With a Name Like Avalanche Peak It’s Got to Be Good

From Mt. Somers I headed north and then into the Southern Alps to Arthur’s Pass, where bad weather had thwarted my hiking attempts in September. Today, however, another cloudless, windless, warm summer day waited. So I set off for Avalanche Peak.

Arthur’s Pass is, according to DOC, the least developed of New Zealand’s national parks. It’s also known as “Wet Boot Park” because most streams and rivers are unbridged. The trails are rougher and generally more difficult than elsewhere and, not coincidentally, there are no Great Walks in the park.

No Great Walks, but plenty of great walking. The Avalanche Peak Trail, which starts out right from the tiny Arthur’s Pass Village, the only human settlement of note  for miles around, is just a couple of kilometers long. There are nearly 1000 meters (3300 feet) of elevation gain, however. Basically, you start walking up. And you keep walking up. Till you run out of mountain.

Lots of rocks and roots and scrambling and climbing. About half an hour into the hike, a woman passed me coming down already. I joked “been up and down already, eh?” since it was about 0900 and, it being an eight-hour hike I knew there was no way she could have made it to the summit.

“I’m a hiker, not a climber!” she replied. “This is too difficult!”

And yes, the first few hours were climbing, using hands as much as if not more than feet up rock faces and jumbles of boulders and knotted tree roots. I actually liked it since my arms got to do the work and my ankles pretty much had nothing to do except try not to get tangled up.

Eventually, above treeline, the way became more difficult with more loose rocks, fully exposed to the hot summer sun. Scree slope, more bouldering, lots more stretches of loose, shoebox-sized rocks and then a final hundred meters or so along what my tramping guide called “a razor’s edge.” And it was. The path was about a foot wide across uneven black rock with drop-offs of hundreds of meters to either side. The only thing I can compare it to was Angel’s Landing in Zion National Park in Utah, and there the rangers had erected guide ropes.

Here there was nothing but empty air all around.

This is not a trail to do on a windy day, or at any time if you’re even slightly afraid of heights.

Fortunately, acrophobia is one issue I don’t have. If anything, I am acrophilic, and my biggest danger was to put a foot wrong and tumble to my death because I was too busy looking down at all the scenic places I could tumble to my death rather than where I was putting my feet.

The views were magnificent. Mt. Rolleston, with gorgeous, scrumptious-looking Crow Glacier rumpled around its shoulders to the north. The Alps, dominated by Mt. Murchison, to the west. The braided river of Waimakariri snaking between the mountains to the south. To the east, more Southern Alps, including Mt. Franklin, looming over the teeny-tiny Arthur’s Pass Village, a collection of specks, the road through the mountain thin as a piece of angel hair pasta.

I stayed up there an hour, just staring, unwilling to turn my back on so glorious a sight. As Bob Geldof sang, “there’s so much beauty, I wish that I believed enough to pray.” I felt the way I did when swimming in Lake Wakatipu, that I had found myself in an ancient, idyllic world, one where cell phones and motor vehicles and Paris Hilton did not exist.

To top it off, half a dozen kea flew in and hung out with those of us lingering on the summit. I was a little nervous seeing them – I love kea (the world’s only alpine parrot and the only parrot documented to kill and eat sheep… that’s one kea, not a flock of them. They are so badass) – but I was worried because I’d left my tent set up behind the hostel and had heard many a tale of kea destroying tents because they felt like it. They are that badass. Actually, when not looking for food (they’re known for mugging hikers for their food), kea often tear off the rubber lining of windshields, rip apart boots, tents and anything else they can get their formidable beaks into because they’re bored. Researchers have established that kea are more intelligent than chimpanzees (chimpanzees!) and much of their destructive nature is simply curiosity.

I forced visions of kea tearing up my tent and violating Bill out of my head, however, and enjoyed watching the ones that came to check us out.

Sidenote: I love the sound kea make. The best way I can describe it is if James Cagney was a squeaky toy. It’s got that high pitched squealy squeak to it, but with a sneer, as if the bird is saying “Now see here, yeaaaah.”

Alas, all good things must come to an end and, more to the point, what goes up must come down. So I set off, down Scott’s Creek Trail, which meets Avalanche Peak Trail near the summit and is recommended as an easier way down.

Uhm, yeah.

Scott’s Creek was perhaps slightly less death-defying than Avanlanche Peak Trail, but it was a hard descent, all steep slopes and loose rock and, once below treeline again, endless root piles that needed to be neogtiated. My ankles were deeply unhappy about it all, but I told them to shut up already. We summited Avalanche Peak and it was worth the pain.

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