Sunday, 22 April 2012

The Opposite of Sea Kayaking

I never did much rock-climbing or mountaineering, despite having a lot to do with mountaineers in my twenties, so I decided as my birthday present I would pick up that thread again in my life. See if I liked it: if I would do it more. Confront my incipient fear of heights. So I did. 

On a whim I booked a mountaineering instruction course with Adventure Consultants out of Wanaka, NZ. Seven days in Aspiring park, five of instruction and two of walk out. 
Aspiring. Just a perfect peak.Colin Todd Hut down the ridge to the left. Classic SW route on the right. 

We choppered  into Bevan Col, at about 1800m, and had an astounding first view of Aspiring itself (3033m). Triangular pyramid, perfect alpine shape. It reminds me of Ama Dablam, in its beauty and fine definition. There are 30 peaks over 2500m in the South Island, and 29 of them are near Mt Cook. Aspiring  stands out, isolated and spectacular.

Dropping down from Bevan Col. Crampons on , hardly ever off after  this. 

Across the Bonar Glacier, on the way to Colin Todd 
Colin Todd hut, choppered in in sections and bolted to a rock. They know where to put huts.
Inside the hut. Pretty crowded the first few nights. Electric light, though, and a radio sched every night. 

The course covered ropework, crampons, glacier travel, ice, snow and rock climbing and pitching, abseiling, weather, navigation, self arrest (officer),  crevasse rescue including prusiking, and a few other bits. There was one other bloke on the trip, Jeremy Stewart from Brisbane, also having a birthday ( though 20 years my junior), lovely guy. Our guide was Mark Sedon, who turns out to be something of a legend in the NZ guiding scene, the bloke the other guides looked to for advice and feedback. He’s done six of the seven summits paid,  and is waiting to find a paying client  to guide Kilimanjaro. Nice work if you can get it. 

En route to Rolling Pin. Away before dawn. 

We climbed a couple of Aspiring’s attendant peaks, the Rolling Pin and Mount Bevan. Jeremy and I are both climbing noobs and were rather impressed with ourselves, especially given the neve ice and the formidably shitty friable rock ( the kiwis call it weet-bix, with reason). We had an outstanding run of fine weather, six days out of seven, which the guides kept commenting on.

To the Rolling Pin. 
View from the top of Rolling Pin. Upper and Lower Volta glaciers. 
Anchoring using a snow pin
Hanging off that anchor. Spent the next twenty minutes prusiking, trying to get over the ice lip.

Full moon over the Rolling Pin. 

It was the anticipated mix of exhilaration, bloody hard work and terror. I had forgotten what that heart-freezing fear is like when you have to swing out over a yawning void, or descend a steep scree slope with a big drop beneath it. Mark was utterly in his element, leaping around like a goat and just so relaxed in the setting. He’s done Aspiring itself almost two dozen times and I’m sure it was like baby-sitting with us. I saw in the guidebook that Mt Bevan, which we had regarded as amazing/scary to summit ( with two pitches of snow climbing) , is described as a steep 45-minute scramble. Hmm.

Looking back over the Bonar, Bevan is the dark peak in the middle.
Bevan Summit.
Jeremy and Mark on top of Bevan. Mark gracious to a fault. 

The guides were interesting. We stayed the whole time in Colin Todd hut, a steel box bolted onto a big rock on Shipowner Ridge overlooking the glacier, and got to know the four other guides and their clients. Two women were doing Aspiring separately despite never climbing before, crikey.  At night the guides would talk shop and compare routes, talk about conditions, discuss mutual friends and as everywhere and every profession bitch about pay and conditions. I learned that the mortality rate in French mountain guides was 1% per year, a truly staggering stat. Madness.

We worked our way through all the requisites, and at the end of five days were beginning to get competent with the ropes: figure eights, clove and munt hitches, coiling, as well as all the abseiling tackle, the ice screws, snow pins, and the chocks and cams used on rock. Lots of glacier travel, lots of pitches on both ice and rock, as well as ice climbing, self-arresting and god knows what else. .
I even managed to fall into a crevasse up to my waist: no problem rolling out, but I looked down into an unnerving blackness.

The crevasse I fell into. No big deal getting out but when I looked in pretty dark and deep. 
Ice climbing, I think I could get into that!
Mark and Jeremy. Could not ask for a better guide and better company. 
Starting the descent. Long way to the Valley

The descent was two days, the first of which was down a thousand vertical metres of steep gulley, rock face, scree and avalanche debris. I reckon that was the most challenging  day, scrabbling on tiny ledges with a 20 kilo pack, top-heavy carrying 60m of rope.

A very stressful day. Not many pix, not able to stop. At the bottom of one of the avalanche-choked gullies. The rock  in the centre of the frame is about as big as a small house. 
The valley floor at last. We came down the slot at the rear. Jeremy and Mark. Night started fine but about three am began to rain heavily. No tents, just bivvy bags

That last night we slept n a bivvy at the valley head as the bull stags roared across the valley. It stated to rain and a pretty dismal night in the bags ensued.
The forest walk. Actually one of the very few flat stretches, lots of steep climbs and descents among the roots. 

The walk out was a cracker as well, through ancient forest and across bounding glacial rivers. Hard to beat that south island stuff. Very warm welcome from the custodian of Aspiring Hut. 

Far far in the distance is the flat farmland that means only four more hours to the car

Mark said we would be competent to do aspiring,. In fact, two women guided one-on-one did it while we were there, both noobs. Mark even said that we would be qualified to do a Himalayan peak like Ama Dablam. I still think he’s crazy. I’ll give it a few months to let the memory of the fear fade and then think about another trip.

At the start of the descent. Six days in. 

Incidentally... I was picked up inbound at ChCh by Kate and Ray Pilbrow. Ray likes engines and speed. So as soon as I got off the plane he put me in his jetboat. God bless them both!