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Course Report – High Alpine Skills Course

By: Frank Saxton

Source: Nelson / Marlborough Section Newsletter (December 16)

I attended this course run by the New Zealand Alpine Club, 20th to the 25th of November. The course follows the format of four or five other consecutive courses. They start on Sunday morning and finish on Friday afternoon.

The preceding few weeks before my dates, much fresh snow fell at upper levels, so the conditions were more like winter (with avalanche risk), than the more compacted crisper conditions one would expect in November.

I arrived at Unwin Lodge Mt Cook Saturday afternoon and met a number of the other students. Sunday morning after breakfast we all got to meet the two instructors and the other students who arrived Sunday morning. There were seven male students, Two blokes from Australia, members of the New Zealand Alpine club Australian Section. Another came from Fairley and joined the Alpine club so he could come on the course, another from Christchurch, another from Wellington. Myself and Robin Barraclough from the Nelson section. Our two instructors were Paul Rodgers and Anne Keeling. Both are experienced and well-known within climbing the community. The first thing we did was to have our gear inspected. I came to the course with little experience of rope work or glacial travel. A lot of my gear I got from an old bloke who had giving up climbing some time ago. They were a bit alarmed that I turned up with bad gear and little experience and 64 years old. But by lending me some of their gear and me buying some prussic cord and slings from the local Mt Cook shop I juggled together sufficient for the course. We were hoping to fly into the head of the Tasman glacier that afternoon.  We went to the Hooker bridge and did some crevasse exercises before getting our stuff together and going to the airport but the helicopter was not flying that day.

We went and did some rock climbing in our mountain boots just to show how they operated on rock i.e. different to the soft rock shoes. I think a good preparation for this course is to do rock climbing and even inside wall climbing as it’s all good experience of rope handling and harnesses. Using a climbing rope hanging from the Apex of Unwin Hut we practised climbing with prussics out of a crevasse.

We all had avalanche transceivers and wore them while on snow.  We practiced hiding and then finding them outside Unwin Lodge. Monday afternoon, we had a short flight into the head of Gorillia Stream and set up camp. Four of us went off with Anna up a side creek to a snow lead where we practiced self-arrest and then snow stake placements. The others put in a boot track up onto the Nuns Veil glacier in preparation for the next day.

On Tuesday morning we got up at 4 a.m. away at 5 to climb up onto the glacier and on towards Nuns Veil. It was windy and the last bit is a steep exposed snow face. We were roped up for glacier travel for most of this journey. The weather was fine but with strong NW winds and only 2 people went on to the top of Nuns Veil. One of them being Carl. He was an experienced climber with almost comprehensive set of modern kit and Anna Keeling. We got back down to the tents by mid-afternoon and the rest the day we lay around resting. That night was windy and some people didn’t sleep very well. The next morning we walked down valley for a couple of hours and met the helicopter there to fly back to the airport. That afternoon I went with Anna Keeling and a couple of others and did some rock climbing using fixed anchors in a borrowed pair of rock climbing shoes from Paul Rogers. I surprised myself in being able to clamber up places I thought I wouldn’t be able to. I did belaying and abseiling, rope handling and anchor making.

The next day, which was Thursday, four of us students, and Anna walked up to top of the Ridge above Sealy tarns on the way to Mueller hut. There we found some snow on a steep slope that would justify using crampons for the first time and here we did pitching from Snow stakes and then crevasse rescue practice from a snow anchor before walking all the way back down. It was a big day and we got a lot done on what was really a poor week of weather and snow environment. The next day being Friday, in steady rain, we spent the morning talking about gear. The knowledge of the instructors is invaluable and all the nuances of the various styles of gear and their application to particular situations. One of the recommendations was, if you don’t have good mentor do not take much notice of what salespersons in shops say, (especially Australian shops it seems), but instead do your research on line..

In summary my course comprised 7 students with a wide range of ability and gear. I kept my end up and learnt heaps. There was great camaraderie. The instructors quickly identified where each of us was at and tailored the activities to maximize each of our learnings. I think the course is a superb opportunity to get high quality training and on average you’re going to get better weather than we did and might even find some use for an ice screw or two!.. There is every chance that come next year I will go on the course again. It is a brilliant cost-effective learning environment and something the Alpine Club can be proud of providing for its members. Thank you to Jerome for your encouragement to me to attend, and the club for the $400 grant.

Posted: 20/03/17

Posted By: Narina Sutherland