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Thursday, 30 January 2020

Macpherson - Talbot Traverse, Darran Mountains, Fiordland

The Darran mountains of Fiordland are a land of sheer granite faces, streaming with waterfalls. Dense vegetation clings to the walls and snow caps the peaks. It is the wettest place in New Zealand, with metres of precipitation every year. As you drive into the deep-cut U-shaped valley, you feel like you're approaching the end of the world.

I've tried to make an annual pilgrimage to the Darrans every summer that I have been in NZ. The long multipitch trad rock climbing is exceptional. I made a visit this summer in late January with William Skea.

Our first climb was 'Finders Keepers' on Moir's Mate. 8 pitches with the final five being stacked in the 21-22 grade range. We simul-climbed the first 4 easier pitches in less than an hour using micro-traxions and Gri-gris to shorten the rope as we climbed. An excellent climb consisting of mostly friction climbing on slabs, with some interesting crack climbing near the end also. Mist swirled in and out obscuring visiblity creating an atmospheric ambience.

The weather was variable during the week, but staying in Homer Hut makes it easy to keep a close eye on the weather - just look out the window.

One day the weather was due to pack in during the early afternoon, so we decided to take on the classic Macpherson-Talbot traverse in the morning. It turned out to be an excellent half-day adventure thanks to a light-weight 'trailpinism' style.

The Macpherson-Talbot traverse is an excellent route beginning up rocky slopes to Homer Saddle, where the infamous 'Talbot's Ladder' begins. Its easy scrambling, less than grade 10, but it is exposed. Its best to attempt this section in dry conditions. For us the rock and vegetation was slightly damp, but the rock has good friction so just take care. We didn't feel the need for a rope, but that's a matter of preference. There are metal poles on the ridge that can be used as protection if you are using a rope.

Above, snow slopes lead to Macpherson. The snow-pack was thoroughly water logged and quite firm. I used La Sportiva Bushido II shoes combined with Petzl Leopard aluminum crampons. This offered excellent purchase in the snow. I carried a Camp Corsa aluminium ice axe in case I needed to self arrest. William used Salomon running shoes combined with Kahtoola Microspikes and he also found sufficient grip on the snow, as it is fairly low angle throughout the traverse. He carried a Petzl Gully ice tool in case of self arresting only. It is the sort of terrain that would go well with hiking poles - but ours were stolen by Kea the day before!

From Macpherson to Talbot the way involves sidling on high snow slopes, but it is also possible to spend time on the rocky ridge depending on snow coverage. Here the Microspikes excelled as they are so much quicker to take on and off, whereas the Leopard crampons slowed me down on transitions. This showed the trade-off between grip and transition time.

By now the weather had thoroughly packed in, but determined to reach the summit of Talbot to complete the full route, we continued in increasing rain along the scrambly ridge. Some excellent scrambling and views would be had here in drier conditions. We reached Talbot in total white-out, followed by a quick celebration, and turned around to head back down to Traverse Pass.

From there its a quick descent via snowfields to Gertrude Saddle where you pick up the popular cairned trail back into the valley to Homer Hut.

Once on the defined trail below the rock slabs, we hooned down the valley as fast as possible for a final time of 4 hours 15 minutes at Homer Hut. Every loop needs a defined starting and finishing point. We chose the toilet. Enjoy this short video of the highly recommended Macpherson-Talbot Traverse, one of the best alpine day trips in New Zealand.

Tuesday, 14 January 2020

Mount Cook Grand Traverse in a day

Spending time in Europe, I was fascinated by the speed records set on the classic peaks of Mont Blanc and the Matterhorn, both by Kilian Jornet in just under 5 hours and 3 hours each, blisteringly quick times. I also loved that the de-facto style was to start in the early hours from the church at the centre of town, race up to the summit, and run back to the church to finish. A nice symmetry made possible by the proximity of European towns to the high peaks.

I tried this myself: Mont Blanc via Gouter from the church in Les Houches, and Matterhorn via Hornli from the church in Zermatt. You witness rapid changes of eco-systems as you gain height: from urban to forest to rock to snow, and all again in reverse as you race back down from the summit to the valley in a matter of hours.

It was an exhilarating experience and returning to NZ I dreamed of replicating this style on our own highest peak. Aoraki - in a day.

Previous climbs
In 2014 I climbed Aoraki/Mt Cook via the Linda with Elisha Nuttall, then in 2015 I climbed ‘White Dream’ on the South Face with Michael Eatson & Tawny Wagstaff. From a bivvy at the toe of the West Ridge it took us 20 hours to climb the south face and traverse from Low Peak to the infamous ‘Middle Peak Hotel’ – a deep crevasse in the mountain where we slept, at 3500m.

