Sick of the lethal hazards found on Ponsonby Road, Hazel Phillips attends an alpine skills course to help her better manage the steep stuff, whilst also finding a new use for a Staite House
What’s the tipping point that pushes a tramper to become a climber? It’s a lot of fuss and bother: huge amounts of (spendy) new gear, more training, and – this cannot be overstated – more risk.
According to the Mountain Safety Council, mountaineering has ‘a high ratio of incidents’ compared to other outdoor activities (including tramping), with 71 per cent of incidents happening because of a fall. What rational, reasonable individual would go climbing?
What tipped me over was a good friend gifting me an ice axe for my birthday. It’s a Simond walking axe, and it sat unused for some time, shiny, glinting in the sunshine, taunting me, until I couldn’t take it anymore. Although I had deemed tramping in snow to be a ridiculous pursuit (why walk up a mountain when you could take a chairlift and zoom down it on skis?) I couldn’t let that ice axe go to waste. I’m very suggestible like that.
My first cramponing experience was climbing to Ruapehu’s Summit Plateau with my more experienced friend Mike. He’s fit and fast, so he abandoned me just above Knoll Ridge Cafe and was surprised when I eventually popped out at the top. I did the Tongariro Alpine Crossing that winter, and then felt confident enough to take a snow craft course in 2014 with a local club.
I found the experience distressing; I got yelled at by the instructor for not moving fast enough up a tricky and blocky ridge, then a dodgy snow anchor set by an instructor failed, with a sickening near miss incident involving a course participant. A friend, on another course, was publicly scolded and had her ice axes confiscated (they were technical axes rather than a walking axe) and was reduced to tears by an instructor.
Mountaineering and I probably weren’t going to be friends, I thought.
But, as with many things in the outdoors, it’s a slippery slope, and some of us are sick individuals who just want to keep pushing boundaries. Shiny technical gear started to beckon. Ropes became interesting. I did an avalanche awareness course through Hillary Outdoors with a patient and kind instructor who didn’t yell at me. My friend Mike the Abandoner pushed me to do a technical mountaineering course (presumably so he could progress to abandoning me in more life-threatening situations).
So earlier this year I signed up for a five-day intermediate alpine skills course. Maybe this would work.
We arrive at 5pm on Sunday for a 6pm briefing. The usual stuff: introductions, gear talk, sussing out what we want out of the course. For me, it’s a priority on hard skills – rope stuff, what all the techy gear does, how to extract myself from a crevasse in case I carelessly fall down one on Ponsonby Road.
The soft skills (navigation, route finding, avalanche awareness) are also interesting to me, but for the purposes of this course, they came second.
There are seven of us. Two young guys, Dion and Scott, who are unbearably fit, and who I’ve actually met before during a snowy trip to Angelus Hut. They’ve already got the jump on the rest of us when it comes to rope skills – they’re rock climbers and have been practising for the course by abseiling off trees in parks around Wellington. Foolishly, I had not thought to abseil off anything on Ponsonby Road.
We’ve also got two Australians, who primarily want to be able to safely traverse glaciers on an upcoming trip to Iceland. There’s also a keen ski tourer and an arborist, whose rope skills are also top notch. Clearly, trees are where it’s at.
We start off by gearing up, checking everything is in working order, and borrowing any missing items from the gear locker. I’ve gradually acquired bits of kit – including avalanche rescue gear for ski touring – but I’m missing a few carabiners and a belay device. It’s getting real.
Today and tomorrow are likely to be the only good days this week weather-wise, so we need to push hard and make the most of it. It’s blue sky with a bit of wind on Whakapapa. We hike a short way out west from the Knoll Ridge Cafe to find a snow slope on which to practise self-arrest. That’s a skill I learned during the snow craft course, and one I’ve had to use in real life after a large patch of snow gave way beneath my feet near Crater Lake.
Most of the day is spent learning how to put snow stakes in reliably (mostly top clip and mid clip – referring to where on the anchor the carabiner is attached). We identify the ones that seem dodgy (they feel inconsistent when you’re hammering them in) and then have great fun with all seven of us tugging on the rope to try to get them to fail. The ones flagged as dodgy do indeed fail, but only with a lot of dynamic weight pulling on the rope.
Regardless, I’m still wary about trusting one of these with my life (did I mention 71 per cent of climbing accidents are falls?).
