After the heavy snows of the last week in June left a lingering sense in the air. I needed to take advantage of these conditions and get back into the mountains ASAP for an epic adventure.
The plan was worked on throughout the week with Dave (currently striving for twelve 2000m+ mountains in the year) and we had a summit, a route and a camp location for an overnight epic adventure.
Black Hill (2067m) stands to the north west of the Mt Hutt Range, well known by skiiers and snowboarders, as Mt Hutt Skifield (one of New Zealands larger skifields) sits on the east facing valley looking out to the sea. The Black Hill Range is rarely travelled to (possibly 20-30 people a year head that way in a year) so we decided to give it a go. With the ridges from our access all south-east facing with low angled slopes, this was ideal to keep out of the way of avalanche danger and was the best option for a peak in the current conditions. Still, checking the Avalanche Advisory pretty much hourly; whilst also getting as much information as we could via Softrock and other people in the know, we decided that it was a goer.
So on with the trip, early Saturday morning with temperatures reaching a chilly -6C in Christchurch, we set off in search of white powder (snow, in case you were wondering…). The drive wasn’t as epic as last week‘s with easy access around the Mt Hutt Range to the DOC track through to Tribulation Hut, which was our first part of the route for the day.
Stepping into the snow, I immediately decided to put on my new Kahtoola snowshoes. Dave was using his BD skis and skins (ski touring) so I was anticipating to be the slower of the two this weekend as the ski’s will be much faster over the snow. To my suprise, the snowshoes were so light, it felt like I wasn’t wearing them (although I was wearing my La Sportiva boots so they were heavy enough!!).
It was a different experience to normal, although really quite easy to walk/run through the powdery snow.
The start of the route was up Redcliffe Stream, not on the topomap, and was undulating and tough. The valley sides towered 300-400m above us as we weaved through knee deep powder, across rivers and jumping windblown fences trying to follow the track towards the plateau above us.
We spent the morning going pretty slow and getting used to the conditions. A quick lunch break next to the second to last river crossing meant that we were well on our way to the intended camp area.
Unfortunately we didn’t foresee the 3km detour across the plateau to get across the next river… this took a while and sapped time out of our intended plan. I also couldn’t feel my feet from being frozen inside my boots after kicking through deep snow all day…
Still, the plateau was incredible, we felt like Antarctic explorers crossing the vast expanses of ice. Simply trudging in time, to the rhythm in our heads with 1800-2000m peaks all around us shining white against the blue sky backdrop.
At the next river, the sun was starting to set… starting to set? already?? What time was it… had we really taken that long today?? …apparently we had. It was 3.45 when we reached the bottom of the mountain, nearby to a river and an old hunters shack. We took one look up to the Black Hill summit and decided to set up camp. Not only had we not got much energy after hours in the deep snow, we didn’t have enough daylight to reach even half way to the summit from there.
Dave is used to being cold. He is one of those guys who grows a beard, knows instinctively where the nearest mountain is and has his windows open in his room in the depths of Winter. This was his bread and jam (‘he loves it’, for those who aren’t English at heart).
Camp was at 980m above sea level and was a simple affair. A tent, sleeping bags & mats, a stove and some food. The sun then set and the temperatures plummeted.
It was approx -12C overnight and the sky way pretty much cloud free which didn’t help the cause. I had to leave my boots outside overnight, meaning that they would freeze and I’d have half an hour in the morning of agony as my feet would slowly freeze, go numb and then warm up as we started to move… I was sooo looking forward to that moment. Still, the Back Country meals we had were amazing – just add water, et voila… Cottage Pie for me and Tandoori Chicken for Dave. Warm, nutritious and did I mention warm?
The night’s sleep was good. The tent didn’t have any condensation on the inside and it was toasty and warm inside down sleeping bags with all of our layers on.
Sunrise hit after we woke and were eating breakfast.
I’d endured the freezing of my boots and wanted to chop my feet off… and Dave was boiling the coffee for the morning ‘pick me up’. We started around 7.30 from the camp, leaving non essentials at the base and charged forwards for what would be the next 4 hours. Our packs were a little lighter but still included shovel, probe, transceiver, clothing, waterproof, first aid kit, water, food, hats, gloves and other layers – so really we just left the tent, mats and sleeping bags behind…
One thing I would want to take next time would be trekking poles. My back, legs and especially hip flexors were humming.
One thing I would want to take next time would be trekking poles. The uphill section was an absolute pain without them. My back, legs and especially hip flexors were humming as we reached the 1500m mark after two hours of constant climb through tussocks, snow slopes and over some rocky areas where the snow had drifted. We had a snack to refill the batteries and then charged on… this was where it got slightly trickier as we entered possible avalanche terrain.
Dave managed to pick us a line zigzagging across the first area where the slope looked a little suspect and after that, the slopes seemed to point us in the right direction around the back of the col, so not to be in direct line of snowfall and around the base of rocky outcrops.
After a few dark moments, I got through the bad patch and really started to enjoy the mountain again – it was stunning. Knee deep in snow, up a 2000m peak with a little sense of danger but not enough to be extreme. Incredible.
So we reached the final climb after 4 hours of uphill. The last section was a steep, ice covered scree section which meant that I needed my ice axe and Dave needed to remove his skis. It was only a 200m section with another 200m ridge over the top to the trig point.
We fought against the ice until we reached the top… and the views were stunning. Blue skies with vistas from Christchurch on the sea shore to the east, Mt Cook to the south west and the shining Rakaia River to the north. After a few minutes to savour the view we did the ceremonial peak photos and then headed down.
One thing struck home while on the summit. When we were looking at the map for this peak, we struggled to find one that was accessible – and when we found one, we thought that we’d covered a lot of ground to find it. However, here we were; standing on the top of Black Hill with literally hundreds of 1800-2000m peaks lying in front of us.
The possibilities of adventure are endless in New Zealand – it’s such a good feeling to be living here and see it in the flesh.
Back to the descent… This was where the fun started (for both of us!). Dave got back on his touring skis and I got in gear for the downhills. Keeping each other in eyesight, we raced down the mountain. Dave skiing on the lush snowy slopes, with me running down the snowy ridges in the snowshoes. It was such a sense of freedom to race and run in the snowshoes (and totally exhausting…), ice axe in my grip, running through the snow covered landscape with an intense white backdrop.
The descent took only an hour and a half after the 4h30m summit time, pretty impressive as it was now a race against the sun… and we were currently on the losing team. We reached the camp around the same time as we had the previous day, which meant we had a full day of trudging back to the access road ahead of us… and only 2h30m of light left…. uh oh!
Packed within quarter of an hour, we retraced our now ice-hardened footsteps back to the valley, pushing our bodies to the limit. Over the river, crossed the plateau and reached the river gully on the stroke of darkness. Possibly 2+ hours of route left and no more sun to help guide us – head torches to the rescue (!).
At this point I think skiing was to be the more difficult pasttime without the light of the sun… I didn’t envy Dave on some of the steep sections – not knowing where your skis were going on tussocks and across small river offshoots… still the snowshoes were strong all the way – my legs, however, didn’t feel so fresh after climbing the 2000m peak and the walk out occurring back to back.
The final stage was mind over matter and we high-fived as we saw the glimmer of the car in the distance – we made it – overdue on the time, but all the while safe and confident we took the best routes.
What a day… emergency fast food on the way home rounded of one of the most epic adventures I’ve had in New Zealand – lets hope there are plenty more to come.