Te Araroa, Days 58-66: The Richmond Ranges
Well, it’s been a minute, hasn’t it? Last I wrote, I was in the town of St. Arnaud, having just walked through Waiau Pass and Nelson Lakes National Park. Since then, I’ve hiked up and through the Richmond Ranges and have washed up in the city of Nelson, a bit exhausted and ready for some R&R – which has taken the form of good coffee, fresh fruit and veggies, and about three days of sleep. Each of the past three days I’ve thought to myself, “There’s a library just around the corner – I should go and do a blog post.” And have then immediately reconsidered: “Naaaah, I’ll just take another nap instead. Zzzzzzz….” In short, the Richmonds basically handed me my ass for six days in a row and then I crawled down off the mountains to cower here and sleep it off.
So, the Richmond Ranges are a region of high sharp peaks in the northern interior of the South Island. The Te Araroa traverses the designated Alpine Route through Mt. Richmond Forest Park, about which the DOC website has the following to say: “The Alpine Route is a challenging trip above the bushline in Mt Richmond Forest Park… It is only suitable for experienced and well equipped groups. There is little or no formed track in many places, the terrain is steep and rugged and good fitness and navigation skills are needed.” Yeah, so – confirmed. This section of the TA is generally regarded as the most physically demanding portion of the trail: in addition to the terrain itself, it requires an 8- or 9-day food carry if you’re intending to hike it straight through without a sizeable detour off-trail to Richmond or Nelson – which means hauling a HEAVY pack. So, back in St. Arnaud I collected the box of heavy-ass food I’d mailed to myself at the Alpine Lodge, topped it off with some more weighty morsels from the gas station across the street, and prepared to set off carrying a backpack burdened with what felt like my own gravestone. Adding to this less-than-auspicious beginning, I was also hitting the trail without my buddy Harold and was feeling lonely. Harold’s travel plans involved a plane flight back to the US in just a couple of weeks, and he’d realized he needed to quicken his pace if he was going to be able to finish the South Island portion of the TA in time. As an old guy hauling half my body weight in couscous and trail mix, I knew I wasn’t going to be able to keep up – especially since I was already doing my utmost to maintain pace with Harold at cruising speed! – so we hugged goodbye and he zoomed off into the mountains with me plodding behind like a laden barge dragging anchor.
Let me tell you, that first day’s hike from St. Arnaud up to Red Hills Hut in the foothills of the Richmonds was a true lesson in humility. With every step I would think to myself, “Oh my GOD why am I doing this? Do I really need all this food? Who needs to eat, anyway? WHY IS THIS PACK SO HEAVY???” Luckily, I ran into Brad and Ink on the way up and confirmed that they were thinking the same things. Solidarity means being committed to the same bad choices as other people. Made it to Red Hills and settled in with the group of other NOBOs I’d be walking with for the next several days: Kevin and Henning from Germany, Tamara from Christchurch, Yuval from Israel, Daryoush from Iran, Thieu and Marieke from Belgium, and good old Aaron from Montana. I will note that all these people are younger and faster than me and seemed to go dancing across the deadly scree like magical hiker-sprites. Despite their disgusting level of physical fitness, though, they are all delightful humans and I spent a lovely week toiling in pain while they experienced the enchantments of the mountains.
From Red Hills Hut, the trail climbed into the Richmond Ranges proper. From this point on, daily distances began to mean less and less while daily elevations began to mean more and more – a day of 10 miles would take me 10 hours as I climbed and descended thousand of feet along mountain peaks and steep valleys. After a morning of climbing up from Red Hills Hut, I stopped at Porter Creek Hut for lunch, where I ran into a French hiker headed south. He pulled off his soaked shoes, wiped blood off his legs, and said, “That trail is a muddy, bloody mess!” “Cool!” I replied, “I’ll be heading there next!” Motivated by this rousing bit of intel, I finished my cheese wrap and headed up the track. But truth be told, I didn’t actually get into trouble until the next day, descending from Top Wairoa down into and along the Wairoa River valley. The high mountains here are quickly weathering and eroding, and their sides slump down into steeply mounded slopes that meet at their bases, creating narrow deep valleys. Rivers course through many of these, carving out canyons as they cut through the roots of the hills. The TA follows the Wairoa River for just a few miles before climbing up to the Alpine Route, but they’re an exciting few miles. The track is essentially a narrow ledge above the river – at some points it’s eroded and I have to hop over little chasms, and at other points it’s partially obstructed by rock outcrops that I need to climb up, over, or around. It’s slow going, and then it starts raining and things get slippery and I get a little stressed out. When I finally make it to Mid Wairoa Hut at about 7:30 pm, I check the hut logbook and see that Harold was here the previous day. “This was harder than I thought it would be,” he’s written, and for some reason reading this makes me laugh like a maniac and I feel better immediately. There are no bunks left but I really don’t feel like setting my tent up in the rain so I announce that I’m going to sleep on the floor. The bunk-dwellers say, “Great!” and Tamara lends me her sleeping pad to use on top of my own so I have a softer substrate for the heap of abused flesh that is my body. At around 9:00 pm a solitary southbound hiker rolls up and shares the floor with me, but not before making a full meal by the light of his headlamp. I go to sleep smelling an aromatic bouquet of pan-fried garlic and hut floor.
