A winter storm had been brewing all day, and caught us as we clambered to the summit. A biting wind was blowing horizontal snow, and visibility was down to a few metres. We only knew that we had reached the top because a step in any direction was downhill. I was shielding my face from the driving snow while trying to get my frozen jaws around a muesli bar, and Doug was coiling up an ice-encrusted rope, when we noticed... well, we didn't know. Something weird was happening. Ghostly apparitions, sensed more than seen, were floating up to us through the howling white mists.
“Hey Doug – what are those funny things just below us?” “I don't know, but they're brightly coloured.” “They almost look like they're moving.” “They are moving.”
Huh! Of all the days to meet another team on the summit of Rolleston! We couldn't see each other's faces through the layers of wool and and GoreTex, but I reckon that we were all grinning at each other.
“You mad buggers!” “Did you get lost trying to find the pub too?”
We all high-tailed off the mountain via the easy way. The snow had turned to hard rain by the time we reached the valley. Four chilled, soggy bodies were soon cramming themselves into cars, heaters on full, heading for Arthurs Pass.
The Alpine Club hut, with drive-on access in the village, is a welcome refuge with hot showers, a pot-belly woodburner and an electric stove. Our new friends arrived within minutes of us. Shed of parkas and down jackets and balaclavas and helmets, we started attaching names to faces. With a fire lit, wine poured and food underway, we got to size up our new chums. Steve went rummaging around the hut's shelves, and struck gold amongst the detritus left behind by climbers over the years.
“Hey! Do you guys play 500?”
Huts have always been repositories for various items. Left to their own devices, they acquire the useful and abandoned. Random magazines and coverless books sprout on their shelves. Matches breed in strange corners. Stubs of candles, burnt to the quick, appear like stalactites on tables. Occasionally, you find a Gideon's bible next to the hut book. And packs of cards.
Cards are great. They keep you sane when crazy weather keeps you confined to the hut. Cards introduce you to your hut-mates. They divert your eyes and mind from the scroggin, peanuts and chocolate that you intended to eat tomorrow. What better icebreaker is there? It's easy to get to know strangers by the card-table banter that accompanies suits, trumps and jokers. Look:
“Help yourself to some wine, Steve. Seven hearts. How long are you guys planning on staying here?”
“Thanks, I will. Seven spades. I guess we'll sit out tomorrow, and see how Sunday looks. I should be building a new deck at home, but I might be curled up in front of the fire with a book, resting my weary bones after from today's madness. I'm a bit wrecked from following John's long legs up the hill today.”
“Where's home, Steve? I hope your hand is better than mine, Doug. Eight hearts. I've just finished refurbishing the deck at our place...”
And before long, over the cards, basking in the warmth and crackle of the fire, a couple of glasses of wine under our belts:
“Join us on Monday for...”
“I'll bring my nail gun around on Thursday...”
For me, the magic of a pack of cards is social. A card game forces you to sit close and connect with others. With elbows almost touching, you lock eyes and follow the movements of hands. You see grimaces and smiles and furrowed brows and little shots of glee; you see expressions. You fill the gaps with chatter or jokes, you can be as serious or silly, earnest or casual as you like. Whatever your personality is, it gets its outing. I like that.
It's been many years since I met Steve and John on the summit of Rolleston. I can't recall much about the climb, or the 500 score, but I have fond memories of that card game in the hut.