Volunteering as a hut warden is a way to get a new perspective on the Great Walks.
Winter is a time many avoid the avalanche-prone Kepler Track, but Wynston Cooper has spent weeks living snowbound 1040m up at Luxmore Hut.
Cooper has had three week-long stints working as a volunteer hut warden at the 54-bunk hut with his wife Lorraine during the off-season in order to make sure people pay hut fees and don’t overuse firewood.
“It’s a really great break,” Cooper says. “It’s a completely different kind of holiday and the hut has a fabulous view of Lake Te Anau and the Murchison mountains.”
Two of those periods were spent snowed-in during July and August, including a week when no-one visited the hut.
“DOC helicopters you in with 400kg of firewood and your duty is to keep the deck and helicopter landing area free of ice.
“We were digging out snow and clearing ice every day – by the time we left, the snow was piled up to my waist beside the landing pad.”
During his stint one July, a number of people skied or snowshoed to the hut, including two tourists who had planned on completing the alpine circuit, despite the avalanche risk.
“I said I’ve been visiting the backcountry for 50 years and I wouldn’t be going on. But if you’ve got a strong death wish, I highly recommend it. They decided to go back down the next day.”
Two weeks later, two Canadian tourists were killed in an avalanche on the track.
Cooper’s latest stint was a different story – a week in October, just before the Great Walk season started. Some nights the hut was almost full.
“It was like the highest youth hostel in the country – there were over 12 different nationalities in the hut and we met some really nice young people.
“During the day I was mostly free to explore and walk up Mt Luxmore or down to the bushline.”
Spending an extended time at a backcountry hut also gives a new perspective of the track and surrounds.
“You get to see the light change and weather systems come through – it’s always changing.
“We’ve enjoyed each of our stays – we want to go back next year.”
DOC advertises volunteer hut warden positions on its website: www.doc.govt.nz