This is the story of the best hut trip in New Zealand. The best because of the adventure, the beauty, the little shack itself, and most importantly, the expedition crew. This is the story of the Barker hut.
The expedition crew meets at the trailhead by the bridge over the Waimak riverbed in Arthur’s Pass. It consists of Will (Routeburn hut warden), Crystal (Abel Tasman hut warden), Ellyse (Sierra wilderness ranger), Pete (adventurer from my hometown of Missoula), and myself.
There is no track to the Barker hut. It’s a mission to get there, involving route-finding, multiple river crossings, not a single bridge, and good timing for low water. The hut sits high on glacial moraine at the head of the White River valley, in the shadow of Mount Murchison and the Marmaduke-Dixon Glacier.
We’re getting a late start, due to some confusion about trailheads from some expedition members who shall remain nameless. We shoulder our packs and begin the first leg of our journey at 4:00pm, a four-hour walk into the Carrington hut to spend our first night.
Two hours of blissfully easy beech forest and tussock flats walking later, we huddle in the tiny sandfly and mouse-ridden Anti Crow hut for a snack. Will writes in the hut intentions book that we’re exploring a new route to Mount Cook, sealing the deal that if something happens to us and anyone comes looking, they’ll conclude that we’re total idiots not worth saving.
The middle-aged tough-looking Kiwi man occupying the Anti Crow hut asks us where we’re heading. When we tell him we’re making for Barker, he bursts out:
“The BARKER hut?! You know that takes a bit of scrambling.”
We nod. We know.
“You know the swing bridge washed out, so there’s a chimney you’ll have to descend. It’s pretty dodgy.”
We’re unfazed (sort of). We’re still determined to get there. We pack up our snack, and head out into the setting sun. We hope he doesn’t read the intentions book.
We joke that we should have told him that half of us are wilderness rangers and the other half live in Montana. We’re more than capable. (As the sun sets, the light fades, and we end up walking in the dark on uneven river stones lit by weak headlamps for two hours, and only stumble on the Carrington hut thanks to blind luck. MORE than capable, clearly.)
Lucky for us, there’s only one person at Carrington to disturb with our late night entrance – and this giant 36-bunk hut is so cavernous that we don’t even see him until the next morning, when he reports his failed attempt to get to the Barker hut the day before. He was thwarted by an impossible gorge crossing of the White River. He gives us a peek of the route description he was following, which describes some ominous tussock sidling before the chimney descent and the gorge fording.
He wished us luck as he left, and calling, “Have fun at the Baxter hut!”
No wonder he didn’t make it.
Before we set out from Carrington, we’re sure to write about the progress of the Mount Cook exploration party in the intentions book. Our spirts remain high through 14 river crossings and two hours of riverbed walking. Our spirits start to drop a little after a couple hours of slow and steep tussock sidling above the river.
Finally, we reach the dreaded chimney near the head of the White River valley. Turns out it’s just a steep and narrow scree field. Exhale.
At the bottom of the chimney is the gorge crossing. We dance across it. (Okay, everyone else dances. I freak out and Ellyse has to wade in and hold my hand).
Jubilant, we start the final steep ascent up glacial moraine to the hut, accompanied by an alarmingly large escort of keas reminiscent of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds. We top the rise right at the doorstep of the greatest little shack in New Zealand. We made it, despite all predictions to the contrary.
Barker is a 6-bunk hut with one of the most beautiful views possible. It’s surrounded by glaciers, massive peaks, and looks out down the White River at the beginning of the fabled Southern Alps that stretch south all the way to the sea. It’s littered with old intentions books all the way back to the 1960s, entries from adventurers and climbers and mountaineers throughout decades.
We are gifted that evening with one of the most glorious sunsets I’ve ever seen, one of those that keeps on giving long after the sun has sunk below the horizon. We celebrate with a dance party in our home for the night.
We wake in the dark the next morning to hike together to the ridge above the hut, and we watch the sun rise on this alpine paradise.
On the return journey, we forego the tussock sidling altogether and stick to the valley floor in what we believe to be the first descent of the White River valley (Okay, maybe the second). We stop by the Carrington hut to record our success at discovering a new route to Mount Cook in the intentions book below our entry from the day before.
Ten hours of riverbed walking later, the sun sets on us, lighting up the Waimak valley in yet another breathtaking demonstration of color. We finish our adventure in the dark through the beech forest—the only fitting way to end this expedition. Back in the carpark, we share beers under the stars and toast to a mission accomplished.
Read about my other top New Zealand huts: