A couple weeks ago I talked about my preparation & gear for a Technical Mountaineering Course in New Zealand. Now’s it’s time to report on how it all went!

Like any stingy climber I found myself at the  Gold Coast Airport with more luggage than I’d paid for & wearing my alpine boots onto the plane to avoid paying excess baggage fee’s. The trip was off to a good start & even an engine catching fire on take-off couldn’t dampen my enthusiasm.

L: Waiting at the Gold Coast Airport wearing my Scarpa Mountaineering Boots. R: Flying over the mountains en-route to Christchurch.

L: Waiting at the Gold Coast Airport wearing my Scarpa Mountaineering Boots. R: Flying over the mountains en-route to Christchurch.

After a rather tedious journey to the mountains, (Tip: fly via Queenstown rather than Christchurch if you’re heading to the NZ Alps, much quicker!) I found myself wandering down the main street of sunny Wanaka in search of Jules my climbing companion. After locating him at the pub (of course) we decided to head out & find some  rock climbing for a few days before our respective course’s began.

Just out of Wanaka is Hospital Flats, a great little crag with a plethora of bolted & trad routes. A few days there was perfect to get our heads into the right space, whilst the snow falling on nearby Treble Cone only served to bolster our already high spirits for the alpine adventures to come.

Wanaka climbing dyp

L: Jules after leading a climb in the rain at Hospital Flats, Wanaka. R: Ian from Wellington, who kindly lent us some extra quick-draws, cheers mate!

We hitched back for a rest day in Wanaka, a much needed shower & more more beers at aforementioned pub.  Before long it was time for Jules to head off for his Alpine Climbing course with Adventure Consultants. My TMC didn’t begin for a couple more days so I hopped a bus to Mt. Cook Village which is nestled at the base of the mountains. The next day was spent relaxing & taking my new alpine boots for a stroll up the valley. This was also a  last ditch effort to remind my feet what was in store for the next 2 weeks.

mt cook valley dyp

L: Crossing one of three swing-bridges en-route to the Hooker Glacier lake, with Mt. Sefton & The Footstool in the distance. R: getting my feet wet in the (very cold!) glacier lake.

Whilst wandering the village I found the Alpine Guides Mt. Cook office, Tucked away in a cozy little premises not far from the iconic Hermitage Hotel. All of the staff & guides were amazing, they made me feel at home right away. This hospitality lasted all the way through until I departed Mt. Cook more than two weeks later. Thankyou for putting up with me Arthur & Co!

Day 1: Suddenly it was time to start my course, I met my guide Dave Alderson & fellow participants Rijan, Bruce & Dean. Right from the get-go we all got along like a house on fire. Everyone introduced themselves & we gave a brief outline of our experience and goals for the course. Next everyone spread their kit out on the floor of the gear-shed. Dave proceeded to tell us how much of it we had to leave behind!

Bags all packed, albeit slightly lighter than before, we headed to Unwin Lodge for the night. Soon it was time to cook up a feed, aspiring mountaineers are a hungry lot! The food that Dave had chosen for the trip was nothing short of spectacular. Fresh fruit & vegetables, salami, eggs, pasta, rice, fresh bread, choice cuts of meat, chocolate, cheeses, all the good stuff. I’d expected some basic dehydrated rations, so this was a very pleasant surprise. We decided to pair up for cooking each night & luckily everyone was more than qualified in the kitchen. Some tasty meals were had for sure. After dinner hitting the sack early before we departed for the mountains would have surly been the wise choice. Instead we opted to make the 4km trek to the nearest pub & begin bonding over a few tasty local beers.

prep and airport dyp

L: Sorting through gear at the Alpine Guides base. R: boarding our chopper flight into the mountains.

Day 2: The next day started early & soon we were at the tiny Mt. Cook Airport, weighing both ourselves and our gear for the helicopter ride to the head of the Tasman Glacier. Once in the air it all finally started to feel very real, I was going mountaineering. The 30km chopper ride was over in no time & we found ourselves zooming down to where anther guide & client were waiting for a back-flight down to the village. Dave had us all out on the ice & our gear unpacked with machine-gun efficiency. The chopper lifted off & all of a sudden it was silent, we were alone with the mountains.

landing in chopper dyp

L: Approaching the Tasman Saddle set-down point. R: Our group after being dropped off on the glacier.

Dave gave us a quick lesson on how to affix our crampons & rope-up, we were standing on a glacier after-all. We shouldered our packs for the walk to Kelman Hut. Walking on crampons for the first time was both exhilarating & confusing. I felt clumsy and out of my depth. I kept  reminding myself this was just the beginning, and it wasn’t long before we found ourselves at the door of our new mountain home, Kelman Hut. Whn I saw the spectacular view, my  fears of being the snow-craft newbie of the group were temporarily put aside.  ‘Hut’ is probably not the best description for Kelman, Alpine Chalet is probably a more suited term. Commanding a prime position on a jagged ridge of rock overlooking the Tasman & Murchison Glaciers, Kelman hut is a 2-story luxury home in the mountains. We were also lucky enought to have the whole place to ourselves for the duration of the course.

tmc food dyp

Food fit for kings, or in this case dirty hungry climbers.

