Claggy Weather and Ultralight Smorgasboarding
Words & Photo by Eszter Horanyi
The situation really was mostly our fault.
Standing in fog on a New Zealand ridge, Scott and I contemplated our zero-visibility. We knew that up was the general direction we wanted to go, but we also knew that the topo map we were using had the trail in the wrong location. Our navigation was entirely at the whim of the large orange triangles that sat atop posts marking the way to the major ridge we wanted to cross. Except that we couldn't see the next triangle.
The wind howled. Moisture from the clouds that surrounded us gathered on jackets. In New Zealand, this is called “claggy weather.” It happens a lot on the peaks on the western edge of the South Island.
I half-halfheartedly looked around the narrow ridge to see if there was any place we could set our tent up in a worst-case scenario. There wasn't. Stuck. We were so stuck. Things were going pear-shaped, and we weren't even 24 hours into our trip.
On top of all this, our packs were heavy. Far too heavy for what was going to be a five-day loop in the mountains just east of Hokitika.
We'd had the best intentions the previous morning when we'd concocted our plan. Buy some food in town, drive out to the trail head, load our 4400 Southwest packs with provisions and gear, and hike into the first hut on the route with enough time to get in a solid soak at the hot springs that were a 10-minute walk away. The next morning, we'd get up early and get over the high pass before the inevitable afternoon clouds formed and clagged the mountains in, producing low-visibility conditions and potentially dangerous navigation.
It was a fool-proof plan right up until we pulled up to the trail head in the pissing rain. We had time though. It was only three p.m., the hut we wanted to stay in was only 10 km in, it was light out until past nine p.m. these long December days. So, we waited. And waited a bit more. And eventually we opened the hatch of the little Mazda we'd been living out of for the past month and used it as a rain shelter as we haphazardly threw a bunch of food into our packs.
"If we have too much, we'll just eat a big dinner tonight and a bigger breakfast in the morning," I reasoned, not wanting to think too closely about how much food we'd actually need for the trip as I continued to get wetter and wetter while putting all of it into our packs.
If my pack straps could groan, they would have under the weight of the hastily loaded adventure pack. By the time we had the car locked up, we were going to be lucky to get to the hut by dark.
Hours later, when we unloaded the contents of our packs onto the table of the hut, we thanked our lucky stars that we were the only ones there for the night. Seven kiwis, three apples, two bell peppers, three large avocados, cookies, wrap-making materials, bars, a huge block of cheese, two different types of salamis, and, of course, Ramen, because we might need emergency food. The haul was embarrassing. No wonder the packs were so heavy. It was a true demonstration of the Ideal Gas Law of Backpacks, the more space you have, the more you'll bring.
Exhausted from the tramp in, we decided to forego the hot springs till the morning.
"It'll be a quick morning soak," we reasoned. "Plenty of time to get up and over the ridge."
Of course, it wasn't a short soak the following morning. And we didn't do ourselves any time management favors when we tried to take a shortcut from the hot springs back to the trail. And the packs were still heinously heavy because even I can only eat three kiwis in one sitting.
So, there we stood next to our orange triangle on the narrow little ridge, the predicted afternoon clouds swirling around us, eyes straining through the mist for any sign of the next neon orange marker. I had to laugh.
"At least we're not going to go hungry!"
Eventually, the clouds broke just enough to see the next marker, and from there the next one. We crested the high point with no view of what I'm sure was a stunning landscape and hurried down into the next valley. The fog turned to rain as we slipped and slid down the river bed of a small creek. The heavy packs didn't help the cause of quick and efficient movement.
We stumbled into the small hut in the heaviest of the rain to find another backcountry traveler waiting out the deluge. He was on a seven-day off-trail trek and was nibbling on an energy bar, his pack small and compact. His destination for the night was the next hut down the valley and had only stopped to eat lunch and put on rain gear.
We talked as we changed out of our wet clothes and started pulling out food items for a meal. A bag of spinach, a full red bell pepper, hummus, Tasty aged cheddar cheese. Our new friend looked longingly at our food stash.
"That's a lot of fresh food to bring on a five-day trip," he commented.
"It is. But we like to eat well." I wasn't about to admit that our feast was actually just a gross miscalculation on my part. And for a minute there, hauling our food stash seemed like the best decision we'd made that trip.
He stared for a minute more. "I have to leave. I can't stand looking at all that good food!" He shoved his half-eaten bar into his pocket, said goodbye, and walked out into the rain. Meanwhile, we started a fire in the stove and made ourselves a cup of tea, as content as could be.
Never have I eaten so well on a backpacking trip, and now that I've forgotten the aching body and the stumbling over difficult terrain because of the over-sized pack, I could almost be talked into another luxury eating trip.
Eszter Horanyi is an endurance mountain bike racer and bikepacker, a record setter on the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route, a packrafter, writer, and an address-free Scamp dweller that can be usually be found somewhere in the Southwestern United States.