Having made it to the tiny Brass Monkey Biv, I'm forced to wait out an extended snowstorm.
Another wild night ensues. Such is the force of the wind and the extent of the snow that it begins to blow through the cross pipes so that powder begins to float onto my face even though I’m well sheltered. This leads me to utilise the torn mattress to block the ventilation hole. Snow has accumulated on the walls of the hut and covered the angled roof. An icy crust has formed on the plastic window. Extended storms are frequent so it is no surprise that this one has intensified and transformed the mountains. I am well prepared and will be not rushed. Biding my time I know that anti-cyclonic patterns often follow these fronts so that the most spectacular photos can be taken in the day after the storm. Even so it is time to start coming up with contingencies should I be stuck here for days.
Opening the door at 1630hrs I’m heartened to discover that the mist has cleared and that it has ceased snowing. Strapping on my snow shoes I venture out, firstly visiting the tarns to discover that they are iced over so that I’m able to walk over them. So much for collecting water! My first reconnaissance involves visiting the head of Duchess Stream. It is shocking to see just how deeply the snow has collected. The descent into the stream is extremely steep and it takes time to assess the best approach, a sidle towards the Grand Duchess before dropping into the stream. The tree-line isn’t too far away but the snow line is much lower so that any travel towards Nina Hut would involve navigating through snow choked forest. It is certainly the best storm route out of the area but not the only option.
Some of the snow drifts are three to four foot deep and I seem to plough into most of them on my return to the biv. Snow flurries hurry my return but these are relatively light and I press on to inspect the exits to the north. As I look into One Mile Creek the mist lifts and I’m given a glimpse of the extent to which dull grey forests have been transformed, now heavily laden with snow fruit. It’s a magnificent view but one I am reluctant to inspect close up. The hut book warns of the difficulties of this descent and the bluffs that need to be navigated would be extremely dangerous when hidden by snow. Turning my gaze to the ridge which provided me access I appreciate the inhospitable travel it offers now that its features are obscured. Bluffs sit like traps for the unheeding. The route to the Lewis Tops has also gained menace, now formless and indistinct where once it offered navigational certainty. Casting to the west I’m reminded of two more familiar routes, that to Lake Christabel and the descent to Rough Creek. The major problem with both of these is the stretch between the hut and the ridge. So laden with snow is the mountain above it the prospect of avalanche is real travel through the slopes would be extremely slow. The only route I don’t consider is via the tops to the Grand Duchess. Even with this eliminated I’m left with six exit strategies to ruminate upon overnight.
Returning to the hut I inspect a myriad of icicles hanging off the base as well as battening wires that are thick with an icy crust. It is amazing that this ice box is providing any warmth at all but as long as I keep it well insulated and continue to cook and generate body heat the interior remains comfortable.
With dark clouds gathering and the return of snow all this might be rendered redundant and I bunker down for another chilly evening. Just how cold it will get I fail to realise. As each day has passed the gap between the wall and the door has continued to open, forced open by the snow that builds underneath. Ultimately snow flurries start blowing into the hut via this gap and the inside temperature drops alarmingly. Rousing myself after midnight I sweep the base of the door clean and ponder how to get the door shut. Once again my rope provides the best option and I hook into around the bottom corner of the door and pull it inwards. It isn’t perfect but it reduces the gap to a sliver and reduces my sense of helplessness. Unfortunately I haven’t considered the major impact of the inside temperature dropping to below zero and it won’t be until morning before I discover what is a major problem.
Waking at 6.30 I open the door and discover a world transformed. The sun is glinting off eastern slopes and a vast blue sky promises calm, benign conditions. Such is the inviting landscape outside that I want to get out amongst it as soon as possible. As soon as I reach for a boot I realise I’m going to have a problem. My only footwear is frozen rigid. Having put my feet into frozen boots on other occasions I recall how excruciating this is. It can render one immobile. I’m aghast at my lack of foresight. Only last year myself and Bill spent upwards of two hours pouring hot water onto our boots after we let them freeze up overnight.
Sparking up my gas canister I’m left contemplating a distinct lack of heat. The canister has run out after only five nights. This must be some sort of record but considering how much snow I’ve melted it’s not unexpected and I always bring a back up canister for just such an eventuality. Soon I’m boiling the billy and casting about for something to wash my boots in. There’s nothing in which my boots will fit but then I strike on a marvellously effective alternative. Rather than pour water onto my boots I bring my boots to the water, dunking them into the billy so that they are exposed to water that is increasing in heat. The results are immediate and after forty minutes of this procedure I have boots that are warmer than they would have been had I left them inside my sleeping bag all night.
