Monday, October 5, 2015

Too Fun in the Two Thumb

Too Fun adventures... this is taken right near the tiger
A dastardly Westerly flow crept across the Island last week, causing us to abandon our exciting plans for skiing on the glaciers around the divide. We would have to stick far east as possible... we thought about heading for the Kaikouras, but unsure about snow conditions there we decided maybe the Two Thumb Mountains which lie between the Rangitata River and Lake Tekapo (and as they are slightly lower and slightly east of the the divide are not generally as exposed to the Norwest weather) were the more reliable bet.

So we spent most of a day scheming and planning on a loop which would carry us on ski and by foot around the Two Thumb Peaks themselves. We left late on Tuesday and drove down to Mesopotamia where we camped. The weather was beautiful in the morning (as predicted) and views up to a very snow clad Cloudly Peak were impressive. We were optimistic about the amount of snow around.

We started up towards Black Birch Creek, crossing paddocks and deer fences with packs festooned with skis and boots proving a tad awkward. As we entered the first gorge of Black Birch Creek we realised there wasn't actually a track and we weren't really sure if there even was a route up this creek! But then we figured there was Dog Kennel Biv at the head of it, so there must be a way up.

After a bit of boulder bashing we climbed steeply out of the stream, then back down again. The river opened up for a bit, then a second gorge appeared. Some careful manoeuvres were required around a slippery, loose cliff face and then we climbed up out of the river and popped out on a lovely beech forested shelf above the gorge. We grinned, this was a perfect start to the 'Too Fun' trip.

Climbing out of Black Birch Stream above the second gorge

Chris with a little bit of gear attached to his pack
On up we came across the ancient Dog Kennel Biv, which is aptly named for its size. Chris's Dad had a photo of this bivouac from over 40 years ago and not much has changed there! We ate lunch under a boulder, then continued up valley out of the grassy flats and on to the snowy slopes leading up to Cassandra Col. We put skins on our skis and headed up steeply in big zig zags towards the Col. It was a big, steep climb and the last part we plugged steps. Finally we emerged over the crest of the Col at about 2300m, the sun was setting and the wind picking up.

Chris at Dog Kennel Biv
Heading further up Black Birch Stream, Achilles at the valley head
A rather delicious wrap for lunch
Just down the other side of Cassandra Col
The descent was worth it though - we skied down Iliad Basin in perfect spring corn carving big turns with our heavy packs. Eventually the tongue of snow we were skiing on ran out and we walked down to a perfect tussocky spot at the confluence of Trojan Stream and North East Gorge Stream. By now grey clouds were looming around the divide and we knew that the Norwest was going to send us scampering east tomorrow.
Descending from Cassandra Col in the fading light
Sure enough we woke to lashing rain and wind. Our little yellow tent was so cosy we were reluctant to emerge and it wasn't until midday that we finally packed up in the rain and headed down North East Gorge Stream. The going was good, except for the occasional squalls that blasted us from behind. We kept glimpsing sun rays on the slopes ahead of us, so we were sure we were walking away from the bad weather.

Morning in the rain in the Trojan Stream
Rock hopping in North East Stream
We crossed Two Thumb Stream and then our plan was to head up to pt 2045, ski down into the basin of Third Waterfall Stream and camp there. We had started the long climb up the tussocked spur when the first large snowflakes started falling. Given that we were already soaked through and it was getting late in the day I was not as impressed by this as Chris.

We slogged up and finally reached the ridge in a near white out, with snow blasting us from the west. Chris disappeared from my view and I was thinking about the numerous happy tussocky spots we could have camped in down below us. Suddenly a small rock outcrop appeared and the figure of Chris huddling behind it. I joined him and the wind stopped immediately. This was a great shelter - below us we could see swirling snow and about two metres from the rock was a corniced ridge which dropped away into the whiteness.

