By now, I know better than to assume that any hike in NZ will be leisurely, but Avalanche Peak definitely sends me off to the North Island with an intense yearning for flat ground and a renewed hatred for steep descents.
All the details: Avalanche Peak
Getting there: Drive to Arthur’s Pass Village, about 90 minutes NW of Christchurch Airport. There’s a free campsite on the river nearby where you might spend the night to position yourself closer to the hike, and it’s only a very short drive from here to Klondyke Corner (the end of the trail). I’d recommend parking here and then hitchhiking to the start of the trail, which is only 8km away in Arthur’s Pass Village. It’s completely safe to hitchhike, and the locals are accustomed to hikers on the side of the road!
Where to stay: Stay in the isolated Crow Hut on a first-come, first-served basis. There are only 10 spots available, so try to arrive early in the afternoon to guarantee yourself a bunk. Buy a Standard Hut Ticket in advance for $5 and leave this in the designated box upon arrival at the hut (honour system).
Length of walk: This hike has a number of variations, but when taking the Crow River Route, this is a 2-day trek involving 6 hours on the first day and 4 hours on the second.
Difficulty: This is a rather strenuous hike, with several hours of steep climbing to reach Avalanche Peak, followed by an hour or so of moderate hiking to reach the scree field. At this point, you’ll descend for over an hour on loose scree, which is challenging even for reasonably experienced hikers and certainly the most troublesome part of the trek. Do not attempt this on your own unless you’re extremely confident, as it would be all too easy to roll your ankle or break your leg and be stuck until another party came by. On the second day, the hike out is thankfully quite leisurely by comparison.
Best time to hike: This trek is best enjoyed in summer (Dec-Feb), as ice or snowfall will make the scree field extremely unsafe.
Top tips: Try and keep the weight in your pack to a minimum on this trek— it’s already challenging enough to make the near vertical hike to the Peak and navigate your way down the scree field, but a bulky pack will make it all but impossible to stay upright on the loose rock.
Though it’s been summer in New Zealand all this time, the weather only just seems to have caught on, so we begin our crazy upwards climb in sweltering heat and direct sunlight, a combination I would never have elected for, if the weather had been kind enough to actually ask what I wanted. In a number of hours, we reach Avalanche Peak and sit on the summit to eat lunch. There are a few other hikers eating next to us, everyone in high spirits after having made it to their destination. Despite not having yet arrived at our final destination of the day, I am also in high spirits, since the worst heat is over and our path looks delightfully level from here.
After hiking off from the peak, it becomes clear that the trail to Crow Hut, our lodging for the evening, is not, in fact, a trail at all. We are just randomly picking our way over rocks and across rocky fields in the general direction of our destination. This continues for some time, before I grow concerned that we actually have no idea where we are. Sadly, we eventually orient ourselves and we are indeed going the right way, so now I am concerned that the “right way” is actually a trap. This suspicion mounts as our directions take us to the edge of a cliff and point us downwards.
For the first hour, it feels almost fun to skate and ski on small rocks down the face of this cliff, but by hour two, my suspicions return and I start to feel like there’s no way we interpreted these directions correctly. Surely the DOC wouldn’t endorse this sort of trail, there’s a greater chance of dying than actually making it to the bottom. Further investigation of the directions confirms that the DOC did not endorse this route, and we are actually just following the instructions of some rogue hikers, clearly with a death wish.
Despite too many close calls to count, we make it to the base of the hill after several hours and a lot of bleeding. The first thing Cal and I do is strip off our hiking clothes and sit in the icy creek, trying to numb some of the scrapes and bruises. The rest of the journey to Crow Hut is reasonably flat, but certainly not on flat ground. Exhausted, we crawl slowly across huge boulder fields and through pokey scrub, nearly resigned to just dying in the wilderness. By the time we make it to the hut, where 2 other hikers are cooking dinner, we understand why this hut is so much less crowded than all the others we have visited on this trip.
After eating, I feel a bit better about the hike, like maybe it was a little bit worth it, but it takes several days of recovery before I can outwardly admit anything positive about the experience. Now, in the bloody-wound-free comfort of the car, I can happily recommend this hike to anyone, and the scree field of death feels like a distant memory that I must have exaggerated in my mind.