Friday, July 24, 2015

Sharing a fire with Wordsworth...

For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.... Wordsworth, I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud


  My birthday approaches rapidly. Seemingly as rapidly as the years seem to slip by. I have spent the last 14 birthdays in the Ruahine, something of a tradition it has become for me to roam a bit and reflect. A few trips have been with other notable friends, but most on my own. The best Gift my lovely and understanding wife and family can bestow upon me. This year, my 15th, I am healing slowly from a knee injury and so the trip I normally take at or around my birthday will be delayed until mid August. Giving my knee proper time to rest and heal and then a few weeks to gain a bit of condition. So I sit back and am reminded of Wordsworth reflecting back on his wanderings. It is good to have memories just as to have dreams...
 I think of a few other trips, one in particular, when the true power of the mountains suddenly and brutally revealed itself. Had this little hut not have been there I would have been in serious trouble...

2 August, 2007 4:30 pm...Top Maropea

There will be no getting across the exposed saddle today. It is a full blown blizzard outside and the hut is rocking and shaking in the gale force winds. It is -7 celsius, in the hut! I arrived here around noon from Maropea Forks. The weather was eerily still when I left and began the walk upriver.The cloud that has hung over the valley the last 3 days still persisted. A slight foreboding feeling shadowed me as I walked up the wild river. By the time I reached the side creek after 3 hours the wind had picked up and the skies cleared. I stopped a few minutes up the creek in the first patch of sunshine I had seen and felt in four days and ate some beef jerky. Within 20 minutes the skies had blackened, the temperature dropped to a freezing swirl of wind and blowing snow. It sounded like a freight train was passing right next to my ear. I climbed up the creek, up into the forest, and up to Top Maropea. I could hear tree branches snapping off  like gunshots. The high pitched creaking and swaying of the trees played a frightful tune with the howling winds. I arrived wide eyed and thankful at the hut.

  I waited until 2:30 and decided to at least walk up to the start of the exposed tops and see what the situation was up there. It is not the route across the exposed 1 hour plus walk that is the problem, it is the wind and cold that is the worry. It is only 20 minutes climb through the forest into the tupare and then the tops. By the time I arrived there I must have resembled a snowman. The accumulated snow falling off the tawhairauriki onto me. The noise of the storm, the cold, the chill all around me was stunning. When I got to the very edge of the tupare and tops my jaw dropped and I just stared. What I saw just stopped me in my tracks. The entire scene in front of me was devoid of life, drained of colour. It was death itself and I knew it. I took some photos, and by the grace of the mountain God's I was able to get reception on my phone. I sent texts to Tara, her family, a friend. Several times. Then I retreated back down to the freezing hut....


The approach to the saddle, just outside the tupare zone and forest that very day. The sound, look and feel of it is far beyond what this photo manages to portray.

2 August continued....

   The water tank is frozen but plenty of snow to melt for a few hot drinks and soup to warm up. Though out of the wind the hut is like being inside a freezer. I have changed into all my dry clothes and a few still wet ones as well. I have the choice of crawling into my sleeping bag and trying to get warm, or busy myself and try to build a fire and get at least the illusion of warmth.
 I put my wet gear back on and went into the storm. I knew where some chunks of old tupare were and pulled them from the snow. I worked them into a box shape open on my end in the fireplace. Then used my saw to rend the driest beech in the wood bin into pieces of various sizes. Then I used my knife to shave off kindling into my billy and dried them over my stove. Using a candle stub I worked the shavings and kindling into a small fire and by patience and perseverance got it worked into a flaming crackling cauldron of warmth. At least when I sat directly in front of it. Once the tupare chunks warmed up and then caught like coal I have a real slow long lasting fire. A bit smokey at times but who is complaining. I am able to hang and dry my gear, or at least get it from wet to just damp, have removed a layer of clothes even, and warmed the hut to a balmy 3 degrees. This is the best fire I have ever built, and probably the most necessary...

 I had dinner of noodles and tuna. Left in my supplies are a full gas canister, a tin of smoked mussels, a packet of 2 minute noodles, 4 instant soups, cashews, chocolate, some porridge and powdered milk. Lots of tea. There are some old instant mashed potatoes here at the hut.. I have no idea how long this storm will last so want to know exactly what I have at hand. Seems enough for several days if need be...it has been good to stay busy and focused. In spite of everything I feel calm and content. The hut even seems to brace itself for the gales and gusts which reach down and make it rock. Then we settle back into our rhythm. There is a certain beauty to this day...I have my down bag ready, and my bivvy bag as well, time to ride out the dark night and try and sleep...



Top Maropea fire...not the fire from that day but the idea is abundantly apparent....

3 August, 7:15 am...Conditions are not improved at all, except the snow has stopped. The nor'west wind still howls over, occasionally blasting low down through here and I hold on. The roof blew off the dunny upsetting my normal morning constitutional routine to no end! It is now -2 here in the hut. What wood I have left I must preserve if I need to stay another night. All I can do is wait and hope the wind drops at some point today. Pen and paper comes in handy...
  You wanted solitude Robb..here is an adult portion. I come here because it is a place I feel whole and at ease with myself. Which is easy, I guess, when skies are blue, winds are light, and the rivers are clear. I am glad to write I still feel that. I feel in control of what I can control. There is no point in a tantrum or anger. The nor'wester will simply roll on, the mountains will just do as they do...time for a cup of tea and some porridge.



Next morning. Tupare and tawhairaurinui covered in ice and snow...

Coda:  
   Later in the afternoon I sensed a slight dropping off of wind. The severe gusts came less frequently. I made the decision to pack up and go for it. It was less severe up top but still very cold and windy. At the very top of the climb is a near razor back ridge of perhaps 400 metres or so. It was solid ice. A few times gusts came on and literally had me sliding forward pushed by the wind. My poles came in handy as brakes. After that I just hunkered down and hurried through the gusts and arrived at Sunrise hut. I was safe. A quick brew and I headed down to my car. As I got lower down the mountain it got warmer and by the time I got to my car I was sweating and stripped down, surrounded by mushy melting snow and green pasture below me. I looked back up at those hills high above where it felt not long ago I was in a fight for my life. I wondered if I would tell anyone or if I would even be believed if I did. What I knew for sure was that there was still a feeling a wistful regret I was leaving them and already looking forward to returning. I sit here now and pause and drink my coffee and feel this day again. My knee feels better already.


Self portrait in the hut at -7 celsius. The camera lens kept frosting over. About to build a fire...

Cheers!

3 comments:

Jeffrey Willius said...

A far cry from the Boundary Waters (unless it's WINTER camping/trekking there). Always enjoy your ramblings, Robb. Hope you mend fast and well so you can get out there again soon!

troutbirder said...

Be well, Robb. And fast recovery. That was quite an adventure...:)

Mary Duquette said...

I remember winter hiking/camping from when I was a kid in North Carolina (and an adult, in New England). Such an experience, both exhilarating and also frightening at once. Food, sleep, everything is heightened and more gratifying - makes you know you're alive! I need to do it, again. Hope your knee continues to heal. Love reading your words - I missed it.