Which is also what I wake up to the next morning at 6:00 am, as the fellow fries more garlic to put in his oats for breakfast. (On this, Aaron comments from his sleeping bag, “I did not think that was going to be your choice of carb.”) The nice thing about sleeping on the floor is that it ensures you’re going to be up early if you don’t want to be stepped on. I find trample-avoidance to be a great motivator, and I’m up and out the door by 7. The first hour of the day is a steep climb up and out of the Wairoa River valley and onto a rolling ridgeline. I meander up and down along the spines of the mountains, finally emerging above the bush line onto the exposed peak of Purple Top. As I gain elevation I climb into the clouds and fog rolls over the top of the mountain, first billowing in ragged gusts and then settling in for good, a silent silver blanket. The air is still, there is no sound of wind or bird – just a cloud-shrouded silence. Nobody else is up here and I can hear only the crunch of my feet on the gravel, the sound of my breath. It’s solitary and peaceful and otherworldly and I want it to go on forever.
This sense of peace and well-being stays with me throughout the afternoon and I stroll up to Mt. Rintoul Hut happy to see my little group of fellow-hikers again and amazed at the fact that there’s actually a bunk still open for me. Kevin and Henning have already gotten the pot-bellied little wood stove going, and we all hang our filthy socks up to dry on the wire above the hearth like it’s hiker Christmas. Aaron, Daryoush, and I joke about Aaron’s mountain-climbing philosophy, which we dub the Sisyphus Protocol. Essentially, he says to himself, “This is what it is now. I’m just hauling this pack up a mountain forever. It’s gonna hurt forever, and it’s never going to end.” Most people offer themselves encouragement – Aaron prefers to imagine himself existing in a timeless eternity of travail. The nihilism is hilarious, and Daryoush starts signing all the hut logbooks as Sisyphus. In the comments line, he writes little status updates: “Boulder only halfway up mountain. Zeus not happy.”
The next morning I wake up before dawn to the sound of someone asking, “Is Shari awake?” Turns out it’s Harold! We’ve somehow caught up with him and he’s stopped off at the hut to say hello before leaving us all in the dust again. Only on the trail is it OK to stop by for a chat at 6:00 am wearing a headlamp. I am blearily overjoyed to see Harold but I’m still too sleepy to get down from the top bunk to give him a hug without falling to my death, so I just shout incoherent greetings and then he’s on his way again. The day ahead ends up being the most challenging single day of hiking I’ve ever experienced. First a 1600-foot climb up Mt. Rintoul, then down a steep gravel slide and up again to Little Rintoul, then up and over Old Man mountain, and THEN up and down a fourth peak that doesn’t even have a name. It’s only 8 miles but the combined climb is something like 4900 feet up with some significant descents as well, and I’m basically burnt toast by the end. Every time Yuval passes me he says something like, “This is a good climb!” and I reflect on the fact that 4 years in the Israeli army is probably really good for your baseline level of physical fitness. I distract myself from the simmering boil of my legs by looking at the plants. Sloping mountaintop meadows of silver tussock, white gentians lifting their clustered blooms between the grasses. Higher up, the alien-seeming cushion flora of the alpine tundra: dwarf epilobium, mosses and lichens, and maybe the most bizarre plant I’ve ever seen, the vegetable sheep plant (Haastia pulvinaris, weirdly in the aster family), which I fondly think of as “trail brain.”
Restorative plant encounters notwithstanding, I’m still burnt toast the following day, and as I hike from Slaty Hut down and then up to Mt. Starveall (haha, can’t starve because I’m still carrying A HUGE FUCKING BRICK OF HEAVY FOOD) I decide to get off trail about 7 miles ahead via the Hacket Track, which leads down from the Richmond Ranges to the Nelson region. Sitting at the peak of Starveall, I can actually see the curve of Tasman Bay and the southern end of Nelson city far below. The journey down and into Nelson is its own adventure, which I will tell you about someday over a delicious beverage if you’re buying. Suffice it to say that I got a miraculous hitch into town and have now been here for three days doing a bit of nothing spiced up with a bit of everything. Yesterday morning I went to a free Latin dance class and had the best time ever doing sexy salsa moves with retired ladies (because who else is going to a Latin dance class at 9:30 am on a Tuesday?). I also went to Queen’s Gardens to visit some more plants, had Belgian beer and carryout sushi at the Free House Pub, and did a bunch of other fun city things. And now I’m going to hitch to the town of Picton, where the amazing Scott is going to meet me after flying here from PA! We’re going to hike the northernmost section of the South Island TA – the Queen Charlotte Track – together, and then we’ll see about tackling the last little bit of the Richmonds I just ducked out on. After 720 miles, I guess I just needed a break and a change of pace.
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