Accompanied by Elliot and Luke doing all sorts of things I would never have guessed you could (or should?) do in a stock standard Grand Vitara, the sunny, braided, Godley river valley passed by in a rocky montage of dotterels, geese, paradise ducks, and the inevitable ever-present grey and orange rocks. On reaching the lake at the head of the valley, we portaged gear across this last undriveable stretch and settled comfortably into Godley Hut.
With a bit of spare time that evening before sunset, George and I headed out to have a look at some possible objectives in the area. Elliot and George had been on a trip to this area in July and were full of excitement to be back and see things again with fresh eyes. I was fighting with a frustrating internal conflict as an old ankle injury had taken a bit of reinjury the week before and was still very unstable and painful. Looking at the access to some of the planned objectives, I realised they were very long and involved – a big ask for me even in an uninjured state, and definitely not a great idea right now especially with a small weather window. So instead we made plans to head up Separation Stream and have a look at the South Face of D’Archiac, which George and Mark Evans had attempted in July but turned back due to poor ice conditions. This face gets surprisingly little traffic, especially considering the existing line 'Desire' is WI3-4 and highly aesthetic indeed.
This was not just some consolation prize objective, we had tried to head exactly there, the month previously but were stopped before starting due to flooding rivers. The approach up Separation Stream is a fairly pleasant stream-bash-boulder-hop, for around 3 hours, with a few narrower sections in the stream that we sidled on the true right. The moraine wall on the true left is much more active with rockfall – definitely to be avoided. Though, the whole stream can turn into a shooting gallery and care should be taken. Armed (or ankled?) with yards of strapping tape, we wandered up with a late start and a short day up to the icefall at the top of Separation Stream. Here we found a very pleasant campsite with remains of previous occupation (anyone lost some socks?) next to running water, and what looked to be the last of the soft mossy vegetated flooring…. Very inviting indeed.
It didn’t look far to gain the top of the icefall on the Separation glacier, close enough to justify putting in our camp in these lower more pleasant slopes and getting up a little earlier the next day instead.
We dropped our overnight gear and carried on with skis and climbing gear to have a little recce – there was still plenty of daylight remaining and we hadn’t exactly had a difficult day on approach! Easy moraine slopes on the true right of the terminal face of the Separation lead us to the
slushline snowline, where we clipped into skis and set a skin track to the top of the icefall. Here we stashed most of our climbing gear for the next day, and enjoyed the spring skiing down through mellow bowls back to the moraine, where we stashed skis and wandered back down to our campsite for a hot dinner and an early night.
Leaving camp at 0400 the next morning, the weather didn’t look promising. Clag clung to the tops around the valley, and on reaching our climbing gear stash we could see (or couldn’t see, as it was) the top of D’Archiac, still obscured in cloud.
Having never descended the Motorway route (SE off the summit to the South Forbes glacier), route finding could prove problematic if the cloud persisted later. However, we were on an improving forecast for the day and the sky was clearing the closer we got to sunrise, so we felt justified in retaining our sense of optimism – but planned to keep the option of descending the route open.
Below Separation Col at the meeting point with our planned descent route we dropped skis and shared the boot-pack up to base of the face. We had had a new line in mind before seeing the face - an ice line to the climbers right of the existing South Face ice line ‘Desire’. A summer route was set up the central buttress of the face previously on the climbers left of our chosen line ‘Band-aid’, our route would skim this buttress. If the bottom pillar between two solid ice flows connected, it would be a proud line all the way to the summit. We knew from scoping the route yesterday and from what George had seen both while climbing on Desire in July and skiing Sibbald three weeks prior it did indeed connect, though the connection point looked very thin…
We discussed ways to attack the first pitch, which could be broken into two pitches with a belay immediately below the crux. In the end we established my desire to lead was greater, so I started up intending to link through the thin pillar into one long 60m pitch. Firm alpine ice started turning a bit rotten as I neared the connection point in question. Not particularly confidence inspiring. Negotiating around sections of thin ice covering sugary faceted snow, I approached the base of the pillar. It was even thinner than we had previously thought – disconnected at the back and free-standing, with the ice at the base in poor condition. It looked to improve further up on reattaching to the face, but getting established on the pillar would definitely prove interesting.
After placing a small wire and screw placed behind the base of the pillar, I took a bit of time out to assess the conditions and communicate with George, before deciding to continue upwards… at which point a waterfall of spindrift abruptly started up which became a feature of the pitch for us both, erupting at regular intervals – I really could have done without the further difficulty added at this point! Awkward overhanging moves to get established with added complications from variable ice quality… a lot of fighting hard on lead and a very patient belay on the other end, and eventually I was through into easier ground – down into WI4, easing to WI3, and eventually an ice screw belay.
I was thankful for the amount of time I had spent climbing hard ice in Canada earlier this year, though this was certainly some of the hardest ice I had climbed in NZ, and this time I had a pack! George had some choice things to say while coming up behind on second, and also managed to destroy the bottom of the pillar. Thin indeed! We regrouped happily at the belay and he carried on. From this belay at the top of the crux pitch, the route became a series of steep 50+ degree snow slopes connected by generally short WI3 ice pitches of better quality. George led off a section of simul-climbing to below the first of these ice pitches which was around 50m of good ice with vertical steps. I then led further snow to below another longer section of ice - multiple solid flows for two pitches which we swung, then approximately three more pitches to a small steep col around 50m SE of the summit.
The visibility had been patchy all day, and as we descended, simul-climbing off the top towards the east, the snow settled in and route finding got significantly more difficult. Using what we could of the map and landscape features on the SE ridge to locate the Motorway route, we downclimbed quickly, keen to get as close black to the Separation Glacier before we lost the last remaining pieces of visibility and daylight. Having confirmed our position at the top of the Motorway with GPS, we headed down an obvious couloir which was easily downclimbed. On heading to the true right of this to meet Separation Col, we realised we had ended up too far North – one ridge over, and were on the Dennistoun Glacier rather than the South Forbes, this just as darkness fell, and snow continued to fall. Having looked at the snowpack regularly, the new snow was a concern but we were happy with stability further down – recent rain had solidified things. Correcting course by traversing through Revelation Col and across the South Forbes, we crossed through Separation Col with graupel erasing our tracks behind us – not something we had expected given the forecast was for a fine day and the next front not approaching for another 24 hours.
Weather was significantly better back once we reached our skis and it was time for another enjoyable ski of the Separation back down to the moraine, camp, hot dinner, cup of tea and a lie down, it was 0100 by the time we collapsed back into bed. The next morning brought a lazy lie in, while rain then snow came down on our tent. The weather window definitely had not panned out like the forecast we had left on! We exited Separation Stream to meet the other troublemakers, who had thoughtfully cleared our stuff out of Godley Hut and driven down to meet us. Probably a good time to enjoy a magical trip back out the Godley before any more rain came in and raised the river level, and definitely a good time to head to the Twizel pub for burgers, pizza, and a few well deserved pints.
Route: Lust WI5 V 5+ 500m
George Loomes, Sooji Clarkson, 09 October 2020
Gear used on climb:
12x ice screws (1x 10cm, 2x 22cm, rest a mixture of 13 and 16cm)
10x extendable draws and assorted slings for anchors
2x 60m half ropes
5x nuts of various sizes