02/01/11 - Milford Track
Day 3: 10.5 miles (17 km) from Mintaro Hut to Dumpling Hut (with a side trip out to Sutherland Falls)
A metal plate crashed to the ground like an alarm going off. It was just before 7 A.M. and suddenly everyone was out of bed and moving about. Everyone except us. We felt no need to extract ourselves from our warm bunks, so we laid there like slugs. I'd had a decent night’s sleep, but sadly, Katie suffered the same fate I had the night before. Her slumber was filled with tossing and turning and she hadn’t gotten the rest she needed. Poor thing.
As a result of our lackadaisical attitude, we were the second to last group to leave that morning – and the group behind us passed us early on the trail! Yep, we were dead last, but did we care? No way. It just meant we’d enjoy the trail longer than anyone else!
It was cloudy and chilly as we began our immediate ascent to Mackinnon Pass. It’s funny what sleep can do for your body; my legs and feet felt strong with only minor aches and pains.
Right away Katie grabbed a branch from the discarded remains of a tree and used it as a walking stick. I decided to head upward without one, though I did strap a stick to my pack for future use on the way down. We climbed and climbed and climbed, navigating the switchbacks carefully. Even though we took our time, the walk went by quickly. The tall forest gave way to smaller vegetation, then low shrubs, and finally grass. We were above the tree line, standing level with a glacier hanging off the craggy side of a mountain.
Clouds floated by casually, slowly meandering across the peaks, and we were grateful they hadn't given up a drop. When we crested the mountain the first thing we spotted was the Mackinnon Memorial standing proudly on the ridge. Once we reached it the view beyond opened up and we were awestruck. A row of rugged peaks created a brutal skyline like the edge of a jagged knife. Forever below were rivers weaving their way through. Cloud banks caressed the landscape before rising up and over the bluff. Cautiously, we crept up to the edge of the cliff and tried to peak down the "12 second drop," as it’s called. I was too wary to get close enough for a decent view, so I contented myself with what I could see at that angle. With the way the weather changes around here I didn’t want to risk a gust of wind ending my trip early!
Luck continued to be on our side as we moved onward along the pass. Wind could’ve been much stronger, clouds much darker, and rain could’ve easily pounded at our backs. We were blessed to have a safe crossing, and we knew it.
Before we knew it, a small newly finished hut greeted us. It was the perfect stopping point to get a hot drink and refuel before continuing down the mountain. Happily, after questioning whether or not to bring the thermos with us on Milford Track, Katie had decided to take it along at the last minute – and thank God for that! It allowed us to drink a steaming hot cup of Irish Cream coffee on the mountain top! What a joy it was! The air was harsh and frigid at that elevation, especially on a gray day, and that coffee warmed our cores and perked us right up.
After one of the other hikers popped inside and exclaimed, “It’s freezing out there!” we both bundled up before exiting the sanctuary. That’s where our descent began. At first it wasn’t steep, just a soft slant, but then the trail switched back and forth and turned downward. I got my walking stick out. Step, step, snap! Seriously?! I carried that stick all the way up and got two measly steps out of it? Damn! Katie found another in a dry riverbed right away. This one held true.
Step, step, snap! There goes another stick, only this time it was Katie’s. It’d stayed strong the whole way up and finally couldn’t take it anymore. Hers was replaced quickly as well, and a few moments later I found another potential walking stick for her. Thinking she’d like it better, I offered it up, but she declined. So I tossed it in my other hand and used two walking sticks on my way down. Again – thank God for that!
At first the descent was no problem. We were doing great. No real pain to speak of and the views were excellent. There was even a river running beside us along the pathway, or I should say falling beside us. It flowed from one waterfall into the next. Some amazing trailmakers created a strong wooden walkway that carried us alongside it for a good portion of the track.
Having already climbed over a pass that day, our bodies were starting to ache halfway down. We trudged deeper into the gorge and the trail just kept on going. The wooden walkway deserted us and we were left with cramped legs, impromptu walking sticks, and wet loose rock to tread upon. By the time we finally reached the bottom we were very sore.
We saw the twenty mile marker and rejoiced. We’d made it to the stopping point at Quintin Hut. It was here where we’d have to make our decision: Would we drop our packs and hike out to Sutherland Falls, adding another hour and a half to our day’s journey? We sat down to take a break before deciding, but deep down we already knew we were going to go for it. The sandflies started swarming, so we laid our packs down, had another sip of coffee, and moved along.
