All Alone on the Routeburn Track

The law firm I worked for was on the corner of 51st and Broadway. Times Square’s north-most edge was four blocks south. The Neil Simon and Gerswhin Theatres were across the street. Fun Home and Wicked ran in the basement. The building’s courtyard was the morning meeting place for sightseeing tours, and opposite it the Stardust Diner with its touristically famous singing waitstaff catered to the block-long line that was anchored to its front door. Going to and coming from work meant dodging Times Square overflow: tourists with selfie-sticks, walrus sized southerners with M&M shopping bags, passels of school children with wrinkled Playbills in their fists. Some rare days I’d actually walk into Times Square. I have friends who experience various levels of agoraphobia and who live in places where the population density is measured using the same low integers that New York measures happiness levels with. I send cell phone videos of my walks to these people. Holding the phone at my chest, the videos are mostly shots of peoples’ chins, rude Slavic poses, and mask-less Elmo characters. Slivers of merchandizing billboard lights make brief appearances. I sent one such video to a NYC ex-pat who’d cozied up next to the sea in Rye, New Hampshire and had made it a habit to photograph every sunrise. “I’m getting anxious watching this,” she said.

Most of my planning for New Zealand was affected by New York’s gravity. New York contains more centers of the universe than any city I’ve been in, and they clash or ring around each other. Their wants and exploits are exhausting. The aggregate of the pettinesses form tumors that pressed against my patience. A partner once complained to HR that I left my door closed too often. A senior associate educated me after e-mailing an hour appointment invitation to a client, the associate said, “From now on only send thirty minute appointments instead because we don’t want the client to think we just want to bill him for the hour.” Three months later I sent a thirty minute appointment invitation and the same associate called me to say, “From now on only send one hour appointments because we don’t want the client to think we are rushing him.” Friends fretted over guaranteed salaries and bonus checks that could be college endowments. Mariella’s Pizza went out of business because a gas leak in the building stalled operations for too long.

To escape I planned an itinerary that counteracted New York’s gravity. If I had to compete for sidewalk space with tourists who simply stopped walking, then I would seek to have a mountain range to myself. If I had to listen to neighbors having humid August sex, then I would seek to hear kiwis sniffing in underbrush at midnight. My trip, I was realizing, was taking on the character of a hermit’s pilgrimage rather than a holiday.

The focus of the trip, the piece that the rest of the trip revolved around, was completing each of New Zealand’s nine “Great Walks.” The label is a tourist attracting moniker, sure, but the walks are meant to highlight New Zealand’s most stellar landscapes and offered at least the promise of brief moments of complete isolation.

The Routeburn Track, at 32kms/20miles is the shortest. The majority of Kiwis will mention the Routeburn as one of their favorites although it’s an alpine foot highway. It’s possible to see the rugged wild place that it was, but it requires a good deal of delusion and squinting past the constant hikers. It’s easier to imagine a diesel powered machine scrapping away the fragile underbrush to make the super wide trail.

There are true outdoorsmen. They’re recognizable by their lank forms, legs and arms overrun with raised veins. They use the Routeburn as an entry way to the longer, more rugged, and less touristic Greenstone Valley walk. Other than them, the people are more similar to the parade of characters you might see in a gym in January. The outliers at either end are groups of school children who carry outsized packs along with the saintly, patient adults who are their chaperones, and then the elderly who tender foot each step and who clutch trekking poles with geriatric familiarity. The Routeburn is also a runway for outdoor fashions and a live catalog for every outdoor company on the planet. But the Routeburn is not easy. Fitness is required. Hikers turn back and at times have to be evacuated via helicopter. This is still the place where hikers die in winter months within meters of shelter. Stone avalanches crush people. Exposure can and does set in. But for every backwoods tragedy there are also the confirmed stories of people who hike in tailored suits and bowling hats, or who traverse the rocks in high heels while hauling roller luggage.

The track is in Fiordland, a massive south island national park. Typical of Fiordland scenery I could expect to see the U-shape of glacially carved valleys, a formation that makes the steep mountains that rise from the floor more grand and imposing. When it rains, which it does often if not incessantly, freshets take over the trail and cascades go down mountain sides, making the slate colored faces look braided with hundreds of foamy lanyards. The trail begins and ends in forest. In between, the trail rises in switchbacks to go above the tree line where it mostly stays. It loops through alpine marsh and crests vistas where multiple mountain ranges are visible. The highest point on the trail is Harris Saddle (with an optional side hike to the higher Conical Hill), and in either direction the trail leads to glacially fed alpine lakes that practically quiver from cold.

When I booked campsites I took the Department of Conservation’s recommendation to complete the Routeburn in three days. It’s feasible to complete the track in two and possible to do it in one so long as you aren’t hauling a full accompaniment of gear. But leading up to my hike there was cold, constant rain and a small promise of sunshine for my final day. Nighttime temperatures were single digit celsius numbers, sometimes hitting 0, sometimes going below it. I decided to make a last minute change to complete the hike in two days. I would combine my scheduled first day, which was short to begin with, into an already long second day. My new first day would be 20kms of hiking, which would include the descent and ascent of the 1250m Harris Saddle. My second day would be a simple 12km descent. I arranged transportation. I would be dropped off on the Routeburn’s western starting point—“The Divide”—and would be picked up at the Routeburn Hut at 2pm the next day.

