Happy 2013 to everyone!
The weather in the Southern Alps this week is very suitable for ducks. However if you are not a duck, then it really is quite miserable. Strong winds, heavy rains interspersed with huge bolts of lightning and booming claps of thunder.
From Monday to Thursday of this week, the forecast has been doom and gloom and it has proved to be accurate. One small glimmer of (sun) light appeared on Monday morning. A short break in the weather with some patches of sunshine was meant to appear, before the rain, wind and thunder storms came back with fury Monday evening and throughout Tuesday and Wednesday.
So we hatched a clever plan. To walk the 12km and 1000m vertical metres up the Hooker Glacier to Gardiner hut on the Monday morning. We would arrive before the bad weather came in Monday afternoon, then hunker down in the shelter and security of Gardiner hut for 2.5 days in the terrible weather waiting for the clearance on Thursday afternoon. By this stage we would have eaten a lot of our food, have lighter packs and be in great position to start the Grand Traverse.
After signing our intention form at DOC (Department of Conservation), we set-off at 10AM Monday morning. One of the DOC staff had told us NOT to use the traditional access route around Hooker lake, which follows the Ball pass route. Instead he suggested we should skirt around the true right hand side of Hooker lake, high up above the bluffs, then drop down onto the Hooker glacier above the ice cliffs at the head of the lake. This added a few more km to the route but the DOC staff assured us it was probably faster than trying to get down the steep moraine wall from the Ball Pass route to the Hooker Glacier.
We started up the Hooker lake track together with tourists wandering up to the Hooker Lake view-point.
The weather was overcast but was not raining at this stage. Once we reached Hooker Lake we veered off high up above the moraine bluffs. We plodded along slowly dodging the ‘Spaniard’ bushes with their sharp thorns which went straight through 3 layers of clothing and into our skins with painful pricks. We traversed higher and higher until we finally reached a huge exposed gut.
There did not seem to be a way higher up to get around this, so we started to head down towards the lake. Alan found a slightly shorter but still very steep gully to down climb. It was too steep and loose for my liking, so we traversed back down further until we found an easier scree slide descent down a gully to the lake shore. From here it is an easy plod around the shore to the Hooker Glacier.
It started to rain about the point we reached the huge Hooker glacier covered in moraine rubble. For over 3 hours we slowly plodded up the centre of the glacier. Glacial moraine is a pain in the ass to walk over, and it bought back memories of the plod up the Miracle highway on the East Rongbuk glacier on Mt Everest. With the strong gusts of headwind and the driving rain pelting and stinging the exposed skin on our faces, it was not a hugely enjoyable experience.
The moraine runs out at the bottom of the Hooker icefall. Here we put on crampons. We knew the Gardiner Hut was sitting atop a large rock called ‘Pudding Rock’, Alan had been to Gardiner Hut a few times, albeit many years ago when the conditions were different.
I was starting to get very cold and we were both wet through. Our boots squelched with every step, and the only thing that kept my body temperature comfortable was the warmth generated by movement. I was wearing one short sleeve thermal top underneath my shell jacket, and knew I should stop and put on another layer. But in the driving rain having to stop and take things off and put things on whilst getting wetter and colder was not a nice option. My fingers were also starting to get very cold, and I began to lose my dexterity. I could not clip or unclip my water bottle of my pack to have a drink; my fingers just would not work. I had to seek Alan’s assistance to perform this simple task. He seemed to handling the cold better than me.
Slowly we trudged with our crampons on up the ice fall. We anxiously looked for Pudding Rock over to the true left of the glacier and after a number of false hopes, we finally saw it. In the mist and driving rain we could also just make out the Gardiner Barrel hut perched atop the rock, around 100m above our head. The problem was – how do we get there?
The way involved negotiating the huge crevasses which dominate higher up the ice fall. Gaping cracks you could fit a three-story building into. We zigged and zagged our way through the mess, as if playing a maze, trying in vain to unlock the pathway through to the base of pudding rock. We crossed small snow bridges where we could find them, in other places we walked along the crevasse until it narrowed enough that I could just reach over with a large step. Falling in was not an option. Not for the first time I cursed my short legs as I struggled with the large leaps of faith. I had soon split my knuckles open on the ice as I dug my axe in and blood dripped down the handle into the snow. I knew we were breaking every rule in the book by not roping up for glacial travel on this ground, however by this stage I was shaking uncontrollably and knew there was no way with my frozen fingers that I could coil the ropes, tie the knots in the rope and set up my system. We needed to reach the hut and get shelter from the wind and the rain.
Dead-end after dead-end dashed our spirits. The cold was draining us both and we got slower and slower. I did not know at the time but Alan was also feeling sick. Finally around 7:30PM, Alan stopped. “What do you wanna do Grant? We can’t seem to find a way through these crevasses”. “I think we should snow hole Al, I am seriously cold and need to get some shelter from the wind and the rain to get warm again, the only other option is to walk all the way out again”. Walking all the way out, another 6 – 7 hours in our tired state, in the dark, the wind and the rain was not an attractive option.
