I recently attended a 7-Day Mountain Skills Course (MSC) with Aspiring Guides out of Wanaka, New Zealand and it was much more epic than I could have imagined.
My motivation in signing up for a beginner mountaineering course was driven by everything I read on social media while following the exceptionally high snowpack in the Sierras over the past summer in connection with preparing for the JMT. Additionally, after hiking to both Xueshan and Dabajianshan in Shei-pa National Park in Taiwan, I was intrigued by the fabled Holy Ridge (聖稜線) traverse that connects the two peaks that purportedly requires some rock climbing and rope knowledge. Basically, I wanted to learn about snow travel, basic climbing and rope skills and orienteering, so that I could expand the range of terrain and conditions that I am comfortable being in by myself in the outdoors.
The Aspiring Guides MSC course was overkill for my immediate goals and quite a financial commitment, but I was already scheduled to go on a trip to New Zealand and I had always dreamed of spending time in the Southern Alps. It turned out to be totally worth it and exceeded my expectations.
Day 1, November 19 (Sunday) – Travel Day and Rope Skills
The course began with viewing the weather forecast for the week. Because we were blessed with an exceptionally good weather window, our guide Whitney (originally from the US but has been living and working in the mountains of NZ for as long as I’ve been alive; a hard-core mountain man who does not pack extra socks!) explained that the plan was to conduct our course on the West Coast. We would drive to Fox Glacier, helicopter up to Centennial Hut on the Franz Josef Glacier, travel to Pioneer Hut and then walk down the Fox Glacier to Chancellor Hut and helicopter out from there.
After sorting out gear, packing our packs, making some sandwiches, and stopping at a local outfitter to pick up last minute items, we left Wanaka around 11:30 AM and drove over the pass to Fox Glacier, arriving at about 3:30 PM. It was a treat to get this unexpected side trip to a part of New Zealand I’d never been to before. Once you cross the divide, the mountains on the West Coast are densely forested instead of covered with short desert-y scrub like in Rohan (i.e. Central Otago). It’s temperate rainforest with lush giant ferns that look like they are from WHEN DINOSAURS WALKED THE EARTH. The high Southern Alps catch the moisture from air blowing from the west over the Tasman Sea and cast a rain shadow to the east.
Perhaps for weight balancing reasons, I got to sit in the front seat of the helicopter! It was the first time I’d flown in a helicopter I can remember, and running down to the helicopter, kneeling beside it with my hand on my head to holding down my hat was pretty exciting. We lifted off. Pastoral cow pastures quickly gave way to primordial green forest that soon turned into a real live glacier and snowy alpine landscape.
After settling into Centennial Hut and marveling at the view down Franz Josef Glacier to the Tasman Sea, we had an indoor lesson inside the hut on how to rope up for glacier travel, presumably so that we could walk out of the hut in the morning and not die.
Day 2, November 20 (Monday) – Learning to Walk
The first on-snow day of the course was about learning the basics of how to walk on a glacier. We began the morning by abseiling (rappelling) down from the hut because we didn’t know how to walk down the hill yet! Then, we learned how to walk in crampons and use our ice axes to self-arrest before practicing tromping around Chamberlin Snowfield. Cramponing is hard on the ankles and my rental boots gave me heel blisters on both feet despite having stopped to apply duct tape at the first sign of a hot spot.
Having learned how to walk on the snow, we climbed up beside a rockfall for a lunch break and a view of the snowfield, but quickly skedaddled when some rocks began rolling down nearby.
We got back to the hut for tea (in the British or American, not Kiwi, sense) before 2 PM. After a short rest, we had an indoor lesson on how to use prussics with a carabiner attached to the roof beam of the hut until other parties arrived / returned to the hut for the night.
Day 3, November 21 (Tuesday) – Learning to Climb
So far I have patched my heel, my pants, my pen and my headlamp with duct tape. Today’s morning call was at 4 AM, so when I went for my morning pee, I could see the Pleiades from the toilet window.
After a hearty egg and bacon breakfast (we were well fed on the course, helped by the fact that there was natural refrigeration outside), we were off to learn how to use snow stakes. Then, we climbed a small col near the hut to practice pitching and had lunch with a view of the valley of Rudolf Glacier, which feeds into Tasman Glacier, looking down toward Mt. Cook Village, which was obscured by the sea of clouds filling the valley.
We were headed down the way we came when, unexpectedly, we were in white out conditions. We had a quick tutorial on navigating in white-out by GPS (Gaia GPS on Whitney’s iPhone). I was leading and had trouble telling if the terrain was going up or down in front of me making me feel a little vertigo. We considered retreating back to the hut, but then Whitney managed to find the small face leading to the ridge above the hut and we got to practice using our new pitching skills on steeper terrain. By the time we reached the top, the weather had cleared, but by then we were all exhausted and ready for a break and a cup of tea.
