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  • Writer's pictureMaddy Whittaker

A Southern Alps Traverse: making the dream a reality

Updated: 6 days ago

In the summer of 2020-21, I spent a couple of months traversing the Southern Alps of New Zealand with Tōrea Scott Fyfe, Thomas Hadley and Conor Vaessen. Jamie Gardiner and Rowan Cox also joined us for sections. It was an incredibly beautiful time, and vastly different to any shorter transalpine or mountaineering trips. There is something quite unique about experiencing the mountains in all weather, with an incredible team, and falling into a rhythm of moving through the alpine all day, every day, for weeks and weeks at a time.

However it took a fair bit of planning to make our traverse happen smoothly. Over the past few years, I've had quite a few people reach out, asking for advice on how to make a trip like this happen. So here is an outline of how to make the Southern Alps dream into a reality.

Crossing the Fox Neve, Mt Tasman in the background

Get the skills

I first started thinking about a Southern Alps traverse two years before I actually did it. While we could have done a traverse the summer of 2019-2020, we recognised that we wouldn't have had the skills to do the line we wanted to. There are many different ways to traverse the Southern Alps. Some people try and stick to the divide, while others zig zag back and forth over it/around it. While different lines require different skills, there are some base skills that are pretty essential:

Confidence route finding in all weather conditions.

A Southern Alps traverse is quite unlike going out for a weekend trip in good weather. You will have to move during bad weather. You will need to be able to navigate in white outs, in rain, in wind. You will need to be able to use a map and compass (you can't just follow a gps point on your phone when you might have only one powerbank to charge your phone for a month). You have to be able to assess terrain in bad weather to figure out if its safe e.g. knowing when to move in bad weather through snowy terrain, and when to change your route to the sub-alpine. You may also need to move during the night sometimes e.g. alpine starts, or to use limited goo weather windows to get to your next food drop. Navigating in the dark is also a key skill to gain confidence in, before embarking on your journey.

The crew on the main divide in low visibility, in the Canterbury Westland Alps.

Glacier travel and crevasse rescue.

No matter what route you take, you will travel through glaciated terrain on a Southern Alps Traverse. All of our team fell in crevasses multiple times during the trip - never major enough to require rigging a rescue system (usually just in up to your waist), but enough to remind us how important it was to be roped up - even on small and seemingly smooth glaciers. Mastering these techniques is essential, as well as making a good plan for distributing the necessary gear between people e.g. making sure that both snow stakes or all the ice screws are with one person.

Conor on the snow slopes on the back of Mt Hicks, the La Perouse Glacier behind

Snow camping

Whipping up a snow camp at the end of a long day can be a daunting prospect if you're not used to it. But you'll be doing plenty of it on the traverse. Make sure you're happy setting up a camp site in the snow, and managing yourself and others in this environment e.g. keeping warm while in the snow, building adequate shelter around the tent by digging a pit and/or building walls, using ice axes/poles instead of pegs, sleeping with boots as a pillow to stop them freezing etc.

Avalanche awareness

You will be moving through a lot of avalanche terrain, even if its summer when you do your traverse. Storms in November and December dumped large quantities of snow onto the divide when we did our traverse. We observed avalanche activity, and were almost caught in an avalanche. In December and January, the challenge changed to managing wet slide risks a lot more, and sometimes we had to move at night to mitigate this, but still reach our food drops before we ran out of food. Having an awareness of avalanche problems, how they form, how they settle, and how to manage a group in avalanche terrain is absolutely essential. It is one of the biggest risks you will face, and you won't just be able to look up an avalanche forecast on the internet. You will have to make very real decisions in the mountains, in real time.

River Crossing

There are many major rivers that you will have to cross on a traverse. However we found it wasn't the big ones that always were the hardest. Sometimes small, but fast flowing glacier outlets, with murky water, proved to be incredibly difficult crossings, with high consequences. Making sure you are confident picking places to cross rivers, backing out of a river crossing if it gets too swift, and moving together as a team are key skills to put into practice before your trip. Also mentally prepare yourself to say no to crossing a swollen river, even if your food drop is on the other side and you are hungry. That can be one of the hardest challenges of them all!

The Wilkinson River (above) required some bouldering moves to travel through! Can you spot the person in the hole, climbing up through the boulders?

Snow travel with crampons and an ice axe

This is a bit of a given if you're considering doing a Southern Alps Traverse. It's great if you can get away with using one axe in steep terrain, rather than having to carry two for a few months. So being confident on steep terrain with one axe is a skill you'll be grateful for on your traverse.

