We checked into Milford Sound Lodge, which was quite literally a mountain lodge in the middle of nowhere. You have to tug open the big heavy door that you can imagine is crusted with snow and ice in the winter, make your way to the reception amid the timber pillars supporting the ceiling, and check in with cash-in-hand only. There is a small ‘General Store’ selling things like carabiners, climbing rope and energy gels. ‘Personal lubricant’ and condoms were on sale also, but you’d have to literally blow of the dust to see the price: people that arrive here are not looking to conquer anything in the bedroom – its Milford sound: home to some of the most native, inimitable landscapes this side of the Indian Ocean, arguably the world.
The forecast calls for 22°C with sunshine all morning, which is the perfect weather for our chosen route in the morning: Gertrude’s Saddle, which our lodge ‘brochure’ (a 20weight piece of laser jet paper printed last week) warns “Good Weather Walk Only,” and “High Avalanche Risk in Winter and Spring.”
The trailhead warns that the route is for fit and experienced trampersonly, and that navigation and alpine skills are required. They weren’t lying. You travel along a riverbed for about 800 meters before making a scramble up 45° of granite and schist for more than a kilometer. Once the trail plateaus, you are standing beside an alpine lake with crystal clear waters that are bone-chillingly cold. The next 500 meters is straight up a rock face with help from an imbedded cable. Hand by hand you clench the cold, rough cable and brace on your tip-toes, swaying side to side trying to ascend with any fortitudinous pace. It’s like fully exerting yourself amid air that is thinning more and more every step you take while only moving about a meter every 15 seconds. As you crest the summit amid the heat of the sun baking your face (no other skin is exposed), the view down the other side is breathtaking. It is a sheer drop, hundreds of meters straight to a valley, with a river seemingly minuscule winding it’s way to the ocean. The air is crisp and cool, small patches of grass are doing everything they can to survive amid the boulders and rock, and everywhere you look, the only view is down.