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May 2012 Issue
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Where dreams are born

Thomas Fortin just above the treeline en route to Brewster Hut. Photo: Liz Mathieson
3.5hr to the hut
Fantail Falls car park, one hour (86km) north of Wanaka

Liz Mathieson dreams up a classic ski tour, albeit in not so classic conditions, in the Mt Brewster backcountry.

It is late in the evening, dinner dishes have been cleared and now the conversation turns to where the end-of-season mission will be this spring. Maps come out, secrets are shared, previous experiences and discoveries of wicked lines are discussed in slightly lowered tones even though we are among friends.

Which national park, which peak, based from which hut – hours are spent discussing the merits of an area, how many people are needed to make the access affordable (often deciding between fixed wing or helicopter) and of course, what’s the ultimate goal of the trip.

Fingers trace ridgelines that connect this hut to that hut and this peak to that peak (the more 3000m the better) that could be ‘bagged’ along the way.

“We could land on this glacier, skin up here, traverse this ridgeline here, climb one or other of these peaks skiing these couloirs and carry on, making it back to this hut in time for dinner,” says Scott to my partner, Thomas, as we hunch over a map of Mt Cook National Park. Ideas are shaped and dreams are born.

But dreams are ephemeral at the best of times and our Mt Cook plans are brought down by three letters: ACL. Scott, an integral part of the team, has torn a knee ligament and is out for the season. Our Mt Cook mission must wait till next year.

Thomas and I settle on Mt Brewster on the Main Divide. This time the dream is a little less grand; a classic Kiwi-style backcountry mission – hike up to Brewster Hut from Fantail Falls just outside Makarora, cross the Brewster Glacier, climb the north-west ridge and ski off Mt Brewster.

It has been a lean year but we’ve heard there is still good snow on the Main Divide. A recent warm spell may spoil our chances of epic lines but we decide to go and check it out anyway.

We load our packs into the car, pick up a few mandatory last minute bits on the way through Wanaka, and head off.

As we prepare in the car park, a chap in his 60s approaches us rather curiously – fair enough, it’s a relatively warm day and we’re securing skis to the outside of our already heavy packs.

His name is John and he’s from Auckland.  He says he’s never been to the South Island and much to the surprise of his friends he decided to rent a car and go for a long drive and check out the rest of his country. He asks if he can take a photo of us as he’s never seen anything like it.

“How are you going to cross the river?” he asks.

“You just walk across,” we reply.

“But you’ll get wet feet,” he says.

We both grin and invite him down to the river to see us off. It is fun imagining we have our own personal farewell party. John shakes his head with a disbelieving smile, wishes us luck, tells us we must be mad, and makes his way back to his car.

We put our minds to the climb ahead – one thousand vertical metres elevation gain over 2.5km, through beautiful beech forest to Brewster Hut. It is a long and arduous hike up, the track is very steep and there are more tree roots than I remember. I have opted to wear my touring boots to save carrying the extra weight. Robbed of the flexibility of tramping boots, I soon realise that wearing them was a mistake.

They make the pack feel far heavier than it already is and I can feel the muscles in my backside complaining.  Wearing ski boots does nothing for your balance, either. Lesson learned, next time I vow to carry the extra weight and bring more appropriate hiking boots.

We arrive at the hut and realize that Dream B isn’t looking promising – we are about a week late for good snow. It has been unseasonably mild and most of the snow is rotten but the sun is shining and we head out for a quick skin before dinner. We can hear lots of running water and spot many waterfalls from the melting snow and ice. We retire feeling tired but happy with our efforts and looking forward to exploring tomorrow.

The Main Divide is renowned for its changeable weather and although the forecast was promising we wake up in heavy cloud. We wait a few hours until it clears a little and decide to try for a third possibility: Mt Armstrong, the 2110m peak next to Mt Brewster.

The cloud remains thick above us and the snow is patchy. It becomes more a case of skinning patch to patch higher into the fog, and finally, as the visibility deteriorates even further we decide to flag Mt Armstrong and pick our way back down the mountain, dodging areas of bare tussock and wet rock along the way, unable to ski a solid line back to the hut.

Our bodies are sore and tired, our lungs full of fresh mountain air and our minds cleared – we still faced a challenge and enjoyed the adventure, even though it wasn’t the grand plan we had hoped for. Three dreams have crystallized and then dissolved before we’ve been able to grasp them, but somehow it doesn’t feel like a defeat.

Weather and plans change but it won’t be long before it’s late in the evening, dinner dishes are cleared away, the maps come out and fingers draw lines, voices are lowered and ideas are bandied about.

Dreams will be born once again, all hoping to be carried out the following season.