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The Arthur’s Pass Round

Updated: May 2, 2023

The goal of a “Round” is to climb all of the most prominents peaks in a mountain range, starting & finishing in the same place. The idea comes from British fell/mountain running culture, with challenges such as the famous Bob Graham Round, Ramsay Round and Paddy Buckley Rounds. Each of those loops were established with the aim to climb the most number of peaks in 24 hours. A day in the mountains.

The Arthur’s Pass Round takes that great British fell running tradition into the alpine zone in the form of a 48km loop, starting and finishing in Arthur’s Pass Village, summiting 9 peaks and clocking up 5500m vertical gain. That’s no small amount of mountaineering. The Round had only been done once before, by Troy Forsyth in mid-summer conditions, in a respectable time of 17.5 hours. How would it go in “winter” conditions?

This year a long winter has lingered, gifting the Arthur’s Pass plentiful snow cover into October. A near perfect full moon, clear weather and reasonable snow conditions… The three stars had aligned. To be a competent alpinist, it’s not just about steep technical climbing. You also need ultra-endurance and massive amounts of mileage on easy and moderate ground, and Arthur’s Pass has this style of terrain in abundance. The Round would be the perfect training.

We set off from Kennedy Lodge at 12:25am, first bound for Mt Bealey. At bushline the full moon illuminates our way ahead. What a magical journey! Thunk. The sound of falling waist deep into a snow drift. An antarctic blast earlier in the week had deposited a foot of cold dry snow across the mountains. Not even at our first summit, I don’t rate our chances of success highly. But, we persevere. What else is there to do?

Lyell Peak, Avalanche Peak, pass by in the blur of night time snowy footsteps. Rome Ridge approaches, headlamps on the ridge, dawn coming. Mt Rolleston’s most classic ridgeline spurs us on, and the snow conditions improve. Mt Rolleston High Peak. Four peaks done!

Onwards to Philistine into thickening mist helps us focus on only the next hundred metres, that’s all we can see. A few tricky scrambles around the final buttresses keep us on our toes.

Midday on Philistine’s summit, 12 hours in, silhouettes appear. Hallucinations? No we are not that far gone (yet), these are real people – a group of CMC climbers & skiers. “G’day!” We offer to buy their skis, the powder run into the valley looks delicious.

Down to Otira Valley carpark and our pre-stashed food drop. Treats! Caffeine, sugar, fat and salt, all necessary for a healthy diet in the mountains. Fully jacked, we are in no mood to quit now. It’s 4pm but we are barely past halfway. Next comes the Phipps-Aicken traverse.

Past Temple Basin skifield we aim ourselves towards Phipps South Face, which still holds good ice in the central gully, leading directly to our 6th summit. Now comes night. Phipps-Temple traverse by torchlight, wind whipps our faces. Ominous clouds surround us in gloomy sunset. Sophie is oblivious to just far how we have ahead of us, I neglect to divulge details, it won’t help either of us. One rock, one ridge, one peak at a time.

“Have you reached your B’limit yet?” I ask Sophie as she reaches peak 8, nigh on midnight. She appears unphased, perhaps delirious, enjoying the the sensations of pushing beyond 24 hours of mountain travel, tasting a new flavour of endurance.

Maybe that question on B’limit was asked too soon, the most difficult climbing was yet to come. With the strengthening gales came a thin layer of snow, coating the rock with a slippery veneer. Scrambling endless exposed terrain in the evil hours can exhaust not only the body but also the mind. But our systems are wired for survival. In the midst of challenges somehow we always find enough juice to keep on going.

Aicken, peak 9. Enchainement. Time to go down, home, hot drinks, hot food. Friends are waking up for a new day, but we are heading to bed.

That was 29 hours on the Arthur’s Pass Round. That was a long day in the montains. A good day in the mountains.

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