Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Day 7: Hike Conclusions and Helicopter Ride from Top Forks Hut to Makarora

From "New Zealand Adventures, Part II: South-Island Hiking Trip"

Finally, on the morning of the seventh day, it was time to say farewell to this beautiful area. The nearby glacier views by the hut really were phenomenal, and all around, we were glad we had chosen our path, all the way from Young River, across Gillespie Pass and into Siberia Valley, and then up along the Wilkin River Valley.

Helicopter Ride to Makarora

We had originally planned to leave later that afternoon, so as to have time to hike out to view the infamous Waterfall Face (a very steep rocky wall covered in snow grass, which can be dangerously slippery with even the slightest bit of rain).  In fact, I had originally looked into extending the trip by another day or two by hiking over Waterfall Face and out towards East Matukituki valley, but realized this would be too challenging. Instead, we opted to have a helicopter pickup, pre-scheduling the flight before we left Wanaka (extravagant as it might sound, this is a fairly common way of getting in or out of backcountry trails in New Zealand), and we were really looking forward to this.  (Coincidentally, despite my dad being a helicopter pilot for the Air Force, I myself had never had a chance to fly in one before.)

With an approaching storm, but no way to get in touch with the helicopter company, we were lucky to meet up with a mountain guide at the hut, who happened to have a satellite phone and who also was planning to leave that day by helicopter with his group. He was able to get in touch with the helicopter company and to combine our two groups.  We would share a flight on one of their 7-seater helicopters (which was great for us too, as it made it much less expensive than a flight scheduled solely for us), and leave before the thunderstorm became a potential problem.

The flight was great! To Michael, the way that the helicopter moved through the air felt a bit like science fiction, and generally reminiscent of the flying-beast scenes in Avatar: with the sweeping panorama of flying right through the heart of the mountains, just a few hundred feet above the creek bed.  It was a short ride – only fifteen minutes long (though it would have taken us at least two days to hike out!) – and was utilitarian in terms of its purpose (no special sight-seeing; just get us from the backcountry back into town), but New Zealand's natural beauty made it a sight-seeing trip all the same.

Back in Makarora, we had some breakfast at the cafe while we called a taxi to return to Wanaka (it didn’t seem like there was enough traffic to hitch-hike). After a relaxing evening – along with some laundry and re-packing – we caught an early bus the next morning back to Queenstown, and headed back to the North Island for the last few days of our trip.

Hiking Conclusions

Overall, we truly enjoyed this hike, and were also very thankful that we ended with no injuries greater than some minor ankle twists and major blisters. Being quite footsore made us appreciate our feet even more, and how many steps they had taken to carry us across some 57 miles and 5 major different valleys. Our first long traverse debuted a success: it was a great experience with lots of good memories, leaving us with a strong desire to keep hiking multi-day traverses and keep getting stronger (and also to appreciate the non-sandfly and generally non-mosquito mountains in Washington, so easily accessible to us in the summer!).

Topo map of complete hike with our logged Gaia route (click to explore the map interactively). (Starting with purple at top right and ending with the day hike to Lake Castalia on bottom left)

Here's the Google-Earth fly-through of our hike, following the same purple and red routes. What an awesome hike!

Stay tuned for the upcoming final blog post about our experiences in Rotorua, which served as an exciting finale to our New Zealand trip!

Here are links to the previous days:

Day 6: Day hike from Top Forks Hut to Lakes Diana, Lucidus, and Castalia

From "New Zealand Adventures, Part II: South-Island Hiking Trip"

[For this particular day, the blog entry is written by Michael (the rest being written by Katrina)]

The next day, we headed out for our last day-trip towards the three alpine lakes along the North Branch of the Wilkin River.

Lake Lucidus

Thanks to the warm sunny weather, several small avalanches crashed down on the other side of Lake Lucidus while we paused to admire the view.

We even captured the event on video:

Actually, the day was so warm, we were nearly melting ourselves.  I tried to keep cool by listening to audio renditions of the articles "Mikaela Shiffrin, the Best Slalom Skier in the World" (The New Yorker) and "Red Dawn in Lapland" (Outside Magazine) – hoping to vicariously absorb the feeling of frigid winter air.
[FYI, audio-recorded articles – just like audio-books, but for featured articles in top magazines – are a real thing, and it's something I've really enjoyed these past few months via Audm, a subscription-based iPhone app.]

Meanwhile, we continued ascending along the creek-side tundra...

As we walked further and further upsteam towards Lake Castalia, vegetation began to give way to massive boulder-fields:

And suddenly, there we were, at the insanely-turquoise Lake Castalia:

I had kept telling Katrina that I wanted to go for a swim (or more precisely, that my mother would quite possibly disown me, if I hadn't gone swimming in at least one lake in New Zealand).  As this was our last day of hiking on South Island, and this was the last lake we'd encounter on this trip, it was now or never.  So into the chilly glacial waters I went!

