Waiopehu Hut to Nichols Hut
Although part of me wishes I had stayed up to midnight last night per normal, I slept hard and could easily have slept longer.
The first day of 2018 dawns with perfectly clear views down the Tararuas across Levin to the ocean. Here’s the good morning view from the loo:
Not bad. We pack up and head out. Or rather, we try to. Mario Peach and Prana all leave, and when I’ve finished fiddling with whatever I’m fiddling with, I walk toward the outhouse. The trail dead ends at the structure. Hmm, that’s weird. I don’t remember seeing a fork in the trail before the hut, but I could have overlooked it in the focus to get here. I walk back past the hut down to the end of the boardwalk, but don’t see any other turns. I walk back to the hut. “Do you know where the trail is?” I ask Bro. “I’m pretty sure I saw everyone go up there,” he points toward the outhouse. I go back up again. Nothing. I walk around the outhouse. Nothing. Maybe the fork in the trail was further back than the boardwalk? I walk back down the hut trail again, five minutes past the boardwalk, and don’t see anything, or even anywhere the trail could go. I walk back to the hut. “I’m 70% sure I saw everyone go out by the bathroom,” conforms Bro. I walk back up to the outhouse. A dead end. This is crazy. The other three had to get out somewhere, because they didn’t come back. I let my mind indulge in that weird thing it does, which in this case is to imagine in acute detail the story of Bro and I being trapped at this hut indefinitely, unable to find the trail, living up here for days on half rations, until finally conceding and returning to Palmerston North. Where the hell did the others go?! I do one more lap to the lower trail, staring at my gps with each step, but it simply reports that I am not even on the trail. Helpful. Finally Bro and I go up to the outhouse together, and he finds a barely discernible gap in the chest high tussocks. He forces his way into it, then calls that he’s found markers. After about fifteen feet, the trail is as obvious as it has been all along. Onward!
The first peak the trail climbs is Waiopehu, and the views are incredible. Another awesome reason for having stopped early yesterday is the ability to see from the trail this morning.
Down from Waiopehu and up to Twin Peaks. There’s a trig tower and a little memorial for someone who didn’t make it through a bout of the infamous weather.
The next bit of trail to Matiwihi is where it all finally lives up to the hype. The tussock grasses are anywhere from thigh to chest high, and it drapes across the trail, completely obscuring it. Which means the next step can be either a) flat and secure, b) sloped and dry and crumbly, c) sloped and wet and slick as hell, d) onto more grasses which creates a slide, e) onto a root or branch that threatens impalement. Occasionally there is a bonus step where one foot has trapped the grasses over the other foot, and it creates the exact same effect as standing on one’s own shoelace. Bro almost has a game over when he rolls his ankle, but is able to walk it off. This ‘game’ continues for the next two hours. It’s just as fun as it sounds, but the spectacular views make it seem not as arduous as it would otherwise.
We reach the Te Matihiwi Hut a few hours later, and see another win for staying at Waiopehu. This hut is cold and dreary on the inside, smelling of damp woodsmoke. I’m sure it’s better than nothing when you are struggling through nasty weather, but it doesn’t feel nearly as cozy. There is an accurate Van Go pinned on the wall:
We top up on water and head for the next hut, Dracophyllum.
There are several layers that blanket the top of these peaks. Once out of the beech forest gilded in moss, there is a layer of stunted trees and shrub that Sergio had called Goblin Forest. Above the Goblin forest is the tussock layer, which is made of bunch grasses and palmetto-like shrubs, and is where the granite blocks start to appear out of the ground. This is nice ‘above tree line,’ but it’s not the alpine tundra I had anticipated. As we follow the curve of the ridge, the trail starts climbing beautifully straight up the shoulder of Pukematawhai. The grasses and shrubs recede and then finally we are into what I would call alpine. There are some parts of the track straight up granite boulders, and I use my hands to haul myself up. This is incredible! The steepness increases until I am desperately pushing myself from pole to pole, bargaining with myself to not take a break until the next pole marker, gasping for breath when I reach it.
