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The Big Three – Climbing in South Island The Big Three – Climbing in South Island
2020-04-15 11:00:00

I’m not a big fan of waking up early, yet I seem to have chosen a lifestyle and career where my phone alarm has seven different wake-up calls set between midnight and 6am. It’s the hours of darkness that are the worst bit, trudging across glaciers when it’s cold, but still warm enough for you to work up a sweat that mingles with your sun cream. Summer mountaineering in New Zealand is certainly a game for the larks rather than the owls, but those early sunrises open up the

This sunrise was spent on the north shoulder of Mt Tasman, lending a pink tint to the eastern aspect of the divide range. The snow was bullet hard névé, perfect for moving quickly but adding to the feeling of exposure as only a few crampon points gave purchase. Stepping onto the east face, with seracs looming above, felt daunting despite the moderate slope angle. I was on my own this morning, making the most of the good weather to climb a peak that had looked so alluring from the summit of Aoraki/Mt Cook the previous month. It felt great to be moving fast and free in the mountains and on the kind of terrain that lends itself to the soloist.

Returning from the summit via the crisp, knife-edged ridge, was something really special as the sun came out and the ground quickly gave way to the easier glacier. Firm snow made for a quick descent to the Chancellor hut, and I was enjoying a cold drink down in the village below by ten-thirty with plenty of time left to travel back down the west coast to the bustling tourist hub of Wanaka when I realised I’d left half my rucksack 4 hours’ drive and 2,400m of ascent away at the Pioneer hut…

New Zealand’s South Island is a vast and varied place. I was based predominantly from Wanaka for the summer season, a sprawling town on the edge of the mountains and on the shore of Lake Wanaka. With its varied landscape and ease of access to the hills, I found that I could be paragliding in the morning, climbing all afternoon and downhill biking in the evening.

With such a varied array of adventure sports on offer, it's difficult to concentrate on just one, but I was here to enjoy the climbing and mountaineering above all else. Whilst New Zealand's climbing is something of a poor brother to that found in neighbouring Australia, there are still some excellent routes to be found, and what it lacks in quality it certainly makes up for in adventure. The alpine rock is generally loose and adventurous, but down in the Darran mountains the granite is pristine, though often difficult to access.

For a country that sees its population almost double every summer from tourism, it’s surprising just how quiet the mountains are. Mount Cook village, around which the highest mountains are concentrated, is a tourist hub, but away from the main treks and glacial lakes, the mountains are quiet. Aoraki, at 3,724m, is the highest mountain in New Zealand and it was one of the turning points for Sir Edmund Hillary’s career as a mountaineer. Alpinists nowadays have a slightly shorter journey to its summit than Sir Ed after a 1991 rockfall and subsequent thaw saw the mountain lose 30m in height!

One of the reasons for how quiet the mountains are is their inaccessibility. Travel into the heart of the mountains has become increasingly difficult due to rapid glacial recession. The lower section of some glaciers have become impassable, whilst the boulder-strewn moraine slopes can be too unstable and steep to bypass. It has become the norm for teams to use a short helicopter flight to access the mountains and un-manned mountains huts – costing both money and adding to a sense of commitment if the weather prevents the return helicopter journey as planned. Adding to this is the lack of phone signal; for communication from the mountains, you'll need to carry either a satellite phone or an emergency beacon.

Aoraki was to be our first big mountain in New Zealand and something that Gabby and I had been looking forward to during our time in Australia. We were joined by Gabby’s cousin Adam, a ninja warrior finalist and sculptor (not sure if the two are related?) who is currently living in New Zealand. Being the last team to leave the Plateau hut and the only team without snowshoes led to something of a sense of humour failure as I flailed my way up the Linda Glacier with Gabby and Adam following in a trench. The ascent was long and surprisingly technical leading to the summit ridge and nearly involved divorce when the dreaded hanger (hungry-anger) struck Gabby. Fortunately, Adam acted as mediator pulling jelly babies out of his pocket and we enjoyed clear skies and a mind cleansing breeze from the summit.

Mt Aspiring, perhaps the most photogenic and certainly the easiest peak of the classic South Island trio, was a snatched opportunity between bad weather. I’d just dropped Gabby off at the airport in Queenstown and gone out to do some shopping. As I deliberated between the raspberry and chocolate-filled doughnuts (I went for raspberry), I realised that at only 5pm I could make it for an overnight trip to Mt Aspiring and surprise my friends Dave and Fran who would be bivouacked beneath the mountain. I made it to the Raspberry Flat car park for 6.30 and set off on my mountain bike to the Aspiring hut which is a good tip if you’re aiming for a fast return trip. At just after 10pm I came across two familiar bags next to sleeping bags at Bevan Col. So surprised was Dave to see me looming over him at that time of night he wasn’t sure if it had been a dream until I caught up with them on the way back the next morning!

I plodded across the Bonar Glacier from Bevan Col to the Colin Todd hut by headtorch, had 4 hours sleep, and set off up the spectacularly positioned North West Ridge. With some gentle scrambling up the Kangaroo step and a steady snow slope leading up to the summit, the ascent was really pleasant with expansive views of the wilderness area to the west of the mountains. On the descent I watched some Keas (alpine parrots) fly off with items of mountaineering kit left outside the hut to the curses of the alpinists below and by the time I finally got back to the stashed mountain bike, I felt ready for a change after 50km of hiking in the last 15 hours!

New Zealand offered me some great adventures in my time there and these ascents were just the tip of the iceberg of what was on offer. Whilst returning to Europe with its increased convenience of alpine mountaineering has been nice, I’ll look back on my time in New Zealand with fond memories for its wild and remote mountaineering.

Words by | Calum Muskett