Written by guest writer – Lily Duval.
“Not all those who wander are lost’- but some of us definitely are…
Aotearoa has no venomous snakes, no poisonous spiders, disease-carrying mosquitoes, bears or mountain lions.
But there’s one thing we have in abundance.
Dramatic and fickle weather. Trickster weather. The kind of skies that lure you into the back-country with the promise of blue and then pummel you with wind, rain, and snow.
It can be easy to underestimate winter weather when you’re sitting at home by the fire planning a trip. Look out the window! It’s one of those crisp sunny winter days! How bad can it really be?
Remember that scene in The Fellowship of the Ring where Gandalf tries to lead the gang over the mountain and it starts blizzarding and there’s a mean old bearded dude yelling at them from the clouds?
That’s what the weather in Aotearoa can be like. It can change fast and if you’re not prepared, it can be hazardous and even fatal.
Over the years, I’ve been everyone in that LOTR scene.
I’ve been a stubborn Gandalf, thumping my magic walking pole, determined to keep going.
I’ve been Aragorn, my resting concern face even more concerned than normal, trying to convince the team to turn back.
And I’ve definitely been the hobbits, wide-eyed and brain-dead from cold, too short to see above the snow and too ignorant to make important decisions.
(Okay, not everyone. I’ve never been Legolas, pompous elf)
It’s time to put all future hiking arguments to rest: Aragorn was right. Turning back was the right thing to do in that situation.
Winter tramping is different
It’s essential that you plan and prepare well for a winter tramp.
In warmer seasons, packing slip-ups are mostly minor hassles. Like forgetting your rain jacket, or the cooker, or enough food, or a lighter, or… you get the idea (guilty on all counts).
But in winter, these slip-ups can have serious consequences.
Hut water tanks can freeze, daylight hours are short, and your wet boots can ice over even inside the hut.
Like any trip into the outdoors, checking the weather is crucial. Luckily, NIWA launched a Parks Weather website earlier this year designed to provide forecasts for DOC’s National and Forest parks. It has a five-day weather overview for each location, a printable forecast, info on visibility and wind chill, and it highlights possible weather hazards. Best of all is the time-lapse pictograph videos showing rain and cloud cover, wind speeds, and river flow—it makes you feel like you’re doing science just by watching it.
The only downside is that it narrows the list of excuses if you do get caught out.
Speaking of excuses, my most memorable winter tramp was in early June a few years ago.
I was with a friend from the States. Both of us had experience tramping in colder weather and we were keen to get out. We decided to tackle a five day tramp that has some low passes, a few river crossings, and some sections in exposed areas on the tops. It is classified as ‘Expert: Route’ on the DOC website and is not widely recommended as a winter trip.
Spoiler alert, this is a cautionary tale.
We planned for weeks beforehand. I dehydrated all our meals, ran through pack-lists time and again, checked to see the locator beacon was working, and fixed the dodgy strap on my gaiters.
We checked and checked the weather over a bunch of different websites (NIWA’s website wasn’t born yet). It looked good. There was no snow up there yet and while there was some rain forecast, it wasn’t heavy.
I felt like I was smashing this adulting thing.
The thing about planning is that it happens BEFORE the trip. The decisions you make when you’re out there, when the weather changes, or your gear fails, or there’s a slip or an avalanche, they happen in the moment.
We knew that getting caught in bad weather was a real possibility but we trusted in our experience and level-headedness to get us through.
Hurdle 1: low-vis
We reached the pass on the second day. The blue skies had given way to a mist hungry for marker poles. There was a lot of stopping and checking the map, some top quality pointing, and heated discussions about whether or not we should keep going.
(Guess who was Gandalf).
We pushed on.
Damp, cold but unscathed we made it over, thanks to our trusty old-school printed map and compass and a copy of the route description.
We skipped down the river valley to a cute little hut with a hot pool by a river. Is there anything better than sitting in natural hot water while the world around you freezes?
The next day was one of those river valley trudges.
On a sweaty uphill climb I think about all the times I didn’t work out before the trip and immediately regret it. The days down hill remind me of the slow-moving freight train that is aging—OMG, my knees!
But, in my humble opinion, river valleys are worse. Long, flat, wet-booted trudges that are survived by generous self-talk: ‘legs of steel’, ‘you’re incredible!’, ‘look at you go!’, and such like.
