By Matt & Agnes Hage
We got the call from Genny, the photo editor at Backpacker, at the end of January. She had an assignment for us that she deemed a perfect fit. We’d travel down to New Zealand with editor Rachel Zurer to find what was rumored to be the country’s most spectacular hut. Originally built to host scientific teams interested in the regions glaciers and geology, the Ivory Lake Hut is now relegated to sheltering backpackers in the Lange Range. Not too many trampers (Kiwi for hikers or trekkers) actually make it into this alpine shack: records showed less than a dozen annually. The hut is buried deep in the heart of the Southern Alps and whichever route you choose is arduous even by New Zealand standards. The tracks into these valleys have all been washed away or reclaimed by the forests. The word ‘gnarly’ kept rearing it’s head in conversations and email threads as we all prepared for this adventure. The whole thing sounded perfect to us. The type of work we excel at. And besides it’s still a backpacking project. How gnarly could it get?
Fast forward two months and we’re clinging for our lives to one of the most crumbly, exposed ridge lines we’ve ever been on without climbing gear. Our new Kiwi friend Andrew Buglass, who met up with us for this adventure at the start in Hokitika, moves over this crux section of Dickie Ridge with ease. He waits patiently and offers encouragement as we negotiate the fifth-class terrain, trying to pull on the tufts of grass that seem more sturdy than the face of friable shale. We’re clad in hiking boots and have trekking poles, both to help in schlepping our 60-packs through this mountain wilderness. Earlier in the day, our second of the trek, we all decided to take the high route. Little did we know what we were getting ourselves into. Rock crumbles off the face with every move and tumbles through 500 meters of air beneath our boots. A mist moves in reducing visibility to less than a meter. As the Kiwi’s would say, we were in a bit of a spot.
Packing for this assignment was challenging. On the one hand we knew that we’d be traveling through rugged mountain terrain, with little to no trails and a lot of scrambling. We usually favor a lightweight approach to those kind of situations. But coming back with the photography work was absolutely essential. It is with every job, but even more so in this case. There would be absolutely no chance for a reshoot, both logistically and seasonally. We were on the tail end of New Zealand’s tramping season. Rachel’s story also wouldn’t work if we didn’t come back with pictures of the Ivory Lake Hut and options for stock pictures were nonexistent. So in the end, we worked a lot of redundancy into our system with extra camera bodies and lenses. The Guide 10 Plus Solar Kit was a part of this redundancy, allowing us to charge smaller cameras, headlamps and iPhones for taking video on the go. This added the necessary backup to get job done as well as a lot of weigh to our packs.
It was a day after negotiating Dickie Ridge that we arrived at the head of the Waitaha River Valley. Water cascaded wildly from every side of the rocky cirque. The water came from Ivory Lake which sat on a glacier carved bench above us. No one dared to speak, but we knew we had made it. An hour later, we picked our way through the rocks and walked up to the namesake hut. Andrew promptly brought out a ragged red arm chair from inside. The pint of bourbon also came out as we basked in the afternoon sun, soaking in this hard earned place in the mountains. We stayed for a couple nights before taking a different route back to Hokitika where we parted ways. A week late in a different part of the Southern Alps, in a hut much easier to access, we came across the March issue of Wilderness, a Kiwi backpacking journal. The cover boasted a feature on the top ten most frightening hikes in New Zealand. There was Dickie Ridge claiming the number one spot.
Matt & Agnes Hage (HagePhoto) run a photography business based in Anchorage, Alaska. They spend 200 days a year on the road shooting for magazines and outdoor brands all over the world. Check out what they’ve been up to lately at hagelife.com