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Trip Report – A Tale of Two Peaks

Report and Photos by: Nina Sawicki

We trampers like to consider ourselves highly organized and kitted out for all manner of contingencies: emergency shelters, unanticipated map changes and medical mishaps to name but a few. One senses there may even be a brief tinge of elitism ascribed to us trampers if you take the time to read our discourses. Which of course we expect that you already do! As climbers this tinge of elitism and preparedness elevates itself to an even higher level. Well, the ground we walk upon may not at times exist or when it does it is prone to giving away and disappearing under us. So, given these high self-imposed expectations just how do we manage both our emotions and safety when these well considered contingencies fail? (which of course they ultimately will, or will they?)

So, let me present you with a scenario of two energetic eager lasses heading out for an overnight trip: our planned route being Sudden Valley Bivouac and a climb of Pyramid Peak from the head of the valley and then along the ridge. As happens quite commonly, the events of the preceding week did not set us up well for this trip. A planned departure time of 10.45am became 1.45pm while several cups of tea were consumed debating the vicissitudes and existential trials of daily living.  There was no need for panic though as we were quite capable of still reaching the bivvy by nightfall.  We arrived at the sand-fly infested car park at the Hawdon Valley at about 3.00pm. While I was hopping around with the “sand-fly dance” (an embarrassing but effective set of manoeuvres to reduce the density of sand-fly punctures to the epidermis) I struck up conversation with two young hunters who had returned from the Sudden Valley extolling its beauty and richness: (well, they had brought back several carcasses). Unfortunately, they advised that there were still several hunters well ensconced in the bivvy. No worries we thought, we had bivvy bags but unbeknown to me Lorraine was crest-fallen and had been secretly hoping to occupy the entire bivvy (well, that means a mere mattress each on the floor).

We crossed the braided river of the Hawdon and made our way up Sudden Valley with a very quiet, subdued Lorraine holding close her inner disappointment. Some moments later, the quiet rustle of the wind down the valley and the gentle murmur of the distant river was broken with four brutal words. “I forgot the stove”. There were a few moments of silence and some unspoken thoughts. For those of you who have ever tramped with me, endless cups of tea are a non-negotiable requirement of any trip. We considered all the ramifications: no hot tea, cold raw vegetables and dry pasta and porridge. We considered borrowing a stove from the ensconced hunters but that may have meant a combined “stove + pot system” and for vegetarian Lorraine the prospect of mushrooms tinged with the aroma of venison was not particularly appealing. Our mood could be described at a rather low ebb.

Some 40 minutes later, we reached the base of Sugarloaf Peak as our next intended objective. We thought that we could climb this and spend the night at Arthurs Pass in Kennedy Lodge using the stove there for our evening meal. We crossed the railway line and noted not only the presence of the Canterbury University Research Station but several cars in attendance. However, there were also several large signs indicating that we were not, in fact, at all welcome. There were an additional few moments of silence and some unspoken thoughts. We decided to respect our tramping code and some forty minutes later at 4.45pm we were sited at the base of the Cass-Lagoon Saddle track with the intention of climbing Mt. Bruce (before dark we hoped). Our mood at this point was rather mixed. We realized that we had forgotten lunch which was meant to have taken place during the endless cups of tea in Christchurch.

After a short snack we were away with head-torches and moved quickly through the forested lower flanks of Mt. Bruce onto the tussock face, taking in the sights of the Upper Waimakariri and the clouds scudding past the peaks of the head of the valley. When we reached the saddle, we overshot slightly into the valley as we looked for a route up to the summit (no map alas) but, yes, we were well prepared with our GPS system! Soon we were heading up the mixed tussock and scree slope to the summit of Mt. Bruce.

As the sun dropped, the day cooled and our spirits rose as we were rewarded with vistas of dappled flanks of peaks and the glint of the sun on the braided river bed. Snow berries proved to be a delicious hors d’oevre as we anticipated my lovingly prepared vegetarian meal for our supper that night.

We reached the summit at about 7.45pm and after a summit pikkie we made our way across the tussock face to pick up the track on the Waimakariri side to drop back to the forest and our car (and dinner)!  We entered the forest on dark and, yes, we were prepared with our head torches and by 9.30pm were at the car anticipating the delicious meal in the comfort of Kennedy Lodge. Our arrival time at Arthurs Pass was delayed by the ongoing road works at the Pass and we were nearly taken out by a rogue vehicle not respecting the one-way system controlled by temporary lights.  You must, by now, be imagining our elation as we drove up to Kennedy Lodge to prepare our meal and settle for bed. Excitedly we drove up to the lodge and bingo “all to ourselves”!  There would be no need to tip toe around as I banged together my gourmet tramping feast (by now it was 10.00pm). There was evidence of significant renovations and suspiciously a new pad and four brutal words were uttered “The code has changed”.  Yes, you guessed it: there were now some significant moments of silence and many unspoken thoughts. A delicate text message at 10.30pm to a friend indicated there had been a code change mere days before with the beta not yet distributed in the wider circle.

