Witness to the Worst Luck

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18/03/08
Greetings from high in New Zealand at Arthur’s Pass village. I’m in the cafe/store at the moment just killing some time before my train gets here to whisk me back to Christchurch. I’ve taken advantage of the time to book all my remaining rail travel, and just made the realization that this is Easter Weekend coming up. Looks like I might end my trip in the tent, as hostels are booked pretty solid for that weekend already. Oops. Hadn’t counted on that at all! However, that’s the future, you’re probably much more interested in the recent past and present, n’est-ce pas? Today was an absolute stunner of a day up in the mountains. I must have a tramping weather horseshoe up my butt, because yet again when I tramped hard and fast up into the mountains, I was rewarded with clear blue skies and some of the most magnificent 360 degree views I’ve had in my entire trip. I’ve looked at my pictures, and sadly, they can not do justice to what I actually saw. In spite of that, please check them out, and the map showing you just where I went hiking.

Being a small alpine village with not much else to do but stay up here if you’re hiking, the hostel was nice and quiet last night. We were all in bed quite early, and I was amazed that everyone from my room was up and about before 7:30, which made it nice and easy to pack up the gear, and get ready to head out into the hills. I decided to wait till after 8am anyway, just to be able to check out the mountain forecast, and to drop off my intentions form in person, as well as pick up a fresh pie from the cafe. All great ideas, wouldn’t you say? I would. The forecast called for fine weather (remember, that’s the absolute best they forecast!), with only a bit of a wind warning. Up at 2000m, they were warning of winds possibly up to 40km/hr. I decided I could handle that, and just watch my step at the summit ridge track, as warned. Worked fine for me, but read on for how it doesn’t work out for everybody.

The track I was taking up was called Avalanche Peak track, which surprisingly goes up a mountain known as… Avalanche Peak. My return track would be via another route, the Scotts Track. I love it when I don’t have to take the same trail up as down. Just makes for a more enjoyable hike I think. Both tracks were signposted as 4 hours up, and the return trip was called a 6-8 hr tramp. Yeah yeah, I was quicker for sure. It only took me 3:40, and I had extra baggage on the way down. Yup, keep reading, you’ll get the whole story. I want to keep everyone in suspense for a while.

The track started pretty steeply up, and basically stayed that way for the whole hike. If you check out the map, you’ll see the entire distance was only 8km, but this was all either steep up or steep down, so it made for a good climb. In no time, I was getting the great views down into the valley and the still mostly sleeping town of Arthur’s Pass Village. One side of the valley (mine) was soon getting bathed in sunlight, but the other side was still deep in shadow. Also, in the valleys ahead, past Arthurs Pass itself, there was a ton of heavy white clouds in the valley, looking like whipped cream in the distance. It was a cool sight. I kept up a pretty good pace, and on the way up, passed only 2 other people. An Israeli fellow (let’s call him Unlucky), and an English lady. After them, there was no one else, and by the time I reached the summit, it was clear I was the first up there for the day.

What an amazing view from up there. I’d have to say that it was surely in the top 3 of all the hikes and views that I’ve had in the entire trip. I was basically standing smack dab in the middle of New Zealand’s great divide, with mountain ranges in every direction. There was also a cool hanging glacier in the same area, atop Mount Rolleston. On several occasions while up there, I heard really loud cracking and groaning noises coming from there. I was lucky enough to actually see one of the avalanches while soaking up the sun on the rather small peak. In time, I ended up sharing my little peak with 3 other people. The two I’d passed, plus an American fellow who summited before Unlucky. We were all just standing up there chatting together for a while.

Unlucky, being last up, decided to snap some pictures with his fancy D-SLR. He takes it out of the case, and sets the case down on the summit, turning around to snap the glacier. I was eating a sandwich, but the next thing I knew, I could see the camera bag starting to move. I yelled out ‘”Your Bag!” and made a move for it, but I was too late. We all watched in semi-horror as the bag slowly started it’s tumble on a scree slope, gaining more and more speed, and tumbling hundreds of meters, and eventually out of sight. I had tried to stop it, but something in me realized if I lunged too far for it, I would have been the one tumbling. At first, Unlucky was sort of like “well, it’s gone”. However, after about 20 seconds, he simply said, “my passport”. Oh shit.

That’s when Unlucky decided he had to go after it. Now, looking back, perhaps we should have all made some sort of plan before letting him take off. However, it all went so fast, the next thing I knew, Unlucky was heading down the scree slope at top speed, having left his fancy camera and full backpack on the summit. Then we all realized there was no way he’d be coming back up this way. He did too, and as a speck in the distance he yelled back up to me asking that I take his stuff to him at the bottom of the trail. I said I would, and figured we’d meet on the track further, as it looked like the slope curved right, and might meet back up with Scott’s Track.

I stayed up top a little longer, knowing it would take him a bit longer to make his way over that terrain with no trail to follow. Eventually though, I did head down Scott’s track, which in itself was tricky enough. However, now I was juggling two backpacks and a water bottle in my hand. I had placed his fancy camera in my bag, as there was now no camera bag. Oh yeah, I also did him a favour and snapped some pics for him at the top, since he hadn’t had the chance. The track down was tricky, and I slipped a few times twisting my ankles a bit, but luckily with my rubber ankles, it was no biggie. However, I didn’t really love having the extra pack. I soon realized Unlucky wouldn’t be meeting me, as he would pretty surely get cliffed out very soon after the scree slopes. There was not a good way down to be found anywhere. I scoured the mountainsides for any sign of him, but didn’t see anything.

Emerging at the bottom, I tried to figure out my options. In the end, I headed straight to the DOC office, where I had to return my intentions form stub, which lets them know they don’t have to send out search and rescue. I decided I had better tell them the story about the peak. They were a little concerned, and one officer remarked that the last time someone did that, they ended up dead. Then, just a couple weeks ago, they had to chopper out another person who went off the peak. Now I was a bit worried, but there was nothing I could do. I gave them all the info, including a picture I’d snapped of him at the last point we could see him, with a time stamp for the police. I also gave them his bag and camera. Luckily, he’d filled in an intentions form too, so we knew his name, and it turned out they already had his other luggage, so he would definitely show up there if he emerged.

From the DOC office, I headed back to the hostel to grab a shower, before heading back to check on the status. Before even getting there, the hostel manager let me know he had made it out okay, and was safe and sound. So all’s well that end’s well, but I think I’ve learned a lesson the easy way. Don’t just bomb down a mountain without knowing the terrain, and at least having some food and water with you, right? I asked myself what I would have done, and unfortunately, I’d say I would have done the exact same thing he had, although I have a lot more confidence than the average bear when it comes to mountains and the outdoors!

Well, that’s it for my exciting tale from the mountains, and I see by the clock on the wall that I should be heading back to the train station to catch the TranzAlpine. Tonight is laundry and re-packing time, as well as some more picture posting on flickr. Tomorrow I’m off to Kaikoura, and probably will do some whale watching or dolphin swimming while there, since that’s what it’s all about up there. Then, onwards and upwards to the North again. Can’t believe I’ll be home in 10 days! Boo. Hope you’re all well, and we’ll have to all get together for a beer once I’m back, okay?

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