11 December 2013

Solo - pros and cons

Solo in the hills is something many climbers feel the need for on occasions – some more than others. I’ve often done it for many day trips but have enjoyed multiday trips on relatively safe ground on about three occasions, usually in the Kaimanawas. On one trip I started down near Waiouru and came out half way up Lake Taupo. In the middle of the trip I had a storm which elevated the Rangitiki by about two meters. When my plates and billies started to float away I had to move my fly camp higher into the bush – quickly. Such was my desire to remain alone that on one occasion I staked out a hut at the head of a valley to make sure that it had no occupants before I ventured closer. And, on another occasion, I walked away from a fellow solo tramper when he offered to join forces with me.
Great Solo Country in the Kaimanawas

The biggest lesson for me about solo travel was about how much of everyday life is a compromise.  Towards the end of one day I started looking for a campsite.  There were plenty of beautiful tussocky glades on offer and I became quite choosey discarding one after the other.  Finally as the sun lowered I chose my spot and cooked tea. What became obvious to me on this evening over all others was that I’d wandered from glade to glade, chosen my site, the angle of the tent, the pitching of the tent, the setting and lighting of my fire, how I cooked my meal, when I turned in – all of this without any reference to any one else. There was no need for compromise.  At the end of the day as I sipped my tea at peace with the valley I thought how lucky I was to have a wife who understood my need to escape now and then – to be on my own.

Strangely there is a certain safety in solo travel in the mountains.  After years of travel in the mountain an experienced person can hone the careful reflexes for self support and self arrest.  The careful placement of feet becomes more exact and there is no distraction from your travelling companions – a gap that you might leap over in the company of friend can, on your own, cause you to hesitate and find an alternative. No one is there to see you hesitate. Nor will you take an extra risk to get in front of your companion – don’t believe that trampers and climbers are not competitive – they are. 

These days cell phone coverage can be quite good and while not the best in steep hidden gullies can often give you enough signal to make a text report on your progress here and there. One of my sons, expressing concern, once, some years ago, asked if I had a PLB (personal locator beacon) when I was about to depart on one of my solos.  My reply, to tease him, – “what’s that?” – produced some eye rolling, obviously failed to reassure him.  So I offered to leave notes of my progress under stones along the way!  And to make smoke signals when brewing up! But times have changed and quite good PLBs can be purchased or hired (or borrow from your brother) weighing about 100g. And they are satellite and GPS operated, quite handy in hidden valleys. There are lots of places where solo is probably inadvisable but then the pros and cons of solo will always be related to the when and where of your trip and your experience.