"We could camp here" Chris suggested cheerily. I wasn't sure, but the idea of continuing didn't seem a sensible one, so shovels out we started widening our shelter and building a snow wall on one side to stop all the spindrift coming in. Before long we had made a nice little platform to pitch our tent and I jumped in. It was super cosy inside, although all our gear was soaked. Chris sat outside and cooked, which was a tad miserable given he got plastered in spindrift and spent about 30 minutes trying to get the lighter to work after it got wet.

Our camp high on the ridge in the storm
Eventually we were sorted and snuggled down deep into our sleeping bag. The wind howled outside and the sides of the tent constantly sagged with loaded spindrift, but we were warm in our little cocoon high on the mountain and the lights of Tekapo twinkled far down below us.

In the morning the sun was out, but so was the wind. It buffeted around us, sending swirling spirals of snow up into the air. We investigated the wind loaded slope below us, I was very hesitant about skiing it but after Chris dug around we decided it was actually pretty stable. Cautiously we skied down into the valley, quickly reaching gentler slopes and slushy snow.

Our camp in the morning after digging out most of our gear
Dropping down from our camp
Fine skinning in the next basin
Tranisition on the ridge (not the crazy windy one!)
Looking back to our camp (on top of bump to left) and our ski tracks down into the basin
Gentle slopes above Second Waterfall Stream

From this valley we then skinned up another ridge and dropped down some icy wind blasted slopes into Second Waterfall Stream. The snow cover was good in this basin and we were able to leave on our skis as we climbed up to a saddle which would take us into Blind Spur Stream. It all seemed great until we reached the saddle and then suddenly the wind became incredibly strong. It took me straight back to the Pisa Range during this year's Godzone. 
There was a smooth snow slope and then a big corniced drop into the valley below and the wind was trying very hard to suck me and my skis straight over the edge! I ripped them off, lay on the ground to zip up my jacket and then crawled my way up to Chris who was crouched behind a boulder higher up. He had found a wee break in the cornice where we could ski down.

We gingerly crawled to the edge where the wind abated a little, put on our skis and skied down into the relative shelter of the basin. I felt pretty frazzled by the experience, so we skied on down the hill to find a tussock spot for lunch which was less windy. Huge 'whirling willies' swirled around the peaks above us and the clouds above raced by.

Another delicious wrap with aoli and spinach greens (the last of these sadly) and we felt re-energized for a high traverse to Stag Saddle. The snow was a mixture of hard wind pack or deep mush which your skis sank down into. Fortunately for me, my weight, ski width and pack size all combined to mean I generally stayed above the snow and could actually ski, where Chris sank down deep and face planted regularly. It is very rare for me to find the going easier than him, so I shamelessly revelled in it.
Chris having fun in the soft snow, Stag Saddle behind and left
Stag Saddle was windy (surprise) and the day was getting on. Royal hut beaconed from the valley, so we slid on down the valley on a mixture of delicious spring corn combined with aforementioned slush. We got a long way down the valley by skiing on a mixture of snow and snow tussock (which slides remarkably well) and eventually stopped at the babbling brook which leads into Bush Stream.
Chris enjoying the tussock skiing
Happy times in the walking to the hut
On reaching Royal Hut we had a gear explosion in the setting rays of sun, trying to dry soaked everything, including our beloved "Spoonbill" sleeping bag. Royal Hut was a great spot for the night and we slept very well in the relative calm of the hut compared to the flapping, spindrift filled night before.
Royal explosion at Royal Hut
The sun was out again in the morning, but so was our now constant companion - the wind. We enjoyed a swim in Bush Stream and drying out on a rock and then continued on up the Te Araroa Trail enjoying being hikers for the day. Near the highest point on the Te Araroa Trail we turned left and skinned up a snow filled basin on the side of Mt Pattisson. From there we descended to the end of the spur that runs off Mt Caton. We created (with just a small amount of vegetation flattening on Chris's part) a small platform to pitch our tent.