It’s amazing what not having thirty pounds on your back can do for your morale. Moments before my legs were about to break off, but now, without a pack and a fresh apple to munch on, I felt like my old self again! Both of us brought along some rain gear since we’d been told we could walk behind the falls. That would be very cool, but would obviously mean getting very wet. Along the way we ran into familiar faces heading back. People were wet, indeed. Our friend, Frances, said she and the German couple took all their clothes off except for their boots, raincoats, and underwear just before attempting to go behind the falls! It was so windy, though, that they couldn’t do it. They got completely drenched in the process.
The trail started heading upward and my body cringed. Then rain started falling, but that was nothing compared to being at the foot of Sutherland Falls. We felt its spray long before we even saw it. And once I ran up the steps to it see first hand I got so excited that I forgot to put on my rain pants! I’d carried them all the way there for nothing. C’est la vie.
Being at the base of the falls was like standing at the epicenter of a monsoon. How anyone could go behind it was beyond me. The power of it was insane! I splayed my arms out and yelled “Whoohoooo!!!” as the wind and water whipped around me. Within seconds we were both soaking wet. Katie managed to get a picture off before the camera was completed doused in water. I wiped it off and tried to do the same for her. The energy of the falls was intense and awesome. I would’ve loved to have stayed there longer soaking it all in (literally), but we still had to hike back, pick up our packs, and walk two more miles before reaching Dumpling Hut. Oy Vey! We turned back.
Katie was perturbed she’d brought her rain pants and didn’t wear them. Now her hiking pants were drenched. But what are you gonna do? At least our feet were dry. We traipsed our way back to our packs, slung them on, and set our sights on Dumpling Hut. By now the rain was falling steadily. We had our ponchos out and pulled over our packs to keep them dry. It was our first real march of the hike (but it wouldn’t be our last!). We had no desire to look around and see anything. We were under tree cover, fat drops dribbling on our heads, intent only on getting to Dumpling Hut as soon as possible. Those last two miles felt endless, but we made it – tired, sore, and wet.
Everyone was cooking when we arrived. We swapped out our clothes, chose bunks, and hobbled our way to the cooking hut. We were in pain. My feet felt like giant bruises, and my knees! Oh, my poor bony little knees. They were hammered. They hurt to bend. I can’t imagine what they would’ve been like without those walking sticks! Katie was in the same boat, though it wasn't her knees, it was her thighs - she was on her last legs! (good one, huh?). But we had to put that all aside, for it was time to make a delicious meal (notice the sarcasm) of tuna and couscous…again. It didn’t sound appetizing, but it was food.
During dinner we struck up a conversation with a group from South Korea. One of the women (her nickname was YS) spoke English, and we found out she worked for Warner Brothers and had traveled to Burbank several times for business. What a small world! The whole group was very nice and friendly and they loved our camping bowls. We have these awesome camping bowls that are flat until you need to use them, then you fold them up and they can hold anything – soup, water, tuna & couscous. We adore them because they weigh nothing, can bend and fold so you can slide them anywhere, and cleaning them is a snap. They ended up taking pictures of them, they were so enamored! We sat around talking about all kinds of things with YS, including one of her favorite philosophies: “You never know where life will take you.” I agree. Life is funny that way.
The hut warden came in and, unlike his predecessors, gave us an in-depth talk about the facilities, the final leg of the hike, and the weather we were in for tonight and tomorrow. A storm was a brewin’! We were set to have a huge amount of rainfall that night (the evidence of which was still on our heads). That meant flooding, which could mean one of two things: We were going to be wading through a section of trail OR we were going to be helicoptered out of the canyon the next day!
Now, on one hand it seemed a shame to end our journey early. I wouldn’t technically be able to say I hiked Milford Track if I flew over the final stretch. But on the other hand – a helicopter ride?!! That sounded awesome! You could tell that everyone was twittering with excitement over the news. The German travelers and I discussed the possibilities. We all thought a flight out would make a great story, so we kinda hoped for it. Though one of them mentioned how it would be a bumpy ride if it we were carried through a storm. Hmmm…that did put a damper on my enthusiasm. Well, there was no point in wondering. The next day we’d find out our fate.