In the afternoon, we top-roped the rock in front of Centennial Hut past the drop toilet. It took a while for Whitney to find secure points on the top to place protection and make an anchor, then we abseiled down and climbed back up. It was my first time rock climbing outside. It’s hard to belay on a ledge because you can’t just back up to take up rope in a jiffy, you have to pull faster! My triceps were super sore from belaying all day, on ice and rock.
Day 4, November 22 (Wednesday) – Crevasse Rescue
In the morning we covered crevasse rescue: how to get out of a crevasses if you fall in, and how to help someone else out if they fall in. Hanging in a crevasse peering down into the alluring glacial blue was a beautiful respite from the bright sun on the surface of the snow. Everyday, after about 9 AM when the sun would come over the ridge, the temperature would rapidly get hotter and hotter as the effect of sun reflecting off the snow created what felt like a microwave oven, so that we would wish we were back in the refuge of the hut by 11 AM. By the time we finished our cravasse rescue lesson, the snow had softened in the intense heat and post-holing back to the hut really aggravated my blisters.
After lunch we went to climb the first gendarme under Mt. Jervois closest to Centennial Hut. This was my first multi-pitch rock climb! I was rewarded with an epic view.
One the way down, I caused an avalanche of hot isothermic afternoon snow by throwing the rope down for the abseil. It started off small and rapidly picked up speed and surface area and churned into what looked like a giant white river rapid. Hey look! I managed to throw the rope all the way to the bottom without it getting caught on anything! Then we glissaded (read: slid on our butts) part way down before tromping down deep unbonded snow that sucked but probably would’ve made a nice spring ski.
After crevasse rescue in the morning and climbing in the afternoon, I was so tired I could barely write this daily trail journal, but I managed to recover enough to do a tiny bit of laundry (underwear, buff, a pair of socks) and jerry rig a fancy clothesline out of climbing gear and the knots I’d learned.
Day 5, November 23 (Thursday) – Flying The Nest
We were like baby birds in the nest with an attentive mother teaching us how to fly. And today we flew the nest. Having learned how to walk on flat stuff, climb up and down steeper stuff and get out of a crevasse, we embarked from Centennial Hut to travel to Pioneer Hut… a grand journey of 5-6 kilometers.
We roped up for glacier travel like pros, crossed the now familiar Davis Snowfield, and climbed a small pass confidently, making good time. We were rewarded with an amazing view of snow-capped Mt. Tasman, second highest peak in New Zealand, and a new glacier to travel on, Fox Glacier.
Then, we were asked to abseil down the other side, at which point we realized we weren’t quite ready to be travelling out there over the glaciers without our Mommy. Our abseil was just past a yawning crevasse to the left and took us onto a huge pile of avalanche debris. I managed to hammer the snow stakes for our anchor into the hard snow without smashing my fingers too much. Win! (Comment: “You are not much of a carpenter are you.”) We abseiled one by one. As the last two of us were hypothesizing how we would get the anchor out after the group finished getting down, Whitney came strolling back up the hill as if it was a walk in the park. Later, he explained that as we get more experience cramponing, we’ll get more confident on steeper slopes and not have to pitch so much, which is a really slow way to travel.
By the time we all got down past the avalanche debris it was about 10:30 AM and the snow was softening quickly. It was a race to get across the snowfield and get to Pioneer Hut before the snow got too soft and the slog got too brutal. We managed to reached Pioneer Hut before noon and had a big rest and instant noodle lunch before going back outside to play in the snow – crawling around in crevasses looking for suitable bivy spots and learning to dig a snow cave. I think our snow cave was only about a quarter done before all four of us got tired and went back inside to dry off and have a hot drink. Lesson learned – between the possibility of falling into the depths of a crevasse in your sleep if you build a shelf in a crevasse and the sheer amount of digging it takes to build a comfortable snow cave – mountain huts are great! Thank you, New Zealand Alpine Club!
Day 6, November 24 (Friday) – Learning When to Retreat
Light cloud cover this morning gave us amazing sunrise colors on the way to Engineer Col, which we were attempting to climb before the snow got too soft. On the way, we ran into two of our hut mates curled atop their backpacks attempting to nap on the glacier. They’d left the hut at midnight to attempt an ascent of Mt. Tasman and had had to turn back because the snow was too soft and dangerous. I followed their tracks through the bottom of the ice fall below Marcel Col, imagining it was like walking through Khumbu Icefall enroute to summiting Mt. Everest, when I was rebuked by the guide and we quickly got out of there. The icefall consisted of huge square chunks of snow and ice that looked like giant fluffy marshmallow squares.
