Mt. Somers and the Hand of God

I left Wanaka on a brilliantly sunny, warm summer day in late February feeling a bit, well, sad. It wasn’t leaving Wanaka that put me in a down mood, but rather knowing that from Wanaka I’d be passing through some of my favorite parts of New Zealand for the last time.

I stopped at Lindis Pass for a final look around the landscape of austere beauty. At Twizel, my beloved Twizel (home of the Pelennor Fields location as well as a word that is fun to say) I fed the fish at a salmon farm and then bought some smoked salmon for later and yes, I visited Pelennor one more time (“Arise! And fear no darkness! Death! DEATH! DEEEAAAATH!!!”).

Then it was time to drive past Lake Pukaki, with Aoraki (Mt. Cook) a distant white tower on the horizon, and then Lake Tekapo with its glowing turquoise waters. Over the pass and on to Geraldine, another mid-Canterbury town that, like Twizel, I just absolutely loved. I bought some vintage cheddar and scrumptious gouda-style goat cheese at Talbot Forest and then, onward.

At least onward to the hamlet of Mt. Somers, very close to Mt. Sunday, the location used for Edoras in LOTR. I was sorely tempted to drive the final 50km from Mt. Somers to Mt. Sunday but refrained from doing so, remembering the end of it being a rough gravel road that had rivers that needed fording on a scale beyond brave Bill’s ability.

Instead… the following morning I packed up my tent and drove into the mountains beyond Stavely to Mt. Somers itself, the center of a two-day circuit.

I almost didn’t do it… I had a bad feeling about the trail, about leaving Bill in the deserted car park with my wetsuit and laptop in him, among other slightly less precious things. The trail began with a steep, roots-and-rock climb up to Duke’s Knob.

I will wait for the more childish among you to stop laughing at the name.

Although a mere 740 meters (2500 feet, give or take), Duke’s Knob was not a fun way to start the day, requiring a lot of huffing and puffing ever upward through dense forest.

And, once atop the rocky outcrop, the only thing left to do was go down Duke’s Knob.

Again, I will wait for some of you to stop tittering.

To be honest, it wasn’t just the descent. For the next few hours the trail was a painful steep up down up down on rocks and roots. It wasn’t impossible, but I marvelled that the Mt. Somers Circuit has the same difficulty rating – “moderate” – as the cakewalk that was the Kepler Track. It just seemed a lot tougher, and I was a little concerned that Day Two’s portion of the circuit was supposed to be more difficult.

Finally, the forest gave way to subalpine scrub and I was in open land again, on another hot, cloudless summer day. The trail led around the north face of Mt. Somers, full of rhyolite outcroppings and volcanic-origin rock reminiscent of Devil’s Tower in Wyoming. Eventually the way led over Somers Saddle and down into a valley lined with water-sculpted rocks and tors.

As I crossed the final ridge and descended to Woolshed Creek Hut, my destination for the night, I noticed that there were no boots outside the hut door, no sweaty hiking clothes hanging from the line. No sign of life.

The Woolshed Creek Hut has space for 26 mattresses (arranged on broad platforms rather than bunks), 26 hikers. The night I stayed in it, it hosted precisely one.

Yep, I had the place to myself, nestled in a splendid valley surrounded by mountains and tors, all of it looking very Rohan-y. Alas, no manly horsemen showed up to woo me and for entertainment I was left with a book I’ve been reading about grisly murders inspired by Edgar Allen Poe’s writings.

I did have a moment of, shall we say, concern, that I was staying in a deserted hut miles away from the next nearest human or a cell phone signal, and that the wilds surrounding me might well be populated by vampires, werewolves, rabid possum, chupacabra, zombies, axe murderers, ghosts, trolls or some combination thereof.

The moment passed quickly. I took two mattresses for myself, crawled into my sleeping bag and listened to the hut settle as the sun went down. It’s funny… I’ve camped in a tent by myself in the middle of nowhere in Colorado and Chile and even on a haunted moor in Iceland without being creeped out, but there is something about staying in an actual building that’s empty that is unnerving.

Unnerved or not, I fell asleep quickly and, blissfully bereft of anyone snoring, playing guitar, jibber jabbering or otherwise making noise, for the first time in months I stayed asleep till morning.

The day looked to be another gorgeous one, so I set off for the second half of the circuit, climbing steeply up Mt. Somers flank. I had fantastic views to the west and south, including of the mountains that cradle the valley where Mt. Sunday (Edoras) sits. There was a dark smudge on the southern horizon, but the wind was light and pleasant and coming from the west so I wasn’t concerned.

I passed an old Kiwi hiker headed in the opposite direction after a couple hours. He asked if I was headed to the summit and I said I hoped to try for it, though I’d decide once I reached the summit track.

He told me there was no need to go all the way around to the track, then insisted I follow him up a ridge where he pointed out a stretch of tussock flat between two rocky outcrops. “Head up to the open country between those rocks there and you’ll get to the summit!”

Hmm.

I said I’d consider it. He told me I’d be foolish not to, as it cut considerable time and distance off the “official” summit track.

