Climbing in New Zealand (2000)

"I love climbing because it feels so good when I stop..."    — Karl "we're all nuts".
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Some wet bog in Steward Island.

Jenny's trip

Left: Some wet bog in Steward Island.

While I was away in Dome C, Jenny took some 2 months of vacation in NZ ahead of me. After some coaxing, I managed to get her to write something about her trip (hell, I wanted to know too !):

OK, so he convinced me to talk about my journey in N.Z.. I must say that it wasn't so uncommon for a young girl to travel all on her own in a country that's so far away from home; actually I didn't meet any italians, neither girls or boys, but there were a lot of backpackers especially from Australia, America and northern Europe.

A classic view of Mitre Peak, Milford Sound.

Right: A classic view of Mitre Peak, Milford Sound.

I decided to start my trip from the very south of the south island: the Stewart Island (so I felt much nearer to Antarctica were Guillaume was...), and my plans from there were to go towards the north, across the west coast which has a lot of unexplored areas, mountains and wonderful coast beaches.
In Stewart Island you can arrive either by small plane or by ferry; it's a really cute little island with few people living there and not so many tourists; all covered with rain forest, crowded with birds. There are only two circle tracks that you are allowed to walk, one of three days and the other of about ten. Each day you walk between 4 and 6 hours and arrive to huts with blankets and gas stove (there is also water available in tanks).

I decided to do a mixture of both trails, planning to do three days of walking from Oban to Mason bay (which is supposed to be the best place were to see kiwis) and three days coming back the same way, but I found myself walking 9 or 10 hours per day doing the hole trip in just 2 days and a half, with my feet fool of blisters, my shoes and socks covered with mud, and my legs and arms devastated by the sandflies (I had the bad idea to sleep in a bivy bag, but if you plan to do the same thing use a mosquito net !).

Jenny canoeing the Milford Sound.

Left: Jenny canoeing the Milford Sound.

Next I went to the region called Fiordland. It is quite difficult to enter this area, so most of it hasn't been explored yet by foot — but I imagine by helicopter. Anyway, there are few tracks that are very simple to do. One of the most classic is the Kepler track that begins from Te Anau lake and after a steep walk in the rain forest brings you to a very long and panoramic ridge looking out on various lakes and fiords. The trip is given for 3 days but as usual I have done it in one and a half day, in this way I was walking late in the day without meeting anybody else.

A waterfall on Milford Sound.

Right: A waterfall on Milford Sound. Purchase this image on a royalty-free CD archive compilation

Well, at that point I had quite stiff legs and back, so I decided to rest. I went to Millford sound with a Scottish guy that I met in Te Anau, and visit the touristiest fiord by kayak. I'm not so confident with water (generally I need the help of Guillaume to get under the shower), but I must say it was really fun, you can even see seals yawning on the beside rocks and if you are very lucky paddle with the dolphins.

After that I was in shape to do the Routeburn track. This starts from the road between TeAnau and Milford sound at the Divide, and brings you on the other side of the mountains near Glenorchy, with wonderful sceneries of mountain lakes. The huts are very expensive, and you are allowed to camp just at the beginning or at the end of the trip, that was quite a spent for a very cheep travelers like me, so I did it all in one day, but I must say that New Zealand tracks are very easy and well made, so if you are used to walk, it always takes you less time than what is written on the guidebooks.

At this point I was quite bored to wait for buses or to ask for rides; I wanted to be more autonomous, and as I'm used to go around by bike (not having a car), I decided to buy one second hand in Queenstown, hoping to manage to sell it at the end of my trip. That was a really good idea ! Well, I did not manage to rest till the end of my holiday.

Beach on the Kepler track.

Left: Beach on the Kepler track.

