Summer is in full swing in Wanaka which means the days are long and hot and there is no acceptable excuse for being inside when there’s perfectly good sunshine to soak up. I’m so proud to say I’ve conquered my fear of cold water and have made a post-work swim in the lake almost a daily occurrence. Many people would argue that the lake is actually not that cold but I’m choosing to ignore this and be proud of myself regardless.
Now that I have some structure and routine in my life, my “weekends” have once again become sacred. Long gone are the times when every day felt like a weekend.
The past few weekends I’ve had have unfortunately coincided with cloudy and rainy weather but this week, I hit the weather lottery AND I was granted three days off work. I pulled out my list of things to see and do in New Zealand (which is growing rapidly every day) and decided to spend my weekend at Mount Aspiring National Park, New Zealand’s third largest national park located in Wanaka’s backyard. This national park has all of the typical things I’ve come to expect from New Zealand’s Southern Alps: vast river valleys, dramatic and jagged peaks, waterfalls every few hundred meters and a few glaciers for good measure.
At the top of my list of things to see and do is the French Ridge Hut. Why? Mostly because I saw a photo of the toilet and I fell in love a little bit. Don’t judge me. I think you will too. The hike to the French Ridge Hut is described by the Department of Conservation as “advanced” which was enough to scare off most of my potential hiking partners. It has been a while since my last solo adventure so I embraced the opportunity to get lost in the wild on my own. And getting lost is exactly what I did. Kind of.
I started the trip later than I wanted because it was my day off work and getting out of bed before 7 am when I don't really have to seems foolish. The drive from Wanaka is half paved and half gravel. I planned for the drive to take an hour, considering the gravel roads, river fording, and inevitable sheep crossing.
I got to the trailhead and started the hike about 10:45 am. I was hoping to be on the trail by 10 but such is life. The first few kilometers were filled with hikers heading to the Rob Roy Glacier, a popular and easy hike that attracts heaps of visitors each week. After a few kilometers, the glacier viewers went one way and I continued on through the river bed. I was cruising along on some ridiculously flat and mellow terrain and after a few hours, I reached Mount Aspiring Hut, a popular hut that you can actually mountain bike to (yes, it's on my list). At the first hut, I met a Kiwi woman who was on her way back from the French Ridge Hut. She was barefoot and earthy and maintained the kind of eye contact that makes most people uncomfortable after a few seconds. She told me the track gets challenging but you truly feel like a kid on a playground. You quite literally climb up and over tree roots and it’s so fun, you forget you’re even wearing a pack, she promised. I’m not exactly what drugs she was on but I wish she would have shared.
After a few more hours of flat walking, I finally reach the track that ascends straight up into the bush. I see a sign that blatantly says “French Ridge,” pointing me in the right direction. I start up the track and quickly realize the barefoot woman’s assessment was mostly accurate. The track ascends more than 900 meters in 3km (Imperial Conversion: 3,000 feet in 1.8 miles). It’s a full body workout that requires hoisting and stretching and bracing and pulling. Despite the obviously challenging workout, it was quite fun. I did kind of feel like a kid in a fairytale although I never once, not even for a second, forgot about the heavy pack weighing me down.
I had been climbing for over an hour when I decided to take a quick breather. I opened my pack, grabbed a snack, guzzled some water and turned around to admire the view. I looked across the valley and saw my worst nightmare.
Wait a second. Why is the hut I’m supposed to be staying at on the opposite side of the valley, perched on a different mountain than the one I’m climbing? Red hut. Visible red toilet. All situated precariously on the edge of the mountain. This is definitely the hut I'm supposed to stay in, I told myself. I frantically scanned the terrain and realized there was no plausible way the track I was on would eventually link up to a track that would take me to that hut. I must have gone wrong somewhere. The sign clearly said French Ridge but maybe for some maniacal reason the French Ridge Hut is not located in the French Ridge? I racked my brain, trying to recall the last visual I had of the mapped route. How could this be? If I'm supposed to be way over there, where is this clearly marked trail taking me?
At this point, it was just past 5 pm. I had met the ranger on the way to the hut and he told me he’d be radioing the hut at 7:45 to give the weather update. As far as he knew, I was the only one staying in the hut and he’d be waiting for me to pick up the radio. If I didn’t, who knows what would have happened. Surely they will send out search and rescue, I convinced myself. How embarrassing would that be? I'd be the dumb American on the first page of all of the local newspapers, right next to the headline of the German Tourist who caused a 3 car pile up for driving on the wrong side of the road. I sat there for maybe 30 seconds debating on what to do next and the best course of action I could come up with was to go all the way back down the valley and try to find the other track.
