. So I needed a good trip to snap me out of it.

Mitre was the destination, the highest peak in the range. The last time I attempted this I miserably failed to a combination of miserable planning and miserable weather. This time things would be different. I made certain of a stunning autumnal weather window. We camped at The Pines road end Friday night so we could leave before sunrise and have a good chance of getting back down not too long after dark.

At our medium pace, it is a 3hr15 walk in to Mitre Flats Hut before you even begin the climb. But once the ascent it underway it's steady progress, you just have to keep going up. We made it up in a respectable 3.5hrs which was faster than we expected. At the top it was still warm enough to laze around and eat second lunch in indulgent slow fashion, atypical on tramping trips.

Another three hours saw us back at the hut for dinner. A climb of 1500m + 10.5hr day = good hut sleep.

After I'd got back into hut life, it was time to get reacquainted with the cold, with a trip to Kahurangi National Park. Winter had just been called. Mt Owen has long had my eye. It's in the Wilderness Magazine list of top 50 tramping peaks, most of which I've failed abysmally to bag. But the temptation to clock another was enough to override my distaste for the forecast of southerly winds and low freezing level.

My heart wasn’t really in it as we set up camp at Siberia Flats campsite under head torch at midnight, braced for a cold night under a clear sky. We awoke to a crust of frost. ‘Be bold, start cold’, I reminded myself as I reluctantly stripped layers back to shorts. The 1000m ascent through forest soon warmed me up though, and I felt my work worries drifting away into the trees and my body reawakening to the energy of being used.

We camped above the hut in a nice basin we’d been tipped off about. I beautiful spot, which I would have had more time to enjoy had I not been busy adding layers every ten minutes. Soon I was wearing three merinos, a fleece, a down jacket, two pairs of long johns, shorts and waterproof trousers. But even that wasn’t enough to be out after sundown so at the earliest opportunity, with temperatures dropping below zero, we retreated immediately to our tents. I glanced at my watch to check it was bedtime: 5.50pm. Oh dear.

The good thing about long cold winter nights in the backcountry is that even if you only sleep 66% of the time, you still end up with a full ration of shuteye. So I felt fairly well rested despite waking a lot. From camp we progressed up to Mt Owen, first over tussock skirting frozen tarns, and then over breathtaking limestone crags, switching between smooth and spikey rock. The final ascent was made a bit more exciting by our taking the wrong route, which meant a steep windy ascent up tussock instead of along a graded path. We arrived at the summit just before the clouds clagged us in.

The wind was fiercely cold so we raced back down the hill to find a warmer spot for lunch, and then on to Granity Flats Hut. We’d barely got our boots off when the snow started falling. It made for a magical walk out the following day.

And lo, with the aid of some snowy mountain views and fine tramping company, I was out of the post-thru-hike gloom, readjusted to the tramping ways, and thirsty for more.

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