bored engineering student watching videos on his computer during summer break experienced that phenomenon so often attributed to wasting time on the YouTube website. One minute I was learning how to assemble a remote control aircraft, the next I got hooked watching paragliding videos, and finally I reached the channel of an individual who went on multi-day excursions, including climbing up into hostile New Zealand alpine terrain and launching from its peaks.
During a previous visit to that country with family, these distant snow covered tops were constantly drawing my attention. While hiking up the Kepler Track from Te Anau the to break company with my casually ambling parents and siblings and run wildly off the path up the grass up to the snow and ice slopes was intense, but sensibility prevailed. For the remainder of the trip, the high mountains took their place by the moon, their harsh beauty is undeniable and attractive to the adventurous type but there is always the knowledge that one cannot get there, and so its grip on you tends to fade away.
This person's simple act of documenting and sharing his day to day experiences climbing and flying in New Zealand and the Alps was enough to awaken renewed interest within me sitting in my room. All of a sudden these mountain places seemed a whole lot lower than the moon when an average bloke can record his weekend on a gopro camera walking up them and flying off.
Twelve months later I was halfway up an ice climb on a mountain, eying off the icicles hanging high above my head, wondering how long it would take the sun to melt the biggest ones off. Not wanting to disturb my partner's concentration while he was leading the pitch, I held my tongue, but couldn't help but stare at them, ready to dodge. One by one, the smallest came tumbling down. On the positive side, I joked, returning with an icicle through the head would surely win us the safety shirt back at the hut tonight! How came this?
I had heard of the Melbourne University Mountaineering Club when, on a family hike we had visited the club hut on Mt Feathertop. My Father had been there on a trip as a teenager, and encouraged us all to check it out. A quick google search found their website, and mention of climbing trips and mountaineering in New Zealand, including mountaineering courses run by a person called Stuart Hollaway. Excitedly I learned that they met every Tuesday night.
I rushed to get to the clubrooms on Berkeley St. It was the week before orientation week, and so the crowds had yet to arrive, but many members had returned from their summer trips away. I sheepishly poked my head around the rooms, looked at photos, and listened to conversations. Standing in the corner I was approached by Richard, who was very friendly, and figured out quickly what I was interested in and why I was there. He told me, towards the end of the meeting, after showing me around the rooms that somone called Stu would be at the pub afterwards, and I should come too to chat with him about Mountaineering. Little did I know this was a fairly rare and lucky opportunity. He also promised to show me the ropes (so to speak) of climbing if I was keen.
We walked together down to the fantastic old pub (The Corkman, which has since been illegally demolished in 2016!), and after a drink or two, Stu walked in and sat at our table. While I was listening and participating in the general conversation, he struck me as quite a strong minded character. Richard introduced me. We had a chat, and worked out I could hopefully go on the next club mountaineering course, which he had been running the past couple of years. I was to learn climbing (Trad especially) in the meantime, as the best mental preperation for the trip.
I made a short film about the mountaineering camp which can be found on vimeo here: MUMC Mountaineering Camp
Learning the Ropes
The next few months I threw myself wholeheartedly into getting the experience necessary for lead climbing. Right from the start, Richard suggested that I get a certain amount of seconding done before he would offer to teach me to lead. Every club climbing trip, I went on if I could. Always asking the leaders questions, and afterwards going home and doing my own research on the technical topics of safe climbing. After dinner conversations with my father about being sensible, and risk management helped me keep my head.
I will never forget the first lesson of lead belaying out at Werribie Gorge, catching a fall which I knew was eventually coming, but did not immediately expect was a large confidence booster (perhaps too large).
Over many trips the topics of anchor building, seconding, prusiking, etc etc were all covered by the leaders I climbed with, who were aware that I wanted to learn. This mentorship process was incredibly valuable. There was a more formal process in the club for learning to lead, but the process would have only put me in a position to lead climb towards the end of the year. I was much too keen for this, and it would have not left me much time to climb independently before the mountaineering course.
Dale (Stu's partner) and Gaetan (the current club mountaineering officer) were organising a mountaineering camp. I had just enough leave planned that it would be possible to back to back the mountaineering course, and the camp. I was very excited for the entire year for both the trips. The first was to introduce the skills, and the second was to reinforce them through independent decision making. And of all people, I was to be climbing mostly with Richard, the first person I met at MUMC.
On the way home from the Banff film festival I spotted someone who I recognised as a friend of a friend. An older fellow, who, back in the day, I was told, had been a mountaineer in South America, but had stopped after some of his partners died in a climbing accident. I approached him, and was curious to see what his views might be if I told him I had joined MUMC to go mountaineering. What he said, I cannot remember exactly, but it shook my confidence, and began to make me question my motivations. Stu, right in our first conversation had said that people die mountaineering, and you have to be willing to accept that possibility if you want to do that. I don't think one can ever understand precisely what this means. I thought I understood it, but I since realise that I didn't.
