Saturday, February 5, 2011

Milford Track, Day Two: Clinton Hut to Mintaro Hut (16.5km)

To the surprise of no one, likely (least of all me), the hut was full of snorers last night. I was well-prepared with my in-ear headphones, iPod, and Goldfrapp dance remixes of "Fly Me Away" and "Strict Machine".

My bunk (top left-hand side)

Sunrise at Clinton Hut

Clinton River in the morning

By the time Brian, Dan, and I left Clinton Hut at 7:30am most of our fellow trampers had already cleared out; apparently everyone was taking Ranger Peter's weather forecast to heart, and wanted to be up at Mintaro Hut before the rain started to pour down. The start of today's 16.5km walk had us continuing to follow the Clinton River upstream, passing through lush forest (I started counting the number of different fern species I could see along the trail; according to Peter, there are over fifty different ones). Near the 5-mile post (the Milford Track is marked in mile posts, measuring the distance from Glade House) we passed by Clinton Forks, which used to be the site of the first hut for independent trampers; the river gradually changed course and eroded the site. All that remains is a private DOC ranger residence, and a toilet.

Smile, Dan!

The old hut site... as you can see, the
erosion hasn't left much room!

Clinton River at the old hut site

Along the track I also saw one of the old ceramic insulators that used to support the telephone wire along the Milford Track; before the adoption of radios as a primary means of communication between the huts, a telephone line used to run the entire length of the Milford Track. As you can imagine, with all the constant windstorms, heavy rain, and tree falls, it was a nightmare to keep working.

Ceramic insulator

The farther we headed up the valley, the more incredible the scenery became; sheer cliffs rose up on either side of us, with ribbon-thin waterfalls snaking down their sides for hundreds of metres. One of the more spectacular ones was the 420m Hirere Falls, where the water actually disappears into a hole in the side of the mountain before emerging once again thirty metres or so lower.

Hirere Falls

St. Quintin Falls

Farther up the valley, the trees thinned as we entered another wetland area, and the newfound spaciousness afforded us our first view of Mackinnon Pass, which we will be crossing over tomorrow, and a tiny speck of a hut that was the Mackinnon Pass Day Shelter. Directly ahead of us, the track split into two: to our left was "Hidden Lake", created by a large slip in 1982, and straight ahead was the main track. Regretfully, I followed Dan and Brian as they decided to continue on the main track, so I didn't get  a glimpse of Hidden Lake; it did indeed remain hidden to me.

Mackinnon Pass is up there in the clouds!

Breathtaking mountains

The open valley terrain was dotted with many creekbeds, which we crossed over on metal bridges; apparently this area can flood during heavy rain, and during the winter season, the bridges are actually removed because otherwise they would end up washed away down the river. Knowledge of this, along with the significant avalanche risks in the area, helped to further cement in my mind that people who attempt the Milford Track in the wintertime are slightly insane. One of the largest of these bridged (and thankfully dry) riverbeds was Marlene's Creek, which can be quite dangerous after heavy rainfall. Just before it is a simple shelter known as the "Bus Stop", where we caught up to Bruce and Claire having a mid-morning tea break. How I longed to sit down and have a bit of a break myself; I missed the hourly ten-minute breaks we took when I was hiking the Heaphy Track with Sally & Co.

One of the removable A-frame bridges

Remember, don't feed the kea!

Crossing Marlene's Creek

On a bridge. I wouldn't want to be here when
this thing foods after heavy rain!

After crossing Marlene's Creek, the track became narrower and started to climb steadily; the vegetation started to change to taller trees and lush mosses carpeting the ground, due to the area's higher rainfall. High up in the mountain to our left we could see the Pompolona ice field. Passing by the Pomopolona Hut (the second night's stop for guided trampers), the track became even steeper, which was really just adding insult to injury when we thought about how the hikers would be in there enjoying their freshly baked bread and scones while we laboured up the hill behind them.

