This is a guest blog by Ashlyn Oswalt. Ashlyn is an American expat who’s been living in New Zealand for a year. She’s a keen tramper and has noticed that many tourists come to New Zealand without the right tools or amount of preparedness to safely and responsibly enjoy the outdoors. She’s shared her experience from the Hooker Valley Track.
The Hooker Valley Track was one I heard many great things about, often described as an “iconic New Zealand walk” with a great payoff. My partner and I have hiked many mountain tracks before and knew the weather could be unpredictable, so we suited up in our rain jackets, merino wool layers, and trail shoes, and headed off.
Our drive into Mt. Cook had been sunny and beautiful, but about twenty minutes in, those sunny vistas faded from view. We both threw on our warm woolly hats and walked a little faster, hoping our speed would keep us warm. We laughed at how just yesterday we were in our togs, fighting off sunburn in Wanaka.
As we trekked on, I noticed what other trampers were wearing. For those of you unaware of the Hooker Valley Track, it’s in the Aoraki/Mt. Cook National Park, home of New Zealand’s tallest mountain. Always snow-capped, flanked by an insanely blue glacial Lake Pukaki, the weather here is no different than any other mountain; unpredictable and usually cold.
A woman in front of us swung a camera around her wrist, stomping up the trail in chunky snowboarding boots, skinny jeans, and a cashmere sweater. Another trekker was outfitted in shorts and a t-shirt, while his little boy had a plastic poncho twisted around his pouting face. The longer we trekked, the worse the weather got, and the more appalling clothing we saw. Thick cotton sweatshirts, fashion leather boots, thin leggings with fashionable mesh cut outs. I was shivering with the right gear on, and, wondering how it was they could have been so unprepared.
We paused a few times and decided between the two of us that it was worth it to keep going, though I said so through gritted teeth – I was so cold. We were sure the end would be a stunning reward after enduring this horrible weather, so we trudged on. When we finally reached the view point, we took a quick photo of the glaciers and began our descent down.
When we finally got to the car we were cold and soaked to the bone, despite our best efforts and good quality gear. As we were changing into dry clothes, we decided that “it’s okay to turn back” needed to be a sentence we kept in our vocabulary. If we had decided to turn back earlier, we could have left the park feeling warm and dry, and saved the Hooker Valley Track for another, sunnier day.
I’ve been caught out unprepared on hikes before – and have had to turn back because of it. These days I am really careful to make sure I have the right gear, let someone know where I am going, check the weather and I am never afraid to turn back.
Sometimes, it’s easy to forget that we are in the wilderness and not a climate controlled, happiness-guaranteed theme park.
To enjoy the great landscapes that New Zealand has to offer, we need to make sure we’re comprehending the environment and outdoor activity we’ve chosen, and dress and pack accordingly. Knowing limitations on these treks is important and turning back when you’re uncomfortable is not shameful – it’s smart. Be prepared before you set out with the right equipment and understanding of your day, and you’ll enjoy the beauty that New Zealand has for you.