My, uh, "partner" and I have had a quite few adventures in the outdoors. Sometimes it's a lot of fun. Sometimes it's a challenge. Sometimes, well....."misadventures" might be a more apt descriptor. Sometimes it's all three.
One day that I hope I will never forget, a day that still brings a smile to my face, is when my, uh, "partner" and I did a guided 3-day, 20-mile, backpack of the Routeburn Track in New Zealand back in 2001. We were both management consultants back then, working 60-80 hours per week, and thus our aerobic conditioning was not even close to what it is now. This was my partner's first overnight backpacking trip. She was somewhat.....hesitant.
We chose guided mostly because it got us the option of "luxury" backcountry huts for each of the two nights, because it reduced pack weight, and because my partner felt it would be better for her first backpacking trip. There were about 12 hikers and two young women guides.
The day started easy enough....we took the group bus to the trailhead, got our packs on, and started climbing. The first day was to be about 7 miles, 1600' total elevation gain . Soon after we started, it started raining. Then it started raining harder. Then it was a downpour....a downpour that did not relent. I later learned that it rained 8" that day. The temp was about 35-40 degrees, so it was a cold, cold rain. What happens when it rains 8" in a day on a mountain backpacking trip in New Zealand? Well, since you asked, let me tell you.
First, all streams that you would normally step or rock-hop across become raging torrents that threatened to sweep you off of the mountain. Our group came up to Earland Falls, which had so much water flow that it was creating about 50 mph winds. In normal weather, you would rock-hop across the stream at the base of the falls. As it happened, there was a bridge bypass of the falls, but getting to the bridge required scrambling (which means hands and feet) down the 60-70 degree slope as well as a 8' vertical rock, all slippery with rain and runoff. I remember grabbing my partners jacket and lowering her with one arm, while hanging onto a tree with the other arm, down the rock into the arms of the people below. Back then I worked out more. Being the last down, I had to do a reverse pull-up, with my pack on, to get down the rock, and then dropped the remaining foot onto that 60 degree slope. Luckily, I kept my balance. If we had gone unguided, we would have turned back at that 8' rock; but going back at that point was just about as dangerous as going forward. Not a lot of options. The group provided a higher measure of safety. See the photo of Earland Falls below, but that photo was taken in good weather. The Earland Falls water flow on our hike was about 50 times that. Yep, that's the slope around that spot. Does it look steep and slippery enough?
Second, probably 3-4 miles in, I saw my, uh, "partner" struggling with her pack weight. Either she asked me to take it, or I offered, I don't remember, but for most of the rest of that hike in I carried her pack in addition to my own. That was probably 45 lb or so in total. I remember her lightly speeding ahead of me, more buoyant, while I laboriously wheezed with each step as I carried all of that weight uphill. "Eeeehh - aaaaw.. Eeeehh - aaaw..." (the sound of my wheezing).
Now I will say that the main reason to do the trip was to do landscape photography. I never took my camera out that day. Not once. The photos shown in this post are from subsequent days on this trip, or from a subsequent trip where I backpacked the Routeburn unguided and solo.
Third..... we got wet. Very wet. Very wet and very cold. We were impeccably outfitted, most of the outerwear being Gore-Tex rain gear. Now, I don't care how much Gore-Tex you have on....when there is 8" of driving rain in a day, and you are out in it all day, you are going to get wet. Even though the Gore-Tex did work, after a few hours, we were soaked. Soaked at a temperature of 35 degrees. Now, this is about where my recollection differs from my, uh "partner". I'll go with my recollection. At one point, my, uh, soaked and freezing "partner", who had had enough, turned and said to me "I hope that you are $&# Happy!". Totally out of character for her... "Sweetness" should be her middle name. A couple of the nearby men within earshot smirked. I felt bad. Pretty bad. This was a truly miserable first day for her first backpacking trip. Yet, the funny thing was......I also felt good. I WAS happy. It was spectacularly miserable, probably our most miserable outing yet, but even so, I was having a great time. We were persevering in epic weather, going well beyond our personal experiences, and meeting the challenge head-on. There was personal growth and achievement; new expanded boundaries.
Fourth (and, mostly unrelated to the rain), after a few hours we finally arrived at the hut, soaked with freezing water. It took hours to warm up. We changed into dry clothes and joined the group for dinner. Now, because I was carrying about 12 lb of camera gear, we (OK, I) had decided to forego some items. Like camp shoes. No boots allowed in the hut. 35 degrees, no heat, and no camp shoes. Yep, we (OK, I) planned that well. We padded along the hut floor barefoot for a while at 35, finally deciding to put on our only backup pair of dry socks. We had a fine dinner. I don't remember what we had, but it was fine. Afterward, however, we were still pretty hungry, and there was no extra food. Except for.....well, it seems that catching pancakes was a tradition for our guides. Sounded weird, but what the heck, there was food in it. The girls (guides) would cook up pancakes. The guests stood behind the counter. The girls would then flip the pancakes over their shoulder behind them, and the guests would try to catch it on their plate. Their heavy, smooth ceramic plate (that's important for later). If you caught it, you got to eat a clean pancake. If you missed, well, I guess you could decide if you wanted to go with a 5-, 10-, or 20-second rule.
Those girls must have seen me coming from a mile away. When it was our turn, my partner and I stepped up. The girls then flipped my pancake about 4-5' away. Being as hungry as I was, I lunged for it. I then lost my grip on the heavy ceramic plate, and it shot off like a rocket, smashing into the wall and into a hundred pieces, and putting a plate-sized hole in the wall. The girls (and most everyone else) fell down laughing. Laughing so hard they had difficulty breathing. My, uh, "partner" gave me one of those looks. Like, Really? It took about 15 minutes for the girls to calm down, and then we all proceeded to clean up the mess. The girls kept on breaking out into spontaneous laughter well into the evening. I don't recollect that I ever got a pancake.
The next day, however, was absolutely amazing. Sunny, warm, great lighting, truly spectacular. We climbed above the treeline and every direction held once-in-a-lifetime types of views. The Routeburn is the most spectacular trail, mile-for-mile, that I've hiked. However, I was still wondering if there was going to be any blowback for the previous day. Mid-day we climbed to a pass with a small shelter hut, and my, uh, "partner" offered me some lemonade. The lemonade seemed, well, off in color. I gave it a closer look, and then proceeded to ask her "Did you stir that with your boot?". She laughed and said "no, the water here is just dirty,...here, look at it". Sure enough, the water in the group jugs looked dirty. Well, I was really thirsty, so...... "Bottoms Up". Still, she kept on looking at me with the most interesting expression on her face.....Just saying.
Below are a few of the photos from the last two days of that guided hike, all shot on medium format film (you remember film, right?). You can find more photos in the Fiordland National Park and Mt. Aspiring National Park galleries.
I still smile when I think about that first day. It was the worst day, and it was also the best day. A memory to treasure. My partner remembers that backpacking trip with pride. When I mention it to her, from time-to-time, she both winces and smiles at the same time, and says "Hiker Chicks Rule!". True.
P.S. #1: I'd like to thank my, uh, "partner" for approving this post.
P.S. #2: Below are some more photos from the Routeburn. They are from my subsequent unguided solo Routeburn backpacking trip in 2011.