Apparently there’s a trick. You’re supposed to walk backwards, step by exaggerated step and drag-roll your bike behind you which is actually in front of you. If you look down at the dark and roiling river below and panic, and feel the need to fantasy-project, by all means pretend your bike is a terrified stallion you’re steadily coaxing from certain death to safety with just your eyes, willpower and whisper. But mostly be prepared to stumble a lot and repeatedly hook your handlebars into the miles of cable and metal mesh that constitute, when strung up just right, a Swing Bridge. Apparently some are rideable. Who cares. This one is wet and dangerous and especially inconvenient, some would say stupid, on account of its proximity to camp. Ten feet.
“It’s the first thing we do and it takes us thirty minutes. Also, it’s raining. It’s not supposed to be raining.”
Today is the crux. Today is THE day. The deal is this: we have to walk-push-crawl up the North Fork of the Huxley River for five or so kilometers, find a hut, make a call, confirm the drop zone & time, bushwhack two more kilometers over an alpine pass, scramble-roll-fall down the other side for give or take two more kilometers, and boom that’s it. This ride, the whole last week, the whole deal and everything, is in the bag. In total we’re talking about nine kilometers, a little over five and half miles, and we have fourteen hours in which to figure it all out. If we make it over Brodrick Pass, the most imposing and least navigable aspect of this campaign, a rocky, snow covered wall standing between Dunedin on the East Coast and Haast on the West Coast, we’re finished, we’ve made it. All that’s left is waking up sometime tomorrow morning, late, like after eleven probably, to the sound of helicopters lowering rafts into the Landsborough River, a downhill Class IV river which we can basically float, passively suspended on the surface of the water, all the way home over the Falls of Rauros into the lower Anduin, past the Mouths of the Entwash, between the White Mountains and the Mountains of Shadow through the ancient capital of Gondor, Osgiliath, before swinging past the harbour of Harlond, close to the Rammas Echor, just south of Minas Tirith, before entering the Great Sea in the Bay of Belfalas in a broad delta known as the Mouths of Anduin.
It’s not supposed to be raining. It’s supposed to be dry, because if it were we could walk up the river in the shallows and hop from dry rock to dry rock. That was the plan from the start. There’s been a drought for the last two months and we’ve been counting on it to continue. Nobody, not even us, would plan on draging loaded bikes through bush this tedious and thick, especially on a trail this rudimentary and unresolved. That would be stupid. But that’s what we do because it’s raining and the river is flush.
The trail is repeatedly washed-out by landslides, each one forcing us to detour basically straight-up the fall line for hundreds of feet, around the edge of the release, then straight back down to the river’s edge in what amounts to a semi-controlled free-fall. The hillside is steep and slippery.
“Within an hour we’re a mess. Covered in mud. Panting. Soaked to the bone. Steaming. We’re measuring progress at this point in ten to twenty-five foot increments; First Downs basically.”
We charge until we can’t. Then we stop, back up against a tree or kneeling with our faces pressed into a wall of tangled roots and moss and mud, suspended for a moment, to rest and contemplate the absurdity. When it gets really bad we stop and go one by one, fire brigading our bikes past the steeper more ridiculous sections. Our bikes weigh 70-90 pounds and all their parts and appendages, like drop bars for example, act, effectively, like toddlers spazzing out in multiple directions at once and grabbing everything within reach. It feels like we should be getting shot at; that, at least, would make some kind of sense. I think about Iwo Jima and trench foot. At this point nobody is talking because what is there to talk about, also it’s raining so hard it’s difficult to hear anything other than rain and river.
We do the landslide yo-yo thing for about an hour. Maybe two. Then we abandon the trail and move down to the river’s edge and eventually into the river itself. Most of us hold our bikes overhead but some of us carry them under one arm when they can’t be pushed. Cutbacks force us out of the river and up and around on the hillside. Rapids force us out of the water into the bush and roots. Mudslides force us back into the river where it’s shallow and manageable. Rockslides force us into the rapids where it’s sketchy and deep. We use handlebars like grappling hooks and place wheels like protection. We cross wet logs tightrope-style over treacherous shit. We are spread out. We make our way one by one.
