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Tuesday, 5 August 2014

Mt Rolleston - Rome Ridge

Sometimes the gamble pays off. Rome Ridge is one of the classic lines in the Southern Alps. But weather throughout the week had been dubious, resulting in high level rainfall and scattered new snow. However, the forecasted freezing level was to be low, with clearing skies on their way. Should we hedge our bets and give the climb a crack?

First light on Rome Ridge

We emerged above the Coral Track bush-line in the early hours of Saturday morning. Arthurs Pass village twinkled below; the sky was still dark. It felt good to be seizing the day, the stars shining above, I could sense a bluebird day on the cards. 

An icy gulley on the second buttress

I knew there were two buttresses to negotiate before Rome Ridge proper began, and these turned out to be more exciting than expected. Above the awkward transition from tussocks and rock to snow, we armed ourselves with crampons and ice axes - I was eager to attack the ice with my shining new Black Diamond Viper tools. As the terrain steepened,  powder snow thinned to reveal solid snow with patches of water ice. The tools swung beautifully, sinking deep into the snowpack, with a resounding thunk pulsing through my arm. The sensation was invigorating and inspired confidence in each placement as I pulled over a bulge of ice-smattered rock.

An exposed belay platform above The Gap

Above these two buttresses, we happily walked along a flatter section of the ridge towards the alluring upper five-hundred metres of the main ridge climb. Adorning the guide book's front cover, this aesthetic ridge climb is well known as a favourite line in the Southern Alps, for good reason. The sun was still low in the sky as we approached The Gap, an impressive archway of rock in a notch of the ridge, and the scene of the day's crux. Here the climbing steepened significantly, a rising traverse above a large drop into the Goldney Valley.

We hammered a snow stake into the base, and I began to lead up the thinly ice-covered rock, the rope trailing, but providing less and less confidence as I gained height. Our rack of protection equipment was minimal, yet the rock offered no cracks, and the snow was not deep enough for stakes. Heart in mouth, I continued carefully above for a full rope length. I brought the others up to a very compact snow patch.

Ben getting high on Rome Ridge
Past the crux of the climb, we traversed more steep terrain before reaching the ridge crest, greeted by a strong wind from the Crow valley. Free from the shackles of the rope, we continued up the sustained icy slopes of the ridge, relishing our growing height above the surrounding peaks. The summit was sweet, as we gazed over to the High Peak of Rolleston just across the Crow Neve. Our time was running out, lest we be subjected to a slushy descent of the Otira Slide, avalanche prone at the best of times.

Descending off Mt Rolleston Low Peak into the Otira Slide
The descent of the Otira Slide was tedious, though perhaps safer in the snow than the tumbling scree that Hamish and I experienced after the climb of the Otira Face the previous summer. Dropping into the Otira valley, the intimidating face slowly revealed herself, a daunting prospect with patchy snow covering the dubious rock.

Descending the Otira Slide
After having gazed up at the Rome Ridge some three years earlier, the satisfaction of finally scaling this beautiful line was all the greater. A climb of Rome Ridge sums up everything that's good about being in the mountains. It is pure 'type one' mountaineering fun: easy access, a short approach, consistent fun climbing, enough of a challenge to be satisfying without the overwhelming feeling of dangerous exposure. A classic line of the Southern Alps without doubt...

Looking back on a fine climb of Mt Rolleston, the bulk of the Otira Face visible centre
Gazing up at Rome Ridge from Avalanche Peak in January 2012

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