Peak 52: Avalanche Peak
It feels a little bit strange to be writing about this peak. It’s the culmination of a year’s worth of effort, persistence and endurance – both the mental and the physical – and now it’s pretty much over.
Peak 52. Wow, I never really thought I’d get here, especially looking back at the first few peaks, basking in the glorious sunshine that last summer offered. I’d never really contemplated the whole challenge, never thought about the winter months and hadn’t for the life of me forged a plan in my head to have ticked off every single one of the 52 peaks.
The 52nd peak and in fact the last few were surrounded by panic and frustration, echoed in many of my writings over the past year. The one vice that seemed to hold everything back: the weather. I have learnt valuable lessons this year, the most important of all being to always respect the weather, and secondly, respect the mountains.
The plan (and grand finale) for my 52nd peak was to climb something that I felt would bring my challenge to a climax, one that I’d be proud of rounding off the year with. My plan was to climb Mt Ollivier, deemed to be Sir Ed Hillary’s first proper mountain climb, from Mt Cook Village – up past Mueller Hut to the summit overlooking the Hooker and Mueller Glaciers. What a view that would have been and what a final story, me completing my challenge on the same mountain where Ed Hillary started his. Unthinkable really.
Unfortunately, the changeable New Zealand weather systems got the better of me, and with the clock ticking and only 4 days to go, I took only chance for a gap in the weather and went for a different number 52 – one that I had held off all year from completing, firstly through injury back in February, secondly due to other plans and peaks lining up at the same time when it was convenient to climb it. My 52nd peak ended up being Avalanche Peak (1833m) and I was proud and excited to do it. It’s one of the most popular ‘alpine peaks’ in New Zealand and would be my fifth time up to the summit – previously in autumn (twice), spring, winter and now the midst of summer, but in much worse weather than my other attempts.
I had checked the weather; metservice, softrock, metvuw and a few others and there was a gap in the incessant rain that had taken hold of New Zealand between Boxing Day and New Year’s Eve. I calculated that I had from around 2am until about 12pm before the snow, rain and wind came crashing in. My plan was simple; get up early on Saturday morning, summit before 9am and head back down into Arthur’s Pass for a celebration (and a coffee) before the next storm cycle moved in.
The plan went without a hitch. I left Christchurch around 5.20am (still in the light) aiming to start the peak around 7.30 following the Avalanche Peak Track – then to summit before 9 (including GoPro messing around and a few photos), descend Scotts Track and back along the highway into Arthur’s Pass village.
Arriving at Arthur’s Pass Railway Station I met a few guys training for Coast to Coast – running Goat Pass (on a day like this… madness I thought) but they seemed happy enough…although I’d hear later that there may have been a search and rescue callout for them. Again, always respect the mountains and the weather.
My previous climbs of Avalanche Peak meant that I knew exactly how much water, nutrition to take. The climb would be just over an hour from the village and I took a few extra supplies with me due to the advancing weather systems.
Starting up the Avalanche Peak Track is always tough. It’s pretty vertical, rocky, rooty and a scramble in most people’s books. I love that kind of thing. It’s rough and ready and you’ve got to go for it or you’ll just get tired out and fall behind! Anyway, the first section through the trees is the worst – the going gets easier as you reach the treeline and ascend through the tussock and grasslands towards the top. At the start I was wearing nothing more than my Arc’teryx Phase top and shorts, even wearing my sunglasses… although it was pretty obvious that they were not going to be needed on the top.
As I climbed out of the trees, the wind hit me – not so much, but I packed my sunglasses away and threw on my trusty waterproof jacket to protect from the wind. The clouds rushed past me and ran through Arthur’s Pass valley below, hiding Mt Aicken and Mt Temple behind me. Now you see them, now you don’t… and so on.
The next section was quite steep up to a set of cairns, but from there could see Mt Bealey to my left, covered in fog which didn’t look like it was going to clear. At this point I had yet to see the summit of Avalanche Peak, and in fact still wouldn’t until I reached it around 30 minutes later.
Still ascending, I passed a few kea who were happy enough to brave the cloud with me. Kea are awesome animals – the mountain parrot of New Zealand with their incredible coloured wings and who are unfortunately hooked on sugar (thanks to us humans). I reached the final push, in a great time. This was the ‘avalanche’ part in Avalanche Peak, but not so prone without the snow on the ground.
A final scramble up the huge boulders led me to the last ridgeline run to the summit. It felt weird – this was it! I got to the summit and screamed. I jumped, I stomped, I smiled, I laughed. I even tried to blow up the balloons I’d brought up with me as a semi-joke. I was ecstatic to say the least.
I stayed on the summit in the cloud for some time, to take a huge amount of time to reflect on what I’d achieved while secretly hoping for the cloud to lift and disperse to get a shot of me above the valley floor. My hands were going numb, but moments after I started to pack up, there it was – a glimpse of sunlight. The view!
A few more moments with the camera and I had packed up and was on my way down to round off the intense, yet amazing year of mountain running.
The descent was lovely. The rain had left nice mud to cling onto with my X-Talons as I flew down the slope. I hit the bushline in a matter of minutes (after taking an epic shot of me running on the ridgeline across from the Devil’s Punchbowl), passing a few other trampers on their way up – alerting them to the approaching storm and cloudy conditions on top.
I zig-zagged down the final sections through the trees and hit the highway before stretching and striding into the village to finish the day. Not only did I feel exhausted having finished the challenge, but slightly apprehensive too. My mind cast forward to my plans for the forthcoming weekend… without a peak to do – what was the plan – a run, a bike, a mountain, a swim, a challenge… another challenge…another year…?
Well, what’s it going to be?