A Three Week Ski Traverse
The great virus of 2020 dealt a sweeping blow to anyone planning an overseas expedition. With our plans to travel to the Himalaya cancelled, the lockdown forced us to consider how we could exert an expedition-scale effort here in our backyard, the Southern Alps. Reg Measures and I sprouted the idea in a spontaneous exchange.
Never one to miss out on an adventure, Rose Pearson promptly signed on to complete our trio. Over the summer, Rose and I had enjoyed turning our love of trail running to the high mountains, racing up and down Aoraki and Aspiring. But by summer’s end, I had developed a craving for a longer and deeper immersion in the hills. To witness the mountains in all their changing moods. The dynamic season of early spring would be perfect...
We set aside 3 weeks in September with the aim to travel as far towards Aoraki as the weather and terrain would allow. But as September approached, the winter had been one of the warmest and driest on record. Would we have any snow to ski? Or would we be carrying skis over miles of moraine and withering glacier? Our route would traverse many of Canterbury’s precious glaciers and we braced ourselves for a depressing display of their demise.
They say you emerge a changed person from long journeys. So, here are the lessons we learned along the way.
While many turned to bouldering in their kitchens over lockdown, Reg spent much of his six weeks of isolation glued to Google Earth, seeking out the ultimate line between Arthur’s Pass and Aoraki/Mt Cook. The route he came up with was ambitious to say the least, and would require most of a 21 day high pressure spell to complete, straddling close to the Main Divide and linking as many glaciers as possible.
A month out, we delivered food caches to Mathias Hut in the Mathias Valley and St Winifred Hut in the upper Havelock. Depositing food in Mathias Hut was a surprisingly easy day trip on bike & foot, and the thriving 4WD Canterbury community jumped at the challenge of driving our food into the headwaters of the Havelock. I was shocked how easy it was to set up.
Anyone who has tried skiing with a heavy transalpine pack knows how unpleasant and difficult it is, especially in poor snow conditions. So, if we were to enjoy ourselves, we needed to leave what was heavy behind. Glacier kit was reduced to 30m Petzl 6mm rad line, 2x 120cm slings (one used as a harness), tibloc, ATC, 3 carabiners. Rose hacksawed off the excess metal in her crampons, I replaced ski brakes with leashes and bought lighter Mohair skins… Macpac gave us some new 630g sleeping bags to trial, as well as a prototype pack designed for ski touring.
Weight savings all add up, and on the evening of August 31st we were able to zip close the lids and shoulder our 40L packs up the Waimakariri bound for Anticrow Hut. Right on schedule, winter finally arrived that night. We woke to a foot of fresh snow clinging to the Beech trees and coating the riverbed. We could all but skin up the valley floor!
Due to this early storm, our original dream start via Mt Philistine, Armstrong and Rosamond to Browning Pass was relegated to the normal ‘Three Passes’ route, and we left ourselves a line for the future. The way was still arduous with fresh snow choking the Taipoiti Gorge and lining the boulders down to Park Morpeth, and we forever thanked ourselves for bringing thick waterproof socks inside our running shoes. Chilly!
An incredible day of fine weather allowed us to traverse the Hall, Farquharson and Griffiths glaciers to a camp at Clarke Saddle, right on the main divide. Lights of Hokitika twinkled far below. By morning we were enveloped by clag, wind, sleet - a classic Norwester was brewing. We made difficult progress to Hokitika Saddle in whiteout checking the GPS every few minutes. It was too dangerous to continue like this all day. Camp high and wait out the storm for a day, or two?
In a flash moment we made the call to plunge into the West Coast, to the sanctuary of Mungo Hut just 3 hours away. I had visited this special remote hut on a previous traverse, but never had I imagined I would be returning with skis on my back.
Rogue, un-forecast weather was a common occurrence. Our dream day over the Gardens began with skinning up the Lyell glacier in sweltering morning heat. Next minute, a wild wind ripped overhead while we struggled to forge a skin track through the chaos of the icefall.
Cloud raced over Rangitata Col and in the space of minutes we had descended into whiteout and sleet, tantalizingly close to Lambert Col, the gateway to the Garden of Allah. Another unexpected storm had developed. Disappointed, we set our dream of skiing the Gardens aside and made the rapid call to descend the Frances Glacier, with a tailwind.