The first day I arrived in Wanaka cutting trough the mountains up to a pass, yelling out and regretting not having taken the bus; the next day I wanted to arrive with the bike to Aspiring hut, which I did (the 40 km unsealed road is very boring, instead the last 10km on the track is really a big fun), and then climb up to Cascade Saddle by foot from were there should be a wonderful scenery on the mountains. Unfortunately the sunny weather that I had had till this moment changed. The next six days I was biking on the we(s)t coast under heavy rain and "contrary" wind; it wasn't so nice to go to sleep in a wet sleeping bag and in the morning put on wet clothes from the day before... if it hadn't been so terrible I would have tried the Copland Pass on my way up north.

Late summer snow on Ruapehu.

Right: Late summer snow on Ruapehu.

I arrived in Hokitika and from there to Punakaiki in the Pararoa National Park to rest my bottom and have a walk on a very nice track, most of it where you are with the feet in the river. Next, always sleeping in the bivy bag under some shelter, I went to do the Abel Tasman Track which is very relaxing and sunny, most of the time walking on a sandy beach looking for shells to collect. It is a well-known track, so if you want to be more on your own, best is to do the last bit from Totaranui to Tarakhohr.

From Motueka, just south the Abel Tasman National Park, I arrived in Picton through Nelson in two days with the dark and heavy rain, I was exhausted ! I catched the boat to Wellington were I decided to sell my bike and visit the north island just by foot and hitch hiking to save time. At this point I had just few days left before flying to Tasmania and meeting with Guillaume who was going to arrive on the Astrolabe from Antarctica...

The north island is more populated and compared to the south island it has bigger roads with more traffic. In the center there are some volcanoes and lakes with geysers and thermal areas; my goal was to climb up two volcanoes in the Tongariro National Park: Mt. Ngauruhoe 2287m, and Mt. Ruahepu 2797m. As I was relaxing for one day — finally ! — at the lake Taupo, I started walking from the car park of Ketetahi track that circumnavigates Mt Ngauruhoe, it seemed like walking on the moon. To reach the top of the volcanoes you have to walk on steep dark red sand that makes it quite challenging: one hour to go up, and five minutes to ski down. I ended my trip at Mangatepopo Hut, near a car park.

Hiking the rainforest.

Left: Hiking the rainforest.

Next day I went up Mt Ruahepu. Actually there is a cable car from Wakapapa Village to a big bar-restaurant and from there it starts the track, but of course I did not take it. Contrary to the first volcano this has not the classical shape of a pyramid, and it has snow on the top (there is also a little hut). Both of these two volcanoes are still active. That day I decided to go and sleep in a backpacker's which surprisingly had a big indoor climbing wall and of course I did not miss the opportunity to have a climb.

My New Zealand trip ended up hitch hiking with an Israeli girl towards Wellington were I had my airplane to Hobart in Tasmania and were I still had one week to go around alone.

In Tasmania I didn't see much. I've been on Bruny Island on the south east of Hobart which Guillaume had told me about, and then to the Harz Mountains, west of Geeveston. Bruny Island is a relaxing island with few people and a lot of sandy beaches, the most amazing thing was to watch the blue penguins coming back home from the sea late in the evening on the Neck beach. That night I decided to sleep on the beach, but unfortunately it started to rain and I spent the rest of the night trying to keep my balance on a thin bench under the information panel roof.

From Geeveston there is a dirt road that in about 20 km reaches a shelter, the track to Hartz Peak starts from there and after 600m of walking through bushes and on big stones you'll arrive to the summit with a wonderful scenery. As usual I decided to walk all the way from Geevestone, but when I arrived to the shelter it was already dark (and raining of course) so I slept there and left the summit for the day after. It was very nice to find a fireplace with wood already prepared.

— Jenny

Elie de Baumont (3109m) and Malte Brun (3199m)

Up the endless moraine of the Tasman glacier.

The ups and downs of the 2nd part of the Tasman glacier.

