This might sound familiar. The dates are locked in, a plan is made. You’ve got a group of friends who are keen to join. Everything is good to go, apart from the weather forecast, which looks like crap.
It can be hard to plan trips in advance, and even more so in winter. Things like fresh snowfall, high avalanche danger and swollen rivers can easily thwart your weekend plans. But with a good dose of flexibility and some last-minute planning, you can let the winter weather add something to your outdoor mission, instead of letting it stop you from adventuring all together.
It was early June last year, and there were eight of us, anxiously looking at topo maps and weather websites. We had planned for a hike and a hike we would do, it was just a matter of watching the snowstorm unfold and picking a place where we could avoid any dangerous avalanche terrain.
Using the Discover the outdoors map on the DOC website, we looked at all the huts with fireplaces nearby, settling on Top Hut in Oteake Conservation Park. The 11km hike on a 4WD road through farmland would normally not have been high on our list, but with more than 20cm of fresh snow we felt it was our best bet.
The drive to Broken Hut Road car park was stunning, with the Lindis Pass looking like a winter wonderland. There’s more than one way to get to Top Hut, but with more snowfall predicted later that day, we opted to stay low and follow Omarama Stream.
Trudging along the muddy track in between the snowy hills wasn’t too exciting, but this quickly changed as soon as we turned left and started climbing. Ankle-deep snow turned into shin-deep, and by the time we made it to the high point of Omarama Saddle at 1,240 metres, we found ourselves in a wee snow blizzard.
Dropping down to the west branch of the Manuherikia River meant we got out of the wind and into a snow-filled valley. Even though we didn’t think it was possible, crossing the river made our feet even colder, but luckily we could already see the hut in the distance and it didn’t take long to get there. Before taking off our frozen boots, we all shuffled in conga style to the toilet and back. This created a nice little gully, which meant we could walk from the hut to the loo without the need for gaiters to keep the snow out of our boots.
With eight of us in the group and eight bunks in the hut, we were happy to find the hut empty. We wasted no time lighting the fire to try and get the inside temperature slightly higher than freezing level. The advantage of a short and easy hike is that you can bring more luxury items, which was proven by the full cheese platter and assorted snacks that came out of our bags.
Being just days away from winter solstice meant daylight disappeared fast, and so with dinner done and dusted and a final sprint to the longdrop, we all quickly retreated to our sleeping bags.
The advantage of a group of our size was that with a block of wood or two per person, we had collectively carried in enough firewood to keep the fire going throughout the night. But even with the fire going, breakfast was still a pretty chilly affair, as we had woken up to a clear blue (and freezing) day.
Despite the clear sky it was still very windy, so we flagged our original plan of taking the Saddle Ridge Track. Instead, we retraced our steps and climbed back up to Omarama Saddle where we were rewarded with glorious sunshine. The blue sky and white wisps of clouds provided us with amazing views as we made our way back down to the main valley, and offered a nice contrast to the whiteout in which we had walked up the day before.
Before we knew it, we were back at the car park, from where we hurried back to Wanaka for some well-deserved hot chocolate and chips. And even though we only walked for a couple of hours on both days, doing a simple out-and-back trip instead of our intended loop over the ridge, we were stoked that we managed to get out to have a mid-winter adventure in the hills.