My first lead climb and my first lead fall occured on Stu's annual "Onsight or Flight" trip out at Mt Arapiles. Normally reserved for experienced climbers as an opportunity to push and improve climbing trad at your limit, Stu was happy to personally accomodate myself and Liv who was also fairly new to lead climbing. Straight into the thick of it, a fantastic opportunity, and I hope that this trip can continue to be run in the future. I made a couple of short films about this trip which are up on vimeo at Onsight or Flight 2014 and Onsight or Flight 2015.
The first multipitch climb that I lead was out at the Cathedral Ranges. I went with a friend who had never climbed before. In retrospect, this was a mistake, because although I was fairly confident about my own ability to do the climb safely and to teach him to belay, my partner would not have had the skills to deal with a scenario should I fall and be injured. We had a great time, but lesson learned.
The morning I arrived in New Zealand, I took a connecting flight out to Queenstown. I had planned to do a single day of a paragliding course, just to see what it was like. Mistaking the accent of the taxi driver at the airport, I accepted his charge of "fifteen dollars" for the drive out to the course location. Bouncing along the country road I glanced at the cost counter and saw that it was already at 30 dollars, oh dear, I asked to be let out right then and he was kind enough to give me the fare I had anticipated. Walking along the road I had little luck hitching a ride, probably something to do with the ice axes on the backpack. So I legged it on over the kilometers to the paragliding field. It was a brilliant day, the sun was shining and there was a little bit of wind.
The paragliding course with Lisa from extreme air was fantastic. She was surprised that I managed to get to the point of taking my own short flights from the hill by the end of the day. Would love to try paragliding again sometime in the future.
The next day I was on a bus and heading over to the west coast to Fox for the mountaineering course with Stu. I had a pleasant time conversing with an Indian gentleman who was on a holiday given to him as a gift from his son, a non-stop bus tour around New Zealand. How horrible I thought, being stuck in a bus with all this fantastic scenery sliding by, but he seemed rather happy with the situation.
I hope to cover the mountaineering course, and its content more in a different post, but suffice to say we had a great time. It was fortunate that our group had the opportunity to interact with our guide, and train and climb together before heading over to New Zealand before the course. We all got a lot out of it, and have all been on subsequent trips up into the mountains.
Jules, Anja and I caught the bus back to Christchurch together over Athurs pass after the mountaineering course. Everyone was wrecked, but it was a beautiful day outside and I watched the mountains and the forests pass by out the window, totally engrossed.
Jules and myself were stuck in Christchurch on Christmas day. We decided that we must do something to celebrate the occasion, so we looked up on thecrag for the nearest outdoor climbing destination to Christchurch that we might be able to ride bikes there and go climbing. Details were hard to come by, but we had a general vicinity on google maps, and headed out on our silly rental bikes for an interesting day.
Arriving at the start of the walking track, all the hills above us were covered in cloud, so we could not see what we were aiming for. We made our way up the path, and then up the grassy slope, taking a general guess as to the location of the crag. We reached the top after some scrambling, and as the cloud cleared it became obvious that we needed to traverse the rocky ridge line and eventually abseil to reach the climbs we were hoping to see. We were both aware that the earthquakes in Christchurch had probably affected the area, but this did not seem such a large risk in comparison to witnessing tons of rock falling nearby us in the mountains.
After the abseil while retrieving the ropes, I managed to get the rope caught on a ledge. A sharp pull brought the rope down, but a decent sized rock came flying down too, luckily I was able to duck and my backpack took the blow harmlessly. Lesson learned:
- if your rope is stuck, it could be caught on loose rocks
- don't stand directly beneath your abseil when pulling the ropes
I had understood these things in theory, but it took a practical mistake to highlight their importance.
We ended up finding a fun trad line, and wondering how half the cliff face had managed to roll down the hill, taking with it many climbs, presumably as a result of the earthquake.
I met with a car load freshly arrived from Melbourne overnight in Christchurch, who picked me up from the Jailhouse Hostel. We bought an innordinate amount of food, and struggled to find boxes to put it all in for the helicopter ride up. The drive up to Cook Village was great, another chance to check out the scenery.
In Cook Village we took the liberty to check out the climbing museum, highly recommended. The table model of the area was fantastic for discussing the climbs that we might attempt on our trip.
