Lessons in Trekking

“Listen Spider Legs, I know you want to take giant steps because you can, but you’re using much more energy than you need to and it’s going to wear you out.”

Adventure guide and master trekker C. demonstrated by three-stepping to the top of a tall rock that I would have overtaken in one stride.

“Sometimes you have to take a step back or sideways to find the best route forward.”

“Okay, got it.” I said as a silly ‘I’ve-got-a-crush-on-you-grin’ spread across my rain-spattered face.

It was the last trek on a two-week adventure trip across the South Island of New Zealand with a group of 10 accompanied by two guides.

C. was leading four of us up the Mueller Hut Route in Aoraki/Mt. Cook National Park; the other six had turned back after catching views of the nearby glacier about halfway up the trail.

Mueller Glacier hike
Glacial views in Aoraki Mt Cook National Park, New Zealand

When I left New York five months earlier, I was certain I needed to spend more time outside the concrete jungle where life may be wild but the air is never fresh. I was a longtime city girl with an aversion to insects and a fondness for indoor plumbing. And yet, I secretly longed to become an intrepid nature lover who could climb craggy peaks and kayak across expansive fjords. New Zealand seemed the perfect place to discover if mountainous mettle percolated in my blood for several reasons, including its abundance of relatively low-altitude peaks and mountaineering men with charming accents.

I arrived wearing a pair of hiking boots I had purchased in Hawaii just two weeks earlier. I broke them in tramping across lava rocks and sandy hills. Not being the usual Hawaiian footwear, I did get a few strange glances. And one evening a rather swarthy parks department employee asked me if I happened to be a fellow ranger… because who else would show up at the beach for a sunset walk in hiking boots?

After filling every crevice with sand and mud, I scrubbed them with a toothbrush to make it through customs at the Auckland airport before connecting to Christchurch.

Kiwi Center Poster
“Public Enemies” of the kiwi bird at the West Coast Nature Centre in Franz Josef

I later learned that clean gear helps protect New Zealand’s native wildlife, which has already been bullied by centuries of both invited and unwelcome guests large and small. Well, sure, my boots were unlikely to harbor a small kiwi-eating mammal like a stoat (see Exhibit A: Public Enemies), but a spec of dirt in the nooks could carry alien micro-fugitives waiting to be let loose in the Islands’ waterways.

Once I landed, my boots didn’t stay clean for long. An adventure trip is, after all, an adventure trip. I spent two weeks tramping—up and down mountains, along rocky lakesides, into glacial valleys and through damp rainforests. So, by the time we reached the Mueller ridge, my feet felt gloriously at home in their new kicks.

Cold morning - Angelus Circuit
Geared up on the trails of New Zealand

And, I was keeping pace well enough for someone whose lack of outdoor prowess elicited at least one Wild joke from my more proficient trail-mates and a few needed lessons in hiking and gear from our patient guides. I had even adapted the Kiwi way of wearing long underwear with shorts. They insist this approach is not for fashion (clearly), but offers the best chance of staying warm even if you get wet on the trail.

The trip had been filled with stunning landscapes, but the sites from the Mueller ridge were magnificent. The park’s notoriously fickle weather conducted a dramatically orchestrated play that seemed to illustrate the island’s geologic history. C. had explained how glaciers form landscapes on various walks and long bus rides, but I have always been a poor student when it comes to earth sciences. Looking down and around from the Mueller ridge it all suddenly made sense. One moment all seemed grey, and the next, rods of sunlight perforated the cloud layer to illuminate streams and lakes tinted milky teal with glacial flour—silt created by the long slow dance of glacier against rock.

Mueller Glacier hike
The views at Aoraki Mt Cook National Park illustrate New Zealand’s glacial-filled natural history.

We were working hard to get up the mountain in our sturdy boots and appropriate gear when a string of teenage girls in short shorts and sneakers bounded past us like gazelles. ‘Not much further!’ they promised, laughing lightly as they flew down the mountain. I was momentarily stricken with envy for their bravado and the tensile knees of their youth.

Not much further up the trail, the temperature and the rain fell more steadily. We stopped to pull on rain pants and jackets and then quickened our feet to reach the hut.

The Mueller Hut ahead in Aoraki/Mt. Cook National Park, New Zealand

Following hut courtesy, we left our boots in the vestibule before heading into the main room to enjoy lunch. It is amazing how delicious an otherwise ordinary sandwich tastes after you’ve climbed 1000 meters and made a dash over rocky, wet terrain.

The building standing now is actually the fifth Mueller hut… the first through fourth having met various ends from deterioration to avalanche. New Zealander and world-famous mountaineer Sir Edmund Hillary christened the fifth iteration in 2003. Fifty years earlier Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay became the first men to top Mt. Everest, the summit of which is at 8,800 meters (29,000+ feet). 8,800 meters! And there I was quite pleased with my city-girl self for reaching just 1,800 meters in time for lunch.

After lunch, we started the steep trek down, spying ribbons of glacial blue through gaps in the clouds below.

Mueller Glacier hike
Heading down the trail from the Mueller Hut in Aoraki/Mt. Cook National Park, New Zealand

Looking back at my travel journal from those two weeks, I found a passage that recorded a conversation I had with a fellow trekker and free spirit:

Another day filled with amazing landscapes and good company. It seems hard to believe this trip will come to an end in four days time. Tonight at dinner, CW said it was difficult to imagine me living in a city because I seem so at home in the outdoors. So, I’ve confirmed then on this leg of travel that the outdoors suits me.  I told her that I know now I need balance… some cosmopolitan with easy access to nature.

After the Mueller Hut Route, I wrote:

I can no longer imagine returning to New York. It seems impossible to go back to that life. I need nature, action, the freedom to explore.

I should have skipped to the end page and added: “Reminder to self in six months. Please avoid being seduced by work opportunities in NYC and remember that you want to be an intrepid mountain climber and crosser of fjords (in addition, of course, to being an avid scuba diver). Relocation is likely necessary.

But, I didn’t. And I was lured back to the shiny city; I took a big easy step to the top of a tall rock because it seemed it must be time to stop being a nomad and start working again.

I do still love many things about NYC… the cocktails, the food, the arts, the grit, the opulence, and most of all, my people. But the world! There is so much out there. Fifteen years in one city and counting… It seems a lot considering the relative shortness of life and the even shorter duration of one’s knee joints.

Living in the city again I remember how much care is required expend energy in ways that won’t leave you too exhausted to enjoy the views. I’m considering smaller steps for the next move… a few to the side, maybe one back, but eventually I’ll get to the sweet spot with more balance.

In the meantime, the mountain views in my memory serve as good incentive. As we continued down the trail that day, the weather presented its second act. The rain stopped and the sun brought new dimension to the mountains and the valley floor below. Standing on the ridge, we were both above and below the clouds, making clear the height we had accomplished and the length of the journey yet to go.

Mueller Glacier hike
Aoraki/Mt. Cook National Park, New Zealand
Mueller Glacier hike – Version 2
Lakes tinted with glacial flour in Aoraki/Mt. Cook National Park, New Zealand

More Photos: New Zealand photo gallery.

8 thoughts on “Lessons in Trekking

  1. Stunning! It is both easy and hard to go back to normal life after an adventure like the one you had in New Zealand. And it is easy to ignore your past self, even when they leave you warnings.


  2. Great story Chris, Are you ready for some adventures in Cornwall ? We,ve just been swimming with seals and kayaking near Lands End no guide just four friends having a blast !


      1. Yes come in the Spring – May/ June are the best months! Also like to talk about visiting you in NY? xxx


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