After I had had my very spiritual experience with the Himalayas my travels starting becoming more about getting into the mountains and trekking as often as I could. Therefore when I was given the opportunity to go on a mini-break in between my working in New Zealand I immediately chose to go to the Southern Alps.
As soon as I arrived at my backpackers in Wanaka, Otago the receptionist and myself were immediately discussing hiking options. Wanaka has many walking tracks, single day or multi-day, so just do your research. The most common walks is the Roys Peak track which is the famous hill that overlooks the lake and the mountains. Or, the Mt Aspiring National Park which is famous for scenes from LOTR and hosts one of New Zealand’s 7 great walks the routeburn track.
You hitchhike to the park from Wanaka and back so just ensure you leave at reasonable hiking times, you can hire a taxi but it’s expensive. The road to get to the park leads nowhere else so only those looking to hike will be on it. People want to start their walks early so anywhere between 8 and 10 is a safe bet to get onto the roads for a ride in and anytime after lunch is good to wait at the parks parking lot for a ride back. Most people only go see the Rob Roy Glacier which is a 3-4 hour return walk from the parking lot.
Because I wanted to spend an evening between the mountains and was on a very tight budget I had decided to camp instead of staying in the Mt Aspiring hut. I was therefore loaded with my tent, sleeping bag, pre-cooked meals and snacks for 2 days and 1 night, and a change of underwear and socks since the idea was to pack light.
The first piece of advice I can give you here, if like me it is the first time you are walking with a fully stocked backpack, is to study up on how to pack your backpack correctly so that the weight is distributed right. This information fell short on me and I suffered for it. By the time I left the park I was limping badly and could only begin walking properly after about 5 days of rest. It is no joke. The pain you will endure if not done correctly is indescribable. Also, be sure you are physically ready for the walk you choose. I have a tendency to push myself which contributed to above said pain. But for me it was worth it!
The first part of the walk is 9km in a flat valley towards the Mt Aspiring Hut. The path detours quite early for those who would like to walk to the Rob Roy Glacier look-out point. I had met a group at the hut who had done the glacier and then carried onto the hut. It is possible but a grueling first day. You initially walk through a privately owned farm before actually coming onto the park so expect to see lots of sheep and cows. Ensure you have waterproof boots on as you will cross a few rivers that don’t always have a neat water-less jumping stones path and as you are just about to get to the hut you walk through a shallow swamp. If your shoes or your socks get wet you’re stuck because you’re surrounded by snow which means little chance of heat to dry your stuff.
Once you get to the hut you are greeted by the hut ranger who welcomes you and takes your money for the evening. At the time I was there an overnight in the hut cost you $31 and to camp only $5. Though this meant you were not allowed access to the hut and it’s facilities expect for the bathroom. For those staying in the hut you get a nice fireplace and gas cookers. For those camping you get a nice overnight freeze, snow on your tent to wake you up in the morning and sand flies (millions of them!) on you like white on rice. Point of the story: rather stay in a hut.
The walk in was so beautiful that I had decided I was going to spend an extra night and walk a bit further into the park to the next hut. I had discussed my options with the ranger and paid for my night at my chosen destination. There are many options but the 2 that tickled my fancy was the Liverpool hut which is a 4-5 hour one way trip or the French Ridge hut which was about 5-6 hours. I was previously told about the French Ridge hut so chose that route. The Liverpool hut is not only a shorter route but was considered easier as well. The walk isn’t as steep and as exposed as its counterpart. However, if you are looking to summit Mt Aspiring the French Ridge hut will be your first of 3 overnight stopovers en route.
With my camp all packed up the next morning and my belly fed, bearing in mind that I now had to portion 2 days worth of food into 3, I set off on my own at 8am for the next hut. The first hour and a half of the walk is through some forest and then valley. You really feel small when you walk through the towering mountains. They are just breathtaking! The end of this leg is marked by a river crossing. The river is another beauty on it’s own. I even came across an American doing some fly fishing. The advice, if your first time, is to choose the widest portion of the river with what appears to be the weakest current. Keep your backpack clipped so that if you fall it acts as a floating device. It’s a pretty shallow river, up to about your knees, so don’t stress too much. I found it quite easy to cross. Otherwise you can walk about 30 minutes further on and cross with a bridge if you’d like to avoid getting wet. But the river crossing is more adventurous! From here you then start your ascent up the mountain and blimey what an ascent it is.
Most people make the mistake of heading off to the right of the sign marking the route just after crossing the river but just keep heading straight and eventually the path will become clear. The path up is well marked after this and also very easy to not stray off of. You kind of have nowhere else to go. Makes things simple doesn’t it? You are looking at about 2-3 hours depending on your fitness level climb up the mountain, and yes I say climb which I will get to, before you exit the bush line and then a further 1-2 hour walk along the ridge to the hut. The hut is located just 50m below the summer snowline so you can get an idea of where it sits while in the valley still.
I said climb didn’t I? Well yes. You navigate your way up obstacles which alternate between easy to step and grab tree roots to 1-2m vertical rocks with water flowing off them and hard to spot foot and hand holds. Now I suffer from vertigo but this was manageable for me because there are so many trees you always feel close to the ground. Thankfully I had done a rock climbing course the weekend before and was feeling fairly confident in my climbing abilities but when I came across this one seemingly impossible rock I was greeted by the same American that I met earlier. Like a true trooper he said that he knew I was walking this alone and because he had struggled with this part he opted to hang back and help me once I got to it. I mean how awesome!! Faith in humanity restored. I ended up hanging out with him and his friends for the evening and walking back with them the next day. Funny the places you make friends. Best part about traveling!
Once you get out of this bush line you hit the ridge. The climbing doesn’t stop but now it is further challenged with crumbly rocks thanks to the winter snows. The ridge changes between being quite exposed; ie sheer drops on either side of the path making you vulnerable to bad weather (I had to google what exposed meant), to denting into the mountain and offering wider more level space beside the path for error. Here is where my vertigo was tested! I think that is what I love most about climbing mountains is that they offer an opportunity to rise above my fears and reward you at the end with spectacular views. There is no better feeling than overcoming such a dangerous challenge. Well for a newbie mountaineer this was the most exposed I’d since dealt with.
Once you finally make it to the hut what a view! You are sitting almost level with the tops of the surrounding mountains in full view of their snow and behind you sits the most beautiful glacier with running waterfalls falling all down its sides. This hut is very basic with only beds and a small separate kitchen area with a sink only.
Since the ascent is quite a steep climb over rocks and the ridge is quite exposed at parts be sure you choose to go up and down on good weather days. Do your research and plan your trip accordingly but also remember you are in New Zealand and sometimes the weather does its own thing. The parks hut ranger will send an update of the following days weather via radio round 7pm if you are staying at any of the other huts. This can also be your emergency radio if you need as you won’t be getting signal on your phone.
Sit back, walk a bit further up past the hut to get a better view of the glacier and enjoy the space!