The Divide resembled a commercial parking lot. Tour buses with gang level shades of tint dropped off and picked up dozens of people. The rain was a soaking rain, so people ran across the asphalt and into the one shelter. Inside, gear was propped along the walls and hikers prepped their clothes and boots and prepared quick lunches on raised tables since it was around noon. Hikers who had finished their hikes sat with their wet gear dripping from wall pegs. They sipped tea and hot milo. There was a sense of happy chaos.

I started my hike. From the Divide the trail immediately rose through forest. The path was adorned with the trinket shards of erosion, and the limestone rocks mud-mortared down were rubbed clean of moss, and there was the polished sheen of a million footsteps on the exposed beech tree roots that had spread along the path like tributaries. The weather was slick and wet as. A murky fog had been borrowed from a Poe poem and put into the abutting valley so every vantage point was obscured by woolen sheets of wet white. I took a side hike up a mountain that had an alpine marsh on its summit. The view was nothing but a moving fog wall and rain alternated between pelting down and drizzling.

I arrived at the trail’s first hut remarkably early, so early that I puzzled at how I had come to it so fast. I was more than halfway to my campground even though it was early afternoon and I’d only walked for a couple of hours. I had expected ten hours of hiking. I sat down for a snack and pulled out my guide map. I had a sudden understanding of the trail’s geography and layout, an understanding that regretfully was absent when I’d booked transportation. “Fuck,” I thought. The guide map depicts the track like a timeline that you read from left to right. The timeline rises and falls with elevation changes, plots milestones, gives distances, and suggests hiking times between the points. The map starts at the Routeburn Shelter. From there the next milestone is Routeburn Flats, then further still, 9kms beyond, is Harris Saddle. The track descends from there, down to Lake Mackenzie and ends at the Divide. Ends at the Divide. “Fuck with a multiplier.” What I’d done when booking my transportation was applied the same right to left direction from the brochure to the track’s actual, mapped geography. If you were to take out a map of Fiordland and then lay it down so the compass rose pointed true north, then you’d see the Routeburn runs west to east, starting at the Divide and ending at the Routeburn Shelter. I had figured that the trail direction in the guide would mirror the trail’s actual layout. In short, I’d booked transport to the wrong ends, thus flipping my easy day and my hard day. I would have a thirteen mile mixed ascent/descent on my second day and need to make my 2pm bus pick up. The suggested hike time was ten hours.

I arrived at my Lake Mackenzie campsite at 5pm. The lake was on my left. Its bottom was as visible to me as the rock and trees on my right. Getting to the campground required walking over twin boards that were iron bolted to the lake’s vertical rock sides. The trees provided meager rain cover, and every few minutes the condensed rain droplets that formed in the canopy barreled down on my tent.

There wasn’t much to do. I listened to podcasts and fell asleep for a few hours. I woke up at 8pm. It was still raining. I set my alarm for 4am. I went back to sleep and woke up throughout the night so I could wipe clean the water that pressed though the tent holes underneath my sleeping mat and bag. When my alarm went off my boots were frozen and my old breaths were water droplets inside the tent. My new breaths were dense shapes in front of my face. I stayed in my sleeping bag while I worked on the damp clothes from the day before. The process, from mental preparation to execution, took about forty minutes. At just after five my tent was rolled up and my bag was packed.

Sunrise was an hour away but there were enough tracers of day to see by. It’d snowed the evening before at certain ranges, and the snow seemed near enough to me that a shout would bring it down. There were no clouds. The air was the pure clean that follows storms. Lake Mackenzie was a reflective sheet and on it were the white top mountains and a straggling moon.

Morning Lake Mackenzie

The ascent from Lake Mackenzie to Harris Saddle was easy. The trail was a rocky set of switchbacks that took me above the tree line and into a region where my knuckles burned from the wind.

Sunrise

The sun was coming over the eastern mountain ranges, so only the highest peaks had the yellow sun pane on them that when you’re cold you just want to have slammed on you.

Sunlight on mountains

A few trail turns let me see kilometers ahead and behind me. Lake Mackenzie was shrinking to become a puddle and there were as of yet no people on the trail. On my left side was the Hollyford Valley, and rising from that were the Darran Mountains. I scouted the mountain ridges and the road in the valley for hints of life, but I saw no movement. The only life I came across came cawing and circling from stone pilings. These were keas, rare alpine parrots, and they came so close to me that at times it seemed like they wanted to peck my shoes with their lathe shaped beaks.

DSC_1350

I climbed Conical Hill and had sole occupancy of the mountain top. The sun had metered up. The shadows of mountain feet were beneath me and lessening each minute. Then came a line of single propeller aircraft bound for Milford Sound. Their engines became a constant soundtrack. It was just past seven. All I could see were mountains.

Summit Picture

I felt that I was reclining in a world that didn’t have my past considerations but that still brought about a concentrated nostalgia. The emptiness of the sky and the surrounding mountains juxtaposed with nearly every moment of my life the previous six years. The differences were thrilling. The serenity was profound and clarifying. I don’t think I would have appreciated it had it not been for New York City. The thrill was not in having a mountain range to myself, it was seeing Times Square and my past within the palatial solitude.

Also, I made my bus.

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