Have you ever heard one of those harrowing rescue stories about some well-meaning idiot who went off solo into the mountains in the worst weather window of the century and ended up getting rescued off the mountain, all the while everyone is silently criticizing that person for being so dumb and careless? Yeah, me too. I’m always glad they’re alive but always questioning their judgment and decision-making skills.
It was once easy to sit on my high horse and pass out judgment cards as if I, the queen of no mistakes, knew everything and never did anything wrong. Those days are long gone.
On this particular mission, I got my first real taste of “what the hell am I doing here? I’m such a moron” and can now understand my fellow morons just a little bit better. Let me explain.
1. You can’t change the weather, just because you want to.
For the last three years, I’ve worked in a cafe. As anyone who works in hospitality will tell you, weekend days are for working. For some particular reason which I can’t recall anymore, I somehow managed to get a full weekend off work, truly a magical feat. It would be the first time in a long time that my partner Geoff and I would have a full two days off together. With summer coming to an abrupt close, we were eager to make the most of what might be our last warm weather overnight mission.
The week leading up to the holy grail of weekends, the weather forecast began looking very average. It wasn’t in one particular area but in every mountainous region. An entire storm system was moving through and would be hitting just as we were packing up the car to leave. Nevertheless, we were determined to make something work. After much debate, I chose a camping mission that would be relatively easy on the effort scale. I reasoned that in the worst case scenario, it would rain and we could camp out in a bit of rain. We weren’t that soft that we couldn't manage some rain.
We decided to head up the Valley of the Trolls, a magical valley that literally looks, as the name might suggest, like troll dwellings. The track starts up the famous Routeburn track and veers off near Harris Lake. We started our hike in relatively good weather which immediately put us in good spirits, justifying our dubious acts. The walk to Harris Lake is more or less a superhighway with hikers and runners alike making use of the well-trodden route. Once we veered off of the lake, we left the tourists behind and were alone with the valley.
Once past the lake, we walked up the boggy valley, cross the little creeks and ponds, giddy with excitement. Everything was perfect and it was all going according to plan. Our goal was to pitch a tent on the shore of Lake Wilson, a higher lake that sits higher than Lake Harris. We scooting along the waterfall and managed to get to the top of the valley without much trouble.
2. When you’re in a field of boulders, everything looks like a makeshift bivvy
As we were making our way down to the shore, we had our eyes peeled for an elusive rock bivvy that we had read about in a previous trip report. The instructions said the rock bivvy could be found just a few meters below the “1578” point on the topo map. I had meticulously studied the trip report and mapped out the pinpoints on my map to be sure we wouldn’t miss it. We had our tent but I knew it’d be a good idea to locate the bivvy, just in case.
We walked around for what felt like hours but in reality was probably only a handful of minutes. Each big rock invoked a little excitement and hope but none of them looked suitable enough to be a rock bivvy. While we were searching the wind started to pick up and we began to get a little impatient. We found a rock we decided could work in an absolute last case scenario, knowing we’d never really need to use it. If that's not ominous, I don't know what is.
We tried to cement the location in our brains before descending down to the Lake Wilson shore where we quickly picked up a campsite and pitched our tent. Despite the wind and overcast sky, the scenery was certainly otherworldly and the clouds offered a bit of moodiness we wouldn’t otherwise see. We decided that everything was working out great as if our opinion would have any power in swaying our fate.
With the ever increasing wind, we decided to build a small rock wall, hoping to stop the air from coming in through the bottom of the tent. We dug up large stones from the shore and did our best masonry work, which was still rather pitiful if I’m being honest. It was only a few stones high but we were quickly overcome with tiredness and hunger so we called it a day and boiled water for our dehydrated meals. We had a peaceful 15-minute dinner which would end up being our last moment of relaxation for the next 24 hours. The rain picked up and we triumphantly decided it was time to weather out what we thought would be a quiet storm from the safety of our tent.
