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Passing Tests with Flying Colors. Except Black.

Words & Photo by Jeremy Cronon

Fifteen minutes after leaving Mt. Rintoul Hut in New Zealand, I stepped above tree line. As I peeked upward, tilting my head slightly to shelter as much as my face as I could from the onslaught of wind and rain, I saw a bleak landscape. The barren rock, coated in slick lichen, stretched upwards as far as my eyes could see, which at the time was only about thirty feet. Beyond the stony foreground, a pale cloudscape swirled menacingly in every direction. This was not an ideal day to be in the mountains alone.

Stepping back into the mild protection of the trees, I weighed my options. I had already donned all my waterproof gear, and my pack was sealed tight against the elements. I’d brought enough food and water for the section, and I’d studied my route extensively. I felt ready. The weather, on the other hand, was not cooperating. Clouds whipped across the ridge ahead of me, changing the visibility drastically from thirty to sixty feet and peppering my face and body with a barrage of tiny water droplets that felt akin to sandblasting. Each sixty to seventy mph gust threatened to rip my 4400 Porter from my back, while the sustained forty mph winds forced me to adjust my balance regularly. In short, the weather was far from ideal.

I accepted both the risks that I understood and those that I hadn't yet considered stepping beyond the protection of the trees and into the maelstrom of the Richmond Alpine Track. I moved methodically, endlessly scanning my harsh surroundings and taking extra care on the increasingly slick rock beneath my feet. I linked together orange poles and cairns, following the knife-edge route connecting the peaks. When I couldn't see the next pole or cairn, I walked ten to fifteen paces away from the one I had just passed before walking in a circle around that pole, scanning the horizon for the next pole on the route. Although time-consuming, this method never led me astray and always offered me the option of a safe return. After reaching the summit of Mt. Rintoul (1,741m), I felt a growing sense of confidence in my ability to navigate the conditions. As I clambered through fourth class terrain and sidled across talus fields, I continued my forward progress towards and then over Little Rintoul (1,643m). I was by no means relaxed, but I had settled into a patient rhythm of analysis and action.

Almost three hours after I left the hut, I stepped onto soil once more. In the protection of the trees, the wind faded to a distant murmur, and the blasting mist disappeared. I breathed a sigh of relief. Despite only covering four kilometers, I felt mentally and physically exhausted. My heightened vigilance, paired with a healthy dose of fear, had taken a toll. There had been more than a few moments where I had contemplated darker outcomes. From a bird's eye view, I imagined watching a lone figure walking along a precipitous ridge as gale-force winds buffeted them from side to side. The fragility and isolation of that scene terrified me. Despite that veiled fear, the challenge had left me invigorated and empowered. My body, however, cried out for warmth, sustenance, and relaxation. Three hours in an icy, damp gale had soaked me to the core. I quickened my pace, hoping that Old Man Hut had a decent supply of readily available dry firewood.

No matter how drained I felt as I strode down the trail, I couldn't help the outrageous grin that spread across my face. I had passed a test. I had effectively utilized over a decade of outdoor experience to safely navigate a foreign environment in inclement conditions. After kindling a small fire in the hut's stove, I stripped down and arrayed all of my layers around in the drying heat. Everything I was wearing was drenched, but thankfully, my sleeping bag was not, and it welcomed me into its warm embrace. The adventure was far from over and tomorrow would be markedly similar with even stronger winds, but I didn't know that, nor did I care. At that moment, it was time to celebrate life and accomplishment with the happiness and warmth that only fire can bring.

The next two days on the Richmond Alpine Track brought similar conditions, exposure, and challenge as I moved from Old Man Hut to Slaty Hut and from Slaty Hut to Starveall Hut. The moves were exhausting and short, ending with a celebratory fire and a requisite drying session each night. By the time I reached Starveall Hut though, I knew the worst was behind me. I found out later that the conditions I had experienced were the tail end of Hurricane Debbie, which generated gusts up to 155 mph, killing fourteen in Australia and causing widespread flooding in New Zealand.

After closing up Starveall Hut, I looked back at the spine of the Richmond Range snaking back up into the clouds and smiled, knowing that I had learned a thing or two up there. My journey, however, was far from over. The maps I had did not account for the web of forestry roads that seemed to exist solely to confuse my sense of direction, and I quickly lost track of the efficient route I had originally planned. Opting for simplicity, I followed rivers, roads, and ridges, through public and private land alike, slowly descending towards the base of the Aniseed Valley. Multiple river crossings, a handful of bramble bashes, and one too many descents later, I found myself traversing what was likely a private road down towards the town of Hope.

As I tramped along a rural road towards Richmond, I half-heartedly raised my thumb whenever I heard the distant sound of a vehicle. Up to that point, my hitching track record had been stellar. I'd hitched over a hundred times, always arriving at my destination without too many bizarre encounters along the way. That said, I think my secret power was my svelte, white, dare-I-say sexy backpack. I even caught a ride once only because a packrafter had a question about my Hyperlite Mountain Gear pack. On this day, however, it looked like it had been battered by a powerful rain, dragged through dense brambles, and pushed through muddy embankments, and the brilliant white Dyneema proudly displayed every scar and bruise from the day's carnage. My pack and I were a mess. I was more than thankful that my stuff was safe and sound inside, but I wondered if I would've had an easier job hitching those final miles into the Aniseed Valley if the Porter was available in black. Someday.

Jeremy Cronon is a certified NOLS instructor and freelance writer whose work has appeared in the New York Times among other publications. You can learn more about him here.

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