After our retreat from the Tasman Saddle, Coop and I were wary of heading back into the high mountains with an iffy weather forecast. Of course, we did it anyway.
We decided to go to a spot that was more easily foot-accessible; when we inevitably got stormed out, it’d be easier on the wallet, and harder on our legs. After driving around to various areas (enhanced by hemming and hawing), we settled on the Sibbald Range. The forecast for the entire Southern Alps was marginal, with only one day of good weather. We hoped that the slightly further east Sibbald Range would hold better weather. Duncan, an American living in NZ, and David, a Frenchman doing the same, joined us for the trip.
The Macaulay Hut, located in the river valley below the Sibbald Range, is reputably one of the nicest in New Zealand. Features include a wood burning stove, gas cookers, electric lights, and comfy beds. Another perk is that it’s accessible by vehicle — if said vehicle is a tricked out 4wd with a snorkel. If your car can’t brave the 1+ meter river crossing at the start of the drive, you rely on your own two feet. Between the four of us, we had a fleet of three campervans, none of which sported much clearance, or a snorkel. While driving to the trailhead, we hoped we would see some friendly NZ redneck types who would give us a ride. Our wishes fell flat, and we loaded our packs as light as possible for the 18 kilometer hike in.
The track to the hut ascends an incredible glacial river valley, cutting deep into high mountains. The valley is wide and long, with only the occasional tire track to show the presence of previous travelers. Steep, glaciated peaks rise on either side. The dramatic relief reminded me of Alaska.
The rocky valley bottom is threaded with small streams that together make up the Macaulay River. Soon I gave up on removing my shoes and socks for river crossings, as we waded back and forth across the winding, icy brooks.
Optimistically, we began the hike at 4pm. It was well past dark by the time we reached the hut. We were relieved to see every amenity we had counted on was present. The walk back to grab our stove, fuel and warm sleeping bags would have been demoralizing to say the least.
We woke early the next morning, hoping to get up into the mountains before the sun rose. Outside was dark, but we could hear the distinct rattle of rain on the windows. Ever hopeful (or foolish), we decided to head out anyway; perhaps the skies would clear. After a 1.5 hour hike we reached snowline. The darkness melted away but the rain did not. We were rapidly getting soaked, and with fog obscuring our route into the alpine. It was an easy decision to return to the warmth of the hut. We hiked back, now into the teeth of the fierce upvalley wind. The rain intensified. By the time we reached the hut we were all shivering, soaked to the bone. We stripped down to our underpants and huddled around the wet wood smoking in the stove.
The day continued with intermittent rain. Judging by the numerous taxidermied heads and stacks of NZ hunting and 4wd magazines, the Macaulay Hut is mainly a hunting cabin. We made the hours pass learning about Kiwi hunting culture and playing cards. By the time evening rolled around, the skies began clearing, creating a possible weather window for the next day.
I had learned of Hayden and Inge’s deaths just before leaving on our hike. The long distance news was haphazard, and details were sketchy. That evening, I received more information through our satellite messenger, and it really hit home.
That night I couldn’t sleep, and walked outside to be by myself. The sky had cleared, and moonlight illuminated the valley and surrounding peaks. Beautiful and peaceful. As I sat there, my mind drifted from sadness, to happy memories with Hayden, and to stinging regret that there wouldn’t be an opportunity to share more time with him. I felt unsure of whether I should be adventuring in such serious mountains, but at the same time I welcomed the serenity of those quiet, moonlit peaks. Eventually I fell asleep, mind racing, heart heavy.
We woke even earlier than the previous day, knowing this would be the day that needed to be taken advantage of. We got to the snow, our previous day’s high point, quickly, and started skinning. The snow down low was mush, as to be expected at low elevations. After an hour of skinning, however, conditions hadn’t improved. The top 6 inches was frozen, but underneath was the texture of the oatmeal I had shoveled down earlier. With some effort I could push my ski pole down almost the full length into the snow. The torrential rain the day before had penetrated the snowpack.
The steep slopes of Mt. Sibbald, our intended objective, were already heating in the morning sun. We decided continuing would be unwise, and instead proceeded to plan B: a theoretical traverse of the Sibbald Range, ending somewhere along our river valley hike from two days before. We hoped to both ski some nice country, while also cutting out a significant portion of the river valley walk. We had numerous options, and many safe escape routes down to the snow-free valley.
As we climbed towards our first pass of the day, we saw 20 or so tahr (a type of mountain goat imported from the Himalaya) bounding across a steep snow slope. We were excited to spot them, although presumably not as much as the hunters that the Macaulay Hut normally hosts.
Sunny, beautiful hours passed as we made our way along the range, skiing up and down a few passes. The unfrozen snow made us cautious, and eventually we found ourselves traveling along a knife edge ridgeline, intermittently scrambling, skinning, and booting. Travel along the ridgeline was slow, but it brought us directly to our final north facing slope (sun exposed on this half of the globe). If we climbed over that final slope, we would then be in a long, broad, low angled valley that would spit us out only a few kilometers up from our parked vans. We talked back and forth; the promise of easy travel tempted us. Ultimately we decided the sun soaked snow held too much danger. Instead, we skied down the adjacent valley, which ended only two kilometers below the hut. We had completed a fun traverse through beautiful terrain, and now had a long walk ahead. By the time we reached the valley bottom, it was already 6pm, 2 hours later than we had started on the way in.
The crew started down, while I headed toward the hut to grab some gear I had left there. Darkness fell much too fast, and I stoically marched on. Eventually I was blinded by some headlights of a lifted land cruiser full of Kiwis enjoying beer and cigarettes. We chatted for a moment, they wondered what I was doing with skis, in the middle of the night, so far from snow, or my car. Eventually they headed off toward the hut, and I entered the hypnotizing world of round river pebbles illuminated by my headlamp. Eventually, around midnight I stumbled up to the parked minivan. Coop had already made dinner. I ate a few bites, crawled into bed, and was quickly asleep.