1/31 Waiau Pass and Return of the Mouse

Upper Constance Lake to Anne Hut

38 K

I spent most of last night awake, tossing from one side to the other, hips burning and aching, knee tendons strung taught like an overwound guitar string. The saving grace was seeing the super moon rise over the ridge embracing Lake Constance, the stars peaking out, the lake shining like phantom silver. It’s cold, so cold, and the air feels crisp and crackling with energy. At least I am not walking, I remind myself when I start to feel desperate about my lack of sleep. This is still rest. The moon travels imperceptibly across the ceiling of our suite in the sky.

The alarm goes off, or rather has been going off for awhile. I guess I did finally fall asleep, as the moon is down and the stars are bold. Prana fumbles for the quiet music floating out from somewhere in his sleeping bag. Usually Mario and Peach are punctilious about waking and packing, but there is no light from their tent yet. Prana goes to wake them, and comes back chuckling. “They were fast asleep,” he reports. “Mario sat straight up and said, ‘oh shit!’”

We put on jackets and keep our quilts tucked around us for breakfast and steaming hot coffee, watching the ridges morph from silhouettes to rosy toned intricate sculptures. We finish packing and begin up the pass.

The morning light is spectacular, filtered and softly dappled, beams chasing wisps of white clouds as they race through the gaps in the peaks. The wisps begin to coalesce into mounds of snowy cotton candy, and dark storm heads layer themselves over the the valley behind us. The poled path leads straight up a sliver of tussock that cleaves the broken scree, steep, knee-high steps that allow plenty of excuses to turn around and drink in the kaleidoscopic views.

When the tussock runs out, the clawing begins. The scree slides backwards beneath our feet as the four of us struggle to gain an area to cross the debris stripe, made of rocks delicately perched atop each other for hundreds of feet. With intense concentration, we balance and step carefully one at a time, the other three willing the rocks to stay in place for the crosser. Although Super Mario crosses higher than the rest of us, (‘I am Fucked,’ he announces with certainty before taking the crucial step) all four of us make it safely to the tussock on the far side.

We gain a tiny meadow shelf, and another ridge of scree shifts into view. “This pass is like Paic Citron,” exclaims Mario. “It is a detergent whose saying goes, ‘when you think there is no more, there is always more’!” The last bit is straight forward with the wind picking up and the temperature dropping, and spectacular views back down the valley.

From the top we can see Thompson Lake and Pass, an area I’ve already added to my mental list of reasons to come back. The four of us eat snacks, take photos, and layer up against the chilly wind.

The trail leads down on a narrow twisting ridge, the walls of the mountains rising straight up from the valley floors in every direction; it seems impossible this place exists outside of a dream. In short order a length of class 3 scrambling appears, and we downclimb through the granite edges one after the other, handing off trekking poles and pointing out footholds. I am officially in love with this national park. Prana is down the section like a bighorn sheep; Peach is graceful and precise, Mario is taut and cautious. At the bottom of the descent we are back to knee-shatteringly steep tussock, and the Waiua River Valley unfurls.

I chat with Mario and Peach about skiing as we skid and jump down the hill, and they describe the French dish Tartiflette with Reblochon, which reminds me of and makes me dream of Will Ferris’s fantastic potatoes au gratin from the halfway point of the PCT. The Waiua River spills in a series of cascades in the gorge below the trail.

A trio of men approaches, big packs, big boots and big gaiters. “Are you Molly?” the front one asks. “Yeah!” I reply. “Ellie’s down in the valley, she asked to tell you that she’ll be waiting at the Caroline Bivy or the next hut,” he reports. “Thanks!” Captain Bigfoot Mouse is near!

We reach the confluence of the Waiua forks, where the incline of the descent eases, and take a quick snack break. We can still make it all the way to Anne Hut, if we push hard for the rest of the day, and we are all in consensus to try. The trail along the river is mostly talus hopping for awhile, slow going, but I much prefer balancing on rocks to balancing on roots. Occasionally the trail dips into the forest for some speedy time in the trees, then breaks back out into the talus, which is mostly grayish white granite with sporadic splashes of color.

The valley widens until the river is flowing through open meadow, and the walking simplifies. The grasses ripple and swirl, a prismatic dance of golds and maroons and purples. There are a few unexpected river crossings, and at one point I am convinced we have missed the Bivy, although I can’t figure out how. Turns out I am tracking the wrong waypoint on the map, and in a few hundred meters arrive at a little old shack swarming with sandflies. We take just enough time to be sure Mouse is not here, slapping and prancing, then make a break for it down the meadow, gunning for Waiua Hut by 2:00.