The dives were wonderfully invigorating.  It reminded me of my brother-in-law's fervent assertion, at a similar setting this past summer, that diving into frigid water makes one feel 10 years younger.  As I had just recently turned 30, I decided to dive three times, to even the score.  We took a video on one of the dives; notice the graceful entry into the water, as well as the graceful exit onto the shore (well, the initial exit was graceful, followed by a less-than-graceful moment intended to be behind-the-scenes!).

This was a day where we truly would have appreciated having feet conditioned to wet boots, as there were four major stream crossings where we had to go to great lengths to avoid getting our boots wet: either by Katrina's method of sitting and trading out boots for crocs (often accompanied by loud slappings and angry mutterings while attempting to ward off the vicious sandfly attacks), or by my method of hunting for places to rock-jump (I was 2-for-2 at actually staying dry during said crossings). If we ever do a big New Zealand trip again, we may consider conditioning our feet ahead of time for wet-boot hiking (and ideally wear boots that are meant to breathe and drain!).

Here are links to the other days:

Day 5: Kerin Forks Hut to Top Forks Hut

From "New Zealand Adventures, Part II: South-Island Hiking Trip"

Wilkin River Valley

The following morning, we got a bit of a late start, to give the morning rain a chance to clear up. This was another day of primarily forest hiking, among the beautiful beeches, along with some incredible riverside meadows filled with summer flowers and views of snow and glacier-capped peaks, and a huge variety of cascading waterfalls.

Though we hadn't been anticipating any particular highlights to what we knew might be a long day, we were surprised that this day ended up being one of our overall favorites.

The beautiful silver beech "Tawhai", native to New Zealand.
Waterfalls were everywhere.  Both of us saw more waterfalls on this single week-long backcountry traverse than we had in our entire lives, combined.  Some were particularly tall and graceful, as seen in this video of a waterfall along Wilkin River, a mile or two before we reached Top Forks Hut:

This was our last long full-day carrying backpacks, as the following day would be a day-hike.  Coincidentally, it seemed to be a transition point where our muscles were beginning to accept their new fate of daily workouts, and our feet were getting used to the rougher trails (though they were still protesting their semi-wet state with ample blister-pain). We were starting to get used to the uneven footing on the trails caused by inter-crossed tree roots, by open grass fields hiding unexpectedly-gaping foot-wide streams, and by large tussocks of thick grass root balls that could easily cause an ankle sprain.

Top Forks Hut

That evening (after navigating through often unmarked trails, in our attempt to avoid more river crossings and further wet feet by staying along the south shore of Wilkin River), we reached Top Forks Hut, just in time for beautiful sunset views of the glaciated Mt Pollux facing across the valley.

Not a bad view for our night-time accommodations!
This hut – like Kerin Forks Hut – was also on the older and smaller side, and already filled with a dozen other hikers, so we happily pitched our tent again, and enjoyed the beautiful mountain views while we cooked our dinner (fortunately, the late evening hour was too cold for the sandflies!).

At the end of each day – despite the often slow progress, and how weary and footsore we always were – we never went hungry.  In fact, we now know we don’t need quite as many Mountain House meals each day (at least not such a large meal first thing in the morning, no matter how lightweight and high-quality of a meal it is), but we'll remember that we could definitely do with a bit more chocolate to go with warm tea in the evenings!

Here are links to the other days:

Day 4: Day hike from Siberia Hut to Crucible Lake, then Siberia Hut to Kerin Forks Hut (and fording Wilkin River)

From "New Zealand Adventures, Part II: South-Island Hiking Trip"

The following day, we hiked back up along the Siberia valley – in full sun this time, with bright blue skies and clear peaks, but no magical “Rivendell” views of roaring waterfalls – for a day-hike destination to the small alpine “Crucible Lake”.

What a difference the sun can make – it looked like an entirely different valley!

Various forks of Siberia Stream – some fordable by hopping from rock to rock, others requiring wet boots (or in our amateur, non-New-Zealand-variant: taking off boots).

Crucible Lake

Once we reached the alpine meadow enclosed by a beautiful circle of snowy peaks – and realizing we were short on time, if we wanted to make it back to Siberia hut and then travel onwards to the next hut  – we decided to skip scrambling up the final rock moraine to the actual lake, and instead pause to admire both the beautiful view and the welcome lack of sandflies.

(The small lake itself sits just behind the boulder-field ahead)

Heading back the way we came in, towards Siberia Valley.

Beautiful cascading pools along the way.  This particular spot was one of Michael's favorite views, reminding him of the Kalalau Stream in Kauai

Back in Siberia Valley.

