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Ski The Olivines

Updated: Dec 30, 2023

The Olivines our quintessential heartland of New Zealand transalpine adventures, few are there among us that aren't inspired by the area's great challenges and beauty.

Over several trips I had ventured onto or over various peaks and passes of the Olivine Range but never onto the Plateau itself, often these trips started with the assistance of a WARO operator dropping me off in locations that will remain forever undisclosed. While ever so convenient those drop-offs were never without a certain regret and a feeling that I had not yet achieved my own personal full and valid Olivines experience.

During winter 2020 with Rachel Knott and Clemence Cadario [Clem] I did the Symphony on Skis, it was a most inspiring and enjoyable trip that reawakened a passion for ski mountaineering, from Mt Acland looking up into the mystical Godley peaks and glaciers we agreed to do another trip the following winter.

I'm not sure where it came from but the idea of skiing some peaks in the Olivines took an immediate and vice like grip of each of us and it seemed like it could be quite straight forward. Dart River Safaris would take us in their jet-boat to the new lake, a short walk from here would see us at the Dart River bridge above Daley's Flat and Moir's Guide described the route from here up to the bush line as "elegant," from there we would be on skis, simple yeah!!!

Firstly and contrary to their web-site the jetboat operator said getting to the lake was out of the question and the Beans Burn was as far as they go, then we found out the bridge had been destroyed in the Feb 2020 floods but for us there was no turning our backs on the idea, we were obsessed with going skiing in the Olivines.

To counter the lack of bridge a pack-raft was employed and in Aug we portaged it along with our food and fuel up to Daley's Flat in anticipation of the next good weather spell which unfortunately arrived while the South Island was in lockdown. Out of lockdown the weather never played the game, we needed a seven-day fine spell as the plan was to go light and fast, getting caught out in bad weather on the Plateau was not an option. Winter turned to spring, then unfortunately Rachel had to go overseas for work, weeks passed before we got a forecast with any degree of certainty.

Having kept our plans to ourselves we now surprised several likely partners with last minute invitations to join us but none could so we resolved to go as a team of two although we each had our doubts as to how we would manage. This was immediately highlighted after crossing the Dart just below the old bridge site then spending the next hour thrashing around in thick bush. Elegant was not an apt term to describe our efforts or progress and more than once Clem sought clarification on the kiwi use of the word, apparently it's not a word the French would use to describe bush bashing with a heavy pack and skis on your back. Luckily for me Clem's a really nice person that has really nice friends, Thomas Rold volunteered to help carry a bunch of our gear up to the snow line which made a huge difference and earned him the nickname of "Saint Thomas of the Dart."

Once on the snow, with skis off our packs and under our feet the tempo changed, in no time we were camped on Seal Col excitedly peering over the edge into the Joe and scoping the route to Climax Col. A keen wind battered out little tent fly all night and at first light we had zero visibility, a short 10 second conversation saw us burrow back into our all too light sleeping bags for a few more cold hours until it cleared. Desperation Pass was well filled in and presented no difficulties, in no time we had climbed Watkins and skied straight down onto the Derivation Neve where out of the wind things were cooking in the midday sun. We had identified the traverse around under Mt Gates up onto the Thunder Glacier as a problem area in our proposed route and when we skinned up around the corner our fears were confirmed, evidence of wet slide activity, lots of creep and glide cracks and a wet heavy snowpack. As much as were desired to reach Climax Col we couldn't justify the risk and returned to the Derivation Neve where we set up camp with a plan to try the route again at first light the following morning. We quickly skinned up the east ridge of Mt Gates where we were treated views down the Forgotten and Olivine rivers over to Fiordland, we find it hard to leave such an awesome and hard-won viewpoint but the descent on skis back to the tent makes up for it.

With a solid overnight freeze we're away with the sunrise, this time we swiftly crampon over the slide paths and up onto safe ground, then an hour later were on Climax Col at the head of the Plateau. We're absolutely fizzing at being there and Clem quickly lays out a plan of skiing Gable Peak at the bottom of the plateau, with light day packs we ski off the Col down the Plateau. Cramponing up Gable Peak I'm suffering and struggling to keep up with Clem when I realize I've drunk little all day so I consume a large amount of my water, by the time we top out I'm good again but have little left to drink for the return back up to camp. The views from the top are ridiculous, not a cloud to be seen or a breath of wind, we spend over an hour on top identifying peaks and places of interest before skiing perfect corn snow straight back down onto the plateau. Two hours later we arrive back at Climax Col, set up camp and work on some serious rehydration before being treated to a stunning sunset, we scuttle around from one view to another taking photos, this place is just outrageous.

Another cool clear morning follows and we follow an uncertain up and down line around under the south side of Climax Peak and up to Solution Col using various modes of travel, skiing, cramponing and skinning, whenever the ascending gets steep and firm I'm on my crampons as a default, Clem stays on skis, I can't believe what she seems to stick to on them.

We summit Climax with the arrival of the heat and its more of the same, not a cloud in the sky, two excited climbers absolutely transfixed by the views then it's skis on and perfect corn snow, in no time were back down on the Plateau following yesterday's skin tracks back up to camp.

It's as hot as hell and we're both feeling it, we look longingly at Ark our other objective but the route back down to the Derivation Neve is visibly deteriorating. Checking the forecast on the Inreach confirms our suspicions, the freezing level has gone to over 3000 which gives us little confidence there will be an overnight surface freeze, we have a lot of east facing terrain to deal with tomorrow so we decide to ski back to our Derivation Neve campsite in the late evening after the slopes have been in the shade for a few hours. We spend a relaxed afternoon eating and drinking as much as we can then by 7.30, we've packed up and ski down the Thunder Glacier. Were happy with the snow until we reach the traverse out under Mt Gates where the snow turns to custard and we find ourselves in the exact situation we were trying to avoid, half an hour later of delicate skinning and we're relieved to be back at our campsite on the Neve.

Another sunrise departure and we quickly gain Glacier Col then start traversing up the eastern slopes of Albert Peak, about 150mts below the summit we've gained the hight we need to make the access gully down onto the Margaret Glacier. Were tired and its already uncomfortably warm so we bail on plans to ski off the summit of Albert and ski increasingly heavy wet snow down to the big bend on the Margaret Glacier where we start a long rising sidle up onto Hedin Peak. More wet heavy snow and intense heat, fatigued after six days of travel with the summit of Hedin not far above us we bail on that plan also and ski down to the bush line.

It would be fair to say the descent off Hedin through the beech forest with its large boulders, wind break and tight regrowth was not an elegant route even by Kiwi standards but we keep our sense of humour and with Clem navigating we were spot on in arriving at our pack-raft beside the river. We stay at Daley's Flat hut that night and just on dark "Saint Thomas of the Dart" arrived to help two weary travellers carry their gear down the valley the next day, what a guy, he's got me wondering why I don't have any friends like that?

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