Eventually we begin to encounter a series of drainages. Normally these creeks would be wholly unnoteworthy, but today in the middle of an alpine monsoon, each one is progressively more complicated in terms of crossing and portaging. They’re worse if we’re in the river at the confluence. But the river is, it turns out, ultimately the straightest most direct and navigable way up this valley.
We’ve been in the rain and half submerged for five hours. It’s forty-one degrees Fahrenheit. We haven’t eaten since breakfast. We are all of us bleeding somewhere. Nobody can feel their feet or hands. We haven’t ridden our bikes once today. Nobody, not ever, not once, has ever brought a bike to this river valley. We are the first. We come to the last drainage before Brodrick Hut. We can’t see it but we know Brodrick Hut is 330 yards away, and dry, and fully equipped with a wood burning stove. But this creek is the fastest and most swollen yet. This creek feels like more than just a bad decision, we’re used to bad decisions, we’ve been making bad decisions for the last three hours, we’re comfortable making bad decisions, but this creek is different. We stop and one by one gather at it’s edge. Erik, after scouting for a few minutes, attempts to cross it. Half way across he’s swept off his feet and spun around. He’s pinned to a rock by his bike and the current. He’s under up to his neck because he’s half fallen over. We just watch. He’s only thirty feet away but he couldn’t be further from us. He can’t hear us, we can’t hear him. He’s utterly on his own. We have no rope. He regains his footing, begins to cross again, falters once more, gets his shit together, makes it to the opposite bank.
Maybe we talk about it outloud with words, I can’t remember, I don’t think we did, whatever the case it’s clear that nobody else is going to cross where he did, if at all. We go up the drainage forty yards, then a hundred, then a bit further, there is nowhere to cross. Our footprints on the edge of the creek fill in with water as we discuss our options.
“We’ve been stopped for twenty minutes now. We are exhausted and shivering. It’s raining harder and the temperature is dropping. The wind is also picking up. We shout to Erik to meet back here in three hours or shortly after the rain stops. It’s hard to know if he understands us, it doesn’t matter, Brodrick Hut for him is up a hill and through a stand of trees.”
We are stuck. We can’t go back because the last creek was nearly impossible forty minutes ago, it’s worse now. We can’t go forward. There is no forest cover and the hillside is 45 degrees, rocky and uneven. We are in a huddle weighing our options, Benedict says, “It’s not a big deal but I think we need to make a few really good decisions right now. I dont think we should panic but, I also don’t think we should get hypothermia and whatever comes after hypothermia.” We fan out and make our way up the hillside in the direction of the bushline. Still, there are no flat spots, there are rocks everywhere and the ground is covered in weeds and briars and shit. Fuck-it, we are at our limit. We drop our bikes and bags and build our tents from the inside out. The weather is getting worse, it’s more windy and raining harder. Almost all of our gear is wet: sleeping bags, camp clothes, DSLRs, socks, all of it, is soaked and in need of wringing-out. Tents built and staked, we strip down and pile into our bags. Water is everywhere. Our pads are are uninflated. Shit is everywhere. We’re on top of half of it, the other half is on top of us, the other half is outside, abandoned, under our bikes so it doesn’t blow away—or at least not all of it. Who cares.
The whole emergency bivouac party takes maybe ten minutes. Once inside our tents we shout and take attendance. Everyone is here, present and accounted for. I eat a chocolate chip cookie. The bottom half of my bag is soaked. I’m 1000% naked and wet and momentarily making my bag more wet. I can’t feel my feet or my hands. My hair is wet but my hat is more wet.
I’m shivering, soaked and lying in a fetal position, there is a rock under my hip, my head is lower than my feet, I pass out in two minutes and wake up three and half hours later. It’s still raining, I sit up, kneel, my hamstrings cramp and force me to stop several times, I shimmy to the front of the tent, unzip the front and piss onto my left shoe and a portion of my backpack lying in the grass under the vestibule. I fall asleep for another hour. When I wake up it’s sunny, the storm has passed and everyone is outside talking. We spread out our gear in the sun and walk down to the creek. On the other side we see Erik. He smiles, waves and walks over to us without getting his feet wet.