19th July 2009 Lewis Tops In The Snow


 It’s Sunday morning, 5am. I’m up.

Everything is ready, prepared the night before. I’ve been awake since 4.30am in anticipation. I give Vick a quick hug and a kiss, and slip out of bed.

I down a quick breakfast of toast and tea, fill the thermoses, brush teeth, say good bye and I’m off.

Hardly any traffic as I drive out of Christchurch

heading north towards the Lewis.

 Cold, dark, half asleep and overcast, it’s a fairly quick two and a half hours as I watch the sun rise in my rear-vision-mirror. Watching the landscape as I speed through the mountains to see whether the cloud cover is lifting as the forecast had promised. By the time I reach my destination at the top of the Lewis pass it’s snowing lightly and the grit trucks are busy up and down the road.

  It’s still dark.

 Another breakfast, this time a hot cuppa and some cereal, a last toilet stop at the St James Walkway car park then back in the car. Another two hundred metres up to the pass where I have to negotiate the four by four access track to the Lewis Tops Track car park. It takes several runs at it with some tricky foot work but eventually I coax the Windom up the mud and ruts and park with an inch deep stream flowing under the car.

 It’s still snowing.

 No one else around except the banging and scraping grit trucks and after a final gear check I set off…despite the cloud cover… and the snow. I figure I may as well go as far as the bushline, which here is only about an hours walk up the ridge through beech forest. I’m hopeful the weather will clear as predicted so will reassess things once I hit the snowline.

  I’m surprised at how much puffing I’m doing on the upward trek. I’ve got a new light weight pack!! Perhaps I expected it to allow me to fly? Anyhow, I make frequent stops to catch my breath and prevent a heart attack. I tell myself it’s a safety thing as I scratch my name and the time in the snow… for the possible rescue party. All a bit Hansel and Gretel so I traipse on up huffing and puffing and stopping and scratching and wondering about the weather and whether anybody else has beaten me up here.

 Now I’m a competitive Hansel and Gretel!?

  I do notice some old boot prints here and there but nothing fresh this morning. Eventually after just 45 minutes I stop for a breather… and promptly fall over into a great mound of soft snow. I figure I must be close to the bushline and blow me down if it isn’t five feet around the next corner.

 Time for a gear change.

 It’s still snowing only now I’m up here I realise how thick the cloud cover is and just how little I can see. On with the new toys…snow shoes! Yay! I experience a happy moment. A wee nibble and I’m off. Snow shoes don’t seem to be working too well; I’m sinking about a foot into very soft powdery snow!??

 I stop, fall, thrash about, regain my composure and push the ice-axe into the soft stuff. It disappears up to its head so I guess the snow shoes are helping after all but it’s not what I was expecting and it’s hard work.

By the time I reach the ridgeline and the first snow pole marker I’ve slipped, fallen, skidded and built up a small bank of profanities and sweat. The snow is firmer here with more ice patches giving the snow-shoes better purchase, and the wind is picking up. I look around and can vaguely make out the next marker pole which promptly submerges back into the white gloom. It looks as though the poles simply follow the obvious incline of the ridge upwards. So even though I can’t make out any features more than a few metres in any direction, I decide to continue in the hope of it clearing as I go.

 It doesn’t.

  Before long I’m well up on the ridge which has flattened a little but the wind is now a bitter and spitefull freezing cold gale intent on driving minute ice crystals right through the exposed skin of my face. I stop and put on the neoprene facemask I last used in a minus twenty Chicago. That’s better. Warm and toasty… until I move off. The exertion quickly brings to my attention that I can no longer breath.

  Off with the face mask. Think my face may fall off.

 Surprisingly I find some ski tracks along the tops so I decide to follow them. I’m unsure how old they are but they seem to be going my way and they form the only “landmark” and make me feel less exposed. After a while the ski tracks disappear and so does everything else. I am surrounded in a white void with no distinction between what is snow covered mountain or snow laden cloud. I can no longer see where the mountain ends and the sky begins. What’s more I cannot distinguish the terrain even a few feet in front of me. Is it slopping up or down? Is it flat, or is there a wall right in front of me? Worse still is there a huge drop right beneath my feet? It is a bizarre feeling, like being inside a white dream.

I decide to dig a hole and wait it out over an early lunch. I slide a few metres down the snow bank out of the gale and start digging. What a relief to be out of that wind! In just a few minutes I have a nice little dugout big enough to sit in with my pack off and in front of me, however I’m still getting a constant sprinkle of spindrift snow. Within minutes of sitting I’m covered in the stuff and my sandwich looks like it’s just been prized from the freezer.

 Out comes the mini thermos all full of hopes and cheer and spirit warming hot soup. Off comes the lid, up goes the thermos, out comes the soup… the heart warming roast chicken and vegetable soup…out comes the soup…out co…closer inspection, sinking jaw-line and plummeting spirits reveal my soup has indeed congealed into a luke-warm mass of noodle and ever present carrot, and is not coming out.

I am left alone in my snow hole in my white dream to contemplate where the soup and I went wrong. And now I’m starting to get very cold. My gloves have been off and on throughout my digging and lunch stop and my fingers are now approaching that really painful stage as hot and cold blood re-mix.

 No time to sit here, I take a few souvenir photos, not my best work but it’s freezing and I’m slowly being buried. Down seems to be the best option in the present circumstances… now… which way was it??

 I had cleverly made foot prints behind me so now all I had to do was retrace them. Unfortunately I couldn’t see them!! What had been a relatively clear trail to follow back was now imperceptible as were any features or landmarks. I had the general feeling of which way the ridge was going and of course! The wind! As long as that was behind my left shoulder I was heading in the right direction, so off I went. Ah warmth again!

 It’s amazing how different things can seem in reverse. I might as well have been covering totally new terrain and not ground I’d trodden only an hour or so before. Nothing looked the same; even my carefully scratched direction arrows were gone. No foot prints, ski tracks, nothing. With the help of the wind I made my way back to the slope leading down to the bushline and the deep soft snow.

 It was much easier going on the downhill journey.

At the bushline I remove my snowshoes and am surprised to discover footprints. Two sets. Further investigation of my snowy realm reveals two packs and two snowboard or ski bags sheltering beneath some nearby beech trees just off the trail. But no skiers. I can make out that the owners of the said bags also have snow shoes. I can see their tracks follow mine up from the car park through the bush but strangely there are none leading away up the mountain. I put this down to the still falling snow. After even further investigation I reason that the two skiers have come up some time after me in the morning ditched the surplus gear, donned snow-shoes and taken their skis with them for some snow fun of their own. The odd thing I realise is that at some point I must have passed within metres of them during the white-out and never detected their presence!

 Never-the-less, with the who-dunnit solved I make my way slip, sliding, cursing and generally having a ball all the way back to the car and a reviving cup of hot tea with honey, YUM.

It’s still snowing and as I get changed into something more comfortable a 4x4 stops and the youthful occupants jump out, run about throwing snowballs, knock over the snowman and leave.

 The grit trucks are still banging and scraping along the road as I head home a very tired but happy chappy.

  The Lewis Tops Snow Trip will have to wait for another weekend.