Saturday, December 7, 2019

Backcountry Adventure, part 1.

It began with a simple day hike at Nelson Lakes, and ended as one of the most intense, beautiful, and precarious backcountry adventures of my life. There's a saying, "If you do something and survive, it's courageous; if you die, it's stupidity." We were fortunate that it was courageous this time around.

The day hike began at 1pm, a wonderful and stunning jaunt around Mt. Roberts, overlooking Nelson Lakes. Shantel and I were in great spirits; the weather was overcast and cloudy, but the hike promised to be beautiful and fulfilling even without visibility.

The terrain changed several times; for much of it we were hiking up the side of the mountain in switchbacks, but eventually the trail cut inward off the hillside and into the forest. At that point, we had climbed into the clouds, creating a haunting effect in the woods.

Cresting onto the summit of Mt. Roberts, a cold, bone-chilling wind buffeted us in all directions. But we were treated to some truly stunning cloud movements as it rolled over the top.

On our way down, we made it to one of the "huts" as they're called in New Zealand. These huts are maintained by the Department of Conservation. They're typically a single room with loads of counter space and a dining table, plus bunk space with thick foam mats for sleeping. The huts are stocked with wood, and visitors are welcomed to build their own fires in the wood furnace to heat the space. 

We took refuge there, as at that moment a hailstorm bore down on us just as we were arriving at the door. We hung out with a family there, who had made plans to go further into the park, to a place called Angulus Hut, but they had heard a storm was rolling in and didn't want their small ones to brave the high winds along the ridge.

Eventually we continued on our way, completing a loop back down the mountain and to our parked van. The weather turned again, forming thunder in the distance, and then, finally, a most stunning daybreak. The sun streamed in and made the whole place feel like it had never rained in the first place.


By the time we made it back to the car, it was only 4:30pm. We had finished much earlier than expected, doing the route that was estimated to take 5 hours in just over 3. It was early, and we were in good spirits, and we weren't ready to be done hiking. 

Looking back at the map, we saw that Angulus Hut was estimated to take ~8-10 hours to get there. We figured we could do it ~6 hours, given our hiking tempo and how off the original estimate was. Worst case scenario, we thought, we'd be hiking with our headlamps at night along an obvious track like the one we had followed.

Boy were we wrong on that part.

We hustled to pack our backs with warm clothing just in case, dinner for the evening, and sleeping gear. We made a reservation at the hut, so we didn't bring our tent. (That was the first really big mistake.) We set off again in good spirits; our bodies a little sore, but excited for the adventure and ready to push ourselves.


There was another route we could've taken, Speargrass Trail, which would've given us a bailout hut option halfway there at Speargrass Hut in case we decided the trek was too much and we wanted to stop for the evening. We debated for a little while, and then favored the "Ridgeline Route" because it promised to be for "more experienced backpackers" as opposed to the other route which was intended for families. We wanted to push ourselves.

We cruised back up the mountain, making excellent time. After summiting Mt. Roberts in even faster time that previously, we pressed onward to our final destination, Angulus Hut, 9 km away. It was 7pm, and it said it was 4.5 hours away.

I will never forget the experience of watching the sun make its steady descent toward the horizon while at 4000' elevation. Nothing is in your way to obscure the majesty and beauty of this great star lighting up all the land beneath you.


We were hiking along the ridge of a mountain range. That stood to reason, as it was called Ridgeline Route, after all. It was cold and windy, but not to the extent that we were concerned about what might happen when the sun set. We knew it would get colder, but both of us had additional layers and we were maintaining a solidly warm core body temperature right now.

The path was still pretty obvious: a worn track through the gravel and small rocks, always marked at intervals with orange metal posts. The posts were often buried into piles of huge rocks, as there was no where else to stake them securely.


We saw lots of bizarre life up there, including this strange moss that I've never seen before.

We could pretty clearly see a final ridge that we were going to ascend over. We powered our way up the mountain. When we ascended the ridge, anticipating that the ridgeline part was over, we would just find... more ridge. Always, every time, just. more. ridge.

It was 8pm. The sun was still in the sky, but light was steadily fading, and we were beginning to wonder when we'd begin descending. The faint, growing fear was kept in check by a steady supply of breathtaking views, however.

We powered onward, not yet worried about our circumstances. The wind wasn't terrible, we still had ~1.5 hrs of light, we had warm gear, and the path was well marked. We kept the conversation going, sharing stories and laughter. We were deliberately staying positive.

Then the path became increasingly less obvious. We were scrambling over huge rocks, up and down and back up again. The hiking was intense, and we wanted to keep moving at a steady clip. It was a full body experience with using our arms for balance and moving us up and down the boulder fields.

