We spent the first three days of our snowkiting tour in a small hut atop a rounded mountain ridge somewhere in the Crown Ranges vicinity, not far from Snow Farm. I like mountain huts. I like that they give instant access to views and terrain to play on. I like that they are remote and cut off from the complexities of life. I like that you get exposed to all sorts of wild weather conditions that you don’t find down in the valleys. And I like that they cut through all the crap and return you back to what’s important about living: Survival.
To say we stayed in a hut isn’t quite true. We actually stayed in two huts. One was a corrugated tin cylinder, like a can turned on its side, which had beds down either wall, gas-rings and basin at one end, a cast-iron wood stove at the other, and webbing hanging from the ceiling to dry gear in. It was warm, cozy and pretty comfortable. The other was a glorified aluminium shed with three bunks, no heater, and no facilities. There was already a group in the first hut, so we got the second. When we moved in, the door hadn’t been closed properly, and wind-blown snow had caked one interior wall of the place and had to be swept off the floor. When we got up the next morning after spending a night in the place, the snow was still caked over the wall.
Hut life revolves around staying warm, dry, fed and watered. Basic tenets of survival. When we’re working in refugee camps we’re looking at pretty much the same stuff. Shelter, water, food. The huts themselves should provide the shelter. There’s nothing quite like being esconced in your sleeping-bag, listening to a raging windstorm rock the mountain outside. I love it.
Warmth is a bilateral job. If there’s a fire in the hut, then a steady provision of wood (or sometimes, gas cylinders) will do the trick. It’s also up to you to bring the right gear. A good warm sleeping bag. A down jacket. Some good layers. Some hut booties. It’s also a good idea to keep at least one set of clothing dry and for hut use, because there are few things more demoralizing than sitting in a mountain hut, wet and cold and unable to warm up.
Food you pack up with you. You can go from the very basic (dehydrated rations and muesli bars) right through to the gourmet (I once saw a group in a hut preparing sushi rolls), and it depends on what facilities are available and how hard you want to work for it. Water is a more basic mechanism, but luckily in the mountains in winter there’s usually lots of it around. You just have to melt it first. So we keep pots atop the stove, slowly cooking away, and every half hour head out and top them back up with snow we shovel from designated ‘clean’ spots outside.
The other necessity is the toilet, of course. This tends to be the least appealing part of any outdoors trip, never a truer statement than in the mountains in winter. In this case, the toilet was in a standalone stall sheltered behind the huts, caked in snow and ice on the inside, which presented some comfort challenges. Not the worst I have had to use. That award goes to the dunny in the Arrowsmith Ranges behind Christchurch. As well as being a hundred yards away from the hut on its own- unsheltered and a miserable trudge through deep snow in a nighttime blizzard- there was a gap underneath the door through which wind whistled, depositing granular snow into your lap as you were taking care of business. A thoroughly unpleasant experience.
In a perfect world, hut life takes place at the beginning and end of a day. You spend most of the day playing in the mountains, only to return in the evening. Of course, as any mountain traveller knows, the mountains are rarely perfect, and any trip involves down-time when the outdoors simply isn’t a welcoming place. During the trip to the Arrowsmiths, for example, we spent the better part of five days sitting in our cramped mountainside shed, listening to the wind howl as snow flew horizontally past the window, and making the terrain far too dangerous and avalanche-prone for travel. On this trip we were far luckier, and while we had a few hours each day in the hut waiting for the wind to pick up or visibility to rise, we managed to find several hours a day when the wind was just right to get out and do some kiting.
Not that we didn’t get our fair share of feral weather. Most of it came through in the evenings, when howling gale-force winds whipped over the top of our rise, obscuring the ground with blowing snow and ice grains like a sand-blaster. Blizzard-like snow-storms kept us hutbound one morning while wet snow plastered the side of the buildings and we braced ourselves each time we had to step outside to top up the water pots or use the toilet. Eerily serene whiteouts wrapped around the mountains like thick scarves, dulling sound and making faint light scatter until all the texture in the snow vanished, making safe navigation impossible. During those times, we lounged around on bunks, lost in our own thoughts, listening to music, reading books, or making idle chatter, while checking on the weather every few minutes to see if it was changing. It sounds boring, but actually it’s a very simple way to exist, and if you’re prepared for it, it’s really very relaxing.
The weather signalled when it was time to leave, as well. Shifting wind patterns suggested we might be better off on another mountain range, so we prepared to head out on the fourth day. There was no kiting to be had, as the day started with a flat calm and soft, textureless light after a night of snow. The guide and I decided to skin out along a cross-country ski trail while the rest of the group waited to see if the wind would pick up. For the first hour or so we crossed the undulating landscape, trying not to lose the path where the wind and snow had covered old tracks. It’s good honest work that breaks a sweat, and I was down to rolled-up sleeves and bare arms, when we paused for a break and a few small flakes of snow started to drift from the sky. The wind gusted, a chill settled, and all of a sudden, the weather had changed. Within three or four minutes we were bracing ourselves against driving snow and powerful blasting wind. It wasn’t a big problem- we rugged up and slogged on- but it was a reminder of just how fierce the mountains can be- even in relatively safe, low terrain. I love it. Wouldn’t hang out anywhere else.