Self arresting

This is a basic if you are using ice axes and crampons. Review and refresh, especially with a heavy pack. The terrain you chose to move through may not always be super steep, but if you are roped up for glacier travel, if one of you goes, all of you go together. Self arresting therefore is a skill you need to be competent at, not just for yourself, but for your buddies.

Steep tussock and vegetation travel

Often a skill that is overlooked by those who come from a rock climbing background, rather than a tramping background. There is a good chance you might come across terrain where your life will rely on that tussock, or that dracophyllum, or you might just be in steep vegetated terrain, where a slip on snow grass could have bad consequences. Make sure you are happy with a steep pack in this kind of environment.

Confidence moving on scree and morraine

It's no secret that the Southern Alps of New Zealand have a lot of choss, especially later in the season. You cannot escape from scree slopes and morraine walls on your journey, so make sure you are okay with that kind of travel, and know how to move through this terrain with a group.

Being able to look at a topo map and know which things will go steepness wise without seeing the terrain in person.

This is a bit of a hard one that comes with experience. You will have times when you have to think on your feet, and make route plans that are different to what you planned, and which you can't see in front of you e.g. sitting in a tent in a storm. Being able to translate what you see on a map into an achievable route is pretty key for being able to adapt as you go. If you don't feel confident with this skill, then start looking at the topo maps for areas you've gone through, or are going through. What goes and what doesn't? How does this vary with terrain type e.g. Fiordland granite slabs vs Canterbury Westland Alps tussock.

Depending on the difficulty of your line, you may also require:

  1. Knowledge on how to abseil, and set up abseil anchors, both on rock and in snow

  2. How to pitch in the alpine

  3. Snow travel with two axes you think you're ready? Time to get to the admin and research side of things!

Researching where you want to go:

This is one of the more time consuming areas of preparation. There's a lot to think about. Where to start?

  1. Delegate. Split the stretch of Alps you intend on travelling into sections. Then give a section to each person on the team. Now you all have a section to plan for.

  2. Within each section, note the places you most want to go to. It's as if you've dropped way points on a map. Now you need to find a way to link them. Research the ways you could link them. Guidebooks, people who have been to the area before and smug mug accounts (Transalpine Photography, Maddy Whittaker smugmug, Nina Dickerhof smug mug, Southern Alps Photography, Jaz Morris Smug mug) are all good places to look. Topographic maps and google earth are also valuable resources. There won't always be information available, or it may be out of date, or constantly changing due to glacial recession etc. Cross checking google earth with topo maps is a good way to make sure things match up. Google earth can also help you see when shrunds get too big to cross each summer etc. Use a combination of all of these resources to plan your A line through this section. Record all of your beta in a document to take for reference.

  3. Next look at your A line, and identify all rivers, avalanche terrain or areas that could be affected by weather. Come up with a plan B, C, D, E, F and G to navigate all possible circumstances. Record all the beta for this too.

  4. Plot all of your A, B, C, D, E, F lines on a map. If you can, export this as a gpx file that you can put on your phone for navigation if needed (google earth is great for this). Note how long each will take. Record this in your beta document. Note spots which seem logical for food drops e.g. roughly every 7-10 days, easy to get food drops into etc. Once you've decided on food drops, look at the longest amount of time it could take to get between them out of all of your lines. Whatever is the longest - that's how much you put in your food drop!

A screenshot from our overview sheet of our trip. You can see we've also picked someone to provide weather for us on the right hand side. We had about 8 people contribute to weather forecasts for us over the duration of our trip. This information is vital, and it is great to have someone who understands what is involved, as they will be condensing multiple forecasts into 160 characters - and you'll be making big decisions based on this.

Tom and Tōrea descending from Mt Belmont, with the La Perouse Glacier below, and Mt Hicks, and Harper Saddle in the background. We would cross Harper Saddle to Empress Hut that day.

Be patient with this step. It can take months. Make sure you chat through your lines as a group, and make sure everyone is happy with the research others have done. Remember that you will be more tired (physically and mentally) than a weekend trip, and will have heavier packs. Terrain that you might usually feel confident moving through may change in these cirumstances.

Tōrea at dawn on the Garden of Eden Ice Plateau

Food Drops

By now you should have an idea of how long you'll be gone for, and how many food drops you need to do. You can start working on food prep before you have final exact details e.g. you may not know how many days in each drop, but you know you need over a hundred dinners - you better start making them!

