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Trip Report: World Cup vs Summit Attempt

By Frances Boyson

If looking for a way to test a fledgling mountaineer’s commitment to the cause, pitting a summit attempt against a New Zealand–Australia Rugby World Cup final is a pretty good one. If there’s one thing alpinists have to be good at it’s problem-solving. Various strategies were mooted and enacted to get round this troubling concurrence. Josh and David didn’t mention their radio when they announced their intention to camp overnight on Ruapehu’s summit plateau, but we all knew what was going on. The ski tourers at the lodge were just too damn hipster to mention the game, but I feel sure they were secretly on their phones in their sleeping bags during the night. And the rest of us swore anyone with functioning internet to secrecy in an attempt to stall time and watch the recorded game on our return to the city.

Our group of 11 budding climbers had mostly undertaken Intro and Basic level alpine courses with NZAC Wellington Section during the winter. Our new crampon, ice axe and anchor skills were fresh in our minds but, in general, our confidence levels about how to plan and undertake an alpine trip more generally were a bit lower. So we were glad of the opportunity to put our skills into practice with instructors part of the group.

On the Saturday we left the lodge at 6.30am in perfect conditions to attempt Te Heuheu via the East Ridge. The ascent was mainly straightforward in such great visibility but nonetheless put a few of us out of our comfort zones. We split into two groups and took turns leading the way to save energy. We zigzagged up the hill, with wonderful views of Ngauruhoe amongst low cloud. As we climbed, the gradient steepened and the chilly wind increased. When the slope was at its steepest and most exposed, I realised that with no instructor at my side, this time it was on me to keep myself safe, have confidence in my skills, and push my way to the top. For me this was a terrifying but strengthening experience, forcing me to be confident in my crampons keeping me secure on the snow, and refining my techniques to make my footing sturdier and my movements more efficient. At the first step a rope was set up in a simple quasi-belay around a snow stake to aid those less comfortable on the ice. I enjoyed the security and confidence that the rope provided and the experience of using climbing techniques on ice (turns out the ‘just stand up’ mantra was just as useful here as on rock). I also enjoyed Simon’s chortles of laughter afterwards when he recalled that the rope that had enabled these confident manoeuvres hadn’t actually been attached to anything.

The "anchor" on the first step. Photo courtesy Paul McCredie

The “anchor” on the first step. Photo courtesy Paul McCredie

Towards the top Jimmy nimbly hopped up the final step sans rope but, having observed his experience of the snow in the last few feet, (’scary, steep and soft with a disconcerting stomp’, he recalled later) most of us instead traversed beneath incredible icicle formations instead to reach an easy walk up to the peak.

For me, this last section was the most mentally challenging part of the day: traversing the top of a slope with softish snow, tremendous exposure and rising winds. For those who went up the step this was the hardest part of their day, requiring confidence and composure to manage. But we all made it to the summit in happy spirits, even if it did take me twenty minutes to recover my ability to talk or take in my surroundings after the mental pressure of the traverse. We had ascended 1000m which was significantly more than what we had travelled in our training weekends. I had been concentrating so hard on my steps that it felt like only an hour had passed, but by the time us tortoises made it to the top it had been five hours.

Pondering the second step. Photo courtesy Paul McCredie

Pondering the second step. Photo courtesy Paul McCredie

From the summit, we walked slowly along the ridge and up to Tukino Peak, admiring the captivating ice formations and the jagged crests and lines of Ruapehu’s many peaks. We dug a snow bollard for an abseil down onto the summit plateau. I took one for the team and volunteered to take the first abseil down (to everyone’s slight surprise, they revealed later). That meant that I was the first to get the bigger surprise: on reaching the bottom of the rope, I discovered that I was only a quarter of the way through the descent. Being alone on the slope meant there wasn’t really any space to panic about this: I had to have confidence in my down-
climbing and front-pointing techniques. It lasted an age but I finally made it to the bottom and felt full to the brim with joy as I walked over to meet the rest of our party. And I blessed my stiff boots when I learnt later how some others had struggled to get purchase in the ice with their more flexible soles.

From there a few of us detoured towards the Whangaehu Glacier to visit Whangaehu Hut whilst the others glissaded and sled their way back to the lodge in the soft afternoon snow.

Sunday’s weather was even more beautiful, and we spent the morning revising our anchor skills, discussing offsetting techniques for enhancing security and debating the situations when dynamic and non-dynamic materials are best deployed. We all added ‘practise knots’ to our to-do list, and added prussic to our Christmas list. Then we had an exercise in problem-solving: finding the best route to get up to the top that will both get us back to the lodge in time for lunch and match the capability of the whole group. We alternated between ascending snow and scrambling up sections of rock.

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Traversing fun. Photo courtesy David Eaton.

The less confident amongst us took advantage of eager belayers and Jimmy found out on all our behalves just how cold your back will get doing a bucket belay.

We felt grateful and lucky to have had the chance to practice our skills in this safe environment. For most of us it was a stretch, and for me it was a big jump going from learning the skills to a full summit attempt. The experience of learning to trust in my technique and manage my own requirements for focus and composure in more testing situations was invaluable. We all really appreciated what the Wellington Section is doing to teach enthusiastic newcomers the skills and provide them with opportunities to develop, such as this weekend afforded. It made a big difference to have the experience of leading our own trip and making our own decisions but having Carolyn, Simon and David around to check our abseil and belay set-ups and give advice on our route, safety and technique. Thanks too to Mark and Eric for organising the weekend away.

As for the rugby, when Josh and David returned from the summit on Sunday afternoon, their beaming smiles when the final was mentioned gave the game away. But only I saw.

Posted: 01/02/16

Posted By: Sefton Priestley