Over the last four days I’ve been tramping in Mt. Aspiring National Park near Wanaka. I started in the Matukituki River valley, an idyllic mountain valley with green grass, turquoise river, soaring glacier-clad mountains, and waterfalls pouring down from the sides. The bottom of the valley is used for sheep grazing, and while I normally am not too fond of these helpless little creatures, they sure do a good job of mowing the lawn, so to speak, resulting in beautiful grassy meadows.
Today I jumped out of a plane! I’ve never been skydiving before, so I thought I’d give it a try since I’m in New Zealand, the land of X. Like all skydiving newbies, we did a tandem jump, meaning that I was harnessed to a professional jumper who actually knew what he was doing (or so I would hope).
After donning our skydiving clown suits, we got in the plane and flew spirals up to 15,000 feet, where we then bailed out one pair at a time. When it was my turn, we sat on the edge of the hatch with my feet hanging out the plane and my head tilted up towards the sky. Off we went. Honestly I was not one bit scared until we were actually out of the plane in midair and freefalling… then it sunk in real fast and was definitely terrifying to realize the situation, as I looked at the earth far far below. We did a roll/flip out of the plane and as I fell backwards I could see Lake Wanaka and the snowy peaks of Mount Aspiring National Park and practically all of the Southern Alps – upside down. I will never forget that!
We freefell for 60 seconds and 10,000 feet. What an incredible feeling. After the initial rush, it became more relaxing (relatively speaking) and we did some spins and whatnot, generally just rocketing downwards with my arms out wide, cheeks flapping in the wind, checking out the incredible view. The parachute was deployed at 5,000 feet, and then all became calm and slow. He let me steer for a little while, and I went into some gut wrenching spirals. Anyhow, all too soon we landed softly and it was all over. Good stuff. Ranks right up there on the crazy list with the Olympic luge in Park City.
For the last four or five days I’ve been hanging around Arthurs Pass, one of the three mountain passes that crosses over the South Island mountains here in New Zealand. The first two days were spent mostly lounging about the hostel as it dumped snow and the wind raged outside. I did get out for a fantastic little hike during the storm, when there was snow covering the forest – quite a strange sight to see.
With a clearing forecast, three days ago I left for a big hike. I hiked up the Waimakariri River valley, a wide, flat braided river valley, and after fording the river twice, I slept the first night at the Carrington Hut. Day 2 I hiked further up into the mountains and stayed at the Barker Hut, a high-level hut set on a rocky outcropping in the center of a large snowy cirque. Day 3 I woke up pre-dawn, hiked up a nearby peak with crampons and ice axe, watched a nice sunrise from up top, then hiked all the way back out to the car.
The mountains around Arthurs Pass are a bit smaller than the enormous beasts around Mount Cook region. These mountains are similar in scale to the San Juan Mountains in Colorado, though of course they are much different in character. It looks like there would be some great skiing/snowboarding to be had around here in the winter. In fact, around the Barker Hut there were loads of great 3,000-foot lines, with nice smooth spring snow topped with about four inches of spring powder. I wish I had had my snowboard up there! (Can’t imagine carrying it all the way up there though).
I’m heading back down the east side of the range today… not sure exactly where though. I have about two days to kill, then there’s a nice three day forecast of clear weather. I’ll probably set off on a tramp in the Wanaka area during that time.
Yesterday I went on one of the most memorable backpacking trips of my life. With a weather forecast clear of rain for all of New Zealand, I was excited to get up high and get some views of the Fox Glacier and the west side of Mt. Cook. My plan was to hike a steep route trough the forest and camp on a high ridge above treeline. I set off under clear skies and started the grueling route through the forest – so steep that some of it consisted of climbing up what can only be described as root ladders.
When I finally got high enough to see through the forest canopy, I was disappointed to see a completely overcast sky. By the time I got to the ridge above treeline, it was completely socked in fog. I was bummed, but I set up my tent anyways and ate some food. After studying the map, I decided to do a long hike further up the ridgeline… what the hell, it may clear up later I thought. Hiking out the ridge was challenging in the thick fog, but with careful map and compass work and a bit of intuition, I made my way out. Several times when there were drop-offs I had no choice but to sit and wait for a bit of clearing in the fog to see where I needed to go next. I kept going though, and as I hiked higher and higher, I noticed that the clouds were becoming brighter. Sure enough, I eventually popped out above the cloud layer into bright sunshine and a glorious clear day, with huge views of the gleaming white peaks! I was so stoked.
A couple days ago I left Wanaka and drove over Haast Pass toward the infamous West Coast. I say infamous because this region is notorious for its huge amounts of rainfall (up to 7 meters annually in some spots!). As I drove to the west the forest got bigger and bigger, and by the time I reached the top of the pass I was surrounded by full-on rainforest – lush, green, and mossy with misty clouds hanging about the vertical mountains. And raining of course. I was truly in awe as I drove the windy road, trying to take in the view while simultaneously keeping my car on the road.