Lush, green, beautiful vegetation

The steepness of the trail started to take its toll on Brian, and he started to slow down and stop more often (although all things considered, the guy is in his 70s; I thought he was doing amazingly well!). I took advantage of some of these more frequent stops to turn around and take pictures looking down the Clinton Valley, showing how far we've come already.

Looking back down the Clinton River Valley

We came from all the way back there!

The rain clouds were gathering overhead, and a thin mist started to fall around noon; Brian and Dan stopped to put on their raincoats, but I opted not to, figuring we were only a kilometre or so away from the hut. I chose to motor on ahead, promising Brian I would come back and carry his pack for him. As it turns out, the hut was more like 400m away, and by the time I had dropped my pack off and come back for his the two of them had already reached the base of the turnoff of the main track to the hut; nevertheless, I carried his pack up the rest of the hill like I said I would.

Mintaro Hut is located just past the 13-mile post, and is 600m above sea level (most of the 375m we gained today was done in the last hour, I am sure!). The main floor consists of the kitchen/dining areas and two bunk rooms, while upstairs is a loft area with more bunks and mattresses on wooden pallets on the floor under the eaves. Dan, Brian, and I are bunking upstairs, with Dan and I in upper bunks (#27 and #29) and Brian on a pallet on the floor. When we first arrived Dan and I both were concerned for Brian, who was looking worse for wear; he decided to take a nap, and Dan took him up a cup of coffee. Since he didn't want to eat, I insisted Dan put a couple spoonfuls of sugar into the coffee; I figured we needed to get his glucose levels back up again, if even just for a spike so he would have the energy to come downstairs and eat.

Outside Mintaro Hut

The upstairs bunkroom at Mintaro Hut

I had my own lunch (a bagel and cheese) and a cup of tea, and spent the afternoon playing cards with Dan, Mark (a Ph. D student in applied neuropsychology from Melbourne), and Hugh (a recent high school graduate from Melbourne, who coincidentally did a two-month exchange to St. Michael's in Victoria! Weird...). I taught them how to play Thirty-One, and in exchange they taught me President (also called Bastard) and how to play poker, using matchsticks as our betting chips. I ended up winning the poker game, and I had very little idea of what I was doing! Beginner's luck.

View of the cliff face from Mintaro Hut

The rain has been steadily falling since about 2pm this afternoon, and as of 5pm our Ranger, Keri, put up a sign saying we are not allowed to leave the hut due to concerns about high winds and potential flooding in the valley and up the track. At our hut safety meeting tonight after dinner, Ranger Keri outlined the situation for tomorrow: at 7:00am she will receive a weather forecast update via radio from Te Anau, and she will come in and tell us what our course of action will be at 7:30am. The most likely scenario is that we will all leave the hut tomorrow morning as a group, and head up Mackinnon Pass together. Also possible is we will get held over for a day here at Mintaro Hut if the flooding proves too severe to venture out. A third (but somewhat unlikely) option is helicopters will come and fly us over the worst of the flooding, and then we will continue on foot up and over the pass and down to Dumpling Hut. As such, we're a bit of an uneasy bunch this evening, not knowing what tomorrow (or tonight, rather), is going to bring.

We're under cabin arrest!

After Keri's talk I went out on the front deck of the hut to observe the dozens of new waterfalls that have suddenly materialized on the cliff face opposite us; so much rain falls at high altitudes here, and there's nowhere for the water to go over the sheer rock cliffs but down. I got talking to Keri, and volunteered to help her out tomorrow when she guides us over the pass by following up at the back of the group, communicating with her by radio. When I explained that I have lots of radio experience from my job at the BCFDC, she happily accepted. It turns out she has relatives in Gibsons, BC, and Canada is her second favourite place in the world (after NZ, of course). We had a good discussion about the West Coast Trail, and how much Desolation Sound resembles Fiordland.

The same view of the cliff face, now dotted with waterfalls
that arose spontaneously with the advent of the rain.

The wind and rain are starting to pick up, but I'm so tired all I want to do is sleep, rather than worry about tomorrow. Wish us luck!


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