All of a sudden John started moaning and thrashing around in the top bunk like a bucking bronco had broken free.
‘Ugggh fnkkkk thnnnng!’
Not knowing what in God’s name was happening up there, I considered whether to keep pretending to read, to dash outside or to offer assistance. Eventually, the voyeuristic side in me won over and I looked up from my copy of Man Alone.
‘Are you okay?’
John was shoving himself against the corner of the hut so hard that the veins on his neck pulsed. The look on his face was as if he’d just seen the bad guy in a horror movie, and both of his legs stuck out from under his sleeping bag at obtuse angles.
‘Mate, that looks uncomfortable. Maybe if you stretch your legs….’
‘I’mmm friggennn ttrrryying!’
It was one of those weird situations: Here was a friend obviously in pain, and I couldn’t do anything about it. I felt really bad because of it, yet all I wanted to do was laugh. Having in the past experienced what John was now going through, I figured laughing might not help that much. When one of the main muscles in your thigh throws a tantrum, it’s like the bad dude from the horror movie has just shoved a knife in and is twisting it around.
John put up quite a struggle. At times, the whole hut shook with his convulsions, and I was rather impressed by his stamina. Unfortunately, John’s cramp continued off and on through the night. And by the next morning he appeared, understandably, pretty worn out. Over coffee, I considered offering an observation that maybe young, red-headed Australian climbers couldn’t hack a moderate day in the mountains, but thought better of it. Besides, we’d only just walked up here, and hadn’t actually climbed anything yet.
Instead, I wandered outside with my coffee, leaned against the railing and took in the view. Barker Hut was as I remembered it. I hadn’t ventured to this corner of Arthur’s Pass for more than a decade, but had many fond memories of the hut and the surrounding mountains since first coming here in the late 1980s. That first trip was as an ‘adult’ helper on my brother Steve’s South Island school adventure. Led by a well-meaning high school teacher, a van load of us travelled south from Whangarei, eventually parking up at Klondyke Corner and making our way along the edge of the Waimakariri River as far as Carrington Hut. Day trips to Waimakariri Falls Hut, Harman and Whitehorn Passes, and Barker Hut followed – these being my first experiences in ‘real’ mountains. And it was Barker Hut that stuck in my mind, both for its location – perched on top of a rocky bluff – and its isolated feel. That trip, or more specifically that day when we trekked up towards Barker Hut, instilled a desire for the mountains that I’ve carried ever since.
Now, as John and I sipped coffee and enjoyed the view, the same tight alcove of mountains that had left such an impression so long ago hung above early morning valley cloud. Murchison, Harper, Speight, Davie and Isobel: I’d climbed these mountains on a number of occasions, sometimes on my own and other times with various climbing partners. Yet this was John’s first time to Barker Hut, and seeing his awe at the place further reignited my own recollections.
One trip, in 1994 with a good friend Max, stuck in my mind. It was a couple of months after an earthquake at Arthur’s Pass, and major slips littered the valley floor. Further minor quakes during the trip released more rock fall and snow avalanches. Max and I quickly summitted Murchison, before deciding a hasty retreat seemed the best plan. Now, I was back after another round of earthquakes, this time centred closer to Christchurch and causing major damage to the city. Nature has a way of letting us know how insignificant we really are.
There was still one peak in the cirque surrounding Barker Hut that I hadn’t climbed, so the following morning John and I wandered past what was left of the Marmaduke Dixon Glacier en route to Wakeman. There may have been a freeze, perhaps a vertical kilometre or so above us, but John’s youthful exuberance was put to good use plugging steps through the snow. John’s cramp had subsided, and he made up for lost time by accelerating away up the snow slopes: I needed to fake a loose bootlace or point out something ‘important’ to stay in proximity.
It’s funny how time often changes how we see things. On previous trips into the area, I’d commented to climbing partners how atrocious the rock had appeared. ‘Arthur’s is notorious for it,’ someone knowledgeable once told me. But, wandering back down from Wakeman, John and I passed near to an outlier buttress. It didn’t lead to any summit, but looked to be around 200 metres high with good rock. We wandered closer: It was REALLY good rock, slabby and steep in places and with an orange tinge higher up not dissimilar to John’s impressive mop of hair. When previously I’d walked past this same spot I’d been focussed on high points and summits. It made me wonder how many other good climbing opportunities I’d missed over the years.
The following morning John and I geared up and headed for what we’d now dubbed ‘Ginga Buttress’. John is a dab hand on rock, and five fun pitches later we had smiles on our faces wider than the budget deficit. Then back at Barker Hut, a pair of local kea acted out an impromptu scene from a Jackie Chan movie, complete with spinning back kicks. I kept checking over my shoulder to make sure this wasn’t a succinctly choreographed ruse while their mates rifled the hut for all it was worth.
That evening, my wife Shelley joined us, after walking in from the road end, and plans were made for an early morning ascent of Murchison before heading back to our daily lives. But, as the sun disappeared behind high peaks and the light softened, I smiled in the knowledge that another round of sweet memories was, right at this time, being formulated at one of my favourite huts in the Southern Alps.