The following day it took 7 hours to traverse just 1 kilometre of icy ridgeline to the high peak. The ridge was hard ice and riddled with blobs of sastrugi – shards of ice - insecure enough to warrant using the rope. The rope made it marginally safer, but all the more time-consuming and exhausting spending extra time on the front points. I spent the following day in the hut peeling layers of burnt skin from my face. The whole trip from car to car took us 6 days.

Sunrise from the Hooker Valley

Route choice
For our one day trip, we had originally thought of climbing the Sheila Face from the head of the Hooker glacier, but recent snowfall meant the upper rock face might still have been icy so we opted for a pure snow-ice route.

The most aesthetic and logical route Rose and I could dream of was a full circuit, traversing the three peaks from the Hooker and returning via the Tasman. That's up the Northwest Couloir to Low Peak, along the top, down the Linda, and out via Cinerama Col and Ball Road. To complete the loop was a final 9km of tarmac and gravel back round to the Hooker Valley carpark. A total distance of 53km and 4000m of vertical gain.

Although we could have stashed a bike we decided the purest style was to complete the whole trip on foot, carrying the pack start to finish and no pre-caching of gear.

Rose climbing the icy NW Couloir

Unlike running races, there’s no set date for a Mount Cook climb so you always have to be ready when the weather window arrives. But in the month or so beforehand we built up the fitness on progressively longer runs in the mountains with lots of vertical gain, things like the Manakau-Uwerau traverse, Three Passes in Arthurs Pass, and the Tararua SK traverse. These missions also helped work out the type of foods I could handle eating for 24 hours straight. Previous experience of 24-hour rogaines and Godzone adventure races also helped.

The Grand Traverse from Low to High peak was considered in its day one of the most impressive feats of world mountaineering, that is, in 1913. It was first done by cutting steps across its length and without crampons.

Emmeline Freda Du Faur with Alec and Peter Graham
Freda du Faur, first woman to climb Aoraki/Mt Cook in 1913 with guides Peter & Alec Graham
Ref: MNZ-1296-1/2-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand

But the shape of the ridge has changed drastically over the last decades, including the 1991 collapse of the high peak, and even changes shape year to year as it is battered by storms from the west. There are many ways up to the Low Peak; the West Ridge, South Face, Caroline Face. These are all more technical routes. We chose the easiest and therefore fastest route up, the Northwest couloir.

What excited us most about this trip, like any true adventure, was the thrill of the unknown. We didn't know whether we would by stymied by difficult glacial passage past Pudding Rock in the Hooker valley or slowed to a halt by blue ice on the summit ridge. The conditions are ever changing around each storm cycle and so hard to predict. Even the recent huge washout at Husky Flat on Ball Road provided a question mark. And could it all be done back to the Hooker in 24 hours?

Reaching the West Ridge of Low Peak

There was no single ‘crux’ as it turned out, it was a challenge of endurance. As I’ve often experienced with other rapid single push ascents, sleep deprivation and altitude sickness can be a toxic combination. With only 2 hours sleep before our midnight start and rising from sea level to 3000m in about 15 hours, I started to feel quite dizzy as we made our way up to Low Peak. We had not factored any acclimatisation into the compact schedule. This dizziness was compounded by blazing sun and no wind on the summit ridge, glorious yet dehydrating conditions. I was glad to have plenty of electrolyte drink to gulp down as I traversed the ridge, accessible on the front pockets of my Macpac adventure racing vest-style pack.

Nearing the end of the Grand Traverse

The most difficult route finding is on the descent, navigating the scree and moraine between the Buoys glacier and Ball hut. We were bluffed out numerous times before we finally found the access onto the huge scree slope down to the Tasman moraines. We lost an hour here. Climbing up the loose lateral moraine to Ball Road is also tricky. You’re 20 hours in and have to rack your tired brain to remember the correct route up the sea of choss.

20L running vest style packs.
Running shoes (LS Bushido II) for the approach + running socks
¾ shank boots (LS Trango Tech) for the snow + mountaineering socks
Mini gaitors
BD sabretooth 12-point steel crampons
One Petzl Gully axe and one BD viper
Leki trail stick poles with snow baskets
A ski mountaineering harness (BD Couloir)
60cm dyneema sling each (tether)
40m of 8mm Beal Ice Line
4 aluminium ice screws with one Camp nano snap biner for each
Belay device + prussic + carabiners
Petzl Meteor helmet
A one-piece thermal vest suit
Macpac t-shirt
Macpac Prothermal
Macpac transition rain jacket
Macpac dash gloves
Spring energy gels
OSM bars
Fried bacon
A bag of cereal and protein powder
Tailwind electrolyte & energy powder for water
Two 500ml soft flask bottles for pure water and electrolytes
Two 750ml water bladders for refills to make 2.5L total
PLB (personal locator beacon)
First aid kit
SOL emergency bivvy bag
GoPro for filming.