3. Troll screams sound like 80km winds.
We crawled inside, put on our cozy socks and poured ourselves a glass of wine. We finished the bottle and as the rain was getting heavier, we decided to get some sleep. The notion of sleep was short lived because as soon as we laid down, the wind took its cue and ramped up its speed and intensity. It was just noisy at first but then it started to shake the tent a little. A little while longer and the shaking transformed into full-on movement. We were laying on our backs bracing ourselves for the blasts to come. We could hear the wind gear up near the top of the valley. It sounded like rolling thunder and it intensified as it barreled down the mountain until just as it was its loudest, it tried its best to completely mow down our tent. We quickly learned we had a 30-second window from when we heard the thundering winds to when we would need to put all four limbs in the air to physically brace our tent. It went something like this.
We hear the wind starting. We exchange a glance of fear and dread. We count to 25 and while laying our backs, assume position. Legs go straight up, arms are above our heads, holding the top of the wind. We ride out the wind until it dies down for a minute or two.
For hours, we assumed this new bizarre routine and embraced it as it seemed like our only option. Geoff was sure the wind would die down and we’d eventually get some rest. Having looked at the weather forecast, I knew otherwise. Finally, after two hours of stressfully holding up our tent in hurricane strength winds and running out of the tent to replant our popped tent pegs, I made the call. I knew we wouldn’t last all night holding up the tent. We’d eventually get tired and lose interest in holding up the tent. We did a few test runs of not holding up the tent at all to see if the tent would withstand the wind but instead of popping back into its normal shape, the poles had completely flattened and the tent has collapsed. We had to do something.
4. Sometimes, you’ve got to bite the bullet, even if you’re not sure it’s the right move.
Geoff didn’t want to move but I was pretty adamant about packing up and going back to the rock bivvy. After much debate, we decided to make our move. The moon was full and giving off light, making it more feasible to find the rock bivvy, and the rain had taken a very short hiatus.
On the count of three, we opened the tent and made quick work of tearing down camp. After unpegging the sides the wind promptly catapulted the tent into my back with a mighty force strong enough to bring me to my knees. I wrestled the tent to the ground and we somehow managed to shove everything into Geoff’s pack within minutes.
Next was the climb back up to the valley. Right on cue, the clouds moved over the full moon, treating us to complete and utter darkness. We had our head torches but without the natural light, finding the rock would be much harder.
We repeated the process we had gone through just hours before. There’s a giant rock, maybe that’s the bivvy! Nope. Oh, wait I think I found it!!! Oh no, never mind. The rain picked up from merely spitting to full-on downpour and after 20 minutes, we finally stumbled upon what we thought was the bivvy on the map. Relief washed over me. Yes, it was cold and windy but at least it was dry.
Geoff, in a mere moment of weakness, let slip that he was actually quite claustrophobic, which explains why we were so hesitant to sleep under a tiny sliver of rock. Being the excellent girlfriend that I am, I offered to wedge myself into the back corner, with the hope that he’d be able to relax a bit looking out into the open. The giant boulder we were under allowed us the smallest space to sleep. With the ground as our base, we were wedged into a 15-degree angle, which didn’t seem to raise any flags with me until Geoff started talking about earthquakes. That pretty much ended the last sliver of hope I had for getting any rest that night.
The rock bivvy seemed to be doing its job with one exception: the side I was sleeping on was not closed so a mighty draft whipped through the bivvy all night. With Geoff on the outside and the rock on my inside, I was relatively warm and happy and managed to doze off for a few hours.
5. Never entirely trust a rock bivvy
It must have been about 3 am when I hear Geoff rustling and swearing. I woke up and innocently asked him if he was okay. The wind had been so strong that the rain was coming in sideways, into this tiny 15-degree sliver and well over a meter back from the open air. He was completely drenched and freezing. Though I thought I was being nice by letting him have the outside, I unknowingly secured a very dry sleeping spot with him as my shield.
