Several months back I started dreaming of another epic to the hills and made contact with the usual suspects to see if there was interest. Of course Hardman Howell and Trooper Tom were keen for some more action in the high country. We were joined on this outing by Andy and Paul, both veteran adventurers of years at sea in the pacific in a small yacht (Andy) and Paul, a Canadian import with enough tales of bear encounters in the Canadian wilderness to keep us entertained well into the evening in the backcountry.
So as usual the plan was to get high, above the snow line and hopefully bag a couple of peaks. I had never been to Nelson Lakes in winter and it was decided the scalp of Mt Angeles (2075 m) and Mt Travers (2338 m) with a alpine traverse of the Roberts Ridge would hit the spot. Carrying close to a 20 kg pack my training had involved my usual running with the MEC with several pack hikes with James on my back up and down the Auckland volcanoes.
Unfortunately I ended up being unable to join the start of the trip with work commitments meaning I was flying south 36 hours after the other guys. We had planned to have 4 nights in the hills so I would have only 3 and was a bit gutted to miss a good weather window. The other guys decided to make the most of the fine weather forecast for the initial couple of days and head up the ridge and stay the night in the Angeles hut, heading up Mt Angeles the following morning, then over the Sunset saddle and down Hopeless valley. I was flying down on the second day, heading straight to the lakes and managed to hitch a ride with Rotoiti boatman/political commentator Hamish on the water taxi saving 3 hours of walking up the lake. I still had another 16 km to hike up the valley solo to meet the guys at John Tait hut.
I was enjoying the stunning winter bluebird day walking up the valley and as I rounded a corner not far from the hopeless valley I got my first sight of the mighty Mt Travers rising out of the valley. It was a breathtaking sight and looked like a monster towering on the horizon. I have to say on initial sight it looked enormous and from this angle steep and intimidating. I wondering if we would have any reasonable chance of getting up there.
As I pressed on I felt excited by the prospect of a summit attempt the next day with some anticipation and a fair bit of uncertainty. I had been walking for 5 hours in fading light was looking forward to the rendezvous with the mob at John Tait hut. I was surprised on arrival at the hut to find three Nelson chaps who had come straight from the meatworks with my mates nowhere to be seen. They had a chuckle when I told them I had left from north of the Bombays that morning.
Not too long later the guys arrived, they looked a bit ragged but stoked after a dawnie start, a perfect summit of Angeles and epic ten hour mission out the Hopeless valley. They had smashed it and scored a totally epic winter day on the tops and were elated with the summit. I was pumped to have some company and we started pouring over the map of the routes up Travers and plans for the following day. We had spent some time watching the weather forecast the previous few days and knew a couple of frontal systems were on the way later in the week. The latest weather forecast we had showed a frontal system coming in the following night with weather starting to deteriorate the following afternoon so we knew we had to be prepared to turn back early.
We set off the following morning in darkness under a clear sky at 7 am. We had 5 of us walking as a group and 2 Km up the valley turned off the track up the summit creek true left and started making our way through lush beech forest. The going was more straight forward than I anticipated with route finding pretty easy. We continued up and after a bit of a grunt we came out of the bush line and got some sweet views up to the summit. The cloud had started to roll in already on the tops and I have to say I was pretty gutted as this was the only day I had to get up to the tops.
Toms knees had started to give him grief after 2 big days in the hills with a big pack and the 5 of us had a discussion about the plan looking at the weather ahead, the forecast, and the fact the party had to split as Tom couldn’t go on up. I was still frothing to at least get my crampons on and get up as high as I could and of course hadn’t had the triumph of of standing on a summit the previous day. (I’ve always suffered a serious case of FOMO). Tom convinced us he could slowly make his way down solo and the four of us pushed on. We ran into a few bluffs on the true left of the valley as we got higher and downclimbed under a ice water all that hadn’t looked like had seen the sun for a few months.
There was a large bowl of snow surrounded by the rugged ridgeline to Mt Cupola, and I was stoked to finally hit the snowline after the long climb up from the valley. Paul was feeling fresh and the cloud had lifted so we pressed on up the bowl. By this stage the day had worn on and we decided with the forecast it would be prudent to turn back at 1 pm. We did not want to be stuck high on the hill if the weather deteriorated. We knew with a 1 pm turn the summit would be off the cards and focused on reaching a narrow col which would give us views out towards the southwest into the Sabine Valley.
As we climbed up higher approaching 2000 meters I was in my happy place. High up the hill, surrounded by rugged snow capped mountains. We had epic views towards Mt Hopeless and Mt Cupola which looked like fearsome and exposed mountains. I was surprised by the ease of travel in ideal snow conditions on what looked more intimidating from lower slopes. We were constantly looking up towards the summit and could see a clear route up to the right of the north buttress, which would take you up to the final slopes towards the summit.
We hit the Saddle and I was frothing, with epic views all around and steep rugged ridgelines going either direction from our position. The weather had actually improved on the morning and I felt a bit of disappointment that the summit was now out of our grasp, but total elation to be up high in the hills.
After a few photos we turned three hundred vertical meters from the top. The walk down we avoided the bluffs and made good time. That night we consumed our whiskey rations and enjoyed the afterglow of and awesome day in the hills.
It was an awesome trip and will remember those scenes up the top for sometime to come. With a little bit of time and reflection on the way out I had a think about some takeaways for next time :
- Lock the time of work in the schedule to ensure I’m around for the full window
- Mt Travers summit was in our grasp had we really wanted it. I have to say I was pretty intimidated by her when I first saw her rising out of the valley the previous day and perhaps at that moment she got the better of me and I gave her away. The takeaway ? Have self belief and stick to the goal even if it feels/looks intimidating. Until further information dictates otherwise or good decision making means you give it away, keep your objective clear – mountains often look steep and unclimbable but a route can be more doable than it looks. Make sure you and your crew are on the same page. The Leadville 100 motto rings true “You’re tougher than you think you are, and you can do more than you think you can”
- The crossovers between ultra running and alpine tramping are numerous – mental strength to push on hour after hour, importance of planning and nutrition, the satisfaction of standing on a summit/reaching a finish line, the camaraderie.
- To be high in the hills in a remote place with some good mates is what stokes the fire for me, regardless of summit outcomes.
Strava link for the summit day https://www.strava.com/activities/1098716422