I love my ‘onesie’ thermal suit: integrated fleece leggings and vest. My version of racing lycra. This is my default base layer for winter climbing, but in summer it’s the perfect warmth on its own without softshell pants. Having no extra baggy layers on the legs makes you feel like you can move twice as fast.

The Petzl Gully ice axe is an amazing lightweight tool. It feels weightless (280g) yet still penetrates ice and has a moveable hand-rest to adjust depending on the steepness. Next time I would climb with just two of these.

Light & Fast style
It’s about moving quickly but more so efficiently. Compressing a huge adventure into a short time frame increases the intensity. A shot of whisky rather than a pint of beer. It’s also about progression, improving on your previous style of ascent.

Going light enough allows you to go fast enough to enter the realm of a single push, and suddenly you can forego all overnight gear, clothing, extra food. Suddenly you can move really fast. That opens up so many options and allows you to take fuller advantage of short weather windows. It’s a useful tactic in harsh places like Patagonia.

But since this style has a lower safety margin in terms of being caught out in a storm, we make sure to only travel this way in perfect weather. The climbing itself actually becomes safer because you are less encumbered by a heavy pack and feel fresher. We still carry just enough gear to pitch out an icy section - a 40m rope and 4 ice screws in this case.

The style can be limiting though; there are many interesting routes further afield that require a heavier approach. Technical routes need more gear and more time. Both have their place.

Traversing the summit ridge of Aoraki/Mt Cook

A small team makes logistics so much easier. If you’re trying to seize a short weather window mid-week around your job, efficiency of logistics is everything. Wasting an hour driving around could mean an hour’s less sleep. You’re operating on tight time frames.

Having a partner with similar goals and fitness on a trip like this is important. Rose and I have done a lot of previous climbing trips together, so we know how the other works and what we’re comfortable on.

On the High Peak after 13 hours from Hooker Valley carpark

In classical mountaineering you’re often simul-soloing most, if not all, of the route, so it’s important to have equal skill levels. If one person is much more confident than the other, they might be inclined to solo a more difficult section rather than bother getting the rope out, which will pressure the more inexperienced person to also follow without the rope. That can be a dangerous situation if not managed properly.

Aoraki is still a very special peak and the experiences I’ve had on this mountain rank alongside anything else I’ve found overseas. It’s inaccessibility and fickle, difficult-to-predict conditions ensure it’s never an easy tick. That makes it all the more satisfying.

Midnight, back at Wyn Irwin. A little scorched.

Wednesday, 1 January 2020

Tararua SK Main Range

Ever since I read Graeme Dingle’s story, 10 year ago, of his 18 hour run along the length of the Tararuas back in 1965, I have been inspired by the “S-K”. It is the epitome of NZ adventure: a pure line, committing - no easy options for retreat, rugged terrain, an extreme distance and a savage amount of vertical.

While the South Island has been gifted the spectacular Southern Alps, they cannot compete with huge swaths of runnable ridgelines that the North Island has to offer, and this is where the Tararuas excel.

I had only completed one run here before – Otaki forks to Mt Hector, in full clag & rain - so I was looking forward to finally seeing the Tararua range in the flesh. This was the place where my mother and her siblings were raised tramping every weekend against their wills, now I had to discover it for myself.

My preferred style of mountain running outings lately has been: solo, lightweight, spontaneous. This style brings extra risk, so picking a good weather forecast is key, as well as emergency survival gear, communication & navigation devices, sufficient calories. Solo & spontaneous allows simplified logistics especially for picking the perfect day of weather. I only decided on the SK 9 days earlier as New Year’s Day dawned brightly on the Metvuw horizon.

But as reward, nothing compares to flying, unhindered & alone across a crisp ridge, with the final objective of Mount Hector looming 50 kilometres away, a mere haze in the horizon. This magic view from the tops came around three hours in, from the peaks of Mt Dundas and friends. I didn’t want to stare too hard into the distance for fear of being overwhelmed.

I had started earlier that morning at 3:30am, buzzing with anticipation. You can always count on your intuition to let you know if you’re ready for a challenge. Grateful to friends Felicity, Tom & Fergus for the early ride to the start, they also set off behind me to the Chamberlain Creek canyon from East Peak as I dissolved myself into the darkness.

After the pink sunrise cast by Australian bush fires, I pushed myself across the tops towards Arete, where I fell into the trap of trying to stay on target with other people’s published splits. This was a fun novelty for me, knowing how far ahead or behind a certain finishing time you were.

But it also proved to be dangerous in the hours before Dracophyllum Knob, where I realized I was low on water, and had failed to fill up at the few tarns along the way, concentrating on hitting splits at the expense of conserving myself for the long day ahead. Only carrying 1L of capacity was a big mistake, I should have carried 2L. This was no longer the South Island running I was used to, with either rivers or snow available everywhere to fill up on.