Once I’m ready my first vantage point to inspect is that overlooking the Duchess Stream. As well as being a picturesque blanket of the purest sun-bathed white I can definitively say that the sidle towards the Grand Duchess followed by a steady descent down one of the gentle side-streams offers the best entry point into the valley. Once reached the forest would offer onerous but reasonably certain travel. Turning northwards the approach to point 1602 looks ridiculously steep and it’s obvious that an alternative to the lower face would need to be found. The Lewis Tops would appear to be out of the question. I’ve lost too much time this morning already and the soft snow makes for tiring and slow travel. Climbing high along a ridge offers more certainty underfoot and better lines. The other options to the west provide navigational difficulties and tedious transport problems, trust me I’ve lived it.
It comes down to a return to Nina Hut via Duchess or Lucretia Bivvy via Lucretia. Duchess Stream offers the practical route but this is a day for adventure and I’m compelled to at least attempt the high route. Before heading out I’m inspired by the presence of numerous animal tracks criss crossing the slopes of 1602. Obviously these unseen companions have no fear of the conditions have seem willing to traipse over areas that I would steer clear of as a matter of course. It is time to say goodbye to my sanctuary and I am as diligent as possible scraping the ice off the floor and leaving it as clean as possible. I’ll miss the little brass monkey that someone has attached to the wall and it is with a little pang that I force the lock back into place.
As my descent route is too steep to do in reverse I do a broad sweep of the basin and sidle on the lower slopes of the ridge, following two animal tracks. I’m forced to rest and take stock often as even with snow shoes I sink deeply into the quagmire. This is the crux of the attempt and I steel myself for a surge up the steeper section of the slope, gaining encouragement when I strike rock or tussock clumps underfoot. Most dispiriting in the occasional small shrub through which I plunge hopelessly. It takes twenty minutes to gain the hundred or so metres of height needed to reach the ridge but the feeling when I get there is exhilarating. The pay off is striking views to the east, the grandeur of 1683 and the layers of mountains to the south. I’d have got none of this floundering in the forest of the Duchess. Today is for the heights.
I’ve paid my dues and can enjoy myself. The snow on the ridge is sweep clean and hard so that my grip underfoot is steady and sure. A reasonable amount of exertion is needed to gain height but there are splendid views in all direction and after two days cooped inside I absorb it all, camera firing in all directions. Before I’ve gone too far it’s apparent that the window of fine weather is already coming down. Mist is rising off the valley floor, clouds are sprouting like aerial mushrooms and a stinging wind blasts the ridge. Though my selection of the mountain route may have an element of adventure it is also the route I am familiar with, I know how to access the correct spur and have knowledge of how the forest is marked. None of this would have been true had I chosen the Duchess Stream. Once I was in the stream the thickness of the snow would have made any retreat back to the Brass Monkey Biv impossible. Not so with the Lucretia option.
The ridge provides hard going and I need to stick at it. Halfway up my snow shoe slips on a soft patch and my back goes from being fully extended to contracting tightly. A sharp twinge of pain jolts through me. Writhing in discomfort, the stark realities of solo tramping make themselves disconcertingly apparent. Until now I’ve avoided any incapacitating injuries while tramping alone. Twisted ankles or wrenched knees have occasionally intruded but as these are frequent dangers a raft of safety equipment has been utilised to mitigate the likelihood, starting with walking poles. Back injuries are another matter and there’s nothing to be done. I’ll have to continue to carry the pack and I’ll have to put up with the pain. Fortunately the damage is relatively minor and the discomfort can be managed. It’s an unpleasant moment nonetheless.
Such is the vigour of the wind that I elect to stay on the eastern side of the ridge in order to gain some protection. For the most part there are gentler slopes available here and the climb continues without too much difficulty. To the west the bank of cloud continues to build though it remains sunny on the snow. Sunglasses are essential. Higher up the slope the force of the storm is made apparent by the ice scoured rocks, the barnacles long and narrow as they’ve been hang on desperately like limpets.
The upper slopes of 1602 are steep enough to require a zig zag approach and the firmness of the snow provides reassurance against a further slip. Before I reach the peak I take my final photos of the hut, now a speck on the pass below. On the other side of the ridge are the views of Lucretia and the extremities of the Lewis Tops. The approach to 1683 looks excitingly achievable and as it is just after midday there is time. The weather however is telling me not to linger and lunch is taken on the sheltered eastern slopes. Even here I’m sprayed by icy particles as they’re blasted off the tops.
When I top the crest it is to discover Mt Technical and Lucretia already swathed in cotton wool clouds. I’m forced to wait for moments of diffusion in order to take clear photos. For the descent I stick closely to the ridge as the angle of the eastern slopes remains nerve inducing. In snow shoes it is difficult to manoeuvre between the rocks and get good footholds in the patches of snow. I’m unable to avoid a tumble but fortunately I indent the snow and stay put rather than sliding down the slope.
Before I reach the saddle the cloud to the west has turned grey and a grim spray of shifting snow obscures the ridge. The window of benign weather is closing and it’s time to retreat. It’s quick work moon walking down the steep slope though such is the softness of the snow drifts that my attempt to glissade merely attaches an ice pack to my back.