Trying out the New Zealand "wet boot" philosophy

Heading back to the hut, and figuring that our boots were already damp (they hadn’t quite fully dried out over-night from the previous day’s rainstorm), I decided to try embracing the full Kiwi-tramping experience by hiking across the Siberia stream without taking off my hiking boots (the stream was calf-deep, which we had earlier forded by trading out our boots for crocs). Walking across the river was great, but reaching the other side, I realized I hadn’t quite experienced full saturation the previous day. Our boots are fully waterproofed all-season leather Asolos, and apparently, they’re not the best boots for water crossings, as they have no way of self-draining. Water visibly sloshed out the top of my boots with each step – which was a rather strange and not altogether pleasant experience. By the time we had picked up the rest of our gear (we had left everything at Siberia Hut when we went on the day-hike to Crucible Lake), and by the time we headed out on the short 7km (4.3m) tramp towards the next hut, I realized I was still definitely an amateur compared to true New Zealand trampers. My feet were distinctly unhappy with their new wet conditions (lots of blisters and bloodied toes), and I had to revert back to my tried and true motto of “keep feet as dry as possible”.

Siberia Hut to Wilkin River

Despite our blistered feet, we reached the confluence of Siberia Stream and Wilkin River surprisingly quickly, thanks to the flat and well-maintained trail between Siberia Hut and the confluence. (This was the only section of the trail – besides the initial .75km off Hwy6 leading to Blue Pools – that was wide and well-graded, unlike the much more "rugged"-style trail we had become accustomed to along the rest of the hike, with its ample tree-roots and continuous up-and-down windings. Presumably, this short section of trail – despite not being directly accessible from the highway – is more highly maintained thanks to the confluence being reachable by jetboat, and Siberia Hut featuring its own helicopter pad, and hence allowing easy access to a short "wilderness" hike between the two.)

Challenge of River Fording

Here at the confluence, we had our first serious river crossing. We had forded waist-deep rivers in previous adventures, but this was our first time crossing chest-deep waters. (The chill factor – and even the fording itself – however, wasn’t nearly as bad as the sandflies attacking us while we were stripping off boots and pants to trade out to crocs, which we strapped to our feet with extra shoelaces, just to make sure we wouldn’t lose a shoe. Although this system did work, here is where the local Kiwis would simply ford in their boots, and then hang everything up to dry that evening by the hut fireplace, and I can definitely understand the overall convenience factor, along with the extra safety provided by sturdy ankle supports and warmth.) By the time we loaded up our boots into our backpacks, and then slung on our packs (without buckling, as you’re supposed to be able to quickly ditch the pack if needed), we eagerly stepped into the cold water to get away from the sandflies.

Adrenaline pumping, we picked the widest crossing spot available (and hence, the least deep and the least swift), and carefully aimed diagonally for the other shore, facing upstream. With hiking poles for extra stability, I placed each foot carefully and braced myself before picking up the other foot. But for about 15ft-worth of crossing, I discovered what it really means to ford a challenging river: the water became chest deep, and as I lifted one foot, I realized the current was strong enough that I would not be able to keep my other foot in place. Fortunately, Michael was there to add a helping hand – and even more important – the clear instructions that it’s okay to slightly lose your place and let the current drag you backwards (hence the diagonal route) as long as you’re leaning upstream (so you stay upright and don’t get swept away), and bracing your feet to land as quickly as possible among the rocks. As someone who likes to be in control of my footing, this was quite an experience! But fortunately, no swimming or chasing backpacks was required, and we made it safely across with yet another skill to add to our experiences!
Looking back across the river that we'd just forded.  The angle of the picture doesn't really do it justice, as this very closest spot to the sandbar was merely knee-deep, and short.  It's the main branch of the river on the other side of the sandbar that was both much longer, much deeper, and flowing much more swiftly.

Kerin Forks Hut

After fording, we quickly made our way to Kerin Forks Hut, where we would stay for the night. This hut was definitely on the smaller and older side, and with another couple staying there, we decided to pitch our tent and sleep outside.

Here are links to the other days:

Day 3: Young River Hut over Gillespie Pass to Siberia Hut

From "New Zealand Adventures, Part II: South-Island Hiking Trip"

Leaving early the following morning, we finally left the forest and rose up into a beautiful alpine meadow surrounded by a soaring line of jagged peaks, traversed by so many waterfalls it seemed impossible to count them.  This was the start of Gillespie Pass, the iconic hike of this area.

This creek – and to some extent, this whole alpine area – reminded Michael of Alaskan scenery: the creek – and the shrubbery and rocks surrounding it – of the approach to Eagle and Symphony Lakes in Eagle River; the rim of darker mountains of Reed Lakes at Hatcher's Pass.

