Successful Failures in the Southern Alps

Lake Castalia, Upper Wilkin Valley, photo credit: Toby

Sometimes things just don’t go to plan. New Zealand’s alpine environments can be a dramatic paradise one day and a howling hell the next. Beyond the weather there’s always human nature, difficult to predict at the best of times.

Failure #1: We had planned to head up Franz Joseph Glacier, wander along the nevé for a few days, before descending via Fox Glacier. Unfortunately the weather had other plans and a fleet of westerly fronts was predicted to sail across the South Island, bringing snow, rain, wind and general unpleasantness. Given the forecast, our group of eight headed back east of the divide on New Year’s Day, some in better shape than others.

The next morning we headed in to Top Forks Hut at the head of the Wilkin Valley, with a vague plan to tackle the magnificent Mt Pollux (best observed from the Hut longdrop). We spent our first day sheltering from the persistent rain inside Top Forks. A sock-wrestling championship was conducted along with a short foray up to the alpine meadow below Waterfall Face. Day two seemed more promising so we planned a shakedown trip to Leda Peak as a means of prepping everyone for a bigger ascent the day after.

Top Forks Hut, photo credit: Toby

Failure # 2: Leda Peak is comprised of alluringly smooth snow slopes which culminate in a satisfyingly pointy summit nub. Unfortunately, said snow slopes can only be reached via a maze of scree tracks and rock ledges. Our lack of planning and research played against us as we were foiled by a precarious chimney of loose blocks mere metres from more moderate terrain.

Helen and Sam investigate alternative routes up Leda Peak, photo credit: Toby

Despite our lack of success we were buoyed by that evening’s hot food and Nick’s ability to feed himself peanut butter with his feet. Half of our group traipsed out the following morning with the aim of wrangling some elusive Wilkin trout. The rest of us pondered our next move. Pollox no longer seemed viable with the disappearance of some of our more experienced members so a decision was made to head back up towards Rabbit Pass to try some routes on the surrounding peaks.

Failure # 3: The glinting line of snow sweeping along the Taurus Ridge to Mt Betsy Jane shone in Helen’s eyes as she attempted to convince me that the hours of bush bashing and route finding would be worth it. My feet ached in their brand new, stiff soled mountaineering boots and my wounded pride twinged at the memory of lumbering out onto the meadow a full half an hour after the rest of the group. I toyed with the idea of calling it a day and letting the others push on up the ridge without me but was unable to avoid the knowledge that as soon as I turned back I would be filled with instant regret. So it was that three bioengineers and their sulky companion ended up abseiling off a nasty ridge, held together largely by snowgrass and other alpine foliage to return, without even the scent of victory, to the valley floor.

Bailing off the ascent to Taurus Ridge, photo credit: Geoff

Success, of a kind: At about 11pm that evening there was a knock on the door of the hut. A tall pony-tailed figure emerged from the darkness with a cheery hello and proceeded to settle in for the night. After a few minutes of conversation I realised that the shadowy silhouette was Eric Bradshaw, one of New Zealand’s top ski-tourers. He explained that he’d reached Top Forks after a six day trip from the Volta Glacier before asking what we’d been up to. I described our less than inspiring climb up to not-quite-Taurus-Ridge. Eric’s reaction was “oh wow, if you’d made it that probably would have been a first ascent!” A first ascent. The final frontier of exploration. Bravely treading where Moir’s guide and a hundred similar publications, blogs and websites can provide no certainty. Although we hadn’t actually achieved it, Eric’s comment shed a new light on our recent activities. We had come in fairly blind to the area, with only vague ideas of possible objectives, without time to research or plan. The score for our trip seemed to sit at Ascents:0, Adventure:1, which has to be a win right?

The 30km walk out down the river gave me time to reflect on what truly makes a successful trip into the outdoors. Sure it’s amazing and incredible to get to the summit, to experience the panorama of an alpine peak but, at the end of the day, even if you don’t reach that pinnacle you still return to civilisation muddied, bloodied and exhausted with a huge grin on your face and an another adventure under your belt.

Upside-downtime below Lake Lucidus, photo credit: Toby

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