|The classical Nelson Lakes view: Lake Rotoiti from St Arnaud|
Despite their grandeur, I couldn't find anyone to accompany me on the ambitious journey I'd set through the park this weekend. So I took to the mountains solo. No need to worry, I was well equiped, into my new 25 litre pack I stashed a sleeping bag, goretex jacket, a few thermals and plenty of food. A short ninety minute drive from Nelson to Robert Ridge, I left straight after work and was on the trail by 6pm - onwards to Speargrass Hut!
|Crossing the Speargrass Creek bridge to the hut|
No time to lose, I was off. Still getting used to running with a 6-8kg pack on my back, I had a leisurely jog to the hut, sidling around the head of Mt Robert and alongside Speargrass Creek. The hut was perched in an open clearing of, surprisingly, speargrass - late evening cloud hung around the epic looking gulley towards Lake Angelus... I decided to call it a night here, and rest up for the big trek tomorrow.
|Israeli Man saying goodbye at Speargrass Hut|
Stage 2: Speargrass Hut -> Sabine Hut (1hr40)
On the road at a spritely eight o'clock, I took to the gradually declining trail to Sabine Hut with gusto. I passed a few small forest tarns along the way, uniquely out of place. In the huge scheme of time, I cut through the still forest as a momentary blur.
|Blue blur through the greenery|
|Early morning bath at Rotoroa|
Travelling down the true right bank of the river made for an idyllic run. It felt like true South Island, open grassy patches with views down the river to the high 2000m peaks still holding snow at the tops. The track was mostly flat, except for a few "step-ups" as an Australian tramper put it, the trail was fast going helping me to cut the tramping time to West Sabine hut in half.
|Cairns lead the way|
|Taking a break by the river|
After a cramp relieving lunch with a fellow solo Swiss man, I braved the brutal climb ahead up to Travers Saddle. Still sucking down gallons of the sweet stream nectar, I realised I was over-hydrating when I started stumbling in a dizzy haze all over the trail. Too much of a good thing - I decided my blood electrolytes must have been diluted from all the drinking, so I rushed a sachet of Vitasport into my reservoir, along with a gel-shot of Leppin. I slapped my face together, and it made all the difference. December two years ago I was cruising down this steep scree slope with Rangitoto College tramping friends. What a challenge attacking the slope from this direction! Every so often I paused to catch my breath, but looking back to see where I'd come, my breath was instantly taken away....
|The Triumph of Travers Saddle|
Stage 5: Upper Travers -> John Tait (1hr)
Although I relished the company and donations of tea and chocolate, I was itching to get a bit further before dark to make Sunday a short one. My feet became itchy after two hours in the hut... and before I knew it I was waving to my new friends from down the valley before disappearing into the bush again. But to my horror, when I finally made it to John Tait just before dusk, the hut was empty! This second contrast of the day, a very long day, made for a very lonely night. I set the fireplace ablaze to keep me company, the licking flames and crackling beech leaves my only amigos in the huge hut. I collapsed into my new Mountain Hardware Phantom 45 sleeping bag, enjoying all 500 grams of down powered warmth.
As it turned out, the head-start I gave myself outweighed itself as a sleep-in. Well worth it. The green-moss goblin-like forest woke me up as I followed the Travers river downstream to the infamous Hopeless Valley. Ironically, it really did live up to its name this time two years ago - heavy rains flooded the creeks and we were trapped an extra day - we escaped barely before Search & Rescue were called! So I started up the creek with trepidation, along with a huge dose of nostalgia and flashes of déja-vu.
|Harry Hancock & co - Hopeless Hut founder|
Stage 7: Hopeless -> Angelus (2hr50)
I gritted my teeth for my last hurdle - I reminded myself that from Sunset Saddle its all downhill to the finish. This was my mantra as I picked my way through the vaguely marked cairns up the the rugged scree basin. Not basin, ocean. An ocean of rock determined to sink my ankles and slow my progress towards the saddle surface. Deciding that the markers had been designed for people coming down from Sunset, I was all but left stranded in terms of navigation and had to decipher my own route up around the daunting waterfall face and around the misty alpine tarns.
Alone in this wild mountain arena now felt the most remote of all. It was overwhelming, and almost hard to breathe at times as my guts clenched in a sensation overload. Mist crept over the ledge I'd just climbed, and with it a jagged whiplash of chill forced me to a thermal for the first time. Again the extended effort of climbing almost 1000 metres from the valley floor, combined with low sugar levels was making me feel delirious - I gave up holding out for lunch at the hut, and stopped just below Sunset Saddle for a much needed boost. And that I did, I cut steps up the last snowy slope to finally reach the saddle, marked with a huge mound of rocks. Phew. From Hopeless to [the wings of] Angelus.
Stage 8: Angelus -> Robert Carpark (1hr50)
Feeling absolutely shagged by the time I stumbled into the new hut at Lake Angelus, the warden took pity on me and boiled me up a heavenly cup of tea. I had two. Of the five approaches to Angelus, the route via Sunset Saddle is the hardest and most untracked of all - in fact it’s not even marked on the map! Definitely the most satisfying though.
|Warden gazes over the lake to Sunset Saddle|
Now all that lay before me was 12km of snaking ridgeline over the open rolling tops to Mt Robert. The trail was rough as it sidled the notable Julius Summit, I skipped over plate-like shards of rock crumbling from the Roman's terraces. At last Lake Rotoiti re-appeared, heralding the incredibly nauseasly steep, zig-zagging "Pinchgut" track. I collapsed in a heap at the car park, with no one else around except the beech trees towering around me, unfazed and unaware of the journey I'd just completed.
Distance: 74.2km (7km, 40km, 27km)
Vertical gain: 4733m
Max slope: 55% (Sunset Saddle route)
Huts: 8 (Speargrass, Sabine, W. Sabine, U. Travers, John Tait, Hopeless, Angelus, Relax Shelter)