I got back from Dome C on the Astrolabe, in Hobart. Jenny was waiting for me on the harbor and we spent a couple days in Tasmania and then came straight to Mt Cook village. In order to shape up and save money, we decided to walk up the Tasman glacier instead of flying up. Right! 24km of hiking on the longest glacier of the southern hemisphere (besides Antarctica of course). This late in the season it's quite bad (does it ever get good ?), the first half is just a field of rocks of all sizes, made unstable by the movement of the glacier; the second half is a succession of tiny crevasses, formed by melting ice, that makes a flat glacier feel like a huge flight of stairs to climb. And I'm not even talking about the descent of Garbage gully, not as bad as the name might let you imagine. It took us 15 hours to walk in from the road (720m) to Tasman Saddle hut (2300m). I arrived exhausted with Jenny pulling me during the last hours. Heh, I didn't get too much training while in Dome C, while she was biking around the whole South Island !

Left: Up the endless moraine of the Tasman glacier.

Right: The ups and downs of the 2nd part of the Tasman glacier.

The crux right under the summit of Mt Elie de Baumont.

Left: The crux right under the summit of Mt Elie de Baumont. Image available as a free wallpaperPurchase this image on a royalty-free CD archive compilation

Once in Tasman Saddle Hut, first surprise: no gas and no stove ! It seems that the DOC decided to remove the stoves from all the huts. Confident in my trip of 6 years ago, I hadn't even asked at the Information Center. We had a small stove and one cartridge of butane/propane, but certainly not enough for the planned stay. Fortunately there was some leftover gas and some other parties kindly let us use their stove. We rested for a day and then climbed up Elie de Baumont, one of the summits at the start of the Tasman Glacier. The normal route up the Anna glacier is very badly crevassed so we went up Mt Walter (2905m), a lower summit next to it. It was quite fast to go up this 60° ramp, but the ridge leading to the summit of Walter was very windy. We had to walk on all fours to get there and then we decided to wait for a while to see if the wind would drop. It did and we completed the traverse to the col leading to Elie de Baumont.

We climbed to the summit (3109m) from the wrong side (north) when it was easier to just go up from the col. A nasty crevasse was blocking the access to the summit and proved a bit technical to climb. Then we decided to go down the Anna glacier. It did look badly crevassed, but on the way down you always feel like you can rappel down anything... Which we did for a start on the steepest part, leaving a couple snowstakes and snow bollards. Then the going go though: the glacier was getting more horizontal, with gaping crevasses softened by the potent sun of the day. We had to go down crevasses and climb up the other side. The ice/snow was getting too soft for rappelling so I started lowering Jenny and downclimbing some of the crevasses... Which can lead to nice flights when they get overhanging and too soft to hold your tools... All in all it was a very long descent and we did need a day of rest before going up the very easy Hoerchester dome.

The wire bridge of Beetham valley.

Sunset cloud formation on Malte Brun.

Left: The wire bridge of Beetham valley. Image available as a free wallpaperPurchase this image on a royalty-free CD archive compilation

Right: Sunset cloud formation on Malte Brun. Purchase this image on a royalty-free CD archive compilation

After Elie de Baumont, we started the walk down the Tasman Glacier, but stopped halfway in the very beautiful Beetham valley, below the rocky summit of Malte Brun (right). There used to be a hut in the valley but an avalanche recently destroyed it. Fortunately there is a nice bivy rock right under the cable bridge crossing the river at the mouth of the valley (left). Unlike my first trip to NZ, the weather was quite nice most of the time and we even slept outside on a flat rock. If I'd known how long it would take us to get to the start of the climb I would have slept by the little glacier where the full west ridge starts. The classic climb up Malte Brun is the west ridge, or its longer version, the full west ridge, visible on the left of the above picture. We decided to do that one, a 2000m route from our camp.

The west ridge of Malte Brun.

Getting to the start of the climb proved quite long already: from the camp you get onto the large ridge leading to the west ridge. It is rocky and plenty of towers to climb up and down in bad rock made us lose a lot of time. Going around it is not such a bright idea, we came down that way and it was quite long too. After something like 4 hours of approach we started the climb itself. The first part is nice enough, with decent rock in the technical sections (right), nothing harder than a grade IV, and some gullies filled with loose rocks.

