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October 2020 Issue

Peter Laurenson finds soft snow an anxiety-inducing experiencing on a spring climb of Mt Brewster in Aspiring National Park.

To mark Wilderness magazine’s 30th anniversary, current and past editors and contributors scoured the archives for the 30 best trips we’ve published over the decades. This story, original published in October 2020, was included. You can find all 30 of the greatest Wilderness trips in the October 2021 issue.

As the gradient levelled out, I stated the obvious: “It’s not the true summit!”

Regrettably, the false summit on which we stood was a tantalising 30 horizontal metres away and a mere 10m lower than Mt Brewster’s true summit, but between us and it lay a narrow snow ridge with sheer drops either side.

“Time to get that rope out,” my companion Piotr Nowak stated with equal obviousness.

Our trip had started at 3am in Christchurch the day before, though really, for me, it had been four years in the making. I’d previously made a guided attempt via the long west ridge but was forced back before reaching the summit. Since then, Brewster had been unfinished business.

We drove six hours to the Brewster Track trailhead just on the western side of Haast Pass. Any residual bleariness from our early start was soon washed away with a barefoot wade across the chilly Haast River. Then, in wet and misty conditions, we lugged our 23kg packs 900 vertical metres to Brewster Hut. We rested there for a bit and then carried on to our bivvy site, through soft, ever-deepening snow.

Gaining altitude didn’t improve the snow condition and with our heavy packs, it was arduous going. We encountered plenty of avalanche debris, reminding us to stay alert. My four-year-old recollection of the route to the base of Brewster led us on a less than optimal traverse over some bluffy terrain, but eventually we trudged to a halt at 1900m at about 4pm. By now, the weather had started to clear and we enjoyed the first glimpse of our objective. From our spectacular vantage point above Brewster Glacier, the South West face looked dauntingly steep.

There are several well-known routes up Mt Brewster. From our southern approach, the longest is up the west ridge, which is accessed by traversing west across the top of the Brewster Glacier. This route starts quite gradually but there is quite a challenging section of ridge before the final summit stretch. There are more options on the south-western faces, including our chosen route which gave the most direct access to the summit. Given the snow conditions, we completely discounted another steep, direct route up the south-east face, which was most prone to avalanche.

On approach to Mt Brewster with the favoured south west face in sunlight. Photo: Peter Laurenson

As the sun dipped below the horizon, we marvelled at a classic mauve glow on Brewster, Top Heavy and Armstrong as the last light faded away.

It was a cold night and my boots, which had become wet sloshing through the snow the previous day, froze solid. Getting them thawed out enough to put on was an unwelcome mission at 5am. I eventually managed it and immediately my toes began to freeze. At least all my grunting and cursing drove Piotr out of his bag. In the sub-zero conditions, it took two hours to get fully organised.

Finally underway to the base of the south west face, the sound of  crampons squeaking in the frozen snow and the rising sun painting our surroundings in violet, red, orange and yellow. To my relief, the closer I got to the face, the more do-able it appeared.

Our entry point was an hourglass-shaped ramp Piotr measured at 50-degrees. From there, our route essentially went straight up, all the way to the summit ridge. The snow on the face was softer than on our approach, making for good step plugging as we free climbed. Even so, as we progressed higher, the yawning exposure at my back kept me fully focused on maintaining three points of contact.

It took almost four hours to reach the false summit and the exposed knife-edge ridge separating us from the 2516m high point. Thick clouds billowed around and     I felt a tinge of unease. It’s one thing being on exposed terrain in good visibility but, in a whiteout, exhilaration quickly morphs into anxiety.

Despite our altitude, the snow was too unpredictable to trust free climbing across the knife-edge. We buried a snow stake about half a metre and compacted the snow above it to build a half reasonable T-slot anchor, which I clipped into as Piotr prepared to venture forth.

A few minutes of delicate traversing, as I played out the rope, saw him on top. He used our second snow stake to anchor himself so I could follow and soon I joined him. I’d hoped the clouds might blow over, but that wasn’t happening. At least we’re on top, I thought – Brewster was no longer unfinished business.

With visibility deteriorating, Piotr belayed me as I retraced our steps across the knife-edge. Once both of us were back on the false summit, we agreed the best option was to go down the way we had come up.

By the time we reached Brewster Hut, I was done and rather than continue to the car park we opted to nab the last two bunks and continue on in the morning.

15km return
Total Ascent
Moderate / Difficult
Car park to Brewster Hut, 3hr; To 1900m bivvy site, 3hr; To Summit return, 6hr; To car park, 4hr
Brewster Hut ($20, 12-bunks)
From Fantail Falls car park, off SH6

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Mt Brewster (gpx, 6 KB)

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