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Trip Report – High Alpine Skills Course (5-10 January 2016)

Photo source David Owen

By: David Owen

In early January this year, a friend and I joined a pair of Christchurch climbing enthusiasts and a Wanaka based guide for the Alpine Club’s week long High Alpine Skills Course at Aoraki/Mt Cook. The course structure and content is designed to be as responsive to the climbing skills and goals of the participants as possible so we were excited, and somewhat nervous, to see how we compared against the other blokes, and whether the instructor would be horrified or humoured at our previous climbs given our current level of “skills”. We needn’t have worried as George and Andy turned out to be great blokes at a similar level and instructor Tim did well to thwart our frequent attempts to abseil with unlocked screw gates and hide any disdain he had for our climbing exploits. The Course itself was a great time, we learned lots, and I would recommend anyone considering it to sign up. I briefly recount my experience below.

Alpine Trad and Climbing Routes

After choppering into Barron Saddle from Mt Cook Airport on a fine Tuesday morning, and a lunch time discussion about where we should camp that night, we made our way to a bivvy spot a few hundred meters below Barron Saddle Hut, overlooking the upper Mueller Glacier. Following a pleasant night under the stars, and a duel with a family of kea over breakfast, we set out for our first climbing objective – Mt Darby. The route involved some steep snow slopes, a bit of glacier travel, and a reasonably lengthy trad route along an exposed ridge. Under the watchful eye of Tim, we placed and pulled gear, led and belayed, and operated running belays on routes and lines of our choosing up to the peak. We abseiled off the other side of the summit and descended a fairly steep and awfully soft snow slope before having a late lunch and debrief about the morning. My mate (also a Dave) and I were chuffed with the morning’s efforts – although we had climbed the likes of Aspiring and Brewster before, we were rather under done on the trad skills and placing gear front. With Tim’s help, we could now see where we needed to improve and gained some valuable skills to take forward – all inside the first full day.

Bivvying and weather assessment David Owen

As discussed on our morning of departure, the plan for the trip was to spend as much of the week as possible camping out in either tents or bivvy bags. The first night went to plan with our carefully constructed bivvy spots (lined with the flattest alpine schist) providing a restful night for the team. However, as we sat around debriefing after the Darby climb, it was increasingly apparent our bivvying for the trip was over. While it remained sunny, the morning’s breeze had gradually turned into a gale and there was a growing need to reassess plans. Accordingly, we retreated to Barron Saddle Hut, put on a brew and awaited the 7pm forecast over the mountain radio. The news wasn’t good – the wind was forecast to increase in intensity, the freezing level was dropping, and a mix of snow showers and heavy rain was expected throughout the area for the remainder of the week. In the discussions that followed, we all agreed that the best approach was to break trail early the next morning, climb over the Sealy Range and descend to Mueller Hut. That way we could avoid the worst of what was to come, get a good day of high alpine glacier travel in beforehand, and be in a better position to take advantage of any weather windows that might develop in the coming days, rather than being hut bound in the confines of the Barron Saddle tin can.

Glacier Travel and Crevasse rescue

We set off in the dark on the morning of the third day with a good freeze underfoot but foreboding skies overhead, and wasted no time in partially retracing out steps back towards Mt Sealy. In doing so, we navigated through a number of crevasse systems, and down climbed a long, steep and rather unpleasant snow slope at the top of the Sealy Glacier as the wind really began to hum and skies darken. It wasn’t all doom and gloom however, as Tim continued to educate us about potential hazards, constructively questioned our glacier travel techniques, and confided in us some of his secrets for efficiently transitioning between different modes of alpine travel. After the heavy downpours had ceased we spent our fourth day perfecting the mechanics of weighted crevasse rescue on a snow slope behind Muller Hut. When they and the snow showers returned however, we were forced to retreat into the Hut where a diverse group of climbers and day walkers were treated to a series of prussic races, up a full 50m length of rope gradually let out as the climber neared the rafters. While not so glamorous, the time spent both putting in the crevasse rescue systems and sweating through the prussic challenge reinforced a number of skills that are rarely used but are crucially important to have in the hills.

Multi Pitch Rock

David OwenFor our final day, we decided to descend to the valley floor and head for the well-known crags of Sebastopol, a few minutes’ walk from the Alpine Club’s Mt Cook base, Unwin Lodge. There, with our improved rope, lead climbing, belay, and gear management techniques we spend an enjoyable day multi-pitch climbing in fair weather. As with the trad climbing earlier in the week, Dave and I really benefited from a good day of it in the field with Tim on hand to answer any questions, suggested improvements, and close screw gates as required.

Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed the week and learned far more than I have conveyed here. It was a great experience, in a special part of our high country, and I really recommend people consider enrolling on a course next summer. I would like to thank the Alpine Club for putting on the course, George and Andy for the good times, and Tim Steward for sharing all his knowledge.

Posted: 08/04/16

Posted By: Narina Sutherland