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

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Barker Hut is Awesome!!

The forecast lately has been quite wild with some good southerly storms making their way up the country. For the first weekend of the school holidays we decided a mission was in order and luckily our friends Matt and La were keen to tag along.

We spent most of Thursday night at my brothers getting absolutely nowhere with planning what to do and where to go. Everyone wanted to do something different and the weather didn't look good for our original plan of a mission in to Barker hut (hopefully with skis).

Chris and I are still hooked on the idea of ski tramping, although since breaking my very light weight skis last year he has been a little less ambitious with his ideas. By the end of Friday the weather had changed again, enough to convince us that Barker hut was a go. So we whisked home from school, organised our gear and jumped in the car to collect Matt and Lara.

We were taken back to China for a brief period as we stopped at Church corner to sample the menu at Yummy's Chinese Takeaways. As we drove out of town it started spitting and by Porters Pass it was raining quite heavily. The idea of walking for several hours up the cold Waimak in the dark did become less appealing and we started fantasising about baches in Arthurs Pass - we are ageing!!!

Luckily the rain stopped and a bit of snow sliding in the car at high speed to the road end at Klondyke Corner had us revved up and ready to go. Headlamps on and packs loaded with skis, food, glacier gear, avalanche stuff... and we were ready to go. Fortunately Chris's pack seemed to have developed some tardis like qualities and an enormous amount of stuff seemed to disappear in there.

As we set out up the Waimak the snow and rocks sparkled with ice crystals and the pale shapes of the snow clad mountains wafted above us - it really was beautiful. We planned only to walk as far as Anti Crow Hut and given it was already 10pm this was fine by me.

The river was freezing and reasonably high to cross, so when we hopped out of the last crossing onto Turkey Flat our tights froze and started sparkling as well. We wound our way across the flats, then a brief spell in the bush popped us out at Anti Crow Hut. We woke a couple of hunters who were cosily ensconced in the hut, but politely got up and moved away their belongings out the way for us.

We slept well and woke to the sound of rustling at about 6.30. Chris was keen to get up and get going, because we had a fair way to walk and we wanted to get up to Barker with the chance of skiing on the glacier before dark. Porridge, coffee and we were off, crunching across the frosty grasses. La decided a bach weekend might be needed after all.

Heading out in the morning from Anticrow
Crossing the river was absolutely freezing and by the 8th crossing we were beyond howling or yelling, our feet were painful and we trudged in silence. Slowly our feet began to thaw and we were able to take in the dawn surroundings. It was a bluebird day, with pink light just touching the highest points on the snowy peaks.

At Carrington hut we stopped for a quick coffee brew on the porch, which required some arm twisting from Chris who was itching to get up the mountain. The sun was out and we basked in its gentle rays. On up the White River we were warming up and Matt even striped down to his merino singlet. We continued up river, now boulder hopping and climbing over avalanche debris.

Starting to soak in the rays shortly after leaving Carrington hut
Continuing on up the White in the sun

Skirting some avalanche debris in the White River
Marmaduke Dixon Glacier high above us
At last we could see the little red blob that is Barker Hut sitting high up amongst a sea of white. The Marmaduke Dixon Glacier poked its green tongue down at us and some friendly keas cawed from the valley. The snow was soft and fluffy now and Chris and I were happy to continue up the steeper section to the hut in running shoes.
Matt and Lara on the final climb to the hut
Barker Hut really is a great spot, perched on a cliff overlooking the White Valley with the White Glacier that flows from Mt Murchison (the highest mountain in the park) tucked in behind. The hut has a wee balcony and is well insulated. We sat inside and brewed up some noodles and soup.

Barker hut in all its red glory
Then it was time to get moving as the day was slipping by. We organised our gear for heading up the glacier and put on ski boots and harnesses. Out the door and we got our first ski run down into the basin which leads to the glacier. Having carried the gear this far it was awesome to get to use it!
The gentle climb from the hut, just visible perched on the small knob center right
Skinning uphill, Lara and Matt can be seen as tiny dots center right
We skinned uphill, through nice powder that was just a little wind affected in patches. The mountain views around us were magnificent. Matt and La were on foot, and plodded a neat trail through the snow towards us. We reached a point where the basin turns gently right and continued up a broad ridge. From there we dropped steeply down a gully and onto the White glacier proper. Not that you would know as it was white all around.

Looking at the amazing alpenglow from Kahutea Col
As we skinned on up towards Kahutea Col at the top of the White glaicer the mountains around us turned peachy pink in the alpenglow of the sunset. It was truly beautiful and we were very happy to have made it this high in one day to enjoy the sunset. From the col the summit of Mt Murchison is one tantalising steep rock step away - but there was no time for that! As the sun set and it began to get dark Matt and La popped over the Col.
Ski transition. The summit of Mt Murchison is just behind.
We took off our skins, clipped in our boots and attached our lights to our helmets. Matt and La started down, but were keen for us to wait for them one the descent (fair enough). The powder was perfect at the top and those hard earned (albeit rather cautious turns) made everything worth it. My legs felt like jelly after about three turns, but we took our time and waited every so often for Matt and La.

Now it was completely dark and we were skiing by our lights. Watching Chris's light come towards me with the occasionally swoosh of powder was quite surreal. Once back down in the basin we cruised ahead of Matt and La and reached Barker hut just on 6.30. The hut was cosy and we quickly brewed up hot drinks and dinner. Then we lay on the bunks and listened with rather a lot of amusement to Matt reading chapters of Bear Gryll's "True Grit". The story of a Norwegian soldier's harrowing escape to Sweden was truly unbelieveable.

Cosy times at Barker hut

We fell asleep to the sound of the wind hammering outside as the Norwester began to pick up. In the morning a true blizzard was upon us. Just walking to the toilet was a mission, with blasting snow driving into your eyes. Chris decided he needed to do one little ski run before we left, so he headed up the hill behind the hut. His descent through heavy wind blown snow with almost zero visibility convinced him it was time to head down the mountain, and I sadly decided against skiing down the valley from the hut because I wasn't confident in the crappy snow with such poor visibility.

Heading out of the storm
Rock shelter
The two oranges
As we got lower the weather cleared a bit and we could see down valley again. About half way down we came across a huge fresh avalanche debris. The avalanche had come from high up the mountain and funnelled down a narrow gully, piling up high in the gorge. It was tens of metres high and we scrabbled over one at a time and fairly quickly!
Then the sun popped out again!
Further down the White River
Back into grasslands
Back at Carrington the temperatures were warmer and the river crossings seemed much more pleasant. We stopped for a quick brew up at the hut and then it was a long amble back out down the Waimak, admiring the stormy peaks behind. By dark we reached the Anticrow hut again, then completed the last hour out to Klondyke. A delicious basket of wedges and fish at the deserted Bealey Pub finished our awesome weekend ski tramp to Barker Hut! Highly recommended +++++

Last light as we head towards Klondyke Corner