The psychology of dead and missing trampers
With the long weekends fast approaching two Thursdays back, I quickly tried to throw together some activities to do. Mt Pirongia again called to me in my dreams; and thus, I called some friends to check their chances of coming, one of whom was fairly positive about coming (although he later hurt his foot the day before the walk). The plan I had in mind was to cruise up on a short track (Tahuanui), stay overnight at the top and go down on a long track (Bell's track) the next day. This was the second of the two possible loops that could be done on Pirongia, the first being achieved in a single, long day with James prior to New Year.
I was mostly packed the day before but was late to bed that day. At 6:30am the day of departure, I received a text from my friend: his bruised foot had not recovered well enough and he couldn't come.
To go or not to go: I wasn't seized by the enthusiasm while I was lying in bed, slightly sleep deprived. Conversation on the track would become introspection.
But, solo tramping: Now that was something I hadn't indulged in much lately; and an overnight tramp - that'd be pretty cool. When accompanied, often I had to compromise in terms of speed or devote a part of my mind to what they other person was thinking or needing. A group or companion also makes it more difficult to socialise with other people on the track.
After swaying from one option back to another, I suddenly fell into a determined state of mind and launched myself into full-blown preparative activities and then out the door. By 11am, I was there and started to march the track. I had been on the Tahuanui track several years before: we had tramped to a campground close to the trailhead, and then the next day gone up to the top ridge and back without getting to the hut. As I started this time, I noticed that things were different. I passed a off-shoot track to some caves: that wasn't there before! I checked the map and realised my hunch was right: I must have missed a sign and had inadvertently gone on the track I wanted to descend on!
This one, Bell's track, was much longer than Tahuanui, with the DOC leaflet suggesting it would take 8-10 hours. I was most concerned about time. I didn't want to be getting there at 7pm. But there was a campground midway between that was suggested to be "half-way". I thought I'd walk until 3pm, and if I hadn't seen the campground, I'd head back.
I thought again about the joy of solo tramping. My own speed, the freedom to strategise how I'd do things and also not feeling the same sense of responsibility. I thought how liberating things are on your own: you can take some risks and push yourself in ways you wouldn't be able to accompanied. I amused myself in this statement possibly being the same psychology of dead and missing trampers. I fidgetted a lot with my pack. It had been ages since I had tramped with a whole pack.
The track had been mostly flat, apart from a rapid ascent away from the river. The week of dryness had meant that muddy parts were minimal. I strode into a series of clearings, the last of which was the camping ground. There was a dodgy-looking young man with a gun, who had a campfire blazing with a friend and his dog (dogs and fires were banned; but I had already seen two other groups with dogs in tow). The time was only 1:30pm! That meant I had got to the half-way point in only two and a half hours. I ate most of my lunch and hydrated myself completely. The temperature was rising: the forecast had suggested the temperature would hit 28 degrees in nearby Hamilton.
After fifteen minutes I rose once more and surged onwards with renewed vigour. There were so many fallen trees on the track, which often meant the track disappeared for portions and you'd have to forensically search for a scent of the track (especially if the fallen tree had a track marker on it). You can easily realise the two-fold difficulty of tracks when you've lost sight of the way forward: there are many "apparent" tracks that aren't tracks at all; and when you cross between apparent tracks in search of the correct one, progress can be extraordinarily difficult. Maybe that is where the 8-10 hours came from: a conservative hour added for people losing the track. I marched on through passing a large group of middle-aged women who were headed for the half-way campground. They looked exhausted when I said there was about an hour still for them to go. This intrigued me, but I failed to ask them exactly how long they had been walking.
