Trips and adventures will often be planned down to the smallest detail, yet turned on their heads by the simplest and most basic of things – the weather. My recent trip to NZ, ostensibly for the purpose of alpine climbing, was more a test of flexibility due to the weather conditions than anything else.
I had planned out a ten day stint in Pioneer Hut on the Fox Glacier nevé, a few days resting up and sport climbing in Wanaka and then making an attempt at Mt Aspiring from Colin Todd Hut. The weather and conditions started out looking reasonable, perhaps a little bit warm at times but no particularly large or persistent storm systems. However, the conditions deteriorated fairly quickly; faces and ridges melted out and storm systems blew in. We were faced with repeated frustrations yet through it all I feel I have come away a better climber and who is more prepared for planning around the mercurial weather patterns of New Zealand.
We flew in to Pioneer Hut right as a minor storm system hit: a bit of rain, a bit of wind but with quite warm temperatures as well. We entertained ourselves climbing the rock on Pioneer Ridge. This included one memorable pitch of sustained grade 15/16 climbing up some of the loosest alpine rock I've ever had the misfortune to touch. After a couple of days the weather actually cleared and we had had a good freeze overnight - but we forgot to set our alarm. We woke up late and quickly decided to head up the South Ridge of Mt Haidinger. The summit ridge wasn't in condition and it was getting late by then, so we turned back and trundled back down to hut.
The next day, with more good weather, we headed out and climbed Moonshine Buttress, a wonderful piece of alpine rock with varied and sustained climbing for 250 metres with a grade 17 crux. This was a great day out in a really amazing place. It emphasised for me the joy that the mountains are capable of providing, due in no small part to the experience of just being in the alpine environment.
From this high-point things somewhat went downhill. A new storm front was approaching and the freezing level the next day was far too high. When we set off at 5am the next morning I was post-holing calf deep right out of the hut – not great climbing conditions. That afternoon half of our group, myself included, flew out back to Fox Glacier.
At this point the plan was still to get back into the hills and climb Mt Aspiring. Yet, the weather remained poor and unsuitable for climbing. The forecast was for several days of unsettled weather, of high winds and rain with a freezing level remaining stubbornly above 3000 metres. When faced with such hostile conditions your only option is to reassess and, most probably, change plans. So we packed up and headed South to Fjordland and went tramping instead.
On reflection this trip has changed the way I will approach climbing in New Zealand. The vagaries of the weather are such that any plans you make will need to be flexible above all else. Approaching things stubbornly will only lead to frustration. New Zealand is a great place to climb and if you do manage to implement this flexible approach and don't get too hung up on achieving objectives, it's difficult not to have a great time.
Photos by Luke Frisken.
Tom is not our only staff member to have spent time in New Zealand. See also: