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Through the heart of the Alps

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July 2021 Issue

Two Arrowtown residents have traversed glaciers, forded rivers and descended Weetbix-like cliff faces in a 273km mountain traverse from Arthur’s Pass to Aoraki/Mt Cook.

Philip Green and Wendy Johnston have hiked through the Himalaya, mountain biked through Kyrgyzstan, climbed in the Pyrenees, tramped through the Bolivian Andes and summited Tititea/Mt Aspiring. But they say their most recent adventure was the best yet: a 33-day alpine traverse from Arthur’s Pass to Aoraki/Mt Cook.

“We were just gobsmacked from start to finish,” Green says. “The immersement in the mountains, the fact you have to be so self-sufficient, the lack of human activity – it was probably the best thing we’ve ever done.”

Green, 61, says they came up with the idea for the trip 20 years ago, but only recently found time after selling their wine tour business in Central Otago.

“It would have been nice to do 15 years ago when we were younger and fitter, but that business destroyed all of our summers,” he says.

The Arrowtown couple walked almost entirely off-track, along the spine of the Alps. It took a year of planning, reading guidebooks and talking to mountaineers. 

“There’s a lot of route-finding decisions and tricky terrain,” Green says. “There really isn’t a lot of description in the guide books and a lot of the information is outdated.”

They arranged four food drops, walked one in themselves and had help from the Canterbury Mountaineering Club and South Canterbury 4WD Club with the others. Mostly they subsisted on homemade muesli, wraps with aged salami and manchego cheese, and dehy curry meals.

Despite the regular food caches, this was no lightweight trip; Green says his pack weighed 20kg. 

They started from the Waimakariri River in December, tramping over Harman Pass to the Wilberforce River and over Griffiths and Hokitika saddles to the West Coast. They then followed Mungo River and crossed to the Whitcombe River, before taking a detour to the remote Ivory Lake Hut.

“It’s every hut bagger’s dream to get to that hut,” Green says. “The location is amazing, perched on this bit of rock by a lake with Ivory Glacier behind and surrounded by big mountains.”

They planned to cross the Garden of Eden and Allah ice plateaux, but gale force winds forced a retreat to Lyell Hut, near the head of the Rakaia River, where they endured a five-day storm. 

The final leg of the trip took them over a hair-raising pass near Twilight Col to Godley Hut, and then over what Green says was the scariest section, climbing a steep and hard-packed scree slope above Rutherford Stream, near Godley Hut.

“We actually used our ice axes to cut steps in the scree because it was that firmly packed; it was almost like cement,” says Green. “I was thinking ‘what the hell am I doing here?’ That was the most nerve-wracking part of the whole trip.”

After a long descent of the Murchison Glacier, they finally completed the journey. Green says it was “a massive feeling of success and accomplishment”. 

“There are people who will do it harder, faster, longer and better, but for us it was a dream to be able to finish it. We were doubting we were going to make it because of the weather

“It was so inspiring. There’s so much grand country in the Southern Alps.”

Johnston, 59, says her highlight was being able to spend such an extended period in isolation in the Alps.

“It makes your world so simple; just food, weather, shelter, that’s it. You become very immersed in the details of where you are.

“It was the trip of a lifetime. If you want to spend the time and energy planning and getting some experience ‘trampaineering’, then anyone can do this.”

The couple is now planning to add to the traverse next summer, either heading north from Arthur’s Pass to Lewis Pass, or from Mt Cook to Queenstown.