We practiced setting up pitches and belaying each other part way up Marcel Col, but snow conditions were worsening even as we got higher. You would think the snow would be more solid as we went up in elevation, but it seemed to get softer and our anchors less secure. So, Whitney called it and we hiked a loop back down Marcel Col past some huge crevasses.
At about 11 the snow turned to slush and the sun beat down, cooking me in my black wool hiking top. When we stopped for a break, I rolled around in the snow to cool down. It was a long, hot slog back to the hut. I can deal with cold, but not heat, and it was especially unbearable that we had to stay wrapped up head to toe like old Chinese ladies afraid to get a tan. I wished I’d packed my billowy white woven desert hiking shirt.
When we got back to the hut we were gloriously rewarded with booty stolen out of two unattended cardboard boxes waiting at the helicopter landing spot. We’d been spoiled by the fresh meat and veg that Whitney had packed in and eaten all of that heavy and bulky stuff before hiking over to Pioneer Hut where Whitney had conjured up a satisfactory but unexciting mystery box dinner from non-perishables in the Aspiring Guides box and free hut food left by others. The booty meant we had meat and fresh vegetables again!
Day 7, November 25 (Saturday) – Tourist-ing
There’d been a thick low cloud hanging over the towns of Fox Glacier and Franz Josef Glacier down on the coast. We hadn’t been able the see down the sea since the first day we arrived. While we were roasting on the glaciers under intense cloudless blue skies above this cloud layer, the sky had been quiet because no helicopters were able to come up from the West Coast. The booty we stole was off another Aspiring Guides group that had been scheduled to fly out but was unable to and ended up having to stay an extra night. Whitney had spent the better part of the afternoon yesterday working the satellite phone and radio to make sure we’d be able to get out today, since people had flights to catch tomorrow. The last resort was to fly east to Mt. Cook Village, which would be more expensive and a logistical hassle because our van was parked in Fox Glacier.
When I got up at about 6 AM, the cloud down in the glacier valley looked the same as always but after our hearty pancake breakfast it was gone! We grabbed a heli out as soon as possible, so as not to miss this good weather window, so we’re down in Fox Glacier having a coffees and ice creams by 9:30 AM.
Since we missed hiking down to Chancellor Hut, we missed our only possible chance to ice climb on this trip. Ice climbing was the only topic we were supposed to cover for this course that we weren’t able to cover due to conditions. While it was a bit sad our ice screws saw no use the whole trip, I was a tiny bit relived my blister-full feet got a break. I had had a vivid blister nightmare involving the blister on my right heel getting worse and my flesh heel beginning to flake like smoked salmon and having to go the hospital and being thwarted by fat grubby caterpillars… I thought I woke myself up crying out in my sleep, but no one said they heard me.
One the drive back to Wanaka, we stopped for a short walk to the beach, where we’re excited to watch porpoises frolick in the waves until the sandflies found us. I guess no trip to New Zealand is complete without a few sandfly bites. When we crossed the small stream on our way back to the car, one of my flipflops floated away and I chased after it with quite a vengance because I was not putting those rental mountaineering boots back on again!
After a classic Kiwi fish and chips lunch in Haast, followed by a full belly and warm van induced nap, we arrived safety back at the Aspiring Guides office in Wanaka, where we were promptly offered a beer to enjoy while we sorted out our gear, repacked and had our credit cards finally charged for the helicopter ride out and any rental gear items we used. Then, getting a shower was the number one priority on everyone’s agenda, so Whitney dropped us off at our respective lodgings. We liked each other so much that we all met up for beers and dinner later in the evening. It was a great way to wrap up a killer week of new terrain, new skills and new friends.
Tips and Tricks
If you, like me, are looking to transition from hiking to mountaineering, here are a few tips I learned on my trip.
1. How to carry an ice axe and snow stake on a ULA Circuit Pack: I couldn’t figure this out on the Internets and actually wrote ULA to ask, but the solution is you can stick an ice axe down one of the the toggled loops for your trekking poles and then secure the handle with the bungy cord on the front (loop around for extra security). A snow stake fits down the side compression strap and into the side water bottle pocket. I didn’t buy any dedicated mountaineering gear for this trip and my stuff was a blend of my existing hiking gear and snowboarding gear, but I’m happy to report that the ULA Circuit Pack worked great for my trip. The long strap over to top which I usually use to hold my sleeping pad worked great to carry the rope coiled up when we didn’t need it.
2. If you rent boots and already have your own insoles (e.g. Superfeet), bring them! I suffered.
3. Bring a light colored summer desert hiking shirt. White snow under bright sun is hot!
4. Do not feed the local wildlife, but if you have to, they like pancakes, preferably with a maple syrup / butter sauce, and single malt whisky.