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Climb your first 3000m peak

Lendenfeld Peak (second from left), beside Mt Tasman, is a good objective for your first 3000m peak. Photo: Mark Watson
Have you thought about trading your walking poles for ice axes and climbing one of New Zealand’s 3000m peaks? Penny Webster shows you how

Mountain climbing can be an exciting, rewarding and empowering experience – perhaps more so in New Zealand with its stunningly beautiful and remote mountains, untrammelled by masses of climbers.

Lendenfeld Peak, 3194m, is an ideal choice for a novice alpinist taking on the challenge of that first 3000m peak. Situated on the Main Divide in Westland Tai Poutini National Park, it involves an 800m height gain from Pioneer Hut via Marcel Col (2987m) and will take around 8-10 hours to summit. Here’s how you go about climbing it.

Getting the skills

Join a club course to learn the basics, then go on a alpine course with a private provider. Photo: Trent Mankelow

When you climb as a recreational alpinist you are responsible for all aspects of your expedition, and thorough preparation is essential for both safety and speed. There are no shortcuts, and in swapping walking poles for ice axes you will take your skills and experience to another level.

The first important step is finding the right climbing partner. There are two options: find an enthusiastic tramping friend, or ask a more experienced person to mentor you. Compatibility is important – you are going to be sharing a rope, a fun and exciting journey and the adventure of a lifetime.

A knowledge and understanding of basic mountaineering skills is required. This may take a year or two, or longer, depending on other commitments in your life. A good start is a snowcraft course offered at the club level; most alpine and some tramping clubs offer courses. The next step is to attend a week-long high alpine course based at Aoraki/Mt Cook. Most guiding companies and some clubs run these courses.

It’s from these courses that you’ll gain the hard skills (techniques and equipment use), soft skills (interpreting weather, route finding, decision making) and the know-how to manage yourself in the mountains.

Gaining experience 

Climb five easy mountains, like Mt Ruapehu, before attempting your target peak. Photo: Barbara Fountain

Experience is easy: keep tramping. Add some above-the-bushline trips to your tramping calendar, and aim to head over alpine passes where you can use your ice axe and crampons. There is no substitute for the time spent walking around in the snow and developing a feel for your footwork and the environment.

The most critical part of climbing is staying on your feet. Pete Cammell, an NZOIA-qualified instructor with the New Zealand Alpine Club, teaches the mantra: balance, pace, rhythm. These concepts are the basics of mountaineering – learn to use these words in action.

Make a hit list of five smaller peaks to climb with your climbing partner, then formulate a plan to climb them. Mountains such as Single Cone, Mt Earnslaw, Mt Rolleston, Mt Ruapehu, Mt Taranaki and The Footstool are good objectives. Put the list on your fridge and tick them off one by one. There is a sense of accomplishment in every mountain climbed, and each peak is a step toward achieving your goal.

 

Equipment

In addition to the standard tramping gear, you are going to need some specific climbing equipment. For the first snowcraft course, climbing boots (three-quarter or full-shank), crampons, ice axe and a helmet are the basic requirements. If you are serious about your 3000m peak then you may want to purchase these items before the course and start using them, otherwise you can rent them.

In the second phase of collecting ‘climbing toys’ you will need more technical equipment – a rope (one rope between you and your partner), an ice hammer, harness and hardware. For Lendenfeld, the hardware list would include: two snow stakes, two ice screws ( more if climbing in late summer), three locking carabiners each, three or four snap links each, one long (240cm) and one short (120cm) sling each, one long and one short prusik each. It is possible to hire this gear from clubs and some guiding companies, or borrow from friends if you can.

There may be the need to upgrade some of your tramping gear. Helpful additions are: a watch with altimeter, a GPS device, maps and compass, MSR Windboiler or Jetboil (for melting snow to drink), a headlamp, a lightweight bivy bag, warm gloves and a PLB.

