Party: Greg Salway and Chris Berwick
**** Brief Summary ****
Greg and I spent a total 9 days walking up the Tasman glacier and then down the Murchison glacier in Mt Cook National Park, New Zealand. We initially travelled over the lower moraine (huge piles of different sized rocks which lie on top of the glacier) before reaching the knobbly ice-topped section of the glacier, and finally the smoother snow covered section higher up (with larger crevasses that must be walked around). This was all reversed as we walked down the Murchison glacier, except there were some easy rocky river flats at the end of the Murchison glacier in the valley.
Along the way we walked and climbed up a couple of easy peaks for fantastic views across the New Zealand Southern Alps. Unbelievably we had 9 days of almost perfect weather with loads of sunshine! It was a brilliant trip with a great friend, amongst some of the most amazing alpine scenery that I.ve ever seen!
**** Full Report ****
** Day 0 – Arrival mishaps! **
Greg and I were booked on separate flights that were meant to arrive at Queenstown within 15 minutes of each other. My flight was re-routed via Invercargal with a 3-hour bus ride up to Queenstown, as there was too much cloud at the Queenstown airport for the plane to land. Greg missed his flight due to unforeseen circumstances and he re-booked on the next flight which saw him arrive 15 minutes before my bus arrived. We were both 4 hours late but at least we found each other!
** Day 1 – Blue Lakes car park to camp at Tasman/Hochstetter glacier junction **
We spent the morning packing our backpacks with 10 days of seriously rationed food and all the hiking and mountaineering gear we needed. We reckoned our packs were in the vicinity of 25kg each (the heaviest I.ve ever carried).
We started walking along a 4WD road that runs beside the glacier in the wide valley. We were initially behind the moraine wall and couldn’t see the glacier on the other side, but after a little while we came out on top of the moraine wall to see the grand vista of the glacier covering the bottom of the valley. We had a late lunch here before continuing along the walking track to reach Ball shelter where the track ends.
As it didn’t get dark until 9pm we decided to continue and see if we could travel about 4kms on the undulating moraine on the glacier below to reach the start of the flatter ice section, where we were hoping to pitch a tent for the night. As we were tired and had heavy packs, our progress was painfully slow and it soon became obvious that we would not reach the ice before dark. So we had to find an alternative camp!
About 500m to the side there was a flatter section interspersed with some white ice in amongst the moraine, where the falling Hochstetter glacier joined the Tasman valley glacier. We found a flat part on some small rocks, and chipped away some of the glacier with our ice axe to level out the surface for our tent.
We cooked up our first camp meal, and while struggling to munch it down, pondered about the rest of the trip as we were so tired after only half a day’s walking.
** Day 2 – Continuing to camp at the upper mid section of Tasman glacier **
We didn’t get up early the next day as we knew we needed our replenished energy to get across the rest of the moraine. It started out easy enough as the going was pretty flat as we skirted along the Hochstetter and Tasman glacier junction. Then came the annoying 10-30 metre rises and falls on the moraine as we picked our way diagonally across the Tasman glacier to reach the start of the ice section. What a relief!
We then put on our crampons and continued walking up the knobbly glacier ice for a little while before stopping for lunch. Here the glacier was alive with little streams flowing on top of it, so finding water wasn’t a problem. And amazingly some of the streams disappeared down sinkholes into the glacier, or filled small crevasses as they flowed.
After lunch we continued going up the ice section, travelling beside a long skinny moraine running down the middle of the glacier (a trail of where two glaciers merge and grind away the rock mountain as they move slowly downhill) – As we walked I was amazed by the south side of the mountain range as there was almost endless falling glaciers coming down to join the Tasman glacier.
Reaching the last major bend of the Tasman glacier we decided to call it a day and camp. Here we were just above the firn line (where the snow never melts). As most of the glacier was covered with shallow snow we couldn’t see the small crevasses, and I accidentally stepped onto a thin snow bridge over a small crevasse that was full of water. I came out cursing with a wet boot!
A few clouds had rolled in and just after we finished putting up the tent some light rain began falling, so we quickly retreated to the tent and cooked our dinner. Luckily the rain soon finished and we were back out enjoying the last of the day’s sunshine in the cooling temperature. We’d now made it 2/3rds of the way of the Tasman glacier, and were hoping for a short day the next day to finish our journey up to the top-end of the Tasman glacier.
** Day 3 – Continue to Kelman Hut (at the top-end of Tasman glacier) **
There were clear blue skies again the next morning as we roped up together for safe glacier travel before setting off. This had the added advantage of taking some weight off our backs, as we were wearing some of the gear we’d been carrying. We travelled up the lowest part of the glacier where there were lots of thin crevasses to walk over as we admired our amazing surroundings, where almost every surface was covered in glacier. We slowly approached a steep icefall and had to walk up to the side in order to get around it. There were some deep crevasses that we had to avoid by following a zig zag route forward. We were following footprints initially, some that led to dead ends where snow bridges had recently fallen into the crevasses, and we had to retrace our footsteps for a little way to find another way around.