After we unpacked & made ourselves at home & Dave wasted no time in getting us out on the ice for some basic skills. Self-arrest was fun, which included hurling yourself down a reasonably steep slope, headfirst at times, then using either your ice-axe or body to arrest the fall/slide. We covered some other essentials such as how to cut steps & stances in the snow, walking in crampons & techniques for using axes & poles to help navigate across the cold crunchy terrain. That was enough for the day and we headed back to check in the parks HQ on the radio & get the weather forecast for the coming days, which as we would come to learn is vital information when operating in this alpine terrain. Recording the forecast would become & daily ritual for the rest of the trip. Dinner got underway & we witnessed the first of many amazing sunsets. Once the sun dropped beneath the horizon the temperature dropped too, but it never got too much below freezing overnight. After dinner we spent a few hours chatting & getting to know each other, before heading to bed at a reasonable hour – tomorrow was going to be a big day after all.

day 2 dyp

L: The Author watching the sunset from Kelman Hut. R: Looking up towards Tasman Saddle

Lachlan-TMC Pt2-1

The Milky Way over Kelman Hut [2460m]

Day 3: Once again I was up early, in time to catch a stunning sunrise before breakfast. We packed our bags with the essentials for the day, including a packed lunch of sandwiches & then stepped outside to rope up. Since Dean & Bruce were mates it was natural I would partner up with Rijan. We worked well together from the start & it was impossible for Rijan’s infectious enthusiasm not to rub off on all of us. Our destination for the day was further down the glacier at the Darwin Icefall. Dave set-up some top ropes on a couple of overhanging blacks of ice & we had our first taste of ice climbing. The techniques were foreign at first, but soon with practice each of us got the hang of the basics. The atmosphere was fun & relaxed, with everyone cheering each other to the top of their respective climbs. After our little group was well and truly worked from repeated climbs, Dave took us through a session on how to place ice screws and make V-Thread anchors.

ice climbing dyp

L: Bruce belaying Deano on his first ever ice climb. R: Rijan digging his way through an overhanging section.

Heading back to the hut was fun, as the sun had soften the glacier and the first snow bridges covering the in numerous crevasses now turned to slush, just in time for a few of us to fall in. Ah, so this is why one ropes up for glacier travel! At dinner Dave decided that tomorrows weather forecast looked optimistic & that we would climb Mt. Alymer. Yes! This is what we were waiting for. All of us packed our bags, made lunch & had everything ready for a smooth departure first thing in the morning.

day 2 dyp

L: The Author watching the sunset from Kelman Hut. R: Looking up towards Tasman Saddle

Day 4: So whilst our morning prep wasn’t as quick as we’d hoped for, the day started smoothly. The approach to the South face of Alymer was fairly straight forward, with only a few crevasses & rock-fall zones to negotiate. Suddenly our little party of 5 felt dwarfed by the face, which from a distance had looked small & unthreatening. Surely Dave was kidding right, surely we weren’t ready to tackle a climb like this already!? Needless to say, I was shortly moving up the slope & putting in my first piece of protection, a snow stake. Never mind that  I’d never placed one before. Dave, I’d quickly learned is a very strong believer of learning on the job. After sorting out some early rope management issues Rijan & I made good time to the summit, with Deano & Bruce joining us not long after. Sure it was only a little mountain even by NZ standards, but to me it might as well have been K2. I’d reached the top of my first alpine peak, and strewth was it fun! Dave let us enjoy the moment for a while before reminding us that the climb was only half done, we still had to get down safely.

alymer climb dyp

L: Rijan & The Author pitching up the South Face of Mt. Alymer. R: Rijan hammering in a snow stake on the Summit.

The short razorback ridge traverse that followed was scary, no doubt partly due to our guide’s flippant comment that yes, if we fell the wrong way, we’d probably die. No sugar coating from Dave! To be fair he did also explain how we could assess the potential risks & consequences, and what could be done to best protect the climb. An abseil was next, then once back on the glacier we had a session on building snow anchors, picture a bunch of grown men making sandcastles at the beach & you’ll be close. Whilst this was underway the clouds had thickened & settled, cutting visibility down to 50m or less.

Whiteout navigation lesson time! After a tiny bit of wandering in the wrong direction, and maybe a bit of help from our fearless guide… we eventually found our tracks from the morning and followed them back to the hut. All considered a great day of learning spent in the mountains. The euphoria from our successful summit lasted through the evening & I for one had a very contented sleep that night.

getting off the climb dyp

L: Rijan Rappelling off Mt. Alymer. R: Our group caught in a white-out whilst returning to the hut.

Day 5: This was our rest day. We had a slow morning, with Dave going over some theory & practicing some skills indoors. Prussiking up & down a 3m rope gets old pretty quick so we headed outside for some rock climbing on the cliffs below the hut. Climbing rock in my big Scarpa Alpine boots as surprisingly easier than anticipated, these fancy carbon fiber shanked boots edge well! Again at dinner Dave announced that tomorrow we’d climb a another mountain. This was set to be a longer day & he left most of the logistics up to us. We decided that a pre-dawn ‘Alpine Start’ was in order so we sorted our gear & hit the mattresses early.

hut internals dyp

L: Dave giving us a knot tying demo R: Prussiking past a knot 101.