Trouble hit where the full west ridge joins the 'normal' west ridge. A 100m gully normally filled up with snow was completely dry. It was argillite, very steep and extremely exposed. Even Mark Twight would have been at a loss for words. Jenny almost begged me not to go and I wasn't too keen either. It was also impossible to rappel on either side to climb an alternate route. So we turned back while we were still quite far from the summit. Too bad. Not enough food left for another attempt.

Panorama from Hoerchester Dome

Above: Panorama from Hoerchester Dome

Gardiner hut up Hooker valley.

Mt Cook, West Ridge

Left: Gardiner hut up Hooker valley.

After heading out of the Tasman glacier we spent a couple days fattening up at the buffet of the Hermitage hotel in Mt Cook Village; then we headed up the Hooker valley. Going to Gardiner hut (left, 1760m)is supposed to be only about half what we walked on the Tasman, and the nice trail of the beginning, the small trail afterwards and the smooth glacier took us to Pudding Rock in about 6 hours. Problem: how do we get to the refuge on top of Pudding rock, 100m higher, when we can't even see the fixed ropes ? The glacier level has dropped 50m in recent years and the rock is very smooth. Going around the rock seemed and easy solution at the time, only about 200m of distance to do in an icefall... Well, let me only say it took us 6 more hours to cover less than 100m, climbing seracs, crevasses and unstable blocks of ice the size of cars piled up on each others. We ended up going back towards the rock and climbing it at night. Nasty stuff. As usual after a NZ approach march, we took the next day off, and also because it was raining. In the evening two very wet and tired italian climbers arrived after having climbed the west ridge and bivied in the rain.

The west ridge of Cook with LaPérouse in the background.

Right: The west ridge of Cook with LaPérouse in the background. Image available as a free wallpaperPurchase this image on a royalty-free CD archive compilation

The following day we took off at 3 in the morning for the 2000m west ridge with the intent to bivy 'somewhere', do the traverse of all 3 summits and come down the Linda or Zurbriggen's Ridge on the other side. Getting to the start of the ridge was fast, at 5 we took off our crampons and started the ridge from its lowest point. It proved surprisingly difficult with some good grade V moves to negotiate in plastic boots, gloves on, a big pack and darkness. A better look at the relation showed that 'starting 200m on the left allows you to avoid the hardest part'. No, it wasn't my ethics, just the fact that I hadn't read it well... So eventually it got easier and faster going on a succession of steep bits of very solid and good looking red schist, easy gullies filled up of loose scree, knife-edged ridges... It's a very scenic route, with La Pérouse (right) getting smaller and smaller in the background. The progression was rather fast, but the necessity to do multiple shoulder belays on the steepest moves slowed us down a bit too much. It was sunny and warm. Truly great route.

Evening light on the ridge leading to the lower summit of Cook.

Left: Evening light on the ridge leading to the lower summit of Cook. Image available as a free wallpaper

200 meters from the end of the rocky part we arrived below a huge vertical face. I was impressed and didn't know where to go. At Jenny's suggestion we traversed 200m to the left and ended up climbing a very exposed but not so hard sharp ridge. Awesome. At about 18:00 we had a sandwich pause and we put our crampons on for the last 200m of snow ridge (left) to the summit. That's just when the wind started...

Getting ready to bivvy under the summit of Cook.

Right: Getting ready to bivvy under the summit of Cook.

We arrived 50m below the lowest summit (3593m) at 20:00 after 17 hours of climbing. We were very tired, it'd been very windy but not too cold. Impossible to find snow to make a snowcave. We dug some kind of tomb in the ice just below the lip of the ridge. Jenny sorted out the equipment and put rocks around our 'bed' while I dug up a tiny cave for the stove and started making water. We ate our instant soups and freeze-dries laying down: the ridge protecting us from the wind but if we only raise our head it would almost blow us away... With one sleeping bag for two (to remind me of my other bivy on the summit of Cook 6 years ago...), we spent a tight but warm enough night.