The group splits up. The ‘advanced’ group (Dion, Scott and arborist Luke) take their excellent rope skills up the ridge above the Waterfall Chairlift station to attempt the Grand Pinnacle. Dion has some shiny new ice screws he wants to use, but what he doesn’t realise is that because of how they pitch the route, Scott will use them first. Oops.
The rest of us head across the valley to practise pitching up a rib on the Pinnacles – not the Pinnacles proper, mind you, which looks a LOT steeper and more foreboding. What we’re doing is the Pinnacles for beginners.
We practise setting up snow stakes and belaying each other up the rib. It’s a deceptively time-consuming process; if you were heading out to climb something in earnest, you’d want to drill the skills until everything became second nature. Cam and I team up and learn a lot about patience and communication on the way up. “This is the kind of thing I usually do without any kind of rope or safety,” Cam confesses. “This is why I decided to do this course.”
Near the ridgeline, it’s so windy I keep getting blown onto my knees or flat onto the snow – excellent self-arresting practice. Snow and ice are hurling around in the wind and it hurts. We pull the pin. It’s good to know how to handle the rope and manage yourself in such conditions, but it’s a relief to get down and out of the wind.
The weather forecast doesn’t look hopeful, but ever optimistic we pile into the van and head up the Mangatepopo Valley to find something on a crag for abseiling practise. The weather worsens as we walk and it’s snowing hard. I abseil off something once, warm myself up in the bothy bag (an essential item, in my opinion) and then we turn tail down the valley, falling over repeatedly in the soft, deep snow. I consider this great fun and can’t stop laughing; the Australians think I’m nuts.
Each evening we practise rope skills and consolidating anything we’ve learnt that day. For me, it’s setting up the abseil. Our instructors are around for questions and gear talk and they don’t get a break from our inquisition. It makes for long days, but the time passes in a whirlwind.
Mother Nature is not happy. The Desert Road is closed due to snow and overturned trucks. We’re snowed in at Hillary Outdoors, at 700m altitude, as the roads all around the mountain are closed – even Taumarunui through to Taihape. It’s carnage.
Happily, there’s a spacious gym with an area ideal for practising crevasse rescue. Thanks to Mike the Abandoner, I’ve done this before – inside a hut, not after being abandoned inside a crevasse – so it’s familiar the second time around.
The Australians come into their own here as this is one of the essential skills they’ll need for their glacier travel. “It’s less complicated than it looks,” says one. “But it’s still something I think we need to practise over and over so that if we do get into a situation where we need to use it, we won’t have to stop and think about how to do it. Theory is one thing, but practise is another.”
We finish off the day with some avalanche transceiver work. One party hides the transceiver and the others go into search mode to find it. We soon discover this only works if the hidden transceiver is switched on first, and isn’t hoisted up onto the high ropes course.
Scott abseils down the Pinnacles after topping out on a challenging section. Photo: Hazel Phillips
The roads are still closed and the overturned trucks have not been set to rights. But there’s plenty of snow to play with, so I suggest we use our shovels to scrape together enough of it to build a shelter and then practise more anchors.
Instructor Greig shows us how to build a ‘Staite House’ (named after Antarctic field researcher Brian Staite), an incredibly swift way to get a snow shelter up in an emergency. Greig stands on the snow pile and we shovel snow up around him as he slowly turns in a circle. Then he ducks down and we pile snow onto his head, so he’s fully inside the snow mound. His pack is strategically positioned as a doorway, and once enough snow is on top of him, but before he suffocates, he pushes the pack out. Snow consolidates surprisingly quickly, and a few minutes later Greig can stand on top without our Staite House breaking. (From here, you simply dig out the interior and keep piling snow on the exterior to enlarge it.)
Cam, as the tallest guy, gets the honour of destroying the snow shelter, and we use the remains to create a snow bollard – a type of snow anchor that saves you leaving any gear behind. It, too, is incredibly strong.
We get certificates of completion and I feel like I’ve come a long way since Sunday night, with a lot of new rope skills and way more understanding of how all the technical gear goes together. Now it’s just a case of getting out and using my new skills in real-life situations.
I feel like I’ve successfully made the transition from tramper to novice climber, with some incremental knowledge acquisition and intense bursts of learning.
I’ve come a long way, too, since the days of glaring at that ice axe in the corner of my bedroom.
There’s a meme that gets circulated on Facebook about mountaineering. It shows someone in bad weather, distressed, with the caption ‘Mountaineering: It feels great when you stop’. But I think if you do it right, it can feel good while you’re doing it, too.
View more photos from the course…