Southern Alps Ski Traverse

Friday 9 October 2020, 7:40pm -- alastair.mcdowell

Crossing Terra Nova Pass into the Godley Glacier

Creator: 
A. McDowell

The great virus of 2020 dealt a sweeping blow to anyone planning an overseas expedition. With our plans to travel to the Himalaya cancelled, the lockdown forced us to consider how we could exert an expedition-scale effort here in our backyard, the Southern Alps.

The team consisted of Reg Measures (the brainchild), Rose Pearson and Alastair McDowell. Within our team, we shared a common love for moving efficiently through moderately technical alpine terrain. During the summer we had several single-push ascents of major peaks, but we also craved for a longer and deeper immersion in the hills. To witness the mountains in all their changing moods. The dynamic season of early spring would be perfect for this. We set aside 3 weeks in September with the aim to travel as far towards Aoraki as the weather and terrain would allow.

But as September approached, the winter had been one of the warmest and driest on record. Would we have any snow to ski? Or would we be carrying skis over miles of moraine and withering glacier? Our route would traverse many of Canterbury’s precious glaciers and we braced ourselves for a depressing display of their demise. 

Route Planning

Reg spent much of his six weeks of isolation glued to Google Earth, seeking out the ultimate line between Arthur’s Pass and Aoraki/Mt Cook. The route he came up with was ambitious to say the least, aiming to stay as high and close to the main divide as possible, linking up many glaciers, ridgelines and high passes. As with any transalpine trip, there is the dream-line, and reality, so as well as a good weather route, we built in many contingency plans that would keep us moving southwards during poor weather.

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Route map showing intended route (blue) and actual route (colour coded)

Creator: 
R. Measures

Click here to download the route map PDF.

Click here to see Strava route map.

Food Drops

For the 3 week journey we planned 2 food drops, in order to keep our pack weight manageable. Each food drop consisted of 7 days of food, with the rule of thumb of 800g per day. For more information about Expedition Food Packing click here.

A month out, we delivered food caches to Mathias Hut in the Mathias Valley and St Winifred Hut in the upper Havelock. Depositing food in Mathias Hut was a surprisingly easy day trip on bike & foot, and the thriving 4WD Canterbury community jumped at the challenge of driving our food into the headwaters of the Havelock. I was shocked how easy it was to set up. Canterbury valleys are much easier going for food-drops than the West Coast which is very rugged.

Equipment

Anyone who has tried skiing with a heavy transalpine pack knows how unpleasant and difficult it is, especially in poor snow conditions. So, if we were to enjoy ourselves, we needed to leave what was heavy behind.

Glacier kit: we used the 30m Petzl 6mm rad line. For emergency crevasse rescue, we opted for a system of 1x 120cm sling, tibloc, ATC (to be used in guide mode from the harness), 3 carabiners. We used a 120cm dyneema sling for a harness with 1 of the locking carabiners. To escape a crevasse, the idea is for the rescuer to secure the victim to a ski anchor, and the victim climbs out using the tibloc, carabiner and 120cm as a foot loop, capturing progress with the ATC in guide mode at the harness masterpoint.

Skis: light alpine touring skis with dynafit pin bindings. As light as you can go but still prepared to ski in poor/variable snow conditions. We encountered almost every variety of snow on the trip.

Skins: light Mohair skins were found to be adequate rather than heavier and more durable nylon skins.

Boots: Dynafit TLT-6 boots. Needs to be comfortable for moderate periods of boot-packing or walking in crampons. We used light trail running shoes for river valley walking (i.e. La Sportiva Bushido II).

Crampons: Petzl Leopard LLF automatic binding. Full aluminium crampons were adequate for this trip and we rarely experienced anything more than frozen snow. We never touched rock with our crampons, so even hybrid steel crampons would have been unnecessary.

Ice axe: 1x Petzl Gully Adze. Lightweight aluminium tool with steel pick and trigrest covers a wide range of technical terrain. This was rarely used during the traverse but is obviously a valuable tool for short sections.

Shelter: Hyperlite Ultamid-4. Weighing only 750g this is an ultra-light tarp shelter housing up to 4 people, as a 3 we were very comfortable underneath. We included a 600g custom made groundsheet for protection from the ground which was worthwhile. The tarp can be erected using two skis bound together with Voile straps.