In the morning the wind was still there, impeding our every move. We started the traverse from the lower peak to the middle peak (2717m) but the progression on this mixed rock/ice part is tricky with the wind forcing us to always walk on all fours. At Porter col, below the middle summit, we decided to go down and forget the true summit (3754m) still a km away. The Porter Col route is given as fairly easy in the guidebook but the top part is steep and icy. We downclimbed it carefully. Then we ran across the plateau that traverses below the hanging seracs of the summit. A series of strong stomach cramps slowed me down for an hour but we finally arrived to the part where the plateau narrows to about 200m of width and looses 200m of altitude in no time. The crevasses widen instantly in a series of nightmare seracs, 200m wide and 50m high, tilted at crazy angles with huge gaps between them. We got ourselves in this mess and there seemed not way out. The right side has got huge holes between the glacier and the rock face, with rocks falling every other minute. When we threw chunks of ice down those crevasses, we couldn't even hear them hit the bottom.

We could have climbed the short rocky face and tried the other (unknown) glacier on the other side, but now it's too late. We started rappelling on snow bollards on those tilted seracs, trying to hurry to get out of this dreadful zone. Right in the middle of them, I tossed the rope on the serac below and, as the rope touched it, it snaped and fell away. Imagine a major chunk of ice, 50m by 200m by 50m that shatters off under your feet... I had a split second to imagine that with those vibrations our own serac was going to fly off too but it held. We cauth our breath, unsqueezed our butts and kept going down on the clean path all this ice opened up for us. A guide later told us: "yeah, the Porter Col route used to be a safe climb 100 years ago".

On the plateau below there are many crevasses to jump in soft snow but it was still rather fast going down... at first. We were going down the glacier that passes underneath the two toes of the west ridge. We reached the highest one as darkness was settling and it was the same old story again: the crevasses turn into seracs, but we didn't worry about this: steps in the snow were leading onto the rock toe and foot tracks seemed to go down it. We started downclimbing but soon lost the trail in the darkness. It got steeper ad steeper and we used all our stock of slings to make one, two... five rappels. We then ended up in the middle of a vertical face where I could see the glacier on the other side. A big gap forbade reaching it. I threw a big rock in the gap: no sound at all. Deep like shit. We were both beginning to despair of ever getting back 'simply' to the refuge. Fortunately a tiny ledge traversed back onto a thin snow bridge. A couple other crevasses, one more hour of walking down the glacier and we headed up the last 20 meters of rock to a very welcoming refuge.


A strange Moeraki boulder.

6 years ago I failed climbing Tasman after an attempt on the Silberhorn route: the knife edged snow ridge between Silberhorn and the summit seemed forbidding. This year the guides say that the conditions on the other side of Tasman are great and they take their clients there instead of the normal route of Cook made dangerous by gaping crevasses (tell me something I don't know !).

One of those obnoxious keas.

We were exhausted after our Cook climb, the helicopters ask for too much to get us to Pioneer hut from Mt Cook village, and the weather is crapping out. So we decided to play tourists for a while and go slowly towards the west coast. Among the interesting things we saw were the Moeraki boulders, some strange spherical septarian concretions that come out of sandy cliffs to rest on a beach near Moeraki village. Some of them have golden crystalline inclusions (top left).

Our tent survived the attacks of the obnoxious keas for 4 weeks at Mt Cook campground. Those carnivorous parrots can be real pains when you piss them off by refusing to give them something to eat. 6 years ago in Hooker hut a kea spent most of the night dropping rocks on the tin roof of the refuge. Very nice night, thank you.

A fur seal going back to the sea.

A yellow eyed penguin near it nest.

Other animals worth seeing in NZ are the fur seals that can be seen on most beaches, resting lazily in the sun where you mistake them for boulders. On the left picture, a pup going back to the sea in the evening. And of course different species of penguins: the fairy penguins (aka little blue penguins), the rare yellow eyed penguins (right) and some other kinds.

