There’s nothing fun about hiking in strong wind. The Rangitata river valley funneled the winds through the mountain range at gale force. My hat blew off my head and was swept away never to be seen again, or so I thought. A small spikey bush caught hold of my hard earned Hiking Triple Crown hat. There were eight of us in total that set off hiking in the wind storm. All racing to the shelter of a nearby valley.
10am photo below
The trail followed a narrow river gorge as it cut it’s way through the ancient mountains. The rocky river was the trail. If ever there was any kind of riverbank to walk on it was covered in a thick tangle of spikey plant. Like a military zone covered in razor wire it was impenetrable or fought with danger. I chanced my luck and tried hiking through the danger zone. My reward was hundreds of small scratches on my arms and legs. My foolishness pushed me back down to the river. There might have been 50 river crossings in total before a trail cut it’s way upwards.
The first hut was only about 8km away from the start of the trail at the wind blown Rangitata river, but it took just under 4 hours to get there. The rustic galvanized iron hut was a welcome rest break. The Crooked Valley Hut and surrounding valley was protected from the worst of the wind. The clouds massed into dark gray lumps of moisture that released their cargo on us. It’s only water, I thought, I’m not made out of sugar, I’m not going to dissolve. After eating a late lunch I slung on my pack and made for the door. Boom, went the first crash of thunder. I stopped mid step and sat back down on edge of a bed. I dislike hiking anywhere around thunderstorms, specially in high mountains devoid of cover where I am often the highest point. I don’t fear thunderstorms, I love them, just not in the mountains while hiking. My home town, Darwin, Australia is the thunderstorm capital of my country. So many thunderstorms roll in that people travel just to see and photograph the storms. The thunderstorms are so regular and so intense it even has a name, Hector. Named after Hectopascal (hPa), the unit of measurement for air pressure. It rolls in every October to the islands just north of Darwin. Just waiting about this makes me miss the tropical storms, there is nothing like them anywhere in the world.
I sat in the hut waiting out the thunderstorm and counting the time between strikes. Most of the lightning was inter cloud sheet lightning, nothing to worry about. Only about one out of every four lightning strikes were hitting the ground. I was satisfied the storm was moving away when I put on my bright orange Outdoor Research Helium 2 rain jacket. Within 20 minutes I hiked through a couple of distant thunder claps before a bright flash raised my eyes to look up. 5 seconds later the thunder rolled and echoed off the faces of the mountains. Sound takes 5 seconds to travel 1 mile, so it was close.
Two German hikers were just ahead of me. They stopped and looked around like a couple of deer in the headlights before continuing on their goal to climb over the high mountain pass. I stopped and assessed the situation. I’m an hour from the top of the pass or maybe 10 minutes downhill back to the hut, if I ran fast. I chose to continue hiking. Over the next 30 minutes lightning came and went about 4 times. Most were inter cloud lightning and nothing to worry about. Within sight of the top a bright white flash turned my focus from my footsteps to the sky. 1, 2, 3, I counted them boom. That was way too close, I thought. I put my body into athletic mode and raced to the top of the saddle faster than I’d ever done. My breathing was deep and laboured as I struggled to provide my legs with the oxygen they needed. Sweat dripped off my face and soaked my whole body. My rain jacket may have stopped the rain but it could not dissipate the heat and sweat quick enough. I was soaked. No more lightning threatened me till I was safely down the otherside of the valley. With no cover I was still vulnerable to whatever nature wanted to throw at me.
Stone hut was an 8 bed rustic hut set in the path of an avalanche zone next to a cold flowing mountain stream. It was a welcome sight for my overstimulated senses. The perfect combination of rain, sweat covered clothing and bitter cold temperatures were providing the breeding grounds for hypothermia. I needed to get out of the cold wet clothes, and quickly. I entered the hut and found five other hikers in there. Several were cold and stripped out of their clothing to jump into the warmth of their sleeping bags, the correct thing to do. Quickly, I rolled out my sleeping bag, boiled some water, put on dry clothes and allowed my body to warm up slowly. It might surprise people to know that hypothermia occurs more often in situations similar to this than in bitter cold snowy situations. I was happy to finally be warm and dry but the temperature’s continued to drop and the storm raged outside. It felt like snow was on it’s way.