Text and pictures © 2005-2021 Guillaume & Jennifer Dargaud
Last updated on 2019/01/17
"Grass is always greener on the other side, unless you live in NZ."
Left: Trying tricks while bouldering at Castle Hill.
Right: Bouldering at scenic Castle Hill.
After a few days pent in a hotel room in Christchurch, just off the plane from Antarctica, came the time to hit the rocks again. We rent a car and start cruising from one climbing site to the next on the South Island, several guidebooks in hand. First day we stop near Arthur Pass for a bit of bouldering at Castle Hill. The evening is rainy and with several other wet climbers we gather to cook in the Craiegieburn shelter while our tents are getting soaked. The next day is glorious: sunny with bright white clouds flying overhead and cute white sheep on the approach to the bouldery slopes.
Jenny who's been leading plenty of 6c recently wants to assert her climbing superiority, but although this is the first rock I literally see in over a year, I'm not too pathetic. An american student gets us motivated to try harder problems, but after a few hours a problem arises: not having seen the sun for just as long, my uncovered skin is playing 'vampire in the sun' and I'm red as an overcooked lobster. The next few days are spent in pain, covered in soothing cream and shedding skin all over the rental car.
Left: Trying to decipher the guidebook while the waves break your concentration at the base of the Charleston sea cliffs.
Right: Jenny coming down one of the more overhanging route of the Riverside, near Wanaka.
Left: Climbing among the sheep and heavy clouds on the big boulders of Hanging Rock. Plenty of tricky moves, lots of sheep dung, scary spiderwebs on every hold and ominous clouds overhead.
Left: Jenny getting soaked in the aptly named rainforest on the approach to the Chasm wall, Fjordland.
Right: Milford sound, shrouded in mist.
After those puny boulders, it's time to start the real climbing. 2nd day we stop at Mt Charleston, a sea-cliff. Camping by the beach is pleasant but the base of the cliff is stressful: the rock is steep and doesn't seem to protect well, and the waves are loudly pounding the bottom, sending spray towards us. I'm leading my first route in 12 months, a grade 17 (whatever that is) without too much trouble until I reach the last 10 meters which doesn't protect well: my last 2 pieces are mostly for psychological support and I'm considering what to do next. But weather decides for me: it suddenly starts raining very hard and I have only a few minutes before the more sheltered vertical rock will be drenched as well. I just climb as fast as I can and do an airy mantle on wet grass on top. Jenny cleans the pitch in pouring rain. Well, so much for being my first route in a year !
Left: Jenny enjoying some chocolate choux freshly baked on the stove of Homer Hut...
Right: ...with a hungry possum looking at the scene.
Then we spend a few days at Paynes Ford where we are surprised to meet several foreign climbers at the campground. The place offers nice routes known for its unforgiving slopers but I wouldn't call it a world class climbing destination. At least we can socialize a bit, try to play the didgeridoo, enjoy the sea and climb big muscle roof-routes when it rains. Back to Christchurch we try to climb in the area but the weather is not collaborating, so off to Wanaka we go. Plenty of little cliffs there, but there's something bigger which has been waiting for 12 years...
Left: Pancake rocks at Punakaiki.
Right: Bouldering a horizontal roof at Payne's Ford.
Left: A rainbow above Queenstown.
Above: 360° panoramas of the evening on Mt Aspiring from the new Collin Todd hut.
Left: Jenny inside the recently rebuilt Collin Todd hut.
Right: Reflection of the mountain in the puddle below the hut.
12 years ago I hiked up to Collin Todd hut where I was stormbound for 6 days before running out of food and having to retreat without having even seen what is supposedly one of the most beautiful mountains in the world: Mt Aspiring. This time we don't want to waste time or energy so we shell for a chopper. After failing to find two other climbers with whom to share the flight, we end up flying in thick clouds and the pilot hesitates between several landing spots. With poor visibility we end up at the top of French ridge and walk down the glacier to the hut. With my lack of exercise I have a hard time staying in pace with Jenny. We reach a hut that doesn't look particularly crowded but where all the bunks are taken. Eventually someone moves to leave us some space. All the others are guided parties, including two japanese.