The open meadow allows a fast pace, and the K’s fly by. There are quite a few fresh gravel debris fans and mucky mudslides across the trail, so fresh that the mud is still wet all the way through, and the leaves on all of the branches and full trees still a bright, vibrant green. Was this all from the storm just ten days ago? The river is freshly constricted, almost dammed in a few spots, and living trees are newly skirted with the wet silt. The hut materializes on the horizon. “Hut!” Prana shouts. “Hut! Hut! Huuuuuuuuut!”

Is Mouse here? I see trekking poles on the porch, and sneak onto it as she opens door. Yay! She shrieks as she is tackled in a big hug.

We close ourselves into the hut and spread out our foodbags for lunch, trading stories with Mouse. I have been hungry for awhile, so the food overwhelms my system and I feel sleepiness bury my body like a ton of bricks. Oh god, my brain whispers, there are still 25 k left. I feebly mention the idea of staying here, but no one bites. I stare at the green ribbon hanging off the bunk above me, ‘Opening January 27, 2018.” Looks like we just missed a raging party, no worries there. I heave myself up when it’s time to leave, and after a little sighing, start hiking away at 2:40 pm. The sleepiness has morphed into self pity, since my knee is aching while hiking, a first; usually it only aches in the middle of the night. Luckily the trail is flat, the meadows are beautiful, and Prana is in a benevolent mood and has enough cheer to share. The feathery grassheads bob and wave. We cross many small creeks, and wade across the Waiua River several more times. It’s so hot again, suddenly, now that we are down out of the clouds. Come on, come on, I urge my tired motivation capacitor.

The track changes to a four wheel drive road, and I am able to walk side by side with Prana. I love this man so much. The wind is strong and gusty, and mostly at our backs, urging, hurrying us along. We stop and drink some bracingly cold creek water, and the air cools a few degrees. Relief and hope start on push back the fatigue. It is a game now, trying to make the splits come in at a fast enough average to make the hut by 9:30. We might make it. We come upon Mouse taking a break, and all stride on together, trading stories of meals and days in the mountains, breaking down and recounting the plots of books we have read and podcasts we have listened to.

At last we reach the Ada River, impetus for the big mile goal of today. We splash across the knee deep, surprisingly swift, flow. No problem today, as predicted by the notes, but it’s obvious how it could become too big quite easily. Now it’s done, and we assume we are liberated regardless of what the weather does.

We catch Peach and Mario at the end of their break, and walk with them for ten minutes before we cross a stream and the walking engine sputters and dies. The tree of us drop in our tracks and cook dinner on the trail, couscous, red lentils and spicy tomato soup base. The light lengthens and with a new load of fuel in the engine and the feet rested, we kick it into high gear. 6 k, 75 minutes. The air is refreshing, and the clouds building behind us do beautiful things to the light. The mountains reflect the evening glow as if they are plated in precious metals, and the grasses ripple.

A side track splits from the road, and unsure if it is for us or not, we take it. It leads up and over a hill, to cross a swing bridge over the Henry River. It somehow wins as the sketchiest one yet, susceptible to huge bounces in reaction to each footstep. The track on the far side is much narrower, partially obscured by the thick grasses. Our pace slows, and I finally relent and pull out my headlamp. 9:20 and 1.8 k to go. The twilight is soft and velvety, and blooms to full dark at the edge of a flat meadow. 9:30. 1 k. Devoid of visibility, it’s easy to imagine the hut impossibly far, immeasurably far. 1 k, I repeat to myself. 1 k, 1 k, 1 k, 1 k. Ten minutes. Ten minutes ten minutes ten minutes ten minutes. Then I see lights winking at the far end of the meadow, red and white, headlamps. The hut appears at 9:42.

“There are only two bunks open,” whispers Mario through the screen. “There are 18 people here.” Damn. It’s just as well we put up our tent, as sleeping in the midst of all the noise and shuffling and energy of that many people has constantly proven to be poor rest. I quite dislike sleeping in the huts, actually; but they exert a strange pull on a hiker’s mind that appeals to lazy side. Mouse comes in a few minutes later, as we are pitching our tent on a flat spot in the meadow in front of the hut, the adrenaline from the last hours of pushing still thudding in my veins.

Prana and I crawl inside and eat an entire bar of chocolate between us, savoring the caramel as I jot notes from the day and Prana looks through the maps. The temperature is nice for sleeping, and I feel my body start to relax.

Then the wind begins. It may be a long night.

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