I had a panic moment of not knowing what to do. It was a two-hour walk back to the Harris shelter but surely it’d be longer and more treacherous in the dark. In a rare moment of quick thinking, I grabbed the tent tarp and we tucked ourselves underneath it, creating a full wind and waterproof shield. Geoff was already soaked but at least we wouldn’t freeze from the wind this way. Surely, it can’t get any worse than this, I said to myself once again, which is always an invitation for something else to go wrong. Once securely tarped up, it became immediately obvious to both of us that the spicy dehydrated lentil curry we had just eaten was taking a toll on our digestive system. Neither of us could stop the pungent smells leaking from our bodies and with the tarp fully enclosing us, neither of us could escape the suffocating smell. There we were, defeated in our camping mission and hiding under a precarious boulder being smothered by our own farts. If this isn’t bottom of the humiliation barrel, I can’t imagine what is. Despite the smell, I once again dozed off and had a relatively good sleep for the next few hours.
At first light, Geoff opened his eyes and said: “Right, it’s light outside, let’s get the fuck out of here.” We packed up without making food or having coffee, truly a backpacking sin in our book and charged down the mountain. The rain was still coming down and the winds were still howling but as soon as we dropped down into the Valley of the Trolls, the wind was just a little bit gentler.
We came across an older couple from Cromwell who had pitched their tent in the valley, bragging of a good nights sleep. They too had been looking for an elusive rock bivvy they never found but they managed to find a good spot, much quieter than ours. They were headed up to Lake Wilson to have a look around so we happily left them to it and shuffled back to the shelter.
As we passed Lake Wilson, only minutes from the shelter, we spotted to Blue Whio Ducks in the lake. Whios are some of the rarest birds in New Zealand, even more so than Kiwis, with a population of only 3,000. We desperately tried to get a good photo of them but they were quick to peacefully float away, as if completely indifferent to the hellish night we had just had.
6. Coffee fixes everything (nearly)
We left the Whios and walked quickly to the shelter where we brewed coffee and had breakfast. It was almost surreal being in “civilization” again. There we were, shivering and shell-shocked from the nightmarish mission we had just been on and in walk all of these happy hikers, enjoying the well-paved trails after a night of luxurious sleep in a fancy hut. Two completely juxtaposed experiences, colliding under one roof.
The walkout was relatively uninteresting. The sun came out and we knew our other camping friends would be having an actually amazing time up at Lake Wilson. We laughed at ourselves and replayed the nightmares over and over until we were bursting with laughter. How wrong I was to think this would be the safest bet because, at the very least, we could always weather a storm in the tent. New Zealand proved me wrong once again.
7. Despite the hardships, even the bad weekends are valuable.
So going back to the idiot moron from the beginning who gets him/herself in a really dumb situation by using bad judgment and decision making, yeah. I feel his/her pain. Sometimes, despite what everyone, including the weather channels, tells you, you’re still determined to make it work. You want to have an adventure so bad you honestly try to will it to happen. It doesn’t mean it’s right and I’m not defending making bad decisions but at least I get it now. I can empathize a little. Next time I’ll try to remember that New Zealand weather will always have its way but there’ll still be a little piece of me that is determined to make it work.
Years ago, my mom had sent me this quote.
“The test of an adventure is that when you’re in the middle of it, you say to yourself, ‘Oh now I’ve got myself into an awful mess. I wish I were sitting quietly at home.’ And the sign that something’s wrong with you is when you sit quietly at home wishing you were out having lots of adventure.”
It sums it up nicely. These are the adventures that make me feel alive. The rain pelting my face, my heart racing as we search for shelter, those are the things that allow me to enjoy the monotony of everyday life and for that, I’m grateful. It was a trip where everything went wrong but I was with the best person to be with and we came out with nothing more than bruised egos. It was a completely inhospitable and unwelcoming valley but we still endured. The Trolls might have won this round but we’ll be back next time, smarter and better equipped. And with more wine.