Catapulted from West Australia’s outback to a snowy ridge on New Zealand’s Southern Alps, lightening exploding overhead, blizzard buffeting my face; staring off into the pitch black night, I thought to myself, perhaps I might have overdone this one…
Let me rewind a day or so: I’m driving out from a mine site where I work in Western Australia, having just finished 12×13 hour days.
As per my usual routine, I chuck on a podcast to upgrade the dead time spent driving into something beneficial. This time I go with the always faithful Brian Keane Podcast, where Irish legend Brian Keane introduces me to a new hero of mine: Ross Edgley.
Now if you’re unfamiliar with this bloke, I suggest you start with his youtube channel, however prepare yourself for the greatest surge of motivation you’ve ever felt. The guy ran a marathon pulling a car, ran 1000 miles in a month barefoot with a 50kg backpack, climbed a 10m rope 848 times in a row totalling the height of Mt Everest, completed an olympic triathlon carrying a 45kg tree on his back… and if all this wasn’t enough, he then went and swam around the entire UK, totalling 157 days in the water.
So here I am, kombucha bottle in one hand, steering wheel in the other, modern day hercules speaking to me out of the Hilux speakers, and I thought to myself – “Time to test my own limits out”. I knew Madi was going to be away this weekend – off visiting her Brother in Auckland – and thought, ‘here’s my opportunity to do something difficult’. Next thing I know, i’m pulled over on the side of the road looking up alpine huts featuring big gut busting accents; cue Brewster Hut. Tucked away on a spur high above Arthurs Pass, this little beauty seemed to fit the mould.
So whilst driving down a dusty outback road, I made the decision that no matter how tired I was after the trip back to NZ, I would get straight in the car and drag my body kicking and screaming up to that hut!
So on I went, speeding toward Kalgoorlie inspired by my new found hero, only stopping in at the Kambalda store to pick up kombucha and protein bars (the secret weapons of all millennials). Arriving at Kal, my spirits were high. I raced out to the plane to Melbourne, chomping at the bit to get back to the mountains.
Unfortunately, all of this newfound enthusiasm was crushed after a rough night sleeping on my Thermarest in a corridor of the Melbourne Airport. Struggling to drag myself to the departure terminal, I wearily boarded my plane to Queenstown, now wishing I had simply made the goal to get home and sleep for the rest of the week.
For the next 4 airborne hours my mind waged war on itself. 90% of the troops seemed to be focusing on locating excuses to get me out of this climb. The first formations delivered weak attacks that the opposing 10% were able to throw off without too many casualties; ‘It’s probably going to be really hard on your body since you’re so overtired’ or ‘It’ll be boring without Madi, you might aswell cruise at home and wait for her to get back’. Like the battle of thermophile my small legion of loyal neurons stood fast and true, laughing off these initial waves. Then all was quiet and I thought ‘ Yeap, i’m going to nail this’. However unbeknownst to me, the 90% were only regrouping.
I stared out the window into the stormy skies. Apparently, this was catalyst the 90% had been waiting for… They came in force, this time playing on my fear of the unknown. ‘What if there are avalanches, white outs, snow bridges? Look at those clouds… I don’t want to say it, but they look pretty ominous mate…’. These are the things I usually reassure Madi about after doing my research on the area. However, this time I knew each was a legitimate concern and this acceptance was all it took. My remaining 10% started dropping where they stood. The hot gates had been penetrated and we were surrounded. 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1….
However, in my greatest moment of doubt, I heard the last 1% muttering ‘If you want to be average, sure thing, just quit then’. This self-baiting frizzled to life an old Joe Rogan lesson about the importance of doing difficult things; especially when you don’t feel like it. At this I felt my enthusiasm returning. I decided that this tipping point was the perfect chance to test out my mental toughness, and so I doubled down on my promise to get to Brewster by nightfall.
I cranked the music high – well as high as the UE Boom would allow, as my own car doesn’t actually have a stereo… and drove straight for the Haast Pass. It was pleasantly sunny in Cromwell, however after checking the weather for the pass, I knew it was going to turn south by 18:00. Sure enough, by 13:30 grey clouds began to meander over the main divide and a few spots of rain tickled my nerves. Nope! I had said I’d do it and thats that… A few troops dropped…100, 99, 98….
I pulled up at Fantail Falls – the start of the trail. Bullets of rain now ricocheted off my Goretex; 97, 96, 95, 94…. Small shadows of doubt began to re-emerge but I swatted them away, still running high on the promise I had made to myself. With one last check of the map, I confirmed it would be an old fashioned West Coast gut-buster up the spur for over 1000 vertical meters.
So the time was 16:30 and I had >1000 vertical meters to climb through the snow before sunset at 1750. My numbers didn’t quite add up… 93, 92, 91, 90, 89. In a final warning, the sign at the base informed me what I was about to attempt should take 3 hours (presumably in good conditions). I resigned myself that my 80 minutes wouldn’t be enough, and biting down on my mouthpiece, I pushed onward regardless.
