The words “Arthurs Pass” and “ice” are two words most climbers never use in the same sentence. The fact of the matter is, ice routes do exist in the Arthurs Pass area. These routes are often not in the form of semi- transparent blue pillars with easy approaches but instead may be mixed with rock, turf and may be difficult to access. Some climbers often slag off climbing around Arthurs Pass, but the benefits gained from a backyard of Arthurs climbing can quickly silence the staunchest climbing folk. While there are a handful of solid day trips to be had in Arthurs, the more “juicy” trips involve a bit more of an approach. It’s these trips that build a good base of fitness, commitment and organisation in the hills.
One of the great things about climbing in Arthurs pass is the proximity to Christchurch. Unlike climbs south of Geraldine, the drive to these climbs does not bypass any good fish & chip shop like that of the Geraldine Fish Supply or bakery in the form of Fairlie Bakehouse, but it is a short drive for Christchurch based climbers being less than 2 hours from town. While some of the approaches may be long (like many others in New Zealand), there are also plenty of climbs with shorter approaches that make for excellent weekend adventures.
Routes on the Crow Face of Mt Rolleston, Philistine Bluffs, Temple Buttress or the infamous Grahams Stream can be perfect winter day trips. For those keener to travel further afield, the south-east faces of Mts Speight and Franklin have some excellent winter climbing and provide the prefect training ground for people looking to get into bigger terrain. These hills are a great proving ground for those looking to improve skills in reading mountain conditions, route finding and decision making. People often hear murmurings from climbers further afield claiming that there is no “real” climbing in the Arthurs area. Instead of opting for the easiest way to the top, taking a leaf out of the late and great Jamie Vinton Boot’s book and choosing to take the line of most resistance can open new route possibilities for climbers. Granted, none of the ice routes in Arthurs are pure waterfall ice like the curtains or pillars found at Wye Creek but they often offer hard alpine ice with challenging climbing, good exposure and reasonable protection.
Faces like the Crow Face offer an excellent day trip challenge to climbers of all levels. The beauty about climbing routes on this face is that it's only as hard as you want to make it. There are options to link together easy snowy gullies for early top-outs on Rome Ridge. For those looking for more of a challenge, in good conditions this face offers some good ice flows with a smorgasboard of lines to choose from with some steep ice down low and good protection. The face is also relatively easy to access via the Coral Track and Rome Ridge (2hrs) and there is an easy descent route down the Otira Slide, making it a good option for round trips.
In September 2015, Tom Botterill and Michael Eatson climbed a great line on the classic south-east face of Mt Speight. Tom and Mike chose to take the left of two central gullies where they encounted four sustained pitches of WI3/3+ climbing followed by some moderately steep snow gullies. Mike and Tom's route is probably one of the longer winter routes in Arthurs Pass offering a classic taste of New Zealand mountaineering. There are several easy descent routes off Mt Speight making it a solid weekend or cruisy 3 day mission. The south-east face of Mt Speight is quite untouched and usually comes into condition several times every winter making it a handy location for a cheeky local exploratory winter climb. These trips help build important mounatin and alpine skills and are the perfect building blocks for people looking at doing bigger trips in the higher and harder mountains around New Zealand.
After a large southerly front swept the South Island in August, Ben Ellis and I spent a Friday night in Arthurs Pass Village in the hope of climbing an ice route somewhere on the Philistine Bluffs. Standing at the Otira Valley carpark, we sussed the recently plastered rock and chose a section of the face with 2 steep, distinct flows running down. The recent freeze made for quick access with occasional pockets of knee deep powder. We climbed steepening slopes, linking together gullies and short mixed steps to bring us to the bottom of the first pitch.
Gagging for some action, I quickly racked up and enjoyed 45 meters of steep, fun ice with reasonable protection. Some spots were a little marginal, only just taking stubby screws but there was the odd phat section taking more solid placements. Ben lead the awesome 50m second pitch which was a lot steeper and exposed than it looked up the initial part of the top headwall. Ben followed a great lower flow which lead on to a short rotten section before finishing on some good ice at the base of the third and final glory pitch.
The third pitch was probably the best ice I’ve climbed so far in the Arthurs area. It began by climbing a phat flow below a series of hanging daggers before swinging right of an overhanging rock headwall and climbing the right hand side of the main pillar flow descending the side of the overhang. Awesome exposure, climbing below an overhanging roof in a stunning amphitheater of rock and ice, all in our back yard!
There are still a handful of unclimbed lines on the Philistine Bluffs, some of which may have been climbed but not recorded. These lines are excellent winter day trips for the budding alpinist. There are also unclimbed lines on the south-east faces of Mt Franklin which involve a bit more commitment through a longer approach but are still realistic winter weekend objectives. At the end of the day, climbed or unclimbed – it doesn’t even matter. What matters is getting out there and doing it. And Arthurs Pass is a great place to climb, grow and learn!