Some essential kit for your summit push

MSR WindBurner $299.99
All-in-one stove and cookware solution featuring radiant burner and heat exchanger, enclosed windproof design, internal pressure regulator, boils 1-litre in 4.5min. 432g. www.ampro.co.nz
Bridgedale WoolFusion Summit $49.99
Expedition sock for extended use, cushioning throughout, combination of natural and synthetic yarns for dry, warm, blister-free feet. Composition: 47% New wool, 34% nylon, 18% Endurofil, 1% Lycra. www.ampro.co.nz
Thorlos Mountaineering $54.90
Mountain sock with low profile seams, thermal insulating fibres, cushioned instep, arch shin and ankle, ventilation panel. Composition: 60% Worsted wool, 26% Thor-Lon acrylic, 11% nylon, 2% spandex. www.thorlos.co.nz
Salewa Raven 2 GTX $599
Summer mountaineering boot with abrasion-resistant micro-fibre and suede upper, Gore-Tex lining, semi-automatic crampon-compatible, anatomical cuff, full rubber rand, nylon and fibreglass shank, climbing lacing, multi-fit footbed, 3F foot support system, blister-free guarantee. 1500g. www.bobo.co.nz
Lowa Weisshorn GTX $999
Mixed route alpine boot with ankle flex and articulation, Gore-Tex lining with Duratherm, removable tongue, lace lock, high wall full surround rand, fleece insole, PU midsole, 6-8mm full length nylon stabiliser with carbon weave reinforcing, automatic crampon compatible. 1950g. www.lowa.co.nz
Lowa Cevedale GTX $799
Mixed terrain boot with leather upper, full rubber rand, Gore-Tex lining, lace lock, ankle flex and articulation, heel and toe rand, viscoelastic balance insole, PU midsole, 5.5mm full length nylon stabiliser, semi-automatic crampon compatible. 1600g. www.lowa.co.nz
Suunto Core $499.90
Combining an altimeter, barometer and a compass with weather information and the usual watch features. 79g. www.suunto.com

Hone your fitness and focus

If you are already tramping then you will not find the training onerous. The minimum for your goal is a day trip with a pack and good uphill climb (600m plus) every two to three weeks. Try for more trips in the months leading up to the climb.

Aerobic exercise (swimming, biking and running) maintains the base level of fitness required – aim for at least four hours a week. If possible, include some strength and flexibility routines; it adds to musculoskeletal wellbeing.

When at home, practise your ropework so it becomes second nature.

Regularly visualising the climb will mentally prepare the mind. Using hardcopy photos, break the mountain into three stages, then picture yourself moving through each stage. With Lendenfeld, the first part is the glacier travel from the hut to Marcel Col (transition point into pitching). Next comes the pitching up to the summit. The third part is the descent.

Keeping physical and mental energy for the descent is important. The summit is only halfway. Climbing requires a concentrated and focused mental effort – be prepared for this.

On the climb you will need to eat and drink regularly. The snacks need to be high caloric foods such as muesli bars, sandwiches, and gels. Practise eating the same foods that you will eat on the climb, and work out how much food and water you need to avoid exhaustion and dehydration.

The climb

A climber approaches the summit of Lendenfeld Peak. Photo: Jaz Morris

The optimal climbing season for Lendenfeld is late November to early January. Put aside an eight-day period and climb in the best weather, allowing three to five days. Weather and snow conditions can vary enormously in the Southern Alps, and patience and flexibility are crucial to success.

Your base will be Pioneer Hut on the upper Fox Glacier, and flying in is the standard approach. It is a popular climbing hut, so there will likely be other climbers to share a helicopter with.

On arrival at the landing pad, you’ll have mixed feelings: excitement tinged with a sense of feeling very small. The upper snow névés are another world, full of high mountains and expansive, crevassed glaciers. Take a few moments to assess the short walk to the hut. There can be exposure to a big crevasse and it may be icy. If necessary, wear crampons, use an ice axe and carry small loads.

After settling in, read the hut book; you may learn about the conditions on the climb.

If time allows, spend a few hours doing a recce across the glacier. Prepare your equipment and pack the night before your climb. Plan your start so that you travel through the steeper, complex glaciated terrain below Marcel Col at first light.

Remember, it’s about the journey, not just the summit. Carry a small camera around your neck and take photos of the climbing action. Be aware that down-climbing can be harder than going up. If you make the decision to turn back before the summit, don’t beat yourself up. The mountain will be there for another day.

With the climb completed, an enjoyable exit option is to walk to Chancellor Hut where it is a short helicopter flight back to Fox.

Once back in civilisation celebrate your achievement, recover and plan the next goal. Whether it’s to climb another high mountain or tramp a classic alpine pass, you will be more confident and enriched from climbing your first 3000m peak.

– Penny Webster has climbed all of New Zealand’s 24 3000m peaks.

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