Now in its fifth year running, the Remarkables Ice & Mixed Festival is becoming a must-attend event on the NZ climbing calendar! Climbers from all around the country and overseas gather in Queenstown for a long weekend to learn and practice basic mountaineering, ice climbing, mixed climbing and ski touring. The Remarkables ski-field provides unique accessibility to so many quality climbing & back-country skiing areas, making it the perfect location to practice the technical skills of alpinism, while cutting out most of the ardor of long snowy and avalanche-prone approaches typical of mid-winter in the higher Alps. In the week leading up to the festival, a strong cohort of climbers had already taken up residence in the area, keen to pack in as many routes as possible. In the first weekend, five mentors and five mentees from the New Zealand Alpine Team headed into Wye Creek by foot, snow-shoe and ski for two days of ice climbing in New Zealand's premier ice climbing location. Nearing the end of the season, the ice was dripping wet in places but still provided quality ice climbing on the bulging blue faces of the lower tier and towering pillars higher up.
Satisfied from two days on the ice, they turned their attention to the West faces, keen to indulge in some challenging mixed climbing routes. Connor and Alastair set off early Monday morning for Recessionary Downgrade (M5), hidden in an alcove just past Saturday Morning Special. As they approached the base, the overhanging splitter crack of Blow Up towered above, destined to become a project for later in the week. Connor claimed the second, crux pitch as his lead, hearing stories of the off-width roof crack, exposed traverse and run-out slab. Keen to carry my weight, Alastair racked up for the first pitch - a steep thin crack straight off the deck, leading into an icy corner, followed by some bouldering around a huge chockstone. Taking on the initial crack direct, this was no easy warm-up, the hooks were steep, but keeping calm thanks to Connor's original encouragements, Alastair found bomber gear and delicate bridging to eventually pull over the roof, huffing like a beached whale on the desperate mantle. Connor now faced his nemesis. Originally graded M7, but as the name suggests later falling to a (sand-bagged) M5, he took his time protecting the run-out traverse, setting his #4 cam to precision high in the off-width roof crack. After two hours of desperation, rope-drag and cursing, Connor finally reached the anchor. It was one of those pitches you never want to repeat, but cannot be more stoked to make it through (with in-tact ankles). Three more pitches topped us out on a quality, and very sustained day of mixed climbing.
Tuesday dawned clear, and Gemma Wilson & Sarwan Chand were frothing at the mouth to get amongst it. The System Works is a solid M5 route that shoots up corner systems on the buttress between MK gulley and State of the Nation. The first two pitches are especially spicy, featuring tricky route finding, and several steep cracks to pull through. Sarwan revelled in his first real taste of mixing climbing, following Gemma who is upping the ante with each ascent. Feeling comfortable after the first two tough pitches, Sarwan took on the lead to the top, snowed up rock slabs only momentarily delaying their late afternoon top-out.
Meanwhile, Connor and Alastair had quested further along Queen's drive to the mighty West Face of Double Cone, offering longer routes up to 350-metres high. Following Steve & Kim's tracks to Consolation Prize, they instead headed up a gash of snow to the base of Ikon, a classic long M6 on the west face. The area has a more remote mountain feel to it than the relatively shorter 150-200m routes of Telecom Tower. Again, Connor was dealt a crux pitch early on, another two-hour lead stretching his mental and physical reserves up a steep arete, with thin pick torquing, and delicate feet. We felt off-route, but continued upwards. We encountered foot-prints leading towards a drop-off... again Connor battled un-orthodox moves and kept us progressing up the 8 pitch route. Alastair thrutched through a chimney and later almost fell as a rock dislodged, fighting to regain his balance and sticking to the wall, grateful for good gear nearby. After eight pitches, they topped on Double Cone on dusk in high spirits, enjoying a cruisy descent via the Grand Couloir - a long satisfying day out!
While everyone was out enjoying the jewels of the Remarkables, David Chen was laid low with sickness after Wye Creek, but by Wednesday he was feeling recovered enough to take on his project: Blow Up - a full-on, steep, 30-metre splitter hand-crack finishing with some run-out slab. One of the quality M8 test-pieces on the West Face. Accompanying David through the wind & spindrift were Connor and Alastair, as well as Brad Schimanski keen to capture the action. Connor set off in frigid conditions for the first onsight attempt. He hooked and laybacked his tools in great style through the two roofs, but on the final few steep moves a chock-stone blew out and he was blown off into space, cursing into the wind. David was next, rearing for the on-sight. He racked up and pulled on his thin golf gloves and climbed rapidly up the crack, swearing something about cold hands. He disappeared over the second roof onto the slab, charging for the anchor. Just as his belayer thought he had it in the bag, yarding out slack, a flurry of Nomics and Fruitboots came hurtling back into sight, the dream blown away. Two days later, David would come back to Blow Up and secure the red-point, winning him the award of Hardest Repeat for the festival.
