It’s been an interesting last few days, watching the weather. Several days ago, Craig invited me to head into the Tararuas tonight and attempt a Moonlight Southern Crossing. We’ve just decided to cancel the attempt within the past hour or so, and might try again in another month if the conditions fit. For me, thoughts about a Moonlight Southern Crossing go as far back as the first ever tramp I went on with the Wellington Tramping and Mountaineering Club.
It was a trip that that the club rated as Easy, organised by a fun chap called Andrew who really likes excessive good cooking on the club’s easy-rated tramping trips. We were starting from Otaki Forks, walking to Waitewaewae, and coming back. Waitewaewae (also known as YTYY) is definitely straightforward if you’re reasonably used to tramping and all the efficient packing and tuning that goes with it. It’s sign-posted at 4 hours, it can be walked in 3 by someone reasonably fit, and last time I checked somebody had crossed out the 4 on the sign and written 7 hours. The reason for this is that the YTYY track involves lots of undulation, and also walking up Saddle Creek, which can be slippery. Last time I visited Waitewaewae Hut from another direction, we were due to meet another group who never showed up, as one of their party had slipped in Saddle Creek and been airlifted out. If a group happens to be very inexperienced, the walk to Waitewaewae can be a challenging first tramp.
I going off on a tangent, though. Andrew is a chap with many fun stories, and one of the stories that he raised to convince people that the walk to Waitewaewae was very do-able was about an earlier time he’d been at Otaki Forks. Having arrived on Friday they’d stayed the night in Parawai Lodge. Whist packing up to leave in the morning, they met another club group of absurdly crazy fit people who’d walked the entire Southern Crossing overnight!
To my recollection, my first reaction towards Andrew was “why?”. At that time when I was relatively new to tramping, and to the Tararuas, I saw the Southern Crossing as the major thing to do in the Tararuas, although I now know many places I’d rather visit in the Tararuas. The thought of walking the Southern Crossing (typically a three day tramp) over a single night seemed absurdly pointless. Why??? Nobody in our cheerful easy-rated group had much of an answer.
It took a few months of getting to know more people before I was able to piece together the attraction of trying to attempt this strange feat of walking between Otaki and Kaitoke in the dark. The attraction, of course, is the combination of snow and moonlight. It’s not just a walk in the darkness with head-torches to no end, it’s a walk through the well-lit snow under a Full Moon, and it’s a way to see the Tararuas in a way that very few people do. (Even less people than the amount who see them in the sunshine, apparently.)
It’s difficult to get the right conditions, too. For a Moonlight Southern Crossing, it’s necessary to have a combination of snow-covered mountain tops, a Full or nearly-Full Moon (which occurs only several days each month), clear weather all night (ie. no or very few clouds), and, for practicalities sake, the time, ability and fitness to do it. The time, ability and fitness factors are often the most difficult, because on what is typically short notice it’s necessary to be in a good frame of mind (and fitness), to get transport at both ends, and if optimal conditions occur during the week, to potentially take two days off work.
Earlier this week, it looked as if all these factors were coming together. When Craig first asked me if I was interested, it took a night to get my head together about what was actually involved, but after I’d shaped it out in my head I became very enthusiastic. This would be Craig’s third attempt at a Moonlight Southern Crossing, with him having turned around early due to weather conditions on the previous 2 attempts. (In his blog post to which I linked earlier, Craig implies it’s only his second attempt, but Craig’s also a liar liar pants on fire.) For me, it was my first attempt, but I was very hopeful all the same.
Craig and I both arranged to take Friday off work, sleep Friday morning, do some car juggling on Friday afternoon, and be leaving Otaki Forks at 5pm. We planned to be at Field Hut by about 7pm, Kime some time before 10pm, and hopefully over at Alpha nearer the other side by about 2am. Some people walk the entire thing in a night, but we planned for the cop-out option of walking as far as Alpha Hut, and stopping to get some rest before heading out the eastern side of the Tararuas. The traditional Southern Crossing route then heads along Marchant Ridge (famous for its claimed feature of being an up-hill walk in both directions), but we thought we might adapt the main route and take the alternative across the Tauherenikau to Cone Hut, then out at Walls Whare some time on Saturday morning.
I’ve never really packed for something like this before. Craig and I were taking an ice-axe each as a precaution, but with the trip basically being a 15 hour walk overnight without much planned stopping, it’s also tempting to leave out luxuries that might weigh a bit. For a while I was concerned that I don’t really own a pack designed for shorter overnighters — the next size down that I have from my 70 litre Macpac pack is a 28 litre daypack, which is very nice for daywalks but it wasn’t quite enough for what I had in mind. As it turned out, I think I ended up packing almost the same as what I would on a typical weekender anyway, except for less food, and minus a couple of token extras (like Crocs). I also substituted my thermarest for a foam mattress, which to my surprise I managed to fit completely inside my pack. I figured that if the situation reached a point where I needed either of them, we’d likely be stuck on snow. Despite being less comfortable, the warmth insulation properties of foam mattresses outshine inflatable thermarests by a long way.
It’s difficult to skimp on things while still feeling safe. I’ve seen people leave things before on the assumption that they’ll use back-country huts, but I feel very uncomfortable doing this. Even with the well-maintained back-country huts along the Southern Crossing these days, you can never safely rely on a hut with 100% certainty in New Zealand’s back-country. Huts are a fall-back safety thing and typically if you’re in trouble and you reach a back-country hut, you’ll almost certainly be okay, but they might also be burnt down or full of smelly people, or you might not reach one as planned if you break a leg. They should really only be treated as a convenient luxury once you’re already there. Ultimately I think I got my pack for an overnight walk in the Tararuas (without water) down to about 13 kilograms including the ice-axe, which for me is akin to me not taking a hard-cover library book, so it’s not much of a saving. It wasn’t too concerning though, as I think I could still happily walk up to Kime with that sort of weight in the time we’d planned reasonably comfortably.
But, we’re not going now. Earlier today we were getting ready to leave, but in an anti-climatic phone conversation a couple of hours ago, we decided to call it off. Unfortunately the cloud’s just getting worse, and Craig commented that he thinks it’ll probably get sucked even further into the hills late this evening.
Next time, perhaps.
It’s not too bad. Realistically it wasn’t going to happen tonight, although I say this now before tonight’s happened at the risk of looking silly. I think all the preparation has gotten me even more enthused to attempt this at the next practical opportunity if I’m able to, whether it happens to be next month or a year from now.