Ohh winter. How conflicted I feel about you.
One the one hand, a little part of my soul lights up when I think of cozy fires and hot cocoa and bundling up. The other part of me, of course, enters a mild state of depression that slowly increases every day after summer solstice.
Where did the sun go? Why am I always freezing? What happened to all the summer energy and motivation I had? This happens to me every year.
Each April I make a goals list for winter in New Zealand. I tell myself this is the year I’ll become a better climber through my many indoor climbing sessions. Or perhaps this is the year I’ll become a major book worm and hole up next to the fire while I digest book after book. Maybe this is the year I’ll learn how to pickle things or bake extravagant desserts.
And every year I get all the way through June and wonder what exactly I’ve been doing with myself.
How have I let two cold weather months sip by so easily? After weeks of making excuses, I finally decided on a weekend in the mountains. We have them in abundance here in Wanaka.
An experience to slap me in the face and bring me back to life, to give me some inspiration and recharge my batteries.
It didn’t matter that it was cold. It didn’t matter that daylight is limited. All that mattered was finding a mountain that made my lungs burn again and a cozy little hut far from civilization, a place where I could take a brief break from my never-ending mental to-do lists.
And there are plenty of mountains still accessible in the wintertime in New Zealand for hiking.
After much debate and contemplation, I chose the iconic Brewster Hut, a picturesque red hut not far from Makarora, perched on a flat plateau hanging over the valley 1,000 meters below.
It was a hut I’ve been to many times before but unlike all the other times, this time I’d be treated to the hut while it was cloaked in white.
I knew it’d be the perfect adventure to make me fall in love winter again.
Disclaimer: Snow, ice and avalanche conditions are possible to Brewster Hut in the winter – winter alpine skills and equipment are required if you are considering completing this track or visiting this hut in the winter. It’s a good idea to check in with the local DOC office for an update on conditions (and river level for crossing) and register your intent and plans with someone before you go.
New Zealand Mountain Safety Council Plan My Trip is a great tool for the backcountry here
After a leisure breakfast of coffee and crepes at home, we set off for the mountain around mid-morning.
The drive from Wanaka isn’t long and the hike itself, while insanely steep and tiring, is actually not that long. Having lost our summer fitness, we knew the climb would be strenuous despite being a short 3 kilometers.
First step: crossing the icy Haast River.
Crossing a river is never a pleasant experience for me, someone who loathes any water colder than a tepid bath. The river crossing is only 50 meters from the carpark so I knew we’d at least get it over with quickly but this also means we wouldn’t have time to work up a sweat so we knew the water would feel extra cold. To our surprise, the river was low and only threatened to reach our kneecaps. We took off our shoes and hobbled across the freezing water, trying our best to ignore the piercing aches shooting up through our bones.
With fresh socks and dry shoes, we headed up the track.
The Brewster Hut track is a classic New Zealand approach to hiking. Why bother with switchbacks when you can just go straight up a mountains?
The climb is relentlessly steep, climbing over 1,000 meters in just 3 km. I tried to ignore the feeling of being completely unfit and instead tried to focus on the crisp air filling my lungs and the warm sunshine on my back. We were surprised to have been treated to such a warm day, hiking in t-shirts and shorts and still sweating our asses off.
After a few hours, we popped out of the bush and were greeted with our first steps of deep snow. The entire mountain was covered but there were ample footsteps to lead the way. A short walk from the bush line put us eye to eye with the ever-stunning Brewster Hut.
A red beacon of comfort and warmth, waiting to be our home for the night. I could already feel my spirits lifting and that joy I knew in summer returning.
We spent the first few hours like kids in a candy store: running around in the snow, throwing snowballs and snapping photos.
The western facing deck, normally the best spot for sun bathing, was covered in a few feet of snow so perched ourselves on the railing, face to the sun, soaking up that much-needed vitamin D.
Eyes closed. Deep breaths. Nothing but the sound of a gentle breeze and the distant squawk of the keas.
No tourists. No noise. Just us and the mountain. A necessary reminder at what brings me inner peace and what makes my heart happy.
