Climbing Mounts Paske and Dora in Nelson Lakes National Park
Late September, 2012
A cold Thursday night, with 4 days up our sleeves to assure us at least one good day of climbing, four of us set out from Wellington on the ever reliable Interislander with a goal of climbing a slightly more obscure peak in the Nelson Lakes region, Mt Paske.
With a weather forecast promising a nice day and possibly two before a front carrying some heavy rain, we knew we had to take the risk and attempt the peak; being late September it was already late in the season with the Rainbow Ski Field in its last week of operation so there was no leaving it until later.
Being fresh out of the TTC Alpine course, I felt a bit of trepidation at the unknowns of this upcoming trip, however knew that I was in good hands. While I was thinking of yetis, avalanches and panoramic views, Dave busied himself planning, backup planning and back-backup planning, making sure we had at least five different options depending on weather, snow quality and phase of the moon.
After arriving in Picton later that night, it was a long drive to the St Arnaud DOC camp site where the tents were quickly thrown up in an effort to maximise our last sleep before heading into the hills. We woke to a chorus of tuis, earlier than I’d have liked but at least the sky was clear. Dave’s alpha plan was to attempt a traverse of Mt Paske from Paske Hut and then to bivvy somewhere around the headwaters of the Rainbow River. This meant dropping all non-essential weight. Unfortunately this meant sacrificing the SLR, hut shoes, extra food and clothes. While the light pack was nice, I regret all the missed photo opportunities!
After coming to the shocking realization that we had merely enough tea for two per person per day, we stopped by a dairy to stock up. After paying the requisite access fee, we drove through fords and forest down Rainbow Station reaching a secluded spot to park the car. We began the trip beneath transmission lines, following the Rainbow River to its roots until Paske Creek split off to take us to the typically idyllic back country Paske Hut complete with a stag head. With a couple of athletic long jumps and a cheeky crossing with our boots on our backs, we made it with dry boots (well, some of us), avoiding the horror of wet boots in snow the next day. Somewhere along the way, the essential dessert chocolate was lost; we kept an eye out for a cow or rabbit with chocolate on its face to no avail.
Waking up to an alpine start at 4am, feeling a little weak from lack of chocolate, we set out with our headlamps to cap Mt Paske. I was surprised that Stu had managed any sleep at all considering his ‘sleeping bag’ resembled a threadbare blanket but he mumbled something about real men and making your own heat. Making our own path through the initial forested slopes west of the hut, we began to hit patches of nice crisp snow, a good sign for the higher snow slopes. Once the terrain opened up to pure snow, we threw our crampons on and made good progress in great cramponing conditions towards the now-visible peak. We decided to stick to the southerly, shaded aspects as much as possible rather than the traditional easterly ridge to avoid the possibility of early morning sun softening the snow. Taking turns to kick steps on the steeper slopes, we slowly ascended towards the peak, sidling onto the east ridge later on and following it to the top. Reaching the summit around 9:30, I breathed a sigh of relief and admired the views of the surrounding park with nary a cloud in sight then wondered how we’d get down. We took the time to relax on the roomy peak- surprisingly devoid of wind, nestled between the headwaters of the Clarence, Rainbow and Sabine rivers, and looked over the nearby Mt Kehu, Mt Travers and Mt Ella, considering future trips.
On the descent we elected to instead take the western ridge, which to me looked slightly precarious but to Dave, a breezy path. Following his lead, we slowly descended from the peak, front pointing and using pigeon holes to avoid the precarious cornices and rocky spots when needed. With the sun directly overhead, the snow started to slowly soften so we soon decided to escape the ridge and descend one of the steep southerly slopes and head back to the hut. As we got lower, our progress began to slow as the occasional footstep would cause oneself to sink thigh deep into the snow, followed by the wriggle to escape again. Soon enough we were back at the hut in time for a midday lunch with all afternoon to lounge in the sun. I took the opportunity for a quick dip in the icy river to freshen up, a prospect the others weren’t very interested in.
On Sunday we woke to our second alpine start and headed up the opposite side of the valley from Paske to cap Mt Dora. After finding our own path through forest choked with fallen branches, Alison led the way with seemingly unlimited endurance back into the snow and we made our way up to the nearest ridge through increasingly strong gusts of wind, looking to find an obvious path to the summit. Following some fun ridge travel up, over and around the occasionally exposed rocky precipice, we summited around 9am. Rewarded with views of the headwaters of the Wairau River, the nearby snowy peak of Mt Guinevere and Mt Tappy peaking up from the horizon far away, we had a quick celebration then retreated from the wind trying to blow us off the mountain. Finding the snow softening already, we endeavoured to stay as high as possible on our path home and stopped for a welcome morning tea/early lunch once we hit solid ground out of the wind.
After making it back to the hut around 11am, we had a choice to make. The forecast had been for deteriorating weather and strengthening winds over the weekend and that seemed to be coming true. Knowing we had a number of river crossings to make as well as fords to cross in the car, we decided to cut the trip short and leave the same day. Saying goodbye to Paske, we left at midday and began the long trudge back to the car, albeit with lighter packs after most of the food was eaten. With only 6 hours of daylight left, we didn’t have much time to spare so the decision was handed down from Dave that no acrobatics were allowed, to avoid wet boots for river crossings, straight through, high water or not. The thought of finding the missing chocolate propelled us forward and we made it to the car exactly 6 hours after starting off. Triumphantly, we drove back to the backpackers in St Arnaud with thoughts of a victory steak, only to find the entire town closed on a Sunday. Well at least the climbing had been good.
- Party members
- Alison Davis, Dave Grainger, Stu Hutson, Andre Lazelle (scribe).