Now, as if to offer me one last escape or perhaps just to test my will power, there’s a river crossing right at the start of the track and I had gone and forgotten my Gaiters.
Everybody who has hiked / climbed with me will attest that I’m one of those ridiculous people who wear gaiters no matter what the terrain; I’m never without my faithful pair of Stoney Creeks. That is, until I actually need them. Now I thought to myself, ‘I’ve got to get potentially wet boots before entering sub-freezing alpine conditions on a multi day adventure. This seems unwise… 88, 87, 86, 85, 84. A tiny little voice popped up with the age old aphorism – ‘perhaps this is a sign’.
I’ve always thought that when your inner voice proclaims this little diddy, it’s more than likely you are perceiving dangers that your ego is shielding you from. Therefore I’d typically listen. However, overpowered by the promise I’d made to myself, I soldiered on. Now whether it was a reward for conquering the seeds of doubt or whether I got lucky, I’ll never know but I did manage to cross without a drop entering my boots.
Fast-forward 1 hour of scrambling up a heavily forested spur and I’ve climbed roughly 500 vertical meters. The snow line long passed, a staircase of icy tree roots lay before me, stretching up into dark shadowy goblin forest.
Suddenly I’m rocked by an enormous explosion above my head and without thinking, I hit the deck. Lightening. 83, 82, 81, 80, 79, 78, 77. I stop and listen as Thor’s Anvil echos around the ghostly alpine amphitheatre. Too far up to turn back, too far to go to arrive safely, i’m stuck between my ego and mother nature. I ‘um-and-ah’ for what feels like an eternity, then encouraged by the lack of repeat strikes, I decide that my ego is too large to turn back and continue climbing into the now setting sun.
After 40 minutes of heavy breathing I finally reach the bushline and reluctantly don my crampons, gloves and ice axe. You’d think escaping the gloomy trees would feel liberating. However, now exposed to the elements, I feel my inner ape becoming apprehensive. 76, 75, 74, 73, 72, 71, 70.
The sun sets and with it so does my machismo. I’m now pulling myself up an icy ridge with a seemingly endless drop mere meters from where my footholds are. Without warning Thor batters down on his anvil once again and the mountains crackle to life. Thunder shakes the valleys, and in that moment I realise I’m the only one in these mountains tonight, 69, 68, 67, 65, 64.
With every bolt I stop and hit the snow in some foolish attempt to evade the laws of physics. Impossibly bright flashes are met with instantaneous explosions of thunder as the lightening sizzles directly overhead. My mind starts to race. I become acutely aware i’m wearing metal spikes on my boots and wielding a giant metal pole. My breathing quickens and my heart begins race. I start rushing; scrambling up the frozen slops. My foothold crumbles and I slip onto my stomach plunging the ice axe into the nearest hold 63, 62, 61, 60, 59.
Over the thumping of my heart I become aware that this is one of those moments where panic will get you killed. I force myself to slow down, resigning to the fact that the lightening is out of my control. I focus on myself and my mental state. Taking a few deep breaths I unclip my pack and take out my GPS to check the distance to the hut.
For some reason, absolutes like this always give me some sense of control. Only 250 vertical meters remaining. ‘You can do that’ I said to myself, with my own voice steadier than expected. 60, 61, 62, 63.
I shouldered my pack and dragged myself up another 100m through the blizzard, stopping only to grab this video to preserve this moment and force a slow down in my mind.
Thor continued beating his anvil and I continued to foolishly hit the deck. I knew only 50 vertical meters remained – perhaps the longest 50 of my life. I dragged my cramping limbs up the last ridge and onto the plateau. There it stood. My saving grace. Brewster Hut! A freezing wooden beacon withheld by the mountains. I plunged forward, dragging myself through the waste deep powder toward the hut. 64, 65, 66, 67, 68, 69, 70. Wrenching the door open I collapsed inside, an icy cocktail of fear and relief flooding my adrenaline-soaked clothes.
I wasted no time getting changed as it was still subzero inside the hut. Hanging my gear on the hooks in the foyer – where it promptly froze solid – I quickly set up my Jetboil and dove into a Backcountry Cuisine Roast Chicken.
The next day I awoke to another world, the dark nightmare of norse gods and frostbite replaced by a vast winter wonderland. Patches of blue sky deliver rays of light from the heavens and I feel calm for the first time since leaving the car. I knew I could get back down, knew it would be nothing after surviving last night and so I packed up my gear and trudged down the trail back to my seat warmers and Kombucha.
As I sit here scribbling this wee tale by the fireplace in my ‘warm’ Cromwell flat, I’m unavoidably confronted by the strangeness of the comfort dichotomy. Whilst this entire trip was essentially a reenactment of Dante’s Inferno, and I really did fear for my life on the side of that mountain, I’ve never felt as alive as I did in those moments I thought were sure to be my last.