Soft snow and crumbly rock cause some anxiety on a climb of Nelson Lakes’ highest peak
“Well, that didn’t work. This rock is no better than the sugary, treacherous snow I needed a break from,” I called to my climbing companions, Caro and Simon. We’d been tentatively plugging upwards, out of the dawn, towards Mt Travers’ north-east ridge. There had been no freeze overnight and, nagging at the backs of our minds, was a deteriorating weather forecast.
The snow was a problem – while the steps we kicked as we pot-holed upwards were deep, they sometimes gave way without warning. Our route took us up steep, exposed snow slopes, interspersed with stretches of shattered rock. Our ropes remained in our packs because there were no possibilities to put in solid protection. Our axes were really only good to aid balance – successful self-arrest was unlikely.
Our journey began on the Interislander two evenings before. Crossing Cook Strait the weather was lovely, although it was due to close in about midday on our intended summit day. The usual story authored by Mr Sod. An 8am start at St Arnaud saw us gliding across the mirror surface of Lake Rotoiti in the water taxi. We still had a good 22km walk, with hefty packs, to reach Upper Travers Hut.
We sweated our way up beside the Travers River under a cobalt sky. It was hot, so the cover of beech forest for much of the way was a blessing. We got our first good look at the top 400m of Mt Travers’ southern aspect before John Tait Hut, where we had lunch. It looked muscular – a classic-looking summit.
By the time we reached Upper Travers Hut, we were ready for a break. Situated just below the bushline and commanding an expansive view back down the valley, with the eastern flanks of Travers soaring above, the generously-proportioned hut is an idyllic place to stay.
After dinner and a gear sorting session, it was an early dive into our sleeping bags to catch up on a few of the zeds lost the previous evening and to be ready for a 3am wake-up. At the sound of the alarm, I peeked out to see, aside from the multitudes of twinkling stars, a completely clear sky. So far, so good.
Our intended route was up out of the eastern-most snowfield on to the north-east ridge. At about 1500m, we reached the snowline and put on our crampons. As the first inkling of a new day began to backlight the St Arnaud Range across the valley, we climbed north to a broad shoulder at 1880m. Here, we enjoyed an expansive dawn view of the St Arnaud Range and down the Travers Valley. From the shoulder, we lost about 50m as we sidled around to the next snowfield, giving us access to the north-east ridge, just beneath Pt2127. As we climbed, the gradient increased and the sun’s first rays began to make their softening and loosening effects felt.
At 1900m, we paused beneath a rock buttress on the lip of a tiny bergschrund to rearrange gear and discuss our next move. Simon led through steep snow around patches of rock. But by this time we were all starting to feel the early emotional impacts of sustained and increasing exposure – we were anxious to find stable ground. I took the lead and decided to test my theory about the rock looking friendlier than the snow. I soon realised that the rock made a convincing impersonation of Weetbix and like the snow, it was not to be relied upon for safe handholds or footings. “How far to the ridge,” Caro called hopefully from below.
“Can’t be far now, but I still can’t see the top yet,” I replied. Another stint on crumbling snow and then Weetbix and I still couldn’t see the ridge directly above me. I could, however, see it to my right, just a careful traverse away, so that’s where I headed. As I reached the end of the traverse and gained the ridge at 2070m, I noticed how fog had filled the Travers Valley and the sky above had filled with brooding and spectacularly beautiful clouds. It was good to relax for a bit on safe ground when Simon and Caro joined me. We commiserated about how the sustained, un-protectable exposure had broken our resolve to the extent that our thoughts were no longer about the summit. As we took in the deteriorating weather, which appeared to be bearing out the unfavourable forecast, we decided it was time to find a way down that didn’t involve the route we’d just come up.
We discussed a couple of descent options while munching down some calories. Caro was in favour of a retreat down Summit Creek, in pursuit of less knee effort. I argued for a much shorter route off the eastern side of the ridge where a long tongue of flat snow came off the ridge. It looked like a friendly ramp.
At the ramp though, Caro was unimpressed, as was I. It no longer looked so friendly, so Simon suggested another exit point further down the ridge. His option turned out to be partly friendly but, after running the ropes out to their full extent on a somewhat awkward abseil, he discovered that the next pitch was unprotectable. Back up he came and further down the ridge we went. Soon we pitched, more for practise than necessity, a rope length down a snow chute on to a broad snowfield further north from the one we’d ascended that morning. It was then just a plod back around the 1600m contour until Upper Travers Hut came into view.
Back in the hut at about 3.30pm, Travers’ summit was shrouded in swirling cloud and the first raindrops began to fall. It’s always disappointing not to reach the top, but we knew we’d made the right call to bail when we did. It was crisp and clear the next morning – better than the previous day, despite the weather forecast suggesting otherwise. We headed for Travers Saddle and discovered that there had also been a freeze overnight. With the clarity of hindsight, we realised this should have been our summit day.
Simon and I decided to check out the route to the summit from the saddle along the south ridge. We only had our walking axes with us, so went as far as the conditions would permit. After a steep front point onto a broad shoulder at 2000m, we called it a day. From our high point, we could see the way to the notch guarding access to the summit’s southern snowfields and felt that, on a good day, this could be a rewarding and doable route. Maybe next time. As we descended again, we were surprised to see how quickly the snow had deteriorated.
After lunch, we all headed down to John Tait Hut, stopping to view Travers Falls just a little off the trail in a lovely, extensive goblin grotto of ferns and moss. A noisy and crowded John Tait Hut accentuated our fond memories of Upper Travers Hut. Our final day involved a flat trudge through pretty beech forest to the water taxi near Lake Head Hut. Sipping on a chardonnay on the ferry that evening, I mulled over my growing list of unfinished business and pondered how best to prevent that snowball called anxiety from gathering momentum next time.