While we are eating the japanese keeps looking at me funny, then he goes: "You are 36 year old, your name is Guillaume..." to which I reply with surprise: "and yours is Ryuseki !". Yup, the same guy with whom I climbed in Peru 9 years before ! The climbing world in decidedly pretty small... Since then he's become a guide and takes japanese clients all over the world.
Left: The lower part of the ridge. The perspective is tricky on this image as it goes down to the right, then off on the snow, going on the back side of the far rocks. But a shortcut goes off to the left higher than the site of this image.
Right: Jenny near the upper part of the rock ridge on the normal route of Aspiring.
Left: Going up the wet rock of the North-West ridge of Aspiring in the fog.
Everybody gets up at the same time but we let the guides go first. Might as well try not to get lost by following them, which is fine on the snow walk before the ridge, but then, all roped up with their clients, we are going much faster and get ahead. Which means we sometimes get lost while trying to avoid some of the looser or steeper sections. We never rope up, but it doesn't mean it's easy: true, the technical sections are usually very short, just a few moves, but it's right on the ridge and a fall would lead straight inside the schrund on either side. The rock is wet and we do all this part in a thick and wet fog. Just as we finish the rock part we get above the fog and then it's a clean snow ridge to the summit. The crampons are actually useful only for the last 50 meters and we wait for the first guided party while basking in the sun on the summit. The sea of clouds is almost endless below us, with only a few landmarks poking out: Mt Cook to the north, Mt Tutoko to the south.
Left: Jenny taking a break on the summit of Mt Aspiring, above a sea of clouds.
Right: Both of us below the summit of Mt Aspiring, actually as we start the descent.
On the way down some of the guides pass us using a shortcut known as 'the Ramp' and everybody is safely and happily back at the hut by the middle of the afternoon. The next day Jenny's knees are beginning to act up so we catch up with the Japanese at Bevan col and she ridges a chopper down with them while I run down the trail with a very light pack, the main danger being repeated violent attacks by a falcon and a flat tire as we leave the parking lot !
Right: Climbers enjoying the evening near the hut, with Aspiring in the background.
Right: Panorama of the upper Matukituki valley, on the way down from Mt Aspiring. The trail to Bevan col is next to the river on the left.
Right: Farther down the valley, near where the Bevan col descent meets the French Ridge trail, panorama of the Matukituki valley, river and forest.
Press [F11] now to view the following panoramas in full screen width.
Above: Several panoramas of Mt Cook from lake Pukaki. Mt Cook is the main summit in the middle, with the West ridge clearly visible on the left and the East ridge on the right.
Above: Bridge across the Hooker river, soon after leaving the campground.
Right: Trail at the start of the Hooker valley, with Mt Cook in the back.
Mt Sefton is the main summit visible from Mt Cook Village and many tourists actually confuse it for Mt Cook as it's nearer and looks higher. We drive to the Village after some time waiting in the rain trying to do some routes in the Darrens, in Wanaka and in Queenstown. Jenny's knees are still hurting from the Mt Aspiring climb and she wants to take a break. I hope to find a partner for a quick summit and my first bet is Ryuseki, the japanese guide who was at Collin Todd Hut and with whom I climbed 10 years ago in Peru. With his wife he invites us for dinner in their small apartment but he's still tied up with his clients. In Win Irvin hut (or was that Unwin hut ?) I look at the 'partner wanted' sticky notes and quickly hook up with Jens who happens to be our tent neighbor at the campground. Like most climbers here he wants to do Cook but I've climbed it way too many times already and don't fancy one more epic and as an additional excuse the conditions are currently pretty bad up there. Talking with some local guides and looking at pretty pictures ('Classic Peaks of New Zealand' by Hugh Logan) convinces Jenny to send me to the North Ridge of Mt Sefton, a long rock route to a nice summit with a safe descent...
Left: The deep unstable moraine cutting across the path to Hooker hut.