Despite the sun, the air was still frigid and brisk so we soon headed in for my favorite part of hut life: kicking off the heavy boots and crampons, putting on your granny slippers and warming up with a cup of coffee and hot meal.
Honestly, nothing ever tastes as good as a big feed after a huge effort. Luckily, the hut was empty so no poor souls were subjected to my savage feed.
There was once a time when I stressed about hiking food.
My first ever backpacking mission was a food disaster, filled with canned beans, cooked potatoes, large sticks of salami, jars of peanut butter and jelly. Can you imagine carrying the weight of that on your back?
I had no idea what I was doing and focused only on a lot of food that would give me lots of energy. (I know, I know, keep your criticism to yourself, nothing you say could ever be as bad as my own self-criticism on this!)
One day, someone told me about freeze dried meals. I don’t know why these weren’t on my radar. Perhaps I was trying to be cheap ($2 noodles, anyone?) Perhaps I didn’t think they’d taste that good. For some reason, I never thought seriously about it until after one of my many hikes with an overwhelmingly heavy pack. I decided I was done with heavy food and promised to treat myself to dehydrated meals on my next trip.
I haven’t looked back since. Seriously, you guys. The amount of weight I saved in my bag was incredible and the little forethought it required was unmeasurable. I now feel like a weightless fairy, bounding up the hills.
If you haven’t used dehydrated food before, let me break it down for you.
Dehydrated meals in New Zealand come in 1 or 2 people serves. Since I have the appetite of an elephant, I can usually manage a 2 person serve on my own but really, they’re quite adequate for two people. These metallic pouches weigh only a few ounces and are completely self-containing.
All you have to do is boil your water, open the pouch, add the water, give it a stir and reseal for 10 minutes and pull on the bottom of the bag to open it flat so it stands on its own . Once it’s rehydrated, you can rip the top half of the package off to make it into a bowl. Too easy.
Fun fact, for winter missions, stuff the sealed packaged underneath your sweater for a hot water bottle effect.
REMEMBER: most huts in New Zealand, especially in winter, don’t have fuel sources, so you have to bring your own. We love jetboils.
Like most Kiwis, my go-to is Backcountry Cuisine meals because they are literally readily available almost anywhere in New Zealand and because they are super affordable. With a mission to produce fast nourishing food that’s lightweight and tastes good, and based down in Invercargill, New Zealand, it’s an easy choice.
Breakfast scramble in the morning, creamy mushroom soup for lunch, beef curry for dinner, apple crumble for dessert. Every meal is covered and it all weighs practically nothing, which is much appreciated when you’re hauling everything you have up steep rooted hiking trails. Having an instant, warm and delicious meal is no non-negotiable for me when I go on overnight missions.
On this particular night, we had beef curry along with wild mushroom and lamb risotto. It was like a Christmas in July. But winter since we’re in the southern hemisphere. Have I confused you yet?
A few ski tourers arrived back at the hut around 6 but only stopped in for a few minutes so they could pack up their bags and head back to their cars, leaving us to an empty hut.
Snuggled in our sleeping bags with a cup of tea, we read through the log book of the adventurers before us who called this hut home for a night. What a mecca for adventure lovers.
One of the best parts of being in the wild is resetting your internal clock to work with the sun.
It’s a return to a simple life: wake up, walk, rest when you’re tired, eat when you’re hungry, sleep when it’s dark. It’s uncomplicated life, perfect for clearing the mind. It wasn’t long after the sunset before we were tucked into our cots and snoozing away.
The clouds had come in overnight making for a lackluster sunrise.
With some hot coffee and porridge in our bellies, we packed up camp and slowly began making our way back to the car. We made quick work of the descent and before long were back at the car, indulging on our car snacks, completely satisfied with the trip.
It can be so hard to get yourself outside in the winter but if you can get out of your own head and make the first steps towards an adventure, you’ll be well rewarded.
What an adventure, now, where to next?
Are you a fan of hiking in the winter? Have any good spots to share in New Zealand? Spill!