Thursday, August 19, 2010
Lost in Whiteout on the Misty Mountains
So this past weekend, I headed up to the Remarkables (aka the Misty Mountains in the Lord of the Rings) to meet up with James (the guy that I met in Queenstown) and do some ice climbing for a few days. We also went with a friend of James, who goes by Roo. We were going to camp out for a couple of days so needed to bring food, camping, and climbing equipment. Snowshoes were required since we had to hike about 2 km, contouring around Double Cone mountain, which had received a fresh onslaught of snow.
I see a trend in the ice I have climbed in the two years. In North Carolina, I missed some of the best ice conditions this past January because I was taking a Wilderness First Responder course, only to climb the tail end, spring break of 2009 in Colorado ( it was warmer than NC), and now in New Zealand on the tail end of winter, I am met with soupy ice. Soupy ice is nice for climbing because it requires less energy to get a good stick (swinging the ice axe into the ice); however, it is not so good for protection or anchors. Most of the ice was the consistency of a snow-cone and it was hard to find solid ice that was not aerated. There were some very cool looking routes and heaps of potential but the conditions were slightly less than favorable (or safe). Most of the large WI 5's (a rating for ice routes based on how steep the route is -- 7 is the highest) were either hollow, detached, or had a visible crack running across the pillar. Therefore, we had few options of we climbable ice. Although, my view is to climb anything that is top-ropeable (do not have to lead from the ground up), James and Roo seemed uncomfortable with the conditions. I felt fine, probably due to the fact that I have climbed really crappy ice in North Carolina for so long. We ended up doing only five routes in 2 days, most of which were single pitch but some topped out at about 100 meters.
The plan for the last day was to wake up around 8:30 and start the steep hike out of Wye Valley. It had been snowing hard the previous day and it was again snowing hard the morning for the hike out. A couple of factors made this hike out less than desirable: the packs were just as heavy because everything was wet and freezing, including climbing ropes; my ice boots are not waterproof so had taken on water for the last couple of days -- it was the constant entry of snow into my boots, water pooling at my feet and then freezing during then night, and thawing them out with the heat from my feet each morning. At times the snow was too steep or too exposed for snowshoes, which required removing the 60+ lbs pack, donning crampons, putting poles away, retrieving an ice axe, and putting the snowshoes away. To make matter worse, once we reached the top of the valley we were in the mist of the misty mountains. Whiteout.
I felt as though I knew where to go -- based mostly on intuition. But there is no messing around in a whiteout. It would be very easy to walk off some cliff edge or initiate an avalanche. The visibility was such that I would, at times, widen my eyes as if I were in a very dark room or cave, trying to distinguish between snow and sky. James had a map and compass for the area but that meant stopping about ever 30 meters to make sure we were on the same bearing. Unfortunately, the wind was so cold that stopping meant my wet clothing would freeze. In retrospect, the map and compass actually caused more problems and probably shouldn't have been used. Intuition is a powerful guide. James at one point said we needed to climb this steep ridge to make for the exit saddle but it didn't feel right. We later made many wrong turns... sometimes into avalanche territory. Fours hours later, I knew we were lost... and that was a horrible feeling.
We dropped down onside of a ridge. A very steep ridge. Close to the bottom we realized that we went down the wrong saddle, which meant hiking all the way back up. I about went mental. I could not removed the pack anymore to go through the process of removing snowshoes and putting on crampons. I could not stand falling up to my waist in snow, my pack giving into gravity and pulling me downhill. I could not stand the thought of digging a snowcave and spending another night in this weather. Finally at the top of the ridge, I yelled to James in Roo, mostly because the wind was blowing hard but also because I was completely frustrated, that we needed to head left hugging the ridge and we would find it. Call it luck if you want but I was right.
I barely made it to Queenstown to catch the bus at 5:25 pm. We spent six and a half hours in the whiteout and the hike out should have taken three hours at most, and we fortunately made it out before nightfall. I think I will stay in Dunedin this weekend.
Posted by Daniel at 2:14 PM