Day 0: The main drawback is the long approach, the ridge starting in the Copland valley on the west coast, also meaning you get the infamously bad west coast weather full on. And indeed the first day it's raining pretty hard and we stay in the tents or go fill some postcards at the Village. The 2nd day the forecast is slightly better so we decide to start hiking. We figure one day to cross the Copland pass and reach Douglas Rock Hut, one day for the route and one day back so we take 4 days of food. I need to be back on the 29th as we fly to OZ on the 31st and we have business to do in Christchurch on the 30th. Today is december 26th.
Right: Jens walking the unstable side of Hooker lake, new access to the Copland pass.
Left: A bunch of edelweiss on the Copland ridge.
Day 1: I've done the Copland pass 12 years ago so I don't even look at the map and off we go. After we reach the lake we take the Hooker Hut trail which I find strangely overgrown with vegetation and hard to follow for such a classic hike. After a few hour I understand why: a 100m deep moraine cuts the path completely. A look at the guidebook and the relation which starts with: "Don't go to Hooker Hut" gives us a hint as to why... It won't be the only time I get us off route... We have to go back down to the lake and find a safe enough way to go down the moraine some way back. The new 'trail' follows the unstable moraine rocks right on the shore of the lake and then continues up the glacier before going up the gully after the foot of the Copland ridge. We miss the easy access onto the ridge (a rope dangling from a pole) and climb some 20 meters of very steep and very loose moraine. The fun starts here with the ridge. Grassy at first it gets more rocky with a few interesting moves. The wind picks up with the altitude, throwing us down a few times. It also starts raining. When we reach the Copland Shelter we are wet, late from the time lost earlier and tired. The weather is pretty awful anyway so we call it a day and figure out we can start very early in the morning and maybe start the climb directly when we reach the base of Sefton. We shall see.
Above: Panorama of Mt Cook and the Hooker glacier, as seen from the Copland ridge.
Left: The Footstool and Mt Sefton seen at first light from the Copland pass (enhanced image).
Right: Going down the west side of the Copland pass.
Day 2: Although our clothing is still wet we head early for the pass on soft and sticky snow. The first light hits as we are at the pass, giving us a great view of Sefton, although the base is still shrouded in darkness. It's hard to recognize the pass from 12 years ago: the snow is much steeper and there are several crevasses on the way up. I recognize the pass itself from the big cairn but the backside is completely different: instead of a steep and short snow slope we find dry rocks. A few meters traversing right on exposed rock take us to a loose but easy and not so steep gully where in a few minutes we are down on the scree and then neve at the base.
Left: Characteristic scree ridge showing the easier way to the Copland pass from the west side.
It's 9 in the morning when we reach the base of Sefton and we think hard: should we start now and bivy up on the ridge ? I'm against the idea as there's fresh snow accumulated on the rocks and it's dripping all over the route. It's a thin layer fallen overnight and the sun is hard at work so I'm pretty sure it'll be gone by tomorrow. Also the bottom part looks slabby and technical, so if we get caught in bad weather at the bivy I don't like the idea of downclimbing those slabs in the rain... We reach Douglas Rock Hut before 10am and rest in preparation of the big day tomorrow. We've done a good reckon of the base so we are pretty sure we can reach it in about an hour, but it's hard to tell what is the best way up. The guidebook is pretty vague about it: "follow the ridge to its end" ! In the hut we count the food: even for 4 days it's barely adequate. The only food we find in the hut is a bag of rice.
Right: Negotiating the slabs of the lower part of Mt Sefton.