Our next food drop lay in St Winifred, and, as much as we would have loved to complete a full traverse of the Clyde and Havelock gravels, Disappointment Saddle was our best route to the food. As always, we were hungry. We reached the col at dark that evening in worrying avalanche conditions, winds blinding us as we crawled over the lip. Veil Biv ended an exhausting 15 hour day, and the next morning we wandered down to our final food drop as the storm really set in.
We are rarely bored in our modern, over-stimulated age. It’s only when we indulge in a complete detox from technology and connectivity that we realise the benefits - a clear mind, fresh ideas, creativity. After repeatedly failing to cross the flooded St Winifred Stream en route to Terra Nova Pass, with norwesters rolling in one after the other, our two pit days became three, four, five…
At first, frustration. Our time to reach Aoraki was ticking down. Later, acceptance, and we began to embrace the opportunity to sit and think. We started by reading every CMC journal from 1948 to 1986, we brainstormed new events for the club, hot wired the solar power system, re-cut the track to Eric’s Biv, built a wooden chess set... Creative writing, philosophy… Pit days have a lot to answer for! On returning to the city, each of us experienced higher than normal levels of ‘zen’. Another reason why the hills are so important.
When we crested Terra Nova Pass on the sixth day it was all the more rewarding. We remembered Dingle & Tremain’s story of 12 days stuck in the Murchison on their 1971 winter traverse and being avalanched from Terra Nova in their subsequent exhaustion.
This wasn’t the only time we were forced to wait for better conditions. Earlier in the trip we had been forced to wait out a rainy day camping in the upper Brunswick Creek below Mungo Pass, and another day was spent waiting for avalanche conditions to settle while curled up in a small rock bivouac at Whitcombe Pass. In hindsight, we were always glad we didn’t rush into sub-optimal conditions.
Rose: “On the Godley glacier. Finally some nice turns on good snow! We’re happy to be making fast progress. We can see the moraines and lake below. Just a little more mellow skiing and we’ll be well on our way to Godley Hut, with just enough time to climb over Mt Acland into the Murchison...
Then, disaster. I catch an edge in a moment of distraction and in a comically slow-motion topple, I twist my knee, badly. I feel two pops as I fall face-first into the snow. I know my trip is over. Perhaps the others can make it? Can I walk out? We rest for 20 minutes. I stand up. I can bear weight and have some range of motion. I weigh up the tax and climate burden of a helicopter against the risk of long-term damage to my knee. We decide to self rescue.
Tortuously, I side-slip down the final stretch of glacier. Reg heroically skis with my pack on the back of his own for a short section. As mountain people we are proud of our self-sufficiency, but now we must take on new roles. I relinquish my ego for the sake of the team. My job is now to be honest about my knee and to accept help. Their part is to help me as much as they can. At the moraine, Reg takes my skis and boots, I take back my pack, while Al takes whatever heavier items he can fit.
We continue in slow convoy across a series of moraine islands, wading chest-deep icy waters to avoid undercut bluffs guarding the Godley lake shores. I quietly thank the cold lake as it soothes my inflamed knee.
Godley hut is empty when we arrive that afternoon and so our destiny is set. Reg's birthday will be spent walking down one of Canterbury's “Pretty Good” walks, the Godley River, with the added bonus of carrying my skis. We joke that he will be gifted a kilometre of gravel for each of his years.”
It's easy to feel disappointment when things don't go to plan. Our aim throughout was to reach the Hermitage, and we relished the challenge presented by a 3 week time limit. But as we sat in the Godley hut that night, we felt content. While a stated objective may provide a premise for going into the mountains, it should never be the primary goal. Rather it is an excuse to forge greater connections with yourself, your partners, the mountains, the weather, and even your family at home. Living in an environment so harshly dominated by natural forces compels us to be humble and accept that we cannot control every outcome.
As we walked out the next morning, we reflected on all we had experienced over the last three weeks. The storms and the high rivers, the exhausting passes and glorious ski descents, the unexpected obstacles and finally an injury in the party. These experiences have deepened the internal well of strength that each of us may draw on in the future.
Editorial note: After a series of X-rays and physio visits, it seems Rose has narrowly avoided any permanent damage to her knee.
- by Alastair McDowell, NZAT