With food boxes re-packed, two helicopter flights up to Tasman saddle hut ensued the next good weather morning. I was on the second flight in. The helicopter landed on the glacier in the the saddle above the hut. A number of "rogue" potatos escaped their bag and had to be retrieved. Stu had told us enough stories about people tripping, falling, sliding and dying next to the huts that we were all on guard while ferrying our goods into the hut down below. For the entire time we were there, we were the sole occupants of Tasman Saddle Hut, a very lucky and happy turn of events.
The first outing for the trip was a traverse of Mt Aylmer and Hochstetter Dome, an absolute classic. In my head as we climbed was the story Stu had told us the night before of the "Heavy Roller" and the "Axe Murderer" and their multi-day "epic" attempt on the south face of Hochstetter, all within earshot of the hut. We cruised up Mt Aylmer, and spent a lot of time faffing around with snow anchors. In retrospect, a lot of this terrain, once confident on your feet and crampons can be fairly safely soloed.
On the descent I shouted out to Richard that I was not confident with the ice screws in one of my anchors. When he arrived, we set up a second anchor by bashing in a snow stake, and I proceded to jump on my own anchor which resulted in the failure of all three screws, a real eye opener. Richard stated something to the effect that he never really trusts anchors in the mountains anyway.
Further down the mountain, we decided to take a shortcut by belaying, and scaring ourselves a little silly accross a rather interesting ice bridge. It was fairly safe on belay, but having one's foot break through and looking down the hole not being able to see the bottom gave me the willies.
Every evening back in the hut, as a way to encourage safe climbing, a flouro "safety shirt" was awarded by popular vote to the person who was particularly safe, or unsafe. Richard took the award on the first day for sleeping with his head on a brick waiting for the helicopter.
A traverse of the ridge between Mt Annan and Mt Abel and a rock climb near Mt Abel were the material for the following days. On the traverse we noticed our friends about to arrive in the saddle below us, so, assured they were in good humour and safe, we snuck up and threw snowballs at them.
Ice Climb on Elie
Back in the hut, Dale and Stu had returned from their attempt on Elie De Beaumont via the Anna Glacier. The Anna was too cut up, and a precarious block making funny sounds upon touching resulted in a retreat. Stu had taken some photos of some iced up gullies on the north side of Lendenfeld Saddle, and suggested to Richard and I that we could try to climb one of them the next morning. An open snow slope to the west would provide an easy means of descent.
Upon reaching the base of the gulley in the half light of dawn, the crux of the climb was obvious; an overhanging wall of ice/glacier just above the bergshrund at the bottom. Richard offered to lead this pitch, for which I was thankful, it was definitely, like many ice climbs in the mountains, a no fall situation. The climbing was excellent, and stunning, and the first belay placed us under an overhang, which unfortunately as previously mentioned held a host of icicles waiting to fall. Richard led the second pitch too, and I led the final pitch up and out onto the open snow slopes above.
It was at this point that we realised that the conditions of sun exposed snow were poor. A soft layer above hard ice made footing insecure, and we made the wise choice to begin a traverse over to our descent route rather than continue to the top. There was a sense of urgency and I dropped a glove. We debated soloing to move faster, but I didn't feel confident. Richard offered to lead, and place snow stakes, for which I am thankful. Several pitches more brought us to where we expected to descend.
Here we came across a problem: what we expected to be a nice, clean snow slope, was covered in the debris from recent rockfall from a nasty looking face just opposite us. We decided to try and make our way down the rock face directly below us instead. I was to be lowered, and I placed some pieces of protection for Richard on the way down not liking the idea of him doing it effectively unroped. When the end of the rope was reached, I was about 10m short of the snow slope below us, so I set up an anchor and began to belay Richard down. The problem was that this slope contained a large amount of loose rock, and while climbing, many rocks were dislodged. A dinner plate flew past my head as I pressed myself againsed the cliff. Richard shouted to me to forget the belay, untie and get to somewhere safer. I remember feeling slightly angry about this situation, but I suppose, in retrospect it wasn't such a bad choice to make. I down climbed the last 10m of sketchy rock onto the snow slope, halfway down the slope and off to the side, I found a small, protected ledge, and sat waiting for Richard.
After spotting me retreat to a safe spot, Richard resumed. A couple more rocks went sliding by and down over the lip of the schrund, and I half expected to see Richard join them. The sun was out and it was a beautiful morning, curled up on that ledge with a great view of the Tasman Valley and Mt Cook. I know not how much later, but was surprised to hear a friendly voice call up to me from the slope. I stretched to look down, and it was Richard, casually walking down, sounding unconcerned. I think we both had a laugh! (or at least I do feel like laughing about it now!)
Everyone knew how much Liv and Dani liked their Nutella, so I bravely elected to steal a quantity in order to provoke some sort of dispute between them over their eating habits. Their dismay was such that after a day or two I had to admit to the actions.
