Arthur’s Pass trip report – Christmas 2013

boots drying out

I’m not quite sure where to start.

The idea to do the 3 passes at Christmas emerged, I think, from Ian’s head sometime in September. From there it spread, multiplied, mutated, entered the Cloud, and finally was brought down to earth again at 6.15pm at the Railway Station the Friday before Christmas, after an epic Fitness Essential two-month long email/pub/pizza planning, dehying, shopping and packing marathon.

Despite fabulous work by the ad-hoc xmas tramping committee (particularly it has to be said by Megan S and Debbie B) packing for 3 tramps over 3 weeks in 3 locations was proving to be a bit of a challenge. Minutes, then hours, seemed to pass as I threw everything out of the “gear room” and into the much more spacious “packing room” (aka the lounge).

Where are my sunglasses? Why didn’t I wear in my new boots more? Maybe I’ll take a summer and a winter sleeping bag. Maybe I’ll take a lighter and a heavier tramping pack. Perhaps I should have started packing earlier than the day before?

Then there’s the food. 21 days of breakfasts, snacks, lunches, drinks. You’ve got to be kidding I’ll never get through this many muesli bars. Will I? Must not forget the fridge food. Write a note. At least my dehy meal for 11 people had shed its last drop of moisture a crispy 24 hours before departure. Phew, that would have led to a terrible bollocking if I’d got that wrong.

tarn col views

Several hours later I faced the reality that I had managed to pack not one but two full tramping packs and a full day pack. This is ridiculous. I can’t face the crew with this much baggage? They’ll never let me on the van and will tease me relentlessly. No choice. Running late. Grab ride to the station. Stagger towards the van. Wait for abuse. Silence. Then another tramper appears laden like a Nepalese porter…….Relief that we are all in the same boat.

The van lumbers awkwardly towards the ferry with about 20 packs and 9 bodies on board. We are off! But the forecast is not looking so good. Maps slowly start to appear on the ferry and conversations wander around the possibility of not making the 3 passes. Rain is forecast and strong winds. It’s not a tramp to get caught out on. Not with 5 more punters waiting in Hokitika to start the next trip in 5 days time.

A visit to the DOC office confirms our fears and we agree to drop the 3 passes idea. Instead, we plan a route that takes advantage of two fine days to head up the Edwards, camping at Tarn Col, and back down the Hawdon. We join this on immediately to a circuit up the Andrews Stream, over Casey Saddle and back via the Poulter valley and Binser Saddle, giving us 4 days in the bush. Not quite the 3 passes but a pretty sweet route given the forecast.

Kevin at tarn col

I’d tramped with all of the group before, except perhaps Megan S. She seemed a bit different to the others and had one or two quirks of personality that we all soon became acquainted with. Perhaps most strange was her love of Christmas music – unusual in grumpy grinchy tramping circles. One song in particular accompanied us on our tramp and, indeed, beyond. A German song about Wassailing. For those with a poor grasp of the English language (read: all of us) wassailing was not a word we were familiar with but guesses about the meaning of the word seemed to fit well with the activities on the tramp. A bit of rambling, perhaps some camaraderie. Perhaps even some rioting, speculated Ian. All of the above appeared to be confirmed by the now de riguer kobo tramping accessory and its built in dictionary a couple of days later.

As we meandered up the beautiful Edwards valley, conversation turned away from wassailing and towards our night’s camping that lay ahead of us. For some reason it became important to know whether a tent was male or female. Perhaps it would help when determining how to pitch it, I don’t recall, but I do recall that it was not a question that drew much intellectual debate regarding the origins of the English language. After much idle musing of the question and abusing of the questioner, Ian determined that tents were like baby chickens. Difficult to sex!

Although talk of sexing tents was a useful distraction, I was starting to wonder about whether or not the summer sleeping bag I had chosen to bring to save weight was such a good idea. We were camping quite high on tarn col and it had been cold and even a bit frosty in Arthur’s Pass the night before. Unfortunately I’d lent my down jacket to Kate, who was in no mood to return it to me, particularly after I fumbled an offer of moral support on a particularly steep climb. Despite the near vertical aspect, Kate managed to clench both fists in anger at me offering her some food and barely suppressed a primal scream. Things were not looking good for getting my jacket back!

The campsite was beautiful but cold. We were soon in our tents and I was soon in my bag. Unfortunately Debbie had a flash new camping mattress that was several inches higher off the ground than my lightweight (colder) one, scuppering any chances of surreptitiously stealing some extra warmth from her winter bag setup. As it turned out I only suffered for about 2 hours, during the coldest part of the night, but it was definitely a trade-off that I would not want to make for more than one night.

The next day we packed up and headed down an exquisite gully of alpine plants. The pace was fast and in no time we were heading back up and over into the Hawdon valley, pausing only for Debbie to have a swim in a refreshingly chilly and beautiful tarn. We were impressed! I love cold water swimming but I do prefer it at the end of the day, or at a very leisurely lunch break.

At Hawdon Hut we met a German guy in trainers and a daypack who wanted to run the whole Hawdon-Edwards circuit in a day. He hadn’t exactly made an early start and had not been off track before. He also did not know what wassailing meant, despite it being a German word, so I was a little suspicious as to whether he had what it took to complete his mission. We tried to put him off and certainly gave him some strong advice about turnaround times. At the end of the day though we decided he was going to ignore us and go anyway so we gave him our route guide. I didn’t read about him in the paper or see any helicopters so presumably he made it out safe.

After a bit of a gravel-bash, and despite some fun motivational games by Megan S, we were feeling pretty knackered by the time we got out to Hawdon shelter. But we really needed to push on a few more k’s to Andrews shelter for the night. It was time to take a short cut across the farmland. There was a lot riding on this short cut with ample opportunity for things to go wrong. Cows, fences, matagouri thickets all loomed ahead and energy levels were low. Luckily it worked out great and we made it just in time to get devoured by some of the worst sandflies on the entire trip. Sleeping in the shelter was out of the question so we all reluctantly found the energy to camp.

The next day dawned and we headed up the Andrews on a pleasant but overly long beach sidle track. Casey saddle looked beautiful but in increasingly poor weather it was head down all the way to the bushline. For some reason I was suffering this day and swore I was going to give up this stupid tramping business. The hut came as welcome relief, even if I was given the option of the “couples room” or the “girls room” to sleep in. Neither of which particularly seemed a good fit.

We whiled away the evening playing games and thinking up reasons why we should take the shortest, easiest route out the next day. I didn’t need any convincing and in the end the whole group were happy to head back the way we had come, in much better weather, stopping for a good cold dip and a leisurely lunch along the way. Perfect!

croc christmas tree

It was, by now, Christmas day, and the tramp was merging into a night in Bealey Hut – a little 6 bunk gem just 5 mins walk uphill from a roadend at Arthur’s Pass. It was in surprising good nick considering how easy it would be to party there. Shhh don’t tell anyone else about it.

We enjoyed venison stew, pavlova, Christmas lights and even built our own croc Christmas tree. It was a triumphant end to a great first tramp with a really great crew. Thanks everyone!


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