Clothing: Bridgedale waterproof Storm socks, Macpac Traverse Tights, Macpac Barrier Bib-pants (full-zip), Macpac Eyre Long-sleeve shirt, Macpac Prothermal hooded, Macpac Nitro Pullover, Macpac Pisa Jacket, Macpac Nazomi jacket, Macpac Icefall Down Jacket.

Pack: Macpac NZAT Pursuit 40L. We rigged elastic cord to the outside to carry excess gear that did not fit at the start of a leg. The pack needs to be suitable to carry skis in A-frame mode. Having more width at the base of the pack prevents ski tips colliding with your upper calf while walking, or loosen the straps at the bottom. Voile ski strap to secure top tips.

Stage 1: Waimakariri to Mathias

On the evening of August 31st we were able to zip close the lids and shoulder our 40L packs up the Waimakariri bound for Anticrow Hut. Right on schedule, winter finally arrived that night. We woke to a foot of fresh snow clinging to the Beech trees and coating the riverbed. We could all but skin up the valley floor! Due to this early storm, our original dream start via Mt Philistine, Armstrong and Rosamond to Browning Pass was relegated to the normal ‘Three Passes’ route, and we left ourselves a line for the future. The way was still arduous with fresh snow choking the Taipoiti Gorge and lining the boulders down to Park Morpeth, and we forever thanked ourselves for bringing thick waterproof socks inside our running shoes. Chilly!

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Ski touring in the Clarke Neve near the Bracken Snowfield

Creator: 
R. Measures

An incredible day of fine weather allowed us to traverse the Hall, Farquharson and Griffiths glaciers to a camp at Clarke Saddle, right on the main divide. Lights of Hokitika twinkled far below. By morning we were enveloped by clag, wind, sleet - a classic Norwester was brewing. We made difficult progress to Hokitika Saddle in whiteout checking the GPS every few minutes. It was too dangerous to continue like this all day. Camp high and wait out the storm for a day, or two?

In a flash moment we made the call to plunge into the West Coast, to the sanctuary of Mungo Hut just 3 hours away. I had visited this special remote hut on a previous traverse, but never had I imagined I would be returning with skis on my back. We advanced to the upper Brunswick Creek below Mungo Pass, waited out another day of rainy weather, then in an 11 hour day traversed over into Unknown Stream, up Stewart Glacier, over Unknown Col, and down a steep couloir into the upper Canyon Creek which led to Mathias hut and our first food drop.

Stage 2: Mathias Hut to St Winifred Hut, Havelock River

We had proposed two options from Mathias Hut to Cattle Stream. The most common is via West Mathias over Observation Col. But as we wanted to camp in Cattle Stream we opted for the southern Jerusalem Stream route. However, 2 hours up the river gorge led us to an impassable waterfall. This necessitated a 3.5 hour, 500m vertical scree slope detour to bypass the waterfall and only progress 200m upstream. Therefore we recommend Observation Col route and not Jerusalem Stream.

From a camp in Cattle Stream after overcoming the waterfall, we travelled to Whitcombe Pass via the Martius Glacier, an excellent route. We spent a day and two nights curled up in a small rock bivouac at Whitcombe Pass. In hindsight, we were always glad we didn’t rush into sub-optimal conditions. Climbing up the Sale Glacier the next day involved crossing huge amounts of fresh avalanche debris that had released the previous day during the storm cycle.

In white-out, we skied the Ramsay beneath Whitcombe's impressive east face, and took a route to the Lyell Glacier via the Clarke, St James and Cockayne Glaciers. A detour to the east was made onto the St James glacier was made to bypass the significant icefall on the Cockayne glacier. See the Strava route map linked above for more detail. Skiing in the Clarke Neve was a highlight of the trip.

Our dream day over the Gardens began with skinning up the Lyell glacier in sweltering morning heat. Unexpectedly, a wild wind ripped overhead while we struggled to forge a skin track through the chaos of the Lyell icefall. Cloud raced over Rangitata Col and in the space of minutes we had descended into whiteout and sleet, tantalizingly close to Lambert Col, the gateway to the Garden of Allah. Another unexpected storm had developed. Disappointed, we set our dream of skiing the Gardens aside and made the rapid call to descend the Frances Glacier, with a tailwind.

Weather around the Main Divide can change rapidly, and un-predictably, even during a good forecast. Be prepared.