Warm enough for a dip!
Hiking a section of the 'Te Araroa Trail'
Skinning to a saddle below Mt Pattisson
Chris fighting the wind, or trying to fly
By now the clouds were really blowing in and the air was unacannily warm. We suspected the Norwest was out to get us again. Sure enough, another blustery night in the tent. In the morning it was sunny, but the peaks were covered in whirling spindrift. We decided to try and sneak in a final ski run - we had had more ambitious plans but given the weather we opted for Mt Caton. The valley was relatively sheltered again, except for the occasional squall that left one lying on the ground stinging all over from being hit by a million tiny ice needles.

Our camp in the morning... looks sunny
We skinned up the valley admiring some beautifully formed spherical snowballs which had deposited themselves on the valley floor. As we climbed up we could see great plumerols of snow being blasted off every rock pinnacle along the ridge. The snow grew firmer as we reached the higher slopes and it seemed like it was going to be a good ski run down.
Mt Caton basin, Brabazon Saddle in the background
In the upper basin I caught up with Chris and applied layers of Goretex to try and stop the occasional ice blasts from being so painful. We looked up to the ridgeline where the wind was howling.. "shall we look into the eye of the tiger?" I suggested. Chris agreed and we dumped our skis and armed ourselves with ice axes to approach the beast.

Near the top of Mt Caton the wee pass we reached looks directly West. It was impossible to stand, we crawled to the edge and peered at the howling storm, it was a dark grey colour and roared like a lion. It was then we also noticed that back down valley we could see great dust clouds hurtling down the Rangitata and out to the coast. This really was a tiger!!
Near the head of the basin... dust clouds becoming apparent
We zoomed back down to our skis as the hailstorm began. The snow was very nice and we descended quickly on our skis, the wind blasting all around us. Then we heard a crack and thunder rumbled around the valley. The rain and hail increased and the Norwest was really after us this time! We ran back to our gear stash, threw it all in our packs and headed down towards Crooked Spur hut.
Heading down fast ... ferocious wind storm escaping photography
Rain and thunder in valley, Chris still smiling
We had to sidle around steep tussock slopes and then on down the spur to the hut. The valley reverberated with the wind and thunder and it was a magnificent feeling to close the old tin door of the hut and have a shelter over our heads. We cooked up some noodles and then Chris said "What was that river like to cross on the way out last time you were here?" I remembered Bush Stream being a steep mountain stream, fine at normal levels but this could be a problem...
We hurried to pack our gear and then headed out into the storm. We were pretty keen to get out that night because Chris had a fairly important meeting the following day. The ridge is steep as it drops down from Crooked Spur and we scurried along aware of our pointy metal skis poking up into the air like lightening rods. Down in the forest we relaxed a little, until we caught sight of the stream.

The Bush Stream had become a raging torrent, a mixture of big snow melt from the warm winds and now rain from the deluge as well. Neither of us felt at all comfortable to try and cross, but then Chris being Chris spotted a fallen tree across a rapid further up river. Without really thinking he shimmied out onto the log and then almost completely submerged himself in the fast flowing river as he grappled with the trunk.

He made it across and then back, grabbed my pack and then came back. It was only then that I suddenly realised what a stupid idea this was. Directly below the trunk was another partially submerged one, with the full force of the flooded river rushing into it. Falling in there would be a very bad idea, and shortly after that the river entered a series of nasty looking rapids. Work commitments or not, for me to try to cross this log was a huge mistake.

On saying this Chris agreed with me immediately, only now he had to go back across twice to get the packs. Fortunately by now he had worked out a technique of bridging between both the logs until he was across the swiftest part of the current and could touch the ground again. The sky was lit up around us by flashes of lightening and it definitely wasn't the first time this year I have been reminded how easy it is to make mistakes in the mountains if you let your guard down.

We sullenly trodded back up the hut thinking through many unappealing contingency plans of escape, only to conclude that by far the most pleasant and sensible option was to spend the night in the hut and see if the river had gone down in the morning. We had several more brews, read old Antics magazines and ate chocolate. Just before it got dark we walked back down to the river to discover all that had happened was it had risen further! So we collected some good bundles of firewood and climbed back up the hill for a cosy night in the hut.

