With going out every weekend, it becomes a challenge for us to find something new to do. So it’s Saturday around lunchtime and we still haven’t come up with a plan in the confounding weather pattern showing rain north of Christchurch and further inland near the main divide with a lovely Sunday forecast.


By now we only have about 5 hours to pack, drive and walk into a hut. How about the hut up the Kowai near Porter’s Pass? And shall we go to the Torlesse Gap and then onto Castle Hill Peak as I’ve never done this logical circuit which is a satisfying plod to the usual alternative from Porter’s Pass. All agreed so we pack and I ask Frank to take his bowsaw as although firewood is scarce at the John Hayward Memorial Hut, there are often large unusable lumps languishing in the woodshed.


We drive to the Big Pine carpark. Oh oh – possible bogans ensconced in the roadman’s hut opposite. So Frank parks the car behind a tree hoping for some camouflage. Next up, there are 4 vehicles here. Could this mean the Kowai hut is well occupied? Finally the gate is locked so we’ll need to ford the little tributary instead of driving though. Frank goes for a sortie and tells me there’s no dry crossing option so I leave my runners on to spare my plastic climbing boots from getting wet.


After a fruitless lead through head-high broom we discover stepping stones at the ford so I stash my shoes in a plastic bag, hidden in a cairn for our return. We travel up the river in one and a half hours, slower than usual but we’re in no hurry. We think we can smell smoke sometimes and finally at the crossing of the Kowai just short of the hut, we can confirm there are definitely people there.


I’m ahead and push open the door to be greeted by the fug of marijuana and blokes with camo gear. Probably not hunters just wannabees. They confirm the hut is full so I say, “that’s OK. We’ll camp further up the valley”, and tell Frank the news. He recalls a copse of beech trees above the river on a mossy terrace on the way to the Gap so we wander off in the increasing gloom to check this out. He investigates a gently sloping spot under a large beech tree and I choose this over camping in a flat open mossy spot as it may be a frosty night.The tree will reduce infra red heat loss and keep us warmer and the tent drier. Frank has to lug it over the mountain tomorrow so I’m thinking of him too…


There’s unlimited dead standing dry beech with one big low branch over where we think we’ll pitch the tent. I climb the tree and walk out on the branch till it suddenly snaps off. We locate a great bunch of rocks to be our fireplace as well. Frank goes down to the stream to fetch 4L of water, leaving me to decide exactly where and how to pitch the tent as I’m more particular than he about this. The eons of cow shit and beech litter have made a soft duff for us to sleep on. Any lumpy stuff gets kicked aside. It’s well dry, thank goodness.


We construct our fireplace and little rock seats beside it. I start off hot water for drinks on the pocket rocket and home-dehydrated bean stew with quinoa heating up gently on the alchohol burning pepsi can stove. I’ve taken both stoves because there’s only 36g of gas left in the canister and the alcohol is free - from empty canister wipes at the hospital. Frank gets a fire going and I shift the dinner onto this. Surprisingly, the stew doesn’t catch.


9.30 pm. I’m off to bed cozy in my down pants, wrap around down hood and thin down jacket. The plump down jacket is serving as my pillow but I have a light down bag. The idea is that the extra warm clothing will keep me toasty warm in the evening and compensate for the light bag. Frank mentions his feet are cold but I had a better possie by the fire and with all my gear it’s been a pleasant evening. He soon joins me as the tent is warm enough for him. Still I need to crank up the hood and neck muff to avoid cooling down. That is when I’m not having my 40 minute cycle of hot flushes!


In the morning I rise and rejuvenate the fire to burn off the remnants of partially burnt wood. I exhaust my fingers with the lighter trying to melt around and expose the wick of a candle stub, eventually being unable to get more than a spark so I cheat and light the pocket rocket to set a piece of inner tube aflame. We only have a litre of water left but it’s enough for our breakfast – just.


We’re off by 10.30 am. OK, so we’re Christchurch people and we need to catch up on our sleep though menopause beats aftershocks hands-down when it comes to a rotten night’s sleep. Frank leads as he’s been here more, has the maps and anyway remembers the terrain better than me. We traverse on the terrace on the true-left, eschewing the river bed. I think on previous trips I’ve travelled in the riverbed but apart from one brief push through dracophyllum when I have unvoiced doubts, this is definitely the smart route.


Frank crosses the stream and looks as though he’s heading up the hill onto a terrace. I suggest we grab some water for the day and bring enough for us both. He only has 600 ml or so and I have twice that. Well, my pack is so much lighter. I could do with a handicap and will be happy to share if he decides he needs more to drink. He’s carrying more than 20kg for this mid-winter climb but I suspect I’m only carrying around 11 kg.


He heads for scrub and I choose to go up along the terrace edge as I think it will be more open. I get ahead but it’s probably due to my lighter pack. I stop at a logical view point and scoff a potato chowda snack. Half of it spills on the ground as the bottom of the bag suddenly splits open. I’m busy retrieving nuts and raisins when he catches up. We set off and soon there’s another gap between us so I intermittently stop and wait. He comments that this spur bypasses the Gap but who minds, we'll get directly to the summit.


It’s an enjoyable ascent as it feels like we’re doing proper climbing on the interesting, brittle rocky terrain but there’s no exposure as it gently climbs on a well rounded face. Eventually we get to the final 200m of fist-sized talus hidden by fluffy, greasy snow. This is worse than scree as I can’t choose where to plant my boot in the most stable placement. I’m slipping over and the wind is buffeting me sideways with gusts. We go very slowly, I'm leaning on my ice-axe and walking stick, finally approaching the summit trig around 3pm. We’ve had no lunch so I’m looking forward to a sunny stop on top for this and to take in the great views of the limestone country further west crowned by the Craigieburn Range.


But when I climb over the mini-cornice, the wind is blasting, so down the ridge I run, seeking shelter and leaving Frank behind. Thank goodness the ridge is smooth and easy to run down. I’d hate to be up here in these conditions on exposed terrain. Finally the wind drops and I hunker down to take off my pack, put on my down jacket, overmitts and my down hood. But it’s only a short break between gusts and one polar-fleece glove breaks free from the gear loop and flies off down the ridge. I go to catch it, but it’s gone and the wind is furious again so I climb up the ridge to my more sheltered spot and put on 2 polypropylene gloves to replace the lost glove (which cost $2.50! from the cheap Chinese shop).


Frank comes along and passes me, also in a hurry to drop to a less windy altitude. At times the now well compressed trail skirts on the lee side of the ridge. I'm impressed that people came up here in these conditions. I adjust clothing accordingly. The hood’s doing a fantastic job of protecting my face from the wind but at times almost obscuring my vision. I catch up to Frank and at the summit of Foggy Peak, we get a chance to talk. He’d wisely stopped in the lee for 6 minutes for a pee before the trig and enjoyed the view. Castle Hill basin looks very green with glittering silver water catching the weakening sunlight.


We’re both keen to get to Porter’s Pass before dark so we descend as quick as we can in our plastic boots, now on scoria-like scree trails. It takes less than an hour to drop the 800m to the pass. A vehicle has been there for a while and as we approach we see 3 young hunters loading up the boot. They are startled as we apperar out of the dusk but offer us a ride down to the Big Pine carpark. We can’t believe our luck.


Frank had psyched himself up for the road walk and we had been just about to shelter and change into more comfortable light footwear for the final 4km trek down the road. It’s been a 7 hour day so we’re glad to get back to the car and enjoy drinks and some food. Frank has a headache and we’ve only drunk about half our water. He says, “why did I agree to do this circuit?” but he says it with a smile.