Peak 34: Mt Murchison
Who wants to walk in for 9 hours up a river valley into snowy and freezing conditions for the weekend? Yes, you guessed it… Peak 34 was a planned 3 day trek into Barker Hut in Arthur’s Pass National Park and a go at Mt Murchison on the middle day and Mt Harper on the final day, both in glorious conditions and sunshine.
The day started early in Christchurch, driving to Klondyke Corner to start and along the DOC track to Carrington Hut walking along the Waikmakariri for approximately 15km. The last time I was on the Waimak was when I raced the Avalanche Peak race, and swore I’d never set foot in that river valley again. It’s a flat, rocky, hot river bed (with amazingly cool glacial fed rivers) great for twisting ankles and bruising the soles of your feet. In the race I ran the far side of the river from the Crow River, so this was a nice change having a semi-permanent track to walk along for the first hour or so to Anti-Crow Hut and along the true right of the river.
I had assumed that this would be monotonous, but in fact the views totally made up for the long walk on boulders, shale and sand. The sights of Mt Rolleston and Rome ridge shining in the distance, Mt Harper from the front, Carrington Peak in it’s majestic cloud covered ‘Patagonian’ style peaks all covered in snow.
After a few hours it felt like you were in the middle of the Wilderness, no one to be seen, just you against the elements.
We reached Carrington Hut (myself Dave and Andy, a true Yorkshireman) after 4 hours of walking and met up with the rest of the gang to make the group total seven. Carrington Hut was first built in 1929 by members of the Canterbury Mountaineering Club (CMC) and is now one of the largest and most extravagant huts in Canterbury, boasting 26 beds, 2 lounges and a brand new fireplace. We stopped here for a lunch break before continuing up the White River (for another 4-5 hours) towards our end destination, Barker Hut.
The White River was spectacular, 2000m mountains encase this valley and make you feel insignificant while you boulder hop across the river, traverse the tussocky slopes and cross avalanche debris from the glaciers in the hanging valleys above.
Trail shoes were a must on the Waimak – without them my feet would have exploded from the constant pounding.
In the steeper ground, however, we swapped into mountain boots with the terrain getting tougher into snow and steeper terrain. The mind boggling thing about Barker Hut is that you can see if for at least the last 8km of the walk in – perched high up on the rocky outcrop; in-front of Mt Murchison and the White glacier. It’s great to see where you are heading, but takes another 3 hours to reach through the valley.
The ‘high route’ up the White Valley was tricky to find, as it heads into the tussocks before the river narrows into a sharp gulley. We found it after a while of searching, not much of a path, but worth staying out of the steep walled river for a while. After crossing several avalanche paths (relics from the snow falls earlier in the season), the final ascent to Barker Hut was made obvious.
The route is typically more difficult in Winter due to snow bridges, the river being high with snow melt, and general issues with boulders moving downstream. This time, we were lucky and found a good spot to cross, and onto the final 100m climb to Barker Hut well before dark.
Barker Hut is a great hut to stay in. The location is suberb, it’s totally insulated and sleeps a large amount for it’s size: ten people (with 8 sharing double bunks). The views from the hut can only be described as perfect.
Our plan, after listening to the mountain radio forecast, was to rise around 7, try the summit and be back early afternoon for lunch. The weather sounded like it was going to clear, so a later start (not the usual 3-4am alpine start) was perfect.
We followed our plan until at around 8.30am the cloud totally dropped in and we were stuck in a whitehout for about 2 hours!
The time was spent making T anchors with snow stakes, crafting sculptures out of the snow and generally jumping up and down on the spot to keep warm! After a long time peering through the mist and snow, it eventually cleared, leaving incredible views on the snow covered mountains in the valley and our route up the White Glacier for the next 1000m of ascent.
A steep climb and onto the plateau above White Col, we roped up before climbing on the ice – a good idea with snow possibly hiding the crevasses en route. No issues there in the end as the snow was a good 30cm deep, up to our knees in places – hard work plugging steps up to our next stop. (I didn’t plug any as I was 3rd on the rope, but Silvia had a hard time up front, then Dave, then Jovan).
Up to Kahutea Col at 2302m and a short rest before the final ascent up the steep couloir. Traversing in the deep snow across to the bottom of what ended up being an ice climb. Not usually what you’d associate with a 1+ route…
Dave soloed the route after placing a T anchor and sending the rope up with him while me, Silvia & Jeremy kicked a snow ledge to allow people to start climbing with prusiks once the big anchor was placed at the top of the route – needing more than one 60m rope in the end…
I decided not to do the pitch, partly due to time constraints, partly due to my lack of technical knowledge for this kind of climb. Dave and Andy got to the top, but even after the ice pitch it was a 20 minute clamber on a fully exposed ridgeline.
So, Kahutea Col was my summit for the day – Peak 34 – incredible views, right before it clouded in at around 3.30pm. I made my escape towards White Col at speed, but my feet were also having problems having been encased in freezing snow all day and being crushed by my mountain boots. Still, the show much go on, and it was all downhill to the hut.
Back down to the hut across the White Glacier; straight down. A nice end to an long day and back to a Back Country Cuisine meal and a hot drink at Barker.
Another night in the hut, a few words murmured about summiting Mt Harper, but in the end the consensus was to no do the peak the next day as people were tired after a long 12 hour mountaineer. So the long walk out down the White and back down the Waimakariri to the cars.
The walk out took around eight hours after a leisurely wake up and walk around in the beautiful blue sky and sunshine. The monotony wasn’t too bad along the river bed as it was interrupted with a few Q&A sessions, tramping games and water stops drinking the delicious and pure Waimak water.
Back to Christchurch by quarter to eight, and fuel before an early night after the long three day adventure into the wild.