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  • Writer's pictureHenry Booker

A Labour Weekend Aoraki GT

Updated: Jan 6

Recently Sophie and I put together an alpine hit list on some scrap paper that hangs in the flat living room, right where we can see it every day. The first objective we ticked off was the Manukau - Uwerau traverse (in tramping terms this is a XXX rated extreme mega hike in its own right). Apart from team events, this was the most we’ve done together as a partnership and for some dumb reason the Aoraki Grand Traverse seemed like a great idea. With a great labour weekend weather window and hearing Lionel and Reg had their sights set on Hicks we figured it was the perfect time to head up to Empress and give it a nudge.

We left the Hooker road end at 5am, and as the sun rose the south face of Aoraki emerged from the black. An intimidating prospect but hey why not. The Hooker glacier felt like a grind to me, but according to others it was filled in and in good condition. Crossing actual crevasses was a first for me and definitely a precursor to what was to come.

That night Empress Hut was heaving - a 12 bunk hut with 17 occupants for the weekend - potentially the fullest it's ever been. Lots of chat ensued throughout the hut creating a lively buzz, and Lionel got increasingly fed up with my sarcastic insults about his age. Sophie spent the afternoon having a nap. We set our alarm for 1am much to everyone else's dismay, after a lovely dinner of Smokey Barbeque Radix.

To our advantage a party had skied the NW couloir (our ascent route) so there were tracks all the way making nav across the lower empress shelf super easy in the early hours. There were footsteps over the schrund where the couloir begins, so we followed those, took our ropes off and began climbing. The snow conditions were excellent for cramponing and we daggered our way up, arriving on the west ridge just on sunrise. Here we headed left when we should've gone right which took us to a mixed step, which I soloed up and found an anchor to second Sophie up. We lost a bit of time heading this direction, but soon joined back up to the snow gullies and were on the ridge below low peak at about 8am where we were greeted by stunning views over the Tasman and on through to Lake Pukaki. As expected conditions from here were icy and exposed and travel began to significantly slow. Topping out on low peak was awesome but looking onwards to middle and high peak it really cemented just how long of a day we were in for.

From low peak to Porter Col it gets quite rocky, reminiscent of the Remarks GT. Sophie led the way on simul placing a mixture of screws and rock pro around some rock steps, with an abseil to a snow ledge in the mix as well. From Porter col we did not place a single piece of rock pro for the rest of the trip. So on we front-pointed all the way to the base of Middle Peak, where we could finally sit down on some flat ground and fuel up, giving our toes a much needed rest from the endless front pointing. We arrived here at 2pm.

To get onto Middle Peak, we slightly skirted round onto the east face where we decided a pitch was our safest option for a large step of steep ice. The ice was solid and held some pretty bomber screws. After this we had a bit more front point traversing along the ridge and then finally things flattened out so we could walk. We walked over Middle Peak and carried on, before quickly checking our map. We had been told that the section between middle and high peak was probably the most time consuming and difficult section and with it now being about 4pm we made the decision to find a bivvy for the night to avoid having to find the bolts on the summit rocks in the dark. So we sighted a large crevasse just over from Middle Peak and climbed inside for the night, making sure to fuel up and rehydrate as much as we could. The night was cold but a small amount of cloud had come over making things a lot warmer than they might have been otherwise.

Probably the biggest mistake we made was leaving the bivvy too late. We had woken up as the sun was rising and took our time to eat and pack up, thinking that a bit of sun on the ridge would make travel a little bit easier. This ended up costing us a lot of time towards the end of the mission. Travel was much the same over to High Peak as it had been the day before, more exposed front pointing and swinging on simul with some wobbly screws. Standing on top of High Peak was surreal and we were incredibly grateful to be finally heading down, albeit on our third day rather than the second. Coming off High Peak we were now following the track of the guided groups that had summited that morning, and there was still more front pointing to be done. Finding the bolts on the summit rocks went as expected, they were hidden well out of view and we ended up abseiling on some tat. Halfway down this we looked up and finally saw the bolts. Being back on track was good and from there things went smoothly and efficiently down to the schrund.

By this point it was the evening and looking up the Linda, The Gunbarrels were looking particularly menacing. Things were cooling down, however it seems to be a good rule to spend as little time on the Linda as possible. Again we roped up, and plodded down

sometimes sinking knee to thigh deep into the glacier. Going around Teichelmann corner the detached hanging serac sitting above the Linda was revealed, and we quickly navigated the debris field below it until the valley opened up onto The Grand Plateau where we heaved a sigh of relief. Theoretically we were meant to continue on to Cinerama Col and down, ideally as far as Ball Hut, but it was 9pm, we were tired, had run out of gas meaning we would have had no water till the Tasman. So the decision was made to stay at Plateau Hut, we knew the weather was meant to turn at around 3am and with a quick radio call into the Doc office we got an updated forecast. However the incoming storm turned out to be much worse than what was initially anticipated.

We sat in Plateau Hut all of Tuesday, listening to the wind and horizontal sleet thrashing the hut, thankful for the hut food left behind (which included a single Steinlager). One of the Mt Cook guides' hut food cupboards was unlocked and we enjoyed a lovely breakfast of sticky date pudding and pancakes. I also read some climber magazines and looked at nude men in the 2010 OUTC Antics while Sophie once again had a nap.

Waking up on Wednesday Sophie stepped

outside to see multiple size one slides, about 1m of snow had fallen on Tuesday, so although the weather had cleared up our window to escape was very short and it was decided it would be far too dangerous to descend Cinerama Col and the Boys Glacier. The decision was made to phone up inflite using the hut radio and organize a pickup to get us back down. Although the pancakes were good we didn’t fancy staying there for another week for the small victory of doing the entire loop on foot. The helicopter landed and with our tails between our legs we hopped aboard, the pilot being lovely enough to take us through Cinerama Col to “show us what we missed out on”. As we expected multiple small slides had already occurred and with the sun creeping over we felt our decision was more than justified. We emerged back into society around 10.30 and happily paid our dues to the heli company who were kind enough to give us a free lift back to our car.

So all in all, good mission, top of New Zealand or something, however we must deduct style points so I’ll give it a 7/10.

Thanks to the multiple Alpine Team mentors who gave us endless amounts of beta and advice, to Mt Cook Guides for the food, and also DOC for putting up with our multiple “help us, weather please” calls from Plateau Hut.

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