Having eyed up several routes round Mt Aspiring for the predicted three day weather window Jamie and I had to re-adjust plans last minute when the forecast changed. With only one day’s good weather and a very late start due to rapid re-planning we headed from Wanaka to Mt Cook national park on Sunday lunchtime. We checked in with DoC for weather and route advice and considered our options. Top of the pile was Footstools (a 2 + classic) or Mt Sealy (2), if those two were out, I suggested Mt Edgar Thompson (2) which I’d heard of thanks to a NZ Alpine Club trip, or a walk up Hooker valley and over Balls Pass.
Given a very high anticipated freezing level (3800m) we realised anything involving crossing exposed snow slopes would be at high risk of avalanche. The DoC guide also suggested that snow was very wet at the moment which had resulted in lots of people ‘postholing’ (Kiwi for ‘wading through waste deep slow’, British for the ‘most miserable way to spend a day’). Because of this we picked Mt Edgar Thompson, a good straightforward summit and a sensible target for our first Alpine outing together. The majority of the higher level of the route was also on a ridgeline, reducing the avalanche risk.
We set of Sunday evening and spent some interesting time ‘bushbashing’ (Kiwi for ‘moving through dense undergrowth’, British for ‘should have brought a machete’) which involved using spikey trees as hand holes while every form of shrub alive attached itself to your face/clothes/bag. This was of course combined with a rapidly flowing river a couple of meters under the undercut bank you’re stood on. Fortunately, there was only about 15 minutes of this actually required, and for the most part we had an easy amble up the river rocks to a great bivy spot a couple of hundred meters under the ridge line.
We got up early the next day at 2.30am but a heavy level of cloud resulted in us hitting the snooze button for an hour. We eventually set of up towards the ridge, unsure if we would actually make the peak if the bad weather stayed. Amazingly it was just a solid level of cloud over which was a glorious sunrise. It was great to finally get the axes and crampons out and set off above the snow line.
Unfortunately however, the warm night had resulted in very soft wet snow and Jamie was sensibly cautions of the avalanche threat as we headed up the last 500m of vertical assent. At 300m left to go Jamie made the call to turn back, as the snow pack was melted out near the rock and grass underneath, nearby peaks had recent avalanche evidence and our climb had tension lines cutting across our route. It was a tough shout to make and disappointing on what would be a glorious day, but something you have to be ready for, especially in New Zealand’s temperamental conditions.
We had a leisurely descent (where Jamie spotted a couple more recent avalanches on nearby slopes!) followed by a fry up in the Old Mountaineers café in Mt Cook village.