We then forged our own tracks for the final part of the ascent to the top of the glacier. As we looked up it often appeared as though there were no crevasses up ahead, but then, as we got higher we’d arrive to a gigantic crevasse that we had to zig zag beside for 1-200 metres before being able to continue forward. Along the way Greg sank knee-deep with one leg into a thin crevasse as he stepped onto a snow bridge over the crevasse. Luckily it was just a skinny crevasse!
We were still pretty tired as we made the last little climb up to Kelman Hut for a late lunch. There was a guided group leaving the hut as we arrived, and they kindly left us a couple of mouldy loaves of bread with some fresh greens, plus a couple of chocolate bars! This extra food really helped see us through the rest of the trip and ensure we didn’t starve!
We spent the afternoon relaxing in the sunshine as we made plans for the next day, and looked down over the Murchison glacier to where we were hoping to continue our walk in a couple of days. We’d heard the steep .Murchison headwall. icefall could be difficult to get down at this time late in summer, and it sure as hell looked pretty imposing to us!
After two days travelling in shorts on the snow and ice in the sunshine, our legs were quite red, and the back of my knees were killing me! We had also neglected to put sunscreen on the underside of our noses, and they too were very painful.
** Day 4 – Kelman Hut to Hochstetter Dome (west) & return **
We’d decided to make a day-trip to a nearby peak before we continued our transalpine loop hopefully along the Murchison glacier. We got an early start waking at 4am, and after gearing up for glacier travel, leaving at 5:30am. We walked across the top of the relatively level Tasman glacier as the sun rose behind us. We then reached a steep section at the base of the dome. We looked up to see lots of crevasses falling down the mountain and picked a route we thought would get us through. As we got closer, we realised the crevasses were a lot bigger than we’d thought, and instead had to zig zag our way up to continue. We crossed a slightly risky thin snow bridge, then continued around the mountain to find another snow bridge over the next crevasse. After skirting around the mountain a bit more we were finally going up the last steep rise to the top. From the top the views across the NZ Alps and back down the Tasman glacier were simply stunning. The valleys below on the other side were immersed in mist, and we could see the rocky mountain tops poking through the top of this mist!
We continued along the top hoping to reach the 2nd peak of the double-topped mountain (east side). We climbed down a steep snow slope before walking around crevasses on the way up again. We reached a point where the sheer exposure and gradient of the climb to the top was beyond our preference, and instead returned to the east peak for a long lunch in the warming sunshine. We had a good chat and laugh here before heading back down, taking a slightly different route through the maze of crevasses. On the way back we stopped by the Tasman Saddle Hut that is precariously perched on a rock outcrop in the middle of the upper Tasman glacier. We were treated to a warm Milo as we chatted with the friendly occupants.
We returned to our hut in the afternoon, enjoying some glissading (step sliding) down a snow slope on the way.
** Day 5 – Continue to camp at Murchison/Aida glacier junction **
The forecast indicated a cloudy morning with a clear afternoon, so we’d decided to continue our journey and see if we could get down the Murchison headwall. The friendly guide who was staying in our hut gave us some advice on getting down, and said we might have to make a bollard in the snow to abseil off, something we’d never done before! If we couldn’t get down, we’d have to walk out the same way we came in on the Tasman glacier.
We had a sleep-in and set off walking in the cloud at about 10am. Visibility was only about 20-30 metres as we found our way over a few crevasses to the Tasman saddle (the pass where the Tasman glacier ends and joins to the Murchison glacier where it starts its descent, firstly with the Murchison headwall).
We trepidly crossed the first crevasse where there was a short drop onto a receding snow bridge. It then became steep as we continued down another short distance to what looked like a big fall into a potentially open crevasse below. As it became quite steep we set a couple of sturdy anchors in the snow and I down climbed with two ice picks on belay to see how big the drop was. Our rope was only long enough for a 20 metre abseil, and this drop looked longer than that. Nor could I see if it was possible to climb out the other side of the crevasse. So an alternative route down was required!
We glanced over to one side where the glacier ended beside the rock cliff. We thought there could be a possible way down alongside the cliff and glacier junction. As we got closer it just became too steep, and again the drop looked too big for the length of our rope.
The cloud had become somewhat patchy by now, and about 100 metres across we could see a dodgy snow bridge which led on to a small 5 metre drop that landed onto a fallen snow bridge in a crevasse. From a distance it looked OK and easy enough to climb out of, but we couldn’t be sure until we got a closer look. Whatever the case, we hadn’t spotted any other ways down and it was basically our third and last resort.