At the top we victoriously eat lunch; actually, ‘victorious’ sounds way too energetic. It’s a very beat-down victory. We can see far down the range to Mt Crawford, which looms darkly in the distance. The ridge between here and there is clear, with many ups and down and sub peaks. I foolishly tell myself since the climbs are smaller, they will be easier.The downhill from our lunch summit is brutal. It is pure mud and the tussock grasses conspire to create aggressive and committing slip and slides. There is a lulling cruiser section, where the trail balances exactly on the spine of the ridge, either side falling away. Then up the other side is demanding as well; slightly less mud, but a vertical war with gravity. A few more of these epic struggles up and down, and we arrive at the Dracophyllum Hut at 2:30, somewhat delirious with relief. It’s a happy orange hut, and it reminds me for some reason of the outdoor playhouse my brother and I had growing up. Jo is just packing up her lunch to leave when we arrive. We exchange a few stories, and it turns out she came up the Gables End route, which was muddy, with blow downs, and lots of ups and downs. I was satisfied with our choice before, and am even more so now. She advises that the next bit should only take 2 hours and carries on while we rest and eat, toy with the idea of staying, but do the math and realize that 5 people would probably not fit in this hut. Plus, we have plenty of time to make it. Don’t we?We leave a note for Mario and Peach, formally inviting them to the “mashed potato night at the Nichols Hut,” post script the estimation of 2 hours, and take off. Looking down the ridge, then looking at the map, it is obvious that there is no reason it should take any less time than the distance to here from the lunch summit, which was a rock-solid 3 hours. Oh well, here we go.
The trail climbs into and out of the tree line, peaking in the tussock grasses and then diving back down into the trees. At one point I step/slide down a section of roots, catching one ankle and twisting it, then rolling the other one when I lurch forward and try to catch myself. Thankfully I am able to walk it off as well. There is a lot of deadfall, muddy bog holes, and places we lose the track, but it is so so beautiful!
At one point I lag behind Bro and Prana, and shift it down to granny gear. I can sense a marrow-deep fatigue, and I start to doubt this day. Thank god the weather has stayed clear- what a stroke of luck. I do a few more ups and downs, can’t figure out why I’m still going down, then realize I’ve obsessively checked the GPS three times in the last two minutes, with not even 100 meters progress- ok. Time to stop. I sit for 5 minutes, then push myself to picture the map in my mind and not stop until the bottom of the final climb. I am so tired, mentally as much as physically, that I feel high, like I’ve got a strong buzz going. On one hand it makes the forest even much more mesmerizing, and on the other hand, it only accentuates the exhaustion. At the bottom of the final ascent, I sink into the moss. What is this place? It is unbelievable.
I’m fully out of energy. The climb seems immeasurable, but the map shows it is one kilometer. What is 1 k? It’s an elastic measurement, useless; it can denote the ten minute distance on a sidewalk to an ice cream, or it can signify the eternity separating one from their goal for the night. If I were alone, I would set up my tent right here. I uselessly indulge the fantasy of just sleeping where I lay. The moss is so soft. One of my few outdoor superpowers is being able to sleep in unflat places- this would do fine. I remember the mountaineering story I read about a group that almost couldn’t rouse themselves to descend from a Himalayan peak- they finally did, but barely. I remember thinking, ‘how hard can it be? you just decide to. you just do it.’ I get it now. What if I literally cannot climb this peak tonight? What if I laid here forever?
I strike a deal with myself and set my timer alarm for ten minutes. I’m too tired to be hungry, but force myself to eat. I pick all of the fruit snacks out of my trail mix and eat every single one, and none of the other pieces, because that’s one of the perks of being an adult. I drink all of my water so I don’t have to carry it. I try to find some music, but there are only two songs that don’t grate on my brain- The Staunton Lick by Lemon Jelly and The Hop by Radio Citizen- so I make a playlist of two and put it on repeat. My alarm goes off. Time to hike.
It’s not that bad going up, actually. With the sugar, hydration, and soundtrack I am out of the furry teddy bear forest before I even know it, and once above tree line, the incoming mist makes for indescribable panoramas. One pole to the next pole. To the next pole. To the next pole.
And then there is Prana waiting for me at the top! I look at my watch. I anticipated it would take 4 hours; it only felt like 1.5 hours once I was moving; and my watch says only 20 minutes had elapsed in the dimension I share with other humans. Bizarre. Prana! I feel like laughing and crying and I even feel like now that I’ve met this goal, I could even hike one more Hut further today! (exaggeration). I can see our home for the night nestled down into a saddle.
We do the last knee busting, ankle thrashing downhill of the day to the hut at the three hour mark. Jo is there, and her toes are borderline mutilated from blisters and salt rash. Bro is there, looking as stunned as I feel. The Nichols hut is amazing. I could live here. By this I mean I could happily never leave. (not exaggerating)
I strip off every sopping wet, stinky piece of clothing I’ve ravaged by hiking in today and put on all dry clothes. It’s warm and cozy in the hut, and now that I’ve stopped walking for a bit and can feel every joint screaming at me, I also realize I am starving for hot food. We cook a full pot of mashed potatoes, for the first time on this trail, with peas and some kind of garlicky gravy powder and fried shallots. How the first time?! Guaranteed not the last. Mashed potatoes with fried shallots will forever taste like success in the Nichols Hut in the Tararuas. I crawl up into the upper bunk with some chocolate, and watch the sky colors change outside the window. When I fall asleep, it is the deep sleep of the righteously satisfied.