As we left Nelson and began our journey toward St. Arnaud it became clear that we were heading toward a dark shelf of cloud in the south. The tops of the mountains remained hidden from view, fuelling much speculation about just how much snow would actually be up there for us to practice in. After a few stops and starts, a group of fourteen gathered in the Mount Robert car park, ready for the Snow Skills Course. Before we departed, Guy provided a quick demonstration of how an avalanche probe and transceiver function and our trip leader Debbie unveiled a spiky collection of crampons and ice axes. Though we wouldn’t be needing them for our ascent, we all tried ours on in the car park just to make sure we would know what we were doing when the time came.

After climbing Pinchgut and a brief stop at the Relax Shelter, we assembled on the lip of Second Basin, looking down at the Mount Robert Lodge which squatted below us in all its mustard and pistachio-green glory.  “It looks like a sinister Soviet research laboratory,” I ventured, and began to flesh out a plot for a thriller with my companions as we descended. Inside the basin, the tussock and alpine grass were still partly cloaked with snow and the slopes beyond the lodge retained significant patches. It was now certain: there would definitely be enough snow for us to frolic in.

20210919 082100

At the lodge, the clouds briefly parted and we had lunch in the sun while Debbie opened the doors and inducted a couple of new Mt Robert Foundation members who would be joining us for the night. After choosing our bunks, most of us filed outside again, this time with our packs empty of all but the necessities. A slog across some tussock brought us high enough in the basin to reach a decent deposit of snow. Unfortunately David C, the most experienced alpinist of the group, had hurt his back on the slippery descent to the lodge and so our other David, David L, took on one of the training roles. A few of us had never donned a crampon nor wielded an ice axe before so getting ourselves in order took a little while. However, it wasn’t long before we were all gingerly edging across the slopes in our crampons and driving our ice axes boldly into the snow. We practiced moving in a zig-zag pattern up the slope, gaining in confidence as we went, and finally reaching Flagtop. As the afternoon progressed, the cloud thickened and the wind rose, with light flurries of snow developing. Visibility was poor and after not finding the ice we were looking for it was decided we would head back the way we had come, stopping to practice self-arrests on the way. With the self-arrests quickly mastered, we then moved on to sliding downhill on our bottoms and after some exhilarating runs we made our way back to the lodge.

flagtop

The evening began auspiciously, with a cheese board and mulled wine. After eating our respective dinners, we then settled in for the poetry reading. Debbie had requested attendees all bring along something to read and this resulted in a very diverse selection, with offerings ranging from an Icelandic saga, through English ballads, German fairy tales, a poem delivered in both Te Reo and English, and some original compositions. What a pleasure it was to discover that the Nelson Tramping Club members were not only intrepid adventurers but scholars and aesthetes, too!

rainbow view

Snow fell overnight and in the morning we ventured out into a crisp, icing-sugared world. The tussock spines were trembling with ice crystals and a new dusting of snow covered the higher slopes. Brief moments of clear sky revealed ice-bound tarns and gorgeous russet and tawny hills below, descending into distant beech forest. Everyone stopped to take photos and admire the view before climbing higher up the slope and putting on their crampons. We then followed a spur up to Christie Ridge and joined the poled route on Robert Ridge, eventually encountering much deeper snow than the day before. The cloud was low and we trudged on through a blank, lunar world, with only the nearest trampers visible in the thick cloud. The group strung out along the slope as we continued our progress toward the neck below Julius Summit where we hunkered down on the leeward side of the ridge and had a welcome rest and snack. After this we split into two parties, with six of us continuing further along the route towards Angelus in order to trial our crampons on steeper territory, while the other five beginning the journey back. After climbing down the steep slope below the neck, we in the advance party turned around, climbed back up and followed the ridge back, eventually catching the other group up around Flagtop. From here it was a quick descent back into the basin, with a final bout of slides and self-arrests to finish off the outing.

snowskills 1

Slightly behind schedule, we had a quick lunch at the lodge and then got stuck into the clean up. Everyone chipped in and we were able to get out the door just after two. Most of the group headed back to the car park via Pinchgut, but Flurina and I thought we’d have a crack at Paddy's Track, despite the ominous warnings from the others that it was quite a lot longer than Pinchgut. “Yeah, yeah, she’ll be right,” we said as we set off only a few minutes ahead of the group. We were soon a little alarmed by the sign which stated our route would take two and a half hours, and the other only an hour. We could already see the others approaching on the slope behind us and so decided if we did want to go via Paddy’s, then it would necessitate a lot of running. Off we sprinted, so desperate not to hold the group up that we overcooked it and had to sit in the car park waiting for the others. Admittedly it was only for a few minutes, but we felt pretty smug nonetheless.

After a quick huddle in the car park we were all ready to head home. Overall, an excellent weekend, with plentiful wine, cheese and poetry - not to mention the development of new skills and techniques. This was my first trip with the NTC and if this one was anything to go by, it won’t be my last.

Participants: Debbie (Leader), David L, David C, Guy, Flurina, Claire, Mary, Nina, Richard, Sarah, Tony, Jo, Veronica, Sylvan (Scribe).