Lewis Pass Tops Traverse

Nina Valley to Lewis Pass

New Zealand

November 29-30, 2008

Dave Svilar, Neil, Steve


Steve, Dave and Neil summit shot on the Grand Duchess.  Photo by Neil

On my first day on the job as a teacher  the administrators at Cashmere High wanted to know who would be the next U.S. president, Hillary or Obama?  When I failed to provide an answer they moved onto the next question - why did you come here?  When I explained my interest in outdoor activities they all said, "Well, if you like to hike to climb, tramp, kayak, or ski, then you must meet Neil."

The next day all faculty reported and even though there were over 100 on staff I thought I'd try to pick out the vaunted Neil S.  I pictured a fellow like myself with more muscle and hair.  Turned out that Neil was some 20 years my senior and sadly - for him - actually had less hair.  Even so, he wasn't hard to pick out from the crowd.  His sturdy physique and confident movements suggested a man who was hard and fit, and the twinkle in his eye seemed to say, "Screw work, let's go for a romp in the hills."  I gravitated towards him instantly. 

In the short time I taught with Neil he found ways to bring cheer to some dark days.  A guidebook or topo map in my box, a rock climb after school or a beer and slideshow at his house.  Most importantly he showed me that a person can take pride in their work but live for the relationships and adventures that take place outside of it.

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This was supposed to be a husband and wife trip to NZ, but less than two days after arriving Christchurch  I left Jill behind to join Neil and his "mate" on a "tramp."  My favorite pastime involves long days off the trail above the treeline (kiwi translation: a long walk above the bushline).  Neil is the only other person I know who's absolute favorite thing is the same.  So, when Neil sent a text the night before I knew that the trip was not to be missed - regardless of my responsibilities as a husband and traveling companion.

Most of the mountain areas in the northern part of the South Island are not real mountains but extensive ridgelines.  No hanging glaciers or huge waterfalls - just seasonal snow.  What it lacks in drama it makes up for in seemingly endless  possibilities to link ridgelines above the bush.

After an excruciating bout of morning IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome) I made it to Steve's house just after 6:45 am.  After Steve and I were introduced we sped off towards Lewis Pass.  Considering the age of my companions I was amazed how quickly we hiked up the Nina Valley splashing in mud, tripping on roots and even fording a river.  Few trips I've been on require fording a river so I found myself reluctant to plunge - boots, socks, and all - into NZ creeks and rivers.  Neil found my reluctance comical, but he was patient as I whined the rest of the trip about my wet feet.

After two or three hours of valley walking Neil gave the signal to go up.  We "bushbashed" our way above the treeline where we remained for the rest of the trip.  Breaking treeline has always given me a second wind so I was surprised to look up and see Neil 100 meters ahead.  At first this was embarrassing to be pummeled by an old man at my favorite pastime, but soon realized I was witnessing tramping greatness.  I decided to accept the pummeling as impetus for improvement. 

We made a quick ascent of the Grand Duchess following Neil's elephant-sized steps kicked in the snow.  A quick glissade, a long traverse past two small lakes and finally we arrived, tired, at the Brass Monkey Biv.  The biv was a structure resembling an outhouse on the exterior with two soiled bunks on the interior.  Steve seemed especially tired, and quite frankly struck me as someone who may snore, so I slept out on the grass well away from any snoring that may have emanated from the biv.  Just before dark (9 pm in November!) we laid out on the grass outside the biv eating supper.  "I just love being in the hills," said Neil "it sure beats being at school."  I couldn't disagree with the latter, but was finding it difficult to soak in the full ambience of the hills.  My feet, which had been thoroughly soaked all day from fording the Nina River, looked like dehydrated prunes.  Worse than their appearance was the cold, uncomfortable feeling while trying to relax and enjoy my surroundings.  The country is so wet with river channels  and bogs that a "wet boot tramp" is almost inevitable.  Some of the Kiwi tramping old guard - who I was accompanying on this trip - consider the trip a bust if their feet aren't soaking wet.

Not one to sleep in I awoke the following morning at the first hint of light.  Thick clouds rolling over the surrounding hillsides was alarming, so I awoke Neil who was sleeping in his tent.  "Let's get going looks like rain."

"It's bloody 4:55 am.  Go back to bed kid."

Two hours later the old guys were ready to rise.  Not long after tramping resumed the clouds cleared making me look like even more of a jerk for waking Neil so early.  Views as the clouds cleared were extraordinary with looks into the Nelson Lakes peaks and into the river valley and highway far below.  Before dropping below the treeline we stopped for a break and a last look at the surroundings.  A quick trail saved us a bushwhack and brought us out at Lewis Pass where Steve hitched a ride to retrieve the car.

- written December 2008

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It turned out to be the only trip I'd take with Neil in the hills of New Zealand.  I was under the mistaken impression that every other New Zealander would be like Neil, but I feel fortunate in befriending at least one adventurous Kiwi.  The night we left NZ Neil had his USA atlas on the table inquiring about the Pacific Northwest.  He has trips to the Baja and Himalayas already scheduled, but could a "romp" in the North Cascades be in the future?

On the bushbash to the ridge Steve becomes entangled in a prickly vine they call "bush lawyer."


Nimble and strong like a goat, Neil stands in front of the Grand Duchess.


Neil and Steve pass one of the tarns in the late afternoon of the first day.


Neil chugs along above the bushline as we approach the biv.


Steve sizes up the Brass Monkey Biv.  Looks like an outhouse but makes a comfy, albeit cozy shelter on the inside.


More biv from a different angle.  Photo by Neil


Lounging outside the biv in the late November evening.  Neil prepares his exotic dinner of ... rice.


Fog clears on the second day.


Dave and Steve walking freely along the tops after the fog had cleared.  Photo by Neil




I was hoping to learn some new tricks from Neil, maybe something about staying fueled on a long trip.  While I probably won't adopt his scheme I will admit that it was simple - bread and butter. 

Step #1 - remove loaf of bread and butter from pack.  Just leave everything in original container. 

Step #2 - spread butter on bread.  Knives are for soft Americans, just use middle finger of left hand.

Step #3 - fold bread and consume.  Slicing and any other sort of presentation unnecessary.


A long picnic in the grass before descending through the trees and back to Lewis Pass.


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