Cloud Nine : Mt Cupola, Nelson Lakes National Park
28th August, 2009
After spending the week looking at the weather forecast changing at least three times a day, and having half the group pull out for various reasons, the remaining party of two decided to take the gamble and head down to Nelson Lakes for a three day weekend. I jumped into Steve’s car at the ferry terminal and we headed onto the ferry, sailed across the strait and drove to St Arnaud. We slept at the shelter, awoke to a frosty morning, climbed aboard the Lake Rotoiti water taxi and shot over to Coldwater Hut on a bright and clear Saturday morning.
We walked and admired the wonderful Travers valley. I never get tired of the wonderful vista that is Travers valley. We stopped at John Tait Hut, had lunch and headed to Cupola Hut, a further 2 hours up the track. Those last few hours took the stuffing out of me as we climbed to the hut. Snow was around the hut. I had to dig a half metre of snow away from the toilet to gain access.
After some refreshments, dinner, getting our gear ready, deciding on the route and setting the alarm clock for 4am, we went to bed in a warm and cosy hut. The alarm went off and we crawled out of our sleeping bags, ate some porridge, did the final packing. While doing that I noticed Steve putting his down jacket into his pack. “Why are you doing that?”, I ask. Steve looks up, says “insurance” and keeps packing. So I put my down jacket in too. I must admit I was a little nervous about the route we had chosen, as my hardest climb previously was a grade 3 on Mt Hopeless.
We finally got out the door by 5am and set off into the dark, heading for Gunsight Pass, the starting point. The snow was soft and we constantly sank up to our knees or hips. We saw a deer sprinting across the snow, light as a feather. Hmm. After a couple of hours we got there and started up the climb. There was some cloud coming and going but conditions were pretty good.
We did some free climbing for some time but in the end the steepness and the height dictated that we rope up. For the rest of the time we pitched our way. The south ridge had snow and ice keeping all the shattered rocks locked together.
Steve led through the snow, over ice, up the shattered rocks, across rock slabs, along razor back ridges, with 100+ metre drops either side (in places you could only cross by straddling the ridge and shuffling along until it widened again) and up steep couloirs. Hour after hour he climbed, putting in pitons, using slings, cams and the odd snow stake; I followed, collecting the protection and passing it back to Steve.
Steve was really enjoying the lead climbing and I was also enjoying the climb. When we came to what looked like an impossible point, we always found an alternative route, but Steve tended to take some harder options as he was enjoying the challenge.
The cloud came in during the day, with visibility around 100 metres a lot of the time. There were many false summits but in the end we came to the point where we could only go down and it was clearly the summit. It was now sunset and we had been climbing for over 12 hours. We grinned at each other, Steve took a photo of me and we headed off down towards the “easy” descent route (grade 1 +).
But night came upon us and we couldn’t be sure of the route. We searched in the dark for two or three hours, unsure of the route down through the rock bands, with visibility limited to head torches. The conditions were very cold; the rope and our jackets were frozen. Steve eventually suggested we bivvy for the night. We were back at around 2200 metres at this stage, not far below the summit. Shelter was essential, so we made a snow mound on the only flat area on the ridge we had found, next to one of those sickeningly steep drops down the other side. We crawled into the cave, ate some snack food, put on those magic down jackets, plus another hat and dry gloves, spread the emergency blankets over our legs and sat on our packs with a plastic sheet as a backrest on the snow. We kept roped up all night. We then pretended to sleep in our shelter.
Sunrise finally came and we looked outside. It was much colder outside and was snowing lightly, Worst of all the clouds had become thicker and, apart from the odd break, we could only see 50 metres in any direction and still couldn’t see the obvious route down. With safety in mind, we pitched initially then moved together, making our way down through the sometimes easy, sometimes challenging terrain until we reached Cupola basin at the base of the east face. We trudged our now-weary bodies back to the hut, had a cup of tea and some soup and realized it was now 5pm in the afternoon. This was the time we were meant to have been picked up by the water taxi, 22kms away. We had literally missed the boat (actually two – the water taxi and Interislander).
We got the fire going and had dinner. While Steve went to get the water for the dishes, I set the alarm clock for 5am and sat on my bunk - I was asleep before he came back. We woke with a groan (at least I did - I was sore all over), ate, packed, cleaned up and headed off. I was going too slow. We were racing the clock (my wife would be worried and SAR would come looking for us). Steve took most of my hardware and, if I ran from time to time, I could keep up with him. It rained on us most of the way to Coldwater Hut.
We finally got to Coldwater Hut and cell phone coverage about 1pm. My cell went mad. I contacted the wife to confirm we were ok and texted the lake taxi to ask them to come and get us. The reply came “DoC are coming to get you”. It turned out the water taxi people had called DoC and they had called SAR. SAR had decided to prepare for a search and were one hour away from sending in the search party. We had won the race. A DoC ranger came over in their boat and we had a good talk to him coming back to St Arnaud. Seems they were worried about the weather and the thought of avalanches was high in their minds.
The Interislander kindly allowed us to use our overdue tickets once we explained our delay; so we headed home a day later than planned. Both Steve and I were very happy with the climb and we were both very tired, but in a good way. What a great adventure.