The wind howled most of the night and I hoped the old Crooked Spur Hut was reasonably well attached. After a fairly restless night we woke early to see if we could still make it out in time for Chris's meeting. Down the spur we went in the beautiful sunrise, calmer now too. But the river sounded ominous from afar. True to the sound it was still too big for us to safely cross.

We sighed. We would have to go with plan b (there was also a plan c, d and e). We would climb back to the hut (now for the third time), back to the stream from yesterday, then climb up over a saddle onto the Brabazon Ridge. We would descend that back into the Rangitata River thus avoiding any river crossing, but necessitating a 1700m climb, ugh!

We climbed as fast as we could, Chris having removed most of the gear from my pack. The sun was up and it was even quite calm! The calmest day we had had... maybe the Norwest tiger was going to let us escape after all. We ran along parts of the ridge, looking up occasionally to glimpse the sparkling clear mountains on the main divide.
Beautiful tops travel along Brabazon Ridge, pity we were running late!
Eventually we reached the end of the ridge and could see a steep but easily descendable tussock spur all the way back to the car. Now it was hot and we sweated as we leaped across the final fences and dodged cow poos in the farm paddocks. At the car it was a hasty transition of gear tossed in a smelly mass pile in the boot, a quick glance back at the Two Thumb range and then we put the pedal to the metal!

So ended our trip. Chris managed to organise a meeting later in the afternoon. The tiger let us out. We had fun. We made the right decision in the end. End of the story. Till next time (-:
Enjoying a calm moment on the way home

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Wedding Anniversary!

Chris and I celebrated our first Wedding Anniversary last weekend, and it was rather fitting that we were up at another wedding in the mountains, at one of our favourite spots - Mt Potts Station in the upper Rangitata River. The wedding was great, a mountain rogaine in fresh powder snow followed by a ceremony in the most spectacular setting you can imagine!

We drank mulled wine and got great views up valley towards Cloudy Peak. We schemed more exciting adventures to be had up that way and shared stories of adventures already had.

The following day Matt, La, Chris and I drove up to Mt Potts from Lake Clearwater where we had been staying. There was a thick blanket of cloud in the valley and all the mountains were shrouded in dark cloud. Everyone else had gone home already and feeling a little groggy from the all the mulled wine and dancing the night before, we were a little bit uninspired to go climbing mountains and the washing at home was almost calling us!!!!!

Luckily we held strong and got ourselves organised to head up Mt Potts. Skis were loaded on packs and we ambled up the abandoned ski field road. I reminisced on my childhood adventures up this road in the days when Erewhon Skifield was the coolest wee club in the Southern Alps.

The mountains stayed clagged in as we reached the old lodge site for sandwiches. Then we put on our skis and skinned on up. All of a sudden the sun was visible and we popped right out of the cloud. The sun was shining and as we neared the A-frame toilet in the upper basin we felt like we were in a magic land.

From there we skinned on up to the summit ridge, with the clouds swirling in and out. On the ridgeline we readied ourselves for the descent. We knew we would only get a small amount of visibility before dropping back into the clag, but we relished the sun rays and the fact that we were not at home sorting out piles of washing (-:

Preparing for the misty descent
Matt and La getting organised at the top
Nice snow, but difficulty discerning the ground from the sky!
Matt enjoying the skiing
Happy troops heading back down the Erewhon Skifield Road
It turned out to be a lovely day in the hills, as well as the perfect way to celebrate our Anniversary.... I think this may be the beginning of a tradition. Thanks for organising such an awesome wedding Nick and Sophie - next year you might have to join the Anniversary celebration (-:

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Icicles and Powder Bogs in the Rockburn (ski tramping doesn't always result in skiing)

Frost formations in the Routeburn Valley
Inspired after our amazing weekend at Barker Hut Chris and I were eager for another adventure and the school holidays plus a very fine high sitting right over the country meant it was time to go. As well as that we had another two keen beans to join us - Georgia was excited about coming after spending the last week stuck at work. John (Chris's bro) managed through some intensive last minute organisation to get flights down to Christchurch for the following day.

