Happy Wanaka Jump Skippy, Jump!

Happy Wanaka

Jump Skippy, Jump!

Again the Mountain

The mountain does not judge you. But it will test you.

Mount Cook, New Zealand
9th January, 2002

I pause. The rough trail I had been following uphill for the last hour falters, and disappears under a wide boulderfield. On an clear day, easy. Follow the small cairns left by previous climbers. Today, the cloud ceiling had commenced at 1200m, and now visibility is down to 10-15m. I can't tell the difference between a cairn and any other random pile of rocks. But the boulders can't stretch for more than 50m. The way must lie straight ahead.

New Year's day wheeled and passed in the usual oblivion of drinking and dancing. Dunedin had finally lived up to part of its Scottish heritage by being grey, wet and miserable, but my remaining Magic Bus friends, Jamie, Anita and Welsh Emma had found the only club in town likely to have any patrons whatsoever. We arrived early, knocked back as many shooters as we could find, and hoped for the best. The usual. Leaping around. Various arms draped around various heads. Young rakes floating around looking to knock over that last minute score with their violently pungent aftershave. Young women trying to ignore them. More leaping around. Despite the statue of Robert Burns in the centre of the city, noone knew the words to Auld Lang Syne. We ended up staring at our shoes and muttering at half three in the morning. The usual.

I'm skipping now, from rock to rock, in that hesitant, precarious way when you know that a mis-step means a broken ankle, alone on the mountain side. Heel-to-toe in that old dance my body knows so well, heel-to-toe so that if I've mis-judged, if an imbalanced boulder tilts with sudden violence under my weight, there is enough flexibility left in the spring to bounce out of danger in the same movement.

The weariness had come again. After three weeks of the backpacker trail, of making new friends only to lose them again in a few days, my spirit was once again spent. There was nothing left to say, no more joy or friendship left to give. For now.

Independent travel - "backpacking" - in New Zealand has become so common, so defined that it is almost impossible not to follow the same trail, stay in the same hostels, perform the same activities as every other sinner that comes here. In effect, without very good planning and a determined will, most of the independence of decision, and therefore, adventure, is lost, until you are simply on a cheap and uncomfortable package tour around the two islands. As a result, there is much boredom.

How I love being alone on the mountainside! I love the freedom of the cold air, and the challenge of the climb. A 1000m race! DOC recommends 3-4 hours for the climb, so naturally I have to try to do it in two. There were other people on the trail, but they are far below now. The air is crisp, and silent in the mists, apart from distant, ominous rumbles that remind me not to be complacent. The glaciers on every side are slowly tearing the valley walls away, and every ten minutes there is a short, dull growl that signifies another rockfall. My senses are alive as I stop to listen. The crash must not come from above me. It must not.

Other people become irritating in this low time of the spirit. Toleration ends. Why do they wander around the cold dirty streets in their bare feet? Why, because they are fools. Why do the young men wear wooly hats on a hot day? Why do they cover their bodies with ludicrous heiroglyphs they barely understand, and load their skin with little harpoons? Why, because without these ornaments they should be dull to the point of stupefaction. Why don't they tattoo the word "halfwit" across their forehead and be done?

My pack sags a little. My pack: raingear, thermals, sun gear, food, water, emergency rations, survival kit, biv bag... a litany of mountain preparation that I first learnt at 13 runs through my head unasked for, an incantation against disaster, against wilful nature, against death... knife, firstaid kit, signal...

Rather than sit on Dunedin or Christchurch and submit to this growing meanness, it was time to take myself away. Immediately life became sharper: decisions, independent action, excitement. I made my own way to the Mount Cook National Park.

... hat, gloves - tell me why, you there! Most body heat lost through head and hands, sir. It's growing cold now. I reckon 6-8 degrees drop since the plain. I've come to the end of the boulders. Now, above me, disappearing into the grey, the scree. I'm looking for the pole, the trail marker. It is the peculiarity of scree that it all looks like could be a trail, a slope of tiny stones in all directions, natural falls and depressions that look just like old footprints. I need the pole.

The mist lies piled on the slope , everywhere, forever. There is no pole.

With one simple decision I escaped the rut, and my life is my own, once more. The park is wonderful. The southern alps reveal themselves in glory, glaciers and sharp young rock above alpine meadows, flowering now in their brief summer-time. Rejoicing to be active, to be free, I set myself a gruelling challenge: three hikes, two low, one high, up into the snows and steep mountain rock. How I love to be challenged again, in the mountains again after such a long slouch! The mountain does not judge you. But it will test you.

I move forward with slow, wary steps. To my left is a fall line, a slight valley of loose rock. Any rocks coming down from above will naturally flow into this in a sudden blast deadly to anyone caught there. The pole! I see it in the darkness above me. Finally. I move towards it, quick and confident.

And freeze. Something's wrong. I've have come right into the fall line, the danger zone. But the pole, the trail. Motionless, I scan around from side to side, listening intently for rock movements above. Another pole, off to my right, along the original ridge! That is the trail marker, and this other pole is a hazard warning. The mists part for a moment, theatric, to show me the hazard. Directly up the slope, rocks have piled up over time: a new landslide waiting to happen. Waiting for the word.

Hardly breathing, I move, soft, soft, feet balance perpendicular under my weight so they don't slip, back, back, and to the right. I'm on the trail, now. I'm climbing, now. I'm above the hazard. I'm thrilled, ecstatic. Again the mountain has asked me a question, and given an answer.

I'm alive.




Mount Sefton


Mount Cook


New Zealand Route




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The Facts

Where I stayed
Dunedin: YHA. Dark old building, standard facilities.
Mount Cook: YHA. Bright, open hostel in landscaped earth doughnut.
Christchurch: Occidental Backpackers. Converted hotel with bar and restaurant.

How I got around:
The Magic Bus. Good value hop-on/hop-off service that goes all over the two islands, arranging accomodation and activities for you. There are so many backpackers in New Zealand, it can be overwhelming at times.