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A winter trip for when the backcountry reopens

Jo Stilwell reflects on a winter trip to Brewster Hut and decides it’s the perfect ‘back to the trail’ trip

Brewster Hut in Mt Aspiring National Park is one of New Zealand’s better-known huts. Sitting high above Haast Pass on the Main Divide, it is almost always booked out in summer and is certainly on the adventure tourist’s ‘must-do’ list. 

And it’s easy to see why. Even the 1000m climb to the hut isn’t too difficult. Yes, it’s steep – in some places, brutally so – but the track is good and the high-rainfall silver beech forest is striking with the forest floor covered in an abundance of moss and ferns. Once above bush line, the more gentle ridge travel offers superb views of Mt Brewster and back across Haast Pass to the mountains in the west. 

We decided to visit late winter (when bookings aren’t required) expecting it to be a little quieter than the hectic summer season. On our arrival at the hut, we had one other companion. But imagine our surprise when the hut started filling during the afternoon with local ski-tourers and climbers taking advantage of the perfect weather. By the time the last of the sun was sinking, turning Mt Brewster all shades of pink, the hut was full and the midnight arrivals had to sleep in the communal area. 

The Haast Highway, seen far below, is dwarfed on the climb to Brewster Hut. Photo: Jo Stilwell

The popularity of this hut in winter shouldn’t have surprised us as the area is great for ski-touring and climbing. While Mt Brewster is a more technical winter climb, Mt Armstrong, immediately behind the hut is a good winter peak for trampers proficient in the use of crampons and ice axe.

We left the hut early the next morning. The patterns of light as dawn unfolded around us were sublime. Oranges, blues and pinks contrasted with the deep shadows of the valleys and the pale snow-plastered mountains. Higher up, wind-sculpted sastrugi reflected the early morning sun as we crunched our way up to the summit of Mt Armstrong (2174m).

On top, we were greeted by endless ranges of snow-covered peaks in every direction. Despite the sun, a stiff breeze was blowing so we retreated to a more sheltered knob overlooking the hut and brewed coffee.

It’s easy to see why Brewster Hut is such a popular destination. Photo: Jo Stilwell

We’d had an early start to catch the freeze but the ski-tourers had enjoyed a sleep-in while they waited for the snow to soften. With coffees in hand, we watched the skiers as they now skinned their way up the slope, admiring their perfect execution of unwieldy kick-turns. Two climbers had also left the hut early and climbed Mt Brewster. We now watched them ski elegantly back down the Brewster Glacier. It was one of those text-book perfect days in the mountains.

We brewed a second coffee and lingered for as long as the winter sun allowed. We left in time to collect our gear from the hut and descend to our car, arriving just on dusk.

Usually, I choose to visit places that are off the beaten track. But this trip was a great reminder that the popular, sometimes overflowing places like Brewster Hut are like that for a reason. They are indeed special places, offering access to the backcountry to all comers. Brewster Hut and other popular destinations shouldn’t be overlooked as trip destinations.

Evening light turns Mt Brewster a beautiful shade of pink. Photo: Jo Stilwell
The perfect coffee spot. Photo: Jo Stilwell
On a good day there will be excellent crampon conditions on the route to the summit of Mt Armstrong. Photo: David Norton
2.7km to Brewster Hut
Total Ascent
Mt Aspiring National Park
Car park to Brewster Hut, 3-4hr; Hut to Mt Armstrong, 2-3hr
Brewster Hut ($15, 12 bunks)
Fantail Falls car park, Haast Pass, SH6

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