NZ Alpine Club  Novara Peak

A lost booking, new washout, and a summer sleeping bag in alpine conditions…? Despite a very cold night and some unexpected terrain, Penzy Dinsdale completes her first and much anticipated mountaineering trip with the NZ Alpine Club.

6-7th April 2019

This time a year ago under much more normal conditions, I was midst of planning to finally make it on an elusive New Zealand Alpine Club trip. I have often planned to do a trip with this club, only to be thwarted by the weather last minute. But this time with James Thornton and Nina Dickerhof in charge, nothing was going to get in the way. Not that a lost booking and new washout, some questionable moraine walls and a very, very cold night didn’t try.

We set out after work on a Friday with two trusty all-wheel drive Subaru’s and made good time to Mt Cook Village. Bringing dinner with you is pretty key for speed because then you don’t have to stop! It was good to have time for a cup of tea before bed at Unwin Lodge, least ways once we had resolved our booking issue and found a small cold cabin out the back for the night. I’d always rather be cold than hot, you can always put on layer, but there is a limit to how many it’s socially acceptable to take off. We set off briskly the next morning and tackled the road out to Husky Flat, which was actually pretty manageable. I was silently glad we hadn’t bought my Subaru Legacy back up it — not sure how well another round would have gone.

Not long before this trip a washout at the end of Huxley Flat had caused some pretty significant changes to the track, so it was interesting getting a whole new take on a well-trodden path. I haven’t been back since, but have heard that it may well have changed again. Here’s hoping it’s still passable once we’re allowed back in the hills.

I’ve heard some pretty tall tales about Garbage Gully in my time, the route from near Ball Hut down onto the Tasman moraine. Thus, I was more than a little anxious about my ability for this part of the trip. I don’t know what it was like previously and clearly it’s not a route without risk, but I was happily surprised to discover that it did not live up to these tall tales and I was quite happy to skip merrily down it (artistic license taken).

Across the moraine doesn’t much need describing, it’s the same as everywhere — we followed a ridge that ran in a wide curve across the glacier which seemed to serve us pretty well to get from A to B. From both the map and looking across at it, at first it wasn’t particularly clear how to get back up the moraine wall on the other side. There were a couple of gullies that looked okay from a distance, or there was maybe the option of detouring to the end of the moraine wall. We settled on what appeared to be the middle gully as we surveyed our options from across the glacier. This ended up probably being the best of a bunch of decidedly average choices.

It started off pretty mellow, but climbing out onto the terrace higher up, involved a series of false starts, much flying rock and one at a time travel. But we made it and what a beautiful lunch spot was to be had by the large boulder by the lake. Heading back into that gully the next day proved to be even more challenging than going up it and certainly consumed quite a bit of time and moraine skills.

Our after lunch scree gully was more of a classic experience, with a dusting of snow to mix it up a little, overall it was the sort of scree that was easier to go up than down with a lot of inconsistency in the sliding pattern when descending the next day. But fun nonetheless!

Some steep snowy tussock was next to contend with on a rather lovely ridge line and we arrived at our camp at the tarn at 1700m with much time to spare.

Some spectacular colour coordination went on with tents and jackets and special mention needs to be made of Rachel’s purple fleece overalls.

While we had been forewarned it would be cold, I had thought just far enough to switch to my down jacket, but had neglected to switch to the winter sleeping bag. Ergo I was about to find out how my 460g summer sleeping bag coped with a snow camp! Added to this (in the interests of weight saving), we’d elected to bring Jen’s single skin tent, first time I’ve ever been in one.

So, I had a particularly cold night, but now know it is possible to sleep in my summer sleeping bag at -8 degrees. As a plus side, just as I was getting a bit too cold to really class it as sleep any longer it was time to get up and get moving. I can honestly say that I’ve never been more eager to make an alpine start! 

Setting off in the dark the topography was a bit more confusing than we anticipated, and we ended up looking right of the peak as the sun began to rise. We had some magnificent views out over Aoraki and Sefton, dispelling Jen’s illusion that we didn’t have impressive mountains in this country.

It was nice to experience the stillness of that moment, as not long after the first helicopter flew up the valley for the day, to be followed by one approximately every five minutes for the remaining daylight hours. This sparked an interesting discussion about the proposed changes to the national park management plan going forward. It certainly does change the experience having one buzz overhead disrupting your conversation every few minutes. 

Anyhow back to the trip. Our slight geographical mistake presented us with to opportunity to traverse over the peak as it was much easier going down the side where we had intended to go up initially. Although the permanent snowfield marked is now very much a permanent moraine field. And then we turned around and headed down, now facing the breath-taking view that we had had our backs to while climbing up the day before.

It was one of those trips where the view doesn’t really change all that much when you go down, but that didn’t stop me from taking a photo every few steps! Between all of us we must have taken quite a few photos on that adventure. 

Reversing our route from the day before made me aware of just how steep the tussock was, but we still made progress and I attempted to climb the very large boulder while waiting for tea at the designated lunch spot.

There were certainly some interesting challenges to get back to the car, but I still wouldn’t really put Garbage Gully down as one of them. And we made it back to the cars with enough daylight left to tackle the track back out to the road. Thus, I finally went on a NZAC trip, but have yet to repeat the experience since now I’m guessing trips are cancelled for an entirely different reason….

To follow Penzy’s blog and view all the photos from her trip, visit her blog at https://southerlystormphotography.myportfolio.com/novara-peak. Photos courtesy of Southerly Storm Photography.

Wilderlife