2/25 The Airy Battle at Martha’s Saddle

Bush Windbreak to Top Timaru Hut

30 k

Sometime around 2:00 am, the wind perfectly reversed direction and started hammering the tent. Siiiigh. At least the new wind seemed to warm the temperature.

The morning dawns with clouds galore, making a fantastically textured sky for now and an ominous foreshadowing for later. We pack and scoot along in the wind, immediately coming upon deeply furrowed and shallowly cratered land that almost certainly would have offered a protected nest last night. Always the unknown question, to go farther or not; I’ve wished I had gone on as many times as I was glad I hadn’t. One can just never guess.

Another kilometer of bog hopping and fence following or so, and several trees appear, along with several tents pitched among them. Here are Justin and Caroline, and Gina, a girl they are traveling with, and several north-bounders, who report the river as ‘crossable, knee-deep.’ Let it be noted, they are tall.

We keep a brisk pace to warm up, and they are all packed up and right behind us. The flat trail steps down by shallow benches until the final steep drop into the silt-sided gorge of the Ahuriri River.

Looking down, the river is a bit more than I was anticipating. I don’t know why, since the track notes designate it as “the largest unbridged river on the South Island,” and I read a friend’s blog entry where at least two people went for an accidental swim. And to add a little ambient drama, the wind is gusting and it is visibly raining upstream. Justin had relayed the north-bounders crossing description to us as we passed, which matches the description we have as well. ‘Cross at the bottom of an island located downstream of the trail markers, then walk up the island to cross the far channel.’ We can pick it out from high above, and shoe ski down the steep slope to the bank of the river.

At river level, the current appears to be moving even faster, and the straight forward crossing description suddenly seems…inadequate. Access to the lower end of the island appears blocked by a deep and even swifter chute of water slicing through the shallow gravel bar that otherwise offers a way. We pace the bank, as do the other four when they reach it. Prana, Mouse, and I decide to attempt cross at the shallow gravel bar, take it one step at a time at the swift center, and backtrack if it gets too dodgy.

By walking against the current several dozen feet to above where the constriction syphons the faster current, we reach a comparatively shallow trench. By walking as a conjoined threesome, we are able to stagger and countersupport each other across the slippery footing and pushy surge, gaining the cobble island in the middle. The Justin/ Caroline/Gina team follows suit.

Damn the water is cold. It feels like it must have been snow within the last few hours. My feet are numb already, like little senseless blocks of wet concrete in my shoes. We walk to the top of the island.

“Hmm, I don’t love the way that looks.” Prana and I both agree on this. “The guys that crossed last night said the first channel is the deeper one,” Justin says. While I am scanning the river uncertainly, his team plows in. By pushing through the water straight upstream for 30 feet, they are able to cross at a manageably shallow shoal. Our team of three join forces like a transformer, linking arms to become a six-legged, river-crossing machine. We mimic their route, and make it to dry land and celebrate, high fives going all around. My brain has been on a video game kick since finishing Ready Player One. It certainly makes the scary and unpleasant parts of hiking more fun that way. River Crossing Experience Points = 1000 bonus points. Level up!

Everyone dumps gravel out of their shoes and wrings out their socks, then gets moving- it’s cold. The way out of the main river drainage proves to be an ungraceful 200 foot scramble, straight up the side of the steep crumbly bank, which does wonders for warming up. As we gain the edge, we look back and see a lone figure approaching the far edge of the Ahuriri. Oh no! Is it Cat? It is too far away to tell, even with the camera lens. I am suddenly stricken with remorse for not asking her her plans for getting across this river. We could have known to wait if I had thought of it before now. We watch the figure walk the bank, then test a few spots before committing to crossing to a different island than we had used. It actually looks like a good spot- two islands divide three braids, and each has a stretch that looks shallowish, at least from up here. The figure paces the bank, and notices us watching. It raises a trekking pole and points first upriver, then downriver, then repeats. What can it be asking? Whether it should go further up or down river in general? Where we crossed at? What looks good from our vantage point as far as crossing there? I can only assume it is asking which way to go now, and so I point downriver with my trekking pole, as that end of the island looks shallower from up here. The figure points downstream to confirm, and I repeat as well. It walks down to the end of the island, searching and searching, before finally giving up and fording back to the far shore. We give up as well, unable to help, and hope to learn who it was and that they made it via the trail grapevine.