Day 3: We start at 4am, very lightweight. We have one backpack for two and the other carry the rope and the little amount of climbing gear we've taken: 3 ice screws, 4 cams, a set of stoppers and a bunch of slings. In less than an hour we are at the base, in a gully with a hanging glacier far up. Let's not stay here. A slab of good clean rock up the 2nd very large dihedral is an obvious start but after 100m proves too tricky. We head to the right where the grass near the dihedral provides more holds. Soon we are 300m off the ground doing very tricky slab moves in plastic boots. The rock is excellent so it's exciting climbing, but we are not using the rope to save time. There are several times when we need to help each other holding a foot from below, throwing a long sling down for instant shoulder belay or just pushing our luck. Anyway it would be impossible to protect most often as there's no crack and no good stance in sight. There are some potential flat spots for bivies at the top of the first buttress, but none seem protected from potential rain. We are making good time and carry on. I hear my digital camera turn itself on in my pocket and when I pull it out I can't turn it back off, something rattles inside the lens and keeps it from closing. Damn, I just bought it 3 weeks ago... I'm pretty pissed since I left my other camera at the hut.
Left: Rotten rock at the start of the 2nd buttress. (Photo Jens Pohl)
The sun hits us as we start the 2nd buttress, a steep and intimidating wall of loose dark rock. We rope up for one pitch and continue solo onto better and different rock, but still fairly broken with cracks and holds. The climbing proceeds right on the edge of the buttress, with a huge drop of about 1 vertical km with noisy collapsing seracs on the left. Kinda makes it hard to concentrate. This is the shortest of the 3 buttress and there's some hard snow to reach the 3rd one. We use the crampons for a short section. There are plenty of short and exposed boulder moves on the 3rd buttress. We help each other without resorting to using the rope. Saves lots of time but keeps us pretty stressed at the same time. Usually the person without the pack goes first and finds the best way up for the other. Then every hour we switch. The day is stunning, not a cloud in sight. The rock on the 3rd buttress is very similar to what is found on the West Ridge of Mt Cook, only steeper.
Right: Snow near the start of the 3rd and final buttress. (Photo Jens Pohl)
We finish the rock at 13:00 and we congratulate ourselves on our timing. Exactly as planned. Rope and crampons on we follow the snow ridge, but the snow is soft and sticky, with some avalanche danger, so we unfortunately slow down. Higher up the route looks nothing like on the pictures: instead of an easy snow arete to the summit, there are two layers of seracs. Going right in the middle looks okay and I hope that our one axe each will be enough. A thin layer of snow needs to be cleaned up before placing a screw for the belay and I head up delicately this 60° slope. There's a huge drop on the left, an overhanging serac on the right and a risk of snow slabs slipping down on the ice. After 30 meters I place a screw and go to the end of the 60 meter rope. We do another pitch and a half like this before reaching the top of the seracs. From there it's still steep to the summit but I figure we can just traverse right to reach the descent and save time. I don't care much about the summit anyway and I'd like to be off the snow before it gets dark. At 17:00 we are on the west arete, the descent route with a good view of the heavily crevassed glacier below and I memorize a path in the maze to Welcome pass. The snow is wet and knee deep. After 2 hours we take another look at the map and the guidebook and I figure that I was heading us to the wrong place, the pass is actually right above us and we could have cut a shorter path to it. It's 'only' the 2nd routefinding error of the trip. At 19:00 we are at the pass, taking a short break before more glacier crossing. It's actually better than expected, the cooling temperatures on the north side making the walking easier. At 21:00 we are off the ice. Safe from crevasses and other surprises.
Left: Jens reaching the flat ground at the very top of the 3rd buttress. The snow starts here. (Photo Jens Pohl)
We should now be able to relax a little but we run down to make good of the remaining hour of light. There are a few cairns and in some places a trail is visible as stomped grass or displaced rocks. We go down a few neves and follow the ridge between grassy slopes and a deep river gash which takes us to a nice and flat area filled with large bivvy rocks. The trail tapers off here and the vegetation begins to be a nuisance. On the far side there's a dry creekbed which we start to follow as darkness overcomes us. I'm pretty sure it'll take us to the right place (aka 'down'), but I'm not quite sure if it's the best way. Anyway for half an hour we just walk down, sometimes hopping from boulder to boulder, before it starts getting steeper and filling with water which we avoid by crawling through the bush on the left. We complain but can't figure out another way. The farther we go the steeper the river becomes and the most often we need to go into the bush until we reach a very high waterfall. We can't see the bottom even with 2 combined headlamps. The guidebooks says to go on the left so into the bush we go. Very hard work to break through and after some distance we go down for a look. The ground disappears under my feet as I hang for dear life on tiny tree branches overhanging empty space. I look down but the headlamp only reaches darkness, the waterfall roaring nearby.