Baiting some blue shark.

A blue shark seen from the underwater cage.

But the sea holds some other kinds of animals. In Kaikoura you can see them all. Or most of them anyway. We did see giant sperm whales from a moving ship; they blow some steam and show you their tail but aren't that interesting when you are trying to hold your breakfast in the swell. You can swim with dolphins but it was all booked up. Instead, as a fearless extreme adventurer I decided to go see sharks from up close. Well, fearless but protected by a strong metal cage ! It's quite interesting and safe. The captain of the ship baits some blue (left) and mako sharks with some dead fish, and off we dive in the cage where they swim around us just a few cm away. Better not put those fingers through, those teeth are sharp as hell.

Early light up Mt Tasman.

Mt Tasman

So we eventually made up our way to the west coast on a sunny day, doing in 3 hours of bus what it took Jenny 3 days to bike in a pouring rain. We took a helicopter from Fox village to Pioneer Hut, up the Fox glacier. Money or no money we were tired of endless moraines. One of the italian climbers from the west ridge of Cook, Andrea, had joined us.

Summit of Mt Tasman.

The next day, rested but farting continuously from having eaten too much freeze dry, we took off for the north shoulder of Mt Tasman. There was a nice trail left by a guided party going up Mt Lendenfeld. The climb was quick: 5 hours. Good snow, very nice sunrise above the Tasman glacier (left) but the wind was very violent all the way up. There were two summits about 20 meters away from each other, we stopped on the first one which was more comfortable, although the view on the Linda route of Mt Cook was probably better from the other. The few centimeters of difference one way or the other did not bother us as much as the increase in wind speed.

Coming down from the summit of Tasman.

On the way down this fairly sharp ridge (left) we had to often walk on all fours, a habit we took on 3 of the 5 summits we climbed ! We got back to Pioneer hut in the early afternoon, a couple hours before the clouds gathered in the usual fashion of the We(s)t Coast and rain started. It stopped at about 12:00 the next day. Time to wake up, eat and get organized, we started heading down the fox glacier at 14:00.

Lots of tiny crevasses forming some kind of maze eventually got us down back on the rock. The ice halfway down was very strange: all brown and not slippery at all; here (picture below) Andrea showing off his talents of rock/ice/whatever climber on it. At about 18:00 we were at the Chancellor hut and the sky was still sunny. We followed the track down a very dense and very wet vegetation. Steep and slippery. Once down there we had to cross the glacier. We got to the other side with darkness and started walking down the rocky side of glacier very near the ice just as Jenny's light gave out. Unstable rocks kept tripping us and I even did a pretty nice somersault with 2 hilarious 'partners' ending up getting me back on my feet. The clouds were thick and the night was dark. It sounds like some bad poetry, but with only 2 lamps for 3 it took us some time to get back onto the glacier.

Ice climbing according to Andrea.

We were supposed to cross it again to go meet to ice trails set up for the benefit of the tourists. We arrived about 100m above the solid ground and never saw any damn trail but some (as usual) crevasses. Going down on the left side was pretty easy. Problem: the road is on the other side of the very fast and cold river coming out of the bottom of the glacier. Although a dejected Andrea wanted to swim across I managed to direct his suicidal tendencies towards walking down the left shore of the river. A few footsteps seemed to indicate that it was possible (or that somebody else had gotten lost and died this way too). Walking on slippery rocks, through fallen trees and across things that looked amazingly like quicksand we eventually got to the footbridge crossing the river much further down. At 2 in the morning we arrived in Fox Village just as the rain started. A friendly barman reopened the bar just for us. After a couple quick beers we collapsed on the wooden shelf in front of the Helicopter Line building, with a roof just large enough to shelter us from the rain. Enough, let's go back home.

But then, who knew I'd be back again with Jenny in 2005...

Panorama from Pioneer Hut.

Above: Panorama from Pioneer Hut.