A Stupid Freezing Death March
New Zealand is a wolf in sheep’s clothing. At first glance it is easy to say “The mountains? I’ve seen taller. The lakes? I’ve seen bigger. The glacier? Why is there only one?” But you are mislead. Do not mistake what appears to be run of the mill beauty for anything but a wild landscape that can turn on you in the blink of an eye, and leave you scratching your head, swearing you packed enough granola and warm clothes. It is not uncommon for tourists to make the fatal mistake of underestimating local conditions.
While we were very lucky to avoid serious injury, we did learn about the severity of the terrain and climate during a particular hike in June. We lived about 20 minutes from the Waikakaho/Cullen Creek Walkway and were anxious to see the silver fern and visit the remains of an old mining village along the track.
The government website does a good job of classifying the walk as “challenging” as it is entirely comprised of switchbacks with a steep incline. Local weather forecasts said the day would be warm, and our hike had started out almost hot. We huffed and puffed and dripped with sweat for the first couple hours in the warm sunshine, slowly stripping off all of our layers and stopping periodically to listen to what sounded like a terrified young child screaming in the distance.
Despite our best efforts, we never found the source of the noise, and hoped it was one of the many feral pigs that inhabit the area.
As we climbed higher and higher it got colder and colder, but this time much quicker than anything we had experienced. We have hiked all over the world, and never approach any two hikes as the same, but this time it felt eerily different. Were the shrieks an omen? The sweat that drenched our shirts from the first half of the hike was now painfully cold against our skin. We put all of our layers back on, had a quick snack, and (stupidly) carried on. How much further could the mining village be?
That’s one of the blessings and curses of hiking, unless you are continually checking your watch, time reverts to being a manmade construct and your perception is relative. When you start thinking ‘I know that stupid pile of bricks is just around this corner!’ you forget how many corners you have passed that did not have the bricks just around them. By the time we spotted the ruins, we were embarrassingly pre-hypothermic. The scary thing about hypothermia is that it causes poor judgment (we should definitely keep hiking!), confusion (is that a kid or a pig screaming?), drowsiness (I’m just tired from the hike…), and can overtake you before you have a chance to truly grasp what is going on. We didn’t see the mining village until we tripped over the bricks in front of our faces (lack of coordination) and were too stupefied to take more than one photo. Did we turn around and leave? No (lack of concern about one’s condition). We sat down and ate our “we made it to the top” snack in freezing silence; cognitively impaired and unable to form sentences. It was when I realized I was getting less of the food in my mouth, and clumsily dropping more of it on the ground, that I thought ‘hmmmm, something isn’t quite right’.
We turned around, marched down the mountain, watched my hands turn crazy colors. It was our last hike before winter.