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Head of Jerusalem Stream, crossing into Cattle Stream

Creator: 
A. McDowell

Our next food drop lay in St Winifred, and, as much as we would have loved to complete a full traverse of the Clyde and Havelock gravels, Disappointment Saddle was our best route to the food. As always, we were hungry. We reached the col at dark that evening in worrying avalanche conditions, winds blinding us as we crawled over the lip. Veil Biv ended an exhausting 15 hour day, and the next morning we wandered down to our final food drop at Mistake Flat hut as the storm really set in.

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Collecting water from a frozen Lake Browning

Creator: 
R. Pearson

Stage 3: St Winifred to Godley

We are rarely bored in our modern, over-stimulated age. It’s only when we indulge in a complete detox from technology and connectivity that we realise the benefits - a clear mind, fresh ideas, creativity. After repeatedly failing to cross the flooded St Winifred Stream en route to Terra Nova Pass, with norwesters rolling in one after the other, our two pit days became three, four, five…

At first, frustration. Our time to reach Aoraki was ticking down. Later, acceptance, and we began to embrace the opportunity to sit and think. We started by reading every CMC journal from 1948 to 1986, we brainstormed new events for the club, hot wired the solar power system, re-cut the track to Eric’s Biv, built a wooden chess set... Creative writing, philosophy… Pit days have a lot to answer for! On returning to the city, each of us experienced higher than normal levels of ‘zen’. Another reason why the hills are so important.

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Team shot outside St Winifred Hut before our second failed attempt to cross Terra Nova Pass

Creator: 
R. Measures

When we crested Terra Nova Pass on the sixth day it was all the more rewarding. We remembered Dingle & Tremain’s story of 12 days stuck in the Murchison on their 1971 winter traverse and being avalanched from Terra Nova in their subsequent exhaustion.

Rose: “On the Godley glacier. Finally some nice turns on good snow! We’re happy to be making fast progress. We can see the moraines and lake below. Just a little more mellow skiing and we’ll be well on our way to Godley Hut, with just enough time to climb over Mt Acland into the Murchison... Then, disaster. I catch an edge in a moment of distraction and in a comically slow-motion topple, I twist my knee, badly. I feel two pops as I fall face-first into the snow.

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Approaching the Main Divide from Brunswick Stream, Westland

Creator: 
R. Measures

I know my trip is over. Perhaps the others can make it? Can I walk out? We rest for 20 minutes. I stand up. I can bear weight and have some range of motion. I weigh up the tax and climate burden of a helicopter against the risk of long-term damage to my knee. We decide to self rescue. Tortuously, I side-slip down the final stretch of glacier.

Reg heroically skis with my pack on the back of his own for a short section. As mountain people we are proud of our self-sufficiency, but now we must take on new roles. I relinquish my ego for the sake of the team. My job is now to be honest about my knee and to accept help. Their part is to help me as much as they can. At the moraine, Reg takes my skis and boots, I take back my pack, while Al takes whatever heavier items he can fit.

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Skiing into the Ramsay Glacier with East (Ramsay) Face of Whitcombe towering above

Creator: 
A. McDowell

We continue in slow convoy across a series of moraine islands, wading chest-deep icy waters to avoid undercut bluffs guarding the Godley lake shores. I quietly thank the cold lake as it soothes my inflamed knee. Godley hut is empty when we arrive that afternoon and so our destiny is set. Reg's birthday will be spent walking down one of Canterbury's “Pretty Good” walks, the Godley River, with the added bonus of carrying my skis. We joke that he will be gifted a kilometre of gravel for each of his years.”

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Reg at Godley Hut

Creator: 
R. Pearson

Epilogue

It's easy to feel disappointment when things don't go to plan. Our aim throughout was to reach the Hermitage, and we relished the challenge presented by a 3 week time limit. But as we sat in the Godley hut that night, we felt content. While a stated objective may provide a premise for going into the mountains, it should never be the primary goal. Rather it is an excuse to forge greater connections with yourself, your partners, the mountains, the weather, and even your family at home.

Living in an environment so harshly dominated by natural forces compels us to be humble and accept that we cannot control every outcome. As we walked out the next morning, we reflected on all we had experienced over the last three weeks. The storms and the high rivers, the exhausting passes and glorious ski descents, the unexpected obstacles and finally an injury in the party. These experiences have deepened the internal well of strength that each of us may draw on in the future.

Editorial note: After a series of X-rays and physio visits, it seems Rose has narrowly avoided any permanent damage to her knee.

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The Clarke Neve was an unexpected highlight of the trip

Creator: 
R. Measures