The AIC experience
Deciding to take part in the Alpine Instruction Course is quite a commitment, especially for some of the instructors who give up many weekends over the winter months for the dubious pleasure of coping with a group of enthusiastic would-be mountaineers and rock climbers.
The students first met each other one Thursday evening, and explained their reasons for wanting to take part. Generally it was to get the benefit of being taught the safe way to exist in the alpine environment by experienced club instructors, and learn the various techniques necessary to “reach that summit”. What a green bunch we were! But we did go home with a piece of rope to practise our clove hitches and fi gure of 8 knots.
The second evening we donned a climbing harness (a little difficult over a long skirt) and tied ourselves onto a real climbing rope, in preparation for a morning at the gym, where the fun really began. Imagine the amazement at being able to climb up a rope suspended from the ceiling, just using two thin pieces of “string” (actually two prussic cords cleverly knotted onto the climbing rope, one attached to our climbing harness which allowed us to “sit” while pushing up the second prussic which we could then “stand” on while pushing up our harness prussic). More exciting still was the thrill of abseiling down the gym wall. We also practised belaying, and calling signals such as “That’s me” and “Take in” as well as “Climbing” and “Safe” and others. We were all very excited by this taste.
Now for our first weekend in the snow. We were loaded up with gear: a helmet, an ice axe, and crampons, and set off on a Friday night for Ruapehu. We were so lucky to have perfect weather for all our treks up to Tararua Lodge from the Top of the Bruce, under moonlight and only needing our torches one night. Our first weekend was in perfect weather, and saw us using ice axes to help us hold on while walking on slopes, then for cutting steps, which is a technique that at least one student had great difficulty with (me!). But what fun we had whizzing down a steep slope on the pretext of smoothing a path for self arrest practice, which itself was hilarious. Imagine sliding down, head first, on your back, with a lethal ice axe in your grip, and doing an acrobatic manoeuvre in order to plant the pick in the snow to halt the slide.
A large group of novices headed for the Crater Lake on the Sunday, in order to practise their cramponing.
Our second weekend in the snow involved donning climbing harnesses, clipping on karabiners, throwing around heavy ropes, digging holes and slots for snow anchors, and then on the Sunday heading for the serious slopes to actually climb. Three groups headed up Broken Leg Gully. Imagine the disbelief when I found myself high up on the Pinnacles, after putting into practise all we had learned about roping ourselves up, putting in anchors, and belaying. The only down side was sitting in the snow for half an hour at a time while your climbing partner made progress around you, and made it safe for you to do the same. We were told that with practise, we would progress much faster, shortening the immobile time.
We had a rock climbing session at Titahi Bay on another perfect day, and incurred our only serious injury when one student slipped on the greasy track down to the bay. A fractured humerus did not stop Peggy from partaking fully in the course.
The third weekend on Ruapehu entailed donning transceivers, then out in the snow following beeps and whistles to discover buried “bodies”. We learned what signs to look for in the terrain for safe travel, dug a hole to examine snow compaction, when to turn back or stay put (in a warm hut), and searching techniques, all in very limited visibility on a breezy day.
We had regular lectures to prepare us for our adventures in the snow, covering knots, gear, weather, and snow caving. The latter was held in conjunction with a potluck dinner at the home of John and Edith Gates. We were told it was traditional to enter the Gates’ home by prussicing up a rope. We were all prepared to put our casseroles and salads on our backs and have a go, but were disappointed to enter via the front door and up the stairs, as our leader with the rope was inadvertently delayed.
The highlight of the course was the night spent in a snow cave, dug by ourselves of course. The day dawned very murky, with rain and high winds forecast, so four intrepid instructors set out to fi nd a suitable site close by Tararua Lodge, and three returned an hour later to escort the party to the selected site. With low visibility we had trouble locating Ron who had been left behind, and had to follow his whistle to reach him.
And so we set to work digging, three caves for 17 occupants, once we had dug a shelf to stand on, and another to place our packs on. To begin with, only one person could dig the entrance, while another removed the snow. Soon another fi tted into the tunnel, and polythene was placed to make a chute for faster snow removal down the slope. When the entrance tunnel was about 1 1⁄2 metres long, we started digging out the first sleeping platform at right angles, so now two people were digging and two shovelling. Two caves had two sleeping platforms and one had just the one.
We had to smooth out the roof of the cave to stop it dripping, and for finishing touches a little kitchen shelf and two candle alcoves were dug. Inside the cave was so peaceful, considering the foul weather outside, with a beautiful blue/white light coming through the ceiling.
It took about six hours of digging to complete, and Chris estimated about 30 cubic metres of snow was removed for each cave. Once the sleeping platforms were smoothed, sheets of newspaper were scattered around to hold the polythene. The person shivering the most was organised into dry clothes and warm socks and put into their sleeping bag. There was very little spare space in the cave, with six people and six packs inside, and it was only practical for one person at a time to be active in the standing space. John Grace volunteered to be the cook, and we were all happy to be drinking hot soup (in our sleeping bags). He did very well, considering he had five directors!
The cave temperature rose to 2 degrees while the dinner was cooking, and the fog that created gave an interesting atmosphere, but at other times it was 0 degrees, but in truth did not seem that cold because we were sheltered. Getting up in the middle of the night and putting bare feet into cold wet boots to go out into the snow was a character building exercise.
In the morning a unanimous decision was made to pack up and retreat to Tararua Lodge for breakfast, even though the sun was shining from a clear blue sky (but the wind was still blowing). Members from one other cave had made the same decision as us, while the guys in the third cave slept on. We didn’t see them for another couple of hours, after they had breakfasted. They also had to dismantle the tent that had been erected as an emergency shelter.
The Alpine Instruction Course is a great experience, and I am very pleased to have completed it. I only wanted this alpine experience, but most students on the course genuinely want to climb mountains. Now they have the basics, and with the guidance and experience of the course instructors who are offering trips to various alpine regions, I am sure they will have safe and exciting summits.
I also hope this account brings back memories to those who have completed the course over the years. It is tough out there in the deep snow, and often intensely cold and miserable, but we did have a lot of fun as well.
- Party members
Our thanks to the following instructors who gave so willingly of their time and
Maxim, John Nankervis, Ron Stutter, Steve Howell, Clinton Wadsworth.
Assistant Instructors: Sandra Bourguignon, Martin Kennedy, Angela Stobo.
The extremely grateful students: Chris Munn, Peggy Munn, Collette Nicholson, Murray Sutherland, Stu Hutson, Stacey Gasson, Fin Powell, Max Skerrett, Nick Ryan, Diane Head (scribe).