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Trip Report – Mountaineering is about being flexible

By: Peter (Possum) McFadyen

Source: Australia Section Newsletter (February 2018)

When you’re planning your climbing a year out you know that the weather is going to play a big part in your success for the week.  When you’re planning on landing at a place the local chopper pilots call “the birthplace of clouds” you are really starting to roll the weather dice.  And when you look at the weather map the week before you are due to climb and see dark red patches the size of Tasmania forming up in the Tasman Sea you know that things are not going to go according to plan.

As Russty and I flew up the length of the whitecap topped Lake Wakatipu through low cloud, heavy rain and a fair amount of shimmer and shake, we were wondering if we’d get any climbing in at all.  We’d started off wanting to climb Aspiring – now we were just aspiring to climb!  So as we slid into our landing at Queenstown, our guide Mike from Queenstown Mountain Guides was coming up with alternatives that would see us use the axes and crampons we’d brought with us from Oz.  Grand Plateau?  Mount Dixon?  A look at Mt Cook as a future climb?  5 days surrounded by mountains, snow, and glaciers? A bigger weather window?  Sounds like heaven.  Let’s go!

We headed off on a picturesque drive to our overnight at Unwin Hut, the NZAC hut at the entrance to Aoraki Mt Cook National Park, stopping at Twizel for a great pie and a tasty turmeric latte.  We lugged our gear into the hut, set up for some crevasse training and met some of the other climbers who’d be heading up to Plateau Hut with us tomorrow.  The hut had been visited by no less a personage than Sir Edmund himself and the mountainous view through the window was inspiring and called to us through the night.  We’d come to the right place. A last beverage, a good chat, some plans laid and off to sleep.

Up early for coffee and breakfast and we are heading out to the airport for the first chopper out.  An equally quick trip back to the hut to pick up the weeks’ worth of food we’d left behind, accompanied by a fair amount of laughter from the hut and we were off.  A stunning chopper flight in, a quick set up and we were out the door for a first days climbing. Now neither Russty or I had been near a mountain in a year so The Grand Plateau was fantastic for us.  Multiple climbing options of increasing difficulty and a chance to brush up on our technique along the way to our ultimate goal.

The Plateau Hut sleeps 33 and we had 23 all up at the peak. Even then, everything works well.  We got great weather and avalanche updates from the bloke at DOC – funny bugger, I’ve never smiled so much at a weather report.  A great location, a big hut, a couple of toilets and a happy crowd – what more can you want?

After an afternoon spent refreshing some basic skills and getting used to being on the snow again we settled in for a good meal, a chat with the other climbers, a few hands of cards and then a good nights’ sleep.  Day two saw us do a little more skills refreshing and then a few hours later, we were standing on the summit of Glacier Dome and then making our way along the glacier traverse to the end of the plateau.  This is what we came for.

Day three saw us walk further up the glacier and into the steeper climbs.  A multi-pitch, 55-degree slope was the challenge for the day.  Learning about avalanche transceivers with a session of hide and seek put it into practice. This filled out the day and then it was back to the hut for a Miso soup and a great feed cooked up by Mike.  We had a good blow that night (up to 120km/hr winds) but by the morning all was calm.  This would continue all week, with the days good and the nights filled with fury and snow.  That evening, in particular, we saw a mesmerizing display of lenticular clouds, which warned us of what we were in for the next day.    

To continue our training and familiarisation with the conditions, day four saw us further around the glacier again.  Scoping out the approach to Dixon and then off for a little fun ice climbing on the far side of the valley.  Some fun climbs to be had and a great place for the novice ice climber.  That afternoon was the only time we lost out to the weather.  The weather closed in, the winds picked up and soon we had a screaming blizzard, shaking the hut and setting an eerie wailing through the grating.  The next day we were to climb Mt Dixon!

