The guidebook raves that the South Face of Douglas Peak is one of New Zealand’s great ice climbs. We too can attest this is a classic ice route on a beautiful peak. Based out of Pioneer Hut, you'll see that Douglas Peak is the second most commanding peak in the Fox Glacier area besides the mighty Tasman-Horokoau. As you approach the face the structure of the mountain emerges and it is clear this is a perfect peak for alpine climbing.
Pioneer hut is a tough 1.5-2 day approach from Fox village, or a 10 minute helicopter flight. The South Face is easily accessed from Pioneer Hut with a 1 hour approach either on foot or skis.
The South Face of Douglas houses several classic ice routes and is split into two major gullies: Left Gully (IV, 4) and Right Gully (IV, 4). Central Gully (IV, 5) is a linkup of the two, starting up Right Gully and crossing into the upper central gully via a crux WI3 ice pitch. Central Gully is the most highly rated route, a step up from Left Gully, though Left Gully is still very much worthwhile for its historic nature and accessibility in grade. Right Gully takes you up to the Ayres Ridge between Haidinger-Douglas, finishing with the crux mixed/rock step of Ayres Ridge to the summit.
The route is best climbed between late winter and early summer. Spring (September-October) is usually best when fat plastic ice forms all the way up the route and temperatures are still low enough. The route can be climbed into December but be careful of hot temperatures affecting ice conditions and descent options.
Beware that the top of the peak can form significant rime during storms and once the sun hits the face the gullies can be subject to a bombardment of falling ice. Mitigate this by climbing at least 1 day after a storm and starting early. During warmer spells the ice may soften or become rotten, providing easier climbing but poor protection, and also compromising a descent with v-threads, increasing the commitment level. Recce For our ascent we arrived mid morning on day 1 and immediately set off for a ski-tour to recce the base of the route to check conditions. We dug a pit near the base slopes to check the stability of the avalanche prone slopes leading into the gully. This pit doubled as a stance to sort gear and launch up the route the following morning.
I (Alastair McDowell) & Pat Gray climbed the Central Gully in late September 2021. We left Pioneer at 430am and reached the base 520am. With first light at 650am this gave us 1.5 hrs to get established in the gully before dawn. The initial climbing is relatively easy and straight forward with one short ice step, so we opted to simul-climb the first section. Two 150m simul-blocks placed us at the base of the crux WI3 step which was formed up well with blobby plastic ice taking good screws. We pitched this then transitioned back to simul-climbing with two more 100m pitches to the summit ridge. One rope length of exposed snowy ridge takes you to the top.
Depending on your preference you can either rap the route with about 10-12 v-threads (if the ice is good) or you can descend via Glacier Peak. Traversing off a peak via a different route is a more elegant & adventurous option. Though it also makes sense to rap the route if snow conditions dictate and you’ve skied to the base ie during winter, so use your own judgement. Skiing to the base does lock you a bit more into abseiling, as if you can’t rap the route you’ll have to later retrieve your skis on foot. Springtime snowpack consolidates fairly quickly in fine weather and we approached easily on foot on the second clear day after a storm.
Glacier Peak Descent
To descend via Glacier Peak scramble down the ridge over a few obstacles until you arrive at a 60m high rock step. There is a fixed sling rap anchor on the East side of the ridge at the top of the step which can be a little tricky to locate from above. 50m abseil brings you to easy slopes near Glacier Peak. You can skip this summit traversing across the face which is a 40-45 degree snow slope. Take notice from Douglas Peak of crevasses so you can avoid them on descent.
Round trip time should be 9-12 hours for an efficient party in good conditions. If pitching the entire route expect around 14-18 hours.
12 ice screws: 2x 21cm, 8x16cm, 2x13cm 10x 60cm quickdraws 2x 120cm quickdraws 2x 4m 6mm cordalette Light rock rack if lean conditions ie 5 nuts, 2-3 cams