After spending the last 7 or so years at the Coast to Coast as support crew and competitor, the opportunity to go and do something else while making the most of a 4 day weekend was looking pretty attractive. Ryan (my brother) was keen to do something that involved a Packraft and I was keen to do something Climbing related, and somewhere between Christchurch and Wanaka we could meet in the middle. Thursday morning I hit the road aiming to meet Ryan and his mate Rowan in Twizel around 10am.
Turns out the early start was pretty ambitious and it was almost 3pm by the time we had some lunch, drove up to the head of Lake Ohau to drop a car off and then back to Mount Cook Village to start our mission. Gearing up with the bear minimum packrafting gear, the bear minimum climbing gear and enough food for 4 days did not leave a lot of room in one’s pack! Being quite late in the day to start walking allowed us to conveniently avoid too many questions from tourists on our way towards Muller Hut. There was a bit of cloud up high still, but as predicted it was starting to clear and the further we walked up the better things were looking. It was pretty hard going with some heavy loads! Eventually though, we emerged onto the ridge line that lead to the hut and the walking became a bit easier.
Upon our arrival we were greeted by the Hut Wardens, which were a bit curious as to what we were up too. I think they were possibly a little worried we were going to sneak into the hut, but we obviously had other plans! We filled up on water carried on our merry way. It was now around 6 or 7pm and it took a few kilometres to go to find a good camp spot with water and flat ground. We were lucky enough to stumble upon some ideal pre-built platforms for camping out. As we wee packed super light, we didn’t have a tent, so it was a clear and very cold night out under the stars in bivy bags.
We must have been above freezing level as I woke up with a thin layer of ice on the topside of my sleeping bag at some point in the night! We had a big day ahead so we had an early start (a not quite alpine early start, but at least it was predawn). Our mission today was to get to Barron Saddle hut but the first task was to get through Sladden Saddle and then climb Mt Sealy. As we climbed up towards the Annette Plateu we spotted some climbers heading up Footstool on the opposite side of the valley only losing track of them after the Sunrise.
The first obstacle, Sladden Saddle was much more straight forward than expected and we found ourselves quickly at the base of Mt Sealy. We dropped our packs and all that extra weight of packrafts, paddles and lifejackets for the final summit push. It was a fairly steep climb up the snow slope and even required a bit of front pointing on my barely used crampons. While I could see Ryan and Rowan were in their elements, I was on the edge of my comfort zone, so when it came to the rock scramble about 20 vertical meters from the Summit, I said good luck to them and waited for their safe return. I got pretty cold clinging to the shitty loose rocks while they climbed on up and back without a care in the world. Getting back down was a little bit stressful, and I felt heaps more comfortable when I was back on the snow… even though it was potentially more dangerous.
Back at our pack drop my stress levels were able to recover a bit and with the weather starting to show it was moving in from the west, we continued on our way to Barron Saddle. Getting around the next little bit was again quite nerve racking. We had to traverse around the end of the ridge line on a scree terrace which dropped away about 300-400m vertically to the glacier below. Having a large heavy pack didn’t make it easy for me as I watched Ryan and Rowan effortlessly down climb a small section and charge on ahead. I took my time to get it right, making sure each move I made was solid and safe. It was pretty nice to finally get back onto a smooth and relatively gentle rock face with a bit less exposure. We then clambered our way up and spotted the hut, only about 500m away.
Even though we could see the hut only 500m away, there was still quite some terrain to negotiate to get there. It involved a bit of down climbing and when we thought we were almost there we had to pop crampons on again for the final slope to the hut. It was quite a relief to get to the hut after what felt like quite a long day, even though it was only 3pm.
We spent the rest of the day doing resting and preparing ourselves for Saturday’s task, which was to get down into the head of the Dobson river via what the route guide (written in 1901) described as “Moderate Scree and Snow slopes”. The hut itself was quite unique, barrel shaped it looked quite spaceship like, but it was very comfortable and a nice place to rest up.
Pretty much as we went to bed the wind that evening the wind really started to roar making sleep difficult. At around 6am we woke up to assess the conditions… and discovered it was snowing and a thin layer of slippery snow had settled across all of the rocks surrounding the hut. So the morning was spent dozing, reading and waiting for the weather to improve.
