Wednesday, March 12, 2014

New Zealand Day 30: Avalanche Peak (aka Hilary's Big Day)

There are a number of wonderful tramps from Arthur's Pass, but the one that I had my eye on was a very difficult but very rewarding hike up to Avalanche Peak. My Frenzy guidebook referred to it as "arguably the finest day walk/tramp on the South Island...Definitely best alpine day-loop on the Island!...VERY difficult and fatiguing...shorter, but more difficult than the Tongariro."

Well, since Alex had his spectacular day on the Tongariro Crossing, I, of course, had to try this one. (All competition aside, though, I would've rather had him to share this with, though I also do like hiking alone sometimes.)

The weather was a go, and I left the trailhead at 9 AM on the dot. Heading up. Up, up, up.

In fact, the trail is so steep that when I asked for a map at the DoC site yesterday, the lady sold me one for 50 cents but told me it would not be useful at all for wayfinding on the trail because the topo lines were too close together. Luckily it is a well-marked track.

Yes, that says 4 hours to the summit. Just keep that in mind.

After about 10 minutes I came to the first viewpoint through the trees. This is Devil's Punchbowl Falls, the base of which is a much shorter walk from the other side of the pass. For me, it was both a lovely view and a way to measure how far up I'd traveled!

And here's the view easterly down the pass, showing the village and the railroad bridge. Trains came through a lot, which was really fun as we could see them from the cabin window. Mostly coal, the owner told us, though there's a passenger train as well.

I kept climbing for another ten or fifteen minutes and was able to check my progress against the falls and the village again:

So far, it seemed like a strong day hiking in the Whites. Fairly steep but completely manageable.

I crossed this lovely little boardwalk, which would never have been put on a tramp like this in NH! I would've been wading through the muck. I like this approach better.

Eventually I got high enough that the sun began to peek over the mountains on the other side of the pass. That's the falls there in the middle, I was just around treeline at this point.

It took me an hour to get to treeline (bushline, the Kiwis say), and I was able to text my parents from there to update them and let them know that all was well.

As I moved upward, I started to see these peaks in front of and to my right, off the shoulder of where I was hiking.

The falls is getting pretty distant now!

And I started to be able to see way back down the pass towards the river and flats we drove by yesterday.

As I was ascending across the shoulder, I came upon a small metal structure that served as a nice place to prop the camera for a photo. You can see the track continuing behind me.

The last steep section at the end, 20 or 30 minutes, was quite tough. Very steep and rocky, and my calves started complaining a bit.

Eventually my track (which was poled...they use poles here instead of cairns when above treeline) intersected with the track coming up the other ridge, and I got ready to cross this final summit ridge:

It reminded me a little bit of Crib Goch on the Snowden Horseshoe in Wales, though shorter and the lack of rain certainly made it safer!

I joined two other guys at the summit, 2 hours and 5 minutes after leaving the trailhead. That includes about a ten minute break at treeline for drink/snack/photos/texting reassurances. Take that, book time!

It also turned out that the snow field on the peak behind me in this photo, Mt. Rolleston, turned out to be a glacier. For the last hour or so of the walk, I first saw one face of the peak, then a little more, and eventually started to think, "maybe a glacier?" By the time I summited, it was clear, confirmed also by a check of the map. Neat!

This is a view up the pass. All the cloud was coming in from the west coast and would evaporate over the village. I sat at the summit for an hour and a half and the view in that direction got clearer and clearer.

I knew that my folks and B had gone to Hokitika on the West Coast and wouldn't be back until at least 3, and decided that sitting at the summit taking in the views was a lot nicer than sitting back down in the village!

It was an amazing day, clear in almost every direction except looking across the west coast side of the pass, where it was that terrific peaks-poking-up-from-clouds as far as the eye could see. And it was warm (I put on my polypro over my Tshirt and that was plenty) and not a bit windy. What a delight!

The couple of guys who were there when I arrived left in opposite directions after a little bit. Turns out one of them had camped down in the village the night before and had been kept awake all night by the calling of kea (alpine parrots), and they'd also put three holes in his tent looking for food. He was planning to sleep in the hostel tonight. I heard one at one point on my hike, but still hadn't seen one of the critters.