I set off, staying on the circuit as I neared the point where he’d told me to turn off. I thought long and hard about it. I really wanted to summit Mt. Somers, but worried I’d run out of time if I tried to do the “official” track, which would have meant a 12-14 hour day.

It was tempting to just cut across the open country, but in the end I decided not to, for three reasons. One, the dark smudge of cloud to the south was getting bigger, and darker. Two, I don’t like to bushwhack unless I have a proper map, and I had only the lame DOC Mt. Somers pamphlet.

And three, I don’t trust Kiwi trampers.

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve come across a Kiwi on a trail and, without prompting from me, he’s volunteered wrong information (it’s always a guy, by the way. The women just say hello and keep walking). Things like “you’re almost there!” when I’m 2km into a 20km walk, or “you’ve got a ways to go still, better hurry up!” when I’m 500 meters from my destination.

The day before on Mt. Somers, in fact, I ran into a group of older Kiwis walking in the opposite direction. Their self-styled leader greeted me with “the rest of your party is five kilometers ahead, haha!” I replied “that’s impossible, since I’m hiking alone,” to which he jauntily said “‘Course you’re alone, because the rest are so far ahead of you! HAHAHA!”

Yeah. Whatever, old man.

I’ve also had Kiwi trampers tell me to ignore the map I’m holding and turn left rather than right to stay on the trail (I ignored their “advice” and lived to tell the tale), to tell me there’s a really nice lookout just past the super-steep cliff face so why don’t I try climbing it… I could go on, as I have plenty of anecdotes on the topic, but I’ll just say that, for whatever reason, a number of Kiwis out on the trail have a pathological need to mislead other hikers.

So I stayed on the proper trail. And I had not gone ten steps when a funny thing happened.

I don’t mean funny in a “haha” kind of way. I mean funny in a Hand of God kinda way.

The gentle westerly didn’t die so much as get shoved aside by a vicious, strong, cold southerly. The dark smudge of cloud spread and moved in faster than a summer thundercloud across the Great Plains. The temperature fell about 15 degrees Fahrenheit in a matter of minutes, and I was just putting on my rainjacket and pack cover when the black skies opened.

The summit, in fact, most of Mt. Somers, was quickly hidden by dense fog.

I made it as fast as I could to the emergency shelter halfway along the trail and sat there eating chocolate for an hour. It looked like it was clearing so I stood up and promptly saw the world outside the shelter window vanish. A bank of fog came in like a steamroller. So I waited.

Eventually, the fog thinned enough for me to feel confident about being able stay on the trail and the rain lightened. I left the shelter and hurried on. When I finally reached the official summit track, I didn’t even pause. No way was I going to attempt that climb in this weather.

I shudder to think what would have happened if I’d taken the guy’s advice and wandered out into the open high country, full of gorges and drop-offs, in zero visibility without even a map.

And, to be honest, although the weather was grim I couldn’t complain. I have been extremely lucky with weather while hiking here, and it was a nice change to walk through the atmospheric, foggy forests.

The final leg of Day Two on the circuit is allegedly 2.7km (about 1.6 miles) but, according to my questionable DOC pamphlet, it takes 2.5 hours. Hmmm. It’s all downhill, first along a sharp ridge and then through forest. Rocky, rooty, exceedingly steep forest. The rain returned, this time in earnest, so that the trail turned to mud and the roots I had to climb down grew wet and slippery.

I walked. And I walked. I was soaked through and slip-sliding and falling as I tried to hurry down the slippery roots and unstable rocks. And I walked.

I felt like I’d walked more than twice the distance for certain and still no sign of the carpark. Then I realized I hadn’t seen a trail marker in a long time. I was so busy looking down at where to put my feet that I hadn’t been looking for the little orange triangles nailed into the sides of trees.

This had to be the trail, right? Right? It got steeper. And steeper. I started to think I’d wandered off the trail and would be one of those sorry souls that winds up dying of exposure 100 meters from her car.

After another hour of walking, my thoughts got even grimmer and I wondered if the vampiric chupacabra zombies had found me in the hut, and killed me, and now I was dead and in hell and my punishment would be to walk down steep, unstable, slippery trails in the rain for all eternity.

I decided to keep walking, since I was going downhill and hadn’t forded the river yet, which meant that, eventually, I’d come out either at the carpark or on the road and would be able to walk to a farm.

Walk walk walk. I swear that was the longest 2.7km ever, some kind of bend in the time-space continuum.

Then I saw water collecting in muddy bootprints. Lots of them, and I hadn’t passed a soul since Kiwiman that morning, so they had to be a collection from several days of trampers. Then I saw one of the giant orange arrow trail markers and, just beyond it, the pale gravel of the carpark.

Nice to put a trail marker where it states the obvious, guys.

Bill was waiting there patiently, and our reunion was a sweet one. I grabbed my pajamas and a towel and ran to the shelter and changed into the dry clothes, wringing out my socks and shirt and pants and even my “waterproof” jacket.

And I have to say, even with the nasty weather and the highly dubious accuracy of that final leg’s distance, I loved the Mt. Somers Circuit. Till the skies closed in, the views were fantastic, I loved being able to sleep without the sounds (and smells) of other hikers, and the ruggedness of the trail made me really feel I was out in the wild. And it was free!

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