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Leaning Lodge – 55 years of Section Trips

By: Pete Strang

Source: The Otago Climber (Otago Section Newsletter) – June 2018


The Otago Section Committee recently used some of our Banff funds to support the Leaning Lodge Trust to bring the hut up to spec. Trustee and Section stalwart Pete Strang says thanks by remembering a trip to the hut 55 years ago!

With all the work going on to bring the Leaning Lodge up to standard, and considering all the rules, regulations, and the “safety” requirements today, I couldn’t help reflecting on a trip 55 years ago to the old Leaning Lodge in the middle of winter. Marion and I must have had 3 to 4 days up our sleeves or perhaps we just decided to give lectures a miss…but whatever, the adventure was on.

We sent the skis up to Middlemarch on the train a few days before and headed off on my Royal Enfield 350 motorbike very early on a very wintery day, a southerly change being forecast and also snow. I still remember how cold it was and Marion, now into her 70’s, still reminds me of the discomforts of that motorbike! She was wearing my down jacket made by my mother from old sleeping bags or was it her duffle coat? We had layers and layers on under our old oil skin parkas.

In those days the road was not tarsealed but just one badly corrugated snake through a tussocked wilderness. It went on for ever and the 50’s machine had no back shockies. [ a far cry from my present-day fully automatic, SYM 300 GTS Evo Super Scooter with heated handgrips, a heater, and the rest ! ] The Enfield’s one claim to fame, however, was that a battery was really a superfluous item and if it rattled off, as it did on one memorable trip in the Mackenzie Country heading to Cook, its magneto would keep the machine going although the lights would only go if you were accelerating…. a trifle challenging at night up the side of Pukaki! I digress however!

We made it to Middlemarch by around 11am and picked up the skis from the railway station. Marion held onto them grimly as we made our way to the old stone hut at the start of the Otago Ski Club poled route up to Leaning Lodge….now the starting point for heading up to Big Hut. However, we came off the bike in the very wet and slippery conditions crossing the field to the hut and broke the foot rest off, skis and poles going everywhere! The new foot rest for Marion became the exhaust pipe….sizzling and steam and the smell of rubber! By this time there were snow flurries coming from time to time.

I really wondered whether we should carry on… smart phones to assess the weather….didn’t need them, it was pretty obvious. We had planned a turnaround time, and let our parents know where we were headed but not all the details! We had a brew using my primus, stowed the trusty bike in the hut and headed off. The patches of blue disappeared pretty promptly as we gained height up the ridge and soon we were in a snowy wilderness and it really had the beginnings of a blizzard and became one. It was a mission breaking a trail, the markers kept coming into view, but eventually I had to get Marion to stay at a marker pole until I went on, identified the next one and waved through the maelstrom and called her on. We had the odd pause for a rest, but we were getting colder and colder and wondered seriously about turning around. There was absolutely no shelter anywhere.

By this time, we were reasonably high up and when the poles crossed a gully I realised that the hut was probably not that far away but the conditions were such that we needed all our reserves to make it. The snow was waist deep in places. We dumped the skis at the pole where we exited the gully along with some heavy tinned food…not much “dehy” in those days!

It would not be too difficult to come back down the short distance tomorrow to pick the stuff up…..after all southerlies usually blow themselves out….you don’t need a smart phone to tell you that! Half an hour later with much relief we dug our way into the hut from above the steps ! ….unbelievable.

We got the Little Dorrit stove going. I had carried up some coal and the Otago Ski Club had a supply as well. We had a billy on the stove melting snow within minutes and it was heaven. I went back for the skis and food later the next morning. The weather was far from settled with a lot of wind, and blowing snow. By evening on the second day it was clearing a little, but we decided to exit the following day which we did through bottomless drifts, literally swimming and falling down the mountainside.

It was early afternoon when we got to the stone hut, and it was starting to snow again off and on. We chugged off to Middlemarch trying to stay upright leaving the skis at the station to be brought through to Dunedin in the next few days. We then headed off for Dunedin; no “Kissing Gate” café in those days, just a very bleak prospect ahead of us. There was some snow on the road at Sutton but the bike was easier to handle as the pack on the tank in front of me was lighter and Marion’s pack was not loading her down too much as she could balance it on the back of the carrier.

There was no smart phone to check on road conditions….you didn’t have to…it was pretty obvious that it was going to be an adventure and the locals we talked to confirmed that the road was “probably closed” but to have a go anyway ! Deep Stream came and went but the hill up towards Clarke’s Junction became a challenge as the snow got deeper and deeper until we finally came off in a drift. We could see the hotel in the distance and we managed to get there by pushing the bike through the drifts with the motor helping us. It seemed an interminable distance but we finally made it. There was a wonderful welcome awaiting us with cups of tea and sandwiches, and a roaring fire, all “on the house.” I think the proprietors were as surprised as we were that we had got that far. We have never forgotten their hospitality.

An hour or so later the local council managed to get through to the hotel from Outram, clearing the road with snow plough and truck. They loaded the bike on board the truck and took us out to Outram. It was a wonderful trip “exploding” through the drifts. As the council guys helped us unload our bike at the bottom of the hill on the Taieri Plains the sun came out, it was almost balmy, and there was not a skerrick of snow anywhere. When we got home no one believed us.

Pete’s footnote: “You will note my reference to social media. Please forgive me if I make one observation. It is that like the new hut today that has to comply with building regulations in a harsh environment [ would you believe we have to replace all the galvanised bolts with stainless steel ones ! ] we are being told that we need to carry our cell phones on our trips to remain “safe”. I don’t have too much problem with locator beacons and telling people about your intentions and expected time out, but I think it is an untruth that you are not safe without a phone.

We are fast losing touch with the primal and my suggestion would be that if you do have to take it with you have it well and truly turned off for the trip and resist the “requirement” that you always have to check in to let people know where you are and that you are safe….unless there is an absolute emergency. Making some of your experience a secret might start the discovery of your authentic self…and your judgment much more worked out than what a txt message might tell you to do next. You gain your own “good authority” which is priceless for survival in the mountains especially when you get into the big stuff. It is called experience and gaining it is an apprenticeship which takes time over years and a ton of commitment.”

Posted: 11/06/18

Posted By: Narina Sutherland