Two hours since the campground, I became a little concerned; not about time, though , but about water. I didn't think about water when embarking on the longer track, and I still didn't know how far from the hut I was. The next landmark was the ominously named peak, "The Cone," and this was near the end, just a short walk (no more than an hour) from the hut. I was gradually getting higher and higher on the track but nonethless hadn't seen anything that would be regarded as a significant mountain peak. Ahead I saw a reasonable hill that I thought would be a good lookout to judge where I was. I emptied my ginger beer and put my remaining water into the ginger beer bottle and headed up the hill. It went on and on, and I was tiring and thirsting. From the top I saw a convincing peak. I had decided to eat my orange before the peak for the water and sugar, and also I had a nibble on a muesli bar. I ground my way up the slope, eating a bitter koru along the way, and mounted the summit. From the summit, I spotted another higher peak in the distance, The Cone. I had mistaken the peaks.
I slumped on a log at the sight of it. I rested again and thought back to my previous experiences of water-deprivation. One of my first major solo tramps, my conquest of Great Barrier island, featured a similar situation where I ran out of water half-way up Mt Hobson, the highest peak. That situation was worse: time was a very real problem and the risk of night falling while I was still out was a real threat; I only had a day-pack; and going over the mountain was the only way out. Nonetheless, I made it out.
This walk was different as I was pretty well prepared and could even bivouac if things got dire. I had all my food with me. And I still had plenty of time before sunset (and even if I did have a shortage of time, I had a headlamp). One general lesson from those past experiences was simply that regardless of how thirsty I am, it is mostly a self-fulfilling desire: the preoccupation intensifies it beyond the actual requirement. I knew I'd get there in the end; it was just going to be a little unpleasant.
So I approached The Cone. I ascended 5 metres, rested for 20 seconds, ascended 5 metres and rested again for 20 seconds. My heart was beating ferociously after each period of ascent. It was steep, even without the compounding factors. Piece by piece, I rose to the top. Reaching the top, I felt elated. I sprawled myself over the flat helicopter pad. The unobstructed breeze washed over my body cooling it. The afternoon heat had passed and I was in the mountain air. The peak itself was the second highest peak in the Pirongia park, only 20 metres shorter than Pirongia peak. The time was 5:30pm, meaning that I had been walking for over 6 hours. I lay prone on top for sometime. I finished off the last gulp of water in my bottle, rose again and then marched lightly onwards.
The track onward had surprisingly been weedwhacked. The quality of the track prior had been challenging. My shins had been cut up, velcro weed (every hirsute man's enemy, and a reason in itself why I might buy gators) had aggravated me to my wit's end. And in a novel way, the bogginess was astonishingly bad. Usually I'm a mud-charger: I try to go through the middle of muddy parts of the track because (a) you'll get muddy anyway; (b) it's faster; and (c) to walk around it would accelerate track erosion. On the higher reaches of the track there are genuine natural bogs, not just muddified sections (from rainfall). Placing your foot in a bog, you'll go shin-deep into a thick mud; since the bog can look like solid ground, to remove your foot from the bog, you might put your other foot on an apparently solid area only to find that you'll shortly have both feet vaccuum-stuck in a bog. Thus, I was transformed into a sissy, dodging and leaping to avoid the muck; nonetheless, it was unavoidable: becoming mired was a reasonably common and frustrating phenomenon.
I walked onward through the cleared path, trying my best to avoid the soft ground as much as possible. After another half hour, I came across a boardwalk. This was a good sign. When James and I had walked the other loop, boardwalks had appeared as we came close to the hut. And thus no more than 10 minutes later, I heard human voices and the roof of the hut came into view.
That was the main story to be told about the weekend. But there were some nice things. I started the book I've been planning to read for the last three months, The Gulag Archipelego; My three hutmates and I got along well and even went outside to look at the stars. I saw three astronomical sights I'd never seen before: the Coal Sack (below the Southern Cross), and the Large and Small Magellanic clouds. The latter two I had heard of and read about but when I searched on new moon nights for them and had never been able to see them through the urban (I was pleased as punch).
Sleep was pretty good in the hut, and my descent down the mountain the next day was early and lightning-fast. I had time to eat in Raglan and swim at Port Waikato. It was a rather marvellous trip.