Nelson Lakes Climb
It was another one of ‘those’ crossings. A strong southerly. High seas. Boarding the interisland ferry, the 14 members of the club’s 90th anniversary Easter climbing trip to Nelson Lakes knew that the next three and a half hours would not be pleasant. Exiting Tory Channel, the Kaitaki subjected her passengers to a perpetual cycle of nautical torture: rising then falling, with waves crashing over the bow and sea spray showering the front windows and decks.
After what seemed like an eternity we arrived at Picton, fortunately with most members of the party departing the vessel without their lunches having departed their stomachs. The trip had begun. After a quick bite to eat we set off in two cars and a shuttle to the picturesque lakeside town of St Arnaud. I was lucky enough to be invited to travel with the Maxims in their Maxima. About 10 minutes into the journey, CDs featuring ABBA and various other pop groups from Judith and Paul’s youth were presented to me and Simon for selection. I was not impressed. We arrived in St Arnaud reasonably late, but we still had time to wander down to the lake before setting up camp. I was awestruck by the eerie reflection of moonlight from the snow capped peaks, and the contrasting darkness of the valleys into which we would venture the following day.
Friday morning. The water taxi arrived at 8.30, and we proceeded to cross Lake Rotoiti in two groups. A three hour ramble around the side of the lake was the alternative to the 15-minute jet-boat crossing. If we weren’t pressed for time I would have taken the former option: the return fare for the water taxi was almost as steep as the North Ridge of Kehu. Nevertheless, viewing the scenery from the boat was magnificent, and we were given a final opportunity to rest before the impending eight hour tramp to Upper Travers Hut.. We arrived at the pier on the other side of the lake, just in front of Coldwater Hut, our point of departure. The first leg of the journey involved a four hour trek to John Tait Hut along the Travers River flats. The air was still crisp as we weaved our way in and out of the forest. Our packs were fully laden with all the usual tramping kit, plus our helmets, harnesses and various other climbing implements. One enthusiastic climber actually packed more of his gear on the outside, rather than inside, of his pack: with his rope, helmet, crampons and goodness knows what else dangling precariously from the exterior. (His last name rhymes somewhat appropriately with danger.) Sometime after midday we arrived at John Tait Hut. A few wasps kept us company as we ate a well-deserved lunch. The remainder of the tramp involved a climb to Upper Travers Hut (1360m), which took roughly three hours. We arrived at Upper Travers Hut just as the daylight was beginning to fade.
On Saturday morning, 11 of us set out with the intention of conquering Kehu Peak. Our route-finding skills were put to the test from the moment we ventured into the scrub at the rear of the hut. Following the more experienced off-trackers among us, we successfully scrambled through the scrub and out onto the scree slopes, which were covered in patches of snow. The southerly which had made our Cook Strait crossing so unpleasant had left perfect blue skies in its wake. Even though the temperature plunged overnight the snow was sufficiently soft to render crampons unnecessary. We were forced to descend into a gully after venturing too far off the unmarked route. A climb up steep scree landed us at a saddle about 150 vertical metres shy of the Kehu summit. At this point we donned our harnesses and prepared to ascend the exposed North Ridge. Paul Maxim proficiently led the first pitch, and the rest of us followed. Climbing the first pitch (which Paul reckoned was about a grade 10 climb) was the most challenging; the rest of the climb was a scramble along the ridge to the summit. We posed at the summit for a group photo, but began to descend almost immediately as it was fast approaching two o’clock, our intended turn-around time. Loose rocks were a danger as Judith found out, slipping and releasing a fist-sized slab from in front of her. She screamed, and so did the unfortunate person below her, who received a nasty graze to his thigh. Judith’s panic turned into relief when she looked down below her; it was only her son. Slip-ups aside, we all managed to successfully abseil the final pitch and descend the scree back to Upper Travers Hut. One down, one to go.
It wasn’t quite an alpine start but we set off for Mt Travers reasonably early, with the aim of reaching the summit via the North-East Buttress. Colin Cook led the way, setting a rapid pace from the outset. The weather was as perfect as it had been the previous two days. We made our way up along the side of the mountain, trudging across rock, scrub and snow. We then ascended a rather steep couloir which was in some places filled with thigh-deep powder. After about 40 minutes, as we approached the top of the couloir, we veered left and made our way out of the snow to a ridge, where half of us decided to get into our harnesses and climb with the security of rope. The other half pressed on. Loose rocks were of concern here too, and precautions were taken to ensure that Judith could not strike again. Fortunately no significant incidents were reported. Just after midday we arrived at a saddle where we ate our lunch and dropped our packs, and proceeded to climb the remaining few hundred metres. Mt Cupola and the Sabine Valley looked splendid as we clambered along the ridge at the summit, as did Kehu Peak and the Travers Valley on the other side. Warwick struck a pose for the camera atop the highest rock on the mountain like an inebriated youth (you can check out the photo on the back page of the Tramper). The descent was straightforward, but we did down-climb the rocky portion of the route using the rope we had left behind from our ascent. The snow in the couloir was by now very slushy, and we all had our fair share of unintentional slips and slides. As we descended into the scrub and clambered across the boulder-littered gullies, I couldn’t help but notice Warwick struggle to use his brand new (he chose it for his birthday) and exceedingly short ice axe, which needed at least another 20cm to serve as a useful walking stick. It confounds the mind why anybody would purchase an ice axe of such length, and confirms my belief that the TTC should only invest in good, reliable, long ice axes. That aside, we arrived at Upper Travers Hut, thrilled that another peak could be ticked off our lists.
The tramp out on Monday was reasonably leisurely, as we had until 9.30 in the evening before needing to board the ferry. We arrived at Coldwater Hut on the lake’s edge in the early afternoon, and spent about two and a half hours in a pub in Picton. Everybody was knackered, but we all felt elated having just completed a most enjoyable and satisfying trip. Thank you Paul for leading it.
- Party members
- Daniel Rogerson (author), Steve Hutchinson, Julie Olds, David Grainger, Stu, Norah, Sarah and Clare
Hutson, Colin Cook, Scott Miller, Simon, Paul and Judith Maxim and Warwick Hill.