Waiau Pass: St. Arnaud to Boyle Village
There was calm before the storm.
This is what I came for. This quiet moment, alone atop an alpine pass. A vista in every direction. The low, setting sun revealing hidden dimension and detail on every surrounding mountain face. This was the weather’s doing, not my own.
With a belly full of bacon and eggs, I walked out of St. Arnaud later than usual on February 7th. The trail followed the shore of Lake Roitoti away from the village and towards the northern fringe of the Southern Alps. About half way along the lake, the higher mountains started to present themselves: snow-covered peaks against a clear blue sky. My plan this day was to walk to the Upper Travers Hut, a 30 km push the length of the Travers River. It was a warm day, mostly in the shade of forest, alongside the bubbling rapids, falls and pools of the river. Again, I simply marveled at the crystal clear waters tempting me as I marched uphill in the heat of the day. At about 6:30 pm I finally stepped out of the forest into an open valley and a clear view of the Upper Travers Hut. There, Graeme, Colin and Bobby were already settled, having walked part of the way the day before.
This hut was really spectacular: modern, clean, with many windows and a large deck overloooking a remarkably scenic sub-alpine valley. Once settled, I met Kent (Washington) who had recently walked the Richmond Range with Rory and Jorg. There was some discussion about the weather forecast, which called for rain, wind and snow in two days time, and the general consensus was that we would likely have to wait out weather for a full day at the Blue Lake Hut before crossing the Waiau Pass.
After a dinner of spicy ramen with peanut butter (this time complemented by a generous helping of dehydrated Surprise Peas, very tasty!) it was an early bedtime on a spacious bunk complete with a window looking out on the valley.
Everyone set out pretty much at the same time on February 8th. Just after 7:30 am. The goal we were set upon was the Blue Lake Hut, about 15 km ahead. A nine hour walk according to the trail notes.
The first 8 km of this involved ascending and descending the Travers Pass. This is when I found my legs. I quickly passed Colin, Graeme and Kent and just kept climbing without much pause. Then descended just as efficiently. In under 3 hours I covered the 8 km distance to West Sabine Hut, where I took a break and had some breakfast.
As I packed up to continue, Bobby showed up, and after some brief discussion and calculations, we agreed that perhaps we should consider pushing up and over the Waiau Pass the same day. This would get us ahead of the coming storm. I headed out as Bobby rested and we agreed to reassess once we both arrived at the Blue Lake Hut.
I got to the Blue Lake Hut around 2:00 pm. This was 3-5 hrs earlier than the track notes suggested. Bobby joined me about 30 minutes later. We agreed then that we would push over the Waiau Pass that same day: two passes, two ascents, two descents, two hikers, two senses of judgement.
We headed onward around 3:15 pm, first stopping to check out Blue Lake and the remarkably clear waters (clearest known in the world according to the signage). Then, a quick ascent to the shore of Lake Constance, followed by an hour spent sidling above the lake shore to the far end of the lake, where we looked up to see snow poles marking a very steep, very sketchy scree path 500m straight up to the Waiu Pass.
It was 5 pm, it was still very hot.
After drinking half a litre of water, I headed up first. I felt strong, and pushed through to the top without pause and without any sense of exhaustion. I guess my body responds well to the challenges of ascents. Or it had adapted over time. I was at the top of the pass in what felt like no time, with no exhaustion or sense of great effort.
It was another 30 minutes before Bobby joined me. Although the wind was steady and cool at the pass, I was happy to wait and ensure he made his way safely to the top.
This was my time. Alone.
Surrounded by remnants of snow. Valleys below me, in all directions. As my body cooled in the fierce wind, I put on my jacket and paced up and down the ridge. My mind was clear of any thoughts beyond the moment. That moment was everything: calm, rich, satisfied, peaceful.
It was profound contentment.
Bobby arrived. I offered him a cigarette. We sat on the rocks in silence.
“This is it, Bobby. This is what I came here for.”
I pointed all around us.
But I was not really talking of the landscape. I was speaking to that moment. The moment of calm contentment.
My emotions were such that I could say no more. I had no words.
We sat in silence. In peace.
After some picture-taking we began our descent. The trail became very challenging at points. More so because of near-exhausted legs that finally hit a breaking point, stressed by nearly 12 hours of ascents and descents. It was nearly 9 pm before we finally arrived at the Waiau Forks and an awesome wee campsite in the cover of trees.
Racing now against the dark, tents were assembled, stoves fired up, and supper was prepared. I finished my meal in the dark, standing because I knew if I sat my legs would stiffen and I would not be able to get up again. Finally, I retreated to my tent and fell asleep, despite a pronounced, throbbing ache and pain in my knees. The exhausted ending of a remarkable, physically and emotionally epic day.
The sky was clear the morning of February 9th as I nursed a coffee and massaged Voltaren into my knees. Camping next to us were Cody and Jasmine (Texas), two TA hikers who had arrived at the campsite ahead of us the previous afternoon. After brief introductions, we all retreated to pack up our tents and by 8:30 am I was once again back on the trail.
The forecast predicted that the weather would turn bad at some point that day, but my body was not up to any kind of race. I took it slow, and the others passed me early in the day.
The trail was flat and relatively easy, but it was a slow, wet day. Too many stream and river crossings to count, my feet were cold and soaked early on and stayed that way for another 10 hours.
At midday the rain started. And then the wind picked up. It stripped the heat from my body, leaving me cold and drenched and stiff as I followed the river, wadding through water and windswept grass fields.
It was 10 hours later that I arrived at the Anne River hut. Cody, Jasmine and Bobby were already settled and warmed up thanks to a hot stove in the modern and spacious hut.
With the benefit of a cup of soup, two suppers and half a bar of chocolate, my body gradually recovered from the stresses of the day and after commiscerating with the group about the day’s weather, I fell soundly asleep in a high bunk, toasty and warm thanks to a well-tended stove serviced by another hiker.
February 10th offered the promise of a return to good weather, a flat fast trail, and, if things went well, a return to the comforts of civilization.
The day went really well. My body was strong once again, and after a 7:30 am start I covered 30 km of riverside walking to Boyle Village. I arrived around 4:30 in the afternoon, still feeling strong thanks to frequent short rests throughout the day, and was lucky enough to hitch a ride from the very first truck that came down the highway. That, and a second brief hitch from the interchange, got me to the hostel in Hanmer Springs by 5:30 pm.
Shortly later I was enjoying a fish and chips dinner, beer and dessert at a local pub. On the way back to the hostel, still hungry, I stopped and picked up an ice cream, a bag of peanuts, candy, and an orange soda. Consumed all of that too, before crashing to sleep at 9 pm.
My body has given everything it can these past four days. Six days of walking in four days is about all I can ask. It needs more fuel and more rest than I have provided. February 11th will be spent resting at the Hamner Springs’ namesake pools, doing nothing but relaxing, eating and sipping a few beers.
I will hit the trail again tomorrow, hopeful to find more moments of contentment in the mountains.
I know I won’t find them.
They will find me.