At the sensible, punctual time of 10pm, the crazy crew was on the road to the alps. Already having been awake and studying/working all day, it was fair to say we were hardly bright eyed and bushy tailed. Insanity prevails even through fatigue, however, so we were all still determined and eager for the ridiculous mission ahead of us. The sultry and sophisticated tones of Smash Mouth “I’m a Believer” kept our eyes open and spirits high as we pulled up to the night’s accom at about midnight.
Greyney’s Shelter was a “charming” little structure of 3 sturdy rock walls, and a significantly less sturdy one composed of mostly nitrogen and oxygen. We settled down on the Posturepedic™ slat benches and wormed into our sleeping bags for a solid 2 hours of sleep, or at least imitation horizontal rest. Refreshing mountain breezes raced around the shelter, and the modern open-plan layout allowed for the soothing sounds of passing trucks to be well heard and felt. After entire minutes of sleep our alarms “awoke” us, ready to scoff down some hearty porridge courtesy of Luke, pack our bags and hit the road at just past 3am.
The walk started with a slightly brisk crossing of the Bealy, accompanied by a motivating rendition of “I can’t Feel My Feet When I’m With You” thanks to Liv’s musical talent. The valley rocks were icy and slick, deceptively slippery when distracted by the glittering beauty of the frosted landscape in all directions. The pyramidal form of the creatively named “The Spike” peak loomed onyx against a sky crowded with shimmering stars, giving us bearing to find the Edwards valley.
Just as we were saying goodbye to the river flats and entering the rugged forest, we were stopped by a considerable rustling in some bushes ahead. Creeping closer, in a flurry of hushed excitement, we spotted a long probing beak and adorable beady eyes, perched atop a silly noodle neck and an extra thicc body – a Kiwi!!! Though many of us had heard their distinctive calls before or had encountered them in sanctuaries, spotting a fully wild one not a kilometre from SH73 was an absolutely ecstatic moment for all of us. Popping our headlights onto red light as to go full nature doco mode, we observed for a few minutes longer before letting it go about it’s business undisturbed. In great spirits we continued onwards up the valley, adopting the kiwi encounter as a sign of good luck – how much we needed it, we were still yet to discover…
The valley track was by no means a footpath, but was relatively well formed and made for good pace as we headed north. Occasional super steep sections made for bizarre sights, spotting your tramping buddies by looking upwards to pockets of light suspended almost vertically above you. At first the absence of daylight made it feel almost like a timeless limbo, but before long the sun was beginning to rise and reveal the splendour of the scenes around us. Slivers of golden sunrise began to accent the tallest peaks around us, spilling warmth into the skies, a glowing ceiling atop a valley still in slumber. A waxing moon descended upon a snow dusted mountain as the sun rose beyond it, reflected crisp in the waters of a tarn or in gaussian atop the tumultuous mirror of a tumbling stream. The challenge was looking where you placed your feet with so much divine distraction!
7.30am rolled around as we reached the Edwards Hut, about 4 hours since heading off. Y’know, standard stuff. Luke managed to note us down in the hut book as much as his cold fingers protested, and we quickly concluded the stream was better for filling bottles than the fully frozen water tank. Before long we were off again under the luxury of daylight, though only just. Frequent steam crossings kept our feet well refreshed and motivated to keep moving, if only to stay warm. Whio spottings, however, are incredibly valid reasons to stop, no matter how time pressured you are. Approximately 7 of the bombastic rapid-bombing borbs were swimming, flying, whistling, and growling about, much to the delight of self-admitted bird-nerds Hamish and Luke. Apparently immune to the fact that one whio looks largely like the next, they stopped at each sighting while the saner trampers carried on, then jogged back, in what was probably a questionable use of energy.
As our intrepid group pushed further up and along the trail, the frost gave way to snow, in much the same way that a frozen tarn gave way to Hamish’s weight. Not to be discouraged, another tarn a few minutes later was found to be well solid enough. Some hesitant shuffling confirmed this, and soon full on penguin sliding and human curling was underway. Luke, ever the physicist, used the near frictionless surface to demonstrate conservation of angular momentum with his body. Meanwhile, Hamish and Jack demonstrated the effect of gravity by falling flat on their arses.
