It was 4:50 pm. I stood at 1,385 meters, staring up at the 500 meter scree slope looming over me.
The trail up to Waiau Pass, the second highest point on the Te Araroa, is nestled deep in a high alpine valley surrounded by a bowl of 2,000 meter peaks. The river winding its way through the center of the valley moves languidly eastward before arcing north toward the breathtaking Lake Constance and then Blue Lake, the home of the clearest fresh water on the planet.
I’d begun the day 10 hours earlier with another 500 meter climb, over Traverse Saddle. I moved quickly over the 20 kilometers between the two ascents, only slowing my pace when I reached the overwhelming beauty of the two lakes. From there, I’d eased up the valley soaking in the exquisite splendor of the jagged, snow-dotted peaks, crystal blue water, and cloud-dappled sky.
Now it was time to climb. A dark front had formed and sat threateningly on the western side of the bowl. I cajoled my weary body to take the first steps of the long walk up the imposing wall of loose rock.
My slow pace through the valley had cooled me down from the exertions of earlier in the day. I worked to break down the built up lactic acid that stiffened my abused muscles as I slowly began the climb. The pass itself seemed intent on making that more difficult as the loose scree gave way beneath my feet and sent me slipping and sliding back with each step.
Ten minutes into the climb I’d ascended nearly 100 meters. All traces of stiffness had disappeared and, as my body loosened, so did my mind. My world narrowed to nothing more than the rhythm of the trail. Eyes scanning, legs grinding, arms reaching and then driving my poles deep into the scree.
I was all out as I passed 1,600 meters, pouring myself onto the mountain. By the time I reached the last 100 meters of the climb, I’d lost myself. I was entirely in the moment, focused solely on the next step, simultaneously fatigued and energized, my whole body working mindlessly in invigorating harmony to drive up the mountainside.
I passed 1,800 meters and glanced up to see the steep slope receding casually toward the summit of the pass. As I did, the world came flooding back and I was struck by a odd sense of loss as I realized that the climb had ended.
I reached the top of the pass 50 minutes after I’d started and stood there, basking in the purity of the moment. I took my time savoring the world spread out below me – massive peaks, the winding river, billowing clouds, and seemingly endless miles of empty trail stretched out in either direction – and then crossed over the other side.
That’s it for now. More on the Te Araroa coming soon.