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Hiking Mt. Somers

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If the Mt. Somers hiking trail isn’t one of New Zealand’s “Great Walks,” I’m excited to see what’s made the cut.

We began our hike, or “tramp” in the local lingo, at the Sharplin Falls parking area, near Staveley, about an hour from Christchurch. Our route was Sharplin Falls to the Woolshed Creek Hut (bypassing the Pinnacles Hut), where we’d spend the night, and then to Woolshed Creed parking lot the following day. We met an affable Czech named Jan overnight in the hut, and he graciously provided us a ride back to our car.

Our first day was the longer of the two, with five hours on the trail broken up by a leisurely lunch at the Pinnacles Hut. The morning featured a steep climb up to 800 meters followed by a wonderful jaunt along Boyers Creek. Due to spring runoff, the creek was more like a raging river, taking parts of the track down with it and slowing our progress, but the challenge of hopping from rock to rock along the riverbed with our packs did nothing but add to our enjoyment. We climbed out of the river valley and into the sub-alpine bush above and arrived at Pinnacles Hut for lunch around one o’clock. At our stop there, I learned that the rock formations directly behind the hut (the “Pinnacles”) are home to some excellent sport climbing routes. As I salivated over the lines, I concocted a plan to return with ropes and gear for an extended stay at Pinnacles Hut.

The weather turned worse as we departed the hut, with rain changing to sleet and eventually, snow. We felt two worlds away from our humid morning jumping from around in the creek bed, but again, the journey, and its attendant challenges, are the point. As the weather continued to decline, the terrain eased and we hurried our pace, eager to dry off in front of a fire at our day’s destination. A few hours and several frigid river crossings later, we had arrived, hanging our soggy socks behind a crackling fire.

I’ll reiterate Bill Bryson’s point from A Walk in the Woods: besides the beautiful scenery and physical rewards, hiking’s appeal comes largely from deprivation and then return of basic comforts. As I sit in front of that fire, warming my frozen toes, I felt tremendously fortunate to have simple warmth.

As we patted ourselves on the back for our decision to bring our camping stove, we enjoyed a simple vegetable soup and chatted over tea with our new Czech friend. I discovered that he was also a rock climber in need of a belay partner, so we exchanged contact information and discussed the lines at the crags we’d gawked at on the way in. Tired from our long day fighting the wind on the trail, we turned in early to read a few pages of our book before nodding off to a restful sleep.

We awoke to find our fire burnt out and a strong chill in the air. The hut sat down in a deep valley, so while the sun was shining on the hilltops, it hadn’t yet reached the few inches of snow that accumulated overnight lower down. The cold motivated an early start, so we were on the trail again before eight o’clock. While the signs outside the hut indicated it was a three hour trip to the end of the track, we hustled through it in half that and were back at our car and relaxing in the Staveley Village Store, drinking hot coffee and snacking before 10am. This was backpacking at its most luxurious.

New Zealand’s backcountry huts provide an unprecedented and unequaled level of comfort, especially compared to those I’ve visited in the northeastern United States. They’re equipped with wood stoves and firewood, sleeping mats, sinks with clean running water, and, most importantly, four walls and a roof. The shelters in the United States are simple platforms with leaky roofs, open on one side to the elements and, if you’re lucky, near a running stream or fire pit. New Zealand’s backcountry huts are the Ritz-Carlton to the United States’ Motel 6.

Tickets to stay in one of the country’s extensive system of huts ($15 per person or $120 for an annual pass) are available at Department of Conservation offices, many visitor’s centers, in the general stores at each end of the Mt. Somers Track. The Staveley Village Store is worth a stop anyway for a delicious savory brioche and a cup of coffee after a few snowy and windy days on the trail.

This hike came recommended by a few different guide books (Fodor’s, Lonely Planet), so I had high expectations. Despite (or possibly even because of) the weather, it exceeded all my hopes. The terrain was challenging but not difficult while changing from lush forest to rocky alpine terrain. There were exciting river crossings and comfortable huts spaced relatively close together. At the beginning of December we’re scheduled to hike the Heaphy Track, which is part of the “Great Walks” system. These are the most popular tramps in the country, and come with special (higher) rates and an online booking system. If Mt. Somers didn’t qualify as a “Great Walk,” I’m excited to see what has.

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