Gemma and Sarwan followed the air-borne theme for the day, climbing the staunch Clearances Direct (M5). Cruising through the initial pitches of the classic mixed gulley, Gemma found her limit on the final overhang, showing great perserverance, she fell three times onto a #0.5 cam before eventually pulling through into glory.
Finally a rest day, the team took stock of the damage, and the Remarkables Ice & Mixed Festival officially kicked off. Over 200 climbers congregated at the Frankton Events Centre, signing up to clinics to learn basic snow-craft, learning to ice & mixed climb, learning to lead, ski-touring, as well as general climbing for those with established skills. There was an awesome buzz at the launch night with so many keen alpinists in one room, all fizzing off each others' energy & enthusiam.
At the crack of dawn, a steady stream of climbers poured onto Queen's Drive keen to sample the mixing climbing, despite threats of deteriorating weather. Gemma and Alastair, fuelled by left-over Naan bread climbed the exceptional Fastest Indian (M5+), securing Gemma the prize of Hardest Female Repeat for the two-pitch stunner.
Connor joined by Kim Ladiges of Tasmania put out a valiant effort on Los Indignados Direct (M7). Connor battled for two-hours on lead only to fall off just metres away from the belay. Nearby, Sarwan racked up quality mileage on State of the Nation (M5) leading all four pitches following David's successful ascent of Blow Up. One buttress over, Alastair sent the aesthetic Stone Free (M5), hooking the twin-crack system to a spicy finish - a pull-up around the roof, both tools firmly planted in the frozen turf. Working hard to put the hardest female repeat prize well out of contention, Gemma attempted the monstrous E.T. Goes Home (M6). Spooked by loose rock over the first roof she fought for another hour, lurching and falling around the second awkward overhang as fresh snow continued to bury her patient belayer. Eventually she called it a day, and only one nut was sacrificed to the route.
That night, Jaz Morris compelled the audience with the discovery of "Shrimpton Ice", New Zealand's newest ice crag, featuring potential for 250m routes from grades WI2 right up to WI6. A short helicopter ride from Makarora, plans are being made for an ECC club trip in winter 2017 to a location that is set to put New Zealand on the international ice climbing map (since many maps do indeed omit our fair nation).
Saturday brought a crisp southerly & fresh spindrift, heaven for the ski-tourers led by Erik Bradshaw, who were quite content to glide over the fresh powder in the morning sun, gleefully watching the ice climbing clinic suffering on the chilly, sunless south face of Single Cone at Touch Down (WI3). Alastair and Sarwan followed the ice clinic's ploughed trail en-route to $100 Whore (M5), meeting Kieran Parsons & co. at the base of the daunting south face. Both parties were not overly stoked with the concept of eight pitches on the freezing face drenched in spindrift - this was a social festival after all. Kieran's party opted for a quick simul-climb of the snowy ramp Cookies & Cream (M2), not to be overlooked despite the grade. Meanwhile Sarwan and Alastair continued on their circumnavigation of the massif, finally arriving at the Fastest Indian, where Sarwan sped up the glory first pitch, followed by the day's first ascent of the West Face favourite, Friday's Fool (WI3, M4). Many earlier parties were freaked by the poorly adhered ice, and with a v-thread pre-installed at the based of this crux ice bulge, it was soon clear that this abalakov had served for many retreats. Well practiced from two days at Wye Creek, Sarwan managed to hang on to the collapsing ice flow, placing good rock gear around the ice, and surmounted the WI3 step without issue. Alastair enjoyed fat ice on the second before ploughing a knee-deep trench up to the final M4 step, encountering Kim & Gemma who had just established 4 new pitches up overhanging chimneys and run-out slabs. As we topped out next to Telecom Tower, Connor and Karl Schimanski strolled past, having also climbed a new route in the Notch region.
A merry re-union, they all descended together to Frankton to hear Steve Fortune regale the crowd with stories from The Sphinx, Piramide, Alpamayo and Taulliraju on the Expedition Climbers Club's first innaugural expedition to the Cordillera Blanca of Peru. The successful expedition brought home four first ascents on Taulliraju, leading on to nominations for Macpac Alpinist of the Year for Ben Dare who along with Stephen Skelton, climbed a new route on the East Rib of Taulliraju, and for the four-person team of Rose Pearson, Alastair McDowell, Reg Measures and Steve Fortune, who made the first ascent of the West Ridge of Taulliraju. Mayan Smith-Gobat also received a worthy nomination for her almost-free ascent of the fearful Riders of the Storm (38-pitches, 7c+/29) route on Torres Central in the Torres del Paine National Park, Chile. Ben Dare took out the top award, having also completed the fourth ascent of the East Face of Fastness Peak, solo. Congratulations Ben!
The Remarkables Ice & Mixed Festival is already booked in for August 17-20th in 2017 - we hope to see you all there!