The trip back to Christchurch was focused on staying awake and debating endless combinations of my long awaited meal. We had to re-endure the controlled lights of road works despite the absence of any other “night owls on wheels” prowling the hills. At 12.30am I tip tiptoed round Lorraine’s kitchen to make the feast (cooking is never quiet at night). As a chronic insomniac and self-confessed night owl I had been researching that delaying bed time works well, so this was an opportune time to test this theory. My next memory was Lorraine’s bright chirpy morning face with tea, jam and croissants excitedly waving a trip report of the traverse of Mt. Binser at me! Yes, there was been some sort of bush bash but the trip report indicated “it was not too bad”:  So, yes, we were away again to tackle the traverse of Mt. Binser. Learning from the experience of the previous day we managed our departure in a timelier way.mtbinserWLGsection2

Lorraine hypnotized herself while I drove. She needed to blot out the traumatic memories of the road works and the long wait(s) at the red lights (she had been to Arthurs Pass for the last two or, was it three, consecutive weekends).

It was hot. We started walking at about 11.30am with as much water on board as possible. We found a small babbling book en route to the saddle so were able to drink up large and replenish our stocks. Perhaps an hour into the trip I recounted to Lorraine a historic caution about the presence of wasp nests at the Binser Saddle. (I have a wasp anaphylaxis). Being a GP, a tramper and climber, yes, I am always prepared. Four brutal words “I have no adrenaline”. Prolonged moments of silence but, this time, a spoken thought: “So, is this PLB material?”. We continued up to the saddle carefully avoiding any signs of wasp nests which, in the open beech forest, was fortunately straightforward. At the saddle we searched back and forth to find a relatively clear patch of bush to negotiate our way up just west of the saddle to the first of the three peaks: point 1753 of Mt. Binser. There was easy travel through the lower forested flanks and once onto the higher slopes we found a mixture of tussock, stable scree and a plentiful supply of snow berries. We looked across to the ridge east of the saddle which was far more eroded and rotten and decided that our route was definitely the safer option. We crested peak 1753 taking in the stunning vistas of the Poulter River and the Poulter Range briefly before the descent down to the saddle at 1600 m.

The descent down to the saddle involved some rotten rock with mild exposure and the wind was now beginning to gain momentum as we turned to face west we could see the clouds scudding past on the westward peaks. After a snack and the addition of another layer, Lorraine virtually jogged up to peak 2 at 1831m while I, in amazement, at the elfin figure ahead of me, used hands and feet to follow behind in a rather ungainly manner. I don’t like rotten rock but it’s not as if the pair of hands actually provides any greater stability! I had doubted we would complete the traverse by night-fall but once on the second peak we were committed.

From peak 1831 we began to convince ourselves we could see a vague route off the main peak of Binser 1860m. The trip report had mentioned it was “not too bad” as a bush bash but what this actually meant was rather unclear as was our hope that we would regain the Mount White Road before night fall. From the summit of Binser (now 6.00pm) we assessed all options and judged that the route via the south-west ridge, (points 1524 and 1385) while of gentler descent and providing more open travel, would probably take too long so we opted to descend the steeper west facing ridge. After negotiating steep loose scree, a few rotten gendarmes, endless rocks in our shoes, the occasional buttock glissade, monkey tree swings we eventually spied that the last part of our descent took us into a deep gully with windfall and, yes, endless wasp nests hiding in the rich melee of the beech mold litter.

Lorraine on the summit of Mt Binser

Lorraine on the summit of Mt Binser

Lorraine, ahead of me for most of this last part of the descent had been yelling out in a most unladylike fashion. I thought she had descended into obscenities but had not appreciated that she was in fact warning me to avoid the wasp nests. I was quite relieved not to have understood her windblown speech else I may have frozen solid and be there still today. It was difficult to avoid the wasps but some sixty minutes later we popped out at the top of the gully and saw that only sheep lay between us and the Mt. White Road. Miraculously, neither of us had been stung. In addition, we noted that the route to the climbers left had ended in a bluff (not marked on the map).

Our last 5 km walk back on Mt. White Road to our vehicle was spectacular; the setting sun casting glints of light on the braided strands of the Waimakariri River like nuggets for the historic diggers of old. Our gold was of a different “genre” but we may add a stove, some adrenaline and an updated door code onto our next trip.

Posted: 31/05/16

Posted By: Narina Sutherland