I’m not unaccustomed to being cold. I once was a student in Christchurch living in a flat seemingly designed by Fisher & Paykel. I would have to frequently de-ice the inside of my bedroom window in the winter time and my flatmates and I would sit on the couch in the evenings in sleeping bags; lined up like tv-watching chrysalises. Sometimes it seems things haven’t improved much on the cold front since my student days. And so it was with frozen resignation I forded the snow-fed East branch of the Sabine River to our cold frosty campsite.
It was dusk on Friday and we were probably lucky to be here. Driving down to Lake Rotoroa the previous night; Megan installed behind the wheel, our headlights cutting a narrow wedge through the moonless inky night; we suddenly found ourselves amongst a herd of jet black cattle. But for the grace of God and Megan’s night vision, we almost had a 500+ kilo Angus steer joining us on the front seat at 75 km/hr. There was no chance of herding them off the road and all we could do was call *555 once we came back into cell coverage some kilometres down the road.
We stayed in the shelter by Lake Rotoroa that night and then got the water taxi on Friday morning; by-passing the extensive tree fall of the lakeside track. Although the trip was classified as medium-fit, Debbie, Megan and I were keeping a solid medium pace up the Sabine Valley. Our trip leader David had no choice but to keep this pace too, although we all knew he would have been faster without us. We stopped for lunch at the West Sabine Hut, then continuing on the track towards Traverse Saddle but turning off just before The Chasm.
We followed an old sporadically marked track up the true left of the East Sabine, but there was a lot of beech regrowth and it was slow going. We had good intel that there was ample camping on this side of the river further up valley, but we were running out of daylight and energy, so when we spotted a good campsite on the other side of the river we decided that was enough walking for the day.
To save a bit of weight I had left my Crocs at home thinking I could just wear my boots around camp. This was Mistake One as I hadn’t counted on having to cross an icy cold river immediately before camping. After a good night’s sleep (eventually with warm feet) I found I had made Mistake Two: leaving my wet boots and socks outside the tent to freeze during the night, which in turn lead to Mistake Three: trying to defrost them by dipping them in the river. Apparently my socks were super chilled as this just caused more ice to form on them. Although my core was nice and warm I don’t think I had ever experienced such acute localised cold before. I couldn’t even do my boots up properly as the laces were like wire and the leather like tin. Based on the noises coming from the others they were experiencing similar problems.
At this point I should mention the whole point of the trip was to climb Mt McKay. The easiest access is up through the bush from the East Sabine to a basin, and then on to a col on the St Arnaud Range just north of McKay. To this end we set off up the valley. My feet went from burning cold to numb and then back to some sort of feeling like what a steak with freezer burn might have. I had thoughts of Sir Ranulph Fiennes hacksawing off his frostbitten digits, and mentally added hacksaw blades to my DIY shopping list for when I got back to Wellington.
Progress was steady and by 11am we had got to the bushline. A further hour on and we had reached the basin. There was enough snow to justify using our iceaxes, but it was thin and fairly hard. By this time it was obvious we were going to run out of daylight at the end of the day if we continued to McKay. The decision was made to abort the attempt, and as the weather was beautiful we stopped for a leisurely lunch and enjoyed the warm sun and the views across the valley to Mt Franklin.
Our walk back to camp was uneventful except for one especially tricky treefall, where David came crashing to the ground ripping a fingernail half off as the log he was astride broke under his weight, and moments later Debbie slipped and landed heavily on a pointy stick. I’ve done a few tramps with Debbie and I think this is the first time I’ve heard her swear.
We got back at camp about 4pm but it was already quite dark in the valley floor. By the looks of the frost it was obvious the campsite had been in shade all day. We gathered a stack of dead beech branches for a fire and then started preparing dinner. Megan and David had dinner under control so Debbie and I saw to the fire. I’m quite pessimistic when it comes to lighting fires from damp wood and after about 15mins was ready to give up. But a few splashes of white spirits to help things along and some more cardboard from a cracker packet finally got a fire going after about 30mins of constant attention. It was a welcome source of heat and we stayed up until the late hour of 8:30 enjoying our dinner and a hot drink, as well as toasting our feet.
The next morning dawned the same as the last; very frosty but another perfectly clear day. I had learned my lesson and put my socks in the tent overnight, but everyone’s boots were frozen and we had to cross the river right from the get go, so it didn’t really make any difference. After wading through the river we faffed around wringing out our socks and re-lacing our boots. We only had to get to West Sabine Hut so there was no time pressure. After making it back to the track we had plenty of time to take a look at The Chasm – a perfect place for a tubing suicide trip for those who love tubing but hate life.
The rest of the trip was uneventful. We appreciated the fire in West Sabine Hut that night. The next morning we walked out in plenty of time to meet the water taxi and made our way to Picton with a coffee stop in St Arnaud.
We were a frustrated not to have made it to the top of McKay, and my feet are still sulking because of the way I treated them, but it was an enjoyable trip and I didn’t have to hacksaw off my toes which is always a bonus.