Monday, August 25, 2014

Winter's Foil

Maybe the best journeys are the ones that are worth repeating, and are repeated.
— Rebecca Solnit

15 August Evening...Sunrise hut
 I wrote the quote above down in my little notebook long ago after reading it on a good friends blog. He was also in the Ruahine, on a track he has walked perhaps hundreds of times now and pondering the dichotomies of returning to our favourite wilderness places time and again...

 Does this represent a lack of imagination, a lack of curiosity about other places? Or, does it indicate a love for the place, the gradual building of a relationship with it so, finally, it becomes home?
...Pohangina Pete

This particular track I have walked up now perhaps nearing 100 times. Mostly heading slowly upwards, like today, with heavy pack and the intention of heading much further into the mountains for a number of days. Others on a simple day walk with nothing more than a small pack with a bit of extra gear and the makings for a cup of tea before heading down again. I must admit that at the end of a long trip and returning to the car the lower part of the track can seem monotonous, the zig zags that take the steepness out of the ridge tiring and my thoughts turning to home and a cold beer at the Onga Onga pub. Where as the start of such a trip is always filled with more excitement, even nervousness, and I can measure my progress not against time passing, but by a familiar tawhairauriki grove, a bend in the track, the appearance of the first tupare, or hearing the first gust of wind blow over the high open tops, ears tuned to if the music is gentle enough to allow the saddle to be crossed. Yet even with all those familiar and the emotions they invoke, neither this place nor I are ever the same. There is always something different about both this place and myself. Sometimes very subtle, sometimes not.

Today the difference was quite apparent as I approached the Ruahine and the car park. There was snow all the way down to 400 metres and I parked my car in 3-4 inches of the white stuff. Having had to open and close 3 farm gates on the way in I also knew it was intensely cold. Not a below freezing dry Wisconsin cold like I grew up in, but rather a bone marrow chilling damp below freezing cold of the lush North Island of Aotearoa. I have often seen snow on Sunrise track fairly often in winter high up above 800-900 metres in winter, but never down this low, and never this cold. Even the sheep which roamed the paddocks seem surprised as they huddled together. I shouldered my pack and headed off into the mist...

The snow covered forest seems silent
the frozen coating settles upon the tawhairauriki branches
Bending but not breaking under the strain and weight
Of the unfamiliar burden
Even the crunching of my own footsteps in the snow
Seem muffled and hushed
The only awareness and connection is my own
Measured and laboured steamy breathing
Climbing slowly upwards with heavy pack
Then the forest accepts my presence and folds back around
The piwakawaka gather in noisy fluttering groups
As if excitedly chattering about the snowstorm
Or trying to keep warm
Snow laden branches dump their loads, like sugary sounding waterfalls
Most often upon me as I try and fail to avoid
the low drooping snow covered limbs
The sharp rifle like crack of a beech branch unable
to withstand it’s load
Life and death
Fat chubby kereruru burst from the branches
In explosions of icy white crystals
Their cooing and clumsy whoosh of wing
Die quickly
Muted by the frozen surrounds
The forest seems silent
But is not
It is only Quiet

15 August Evening....It is -8 Celsius outside. In spite of the wood fire being lit inside the hut it is only 2 Celsius outside the small radius of warmth around the stove. The snow continues to fall and the wind howls over. The storm adds a bit of remoteness to my solitude even here at Sunrise. Being the only person in the world to be up here in this storm makes the snowy slog worthwhile. Or maybe I am the only person in the world crazy to enough to have walked up here in this weather. Either perspective is fine with me.

I have my doubts as to being able to get across the saddle in the morning. The winds were supposed to be dying down this afternoon before rising again to gale force in the morning. A window that has never really opened. Plodding through the hip deep drifting snow out to the open tops was difficult enough when I went out for a look. Not being able to stand in the wind and being being pelted with shard like ice and snow crystals made the decision to stay here much easier. One of the positive aspects about repeating a journey many times is that the familiarity with it also means "experience", which hopefully translates to well informed judgement and decision making. I know that saddle very well, have fought a few battles out there so I feel quite calm and at ease with choosing not to fight this one. The glow of the fire and the 16 year old Bushmill's also helps.

16 August, Ruahine early morning. Sunrise hut
How many mornings have I have been here? How many sunrises have I been witness to here? Some with brilliant blue cloudless skies and nary a wisp of wind. The promise of the day ahead lies clear and true. Some cloud obscured, or like today blasted by gales with the view coming and going with the vagaries of the wind, and nothing for it but to either climb back into a warm sleeping bag or put the billy on for a cup of tea. The sun rising out there on the South Pacific Ocean is a constant. My bearing witness to it is not. So the nuances and subtle beauty of each one, no matter if I can see it or not, and my memories of them, bind me deeply to these mountains. I think I will go put on the billy for a cup of tea...

The wind was still relentless, the temperature still below zero, and snow continued to blow and drift. I packed up and decided to at least venture a bit out onto the saddle to see if the conditions improved enough to pass. Top Maropea would have been like a freezer, and with the snow likely all the way down to the Maropea river, walking in ice cold water and then snow for 3-4 hours held somewhat dubious appeal.

The moment I pulled the pin out on Armstrong saddle. Hip deep snow and gale force winds were one factor. The biggest is seeing the colours literally drained from the scene. When life becomes black and white, forward or back, and all the senses are tuned into the importance of what you choose in these next few moments. A glimpse into our very souls...

16 August...Late morning: Brewing a final cup of tea before heading back down. The wind has not abated, the cold is intense, and the feeling emanating from the quiet voice within whispers that this is not the time. Aside from having to walk down with an equally heavy pack I am at peace with that conclusion. The Ruahine will be here for some time yet. Certainly as a younger man I would have felt anger and rage at SOMETHING, perhaps even tried to force my way through for good or bad. Maybe I am just at a more peaceful place myself. Time to go home...

The forest......

Till next time....



Marja said...

You are brave enough to go out there in the cold and wise enough to go back again. Must be heavy to walk while you sink into the snow. I do love the mountains and covered in snow they have something magic. They are however powerful beyond measure so to be treated with respect.
We drove through the Lewis Pass in the weekend and I enjoyed every minute of it. I don't think it ever gets boring. It is too beautiful for that.

pohanginapete said...

Kia ora Robb. Beautiful photographs and thoughts from a place that seems incomprehensible here in sweltering India. I like the way you transformed what could have seemed like a defeat or disappointment into yet another wonderful journey. That, to me, indicates the maturing of a relationship with a place -- the acceptance, understanding, and wisdom necessary for a place to become truly home.

Ruahines said...

Kia ora Marja,
There is indeed a magical quality to snow covered mountains, yet easy to lose ourselves in the foolishness of that beauty. Even driving by them it is important to also keep an eye on the road. :)
Hope all well down there in the South. May be seeing you sooner than later.

Ruahines said...

Kia ora Pete,
Glad you could enjoy a taste of the Ruahine and home while on your journey. The Ruahine look absolutely spectacular right now covered in snow. Travel safe e hoa. Been greatly enjoying your writings and photos. Be looking forward to good dinner and catch up in not so long of time. Kia Kaha e hoa.

greentangle said...

Great photos, Robb. Guess they had some snow in the Rockies last week also. Nothing like yours, but I did see a snowman on the Mt Washburn cam one day. :)

Jeffrey Willius said...

Hi Robb -- I like the question you pose about the value of revisiting familiar places vs. always breaking new ground. I guess, with a mind open to wonder, there really is no such thing as "the same place." Landscapes & conditions change with time and season -- not to mention changes in the eye of the beholder.

Barbara Martin said...

Robb, excellent photos and a touching account of your experience.