When I finally staggered into Drac biv I was already deep in a hole of dehydration that I would struggle for the rest of the day to climb out of. The beautifully clear, but blazing hot weather now showed its true cost – if only for a bit of clag & drizzle!

Dizzy in the heat, I dragged myself through the endless undulations of bush and peaks, amazed by the Tararuas’ inability to produce any flat ground.

Nicholls hut, Andersons hut, Maungahuka hut: I skulled as much fluid as I could, but almost immediately I would be back on the Tailwind, sucking it down like crack.

From this experience of strangely unquenchable thirst, in future I would bring more variety of powdered drinks and electrolytes to replenish both calories and salts in big hits when water fill-ups are all 2-4 hours apart. I carried 15 scoops of Tailwind powder which is excellent for while moving, but I would carry extra flavoured salt tablets specifically for encouraging drinking more at huts. Salt pills might also help for instant salt replenishment without required water. As would an extra 1L bladder...

A slightly alarmed tramper at Maungahuka generously made me a hot salty soup which made all the difference, especially while negotiating the exposed ridges of the famous Tararua Peaks with their fun sections of ladders and scrambling.

By now the sun was dipping, and a moist flow of warm air was gushing over the low peaks at the southern most part of the range before hitting Kime. With the cooler temps I was charging again and reaching the Southern Crossing was a big mental boost, although I knew at least 6 hours still remained.

There were some awkward exchanges with trampers at the hut, curious about the size of my pack as I quickly downed a bag of cereal & protein powder with some canola oil that I found in the hut.

“Just up from the Forks?”
“Nah, from Putara.”
“Where’s that?”
“Up in the northern part.”
“I don’t see it on my map…”
“Must be on the other map…”

From Mt Hector, that previously most distant peak, I now looked back to the north at the array of ridgelines leading north to Putara, seemingly floating on a bank of thick cloud pushing in from the west. It’s not often your days’ work is so evident in one sweeping view. What an inspiring range.

The Dress Circle’s smooth trails were an absolute delight and I reached Alpha hut at 930pm in good spirits, 18 hours after starting that morning. I had 6 hours to reach Kaitoke for the 24-hour mark and was confident of making it now.

But, I knew well of the horrors of the Marchant that lay below and looked forward to discover the hellish ridge for myself.

The nightmare began sooner than expected. My “fully charged” headlamp died barely an hour later. But I was prepared, with fresh AAA batteries. Computer says no. This new rechargeable headlamp does not accept replacement batteries.

A foolish mistake with only myself to blame. Fortunately, I still had 30% of juice remaining for my phone flashlight to guide me down the next 3-4 hours of Marchant Ridge.

I was now no longer chasing the 24-hour mark, but the rapidly falling battery level on my phone. I feared of being stranded in the dark bush with the dream slipping away…

So I flew through the bush with reckless abandon.

Another hour later and my fears of dehydration returned. Five hours on only 1 litre, what was I thinking? Soon I was searching every bog for a drinkable puddle of clear liquid. I was unbelievably thirsty.

I was ready to take the turn off to Smith Creek shelter and plunge myself into the Tauherenikau River, when at last a deliciously stagnant puddle appeared across the track. I gulped that down, and took some for the road. Giardia could wait, Kaitoke was coming.

I hammered the final descent of Dobson Loop track and finally reached the famous Kaitoke carpark of glory.

It was 2am, 22 hours 25 minutes had passed. I collapsed into the black Mazda my uncle had left for me there and doused myself with hot chicken soup and Powerade. I was just glad I didn’t have to turn around and go back up the Marchant for a second lap. What a way to start 2020.

Gear used on traverse:

For more information, visit: https://tararuafkt.wordpress.com/

Download the GPX file

Big Sunday Runs Wellington Facebook Group - for organising logistics with local runners and joining a great NZ core running community.

Tuesday, 15 October 2019

Torlesse Range Traverse

A traverse of the Torlesse Range is a real Canterbury classic. Stretching north-eastwards from Porter's Pass, the rolling skyline is visible on every trip to and from Arthur's Pass. Mostly gentle undulating scree tops, but the jagged section between Castle Hill Peak and Red Peak holds a sting in the tail. The distinctive 'Gap' in the ridge, a sheer square notch, provides mystery and challenge for when energy reserves run low. 

Jono Dobbs and I set off from the Avoca Homestead on the morning following a storm. The campsite was recovering from the Canterbury University Tramping Club's annual 'Bush Ball'. Blue clouds pierced through gloom promising a fine day on the range. And the 25km traverse across to Porters Pass was an absolute classic. Enjoy these photos from the Torlesse Range Traverse, a highly recommended Canterbury outing.