Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Intermediate Tramping 101

On a crest of stress, I strode into two consecutive weekends out of town to play. To be honest, the preparation for both was an element in my anxiety, but the passing of both wound my mind down and relaxed my shoulders. The heart of the first weekend was the desire to do hard-out tramping; something that is not safe alone, but the number of potential companions are few; fortunately, longstanding leave was taken by one, and off we went.

The plan to trot through the Whanganui National Park was dashed by the immense impracticality of such an endeavour: it just is not a feasible tramp without a chauffeur. Plan B was to hop from forest park to forest park and that was what we did.

Completely incidentally the tramps went from easy to hard. The first walk was the summitting of Mt Pureora in Pureora Forest Park, which almost doesn't merit a mention apart from it marking the start. Oddly, I've been staring at this mountain for a while in my DOC brochure thinking it would be nice but it was a mere stroll. The biggest challenge of it was getting enough sleep the night after, as our cute cabin was also occupied by mid-age critical hunters and their leader, (General) John. John had trouble distinguishing between the hunters and the trampers in our hut and wanted to rouse us for the hunt by turning on the light and opening the curtains in the morning. He did, however, emphasise the need to make distinctions between trampers and deer when he had a gun in hand.

The next day was Colenso trig in the Ruahine Forest Park. I had once intended to stay there on the way back to Auckland from Wellington. The walk had a bodyslam of a start: straight up an insistent gradient. Trees frequently obstructed the path. Climbing through these became easier as we went, perhaps due to the familiarity of the task. Colenso trig was one of the first peaks on a range in the north-western section of the park. As we came through the tree-line and saw the grandeur of the whole set of mountains: their ravines, their snow-caps and their scale. We passed a tarn (a mountain lake) on the way up, before rising to the trig for a proper rest and appreciation of our view. It felt like a good challenge surmounted overall and we descending feeling proud in our ability.

We were the only ones in our huge cabin (more a batch, than a "hut"). There was a log burner there, on which I decided to test my skills. I've never started a fire by myself as I've never really been in houses with fireplaces or burners, but of course, the gist is well known: get paper, assemble kindling on it, and some dry thin sticks on them and should everything go according to plan, once there is ignition of these sticks, add bigger sticks. Easy? Well, it took me an embarrassingly long time but once done, we had our very own hot room. Coal sustained the heat long into the night. This experience served me well.

Our next target was the Kaweka Forest Park, just off the Taihape-Napier highway (Gentle Annie). We had planned our day from a DOC brochure, noting a high point Mt Kuripapango up which to ascend, then a track down to the Kiwi Saddle Hut to stay overnight deep in the park before looping around and back to our car on the second day. We aimed to leave early for this early but were completely foiled by a massive landslide onto the only road out from our hut. Lucky for us, trucks were already on their way to clear it but we were still delayed an hour and went on our way.

We found a carpark along Gentle Annie which had a sign indicating the mountain we wished to climb. We kitted up and set off. Compared to the previous day, the track did allow us a flat period to warm up, but the gradient was even steeper and harder than the previous day. I was genuinely running out of steam at one point. But patience rewarded us with the top of the ridge, but it was accompanied by a kicker: we had started from the wrong carpark. We had mistaken a carpark unmarked on our map as ours. Suddenly our original route didn't work so we decided on an alternative route, rested and prepared for a walk down to the hut. We were to be disappointed.

Though on our map, only Mt Kuripapango was marked as a highpoint, the track to the hut went much higher, one point being over a hundred metres higher. As soon as we marched onwards from our rest, we were greeted with curious patches of snow and fallen trees. The pines had been hammered here; at first I thought that someone had taken to them; then I thought wind must have dealt to them; but there was always an element of disbelief: How could wind have felled these huge trees as well as pulled so many branches down. The tree-traverses were more difficult than the previous day. Pine trees are not the most friendly trees for such; the mountain beech trees were far easier; but even they were cruel when, in what would be a delightful grove, the sheer quantity of little branches took away any scent of the path. The usual markers were scarce either due to tree-falls or a general lack. We employed all sorts of methods to determine the path, which time after time solved our navigation issues. Then we broke through the snow-line. Neither of us had experienced a backcountry track in the snow, and this added to our navigational problems. How do you know where to put your feet when everything is covered in snow? One foot is on a concealed shrub; the other falls down to the track. Time ticked onwards and how dearly we would have liked that hour lost to the landslide.

I should say that there were outstanding views. The Bay of Plenty was visible, huge mountains and valleys surrounded us. Earlier in the day I spotted my first New Zealand Falcon (Karearea), and now we were treated to a snowscape with mammal trails. We'd both done Kepler Track in Fiordland in low cloud denying us of views: here we had them.