The gale finally blew itself out at 2am.  We got up at 3am, had a quick coffee and a good breakfast and headed off into the clear night towards the Northern end of the plateau and our ultimate goal – Mt Dixon.  The overnight gale had stripped the surface of loose snow so it was crampons instead of snowshoes and we were off.  A rumbling in the distance warned of some loose snow movement at the end of the Grand Plateau but the going was easy and in short time we were digging a stance and looking up at our approach to Mt Dixon.

We settled in and Mike took the lead up over the ‘schrund and into the couloir.  It was here that the weeks’ weather finally caught up with us.  We’d been unable to set a decent snow anchor all week and this was to be no exception.  The slope was steep, unstable and felt like we were climbing in sugar rather than snow. There was no safe anchor to be found and we decided the slope was too unstable to be safe.  Standing there, having come so close to our goal was fairly disappointing but since we’d given ourselves the training goal as well as the climb we were satisfied with our week.  The summit would have been good but just wasn’t worth the risk.  We live to climb another day. As we readied ourselves for the walk back down the glacier we stopped to enjoy the feel of the newly rising sun and the birth of a fresh new day. And besides, we still had two days left and so it was time to change plans again.  We called up a chopper for later in the day and headed back out onto the glacier for a bit of crevasse rescue fun.  A few hours later we were loading up the chopper for an awe-inspiring flight back to the airstrip and the drive back to Queenstown.

A great night with a hot shower, a nice Indian meal and a couple of beers and we were feeling human again.  The next morning a leisurely 6am start saw a bluebird sky and the perfect day for a trip up the 2,319m summit of Single Cone, the highest peak in the Remarkables range.  We headed up the always enjoyable drive up the mountain to the deserted car park at the ski field, got into our gear, prepared our racks and headed up for an enjoyable day.

After our week’s training Russty and I were happy to do this climb by ourselves with Mike along to give a little critique and local knowledge along the way. Russty decided to take the lead on the climb with me on clean up.  Skirting the ski field we walked up past the Frozen Tarn, then up through The Notch and had a quick bite. We left some gear at the South East Spur and headed over to the chimney.   Looking back we could see only white snow and the single line of our footprints coming up from the car park – a truly wonderful feeling to be alone on the mountain for the morning.  At the base of the chimney, we found the first set protection and made safe to it.  There was plenty of protection on the way up the chimney and so, while the snow was pretty wet in places, the climb was enjoyable.  At the top of the chimney, you pop up onto to a small shelf with a sheer 2,000m drop on one side and a view to the summit across an exposed ridge.  Almost there.    

We arrived at the summit shortly afterward to find a couple of fellow climbers who had climbed up the North East Ridge and arrived at the summit shortly before us.  A casual chat over lunch and we spent a few moments taking some happy snaps and admiring the mountainous view over 360 degrees.  It’s a great place to have lunch and so handy to Queenstown.   Then, with the rising wind, it was time to head back down the slope and end our climbing adventure.

The journey down is both quick and simple and we took the opportunity to stack rap down the chimney just for something a little different and a bit of fun.  A pleasant walk back down across the top of the Wye Saddle looking down Wye Creek and we started to see other people taking advantage of the day. Cross-country skiers coming up from Wye Creek, an intro to mountaineering course practicing snow anchors, a couple having a snowball fight and two lone snowboarders on the long walk up the hills to get a few runs in before the day ends.  Everyone was taking advantage of the mountain in line with their own passions.

As this was the end of our week, the trip down the mountain involved a lot a laughs, some reminiscing over the week past and the quiet enjoyment of a week filled with fun and in following your passion.  A great week for sure with our skills refreshed and our need to be back in the mountains satisfied…..for now.  The 3,000m technical summit in New Zealand still eludes us and so we will be back soon to complete the summit of Mt Dixon and then start to work towards standing on top of Mt Cook and seeing the world from that wonderful vantage point. While it wasn’t the climb we were planning, mountaineering is all about being flexible and we had certainly made the most of the week.


“Climb the mountain not to plant your flag, but to embrace the challenge, enjoy the air and behold the view. Climb it so you can see the world, not so the world can see you.” – David McCullough Jr.


Posted: 14/03/18

Posted By: Narina Sutherland