The pressure was on and we ummed and ahhed about what to do - weather on our side.... daylight not... glaciers not... The Poseidon Ski Tramp was dreamed up. An ambitious trip, we would head down to the Rockburn. A considerable amount of gear flaff and driving later we found ourselves parked at the start of the Routeburn Track. The snowy peaks surrounded us and even mid afternoon the temperature was cold.

We headed up valley, laden with skis, tents, glacier gear and much more. The forest was a winter wonderland with icicles hanging from cliffs and trees dripping with snow. Rocks were layered in thick ice and we precariously teetered across streams to avoid we feet.

John heading up through the forest to Sugarloaf Pass
We turned onto the Sugarloaf pass track and wound on up through the forest. As we reached the bush line the snow became deeper. We put on jackets and found ourselves waiding through dry, unconsolidated powder up to our knees. We fell through to bushes and had to fight our way out again. Nearing the pass Georgia and John (no skis) kept falling through to the bog layer under the deep snow and yelped as the icy water went into their boots.

Georgia examines her 'bogfoot'
 We continued over the pass and down through the forest as the sun set behind Mount Earnslaw. From the Rockburn Valley we continued on up towards Theatre Flat in the dark. We were getting tired and the temperature was at least negative ten as we trudged on through the snow, wondering where a good spot for our tent could be. We crossed the bridge and then came out onto Theatre Flat. The hoar crystals were enormous. Chris suddenly gave out a loud 'whoop' and we rounded a clearing. He had stumbled upon an awesome rock bivvy - a small amount of dry wood and a fireplace sheltered by a huge overhanging rock.

Suddenly moods improved and we set about collecting water and setting up camp. John got stuck in on the fire lighting business. It was as he was reaching to grab a piece of wood that I noticed most of the sole of his boot had detached from the shoe! I pointed it out to John and he was also horrified... this was not the place to have one's boots fall apart!!!

As the fire began to crackle we noticed another cracking sound.. above our heads hung the most humongous icicles, big enough to kill you if they came down. They were beginning to melt from the heat of the fire. We put our helmets on and Chris threw wood at them to bring them down. This game went on for some time (Chris was definitely enjoying himself) until most of the ice had come down and we deemed it safe to reenter our bivvy, although John kept his helmet on. We crawled into our tents after dinner and snuggled deep into our down bags to keep cosy for the night.

Night crossing just before Theatre Flat

Our amazing bivvy rock and fire at Theatre Flat
In the morning temperatures were even frostier and it took us a long time to cook porridge, get dressed and pack up camp. We also had to review our plans - given John's broken boot and also the slow travel and quality of snow Chris's plan to climb Poseidon from Lake Unknown seemed wildly ambitious. Even getting up to Park Pass seemed ambitious.

Nevertheless we decided to give it a try. John and Chris decided crampons were the way to go with his boots, so he strapped them up tight. We headed up valley into a winter wonderland of frozen streams, beech trees dripping with snow. In places where the sun had never touched the snow felt like icing sugar, it was so light and powdery. The problem was this powdery-ness went right down to the bushes and bogs were one had a habit of falling and getting stuck!

Many hours later we emerged from the last bush and into the open scrublands. Chris proceeded to flip upside down in a huge snow hole in a bank and took some time to right himself skis and all. We stopped for lunch in view of the pass. Despite how close we were we estimated two more hours in these conditions to get there. For the two skiers things might be going to get better from here in, as we could put on our skis and skin up. But for the walkers the snow was just getting deeper.

A chilly wind swirled around us and we examined Johns boots (both of which were now in total collapse). We ate frozen cheese and fish wraps trying to keep warm. Suddenly someone piped up with "Why didn't we just head into the Routeburn? At least there are tracks... and a warm hut..." Within a minute heads were huddled around the maps... "Well, if we walk fast into the night... we might be able to make it to Routeburn Flats Hut by midnight?"