Right: Looking for a flat place to stop for while, exhausted in the middle of the night. (Photo Jens Pohl)
Jens helps me get back into the bush and we continue crossing until we get to an opening and another river, which turns into a waterfall as well. Now which waterfall did they mean in the guidebook ? We cross the river and try to figure out a way on the other side. The borders are steep, grassy and loose. A wet slab disappears to the left. We try several different ways, getting increasingly tired and frustrated. At 3 in the morning we find a flat boulder next to the river; it's humid but we just want to wait for the light to figure things out. Jens has a bivy bag and I have a space blanket. We shiver for 2 hours until it's time to get up. I can't afford to lose time: I now not only have to go down and back to the hut, but I also need to cross the Copland pass and reach the Village today. I try not to think about it.
Left: Horrible bushwalking. (Photo Jens Pohl)
We try again passing in various spots on the left side of the left waterfall, then we try to go up through the bush, hoping to cross the river higher up. It's incredibly hard to move up as all the trees have intertwined branches pointing downwards, getting caught in rope, backpack straps, clothing and even hair. After 3 hours of an exhausting work I do a GPS check: we've done only 100 meters in 3 hours. I can't believe it and give up. Back down to our bivy spot. By that time we are out of food, drained and would happily flag down any passing chopper... I wonder what Jenny is doing at this time, she probably figured out already I won't be back before the evening, but she can't imagine this bush nightmare...
Right: Rappelling down the river, finally: 12 hours to find the proper place. (Photo Jens Pohl)
After we put our spirit back together, we go to investigate the slab. Jens tip-toes delicately until the end of the rope. With the noise of the waterfalls we communicate in gestures. He points out that either above or to the left are no good. I ask about going down between the 2 waterfalls and he signals a 'maybe'. We go back to where we initially looked last night. At the very lowest point there's a bit of grass between the jump and the bush and it looks like a logical place to rappel down, although it looks too high for our rope from above. I look for a suitable tree among the closest ones and immediately find an anchor ! We are ecstatic, but raging at the same time for having lost no less than 12 hours. We start the rappel and discover that the grass overhanging above the river was no more than a meter, with a steep slope of mud with carved footsteps in it, none of it visible from above. 5 minutes later we are down between the waterfalls and we resume our descent, jumping from boulder to boulder and often changing side on the river.
Left: Jens's heavily blistered foot... (Photo Jens Pohl)
Farther down an even bigger waterfall bars the way, and it's pretty obvious that this is the waterfall the guidebook was referring to. The river gets bigger and harder to cross until finally some cairns appear on the left side, leading into a dry creekbed. I'm worried about getting into the bush again but the trail stays good until we reach the main trail. It's 14:00 and we take a long break, eyes blank. I'm trying not to think about what must come next. On the trail I beg some food to the first passing hiker, after listening to our epic he gives me 2 bars and a can of tuna. Thanks. At 16:00 I reach the hut and collapse on the bed. Half an hour later Jens arrives, feet blistered to death, and wakes me up forcefully. We finish the freeze-dry food we had left there and I begin to pack under his incredulous stare. I now have 2 bars and a can of tuna for what took us 2 days to walk in. At 17:00 we are parting our separate ways. He plans to stay tomorrow in the hut to rest his feet and head out towards the hot springs and the west coast the day after that. He only has 2 instant soup and some rice for 2 days. With my plastic boots I step on his toes as we hug and I start the hike up with already cold muscles resisting all the way.
Right: Douglas Rock hut and the north ridge of Mt Sefton in the back.