We did dinners as a group, and some lunch items e.g. hummus, wraps, but then sorted our own breakfasts and lunch fillings and snacks. Different people want different things, and eat different amounts, so personalising our meals was pretty key to staying happy, healthy and well nourished for a few months. Between individuals in our group, our personal food for a week could differ by a few kgs! It's important to think about your daily energy needs, and to make sure you are meeting these. We all lost a lot of weight, while eating a LOT of food. Under-eating will probably result in you getting sick or injured, or burning out early.

You may be starting to realise just how much food you need, and how heavy food is! It's time to get a dehydrator! We made a spreadsheet and assigned x number of meals to each person e.g. 30 dinners to Maddy, for four people, need to be vegetarian or whatever requirements you have. Each person can then get to work, making meals, dehydrating them, vacuum sealing them. Vacuum sealing is pretty important for drops that will be waiting for a few months. We used a biodegradable vacuum sealing bag, to help us manage waste on the trip.

A screenshot of our meal sheet. We also had a column which noted if carbs were required to go with a meal e.g. couscous or rice.

Once you have enough for the whole trip, you can split them into the relevant food drops, ensuring enough variety between each drop. Dehydrating your own food is a great way to go, as you can dehydrate the food you are used to eating (you know your body processes this well), and can pack in lots and lots of vegetables (this will be your main veggie source for a few months). Adding a tasteless protein powder is also a great idea. If its not achievable to dehydrate enough in the time frame you have, then mix in freeze dried or store bought meals e.g. radix. We did about 2/3 dehydrated, 1/3 radix for ours. Dehydrating extra vegetables to go along with meals is a great idea, and including spices and oil to add to meals to bring flavour and to add more calories is a great idea. Things with a high fat content don't tend to dehydrate well, so you'll need to add things like oil at the time of consumption. Dehydrating hummus for lunch is also a great idea. We generally ate wraps with tuna or TVP, spices and dehy hummus. Dehy hummus rehydrates in cold water in about 30 seconds, so is easy to go on the go.

Variety is key with food drops too. You don't want to be eating the same thing everyday for 3 months, so mix it up, and give yourself things to look forward to. While most food drops will probably be taken in in advance by you, maybe some food drops could be bought in while you are on the trip by friends. This means they can bring in fresh vegetables/fruit for your lunches/breakfasts.

For each food drop, label all the food items for person and with the drop number, sort into the relevant buckets or plastic tubs (need something water tight to store them), and then figure out how you are going to get them into the spots they need to go. Sometimes utilising back flights is an option but most you can walk them in yourselves! Get creative! Walk a food drop in, packraft out! Just remember that any buckets or tubs you take in, you'll need to collect after your trip. Not every hut is suitable for storing stuff e.g. busy alpine huts may not have space. Make sure you label your food drop with a contact number for if it gets damaged or eaten in an emergency. Whoever's number you put - they will need to know what food to get to replace it. We did lose one food drop in this way - a group of school kids who got stranded on a camp ate our food, but were great about contacting us and paying us back for what we ate.

Remember to include fuel in your food drops and sunblock (although bag well to avoid spillage and contaminating your food with fumes). Also consider gear for some of the drops e.g. extra tat, spare batteries or a second ice axe, or perhaps christmas treats!

We ended up having 11 food drops in total, so it was a bit of a mission to get them all in place, but we got there! We put all of ours in in advance, although some other traverse groups in the past have had them all bought in by others during their trip. Figure out what works for you.

Tom and Tōrea transitioning from the Kazenbach Ridge to the Bracken Snowfield, Mt Evans behind.

Sort your gear

You want to have all of your gear optimized. You want to be able to rely on what you have to get you through all weather, but also don't want to carry too much extra. Every kg will make a difference!