By around 2pm the visibility had improved a huge amount, the wind dropped and there was a bit of sun every now and then. We decided to give it a go and headed on our way out of the hut.
We scoped out our descent path and gingerly made our way down the precarious looking scree slopes. After about 30min of scrambling around and halfway down the slope things were not looking good for a path down to the bottom. Ryan and Rowan investigated several options, but the further down they got the steeper the slopes were and the more dangerous the descent path appeared. Eventually we decided that due to the recession of the glacier over the past 100 years, the moderate scree and snow slopes have now bluffed out at the bottom making safe passage almost impossible.
Reluctantly we had to climb back up the dodgy scree and look for another way. After some debate we walked up closer to the peak known as the Scissors and checked out a series of snow slopes Ryan and Rowan thought we could traverse. It looked possible even in my eyes, however we did not have any protection with us other than a 30m half rope. The consequences of falling from that snow slope was likely death if you were unable to self arrest – as you would probably just slide down and over the cliff edge never to be seen from again. I think without a pack I might have been ok, but carrying a cumbersome packraft limited my agility quite a bit and after being freaked out earlier on the scree, I was not comfortable with the plan. I bailed out, and subsequently Ryan and Rowan also had to back out. Added to the decision making process was that it was now 5pm in the evening and daylight was not really on our side if we had to retreat.
We headed straight back to the hut and I sat inside and had a bit of a sulk to myself. I felt really bad that because of my nervousness on traversing the slopes, this resulted in us having to turn back and take the Plan C route back to Mt Cook Village and forgo any packrafting. Whats more we were going to have to walk out carrying packrafts that basically had no use other than to add a shit-ton of weight on our backs! Double punishment for our troubles… but I guess we were walking away safe, and able to come back another day.
That evening the mood was a bit somber, we decided we would head back out down the glacier and figured it would take a good 6 hours to get back to the car. Unfortunately we had no idea what the terminus of the glacier looked like, so rather than the idyllic sounding dream of “just climb down and packraft across the glacier lake” we were going to have to climb back up about 800m vertical to make safe passage via Muller hut.
At dawn we headed out the door of Barron Saddle hut, again for the last time, and hit the slopes at the top of the glacier just as the sun was reaching us. It was a beautiful still day, and there was still a hint of a chance that lingered in my mind that we could try and get across the ice fields and down into the Dobson. Thankfully Ryan and Rowan walked right on past it with no hesitation.
Initially our travel on the glacier was quick, but rapidly this changed and the moraine sitting on-top of the ice spread out right across the valley. The next 2 hours were spent navigating our way through the minefield of precariously balance rocks. Finally we reached the point where we needed to climb up… it looked steep and nasty. Rowan was keen on a direct approach but we kind of found compromise on one particular scree slope. The rocks were loose and it was very steep, so we took due caution.
Having been on the glacier for most of the morning and with ice pretty much all around there was never really a good opportunity to get water. The summer still had quite a bit of heat in it and the climbing with all that dead weight was thirsty work. Eventually we got to some safe-ish ground around midday and we could have a break and ration the last of our water between us. I was also down to my last few morsels of food too, so the tank was feeling a little on the empty side. I was feeling confident we had made good progress up the 700-800m slope and then Ryan informed us we still had 300-400m to climb! Another what felt like an hour of climbing up and around through a number of boulder fields we popped out right on target just 100 or so meters from the Hut.
It was a welcome relief to get some fresh water as it was super hot in the middle of the day now! We had a brief lunch stop, but didn’t waste too much time in getting back down to the car. Ryan charged off leaving Rowan and myself to tail behind. As it was middle of the day, it was also peak tourist time, so there was no way to avoid the curious people asking us about our strange equipment hanging off our packs… “is that a Paddle??” “have you guys been climbing?” . It was a little torturous, and a little bit amusing too. Finally after a good knee destroying descent to the valley we made it to flat ground and it was just a short hop back to the car.
Mission Incomplete, but we lived to tell the tale, and in hind sight it was a pretty cool trip despite the incompleteness of it all. Maybe its a trip that needs repeating with some more appropriate climbing gear? or just at an earlier time in the season when there is a bit more snow about? or maybe its best just to leave that question there and focus on the next trip somewhere else!