So I was alone on the summit for at least half an hour, maybe longer, which was even better. I took lots of photos and then just sat there for awhile.

Eventually (yes, I reapplied sunscreen while sitting up there—the hole in the ozone layer is right over NZ!) I decided it was time to go down. I'd been a contrarian on the way up: the DoC folks and most books recommend ascending the steeper Avalanche Peak track and descending the slightly gentler Scotts track, but Frenzy as well as the owners of our motel recommended going up Scotts and down Avalanche. Frenzy had a well-reasoned argument, which was that the views from Scotts were better and since you'd have to stop anyway to rest, you could turn them into photo stops, and also the views will be more fun on the way up since you won't have had the amazing 360 view from the summit yet. So I came up Scotts.

This left a descent along Avalanche.

First, I picked my way off the steep summit ridge and knob. The "track" comes down to the right of that scree field, this photo was taken from the Avalanche track shoulder.

Once on the shoulder, I could look down into the valley and see the village again.

The track kept to this ridge all the way down to treeline.

The clouds kept retreating into the distance, opening up better and better views of the pass towards the west coast. You can see both road and railroad running along there.

Once in the trees again, I discovered the downside of this route: the footing on this section was absolute crap!

Yes, those are medium-sized-to-large rocks, all over the trail. Completely unstable. Too big to just walk over like gravel, too numerous and small to step over/avoid. Yuck! Honestly, I am the queen of loop walks—I hate retracing my steps—but I wish I'd gone both up and down Scotts. Really.

I fell on my butt a few times, banged up my ankle once, and said a bunch of bad words. I tried both with and without hiking poles and am not sure if they helped me be more stable or just made the torment last longer. Blech.

At one point I lowered myself down a ten foot rock wall. Yikes! I suppose coming up this trail would be easier than going down it.

Finally, towards the end, I got close to the falls, which made it a little nicer.

And then, just like that, I was done! It took me 2:05 to get down, exactly the same as on the way up. I think there were 15 or 20 minutes worth of short breaks there...I wasn't in a hurry and stopped pretty frequently for photos when above treeline.

I was trying to figure out which way to go (the trail essentially ended in someone's backyard, and there was gravel track leading both left and right to go out to the main road) when I checked my phone and saw a text that said, "B advises at bottom of trail turn left one minute to see bridge and waterfall."

So I did!

All in all, a spectacular walk and a wonderful day. I still can't tell you what the best day walk on the island is because they've all been terrific.

After checking out that little bridge, I went into the Wobbly Kea cafe (who could resist a name like that?) and struggled to decide between sweet and salty treats. Sweet won, but should it be carrot cake or ice cream? Then I saw that the carrot cake came with ice cream. Jackpot! It was delicious.

Then I went to sit on the front steps of the hostel, just down the street from the Telecom phone booths that also serve as free wifi hotspots, to do some internet-y stuff. Suddenly, I heard raucous noises from the air, looked up, and saw a couple of kea flying around. Finally!

Eventually the rest of the crew returned from Hokitika, where they'd found a fabulous playground for B, visited the bookstore, had a yummy lunch, and returned to the delicious ice-cream place that we'd found on our first West Coast swing.

We met up at the DoC centre, where I did a little souvenir shopping and B handed in her Junior Ranger booklet, earning another badge (she had gone on a short walk before leaving for Hokitika). In the parking lot outside, a kea swooped very close to us, showing off its beautiful colors. Sweet as!

We then settled into the car for a long drive to our night's lodging in Hanmer Springs. B napped, I dozed, and eventually we pulled in to the lovely Forest Peak Motel and settled in for the night. Once again we seem to have found a great place. The basic requirement now that we are traveling by car is that there be two sleeping spaces (as B goes to bed first, and M snores). Mostly we are also finding places with small kitchens and bathrooms, which is a plus but not necessary. We ignore the televisions but make good use of wifi where we can find it.

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