That was all it took and the decision was made for a late night escapade all the way back down the Rockburn, over Sugarloaf Pass and back up the Routeburn. Park Pass and Poseidon Peak was not to be, but we decided that our failed attempt simply leaves great options for a repeat attempt... perhaps in slightly warmer conditions.

Park Pass in all its winter glory where we turned around
Snow clad forest descending from Park Pass

Crossing one of the open flats above Theatre Flat, Park Pass in the background

A chilly crossing this would have been!
So we walked back to Theatre Flat and by dark we were winding our way back up towards Sugarloaf Pass. By 10 pm we were descending the pass (Chris sneaked in a bit of nice skiing, but given the lateness of the hour I missed my chance) and back down into the forest again. At the turnoff to Routeburn Chris and John ran back to the car and picked up Chris's spare tramping boots for John. Georgia and I headed up valley, through tunnels of hanging icicles like I have never seen before!

Finally we reached the cold and deserted Routeburn Flats hut. We created a pitiful fire from wet wood and cooked up lots of yummy hot food. At 2pm we finally crawled into bed and slept very soundly. In the morning we were woken to the sound of voices as a couple of trampers came by. We were amused what they would make of the four sleeping people who were clearly so exhausted from walking the two gentle hours to the hut that we had to sleep in late.

A guided group also arrived and we entertained them with our rather unusual travels. The sun suddenly emerged and we got a photograph of the four of us ready to head up to Routeburn Falls Hut. A short hour walk and we arrived at the Falls Hut. We stashed our gear and bags and headed on up towards Lake Harris on the hunt for some powder to slash.

The valley was absolutely beautiful, a frozen land of white and hanging ice. We enjoyed skinning up valley while John and Georgia made good progress on the track. Lake Harris was completely frozen and we looked up valley were we might have descended if things had worked out differently. After a little mission up a side valley which was catching the late afternoon sun we got our only ski descent of the whole trip and it was a crusty slabby beast... this I suppose is the reality of ski tramping. You have to relish the skiing, no matter how average, because you equally likely could end up doing no skiing at all!

The mountain gang at Routeburn Flats hut enjoying some rare sun rays
Stunning winter-scape at Lake Harris
The snow wallowers
Skinning up above the valley
In the dark (again) we walked back down the slippery track to the hut. There were a couple of others staying, but zero fire wood to warm the place. So a frosty dinner it was again, but nonetheless a three course meal with poppadoms to start. (I was working on my guiding catering after being put in my place by the picnic hamper affair produced by the guided walkers we had met earlier in the day).

The sun on the deck was a welcome sight in the morning and we enjoyed its rays as we packed up. We then cruised back out to the car, appreciative of the easy track which allowed us to take in the magnificent peaks around us and plot further adventures into this excellent part of the country.

More sun rays on the Routeburn Falls balcony
Beautiful snowy forest and even more sun!
Standing on the 'jelly blobs'
Crossing the Routeburn
Nearly the end of our tramp
Ice daggers waiting to drop on an unwary passer by
A long drive back to Queenstown, pies, then up the Crown Range and up the windy road that leads to the Snow Farm on the Pisa Range. We wanted to cram in one little adventure more before we headed back to Christchurch. We hired John and Georgia skis and gave them a quick lesson about how to skate ski before heading out to the Bob Lee hut which is out on the snow farm trails. 

Georgia and John were not so sure about the skiing as we whizzed around them, but they slowly got the hang of it and eventually (in the dark) reached the hut. The hut was well stocked with dry firewood and quickly we had a lovely fire going and we luxuriated on the warm bunks. It was the perfect way to end our wintry adventure which didn't quite work out as planned. But then it wouldn't be an adventure would it?

Nice skating conditions to finish off at the Snow Farm
Stunning sunrise at Bob Lee Hut