Elitism in the Mountains


By R. Richards

The "Lodge" at Routeburn!

Fellow MSI board member Bob Stremba and I recently decided to spend a  couple of days on New Zealand’s Routeburn walk, one of the famous tracks in the Southern Alps. We did it last week, during the shoulder season so there were only a handful of people on the trail. But I can imagine the numbers grow exorbitantly during the summer months. Fair enough, that’s how New Zealand has decided to funnel foreign hikers, and showcase tourism into a few of the well-known tramps. Milford Sound not far away is another.

Hi There!

All went well, aside from a bit of rain. We met some nice hikers, one from Ireland, Australia, Switzerland and four from Canada. We stayed at the small Routeburn Flats hut, and the next day proceeded to the Routeburn Falls hut for a quick lunch break . That’s when something seemed out of place. First, the size of the Department of Conservation (DOC) hut was quite impressive, equipped to handle large amounts of hikers. I then noticed above me, and pondered what in the world, could the huge building possibly be that stood above the DOC hut? Since it was the off season, this larger upper building was closed, bit we could peek in the windows . As I approached,  a big wooden sign in front of the building called out  the “Routeburn Falls Lodge”.  I saw a smaller sign behind it, mounted on the wall stating: “Strictly Guided Walkers Only” adding “Independent walkers please continue on to the DOC Hut.”

Private Rooms for the Gentry

The irony of first class and coach system arriving in the mountains struck me immediately with the thought that there should be a sign on the DOC hut stating, “Strictly Independent Walkers, Guided hikers should continue on to the nearest Hilton”. Of  course I don’t really feel that way, but it was the first thing that came to mind. Better yet, maybe the cognoscenti should overthrow the highfalutin hut and invite the coach class to join them, (and possibly even have a food fight).

The only site I can remotely remember seeing like this was in the Alps. Of course high living gentiles are still staying in the hotels just below the faces of the Matterhorn and Eiger. The only class arrangement I can remember seeing was in the Alpine Club huts of the Alps where the mountain quide’s quarters, were separated from us chattel climbers. But this, here in New Zealand was a whole other matter. I’m sure Oliver James, author of Affluenza would be proud of most Kiwis who shun this sort of thing in their mountains. I then found my tolerance level further tested with another sign telling “independent hikers” to a) turn around, b)  march their little butts down to where they belong  c) and stay there, all with the Orwellian salutation of “Hi There!”  See the actual text in the image above.

Bob Stremba, overlooking the Backcountry (?)

I hope that “haute couture” in the backcountry stops with this hut. I’m assuming there may be others though.  Even  though this super-duper hut sits in the heart of the Routeburn,  in the real backcountry, we’re still all the same. The problem is, having such a lodge like this goes a long way in destroying the very experience the concession is trying to offer. By its very nature, it removes itself from the backcountry. It brings the virulent virus – the epidemic of affluenza to the doorstep of paradise.  Tell us what you think about allowing such multiple uses on government land such as  luxury lodges (such as this one  run by Ultimate Hikes) Is it a bad idea? Are we missing something about the land use plans of NZ?

If you’re thinking of taking a  guided hike, suggest to your guide that he put you up with the rest of us. You’ll find it much more inspiring. Also suggest that they could change their signs to a less snooty sort.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , ,

7 Responses to “Elitism in the Mountains”

  1. Allan Ramsay Says:

    Hiya Mr Richards,
    You’re in a good wee place down there in Kingston. If you don’t already know it, you’ve got a whole world of backbountry adventures on your doorstep. I’m very envious of your situation!

    Fiordland, the upper Wakatipu and Wanaka and around about were where I used to work and play many years ago and I have great memories of that landscape and its wild weather. Best time of my life without a doubt!

    Your post on Elitism is interesting and a well-tramped argument in those parts. I’d like to put a few points from the other side of the coin. I’m not sure I agree with them myself but I think they are worth considering.

    (I should declare sort of an interest. Back in the day, I worked for several years guiding on the Milford. We used to batter this argument back and forth in the huts on rainy nights. We never found a solution!)

    Here we go:

    The luxury option allows people who don’t have the confidence, ability or skills to access the backcountry. It’s possible this access will inspire them to go on and acquire those skills. A lot of them are older citizens and should they not be helped where possible to experience a bit of face to face wilderness?

    Some of these people at the peak of their working live are influential and powerful and may go on to act as advocates for the wilderness in their working lives.

    The luxury options bring much needed jobs and income for those who live in small towns at their start and finish points. Those taking the haute couture option tend to have a lot more disposable income than those taking the independent option and they support clothing shops, restaurants and local travel companies when they arrive and leave. Check out Te Anau at the height of the walking season.

    Having the luxury option in one or two places at least limits the crowd damage to those areas which are already heavily travelled.

    Gnarly backcountry types know where to go to avoid the crowds.
    There are a lot of serious wilderness areas available to those who know how to seek them out. Check out the Olivines if you get a chance.

    Our operation worked closely with the DOC-operated independent walk. We would look after their people in bad weather and they would look after ours, if necessary i.e. crossing rivers in spate, sharing hut space in blizzards. There were no boundaries in those conditions.
    The independents (or “freedom walkers” as we used to call them then) did not always appreciate a bit of local knowledge given for their own safety. One of the DOC wardens was killed in an avalanche going to look after some o fhis independents who chose to ignore advice from us).

    We used to get a lot of attitude from some independent walkers for no real reason which I always found puzzling. They chose their option but once they embarked on it, appeared to resent the other option being present. This was not always the case but you know, I think humans tend to bring their own baggage with them and impose it on the environment wherever they are.