Even though I studied the route just days before the area has been transformed and I need to be very carefully with my recollections of the descent. Where there had been a broad tussock spur there is now a triangulated line of snow. The spur running through the middle of the basin looks much more inviting but I’ve already seen the bluffs that define it, even if they’re now hidden under layers of seemingly benign snow.
Towards the tree line there are smaller bushes that now have huge clumps of snow attached to their branches. They are badly misshapen under their new loads, hanging low under the weight. It doesn’t take long to appreciate that I’m going to have a problem finding the route through the forest. The markers are attached to the trees, and the permalat used here is generally white. Many of them are going to be covered up. Broadbent’s orange tape is going to be similarly obscured by the snow fruit.
Relief comes when I spy a series of markers attached to the tree at the upper reach of the tree-line. It has been designed in the sign of a cross, probably to assist with those scanning the forest from a distance. As I’ve only been able to spot it from fifty metres away its utility is limited. Even here it nearly leads me astray as I’m tempted to veer right as this is nearer where the tree is located. The forest here plunges steeply so that any descent will be a floundering show of happenstance. There are no further markers to be seen. I have nothing to lose by retreating back to the original marker and inspecting the options to the left. The trail had a tendency to veer this way to stay away from the bluffs marking the deep gorge of the stream bed.
My eye catches a glimpse of one of Broadbent’s plastic ribbons. Such is my gratitude that I take my eye off it to soak in the mountain views one last time. When I return to the business of descending into the forest I’m unable to see the ribbon. Did I just imagine it? Ultimately I’m just need to trust my skills and take care. Wearing snow shoes in such steep, uneven terrain merely makes me feel clumsy. Better to plunge into the snow than stay high on top of it in any case. As I start my descent I spy the ribbon. And then I’m sliding, slipping, falling. The snow cushions my fall, grabbing onto laden snow branches slows my pace. It’s fun, wild work. After twenty metres I’ve built up the confidence to remove my snow shoes and the effect is immediate. I’m able to feel what’s underfoot and I can trust my instincts. When a foothold proves unreliable I can turn on a dime and try another one.
Markers prove elusive, merely confirming where I’ve been, not necessarily providing enough certainty about the way ahead. Choosing the easier descent puts me onto the steep slopes leading to the creekbed. Here the snow is even deeper, taking the shape out of the terrain and making choices difficult. Casting about I realise I need to be back on the spur rather than going all out to descend. Moving like a trapeze artist through the branches gets me back onto the spur and I’m soon rewards by another ribbon. I don’t lose them again, between the permalat and the ribbons the rest of the route is identifiable and there are even sections where I’m walking of the forest floor rather than snow.
The biggest inconvenience is the wind. It sweeps through the trees and five to ten seconds later large balls of snow begin exploding around me. After being caught out like this several times I opt for my jacket hood and at least have protection from the harder lumps. After half an hour of forest navigation I arrive at the valley floor, pausing to photograph the striking juxtaposition of balls of snow on creek boulders.
There’s comfort in being off the mountain but the tramping remains difficult. Pushing through tussock patches that look like boulder fields is tiring work and several times I fall flat on my face, struggle to my feet, take another step and fall again. It’s a humbling endeavour, not helped when one of my walking sticks gets stuck and detaches into two lengths. As luck would have it I’ve got an extra pole that has so far been dead weight and I’m pleased to have an excuse to use it.
By the time I’ve reached the scree slope below 1683 it has started to snow again and the day is as bleak as those I endured in the alpine hut. This doubles the satisfaction of reaching the valley floor. It takes two hours to reach Lucretia Biv. I spend the time calculating the odds of it being full. It is a Saturday and my concern is that day trippers will have ventured into the area to have a look at the transformed scenery. Perhaps I over-estimate the attractions of heavy snow falls for a South Islander. There is no-one about, my belief that anyone else would find the thought of a stay in a dilapidated bivvy in the middle of a winter storm attractive is once more demonstrated to be a quaint delusion.
The hut is covered in snow, as is the tussock flat near the river. Had I needed to camp here it would have been a very uncomfortable evening. With much of my outer layers drenched in melting snow I need to make full use of the hut to air it out.
Deciding what to do next is reasonably straightforward. Five years ago I tramped the St James Walkway only to have my camera battery expire at the first hut. In something of a funk I’d walked the track as quickly as possible and caught a bus to Nelson. With nearly a week of tramping still available I could plausibly explore the Waiau valley all the way up to the pass and even make a diversion to Lake Guyon.
I’m hoping that a night’s rest will see an improvement in my lower back but even without it I’m able to carry a pack. The next day’s walk will be a transition walk which will involve walking out to the highway, enduring an unpleasant 6km stretch to the start of the southern end of the St James Walkway and then humping my pack into the first hut. I’m confident that even with a 10am start I’ll be able to reach the highway by 1300hrs and be in a position to start on the track by 1430hrs. This will give me four hours to reach Boyles hut. It seems comfortable and there is always the prospect of cadging a lift while on the road.