Beware: this is a story of extreme badassery.
Nelson Lakes National Park is centrally located on the northern half of the South Island, only an hour or so from the Marlborough region. Many people know it for an iconic postcard shot of the dock on Lake Rotoiti, but I know it as an epic mountain-lovers playground. Last time I was in this country, three good friends of mine came back from our spring break with a harrowing hiking tale of their near-death experience en route to the Angelus Hut.
Here in New Zealand, DOC has over 950 huts dispersed throughout the wild lands of both the North and South Island. They’re a great option for those who want an explorative experience among the stunning landscapes. Many huts have helpful amenities like running water and a wood-burning stove (used for heat, not for cooking). Although, some are just basic shelters and don’t have such amenities, so check online if you’re planning an adventure! Most areas of interest have a DOC information centre in the main town, so you can even check with a professional before heading out into the bush.
We rolled up to Nelson Lakes on a recommendation from one of those three friends (thank you Alex, my love) but with the explicit instruction to be weary of the wintry conditions - as per the avalanche threat that made their experience so treacherous. Alas, we stopped at the DOC visitor centre in St. Arnaud to approve our plans with an official, and the unnamed officer confirmed that we would be fine without winter gear, and no, we did not need crampons. “The ice broke last week,” he said. “You’ll be fine,” he said.
You can see where this is going.
Day 1 of our “tramp” went exactly according to plan: we rose 1,280m to the Bushline Hut for our first night. The first half of the trail stretched along the flat bank of the Lake Rotoiti before abruptly inclining up through the forest. The serenity of the trail is hard to ignore, and before long you emerge out of the trees to a breathtaking view of Lake Roititi and Lake Rotoroa. The second half of the trail is a string of switchbacks up the bald mountain face, blindly ascending until the very last moment when you crest the last switchback and the hut finally comes into sight.
The hut was relatively full, as some kiwis from Christchurch chose to have an extended family reunion in the national park that weekend. Note: make sure that if you’re planning on going to a hut, book your bed early to make sure you’ll have a space once you finally get up there! And bring ear plugs… But before then, dinner!
Using my nifty little MSR Whisperlite International, we heated up some tortellini and tomato soup to enjoy on the mountainside as the misty fog settled among the peaks for the night. Followed by, of course, bedtime tea and BANAGRAMS.
The next morning we were due for another 4h30 on the trail, south to the Angleus Hut. We headed out mid-morning, just after breakfast, and quickly made it to the trail junction for Robert’s Ridge. We were greeted by warning signs and exclamation marks, but the DOC officer back in town said winter was over and we’d be fine. We expected to be there for a late lunch.
NOT. EVEN. CLOSE.
We were straight up mountaineering. Tight rope walking ridgelines. Hurdling piles of alpine boulders and rocky junk. Scuttling along scree slopes. Tip toeing icy stretches of “trail” above cliff faces. This was some BAD. ASS. SHIT.
Our packs were way too heavy, given that we lugged ALL our valuables up into the alpine zone with us. We were wearing Timberland boots, and while our New York selves do love the shoe, they were far from adequate for winter hiking. But we kept our cool (haaaa) and trudged on through the majestic peaks of Robert’s Ridge. For 8 hours.
The last stretch of the route — actually, I’m going to use this opportunity to clarify something. APPARENTLY, here in New Zealand, the name of the trail discerns the skill level for the hike. I thought a “route” was just like, you know, the route that you take to get there. Like, as in, a synonym for “trail.” NOT EXPERT LEVEL TERRAIN.
Okay so, the last stretch of the ROUTE was just honestly a sledding hill. There was no way we were going to make it down on our weary little legs - especially not after 8 hours of scrambling along a cold, windy ridgeline. So obviously we took our pack rain covers and sat on our pretty little asses, recklessly flying through the wet snow until we reached the bottom. We hurdled into the hut, simultaneously prying off our wet boots, and introduced ourselves to the only occupant of the hut: our new best friend, David.
Lucky for us, our new best friend brought extra gear with him and was also planning the same exit route as us. Needless to say, our group of two became a group of three - or rather, his group of one became a group of three. That night, we figuratively slept soundly knowing we would be attempting the exit with our new friend. But in reality, we didn’t sleep at all due to the railing winds pounding on the sides of the hut, whistling through the stove chimney. Kim was certain the windows were going to implode and end our trip right there that night.
We woke up the next day with no intention of leaving the hut. Surely we would wait until the weather cleared before wandering into winter wonderland again. Plus, between our two 40-pound packs, we had plenty of toys to keep ourselves occupied. We watched the clouds play among the peaks outside the window, and also three episodes of Game of Thrones. David taught us a new card game, and we all re-taught ourselves how to play Gin Rummy. The day flew by.
Our best friend and fire-tender kept the hut warm all night, and we woke up ready to roll. Kim strapped on David’s extra snow shoes, I was equipped with an ice ax, and it was time to scale the sledding hill. What would’ve taken us maybe three hours in Timberlands only took us one with our friendly guide. Bless.
We were just about to reach the exit trail junction when the wind whisked away my camera case. I watched the thing sink right over the edge of the ridge. I let the disappointment set in for only a few minutes before the fluffy sac came spiraling back up towards us. Without missing a beat, our Lord and Savior set off to retrieve it.
So here I am today, safely on level ground, with my beloved camera case. The rest of the descent went well, if only exhausting. We trekked eight hours along the Speargrass Track through tussocks and snow melt. We succumbed to the rivers and quickly gave up on keeping our boots dry.
Long story short: we embarked on a journey far more challenging than what we were prepared for, spent an entire day among the towering peaks of Nelson Lakes National Park, and survived the hike out with the help of our guardian angel David. Of course we celebrated with beer and pizza immediately upon returning to town.
But like, also, we were super badass heroes too.