The Rangitata: A River Crossing in Many Parts

We had initially planned to take a shuttle around the Rangitata, a large and heavily braided river that the TA Trust officially recommends against crossing on foot. But as we arrived at the pick-up location, three southbound hikers were leaving to walk across. Minutes after they left, a giant Australian man in small shorts and a red, white, and blue Patagonia hat appeared from the river, heading north. He said the crossing was "easy" and we chatted for a bit, swapping stories about the PCT and comparing our gear.

The Rangitata is dangerous in large part because the valley is massively broad. It takes several hours to get all the way across and the water level can rise rapidly with heavy rainfall. When we arrived, however, it hadn't rained in weeks and the water level was relatively low. With recent beta from someone who'd come across himself (not to mention several others making  the trek ahead of us), we felt confident that we could make it safely.

We had to wait for the shuttle to drop off our supplies for the next section, so it wasn't until several hours later that we set out to cross, first walking a kilometer or so upstream. Once we left the trail on the north side of the river, it would take us 3 hours to reach trail again on the southern bank. 

At first, we followed a fenceline that took us around several shallower and slower moving channels. Then we ventured out onto a desolate plain of sand and rock. The river itself was manageable (though I wouldn't have necessarily used the word "easy"... then again, I'm not 6'4'', either). But the defining feature of our crossing was the extremely high wind, which had grown worse and worse as the evening wore on. It raged down the valley, pelting us with dust and sand. We fought to stand up straight as gust after gust swept past, and I hid my face in my bandana. In spite of my sunglasses, my eyes stung with the sand whipping in from every angle. My lips were encrusted with silt and all I could hear was the rushing wind and water.

photo/ Jonathan 

photo/ Jonathan 

Midway through the crossing, we were trekking across a grassy island when I realized that we were walking on top of a sizeable rabbit kingdom. The ground was a network of tunnels and (quite treacherous) holes, and rabbits fled from us with every step. I have so many questions: Do rabbits swim? How did they get here? Do they all just die whenever the river floods?! Jonathan and I communicated all of these critical questions using hand signals and head shaking -- the roar of the wind made it impossible to hear a word, even standing at an arm's length. 

Maintaining forward motion while staying upright in gale force winds is quite a difficult task.  photo/ Jonathan 

Maintaining forward motion while staying upright in gale force winds is quite a difficult task.

photo/ Jonathan 

The weirdest moment by far, though, came as we walked across a gravel field just like the one in the photo above. Look at the ground under my feet there. Looks like your average ground, right? Well, all of my years of trekking experience taught me that when I step on ground like this, it feels solid under my feet. So you can imagine my surprise when I took a completely normal step on this completely normal ground and the rocks under my feet rippled like there was a hole in the space-time continuum.

Quicksand! My foot began to sink rapidly into the gravel pudding where the ground had been, moments before. And for a second, my whole world was off balance. Then, as I wrapped my brain around my predicament, I swung my body around and crawled back to solid ground with my poles out in front of me as an anchor. The rest of the ground behaved as expected, but it was tough to shake the feeling that not everything was as it seemed.

In total, we crossed about 13 different channels with wide variations in depth and flow. Most were just knee deep, though one fast-flowing stream hit me at the thigh. As we reached our last channel, we yelled victoriously and stomped our way to the relative shelter of a small farm road. We sat down briefly and emptied out a mountain of gravel that had made its way in through the holes in our shoes. Then, we began making our way downstream to camp near the trail.

One of the less fortunate rabbits we found on the far side of the river while walking the road back to trail.   photo/ Molly  

One of the less fortunate rabbits we found on the far side of the river while walking the road back to trail. 

photo/ Molly  

Looking back across the river valley as we settled into camp.  photo/ Molly  

Looking back across the river valley as we settled into camp.

photo/ Molly  

Though we set up our tent in the most sheltered spot we could find, there wasn't much sleep to be had. It was strangely warm though, as we later found out, wind speeds in the valley reached 120km/hr (70 miles an hour). The sky was luminous still, but it was dark in the tent, which shook and flapped with every gust. We both laid awake, looking up at the thin fabric, hoping that our shelter would hold. Toward morning, we heard a snap and one side of the tent broke free. Already wide awake, I lunged out to tie it down again. Luckily, a small clip was our only casualty. But as the sun began to rise, we were both more than ready to pack up our bags. The dusty sky burned in wild shades of coral and hot pink as we hiked up and away from the Rangitata valley.

A night of stress and anxiety gave way to one of the most dramatic sunrises I've ever witnessed.   photo/ Jonathan  

A night of stress and anxiety gave way to one of the most dramatic sunrises I've ever witnessed. 

photo/ Jonathan