We walk a fenceline to cross a road, and then are on mellow farm track for awhile. Although there are desiccated cow patties everywhere, the ground is pleasingly unpocked when it’s not boggy. The sky intermittently sends down short showers of cold sprinkles, and the kilometers tick away, the farm track turning to four wheel drive road, making travel pleasantly easy. The wind gradually increases.

I am listening to the Dirtbag Diaries, and for some reason I have several of the last few years’ Halloween episodes all stacked up. These are collections of creepy inexplicable visions, sounds, and interactions, perhaps with the supernatural. With the ambient backdrop of ominously swirling clouds, the sporadic pelting rain and hail, and the cold gusting wind, it is the apropos genre of story.

I climb until coming upon Prana taking a break under his umbrella, and we snack and watch the sky. The wind picks up some more, and the peaks behind us emerge from and recede back into obscurity as the mist collides with itself.

The temperature is at the unfortunate exact point where hiking uphill in rain gear is too hot, and hiking without is just on this side of too chilly. I switch back and forth a few times, then commit to the chill and push myself to hike as fast as I can up the track as it winds into the spectacularly jagged black rocks of the upper pass.

The peaks themselves are made of the musical shale, all in shades of blacks, charcoals, and grays, tinted with deep green. Snow lines and speckles the troughs in the rock rubble, and icy water runs in rivulets, seeking a river to join somewhere far below. For whatever reason, be it the drama of the weather, the ambience of the skies, or the pass itself, it is one of the most stunning and wild feeling places so far. Little do I know how wild it can get. The top of the pass offers spectacular views in both directions, the valley to descend dropping breathtakingly away- I can barely see Prana as a tiny lime green speck far below, and he wasn’t that far in front of me when he topped the pass. A few steps down from the apex, I realize going downhill will no longer generate the same heat, so I stop, put on my rain jacket, switch my headphones to a mellow bluesy playlist, take half a dozen steps, and get slammed into by the first gust of wind. Luckily, it is blowing me in toward the mountain, rather than the drop. I stumble a few steps, brace for a few seconds, then it dies down and I go on. A minute later, ka-BAAM! An engine of force hits me, and I repeat the stumble-brace-wait routine, turning up the volume on the music, roaring back into the wind in a frenzied sort of joyful fear. Several minutes later, again, a great walloping wall of air, this time actually pushes me off of my feet. I yawp back at it, reveling in being alone with this unbelievable dynamic energy, what must be the raw vitality of the planet itself, or at least of this mountain. Waiting to rise until the wind ebbs, I look up at a sizeable waterfall above me, and it is blowing more than a quarter of the water up in a reverse arc, into the air, rather than letting it fall. Holy shit.

When the wind dies I am up on my feet again, and I leave the switchbacks below the head of the pass for a long descending traverse across a scree field on the mountainside. This is where the fury really comes down. A haymaker of a gust whooshes in, and I go sprawling head first into the rocks. I try to rise and am literally unable to stand up against the power holding me down. Large pebbles and small rocks are now flying through the air, pelting my face especially, so I turn my back and close my eyes, The band The Dead Weather plucks and strums, and ironically pleading if ‘will there be enough wind when my ship comes in,’ languidly into my ears. The gust subsides.

The next collision of solid air pins me down before a blind curve, and I have time to think while it refuses to relent. I think about how I am grateful to have gotten my rain jacket on before this ordeal started; I can’t even get to the sunglasses in the outside pocket of my pack to protect my eyes now. I think about Prana ahead and Mouse behind, both out of sight, all three of us fighting our private tenacious battles against the Wind Boss of this level of the quest. I think about the accounts of climbing Aconcagua I have read, the tales that painted descriptions of winds that would hold people immobile for hours, that would squish nostrils closed, that would suffocate pinned climbers because the wind would move so ferociously it would create its own vacuum and a climber couldn’t draw a breath out of it. I fight my way into a crab like position, where I am on all fours against the vertical uphill side of the trail, and push myself along during the slight lulls in chaos. I make decent progress this way before the tempest doubles down and I concede and crouch in a ball again. What would I do, I play the game, if truly couldn’t walk off of here? I imagine multiple solutions, playing each one out in my head, and decide I would have to scoot, inch by inch, on my back, straight down the steep talus slope of the mountainside until I got to the creek valley below. Surprisingly unalarmed by the whole thing so far, I now even have a plan for the worst case scenario. Then the wind lifts and I bolt onward to make the most of the reprieve.

