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Bucket list at all costs

A trip to Angelus Hut in winter is a totally different, and more dangerous, proposition to summer. Photo: Hazel Phillips

Winter conditions make Angelus Hut a difficult proposition – but that doesn’t deter the unwary or ill-equipped

Angelus Hut has long been on my hut bucket list. A friend told me it was the highlight of Nelson Lakes National Park and he wasn’t wrong. And seeing that in recent winters I’d done a snowcraft course and honed my crampon and ice axe skills, I wanted to get up there in winter conditions.

So in early June I packed up my sharps along with five days’ worth of food, and with a week of perfectly clear weather in the forecast, I made for Angelus.

There’s a handful of different ways to get there. The most common in summer is along Robert Ridge, a route that zigzags up from the Mt Robert car park and runs along a ridge that is broad at first and later narrows to almost a knife edge.

There’s also the Mt Cedric route, which runs up from Sabine Hut and is renowned for being an exceptionally steep approach. There’s the Cascade route, which is largely in the bush but features a steep climb between the bushline and Angelus Hut.

And finally, there’s the Speargrass route, which follows Speargrass Creek to the ridge above the Angelus basin. Because I was rolling solo, and due to some blister and knee issues, I decided to take the Speargrass route and bookend my tramp with a night at Speargrass Hut. It looked to be the most conservative way to Angelus with short days and an easy retreat to Speargrass Hut if it all became too much.

A friend had tried to shame me into doing the Robert Ridge route. “Going to Angelus Hut and not doing the ridge is like going to Fiji and not going to the beach,” he chided me. Still, I wanted to take a conservative approach and I knew if I attempted the ridge and had to turn back before reaching Angelus Hut, I’d be seriously disappointed.

Getting into Speargrass Hut is easy. There are two small wet-feet creek crossings and a lot of tree roots to deal with, but it can be done in under three hours, even with a heavy pack.

I passed a pleasant night at the hut in the company of John and Kate, a retired couple from Christchurch with an aversion to sugar (I hid my chocolate bars in shame). “Would you like sugar in your tea, dear?” Kate asked John. “Oh no, I don’t think I’ve done enough today to deserve that!”

John and Kate were confident I would make it up to Angelus Hut even with the recent heavy snowfall, and some (warranted) trepidation from DOC about going solo in alpine conditions. Happily, they were right, and aside from a few steep bits that required precise crampon placement, it was an easy climb.

I reached the hut on the Friday of Queen’s Birthday weekend and expected crowds. But I had just two hut companions – a guy from the US who was focusing on photography and had been there several days already, and later on a German who had walked in along Robert Ridge.

The German declared Robert Ridge to be a long, arduous and dangerous route. It required traversing steep terrain in places where it was impossible to climb directly along the ridge. He had slipped and given himself quite a scare.

In fact, it was his first time using crampons and an ice axe. He’d bought them for going over Waiau Pass from the St James Walkway but had pulled the pin when he got close and saw the pass in person. The American was also planning to go over Waiau Pass and was similarly inexperienced in using crampons and axes

Given I’m still cutting my alpine teeth on Mt Ruapehu each winter, slowly acquiring mountaineering skills as safely as I can, I was astounded at this gung-ho approach.

The next day, the crowds arrived, mostly via the ridge. One had ended up to his armpits in a snow hole and had to clamber out. Another had slipped and sliced his leg with a crampon. Several others arrived with tales of how tough the ridge was.

As it got dark, a tramper arrived and announced there was a group of 11, making their way slowly across the ridge. Most didn’t have ice axes and crampons and several were walking in the dark without head torches.

One, a Czech girl, had slipped on the ridge and fallen 200m. A rock stopped her – and saved her life – and she was suffering from a dislocated shoulder.

They reached Angelus and the girl’s shoulder popped back in when she changed clothes. When she arrived, she was covered in snow and ice and looked close to hypothermia. “I’m so lucky,” she told us. “I’ll never do that again.”

So why were so many people tramping on snow without appropriate gear? Most of the foreign trampers said they tramp in Europe in the snow all the time and they’ve never had a problem. I called into DOC on the way out to update them, and they said they want to tear their hair out over it. DOC sometimes gets a bad time for being overly conservative, but in the case of this weekend I fully sympathise.

On my way down the Speargrass route, I advised many groups of under-equipped trampers not to go on snow without sharps, but none were willing to turn back.

I’ve never seen so many injuries and so much blood in one hut at one time. Angelus Hut is now ticked off my bucket list, but it’s not worth kicking the bucket over.