Knowing that a day of ice sliding, though fun, would surely result in injury, we carried on walking to avoid the inevitable. The snow thickened and thickened, coating the surroundings in a beautiful whiteness punctuated by the beautifully contrasting golden tussocks and dark boulders. The low 9:30am sunlight brushed over nearby peaks at such a slight angle as to accentuate and texturize every contour, every spur, every ridge and crag, as wisps of cloud were torn like cotton stuffing over their serrated edge.
Though having seen it’s light since many hours before, we finally rounded a spur and bathed in the vitalising sun that had struggled to reach our southside travels thus far. With the saddle in reach, we pushed forward through the shimmering scenery. Falling Mountain’s namesake presented itself in the form of a large rockfall field made difficult to traverse by a layer of deceptive snow. Luke and Hamish attempted an ambitious-but-rubbish route straight up the guts of the mess, while Nicole led a far more appropriate route around the side and was first to crest the saddle.
And when we reached the saddle, what an absolute sight we were blessed with! An absolute image of perfection that filled our hearts and souls with satisfaction. Aside from lunch, the scenery wasn’t too shabby either. Falling Mountain sent a few rocks our way but didn’t put enough back into it and we lived for another day.
After refuelling and rehydrating we were ready for some downhill – shocker! We skidded down the scree-scree-NOT-SCREE toward the classic west coast forests, hanging to the mountainsides above a glowing tussock valley with a quicksilver river. Bathed in the warm midday light and surrounded by towering waterfalls, flowing or frozen, this little basin of beauty felt like paradise.
Perhaps a little distracted by the scenery, we canyoned a bit far down a river until our gut told us to recheck the maps. Though we had indeed gone for an impromptu detour (see: lost) it was nothing that a near vertical bush bash out of the river couldn’t fix.
Before too much longer we were crossing the Otehake and entering the gnarly west coast bush, full of moss, roots, rot, mud, and other slippery bullshit. 20 minutes later we rocked up at the Otehake hut for a feed, use of “facilities” and honestly stunning photo shoot – our colour coordination with each other, and with the hut’s rustic paint job, was something straight out of Otira’s Next Top Model.
Beyond the hut, things got hard. Really, really hard. Type 2 fun hard. Though the marked track appeared to follow contour lines, the undulation about to avoid crags and cliffs, treefalls and tributaries, made for some of the steepest and most treacherous tramping of the day. Our speed dropped (from kilometres-per-hour to hours-per-kilometre), as did our spirits at times. The sun seemed to be setting so quickly, and we had barely anything to show for it on the GPS. As the colour drained from the sky it could often be heard in Hamish’s language, but once it was fully dark it was easier to go back to that mellow, timeless, limbo state of placing one foot in front of the other.
As the time ticked past 6, 7, 8, 9, we were slowly but surely closing in on the pools – but closing in on sleep deprivation too. Aside from the occasional YEHOO of a wild Luke, we quietly, stubbornly, perhaps obstinately; plodded onwards. Nicole’s tired brain was visualising the track as a series of line choices in a video game, and Hamish was feeling an odd disconnect between his brain and the limbs which somehow persisted in keeping him upright and moving forward.
Then, out of the darkness – communication! A YEHOO of cadence unheard from any of our group during the day! Could it be a sane tramper at the hot pools? What’s that? A 6th light facing us? We’ve made it! Scrambling over the final rocks, stumbling over stones and skidding across the sand, we faced our hot soak of salvation, just there, just beyond the –
Big Fuck-Off River Crossing
Luke and Liv wisely kept their momentum up and powered through the crossing, Leaving Jack, Nicole and Hamish delirious and despaired on the other side. So close, yet such a massive finish line to conquer. Linking up as a trio, laughing and crying, spurred on by a mighty “LESHGO!!!”, they steadily forged the river and emerged on the opposite bank. At 11pm, 20 hours since we’d set off, and 40 hours since some trampers had last slept properly, we’d done it! Exhausted, fatigued, delirious and shattered, we made our way to the hot pools and sank back for the most blissful soak we’d ever had. They say it’s about the journey not the destination, but that was a pretty fucking ideal destination. While warming up and resting our legs in varying levels of consciousness, we knew we’d done something simply epic, through good and bad, and that we would never forget the magnitude of the challenge we’d overcome. It might have been type 2 fun, but it was with the best type of people, in the best type of place, in the world. How are we going to top this one…
18th/19th July 2020
Featuring: Luke Whitehead, Nicole Cameron, Liv Martin, Jack Gerring, & Hamish Dodd.
Words by Hamish Dodd
Pics by Luke Whitehead