A reality was finally sinking in: this was not merely hiking a path, we were in the backcountry. A vast expanse of nature, barely maintained except for these regular, impersonal, uninformative route markers. We were picking our way along the ridges of a mountain range, almost as ambiguously as if we had pointed in the distance and made a best guess as to how to get there. The route was growing in challenge, to the point where we're carefully climbing around huge rocky, craggy summits, with a steep slope below us. We weren't navigating cliffs per se, but if we fell we'd have a decidedly unpleasant way down. 


It was around this time that Shantel noted that she forgot to bring the first aid kit. (Our second mistake.) It's fine as long as no one gets hurts, but that's a big if, and we both totally deserve to be outdoorsy-shamed for such an obvious omission.

It's fine, I thought to myself. What could possibly go wrong? I was now literally crawling across a mixture of a frosty snow drift and thick, sharp rocks, all of which are loose and sliding out from underneath me. As I stepped through the terrain, I listened to the scree underfoot sliding out and tumbling a long way down. At one point I had to use my hands to grip uncertain, loose boulders to avoid sliding down myself.


It's fine. Turning around, I saw Shantel standing there, staring at what she had to do after me, breathless. I could tell she was working hard to quiet the panic in her mind, just like me. We just needed to keep our heads on straight and keep moving forward. There was no turning back, that would only make the situation more dangerous. Go big or maybe don't go home.

Around this time, I stopped taking photos. It was 9pm, the sun was setting, and we had maybe another half hour of light left. We didn't have a lot of time to dilly-dally, so we kept moving fast. I did, however, manage to snap a couple shots of a most spectacular sunset across the mountains while waiting for Shantel to catch up. 

It was majestic and humbling to be this deep into nature. Logically, I knew I wasn't terribly far away -- we had covered maybe 10 miles by that point, but I felt utterly alone, as if I had been trekking for days in the wilderness. There was not a single trace of humanity, save for the route markers. While the feeling was a little terrifying, it was also exhilarating. I was beginning to understand why people undertake such epic journeys into nature.


"Hey," I said to Shantel, "Just wanted to note that this spot is pretty sheltered. Not that it would come to it." 

My lizard brain was trying its damndest to make me freak out, but I wouldn't let it. Peering into the fading light, I made reasonable guesses as to where we were heading and noting its compass bearing. We had water and food. I kept track of slightly flatter, more sheltered areas where we could take refuge if needed (again, having a tent would've been clutch in case of emergency). We both had excellent sleeping bags and could most likely withstand an uncomfortable, fearful night on mountain. The storm was nowhere in sight, so we were lucky in that regard.

Panicking wasn't go to serve us, so there was no room for it. Just keep moving, just keep those legs working, and keep careful track of where steps are landing.

My chief concern was losing track of the route markers once darkness descended. Sometimes they were hard to spot even before the sun set, and now I was thinking about how we'd pull it off I couldn't see beyond the beam of a headlamp. The path was occasionally worn well enough that we could make it that way, but there were too many places where there was no guessing which direction to go next for me to rely upon it.

I was working out contingencies in my head when we spotted a sign. A sign! Information! It was encouraging to even know the sign existed before reading it. Shantel wondered aloud, "This sign will either make me really happy to have a good cry. I wonder which kind of sign it is!"

" < -- Angulus Hut     30 min   1 km"

We were nearly there. We both laughed exuberantly and hugged one another. We got this.

I took out my headlamp because the light was about to completely fade from the sky, and replenished its batteries with some spares I had brought. (That was the 1st really great decision I had made, bringing those spares. Always bring spare batteries. Always.) With a fresh, bright beam of light, we had no problem finding each post, and the route was finally descending, rather than continuing along more ridges.

When we saw the hut, nestled next to a stunningly beautiful lake nestled among the mountains, we were filled with such elation and joy. We were going to be just fine. 

Once we made it to the hut and dumped our stuff, we met the only other two people in the hut that night. They were both, amusingly, from Portland. Small world. They had just gotten engaged by the lake maybe a couple hours earlier. They were friendly, convivial, and great with conversation. We quickly became acquainted, swapped stories and laughter.

We walked 13 miles that day. Looking through the photos later, we realized we had a pretty good shot of at least some of the distance covered.

When we ate, it was a deep, ravenous hunger, and the food felt so very deserved. Our sleeping bags were warm, which was fortunate because wood hadn't been delivered in a couple weeks and the hut was quite cold. The hut warden (DoC volunteers who staff the huts for week-long stints to provide weather updates and emergency services to backpackers) griped about the lack of firewood. She was probably 60 years old and a total badass.

I was so glad to make it through. It was the kind of danger where, in the present moment, it's totally fine, but it felt precarious, like that fortune could change very suddenly. We made some critical errors that made the situation much more precarious. Lessons learned:

  1. Bring shelter
  2. Bring a first aid kit
  3. Check the weather beforehand
  4. Check the route conditions (talk to the park rangers) and know what you're getting into

We made it through safe and sound and learned some important lessons. It was the most intense backpacking day of my life, and my first day in the backcountry. It's an experience that will stay with me for the rest of my life. 

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