I tune everything out of my mind and just count my breathes. At first I can reach several hundreds before getting confused and having to restart from scratch. Halfway up trail to the pass I eat the tuna while clouds are gathering. It gets dark just as I reach the neve and I don't have time to get my bearing towards the pass. Damn, I forgot to go a GPS waypoint on the way in. There's no moon and clouds are blanketing the summit ridge. I'm trying to remember the shape of the bowl below the pass and get confused until I figure out I'm too far left. I find some fresh tracks in the snow, probably the hikers from today, and follow them up although I'm pretty sure it's not the right place. What came down can also go up, right ? The snow is steep and turns to a thin layer of ice peeling off rocks, then a good 40 meters of steep rock climbing I perform in crampons. A hot wind is blowing from the other side of the pass, bringing drizzle, but more importantly turning the snow into a deep slog. I don't like the way they came up either, there are several visible crevasses and I break through a hidden one with some panic, grabbing the snowstake on my pack to use as second tool to come out.
At 1:00 I reach the Copland shelter, surprised to find a broken window. I eat the last bar and take a break to inventory the food I have left: a handful of GORP and 3 cookies. If it takes me 8 hours from here, it means rationing to one every 2 hours. I can still do basic maths in my state of tiredness, so I'm good. I leave the door wide open while I fall asleep without a blanket. I want to make sure the cold will wake me up. At 2:00 I resume the descent and immediately notice the problem: it's easy to follow the main ridge on the way up, but on the way down I keep getting sidetracked into taking the many merging minor ridges where the rock instantly becomes pure choss, the only way I can figure out I'm not in the right place. At 3 in the morning I'm lost and it's raining hard. I can't even find a flat spot so I just sit on the slopping grass and pull the space blanket around me and the pack. The rain is not bothering me and I'd much rather have it here and now than yesterday on Sefton. I can't sleep in this unstable stance so I just reflect on the situation and look at the lights down in the village. Everything quiet and I feel at peace, actually surprised to enjoy the situation. Must be the exhaustion. Or it could be that after all, deep inside, I have for craving for epics and it's been way too long since the last one...
With the first light I immediately find the proper way down and skip the lower part by surfing the scree slope on the left. Down, down, down until the glacier where the constant boulder hopping is getting to me. I break my ski pole falling. The lake walk is slow and tiring, with the rain increasing and waves lapping my feet. There's nobody on the other side of the lake, I was hopping to get some food from the frequent japanese tourists but the rain kept them away, safely warm and dry at the Hermitage. I eat my last cookie and follow the trail. By now my method of counting the breathes is failing utterly: I get confused before I even reach 4 ! I stick to it nonetheless into a sort of mantra: 1 2 3, 1 2 3 4, 1 2, 1 2 3... When I reach the rain shelter along the trail, I make the mistake of sitting down. I can't get up again, looking wide eyed at the many names carved on the opposite wall. It takes me 10 minutes of mental effort to get up again. I can't just stop now, barely half an hour from the campground. When I stagger into camp and see Jenny I feel like something just breaks inside of me. It's been 54 hours of almost nonstop effort, I'm dazed and confused, hands shaking and not making much sense. I refuse to sit down, afraid to fall asleep before we can leave.
Left: Jenny at the campground while I'm lost somewhere on Sefton, visible behind the trees.
Jenny's been hard at work preparing for departure so there's no food left at the camp ! She folds up the tent and we leave before I have the opportunity to collapse. We stop at the village for a sandwich and a quick shower and then I finally fall asleep in the car while she drives to Christchurch where we arrive just in time to ship our equipment.
On the other side Jens is having a different type of problem. After resting for a day in the rain while I'm driving out to Christchurch, he reaches the well deserved hot springs and spends the night there before hiking out. I don't know how he managed to do that with his lack of food but he did well. The problem was that he came out a good 4 days after the intention sheet and although we'd talked with a ranger on the west coast path about our lateness, they started searching for him all over. Everything was solved eventually, but it just shows that they take search and rescue seriously. In summary we had a lot more difficulty on the trails than on the climb itself. A good climb, and finished barely in time to reach Australia for new year's eve...