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Tuesday, 10 July 2012

To the Higher Mountain

"Winter is Coming" means many different things to many different people. For me, it means a call to the mountains, a call that strengthens as the temperature drops. Determined to gain more mountaineering skills for the higher mountain, I made the tough decision between a transalpine epic in the Ruahines with Matthew Lillis, and a 5-day advanced snowcraft course on Mt Ruapehu...

Welcome to the Mountain

Education or fun? While the Ruahines would have been a true adventure, I chose to invest some time learning skills in alpine rope work, pitching, abseiling, anchor-setting, ice-climbing, and snow-caving. Preparing for the higher mountain! When we spun the weather-pokie-machine, we were over the moon  with the result: a straight flush: five suns. Epic!

The striking silhouettes of the Pinnacles and Ngauruhoe

The luxurious NZ Alpine Club hut on Delta Ridge was our base for the next 5 nights. Every night the sunset over Taranaki was clean and claer, and the Pinnacle Ridge sliced into Ngauruhoe's cone without fail, a deathly silhouette by dusk and dawn. So sensational that I couldn't resist photographing the same view at least once at each end of the day.

'Ice climbing' en route to the Summit Plateau, via Glacier Knob

Clinging for dear life on the side of a 60 degree ice slope, it's nice to have something to lean back on. Hence the first lesson was how to set a good anchor. Depending on the snow conditions- dry & powdery, or hard & compressible - you would set a lightweight aluminium snow stake into the slope vertically or buried horizontally. Ideally, a deep layer of ice beneath the snow layer would set up a bomber anchor with fifteen whacks of the ice-hammer. Solid - hang off that all day. And just as well, as we began practicing the routines of pitching, we could be waiting as long as an hour per pitch as our climbing partner progressed up the slope.

Life could be worse: during the belay sessions I had one eye on the rope, the eye gazed over the snow-covered Kaimanawa and Ruahine Ranges and picked out Ruapehu's most aesthetic peaks... Girdlestone, Tahurangi, Te Ataahua, Ringatoto...

Nico basking in the final few rays on the Plateau
We seized the next day of clear weather to set up base camp on the summit plateau. The easy three-hour stroll was just a warm up for the next 5 hours of more intense exertion: digging a snow cave. We chose the western flanks of Cathedral Rocks to start the grand dig, but we only had a two-foot thick layer to play with, thick ice barring the way deeper. We scratched our heads, meanwhile Owen took this as an excuse to ski-tour the entire plateau to scope out a better slope.

A snow cave - once made it is a fantastic shelter from the elements
Instead we shovelled masses of snow into a mound, and tunnelled into it from either side. The advantage of this, we now had smooth snow to dig into and no ice blocking the way. The effort invested in the snow mound paid off, and the two tunnels were soon connected, and enlarged into a just enough space for three cold mountaineers to sleep out the night...

Tunnelling in from the north

Minimising heat loss and maximising heat gain!

Owen's Himalayan tent shelter
While our efforts seemed mammoth, Owen "Sherpa" Lee managed to whip up a quick three-walled shelter to keep the wind off his ultralight single-skinned tent. And camp wouldn't be complete without the adornment of Joseline's colourful prayer flags, more often seen at a Tibetan Base camp under the likes of the towering Annapurna...

7:45pm and ready for sleep in the very warm snow cave
A quick but satisfying meal of cous-cous and weiner dogs bode us well for the night in the snow cave - we were well-wrapped in 7 layers of fleece & down and just warm - tucked in well before eight. But just as we started to congratulate ourselves, we realised our ONE COSTLY MISTAKE: as I rolled over, a cold gust carrying small particles of snow breathed onto my face - we had forgotten to cover up the other end of the tunnel! Cramped under our 50cm high roof, and thick sleeping bags, any slight movement would scrape handfuls of snow from the roof all over us, down the neck, over the face... finding any leverage on the snow shovel to cover up the tunnel was impossible...

Melting the day's water under a surreal solar glow at dawn
However, in the morning after a chilly night of only several hours sleep, we decided it was better to be cold and dry than warm and wet. At least to minimise embarrassment in front of the instructors! In the morning we faced the many challenges of living in a -11 degree environment. I was smart and slept with my bottle of starch flavoured water next to my chest, but just about everything else was well frozen through. A few pressups and the arrival of dawn soon began to melt our frosty world.

Ruapehu's summit arena (www.nztopomaps.com)
To practice pitching for real we descended the Whangaehu Glacier to the southern face of Cathedral Rocks. The route began with a two-pitch traverse in deep snow, followed by three ice pitches up an icy fifty-degree chute. The deep snow slowed our progress however, and only Helen was lucky enough to complete the climb with the two instructors, Max and Owen - the descent to the NZAC hut still awaited us in the fading light, so we made a quick getaway via a 30m abseil.

Helen on the crux pitch. Feel the exposure! (Photo: Owen Lee)

A perfect descent on dusk
The descent back to the hut was stunning, cloud hovered over Tama Lakes and the lower reaches of Tongariro, and a pastel glow darkened to dusk.

Nico squatting on Taranaki

Working the 6-1 pulley system to save Nico from falling into the Whakapapa Ski-field 'Crevasse'
Crevasse rescue was the second in the series of complex rope routines: the first skill is roping up for travel over glaciers, but in a rare 'Touching the Void' moment, if someone tied into the rope plunges into a crevasse, the partner must be able to save him from an eternal frozen grave... I dig my heels into the snow, brace the fall, transfer the weight onto the ice axe, set up a stronger snow-stake anchor, set up an auto block and attempt an assisted 2-1 pulley system. But if my climbing partner is unable to help? He must be unconscious. Prusik down to him, steal his gear, make sure the rope isn't strangling him, re-climb to the surface and build a 6-1 un-assisted hoist system. Hard work! Falling into a crevasse is definitely a good way to ruin the day, and delay the summit bid.

Abseling off Delta Corner (Photo: Roman Amman)
The Prussik Challenge involved team work, knot-skills, and intense facials!
The prussik challenge finished off the week with a hilarious alpine flavour, and a great way to work up a sweat! The team challenge involved partners prussiking up either ends of the rope, and traversing past each other - harder than it sounds! If the partners weren't friends before squeezing past each other in some compromising positions, they definitely were afterwards. To cap off the night, fellow AUTC legend Thomas Goodman burst into the doors at 9pm covered in sweat and snow, happily announcing his personal-best 70 minute speed climb up the hut. Congrats Tom!

Taranaki Ice Glow

The Short Walk out

Advanced Snowschool 2012 - The Team:
Owen, Roman, Helen, Phillipa, Rowan, Joseline, Nico, Alastair, Anton, Max

Advanced Snowschool - so many new strings to our alpine bows - about time to shoot up some sweet summits! À la haute montagne!

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