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May 2011 Issue
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Plan. Prepare. Perfection!

Daniel Messingham and Louise Parker above Mt Olivier in Aoraki/Mt Cook National Park.

The urge over the coming months may be to clean your tramping gear and pack it away until the weather warms up a tad. That’s what most sane people probably do, leaving winter trips for a hardy few. And it is a few – over the coming months huts tend to empty out and tracks get less busy.

But before hanging up your packs, I encourage you to read our ‘Wild Winter’ feature beginning on page 40.

There are some very good reasons to keep exploring the backcountry this winter. For starters, some say winter is the perfect time to get away. That solitude I mention above, well imagine that on popular summer routes like the Routeburn.

But while such a prospect appeals on so many levels, particularly if you have braved the summer crowds on that particular Great Walk, before you pack your bags and rush out the door, I’ve a word of caution. The winter trips I have done have been a bit hit and miss, so to ensure your trip is a hit, take the time to plan something memorable.

A spur-of-the-moment solo mid-winter trip to Waitawheta Hut in the Kaimai-Mamaku Forest Park where I didn’t encounter a single person and had the large and chilly hut to myself is an example of a trip that turned out to be anything but memorable. It was my second time to the hut, but my first time staying over. The tramp involved numerous knee and, at times, thigh deep crossings of Waitawheta River (contractors were updating the track and building bridges that opened a few months later).

I was fairly cold and grumpy when I got to the hut and, for some reason feeling a bit sick. Turns out I developed a bit of food poisoning from some dodgy steak I’d eaten the previous night. So alone, cold and sick in a large and very chilly hut was the last place I wanted to be. I ended up going to bed at 7.30. And boy was it a long night.

On the flip side, a winter climb of Mt Egmont/Taranaki one June was one of the best trips I’ve ever done – summer or winter. It was a physically shattering 14-hour day that saw us face icy rain, tough as granite ice under foot and freezing winds before lunching on the summit with a picture-perfect blue sky above and views stretching to the horizon in all directions. We also encountered three other climbers on the summit, one of whom, incredibly, climbed Taranaki almost daily regardless of the weather or time of year.

Compared to the Waitawheta trip, it was much more dangerous and much more demanding, both physically and mentally. But it was infinitely better. The companionship helped, but so did the destination: the challenge of climbing something, the magnificent views and the rarely used skills practised along the way. Chancing upon interesting people, as opposed to a lonely night in a hut set in the bush, was the icing on the cake.

The lesson here, for me at least, is to choose your winter trips carefully. One bad experience might put newcomers off ever setting foot in the outdoors again if the temperature drops below 20°C. Choose the right companions and the right destination and you’re more than halfway to getting a memorable winter tramp under your belt.

And build in extra planning time – for sorting out the route, alternative routes and the gear you’ll take.

Impulse decisions are definitely best left for summer.