But those were Heaven so it's appropriate that I tell you about Hell. Late in the day, tired from trudging and falling deep into snow, struggling to navigate with very few clues to use, we approached a mostly smothered cairn that marked an entrance into a patch of pine. We rested, looking up into the pine: the track terminated barely metres ahead with the carnage of pine completely blocking the way. I sighed and queried whether it really was the cairn to mark the trail. And it was responded that it really was. So we struggled forth. Each series of trees presented a near insoluble challenge: we were ascending uphill through a never-ending labyrinth of fallen trees without any markers to assure us that we were on "the right track". I was sapped. I'd already said on three earlier parts that I was a hair's breadth short of knackered, and as I hit the front to survey two possible ways through a wall of trees I sighed in resignation: This is impossible. I dropped my backpack down and took a deep breath before saying that I would quest forward without my pack. I broke a few pine branches and crawled into a little pocket and then scaled a narrow passage up to a little clearing, scrambled up to the next blockage, rolled over over it, fell waist-deep into snow and then crawled up to... another cairn marking the exit from the pine grove. Hell hadn't yet frozen over completely. We emerged from it with speed. There were suddenly constant stream of markers but were also treated to the inevitable setting of the sun. The darkness would come within an hour. I had a head-torch but it would mean nothing without markers should we still be in the snow. But then the snow relented and we were back to a rocky descending path. Markers lead us down and down: And through a gap in the trees at the bottom of the hill was a flash of white: Kiwi Saddle Hut awaited us. Simple elation!

We quickly set up in this basic hut, the centre of which was a tiny log burner. We may have been able to get by without heat, but it would have been nice to warm up with a fire. With my recent experience, I thought I'd give it a try, sacrificing my chinese magazine to attempt to get it burning. Page after page was reduced to cinders. It could have been the damp environment or I could have just been lucky the night before. We both gave it our best attempt: this fire was not lighting. I had just a page and a cover left when I decided to give it just one last try to assemble the perfect set up. I ignited the paper and it burnt well but slowly it started to fade again. I picked a leafy twig in a last move. We had been stripping the leaves off the mountain beech branches (on the assumption that they contained water and that would not be conducive to burning); this was proven to be a mistake when the leaves exploded into flames. I yelped and through more leafy twigs into the minature inferno, and then yelped for more wood. Suddenly the branches were igniting and then it was time to get the ax out to start getting some decent blocks of wood. And thus we had a warm, warm hut.

Really that the end of the trip, we slept, descended, drove back to the normalness of life. But there is a special mental space occupied when you are tramping in the mountains. It is so otherworldly that when you leave, suddenly a flavour is lost from one's palate.

  1. Our approach to staying on the track was accurate. Even though the track was concealed for long portions of the ridge by snow and pine material, often without any observable markers, we determined the route without fail.

  2. The clothing we had was tested by a strong alpine wind and passed.

  3. I started a fire despite limited means and slightly damp wood.

  4. My fitness, though pushed to the limit, came through.
That all being said, I think our approach was rather lackadaisical: we both lacked equipment that would have made it easier and safer; we were planning a difficult walk off a crude map; and then there is the lingering question of whether we could have made an adequate bivouac in the snow?

This was something of a wake-up call. Though it will (likely) be my last rigorous tramp for quite some time, it might trigger me to make a few purchases to prepare for getting back into tramping when I get back. I'll also want to take a mountain safety course at some stage (they are run and they should be a necessity if we are doing that sort of thing). So what I intend to bring from now on to back-country huts:

  1. Fire-lighting material/coal in a moisture-tight container. Take something that can act as kindling as well as a fire source. A lighter or matches is, of course, a necessity.

  2. Candles, both to use and to leave in the candle holders.

  3. Gaiters. These aren't just creature comforts: Hikurangi should have taught me that without protection some areas are close to impassable. On this trip, a lot of snow came into my shoes, melting to water but remaining at a low temperature due to the outside temperature. This is not comfortable.

  4. Off the main walks, all overnight tramps should be navigated with a topographical map. A compass is a nice accompaniment to this.

So, in summary, this has been a lesson in safe walking, a reminder that might save my life one day.


Jo said...

A map is nothing without a compass. I learned this in the clouds descending Roberts Ridge from Angelus Hut.
And I'm very glad to hear you intend to do a snowcraft course. Snow, ice, and snowgrass are very slippery. All it takes is a fall and a sprain or break, and then things rapidly become uncomfortable.

James said...

Agreed. This was an excellent trip - I plan to do more of these back country tramps.