We started searching for a spot for a snow cave and came across a small depression in the glacier with a small crevasse, which was almost cave shaped. The only problem was the base of the tiny cave, had large hole which disappeared down how far I could not tell. It did not look very good so we started digging into the side of an ice bank higher up. After a few minutes of this, with my axe bouncing off the hard ice we gave this up and turned our attentions back to the cave. We took turns at hacking the ice until finally we created an opening big enough I could jump into the cave. I then spent a furious 15 minutes hacking and shattering the ice, scraping out a flat floor area as much as possible. I was glad of the workout as it warmed by body and hands back up to a comfortable temperature. This time it was Alan who suffered as he had to wait motionless outside while I worked inside. He got very cold and I heard him throw up in the snow outside as he waited. Finally I had the cave just big enough for him to get down into. He was very cold and shaking by the time he got in.
As quickly as I could, I stripped off my wet layers inside the cramped cave, and put on dry thermal top and down jacket. Alan has lost the dexterity in his fingers so I helped him out of his wet gear and into some dry clothes. He was not looking in a good way and I was not sure what was wrong. He leaned over and had another large vomit then dived into his sleeping bag, got in his bivvy bag and lay down while I got the stove going.
The snow cave was remarkably sheltered inside from the wind and the rain; it was in a bank to the lee side of the wind. The only problem’s was it was a little small and it was wet. Water dripped off the roof constantly and it was hard keeping anything dry at all. I got the MSR stove going and melted ice to make a brew each. “Brew’s ready Al” I called and a hand shot out of his bivvy sack, grabbed the brew and retreated. Some hot liquid did both of us the world of good. I then cooked some two-minute noodles which were awful and neither of us could eat them. Finally I filled up both our Nalgene bottles with hot water and then it was my turn to dive into my sleeping bag and bivvy bag. I tried briefly to get reception on the Satellite phone, but that meant hanging outside the cave in the wind and rain getting wet and cold and soon gave up. I knew Stephanie would be worried but there was not much I could do.
I took this small video inside the snow cave.
‘What a way to spend New Year’s Eve 2012’ I thought to myself with a grin as I lay in my bivvy sack. By now Alan perked up enough to tell me a few jokes. “I think I preferred you more when you were cold!” I told him.
We both dozed off and on throughout the night. “Ahh fuck” Alan exclaimed after a few hours. “Water is pouring into my bag”. It seems his bivvy bag was not sealed well and the water was leaking in, further wetting his sleeping bag. I rolled over on my side and managed to stay at least comfortably warm throughout the night. I could feel Alan shivering in an attempt to keep warm.
Around 7AM, the weather outside was still blowing and wet. There was only one option, and that was to head out. The cave was so wet that spending more time there would be very tough. We were both using down sleeping bags and jackets which need to be dry to keep you warm. Sitting in the cave with the water pouring off the roof made it impossible to keep dry for any length of time. Plus the fact we knew the weather for the next two days was terrible. Breakfast was also not an option.
Getting out of your sleeping bag in a wet snow cave and getting ready to leave into the pouring rain is quite a pleasure less experience. However the thought of being in back in shelter and warmth that evening was a powerful motivating force.
For 7 ½ hours we trudged back down towards Mt Cook Village. Down the ice fall, stumbling across the moraine in huge gusts of wind and driving rain until we reached the Hooker Lake. We were not keen on having to climb the steep scree slopes here to get around the bluffs above the lake. Alan led us around the shore of the lake instead. This was hard going, I had twisted my knee coming across the moraine and it was giving me hell scrambling around the rocks on the lake. But it was still much faster than trying to go up higher above the bluffs. We were being careful to watch for rock fall as the rain and wind was dislodging loose rocks higher up which came crashing down into the lake.
Finally we made it back to the Whitehorse campground. Not a moment too soon as we met a DOC worker who was closing the road access out of the campground as the river crossing was getting to high for vehicles. We managed to get through and 10 minutes later were back in the Unwin Lodge, warming up, drying out and looking forward to beer and some food.
So, in terms of our attempt on the GT, a complete washout! However apart from a lot of wet gear, numb fingers, bruised knuckles and a sore knee there is no adverse side effects. To be able to hold things together when things get bad, in those kinds of weather conditions is a huge confidence booster. Overall I have to say it was a fantastic adventure. Or as Alan would put it ‘character building’.
We are now hunkering down in Unwin Lodge in Mt Cook Village, waiting to see if there will be a weather clearance for one last attempt at a climb on Thursday or Friday. We have run out of time for the Grand Traverse now, but may be able to attempt a slightly shorter route. Maybe Mt Tasman – New Zealand’s second highest mountain is an option. We have tentatively booked a helicopter flight to Plateau Hut tomorrow if the weather has cleared to attempt the route early Friday morning if conditions allow.
I am currently sitting the Hermitage Hotel beside a roaring log fire writing this appreciating the basic things in life like being warm, dry and fed.
Once again I wish everyone a very happy New Year.
Over and out from Mt Cook village.