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Exploring New Zealand’s hut system

Betsy Welch
Vail CO, Colorado
Special to the DailyBetsy Welch stands atop Gillespie Pass in New Zealand.
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Editor’s note: Betsy Welch, a former Spanish teacher at Vail Mountain School, is traveling to New Zealand and points beyond this winter. Each week, we’re running an article and photos about her travels.

Once, I strapped on a backpack in my living room, walked out my door in East Vail, hiked along Gore Creek and over Red Buffalo Pass, dropped down into lupine-laced valleys, climbed up and over Eccles and Uneva Passes and ended up at Copper Mountain without ever summoning the support of a mechanized mode of transportation. It was for that reason that I thus felt somewhat strange, and even a little bit guilty, being helicoptered in and jet-boated out of my most recent hiking adventure.

Hiking ” commonly known as tramping over here ” combines the notion of wilderness with that of wildness. Helicopters, small-craft planes, and jet boats (a uniquely kiwi invention) routinely drop people into remote areas otherwise inaccessible by foot. Using them to get to where you need to go to do what you need to do (bike, kayak, ski, tramp or fish) is not seen as a cop-out or half-assed attempt to do something outdoorsy. In fact, our extravagant entry into the wilderness was actually out of necessity. The Young River, with its headwaters high in the peaks of Mount Aspiring National Park, was where we wanted to begin our tramp ” The Gillespie Pass Track ” but a landslide back in September resulted in the formation of a new lake on the north fork of the river. The trail, or track, was therefore inaccessible below the lake, and if we wanted to hike up and over the 1,490 meter Gillespie Pass, we needed to be dropped off somewhere in the Young Valley: hence the 10 minute helicopter ride to get us past the currently restricted area. As we gently floated off the ground and maneuvered towards the valley, my over-achieving hiking mentality drifted out the window and into the breeze.

Some of my favorite dwellings in the world are the 10th Mountain Division huts. If there were one experience that I could offer each of my friends and family who visited Colorado, it would be a hut trip. New Zealand ” already high up on my “places I could live” list ” is famous for its hut system, one that extends the length and width of the two islands. For travelers like myself ” wanting to spend tons of time in the outdoors but not wanting to schlep around extra weight in gear ” the huts offer an ideal temporary shelter and happen to be situated in all the places you’d want to go.

With less amenities than the 10th huts, you do have to carry your own pots and pans, gas, and cleaning supplies ” and in some of the more basic huts, even more than this ” but what the huts offer in terms of comfort, cleanliness, and shelter from the ever-changing weather makes the bit of extra weight totally worthwhile.

I know there at least 12 other people out there ” most of them now freshman at VMS ” who will never forget a cold, snowy day last March when all of our prayers would have been answered with blessing of a blue blaze. Somewhere between the 10th Mountain Hut and Uncle Bud’s, we got stuck trying to locate the not-so-ubiquitous blue diamond that would keep us on the right track. Granted it was winter then, and cold, and we had been in our tele boots for eight hours, but I can’t imagine spending that much time searching for a trail marker here in New Zealand. While each track is different and some not as carefully maintained as others, DoC (the Department of Conservation) keeps its trampers happy by clearly indicating the routes between huts. Since many of the tracks in New Zealand are what we would call “hut-to-hut” trips, getting from one hut to another in the time that you’ve allotted can be critical, especially if you’re not carrying a tent or extra shelter.

My tramping companion and I stayed on trail, followed the orange blazes up and over Gillespie Pass and down into the Siberia Valley, where we scored two bunks in the 20-bed Siberia Hut, and spent the evening doing what every good hut-tripper does: cooking up a carb-heavy dinner, playing cards, and sipping wine out of a bag. Day two dawned early with a side trip up to the glacier-strewn Lake Crucible and then another ascent and descent into the Wilkin River Valley, where we would find another cold, clear New Zealand stream, this one rumored to nourish more than a few pretty spotted trout.

It stays light until almost 10 p.m. at this time of year in New Zealand, which allows for some cruisy hiking and good ol’ sightseeing. The second day, our leisure cost us a bed at the hut (this one was a 10-bunk), but in the spirit of backcountry camaraderie, a fellow tramper loaned us his tent, which we set up in a grassy patch behind the hut. We shared a glass of wine with the fellow who had shared with us, cooked our lamb fettuccine in the dark, and happily sighed our way into the tent, knowing that our tired feet wouldn’t be tramping any more the next day: we had arranged for a jet boat to pick us out just downstream from the hut to whisk us down the river and to our car. Cheating a bit never felt so good.

Contact Betsy Welch with suggestions, comments and publishing contracts at betsyjwelch@gmail.com.


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