At 7am on a clear and cold morning, I had reached the crux pitch of Pequeno Alpamyo in the high Andes of Bolivia. At around 5,200m the steep snow slopes got a whole lot steeper - exceeding 50'. With no fixed ropes, only a single ice axe and embarking on steep and hard terrain, I was definitely pushing myself outside of my comfort zone. It was at this time that I thought to myself 'I should have done that mountaineering course in NZ!'.
Fast forward and a year later I joined a great group of guys (Garry, Dan and Simon) for a week-long Mountaineering Skills Course led by our highly experienced instructor, Andrea Bruni, from Aspiring Guides in Wanaka, New Zealand. The course was incredibly valuable - covering multi-pitch alpine climbing (on rock, snow and ice), mountain navigation and crevasse rescue. These skills were taught in theory and then applied in the NZ southern alps.
We met early on Sunday morning and after a quick gear check headed out to a local crag in Wanaka to practice the multi-pitch climbing system, which we would subsequently use in different alpine environments throughout the week. The freezing cold and clear morning gave way to a hot afternoon as we each led two pitches of easy rock climbing, made significantly more difficult by climbing in our mountaineering boots. In the late afternoon, we packed up the car and headed 2.5 hours north to Mt Cook village. As we followed the turquoise shores of Lake Pukaki, the towering summit of Mt Cook and the end of the Tasman Glacier soon came into view. We spent our first night at the NZ Alpine Club Lodge near the Mt Cook air strip and had our first introduction to Andrea's fantastic cooking.
After a brief lesson in managing ropes for glacier travel we were soon in a helicopter on our way up to Kelman Hut at the head of the Tasman Glacier. The Tasman Glacier is 4km wide in places and up to 600m thick and covers 100 sq km. The Tasman flows down from Hochstetter Dome to the base of New Zealand's two tallest mountains - Mt Tasman and Mt Cook. This created a dramatic backdrop for our five days at the hut, which was perched on a rocky outcrop overlooking the glacier and valleys.
After carrying our gear and food up to the hut, we had an afternoon learning about crampon techniques and self-arrest on the steep snow slopes close to the hut. After some initial trepidation, we all had great fun sliding down the snow slopes in a range of different positions and using our ice axe to safely arrest our slide.
While the others got settled into hut, I commenced the construction of the snow platform for my tent. Having had a bad experience of trying to sleep in alpine huts in Bolivia, I decided to bring my own tent. Given the steepness of the terrain surrounding the hut, I didn't appreciate just how much work would be required to create a flat platform for my tent. Thankfully the afternoon sun had soften the snow and after an hour or so, my tent was up. Having a tent proved fortuitous as there were three groups sharing the hut when we arrived, making the sleeping conditions a bit cramped.
The next day we put our multi-pitch climbing approach into action on the nearby Mt Aylmer. We were up at 4am and by 6am had made our way across the glacier to the base of the mountain. We set up our first anchor and then headed across the berghshrund (a crevasse that forms where the steeper snow slopes of the mountain meet the glacier below) and up two pitches of easy climbing. The next two pitches were more challenging as the slopes got steeper and the ice harder. We made our way up on a narrow strip of ice between two rocky outcrops. The final pitch to the summit was great - gentle at first and then a small steep headwall at the end. The climb had been really valuable in better understanding rope and anchor techniques in steep snow slopes. After a short-time on the summit we headed down along a rocky ridge before abseiling off the summit formation. From here we had to navigate a crevasse and then make our way back across the glacier to the hut. We arrived back into the hut in time for a late lunch. After lunch we learned the basics of crevasse rescue in the hut.
The imposing Hochstetter Dome was our next objective. This was quite different to Mt Aylmer as it had a long classic ridge line with significantly more exposure. We were up again at 4am and made our way to the base of the ridge line. Hochstetter Dome had three different climbing elements. First, there was an exposed ridge that got progressively steeper before reaching a shark fin-like peak. Roped in pairs, the climbers would climb together but on either side of the ridge. For the last ten meters, which were the steepest, both climbers would be front-pointing and using ice axes. I climbed with Dan and took the right side of the ridge. It was physically tough, as the technique required to move along the ridge would burn specific leg and calf muscles with little chance to rest. I was exhausted and happy to make it to the top of this section.
After a short flat ridge we embarked on the second phase of the climb - a steep slope leading up to the primary summit ridge. From below, the slope looked so steep as to require anchors and pitching. However, it was deceiving and we managed to make it up the slope to the ridge without too much difficulty.
Not far from the summit, we hit the third element of the climb. We had to cross a large crevasse using a small snow bridge. We set up an anchor to make sure we were safe as the snow bridge was a bit soft in places.
We descended the same route as we had come up, although we set up anchors to protect the steeper parts of the first ridge line. After the steep descent sections we stopped for lunch - which is where Simon introduced us to his innovative sandwich, consisting of bread, tahini paste, vegetable powder and walnuts. This was only topped when he got back to the hut and added a piece of lettuce - to the outside of the sandwich.
Having successfully completed two summits in two days we rested for the afternoon before being entertained by Simon learning to prussic up a rope in the hut and Garry learning to use his new pulley devices. That evening the weather changed and a light rain fell overnight. The forecast 70km/hr winds did not eventuate, which was good given I was in a tent!
The drizzle continued the next morning, so we spent the morning in the hut learning about mountain navigation. By lunch the rain cleared and the blue skies returned. We headed down the glacier to find a large crevasse for crevasse rescue training. In teams of two we spent the afternoon being both rescued and rescuer. It was great to put the theory of crevasse rescue into action.
Our final day in the mountains involved hauling all our gear and remaining food 1.5 hours down the glacier to a section of ice cliff that we could use to practice ice climbing. We spent the morning practicing different ice climbing techniques and then top-roping some steeper sections. We started climbing with two axes, then one and ultimately none - which increasingly made us focus on our crampon placements.
At 3pm the helicopter landed near our ice climbing spot and in only a few minutes we were back at the Mt Cook air strip and then on our way back to Wanaka for the night. We all had a phenomenal time in the mountains and had learned so much. Andrea was an exceptional guide - building our knowledge and skills and giving us the opportunity and independence to use these skills in different environments.
But our adventure was not quite over. After a night in Wanaka, we were up early again for a trip to the Remarkables outside of Queenstown. Our objective was to use multi-pitch alpine rock climbing to ascend Single Cone. This would involve an elevation gain of c.700m, through a combination of hiking, scrambling and alpine rock climbing. To get lots of practice pitching we short-roped the pitches, giving us all experience at leading, setting anchors and seconding. It was hot work climbing in full sun and there were some pitches with unnerving exposure (well, for me at least). The crux pitch - allegedly a grade 14 - felt easier than the scrambling traverse pitches before it. We all managed to complete the climb in our regular walking shoes and hiking boots. We topped out at around 3pm and then began the slow and steady trip back to the car.
There is no doubt the course was exhausting - dealing with 'alpine jet lag' (thanks to the early morning starts) and the hard physical work of climbing in the mountains. However, we learned so much and were fortunate to have a great group of guys, fantastic weather and an awesome guide. Even though I am likely to continue my alpine climbing with a guide, there is no doubt the skills and knowledge I learned will make my future climbing trips more enjoyable and safe.
Day 1: Rock Climbing Wanaka
Day 2: Helicopter to Kelman Hut, Tasman Glacier
Day 3: Mt Aylmer
Day 4: Hochstetter Dome
Day 5: Crevasse Rescue Training
Day 6: Ice Climbing
Day 7: Alpine Rock Climbing