I was discouraged. I was cursing myself for being an idiot and for not taking a map or remembering what the map looked like. I had just worked my ass off for over an hour in what was probably the most difficult climbing I’ve done in New Zealand and it was all for nothing. The downhill was just as hard as the uphill and by the time I reached the valley my legs were quivering with weakness. I spotted a camper across the river and after clearly seeing my confusion and distress, he beckoned me over across the river. Instead of taking my boots off and braving the icy water barefoot, I stomped ahead, accepting the fact I’d have soggy boots for the rest of the weekend. I reached the camper and asked how to get to French Ridge Hut. He gave me the most pitiful look I’ve ever seen and he sadly pointed me in the direction I had just come from.
“But I saw the hut across the valley!” I cried with exasperation and disbelief. He gently informed me the hut I saw was Liverpool Hut, not French Ridge. Apparently they look extremely similar. I accepted my fate and trudged back through the river and up the exact path from which I had descended, this time cursing each God-forsaken tree root ladder I had to scramble up.
The second time up the climb was not fun at all. Any feelings of childhood nostalgia were long gone and every step hurt a little bit more. On top of it all, I was racing the radio clock. I knew if I hustled I could still make the call but it’d be close and I couldn’t stop much. The fast hike up was punishing on my entire body and with each false summit, I reminded myself to suck it up. This is what I get for succumbing to a foolish anxiety attack. I gave myself a terrific silent lecture on how I should have trusted myself more and stayed on the path. The hike up from the valley is estimated to take 3-4 hours and while most DOC estimates are usually exaggerated for me, I was still telling myself I had three hours to go. I still had plenty of daylight but I was nearing the radio time and couldn’t bear the embarrassment of not making the call.
I was alternating between self-deprecating pep talks and voodoo cursing the barefoot Kiwi women who told me I would forget the weight of my pack when I saw the most beautiful toilet I’ve ever laid eyes on.
A cloud had passed in front of the sun casting down a beacon of light on the toilet, illuminating the end of my struggle. I was suffering but was secretly quite pleased I had gotten up the hill in an hour and 45 minutes, destroying the 3-4 hour estimate. I let out a pathetic victory yelp and meandered like a dying crab up to the hut. I arrived at 7:30 pm, 15 minutes before the call, and was surprised to see two people already settled in for the night. I told them my sad story and they did their best to suppress laughter and express their condolences for my wasted effort and lost hours. Sue and Steve were an Australian couple spending a month visiting New Zealand. I find staying in a remote alpine hut alone a little unsettling so I was happy to have the company. We shared a dreamy sunset together and I pretended like I could stay awake for another hour to try out some astrophotography. It wasn’t even 10 pm when I stretched out on my bunk and didn’t budge for another 8.5 hours.
I awoke in the morning to find a fourth person in the sleeping quarters. I was startled to see him there since I was pretty sure there were only three of us when I slipped into unconsciousness the night before. “Where'd you come from?!” I asked. He told me he came from Slovakia which I think was a genuine answer but was clearly not at all what I was inquiring. He apparently got to the hut at 2 am on the assurance of his friend who said it would be no problem to hike in the dark. Seemed pretty radical to me but he remained unfazed.
The Slovakian and the Australian couple headed out for a three-hour hike to the nearest glacier while I watched the sunrise, ate breakfast, and took another nap. Finally, when it couldn’t be avoided any longer, I came to terms with leaving the hut and starting down the inevitable descent. Because I had basically made the climb twice (once as fast as physically possible), my body felt like it had been run over by a steamroller. Morale and motivation were low and lacing up my still soaking wet boots was disheartening. I queued up hours worth of podcasts and headed down. (I realize that might be the most uncool sentence I've ever written but it still stands true.)
There’s not much to say about my hike back. It was long. The sun was brutally hot. My feet were wrinkly and soggy from my boots but I soldiered on with a walking style that could only be described as a drunk toddler wearing high heels for the first time. I soaked my feet in the river right before I reached the car, succumbing to the swarm of sand flies who viscously took advantaged of my exposed flesh. I picked up a hitchhiker from Canada and drove her back to Wanaka after warning her my car didn’t have AC and the windows were broken. She didn’t seem to mind.
I’d be lying if I didn’t second guess my decision to hike alone but to be clear, there was no point in the hike where I felt in danger. The trail was well marked and I shouldn’t have gotten lost (and technically I never got lost -- I was always on the right path) but maybe, just maybe if I had a second person along they would have helped me dismiss my sudden and ferocious anxiety attack. Perhaps I could have avoided turning around only to go back up again. But such is the way with solo adventures. You can't depend on anyone else to reinforce or question your decisions. It’s a hard lesson but it’s a valuable lesson. It reminds me of a Cheryl Strayed quote I read once: “Hello, fear. Thank you for being here. You’re my indication that I’m doing what I need to do.” Cheers to fear for helping me grow and learn to adapt.