As I slogged up a flooded gorge, the churning water drowned out the sound of the rain beating down on the hood of my cagoule. It was the fourth day since the rain began, and the sixth and supposedly final day of my last New Zealand alpine outing. I had been tramping the country for six months. “Studying abroad” was the official purpose of my visit, but in truth, climbing, paddling, surfing and drinking had fulfilled the better part of the trip. Now I was spending my last week alone in Arthur’s Pass National Park trying to bag peaks, but I could not even get to their bases.
Annoyed and distracted, I botched a three-foot jump between two boulders, falling face-first into the icy waters that descended from the snowfield above. The current pulled me under and swept me downstream in a cold rush. I slipped my pack off and pushed my head to the surface. With gasping breaths I swam to shore and watched my pack flush downstream and wedge between two rocks. I looked down and saw that my hands were twitching uncontrollably, and it wasn’t entirely because of the cold.
Even before I fell in the river, the trip was a dud. A climbing trip with no climbing. What is that? I was pissed, and as I fished my pack out of the stream, I wondered what I was going to tell my friends when I got back. Yes, I went to Arthur’s Pass. No, I didn’t climb any mountains. I just walked around in the rain like an idiot. Disgusted, I laughed out loud and climbed back down the gorge, not knowing what else to do with myself.
It was time for a full assessment. After changing clothes, I emptied the contents of my food-bag on the ground. I usually pack at least two extra days’ worth of food, but in this case had figured that the extra food would be a burden. My pack had already been stuffed. Now, hunkered down in my camp, I peered at my unused climbing gear sitting next to three servings of oatmeal, a zip-lock bag of raisins and a package of soy nuts.
What the hell was I doing? There was no sun, and no hope of any summits—only water falling all around me. In a rare moment of mental clarity, I realized that I probably shouldn’t go up into the mountains. I couldn’t believe it. I was giving up.
A week’s worth of hard effort in one of the most beautiful places on earth, and all I wanted was out. The combination of bad weather and a dwindling supply of food had been weighing on my mind for a few days prior, but I hadn’t really faced my options until now.
When I’d purchased a postcard for my mother in the visitors’ center, the park ranger told me big rains were coming, and that if I was planning to cross the Poulter River, I had better do it before the next day. Like the inexperienced fool that I was (and arguably still am), I hadn’t started in that day or even until noon the next, so I ran the eight miles to the river, and crossed it without a second thought. It had been a sketchy crossing even in low water, the weight of the entire valley’s runoff rushing across my legs. The river had been about 30 feet wide and three feet deep then. Now, after four continuous days of rain, the crossing was downright suicidal. After the river had overflowed its shallow banks, it filled the valley floor and more than doubled in size. In my excitement to get into the mountains, I had only considered how I was going to cross the river, not how I was going to get back.
The day after I fell into the runoff stream, I spent the morning looking for a safe place to return across the Poulter River and back to my car. A patch of blue sky shone briefly over the mountains to the west as I unpacked my lunch of soy nuts and sat on my pack, wet and cold beside the engorged river. The opposite shore seemed awfully far away. I looked up at the small blue spot in the sky, surrounded by gray, and squinted at its brightness, the rain patting my face. The patch of blue diminished as I ate, and then I sat there on my pack in the rain and watched it disappear. “Well, this stinks,” I said aloud.
Every morning I had risen before the sun, packed up camp, and headed up a different gorge, hoping that maybe one would somehow not be quite as flooded as the last, allowing me to get above tree line. For three days I fought my way up these various streams, each time sapping more of my dwindling strength and misguided resolve.
Now I had finally decided I’d had enough, but I couldn’t make it back to my car. All I could do was sit on the rocks and wait. And worst of all, because of my own stupidity, I had to live off raisins and soy nuts.
I had read my copy of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road five times, and the combination of poor weather and drug-driven postmodernist writing convinced me that I had already lost my mind. I read my favorite passages aloud while sitting stark naked on the riverbank, waiting for my clothes to dry in 100 percent humidity, and continued reading long after sunset. The same passages over and over, the shrieks of spotted kiwis coming from beyond the glow of my headlamp.
On the morning of the seventh day, as I looked at the shadows of the raindrops on the fabric of my tent, I decided not to get out of my sleeping bag. Five days of rain, I thought. Too much. I had no idea how long it would take for the river to stop raging, and my hunger was becoming a real issue. I had taken to putting small rocks in my mouth and pretending that they were exorbitantly priced French hard candies that had been left up for grabs in the backcountry of Arthur’s Pass. It seemed logical enough; crazier things have happened. At first I did it jokingly, but I eventually ended up hoarding the rocks like jellybeans. After only two days of collecting, I had about three pounds of green and black pebbles (my favorites) stashed in the crotch of a nearby tree.
No matter what I did to distract myself, I couldn’t stop thinking about the rain, to the point of insomnia. Those little bits of water were all rolling down into the rocks and slipping through them and snaking their way into little trickles that ran beneath the stones and flowed into the river, billions of them, swelling it. It seemed that nature was conspiring against me, and even the wind now seemed malicious to my ears. On the seventh night I curled myself up inside my sleeping bag and started singing my own version of Bob Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” substituting most of the second and third verses with more of the refrain.
On the eighth night, I crouched in the grass near the trees and spent four hours trying to imitate the call of a female kiwi, with hopes of spotting and befriending one, to eat it. I never saw a thing, and my calls started to become annoying. I wish they would stop, I thought, before realizing they were me.
The rain stopped. I sat in the sun, knowing the only thing between a meal and me was a river that was looking more and more narrow in my mind.
I spent the better part of days eight and nine making an interpretive rock garden of about 30 or so intricate stacks of stones from six inches to nearly six feet tall. On the afternoon of the ninth day, a kea, the world’s only alpine parrot and a generally bothersome bird, began knocking over my stone stacks. In a rage, I chased after the bird screaming. “No, goddammit!” The bird returned and lit on my largest, most inspiring stack, the product of about five hours of my life. I threw a stone that struck the stack. It fell to the ground as the bird spread its wings, leaving me with my arms still outstretched in throwing position. Later that evening, I kicked over the remaining stone stacks and walked around aimlessly until sunrise, every now and then whistling.
On the 10th day, I had a half baggie of raisins left and a handful of soy nuts. I knew things were getting desperate when, for the first time in my life, I genuinely wondered what I might taste like. Disturbed to my core, I immediately packed up my camp. Fuck it, I thought.
The icy water rose above my crotch and threatened to pull me under. I envisioned a park ranger having to fish my body out of a sieve somewhere downstream, shaking his head. I kept moving, and after hundreds of carefully placed steps, I was on the opposite bank where I had started 10 days before. I looked back at the mountains that I had been trying so futilely to reach; their snowcapped peaks cold in the sun, not at all like the postcard I had bought, but remote, unreachable and beautifully real. I smiled at another image: me standing emaciated on the banks of the Poulter River beneath the mountains, young, defeated and alive.
Dave Costello is a writer and photographer from Circle Pines, Minnesota, and a student at the University of Minnesota Duluth. He recently completed an internship at Rock and Ice.