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Chris Bennetts-Cash

Climber. Software engineer. Audio geek.

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Despite spending a significant portion of my latest trip to NZ in bed sick with, variously, a flue, chest infection and asthma, there was still a good deal of extraordinary scenery and I keep inflicting the photos on people. Some people, strangely, have actually been asking to see the photos.

So here’s a quick flick through the rare moments of 9 days ice and mixed climbing when I remembered to get my camera out.

Arriving in Christchurch the first task was to get a rental car and drive south. While Queenstown was our destination we first stopped in Wanaka for a night because … Well, because I love Wanaka. There’ll be a sole photo of Wanaka later, but the drive South passed Lake Tekapo for our first stark reminder that we’re back in the Eastern state. Or we’ve returned from the West island. Whichever way around you say it, the mountains are unmatched by anything in Australia.

On arriving in Queenstown I called one of the other Aussies I knew was in town for the festival and discovered we were staying at the same place. He was just about to go ‘dry tooling’ with two other people from Canberra, so I introduced myself and invited myself along. Dry tooling is where you use ice tools:

in a dry environment (i.e. on rock, not ice).

It turns out dry tooling is fantastic. It’s just like hard rock climbing but, instead of having to deal with hand/finger holds that are so minute a one year-old couldn’t fit more than a fingernail on them, using the ice pick gives you a great big handle to hang on to.

Teagan - a friend who came along for the ride - attempting the great cave traverse
Me on the cave traverse

The Ice and Mixed Festival started the following day so of course we were greeted with severe gale force winds, blizzard conditions, road closures and advice to avoid the climbing areas because the ski resorts were throwing explosives out of helicopters in their vicinity to trigger avalanches. So we found some unclimbed ice- and snow-covered rocks not too far from the ski resort buildings (and so safe from explosives) and spent the day climbing on a mixture of snow, ice and rock there. No photos because I was having too much fun.

Day 2 of the festival, vastly improved weather and I’d convinced the guys running the ice climbing clinic to take us out to Single Cone - I’d been reading about the ‘South Face Classic’ in the lead-up to the trip - a 400ish metre section of moderately difficult water ice climbing running down the Southern face of Single Cone. I woke at 6am feeling absolutely terrible but convinced myself to get up for the trip to Single Cone. After a 2.5-hour or so trudge through knee-deep snow on tricky terrain we got there and I realised I should have stayed in bed. Not only did I feel terrible but it was a zoo out there, with a group of 10 beating our group of 12 to the ice cliffs.

Of course, once I started climbing I felt a whole lot better. Until I stopped climbing. And being on the South face we were completely shielded from the sun all day so the ambient temperature was about -15.

Abandoning the night’s festivities I was in bed by 8pm that night, where I stayed for about 32 hours.

A few days later I ventured out for more dry-tooling, and the 15-minute, fairly flat walk out absolutely exhausted me. But I did manage to finally complete the grade M8 (i.e. extremely difficult) cave traverse and lead climb several moderate (grade M3/M4) routes.

Brendan - A fellow Australian - on the grade M4 route I also led

The allure of more ice climbing was too great to resist so, still feeling terrible, lacking any stamina, and coughing so much I was coughing up blood and had continually sore abdominals, I somewhat cautiously decided to join a group heading to ‘Alta Ice’ on the outskirts of Lake Alta, this time only about 5km from the Remarkables ski resort and - critically - on an Eastern aspect so the clear and sunny forecast would warm us rather than mock us as it did at Single Cone.

What a difference a couple of days rest (and a lovely sunny day) can make! The walk uphill from the ski resort to Alta Pass was tough, but just tough enough to warm us up and make us drop down to just a couple of layers of clothes and a single pair of gloves. From there we crossed the frozen Lake Alta (possibly the scariest part of the day, hoping the ice was thick enough to take my weight) and started zigzagging up the great big hill to the ice cliffs.

Walking up from Lake Alta

After a little under 2 hours we made it to Alta Ice and were greeted by our targets. The three most significant waterfalls in the area are 30m (the left two) and 60m (the rightmost) in height.

I enthusiastically jumped straight on ‘Alta Ego’, the middle route, but got nervous by a very soft (snowy) vertical section that seemed both quite difficult and impossible to protect a fall from with any degree of safety, and abandoned the climb after about 20m.

Luckily there was a better/braver/crazier climber in the group who completed the climb

The weather stayed remarkable for the walk back in the afternoon. Apt, I suppose, since we were in the Remarkables.

By this stage in the trip most people were losing energy and one of the other Canberrans was trying to find a climbing partner to climb a 250m moderately difficult mixed ice/snow/rock route. After a little coercion (I was feeling pretty unwell after the walk back from Alta Ice) I realised that

  1. It sounded like an amazing climb, and
  2. It would be my last opportunity for mixed climbing until next Winter.

So I was sold.

We awoke early to low-lying clouds and a questionable low pressure system, but drove up the mountain to have a coffee at the ski resort, study the weather and hope for the best.

From the ski resort carpark we could almost, but not quite, make out the path halfway up the hill we needed to follow to cross to the western side of the range, where our climb was waiting.

After 90 minutes studying the weather, forecast and coffee we decided retreat was the best part of valour and instead enjoyed a sunny day rock climbing in Queenstown on the shores of Lake Wakatipu. When we returned from climbing at 3pm there was still a large cloud system covering the top of the Remarkables (right where we’d be climbing), so we’d obviously made the right decision.

The next day it was time to take a bus back to Christchurch in preparation for the trip home. The bus took a detour via Wanaka and I couldn’t resist snapping a quick shot of Aspiring National Park looming behind Lake Wanaka. The leftmost snow-covered peak is Mt. Aspiring, New Zealand’s third-highest peak standing at about 3100m, affectionately known as ‘The Matterhorn of the South’, with its summit looming 1.3 vertical kilometres out of the crevassed Bonar Glacier and the focus of my next trip, tentatively planned at this stage for November.