Several days later, after a visit to the hut from Rogers, a guide who's reputation preceded him, my Nutella went missing. I suspected foul play from the girls, but was ernestly convinced by the others that Rogers had placed the Nutella in his locked box under the sink. This was a devastating blow.
The hog's backs over Mt Cook marked the onset of the next cold front, and the poor weather. New Year's Eve was celebrated in good spirits with graupel and pineapple Pina Coladas in the hut.
Over at Plateau hut, a drama was playing out over the radio. A group of Germans and an Australian had decided to team up and climb Mt Cook. Unfortunately their choice of timing was poor, with the onset of bad weather being obvious throughout the preceding week, they had decided to go anyway with only a day to complete the climb before the storm was expected to arrive. Our hut shook during the night as the winds tried to pry it from the ridge, and my thoughts went out to the climbers who had not radioed in at 7pm for the scheduled call from DOC. We had laughed at the jest in the description over the radio of the Australian deciding to team up with the "crazy Germans" several days beforehand, but now the situation seemed rather more serious, and I felt horrible for having made light of something which turned out to be so dire.
Over the subsequent days, they were presumed missing, and they were identified by the possessions they had left behind. A search party had been sent, but no trace could be found. Stu surmised that they had probably been swept into a crevasse and covered by snow. The Australian man had left behind a family in Sydney. This discovery prompted many thoughts about choices and responsibilities when deciding to take risks in the mountains.
When the weather cleared, Stu and Dale headed out for an afternoon slog over to the Bonney Glacier to camp next to Rumdoodle for an ascent of Malte Brun. We were all amused at the prospect of hearing them radio in from that location for the 7pm radio sched. I teamed up with Tom and Gaetan, and early in the morning we all evacuated the hut and followed in their frozen footprints. The moon was up, and head-torches were uneccessary. Turning the corner into the Darwin Glacier, the sun began to rise just as the moon was setting, with perfect timing. When we reached the Bonney Glacier, ahead we could see Danni and Liv, who we soon overtook just before reaching Stu and Dale's little yellow tent which was perched in the saddle below the mass of Malte Brun.
9 of us climbed the West Ridge together, with the team I was in taking up the rear. Overall, the rock is good quality when compared to other mountains, but towards the top, it turns into a pile of choss. Stu and Dale passed us on their way back, they had decided to turn around after the "Cheval" in order to expedite the descent of the group by setting up good abseil anchors. We bum shuffled our way along the knife blade ridge of the "Cheval", and I marvelled at the drop on either side.
It was getting into the afternoon, and having completed what Stu claimed to be the most exciting part of the climb, I was content to sit back and wait while the other two continued up the choss for a peak/summit bid. They soon returned however, deciding to turn back early. The other two teams must have pressed on ahead to the summit, for we did not see them.
The sun was setting as we carefully completed the roughly 8 abseils required to descend the route. On the final rappel, our rope got stuck, but thankfully Rodney arrived alone, and just in time to assist. He had left his partner Richard up on the mountain, who had insisted on helping the last team down.
Down in the saddle, I set up my bivi among the rocks and ate dinner, but remained worried about the other three who were still up on the mountain. I could see their head-torches slowly coming down. I watched them carefully, and as they approached the bottom, I climbed up to meet them where the ice bridge had collapsed in the afternoon to give directions and save them some trouble in the dark.
That day was a useful lesson in how far to push one's self to attain a goal. I made a promise to continue in the mindset that the peak is never really the goal, but rather the experience and sensation of climbing. If the conditions are good, and the team is climbing well then a peak will be attained through matter of course, but I have decided never to make this the actual goal.
Joined by Dan and Ryan after their day out on Mt Hamilton, together all 11 of the MUMC OXOs walked down the Bonney and the Darwin to our helicopter pickup spot. We passed a large group from NZAC who were scouting out a location for the new hut proposed for the area. They seemed impressed we had gotten so many people together, and had had a successful trip, managing to climb many things.
The sun was hot, and there was blue water running around us near the pickup point. It was the best water I've ever had. The helicopter caught us nearly by surprise, jumping over a ridge, and buzzing us at top speed before pulling up in a swoop and landing immediately, the word "cowboy" seemed appropriate!
Back in Cook Village at the Hermitage Hotel we all sat down to drinks and relaxation at the conclusion of a successful trip, also discovered my Nutella hidden in my bed! I daresay I probably won't get the chance to go on another trip like it.
Climbing in NZ left me with many oustanding memories to dwell on. I can almost remember every ice screw we placed and every step over a crevasse. This is coming from someone who forgets things all the time!