Day 6: I’m not sure who was awake first, but we all got up & ready like clockwork this time. The sensation of my crampons crunching into the hard surface of the glacier before the sun had risen, simply felt great. The day broke just as we were traversing alongside Tasman Saddle, which made for a spectacular approach to our objective. Hochstetter Dome [2826m] consists of two peaks, joined by a beautiful ridge-line. The traverse of both summits was our aim & despite not being as steep as the earlier Alymer climb, this was a larger & very different mountain.

L: Rijan & Dave on the pre-dawn approach to Mt. Alymer in the distance. R: Deano on Tasman Saddle at Sunrise.

L: Rijan & Dave on the pre-dawn approach to Mt. Alymer in the distance. R: Deano on Tasman Saddle at Sunrise.

Throughout the course I’d been giving my chunky DSLR camera to Dave at time to take photos, especially when I knew it would be wise to remove the lure of such distraction from my hands. This resulted in Dave capturing some great images of both myself & the rest of the team, thanks mate! During the climb I felt fairly confident on the terrain. It was only later when reviewing the shots Dave took that I realised how close to the edge I’d come of several occasions. This reminded me to think about the whole scenario in a larger more three-dimensional manner & not get caught up in my immediate surrounds. The climb progressed without incident & we made a welcome lunch stop at the nearby Tasman Saddle Hut on the way back to Kelman Hut. It was probably sometime during this long & quite arduous day that it dawned on me that I must be gaining fitness & improving my technique. Kicking steps wasn’t such a chore & I’d finally found something closer to an ‘all-day pace’. Maybe there was hope for this tropical baby yet.

wide tasman glacier dyp

L: Enjoying a rest in the Sun at Tasman Saddle Hut. R: Deano & Bruce crossing the Tasman Glacier looking East

Day 7: Another climbing day! This time a mixture of pitching up steep snow, followed by a mixed rock & snow traverse across several peaks. I got to play some more with traditional rock gear & had a ball placing cams. It was also here that I learned about the evil art of protecting a climb by some rudimentary ‘rope weaving’ between rock features… interesting. The rock was absolute crap & it wasn’t unusual for large sections to move or slide underfoot. Despite this the climb was going swell until an unfortunate accident left one of our two climbing ropes chopped clean in half! Lucky for us  Dave was on the ball (as always) & managed to get all five of us down multiple hairy rappels without further incident.

chopped rope dyp

L: Dave contemplating our decent with only one rope for 5 climbers. R: A very crowded ledge during aforementioned single-rope decent.

Day 8: This was the last full day we had up in the mountains. Dave decided reluctantly that instead of going climbing again we’d better finish off learning some vital skills. We found a whopper of a crevasse & proceeded to jump into it. Well not quite, but essentially Rijan & I roped up for glacier travel & one of us then wandered along until we walked right off the edge into the crevasse. The other then had the job of first arresting the fall, then rigging up various self-rescue or rescue systems with our rope & other anchors. This was complex & is definitely something I’ll need to practice again & again. That more or less wrapped up the day & we headed back for one last sunset & a dinner consisting of ‘whatever is left in the food box’. We all got a wee bit emotional thinking it was almost over & vowed multiple times to come back to this wonderful place in the mountains.

crevasse rescue dyp

L: The Author waiting to be rescued from a crevasse. R: Dave instructing our rescue efforts.

Day 9 & 10: We loaded up our bags, said goodbye to Kelman Hut & headed down to greet our chopper ride back down. Crouched waiting for the chopper to land I was both sad, but also excited about the possibilities this course had opened for the future. The flight back was awesome & stepping onto the tarmac the airport felt almost like disembarking a ship, solid ground! We headed back to Unwin Lodge for some such needed showers & a change of clothes. Dave gave us a great lesson on weather in the mountains & a general debriefing. Now with all the boxes checked it was time to celebrate at the pub with some well-earned beers. We partied well into the night, & were joined at some point by Jules who’d arrived earlier that day after an equally successful course west of the Great Divide. Head’s were a touch sore the next morning & Dave decided a quick boulder session would sort us all out. That more or less marked the conclusion of the TMC, & what a course it was!

My group was blessed with like-minded climbers, a great guide in Dave & perfect weather. It was a valuable learning experience & I’d not hesitate to recommend the Alpine Guides Technical Mountaineering Course to anyone looking to expand on prior knowledge & learn the art of climbing in some big icy mountains. Massive thumbs up here!

Lachlan-TMC Pt2-2

Bruce belaying Deano up to the Summit of Mt. Alymer

About The Author

Lachlan Gardiner

Lachlan works as a freelance photographer, writer and videographer. He loves spending time in the outdoors whenever possible - be it hiking, mountaineering, climbing, or just being on the road - He'll take any excuse to get into the mountains! He also works in our Paddy Pallin store in Fortitude valley, Brisbane. Drop in and say hi!

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