The gusts continue, shorter in duration now, and I make progress by ducking when they are in full driving squall and sprinting with my eyes squinted almost closed when they are in remission. Eventually, and instantly, completely immersed in a long string of moments, I approach a steep gorge in which the trail switchbacks. I feel the first twinge of anxiety, not sure how this will go if the trail gets any narrower, or if the wind gets an angle that doesn’t drive me straight into the uphill side of the trail. I get through without mishap, and there is Prana waiting at the hairpin of the switchback, where the trail widens as it leaves the rock for the tussock. The gusts become less severe at this level, but at each one we stop and scan the heights for Mouse, hoping that she has worked out a successful system to get down. When we finally spot her, she is flat out running.

I am so jazzed up from the crackling descent that I keep a jog on most of the next five k as well. The path roughly parallels the stream below, the headwaters of the Timaru River, and is wide, cited as a bulldozer path in the trail notes. The wind is now at our backs, and the grade is gently downhill, so I bound along for much of it, thinking of the safe haven of the hut ahead. The headwaters drainage is beautiful, filled with golden swirling tussock. A waterfall spills in on one precipitous wall, and a huge black landslide of dark shiny rock spills in from another drainage, as stark of a contrast as if it was a brand new debris flow. The rain begins falling.

Finally, finally, the sheltering hut is in sight. It is tucked onto an unexpected flat shelf just above the Timaru River. I reach the porch first, and have a sinking feeling when I see the amount of shoes, hiking poles, and drying clothing that are strewn there. When I knock on the door, Caroline opens it, and we all express gladness that everyone is safe. “How many people are here?” I ask. “Six,” replies Justin, and it is a six bunk hut. Micah and Matt are here, apparently having camped just ahead of us last night, and a northbounder is here as well. “But I’m sure we can make room,” adds Justin kindly. “Alright. I’ll at least take off my wet shoes and see what the other two want to do when they get here,” I say. I shut the door and sit in the still air of the enclosed porch, listening to the wind howl and rain beat down on the roof. I do not want to set a tent up in this. I deflate a bit. There have been only a handful of times we have wanted to actually stay inside a hut, and the impersonal inequity of the universe is tough to swallow at the moment.

Prana arrives and I apprise him of the situation, then go in to chat and compare stories with the others who traversed Martha’s Saddle today. Justin and Caroline again insist there is room inside for us to stay, and everyone is in agreement at the invitation- everyone except the northbounder, Steve. “You can put up your tents outside,” he says. I look out the window where trees are being bent over from the lashing of the gale. “There’s plenty of nice camping 2 kilometers on,” he adds. “There’s plenty of room on the floor,” Justin says. “You’ll be more comfortable in your tent,” Steve counters obdurately. “Think of the person who has to get up to pee at night.” “I’ll see what the other two want to do,” I defer, slipping outside, as I am embarrassed to feel tears start to sting my eyes, both in gratitude for the invitations and in disgust at Steve’s selfishness, exacerbated by exhaustion from the day and little sleep last night. Mouse walks up at almost the same time, and Justin and Matt both come out in the porch to insist we stay. “Don’t worry about that guy,” they both say. “We’ll take care of him. There is plenty of room.” I am overwhelmed with gratitude.

We decide to stay. Everyone takes turns cooking dinner on the little table in a choreographed round robin of affability. Steve doesn’t say much more about anything. Caroline goes to collect water, and reports that it is now gray silt; a look out at the river reveals that it has at least tripled in size and is running thick and fast. Luckily Prana finds a little spring behind the hut still running clear. When the last people are cooking, a French couple also heading North arrives; I wish for their sake that we could fit them on the floor as well, but they seem squared with the idea of pitching a tent. They come in to cook, and then Prana Mouse and I, the last ducks standing, make our nest on the floor. The winds howls and shrieks outside, but nine people in a six person hut keep the air warm and cozy.

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