Alpine Rock in the Southern Alps of New Zealand

Constant fronts rolling across the South Island throughout November thwarted my ambitions to climb either the Balfour Face of Mt Tasman or complete a Grand Traverse of Mt Cook via it’s South Face. Difficult objectives requiring a good week of weather to allow conditions to stabilise. When a good spell of weather finally did appear in mid-December, most of the ice on these walls had melted off so my partner and I decided to head to Pioneer Hut where a variety of options lay available to us.

Set high up on the Fox Glacier, Pioneer Hut provides a great base for several moderate snow and ice climbs such as the South Face of Douglas and the north shoulder of Mt Tasman. However, the main appeal in this location is that it also acts as a good base to some quality alpine rock routes, thereby allowing a variety of objectives for a variety of conditions.

New Zealand’s Southern Alps are not known for it’s quality rock. Quite the opposite in fact where any travel across rocky terrain needs to be conducted with up most care so not to disturb the pile of choss. However, in the week I spent at Pioneer Hut I climbed a number of alpine rock routes which surprised me not only be the quality of climbing, but with the rock quality and adventure they offered.

Pioneer Hut on the upper Fox Glacier provides great access to a number of quality snow, ice and alpine rock routes.

Pioneer Hut on the upper Fox Glacier provides great access to a number of quality snow, ice and alpine rock routes.

One of the greatest appeals of climbing in New Zealand is the lack of information available for any given route. At best you get a picture of the mountain with a line giving you a vague idea of where the route travels plus a one or two sentence description. This brief description rarely tells you of the gear required or where the crux may lie. At worse you have the name of the route and the formation where it is to be found.

This distinct lack of information leads you to rely solely on your skills to be successful. Your ability to route find, identify appropriate belays and manage protection adequately so not to leave yourself short when you do happen across the crux. In a world where information is so readily available, this approach is refreshing and helps restore a sense of adventure.

Our first attempt to fly in was thwarted by high winds and so we were chomping at the bit to get a climb in the next morning. After quickly sorting our gear and food at the hut I suggested that we go and climb a route called the ‘TV Slab’ found on a proud pinnacle on the lower part of Mt Alack.

Approaching the TV Slab on Mt Alack. It is the proud pinnacle of rock just to the left of center.

Approaching the TV Slab on Mt Alack. It is the proud pinnacle of rock just to the left of center.

The route was so named after Kiwi climber Graeme Dingle climbed the route for a TV crew as part of his 1970’s adventure series. As we approached you could see a continuous crack splitting the pinnacle from the base to it’s highest point. A site which would wet the appetite of any crack climber. The looming serac tower immediately left reminding you to beware of your surroundings.

To get to that appealing crack you first had to climb 40m of compact slab with an approximate grade of 15. A second more scrambling pitch then led to glory. The feature didn’t disappoint and though not overly difficult (rated Ewbank 16 in the old guidebook, 17 in the new), this 40m pitch proved a ton of fun. Engaging moves with great gear, good rock and set against a stunning backdrop. Not a bad start!

Halfway up the money pitch on TV slab.

Halfway up the money pitch on TV slab.

The next route on our hitlist was a steep and proud line up the north pinnacle of Mt Haast. Another cloudy night once again prevented a surface freeze on the glacier and thus it took us almost two hours to reach the base of the route and get kitted up.

Mt Haast is a peak well known for loose rock however the face of pink and orange rock which stood before us looked surprisingly compact and solid. I was to lead the six rock pitches to the ridge where upon we would simul-climb another 300m to reach the peak’s summit.

I led a rather short pitch up a wide flake. Though there was little protection available, the climbing was relatively easy and secure. The second pitch presented a few options. In pure New Zealand style the latest guidebook, which had only been released a month earlier had a photo showing that the approximate line of ascent stayed pretty close to the edge of the pinnacle. Furthermore, the description gave little away by reading, “approximately 6 pitches on steep and mostly good rock”.

I was probably 15m below the arete of the pinnacle. I looked up and saw steep, compact rock offering little protection. There was a line of weakness traversing right offering gear but appeared to gain little height. Which way to go?

I decided to follow the line of weakness in the hope that it would enable me to find another system of cracks I could use to climb higher. The climbing was on steep rock with somewhat awkward and exposed moves. I came across a fixed wire after approximately 30m so at least someone else had come this way.

Though I didn’t feel like I was gaining much elevation, the edge of the arete never appeared to climb away from me. Given the photo in the guidebook it wasn’t exactly what I was expecting. However, I have learnt the value of following my nose and to remain mindful of not backing myself into a corner. As long as I can safely retreat then there is no reason not to continue. So that’s what I did.

The third pitch continued the traverse for another 20m or so before reaching a vertical crack. I slammed in a bomber #3 camalot before executing some blissful fist jams up to a small ledge. Footprints in the snow from a previous team headed up and left to easier ground however directly in front of me was an imposing face sprouting a variety of cracks and a chimney further to the right. There was no question in my mind as to where I was going next!

That imposing face proved to be the crux. Starting at the base towards the chimney a series of tricky moves out left led to a difficult stem and mantle shelf move. From there I decided to continue up another few meters before entering the chimney. Though it contained plenty of loose blocks, there were enough holds on solid rock to permit climbing to the top. A superb pitch.

The steepness on the final pitch relented a little however it provided some of the most enjoyable and safe climbing on the route. A series of finger cracks allowed a direct ascent of the face where upon a small roof had to be surmounted to reach the ridge. A great way to finish a fantastic alpine rock route. From there it was simply a matter of following the ridge to the summit! Notwithstanding a bit of choss and loose blocks of course.

Looking back down from the final pitch of Sun Circle.

Looking back down from the final pitch of Sun Circle.

Mike out front while we move together across the chossy ridge on Mt Haast.

Mike out front while we move together across the chossy ridge on Mt Haast.

Upon reaching the summit the clouds quickly moved in and visibility dropped to about 30m. We quickly started to reverse our tracks and abseiled the steeper parts of the ridge. Mostly because there was a lot of loose rock above an exposed face. An hour later we were at the top of the pinnacle where a series of three raps brought us back to a steep snow slope. Thankfully we managed to keep our ropes from getting stuck though the slog back to the hut on a sun-baked glacier was arduous work.

After a great day out on Haast I was eager to climb the classic Moonshine Buttress. A proud buttress adjacent to Conway Peak easily seen from the Hut. The guidebook states consistent grade 15 climbing with a crux of 17 on good rock. It did warn of a few run-outs in places and it proved to be correct on every count.

Thankfully the skies had cleared, and the surface of the glacier froze solid. Thus, it only took us 45 minutes to reach the base of the route, though it was the same distance as Haast. The crux proved to be the first pitch which climbed a steep finger crack on somewhat slippery rock to reach the base of the buttress proper. 

I had led every pitch to this point in the trip, however my companion Mike was starting to gain confidence and was happy to try and swing leads. As promised the climbing was mostly moderate in nature however protection was sometimes tricky to find or completely non-existent.

On one of my leads I remember looking down and seeing my last piece, a 0.3 inch camalot about ten meters below me. Thankfully a crack lay approximately two meters ahead where I could place a bomber piece. Though the climbing was not overly difficult, perhaps grade 15, it was a timely reminder of the importance of the mental side of climbing. To remain in control of your emotions despite the nasty consequences of a potential fall and focus on the job at hand.

Aside from a few moments like the above, the climbing was entirely pleasurable on solid rock. Pitch after pitch offered consistent climbing and the surrounding views were simply stunning. Towards the top the angle kicked back just a little to the summit of the buttress which we managed to reach approximately four hours after leaving the base. An equal number of raps down the buttress, reinforcing some old cordelette with fresh stock of our own along the way and we were back on terra firma.

Relaxing back at the hut Mike and I were full of energy. The weather had cleared nicely and we were starting to get some good freezes. If the weather held for another two nights and three days we figured it would be feasible to attempt a Torres-Tasman traverse. Return trip from Pionner hut it would likely take us up to 24hrs soloing most of the route. It would be  a long tiresome day though enabling us to tick three summits over 3,000m, a nice grade 4 route and a bit of a feather in the cap.

That evening as the nightly weather forecast was given however, it appeared there was a large front closing in. It was forecast to hit Monday evening, when we were hoping to be descending from Lendenfeld peak on our way back to the hut. What made matters worse is that gale force winds were forecast to hit up high 12 hours prior. Right when we were likely to be on the most exposed parts of the route.

I was not convinced that the snow was sufficiently frozen to push on and start the traverse a day early. After several days of warm weather and no freezes, we required at least three clear nights to really penetrate the snow pack, resulting in a freeze which would last some hours. On such a committing route such as the one we were planning, moving fast was essential and as soon as the freeze abated, our progress would be slowed significantly.

Mike agreed and so we decided to do an easier climb the following day, return to the hut by lunch, rest and once the forecast was provided at 5pm either decide to do the traverse commencing at midnight or fly out before the storm hit.

The route we decided to do is a great little alpine rock route called ‘Fintastic’. As the name suggests the route follows a fin of solid rock from the Explorer Glacier below Pioneer Hut for 250m. The climbing is mostly grade 13 with a crux of 14 and so can be done in your mountaineering boots.

This climb is incredibly fun and though protection can sometimes be sparse, the climbing in these places is never too difficult. The crux involves some steep and exposed moves out onto the arete though is well protected. Mike was keen to lead this which I was only too happy to oblige. His confidence had grown significantly during the week and it was great to see him tackle it with ease.

Mike at the crux of Fintastic, a great route to do in your boots.

Mike at the crux of Fintastic, a great route to do in your boots.

Upon reaching the summit of the fin a single rope rap landed us in a snow bowl. Though steep and exposed to a cliff edge below, we thought it safer to solo the bowl back to the glacier proper. I am a firm believer that if you are not placing protection, then you shouldn’t have the rope on. This was one of those cases and so I promptly put the rope away. As planned, we returned to the hut to have a big lunch, sorted some gear in case of clear weather and rested up.

When the weather forecast came around later that afternoon it did not bring good news. The gale force winds were still predicted for the following afternoon and the storm front was going to hit with some force on Tuesday, with bad weather holding until at least Thursday.

What little hope we had of completing the Torres-Tasman traverse were quickly dashed and we realised that we now had to get out before the impending weather which would make either flying or climbing next to impossible.

We packed our things and our rubbish and set off to the lower Chancellor Hut at 6am the next morning. As we approached the lower ice fall we looked back and saw top of Mounts Torres and Tasman veiled in dark lenticulars. The clouds were moving rapidly and it appeared the high winds had arrived early. I breathed a sigh of relief.

We managed to catch a flight out at 10am immediately after which flights were shut down for the next few hours. We had just made it out and felt relieved at having made the right call.

Torres, Tasman and Lendenfeld peaks covered in Lenticular clouds as the storm rolls in. Being stuck up there halfway through the traverse would have been a potentially disastrous situation.

Torres, Tasman and Lendenfeld peaks covered in Lenticular clouds as the storm rolls in. Being stuck up there halfway through the traverse would have been a potentially disastrous situation.

Touching down at Fox township I reflected on the climbs we were able to complete. I was surprised at the number and quality of alpine rock routes available on the Fox and Explorer Glaciers and though we had sampled a range, there are still plenty left to do. Next time someone tells me about the choss of the New Zealand Alps I won’t be so quick to agree. Sure, its not the same as the golden granite of the French Alps, Bugaboos or Patagonia, but it certainly facilitates good climbing and adventure!