Hardy flowers on the side of a wind-swept hill.

The beautiful scene, like many others throughout the trip, both reminded us of other sights we’ve seen throughout our years of travel and hiking, and at the same time revealed unique features we’ve seen nowhere else. We were reminded how remarkably blessed we are, both to have the opportunity to travel and see such a wide variety of natural marvels, and that we live in such a beautiful state where we have easy everyday access to mountain beauty. (It was lovely knowing we wouldn’t always have to take 17-hrs worth of flights to see a similar mountain treasure again!)

Our last views looking back into Young Basin, from where we had come

The rim of the valley was clearly visible; but the very tallest peak, Mt. Awful, was obscured by the low clouds.

Kea Sighting 

We just beat the weather for the crossing over Gillespie Pass, with a low set of clouds obscuring only the very tallest peak and providing welcome shade and cooler temperatures for the strenuous climb up the steep southwestern slope. Towards the top of the pass, enjoying a last glimpse of the beautiful Young Basin Valley behind us and just as the wind whipped up and the clouds rolled in  we were rewarded with another amazing sight: two kea parrots (the protected alpine parrot whose mischief we were warned about by the local New Zealanders that we'd met earlier). We got a glimpse of how playful they are, as we watched in fascination as they played in the strong wind: chasing each other, dipping, gliding, and generally testing their weight and flight skills against the wind.

Above:  video of the Kea parrots flying in the wind.  Below, a few close-ups.  Hard to capture – though visible to us when we saw them in person – were the beautiful orange and blue streaks on their outstretched feathers (and esp. on the inside of their wings).  If you're curious, see professional photos on sites dedicated to New Zealand birds, such as http://nzbirdsonline.org.nz/species/kea#bird-photos

Descent From Gillespie Pass

After enjoying a well-earned respite on the top of the pass (high elevation + windy = no sandflies!) and admiring views of the new valley that had opened beneath us, we descended down towards the valley floor, which would follow the Gillespie Stream towards its convergence with the Siberia Valley.

The view ahead, along the top of Gillespie Pass.
Gillespie Stream, meandering through the forested valley floor.

This was our first day of truly wet hiking, as the rain rolled in and we quickly became soaked. Despite wearing “waterproof” pants, our boots started to squish after a few hours.  Fortunately, the rain itself felt warm and pleasant (or at least, to the extent that a torrential downpour can be pleasant), so our wet clothes caused us no harm. After heading back into the forest, we finally emerged into the wider valley alongside Siberia Stream.

Heading towards the next hut (and looking forward to the dryness awaiting us), we made our way through open grasslands, enclosed by rows of forested ridgelines.

This day ended up being one of the highlights of our trip, with such beautiful alpine views climbing up towards Gillespie pass, and our first experience of what makes multi-day trips so special – being able to descend into a brand new valley!  On a day trip, we’ll often climb up to the top of a peak with the reward of looking out across an opposing valley, but we almost never have time to descend into that other valley.  Yet here, over the course of a day, we traversed from one ecosystem into a different one, separated by a very serious ridge that is beyond the scope of what you can do on a there-and-back day-hike.  It was awesome to traverse entirely new valleys with a whole new set of ridgelines and peaks to admire.

Gifts of Rain

The change of weather, right as we topped the pass, was also an interesting experience.  We haven't actually had that much experience hiking in the rain (despite living in the Seattle-area!), as we can usually choose sunny days and locations for our summer day hikes. This experience of hiking in the heavy afternoon rainfall granted us another gift: although the ridgelines and peaks were obscured by foggy mist, with a general gray tint coloring the views, we have never seen such waterfalls as we saw that afternoon. In one particular cirque-like gully, cut into the jagged rock wall, were dozens of large waterfalls cascading, splitting, and merging all through the hillside, giving us a glimpse of a real-life Rivendell setting.  (How unique this was we realized the next day, when we passed through this area again: the view was still beautiful, but with only (only?!) a handful of waterfalls on that hillside, the magic of seeing a whole wall of torrential waterfalls sliding down the mountain was gone.)

This was a truly remarkable sight to see in person: viewed from the bottom of the Siberia Valley, just before reaching the hut.

Siberia Hut

That night we stayed at Siberia Hut, which we reached after about an hour's walk from when we emerged out of the forest and onto the wide Siberia Valley.  The hut was smaller than Young Hut, but very welcoming and nicely maintained (it is also the only hut along this hike that requires advanced reservation).  Each of the huts offered various info sheets about the area, and here we spotted a brochure about the very birds that we had enjoyed watching earlier at the top of the pass (and we realized what a unique treat it is, to have seen the endangered alpine Kea parrot in the wild!).

Here are links to the other days: