By Nic Low (Ngāi Tahu)
I have always loved winter in the mountains. But I have learned that love can give you a confidence that you haven't earned. Winter can be a threat.
On a lonely Sunday in July, at the head of Takapō (Lake Tekapo), 30km north of Aoraki, I locked my car and set off up the Godley Valley on skis. Ahead of me lay a long glacial corridor, cutting between snow-smoothed peaks and raw black cliffs.
All summer and autumn, and now into winter, I'd been retracing the old Ngāi Tahu routes through the Alps for my book, Uprising. Here in Te Manahuna (the Mackenzie Basin), an area under the mantle of three of our tribal bases, Arowhenua, Moeraki and Waihao, I'd heard rumours of an old trail connecting Takapō with Ōkārito. It wound through a wonderland of glaciers to Sealy Pass, then out to the West Coast at Whataroa. Māori implements have been found at the snout of the Godley Glacier. Oral history said: "You watched a peak and went by its signs. Fog on one side meant you could get through; fog on the other side warned you not to attempt to cross the pass."
Today, the warning signs were hard to miss: sleek UFOs of cloud massing above the outer ranges. That meant an incoming nor'west storm. I wouldn't attempt a solo crossing in those conditions, especially in the dead of winter. But I did want to scout the route for a summer mission with friends. I set off with a light heart.
Not far from Lilybank Station, one of my ski bindings broke with a metallic ping. Vexed, I ditched the skis and continued on foot. A brutal wind sprang up in my face. Te Hau-kai-takata, we call the nor'wester: the wind that devours people. Rounding the corner at Kea Point, I found that the mountains had been erased. A white void stretched from valley to sky. The storm had breached the Divide and was heading my way.
I sheltered for the night at nearby Red Stag Hut. Sitting inside reading, I saw someone flash past outside the window.
I stood abruptly. "Hello?"
Who the hell would be out there, now? Standing outside, calling into the darkness, I received no reply. Then I saw a faint shimmer in the direction of the pass. The great tohunga Teone Taare Tikao called that kapo, lightning flickering across the horizon. In the old days it was considered an omen. But I couldn't remember what it was an omen of.
In the morning I tore a contact lens. Grumbling, I flicked it away into the snow and put my glasses on. My gaiters had somehow disappeared in the night. When I set off, the entire surface of the valley, more than a kilometre across, lifted off in a gust and swarmed towards me like a cavalry charge. I whooped, and turned away at the last minute, ice and snow blasting against my back. I pushed on into the whiteout. For hours I wandered among the bones of dead glaciers.
That night at Godley Hut, again I saw a faint flickering light through the window. I went out into the falling snow to watch the kapo rippling about the Divide. I smiled. Lightning like that was probably a bad omen, if you believed in that sort of thing. But the weather forecast said things would improve. I wanted to wander across the frozen glacier lake to the foot of the pass.
Dawn was brutally cold, the air crystalline. Deep blue sky arched above snowy ranges tipped with gold. I lived for these days. But as soon as I set off, my way was barred. The lake hadn't frozen. Decaying moraine cliffs on either side sent down a continuous barrage of rockfall. Undeterred, I climbed the range to the east, and traversed high above the lake on firm snow, gazing across at the inviting dip of Sealy Pass. Hours later I descended to camp on a small isthmus in the lake itself.
A snarling wind woke me in the small hours, roaring across the glacier, threatening to blow me into the lake. I zipped up my bivvy bag and shivered, feeling solitude turn to threat. And yet, when I rose before dawn, I gave myself permission to check out the approach to the pass. I'd already come this far.
The higher I climbed, the more the southerly intensified. It shoved me in the face, scoured my skin with ice. My glasses fogged, so I took them off. Blinded, I moved out from a gully into the Neish Icefall to avoid avalanche risk, and worked my way up steeper ice on front points. The tougher the going, the more determined I became. A little higher, see what I can see.
Finally, near the top of the ice fall, the angle decreased, and I was back on low-angle snow. Sealy Pass was close. So much for warning signs. It looked like I was crossing to the West Coast after all. Maybe that had been my plan all along.
I took two more steps. The steel points of my crampons bit into solid ice beneath the snow. Good. Another step. My crampon sank in without meeting any resistance. I swore aloud. I'd committed my weight to a thin layer of snow, resting on ice. A crack formed under my boot.
Slab avalanche, I thought.
I had time to dive to my left. The slope liquified.
And then Kā Tiritiri-o-te-moana – those great and fearsome ancestors, come from the heavens and turned to stone – hurled me from their sight.
It's a strange thing, being caught in an avalanche. How you believe you are in control, and then the world goes dark and you enter freefall, and your intentions amount to nothing.
I'm not sure how I survived. In the weeks that followed I obsessed over terrain, weather, decision psychology, heuristic bias. But the real problem was that I couldn't comprehend the tohu, the signs and omens, of the mountains themselves.
Rationally that meant I had failed to truly acknowledge and respond to the avalanche danger. Spiritually that meant I had failed to align myself with the governing atua, the spirits of wind and storm. Practically, they amounted to the same thing. I discovered that in the old days, kapo at a mountain pass was an omen of accident or death.
But now, looking back, I see that, spiritually, there was something bigger at stake.
Winter can be a threat. But I have come to realise that I am more of a threat to winter. The signs I missed had nothing to do with my own life. They were telling me that winter is dying.
My route once travelled kilometres across intact glaciers. I had crossed a bomb-site of rubble and craters and collapsing cliffs left by vanished ice. Even in the dead of winter the glacier lake still hadn't frozen. Our beloved Alps – spiritual home of Kiwi trampers and mountaineers, Ngāi Tahu's oldest physical ancestors – are falling apart.
The area around Takapō is a Dark Sky Reserve, created to preserve something it seems unfathomable that we could lose. But darkness is endangered. Eighty per cent of the world's land is so light-polluted that its inhabitants can't see the Milky Way.
If we merely hope for the best, I can imagine a time when winter will need that same protection. We'll reminisce about when Aoraki had ice or when we went tramping in a blizzard or sat by a roaring fire while frost settled outside, and our kids will roll their eyes. We'll take them for holidays in Winter Reserves, and they'll fiddle around in little pockets of snow and wonder what the fuss was all about.
Uprising: Walking the Southern Alps of New Zealand, by Nic Low (Text Publishing, $40), is out now.