Climbing Mt Fishtail

Solitude. It can be hard to come by in our connected society. But there’s a lot to be said for getting away on your own, especially if, like me, you find yourself constantly at the demand of others. (Toddlers in my case, creatures with scant respect for one’s personal space).

Marlborough’s definitely blessed with a wealth of places to vanish into. I wanted a trek that was within my modest abilities yet offered a bit of a challenge. Climbing Mt Fishtail looked a good choice. At 1641m, Fishtail is one of the higher peaks of the Richmond Range. It has a well-defined track that leads to a hut at 1300m. The plan was to make it to the hut and then decide if the weather would allow me to continue to the summit.

Fishtail Start
About to Embark

Pre-dawn and heading up a pitch black Northbank road, flashes of ice glittered treacherously before my headlights. It was slow going, and the sky was already starting to lighten as I pulled up to Pine Valley car park. Despite going solo, I wasn’t as agile as I’d have liked. My backpack had a tripod strapped on one side and a broom on the other. The broom was destined for the hut, being transported as part of the DOC “When You Go” volunteer project. Although the day’s theme was self-sufficiency and not having anyone relying on me, it was still good to have a small mission to accomplish.

The tramp began very pleasantly, with a 45 minute meander along the pristine Pine Valley stream. An occasional Tui or Bellbird chimed in amidst the chattering waters. I passed the site of our first Christmas in Marlborough with some melancholy; all that remains of the recently razed Pine Valley hut is an unbefitting patch of gravel.

Pristine Pine Valley Stream
Pristine Pine Valley Stream

The only river crossing of the route also marks the start of the hard work. After a water bottle refill it was straight into a climb that can only be described as relentless. Over little more than a kilometer you gain over 500 metres in height. It was with welcome relief that a little robin flitted up and provided me with a breather in the guise of a photo shoot. Pressing on, I heard a sudden crash amidst the undergrowth. A dark beast bolted across the path a few metres up ahead. “Don’t worry boar, I’m only shooting with a camera.” (One advantage in being by yourself is no one can see you chatting to animals). “But don’t mess with me either – I’ve got a broom”.

Little Companion

Although dense native canopy obscured the view, a noticeable drop in temperature indicated I was nearing the bush line. When I finally did break out into the open, it felt like a huge reward. The rocky path, now white with ice, stretched off towards the hut in the distance. The late morning sky was a deep blue and at my back, Mounts Tapuae-o-Uenuku and Alarm were fully revealed in their splendour. The sudden vista was breathtaking.

The Wairau Valley
The Wairau Valley

I approached the hut wearily and warily. Ice covered rocks commanded my attention, but before long I was there. What a relief to sink to the ground, relieve myself of the burdensome broom and crack into a sammie. The tank water had frozen solid so there was unfortunately no chance to replenish my supplies. On the plus side however, the cloud that had lingered around the summit was starting to break. Re-energised after my break I surveyed the route ahead. Up until this point the path had been marked by orange triangles, but there were no longer such signs. A cairn in the distance encouraged me to head that way up to the saddle. From there it should be a brief traverse to the top.

The view from the saddle was a revelation. I put down my camera and soaked it up. The tapestry of the Wairau was far below me but now I could also gaze northwest to Tasman Bay, Nelson and the Arthur Range. And there was Dun Mountain and Coppermine Saddle, so often negotiated on my mountain bike. I turned towards the summit, only a hundred odd metres above. The perilous boulders soon gave way to smoother terrain, although not after a little backtracking to search for a lost lens cap. Three metres below the summit, like a decrepit sentinel, was a frozen stoat. I placed my beanie on the summit marker amidst utter silence and considered the part my wretched companion had played in this.

Fishtail Summit
Fishtail Summit

Following the obligatory chocolate and self-portrait, I made my way down. Although I had no schedule to adhere to but my own, I had dallied enough. It was time to get going. But a few minutes into my descent, I turned to gaze back up – and there was my beanie in the distance. More backtracking ensued, and more stoat cursing – this time for distracting me into forgetfulness.

Forgot my beanie!
Forgot my beanie!

After surfing the scree back to the hut and then a brief break, it was time to really make tracks. 2:30pm and the sun was starting to sink – I wanted to be off the mountain well before dusk. But a half hour later and back in the bush, I was horrified to notice my lens hood had dropped off the camera. This was more important than a beanie or a lens cap, and I wanted to allow myself at least a chance of finding it. But where did I last use the camera? The image reviews showed that it was way back on the scree descent. A quick estimate of timings prompted me to choose to run at least as far as the bush line. But I needn’t have been so concerned. Only two minutes into my third backtrack of the day, the offending item lay there on a rock, plain as day. By now I was only interested in getting off the ridge. I continued jogging downhill, and as the descent steepened so did the hurt. I do a fair bit of biking, but my muscles are definitely not conditioned for running downhill with a backpack. A couple of times my legs just gave out on me and I found myself making good time on the descent bottom side down. Although today was supposed to be a cell-phone free day, I couldn’t resist stopping occasionally to check the progress of my GPS track. Eventually I heard the distant babble of the river, and then there I was, guzzling cool water and elated to be back on the valley floor. I had underestimated how much work was involved in the descent – I found it way tougher than on the way up.

Water Refill
Time for a Refill

The woods were dark and foreboding as I shuffled back to my start point, ten hours earlier. The trek’s sole swing bridge posed the final obstacle. My legs were not in a good way, and sure enough, lurching off the bridge brought on a spasm of paralysing cramp. But there was the car at last and the promise of warmth, food and rest – and a return to the trappings of civilisation.

Driving home beneath a spectacular Marlborough sunset, I reflected on my experience. My precious day of solitude had definitely been relaxing for the mind, if not the body. But now I was just thinking of the comforts of home. Not least of those was the toddler with no respect for my personal space.

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