I ended up driving to Fox Glacier, a small town next to… you guessed it… the Fox Glacier. The Fox Glacier, along with the Franz Joseph Glacier (a few kilometers north), are two really long glaciers that pour out into the rainforest from the heavily glaciated alpine basins above. These glaciers are special because, due to the steepness of the mountain valleys and the heavy precipitation, the glaciers advance well below treeline, at a very fast rate – they supposedly advance a meter a day! I don’t have a photo to show you yet, but I will soon.
Yesterday, heeding a recommendation from a Kiwi hiker, I hiked part of the Copeland Track to the Welcome Flat Hut, where there are some natural hot spring pools. Read on.
After my time in Mt. Cook Village, I caught a bus to Wanaka, a small town on the shores of Lake Wanaka at the foot of Mt. Aspiring National Park. This town is pretty nice… lots of green trees and great views across the big lake towards the snowcapped peaks to the west. On a nice sunny day I took a really long walk along part of the lake shore – a long, flat, easy walk that felt great for my legs after the rugged hiking of the previous days. There’s a great cinema here that has all comfy couches inside, and they serve wine and drinks during the show. Why aren’t all theaters like that?
I discovered fairly quickly though that Wanaka is not a great base for hiking, as many of the trails require a drive to reach. There are shuttles available, but they are way too expensive for the relatively short drive you get; plus you’d also have to arrange a return trip. So, with a poor weather forecast anyways, I got back on a bus and headed to Queenstown, with the intention of renting a car and returning.
The last several days I’ve been based out of Mt. Cook Village, a little tourist outpost based mainly around the Hermitage Hotel, situated in a remote valley at the foot of New Zealand’s highest mountain – Aoraki/Mt. Cook. This region, on the eastern rain shadow of the range, reminds me of the Fitz Roy area of Patagonia, with broad barren basins surrounded by rocketing, glacier-clad peaks. Huge glaciers fill the upper valleys, pouring out into terminal lakes and moraine fields. The mountains are relentlessly steep and rugged here, rising around 8,000 vertical feet above the valley floors.
I’ve scored perfect bluebird weather for the last four days, and have been taking full advantage. I stayed one night up at the Mueller Hut, which is situated on a high ridge with panoramic views of of the surrounding peaks and glaciers. Nothing like basking in the sun on the hut’s deck, watching glacial avalanches across the valley!
Upon return from there, with a good weather forecast, I immediately headed back out after a quick stop to restock my food. I did a three day trip over Ball Pass, a high pass on the south side of Mt. Cook going from the Tasman Glacier valley over to the Hooker Glacier valley. It was so incredible to trek safely through such rugged and glaciated terrain, and I’ve put my crampons and ice axe to good use. This was a challenging route, for me at least, and I feel like I’ve started my New Zealand trip in grand style!
This weekend in Christchurch some friends of a friend back home (who is also from Christchurch) have been gracious hosts to me, taking me around the city and even cooking me some excellent dinners. They hooked me up with some snowboard gear (Nikki works at a ski shop here in town) and today we drove up to Mt. Hutt to enjoy the last day of the season – with great coverage, sunny weather above the clouds, and fast spring snow conditions. What a great feeling to get back on a board and haul some ass! A totally unexpected day and heaps of fun.
Tomorrow I’m off to Mt. Cook Village, to check out the biggest mountains in New Zealand.
Tomorrow morning, after dropping off my mail-in ballot at the post office, I’m heading to the airport for a journey to New Zealand! I will be there for 7 weeks total. I’m all packed up, with my big backpack and a small carry-on backpack. I’m taking all my camping stuff, along with crampons and ice axe (it’s spring down there and I’ve heard they’ve had a big winter). I’m leaving the 4×5 large format camera and all its film behind (gasp!) in favor of traveling light and easy with my small digital SLR, one lens, and little tripod.
I have lots of ideas for places to see during the trip, but not much actual plans. I think I’d like to generally spend most of my time hiking and tramping in the mountains of the South Island, but I’ll see how it goes. I also want to take it easy and relax in some of the towns too, between hikes. While I am of course excited about getting into the photography groove for almost two months, I’m almost equally excited to have a real vacation, doing whatever I feel like doing each day.
Anyhow, I will try to post some updates on this blog when I can – hopefully with some pictures too.
[+] This morning I woke up at 3:45am to hike up Baldy Peak in hopes of a nice dawn vista of the Sneffels Range and its golden aspens. I hiked this peak a few weeks ago, so I was familiar with the route and knew I could make good time to the summit. Nevertheless I still made it up there an hour too early, so I bundled up in my down jacket and balaclava, laid down behind some trees to get out of the wind, and took a nap for a while. Once the sky brightened enough at dawn, I was pleased to see a thick cloud bank of an approaching storm over the Sneffels Range. The warm dawn glow about a half hour before sunrise provided the perfect illumination of the range. This resulting panorama is three exposures stitched together.
In my previous post, “Ouray from the Air”, you can see the same mountain range and aspen fields, from a perspective about 20,000 feet higher!