There's a few key areas to consider:

  • Personal items. We each took:

    • Shorts and tshirts x 2 (one for walking in, one for sleeping and relaxing in)

    • Summer weight synthetic puffer jacket (Macpac Pulsar)

    • Mid layer (Macpac Pisa )

    • Thermals (2 top, and one bottom - we never wore the bottom one without overtrousers so it usually was dry for in the evenings)

    • Rain jacket (Macpac Prophet)

    • Gaiters

    • 3/4 shank alpine boots (to be worn in the alpine and steep terrin only)

    • Trail runners (to be worn whenever shoes would get wet)

    • 3 pairs socks (one to be wet in trail runners, one for alpine boots, one for in the evening to be dry)

    • Beanie

    • Buff

    • Gloves - two pairs polypro ones for everyday, plus a medium warm pair. Some of us bought a warm pair too e.g. a pair of mitre 10 polar bear safety gloves and a pair of macpac powder gloves)

    • Underwear

    • Personal toiletries including sunblock (we each wanted different amounts so rationed this individually)

    • Kindle + diary. Some of us bought a small set of watercolours or coloured pencils. Others bought cards. Overall was light

    • Summer weight sleeping bag (Around 500g)

    • Sleeping bag liner

    • Dry bags for storing things and for storing food

    • Bowl, cup, spoon

    • 2 L of drink bottles plus 2 500ml soft flasks that slotted into our pack straps

    • Macpac custom made 50L pursuit packs (with canvas material and a bigger hip belt, plus soft flask attachments)

    • 1-2 ice axes depending on the section (we all hd a lightweight axe, and also took a second axe for our Aoraki/Tai Poutini National Park section

    • Crampons - we used grivel G12 crampons

    • Helmet

    • Ice axe leash

    • Sunglasses

    • Lightweight alpine harness for glacier travel

    • Personal first aid kit (we had group first aid equipment, but also personal ones containing medications we may need e.g. UTI pills for females, pain killers, a course of antibiotics for an infected wound, antibiotics for a chest infection, cream for potential fungal infections on feet etc. Go to your GP and ask them for a travel kit and they will prescribe the right things for you).

    • Emergency blanket

    • Headtorch

Maddy and Tom cooking in the lower Balfour on Christmas Day, with the 3 person tent which we named "Old Faithful" in the background.

  • Group items

    • Sleeping mats (we took 3 mats between 4-5 of us. Our tent was only three sleeping mats wide and we top and tailed. This may not work for everyone but it worked for us)

    • Tent. We used a hillaberg anjan 3. It is a 3 person tent but we fitted 4 people lying side by side or 5 top n tailing. The five was quite tight, but the four felt perfectly reasonable, and we managed both arrangements for over a month at a time fine, including 36 hours in the tent during a storm)

    • Cooker - we used an MSR whisperlite, as we found this was able to cook meals well, and boil water reasonably efficiently in the snow/melt snow. We took one large pot and one small billy. We didn't really use the billy in the end. Remember pot cleaning things and a spare lighter or two.

    • Rope - we used an edelrid triple rated 60m rope

    • Tat (for abseiling)

    • Rack - we took two snowstakes, two ice screws, a small rack of cams (3 or 4) and some nuts. As a group of four/five, we didn't plan on requiring pitching (as this would take too long), but took enough to get through a small section if we had to.

    • Group first aid (bandages, hydration sachets, pain killers, dressings, strapping tape, spare batteries etc)

    • PLB

    • Small inreach (for weather updates)

    • Large powerbank (20,000mAh) x 2, plus charging cables. We mostly kept our phones off, but had one for charging the inreach and headtorches etc, and one for emergency use only. If anyone required more power than the rest, they had to carry their own powerbank e.g. I took a small one for my camera. We did carry a small solar panel for the first wee while to recharge things, but found it wasn't super effective, so ended up sending it out quite early on. Alpine huts were great for charging things, as many of them have charging ports. You need to have one of the adapters you use in a car for charging things to utilise these, so make sure to include that in your kit

    • Fix it supplies. Sewing kit, spare bootlaces, spare head torch, spare sunnies etc. We did use this to fix a rip in our tent! Very useful!

Make sure to test out your gear before you go! Make sure the sleeping arrangement will work, and that you'll be warm enough in the snow with your sleeping bag etc. We fitted up to 12 days of food (our biggest food drop), and all our stuff into 50L packs. I wouldn't have wanted any more than that!

Make your food drops - put them in place

Eventually you'll arrive at the start of your journey. You might be nervous, things might not go to plan? That's the beautiful part. You've prepared as much as you can, given yourself a framework to leap from, but now its on the mountain's terms. You'll get to experience the mountains as they allow you to. This will mean missing places you hoped to go to, changing plans, and spending periods in huts to wait for rivers to drop or avalanche conditions to settle. It's a beautiful and humbling experience, that will deeply change you. Write in a diary, document it well. Your first southern alps traverse is an experience like no other....

Sunset over the Godley, taken from our tent

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