    On the Milford, with the ferry at either end, it was possible to control the numbers on the track. The huts were also spaced an hour or so apart which for the most part, meant the two parties did not have to meet. I realise “control” and “outdoors” are not words that should go together but this system did enable walkers to get the most out of their walk without constantly tripping over each other.

    I agree that a lot of the language used on the signs on both the Routeburn and Milford is divisive bordering on abusive. It’s a great pity as it does nothing to foster proper mountain spirit.

    There is an historical factor to these two luxury walking options. For many years, they were supported and in the Milford’s case, Government run, as a means of attracting tourists and income to those parts of NZ which “needed” an alternative income base to farming.

    And as an all in summary:
    I hate to see the deserted hills of my youth filling up with people (time was when if you saw two other people on a four day tramp, you’d complain – to yourself – about the crowds!) and plans for Monorails and other development but I’ve chosen not to live there anymore. The folk that have chosen to live close to the mountains, need investment and schools and medical facilities and jobs.

    Hope this helps. I’d love to find an answer to the development vs leave it alone discussion. I don’t believe there is an easy answer.

    PS. You just gotta check out Stewart Island! Beautiful and wild away from the very small settlement. On the back side you used to be able to see wild kiwis and live off the seafood instead of dehy. Next stop Antarctica.

    • mtnspirit Says:

      Hi Allan,
      Great comments. During an afternoon walk among the sheep as the sun set on Wakatipu, I explained your comments to my wife. We both agreed that there were tons of benefits of the luxury option of which we hadn’t thought . While the signage did put me off, that’s a minor thing. As you say, getting people out on their own power into the mountains is huge for the reasons you stated. Ed Abbey would approve. Heck, in the states, they plow a road into the Arches National Park, pave it, and create huge pull-offs so the huge motorhomes can lumber right up to what was once wilderness.
      I loved reading your perspective and history in this area. I most appreciated your civil nature in responding and commenting.
      I’ve always been against development, (some would say irrationally so, and I don’t believe that unsustainable growth is good nor possible) At 13 years old, I stood in front of the bulldozer when my dad was punching the first road into his development of our family land. “Get out of the way son, this is progress.” – Like something out of a movie. Maybe the deeper question is, can any of us continue to afford jetting to holidays in far away mountain towns, while we’re depleting our oil supplies at an alarming rate? It looks like peak oil is right around the corner. I think the world in another 50 years will be dramatically different than the one we know now. It’s not as obvious here in Otago or Southland, because of its rural, somewhat removed feel. Spending a few days outside of Boston, Montreal or even Auckland, and it becomes obvious that the scale of our consumption is not sustainable. I digress…
      Good points, all of them and thanks for the thought put into it.
      Where might you be these days, still in NZ? Did you head to a less populated place??
      We’ll definitely check out Stewart Island. Living off seafood…Sounds like the way to go.
      R. Richards

  2. Allan Ramsay Says:

    Love the bulldozer story.

    Well, my heart takes the purist line – “no more development”. But my head says that’s just not the way humans are and there are too many of us to stop it. Fifty years from now – I dread to think.

    Where am I now? Like many Kiwis, left for my OE and 22 years on, haven’t quite managed to return for good. I live in London, rubbing shoulders with 7million others – an experience about as far away from Fiordland as you can get.

    Don’t ask me why. People here sometimes ask if I miss it and I think of that Fiordland weather and mountain sunsets and rises and my reply is always “Only every bloody day!”. Still, we make our choices, eh?

    Funnily enough, I was in Kingston only in April as I was home in Southland for both my parents’ 90th birthdays (oysters, potatoes and fresh Southland air are to blame plus my Dad’s from “the Island”). Nosed around the Flyer and the beach for a while. Being back there for me is like an old dog rolling in fresh sheep sh*t.

    One historical point I omitted to make is that the Milford for many years was closed to Independent walkers and it took a walk by some local tramping clubs to force the Government to change the rules.

    I’m sure you’ll enjoy every minute. Cheers.

    • mtnspirit Says:

      Hey Allan,
      Thanks for your comments, and your last one..”Milford for many years was closed to Independent walkers and it took a walk by some local tramping clubs to force the Government to change the rules.” which I found fascinating. We are renting the house right behind the Kingston Flyer/Tavern – so you were in a stone’s throw of us when you passed through…A small world.
      I’m sure our readers will enjoy your comments,
      Thanks again,

  3. Allan Says:

    HI Randall,
    Me again. I keep reading disturbing stories about the Monorail to Milford. It looks llike it will happen eventually!!! What’s your take being on the ground there?

    • mtnspirit Says:

      Hi Paul,
      We’re actually back in the states for a little bit before we return to Kingston/Glenorchy, but last I heard when we were there, there will be a lot of opposition to it. The powers that be will work hard to get it through. Be that as it may, If people realize they have a lot of power to fight and win, they might keep it from happening. We’ve had good success here in New Hampshire at blocking some development that many thought was done deal. So it can be done. I’ll keep yo posted when we get back..and will do a blog post on it.
      Thanks and good to hear from you..keep us posted if you hear anything more..

      • Allan Says:

        Thanks for that. I hope so. I’ll make a donation to a fighting fund. Can’t believe that DOC is supporting the application. I can understand they need the money but it seems like a blatant selling off bits of the national park. I thought the parks were protected forever. Bit naive there , I think.
        I’ve an old mate who is the school teacher at Glenorchy – Belinda Jones.
        Aah, got to get home and spend some time around those parts again.
        Talk again soon.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: