The date was Dec 10th, 2016…
“I think we may be lost.” Lyra said as we followed the riverbank along the Cass-Lagoon trek. We’d been walking for an hour and neither of us had seen a trail marker for at least half of that time.
The river zigged zagged as we continued up it’s path, looking around for a sign that we were on the right track. A trail marker, another hiker… A path of any sort, really.
The day prior we spent a lot of time relaxing in the Harper Hut - a vast, comfortable hut that is very popular to the public. Luckily, we happened to be there on a night that wasn’t busy - and by “wasn’t busy”, I mean we were the only ones.
That morning we had multiple set backs, including retracing steps after finding a wallet that a runner had dropped twenty minutes prior, but we were determined to climb the Cass Saddle by noon.
We were determined… 'Were'… Then we got lost along a riverbank.
“How the hell do you get lost ON A RIVERBANK?” I exhaled, following behind Lyra. She was staring at her GPS, shaking her head.
It was a gloomy day out. The sky was grey and the breeze was brisk, but there was no sign of rain. Then again, there was no sign of anything. We were lost. Nothing but a couple of hikers beside a river.
“It says we need to cut over this hill to find the trail on the other side.” Lyra said, pointing to her right, still looking down at her phone. I followed her finger to the side of the riverbank. A small hill resided there. A hill full of trees, broken branches, roots at all angles, harsh rocks, and mud. At this point, those kinds of paths were not surprising.
“Oh yeah, how did we miss that? Clearly that’s where we need to go.” I stated sarcastically, laughing a bit as I rolled up my pant legs.
We walked along the rocks, pools of water greeting our feet from the hours of high river activity. We were reaching noon, still with no sign of the saddle. Even to this day, I couldn’t for the life of me explain to you how we’d missed the turn to the trail. It was in clear sight, the easiest part of the track, yet we’d missed it, and because of this fact - we found ourselves in the annoying situation of following a muddy hill up to the top, only to find a forest littered with more trees, branches, and mud.
“Well, I guess now we just walk until we find a marker.” Lyra said, beginning into the thick bush.
“Yeah, that sounds about right.” I sighed, stepping behind her.
Another ten minutes had passed as we hacked our way through a forest that could only be found in New Zealand. Roots shot out of the ground, bushes tangled around them. Mud would appear randomly as if sorcery were involved, and branches stabbed skin relentlessly - never showing mercy. I’d received my third stab to the leg when Lyra chimed.
“Oh, I found a marker!”
I looked up to see her tripping along the branches towards a tree that held an orange marker. Instantly my mood changed to excited as I skipped behind her, letting branches scratch my skin and mud fill my shoes. By the time we reached the marker, we were tired and splattered in our own blood, but the path was clear and the trail was prominent.
The time was half passed noon, and we were officially 2km away from the beginning of the saddle. If you asked my opinion, it would be that 2km is not enough time to mentally prepare for a saddle climb - at least for someone who is petrified by heights. I spent the next half hour giving myself pep talks that ended in “Just get your shit together. You gotta do it either way, bud.”
At some point between calling myself an idiot and telling myself I was capable of anything, our path began going upwards. The time for self assurance was over and all that was left was doing what we’d come here to do. Climb a damn mountain.
Now, for those of you who have been following my story since the beginning, you already know where this is going. For those of you who are just joining me now, I’m going to give you a little recap on the events that took place on this climb. Events that led me to make a great friend, who graciously welcomed us into his home to meet his family, eat his food, and enjoy his company.
Lyra was getting further up the hill, and I’d decided not to stop her. I knew that I would be a nuisance, more mentally than physically, as I fought my biggest fear, so I allowed her to leave me behind. At least this way she would make it to the top with ample opportunity to take in the sights.
Another half hour passed and my breathing got heavier. The thing about climbing mountains is that you need to be prepared for the thin air awaiting you - and I was a heavy breather when I did things that freaked me out.
At one point, I needed to stop and collect my thoughts. I stood beside a tree, gasping for the nonexistent air my lungs so desperately wanted. I was terrified when I looked up at the steep incline I had left. It was still so far up, and I felt like I was never going to make it.
"Who've we got here?" I'd heard a voice from behind me.
I had turned around, still grasping the tree, to see a man smiling up at me. He seemed to be in his late 40s, or possible early.50s, two large bottles of water hanging from both sides of his neck, and a decent sized pack on his back.
"My name is Caitlyn." I had answered. "Please, don't mind me. I'm terrified of heights and my body has decided to stop for a few moments."
"Kia Ora, Caitlyn. My name is Andrew." He had replied.
Kia Ora is a Maori greeting that is used frequently in New Zealand. It is a way of telling someone to be well and healthy throughout their life.
Andrew proceeded to walk up to me, his smile continuing. "Do you know what James Cook said when people asked him how he took on the mountains back when he first came to New Zealand?"
James Cook was an English navigator and captain who landed in New Zealand back in 1769. He was one of the first to write about the Maori people and explore New Zealand's lands, drawing accurate maps of the mountain ranges.
I smiled at him curiously and shook my head.
Andrew nodded with a smile and said "He said 'one step at a time.'"
"That sounds like a very Kiwi thing to say." I breathlessly laughed back.
"Well Caitlyn," Andrew began, "you and I are going to defeat this mountain. One step at a time."
And beat it we did. One step at a time. Every incline, every root, every rock, was taken on head first because of a man who believed in my abilities when I didn’t.
I took on Te Araroa for multiple reasons, but the main reason was because I needed to prove to myself that I could survive the hardest things that life had to throw at me. On this day, I’d taken on something that I would have never believed I could if it weren’t for my own strength and the patience of the people around me. To some, it’s just climbing a mountain. To others, it’s CLIMBING A GOD DAMN MOUNTAIN.
To me? It was taking one more step to the end, and one step more away from the person I was trying to leave behind.