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Earnslaw IV

By Josh Pemberton

Source: Vertigo Newsletter

Those who prefer to conduct their Easter egg hunts out of doors would have done well to avoid the Mt Aspiring National Park in recent years. Late March and early April have tended to feature the sort of miserable weather that puts a dampener on oological pursuits – and, for those who’d rather seek out summits than eggs, on climbing too. Two members of our group of four had attempted Mt Earnslaw / Pikirakatahi three times on Easter weekends between 2010 and 2013, only to be forced down on each occasion by unfavourable conditions.

Because both Easter and eggs are symbolic of new beginnings – or, perhaps, simply because some itches need scratching – it was decided that a fourth attempt should be made over Easter 2016.  Our group, including two Wellington section members, planned to assemble from around the country in Christchurch on the afternoon of the Thursday before Easter and drive to Wanaka that night. We’d have the whole of the long weekend set aside for Earnslaw IV, as it had been named.

There were the usual pre-trip hiccups. Most notably, flight delays prevented one of the party from arriving in Christchurch until 10.30pm on the Thursday evening, forcing us to drive through the night. We arrived in Wanaka at the very hour we’d intended to be getting up and leaving – 3.30am. Yet two hours in bed and a breakfast of Up&Go proved sufficient to revitalise us, and by sunrise we were on the road heading toward Glenorchy. If anyone wasn’t already feeling the lift that comes with consuming a litre of Sanitarium’s finest lifestyle milk product, the confirmation of a good forecast was enough to raise spirits all around.

Our four-wheel drive vehicle took us a short way past the Rees Valley road-end and from there we were on foot. After 90 minutes or so of walking up the Rees we farewelled the cattle and began the 1700 metre climb to Esquilant Bivvy, our intended accommodation for the night. The route follows the Kea Basin Track for the first few hundred vertical metres, before climbing out above the bushline. As we gained height we were rewarded with increasingly impressive views across the cloud-filled Rees. Tracks in the mud suggested we’d have company for the evening.

The tussock of Kea Basin increasingly gives way to rock and, eventually, to the Birley Glacier. We’d bought full kit and so, upon reaching the Glacier, decided to not only put on crampons but to rope up as well. In good time and without incident we reached Wright Col and then the Biv, where the first priority was to put on a much-needed pot of Mie Goreng noodles. Three or four other groups eventually arrived; far too many to squeeze into the Biv. Fortunately there were enough tents to go around – though regrettably, the same could not be said for the Mie Goreng. There was noticeably less snow around the Col and below the Glacier than on previous trips. The Biv itself contained tributes to Simon Bell, who went missing on Mt Earnslaw in January 2015.

View north-east across the Birley Glacier

View north-east across the Birley Glacier

The next day dawned bright and clear, revealing that the 600 or so vertical metres from the Biv to the Earnslaw’s East Peak (2,830m) were entirely free of snow. The out-and-back nature of the route to the top meant that we were able to leave most of our kit at the Biv to collect en route down.  The scramble to the top was fairly straightforward, though in places care was required, especially with verglass and the odd tight squeeze.

If the views had been impressive on the first day, they were stunning from the summit. To the West lay the Pluto Peak and the Humboldt Range; to the East, the Richardson and Harris Mountains and, further North, Mt Aspiring / Tititea. Clouds pooled above Lake Wakatipu and in the Rees and Dart Valleys and above, we were in bright sunshine.

When we finally brought ourselves to leave the summit, the descent back to the Col and down the hill were leisurely, although some bruised knees and toenails began to make themselves known.

The rock biv just above the bushline that we’d planned to sleep in was filled up, containing groups both heading up and on the way back down. We decided to therefore spend the night in Earnslaw Hut, a rustic beech and corrugated iron structure set in the bush. The hut features hessian sack bedding and a fireplace that we put to good use.

The next morning the weather remained perfect until about half an hour after we’d got back to the car, when it started spitting. On the fourth attempt, we’d been treated to perfect conditions and had made it to the top and back without incident. It goes to show that – just like Easter Eggs – some climbs really are worth waiting for.

Posted: 04/05/16

Posted By: Narina Sutherland