That night, the end of day three, I was making backcountry pizza (the best!) snug in the hut, when it started chucking it down.
There’s rain and then there’s RAIN. This was the second kind. The all-caps kind of rain that makes you delay going to the loo-with-a-view until you’re at risk of doing serious harm to your bladder.
Hurdle 2: to cross or not to cross
It was still raining when we woke up.
We had three options:
- We had planned to take the ridge track up and over the range to the hut on the other side. This route offered the most challenge, the best scenery (which we wouldn’t be able to see), and another night out before we went back to the ‘real world’.
- We could cross a side stream near the hut, follow the track out to the road, hitch to the car, get beer and chips, and head home.
- Or we could stay put and wait for the rain to pass.
We picked path #2: the trudge out. But the side-stream which had been a pleasant little side note the day before was now a raging torrent.
It was a textbook flooded river: brown and murky, flowing faster than walking speed, unseen boulders rumbling on the bottom, full of debris from the forest upstream, and higher than my waist. The Mountain Safety Council’s advice about rivers like this is, ‘If in doubt, stay out’.
No way I was crossing that.
My friend, on the other hand, wasn’t from Aotearoa and wasn’t familiar with the dos and don’ts of flooded rivers. Being tall, fit, and an ex-Marine, he thought we should cross.
I thought of all the headlines I’d seen of river crossing fatalities. Folk from here and overseas who’d seen crossing as their best option and never made it to the other side. In the end, we made the right decision. Not because I managed to persuade my friend of the dangers but simply because I wasn’t going to budge.
“If the [river] defeats you, will you risk a more dangerous road?” —Saruman
Unfortunately, one good decision doesn’t lead to another.
We were left with the remaining two options. Stay put, or brave the ridge.
We took the ridge.
It’s one thing to start a hike with blue skies and get caught out on the tops as the weather changes. It’s quite another to start a 1000m climb when it’s been raining heavily for 12 hours with no sign of easing.
I still don’t really know what we were thinking. We could have turned back at any point as we scrambled our way up through the bush, grabbing tree-roots to haul ourselves up the steep, muddy path. The orange triangles lured us steadily and reliably up.
After you’ve been tramping in the rain for a few hours, you start to wonder—is it sweat or is my jacket no longer waterproof?
At the bushline we checked the map and took a bearing to the hut. It was another couple of hours travel in good weather.
Once we were exposed on the tops, things started to unravel. Tired, wet, and cold we struggled to stay on our feet as the worsening conditions brought gale-force winds and sleet. I was soaked through and the wind was literally pushing me over. It felt like the only thing keeping me from freezing was moving. So we pushed on.
Soon we were disoriented. We couldn’t find the next pole, let alone see a few metres in front of us. The tarns we should have passed were nowhere in sight.
We got bluffed out a bunch of times (see above).
Stupidly, we had left the tent in the car otherwise hunkering down might have been an option.
We thought about dropping into the bush and making do for the night.
After hours of this, I was too spent and cold to keep going. Hypothermia was a definite possibility.
We talked about admitting defeat and activating our beacon. I could imagine the conversation with Search and Rescue: ‘Yeah, the weather was terrible, and we were unprepared for a night out, but we thought we’d go anyway…’
At that moment, a window appeared in the mist and we saw the hut.
It was a spiritual vision.
I think I cried.
I’m not proud of the decisions we made on this trip.
We should have brought a tent, turned back at the bushline when conditions were worsening, or just stayed put in the first place. The tops are no place to be in bad weather, especially in winter.
We got lucky.
Be an Aragon, not a Gandalf
Not all winter tramps are epic battles with belligerent cloud-wizards or near-death-by-exposure experiences.
Sometimes the sky really is blue and clear, sun sparkling off snow-capped peaks, ice sculptures in every waterfall, and the tracks and huts to yourself. The peace and beauty of our nature in winter is worth a little discomfort.
To get the most out of a winter trip, it’s essential to pack the right gear to keep warm and dry, the right food to keep your energy up, and a decent tent to keep you dry in case you get caught out. Take extra layers and extra food. Make sure you always have a locator beacon in your party. If you don’t have one, find out how to hire one on the DOC website.
Checking the weather is crucial, right up to the moment your boots hit the trail. Make sure you check the awesome NIWA Parks Weather website when making plans.
Start early so you have enough time to reach your destination safely.
Look after everyone in your party and make smart decisions.
Know your limits.