We went across to the snow bridge and dug two safety anchors in the snow before crossing on belay. I then took a closer look at the drop and thought it would be OK, so we were still a chance to get down! We then placed some back-up anchors in the snow while we dug our 4 metre wide bollard in the snow just above the drop. The snow pack was quite stable and it looked like this bollard thing would actually hold our weight!
Greg went first while the back-up anchor was still in place as he was the heaviest. He got down abseiling no problem and could climb up the soft snow in the crevasse too, to reach the other side. He was across, and we’d be able to continue our journey! I removed the back-up anchor and went down to join him and celebrate. We pulled the rope down as we realised that it was now about 3pm, and we’d just spent about 4 or 5 hours getting down a distance of just 50 metres, so much for lunch! (if only we’d been here 2-3 weeks earlier (before the snow bridges melted and collapsed).and we wouldn’t have had any problems!).
We glissaded and slid down the last part of the headwall before continuing down the Murchison glacier, being forced to make a big zig zag around one set of crevasses. Travelling downhill was a lot easier and we made good progress as we reached the first major bend in the glacier where a hut was located high up on a side ridge. The glacier here was out-of-this-world, as there were lots of ice canyons carved into it by various streams flowing downwards, and the myriad of close-knit cris-crossing crevasses and canyons made for a freaky serrated appearance.
We’d planned to stay at the hut but couldn’t see it as we approached, and by the time we’d got low enough to see it, it was too high above us and we just decided to camp on the glacier instead. This has the added advantage of getting us closer to our goal for the next day.
** Day 6 – Murchison/Aida glacier junction to My Sydney King & return **
As the last forecast we received was for the good weather to continue, we decided to try and ascend 900m to the nearby Mt Sydney King via the Aida glacier. We awoke at 3am and were on our way by 4:30am after roping up for glacier travel. The initial ascent in the dark was pretty smooth as we walked up the ice section of the Aida glacier which came down steadily to join the Murchison glacier below. We had a few knobbly crevasses to negotiate our way over, before reaching the snow line.
Next was an imposing icefall that we hoped to find a way up. Daybreak was just upon us and from below it looked like we might be able to get through the middle gully section of the icefall. We ascended a short steep snow slope before reaching the large crevasses. We weaved our way through the impressive crevasses, having to cross a thin snow bridge in order to continue. Then came another steep climb before we were above the icefall and in the Aida glacier bowl, just below the peak about 100 metres above us.
As we approached the peak it looked quite steep to us, and we weren’t sure which was the best way to go up. We decided to try a steep snow slope that led to some exposed rock that would lead us to the top. We pitched on belay up the snow slope, initially using two ice picks to climb with. We set an anchor to belay off on the rock, and then continued on belay up the loose steep rock. On the way Greg accidentally dislodged a rock which went hurtling just 1 metre over my helmet!
We got to the top for outstanding views of the NZ Alps, with some deep valleys and more glaciers to the north. We could also see back to the Tasman saddle and our route down the upper Murchison glacier.
We carefully retraced our steps, and on the way down decided to practice some crevasse rescue techniques in a real crevasse. This was our first time safely practicing holding a crevasse fall in a real crevasse (better late than never!), and the experience really helped build our confidence in case we ever did have a real crevasse accident.
We got back to our tent around 4pm and the spent the rest of the afternoon relaxing in the continuing sunshine.
** Day 7 – Continue to Leibig Hut (at the bottom end of Murchison glacier) **
After a well-deserved sleep-in, we continued walking down the glacier, initially along the mid ice section of the glacier. There were glaciers plummeting down the mountains on the south side of the valley, as we noticed green ground-cover appearing on the mountain sides. We soon reached the moraine on top of the glacier, and set ourselves for a long 6km slog up and down the moraine rock piles. After a short stint along the moraine it was time for lunch, which we enjoyed in the shade of a large boulder that looked almost ready fall down.
We then continued our trudge down the moraine, at times finding some good level sections to help us along. The signs of life were beginning to reappear, as we noticed small plants growing in the more stable parts of the moraine, spiders and even a few birds were about. We hadn’t filled our water bottles, and we were regretting this just as we found a small cloudy pool of melting glacier to quench our thirst!
We were moving as quickly as we could, taking few breaks as we reached the top end of the 2km long terminal lake. There were lots of birds here that probably nested on rock-covered icebergs in the lake. After some deliberation, we decided to walk down the left side of the lake as it looked easier, the drawback being that we’d later have to cross the Murchison river.
After another slog alongside the lake, we’d finally reached the rocky river flats at the end of the glacier, where green grass and shrubs were abundant (so different from the baron rock/snow/ice alpine environment just back up the valley). It was then just a short easy walk to Leibig hut arriving just before 8pm, after another long day’s walking.
** Day 8 – Rest day at Leibig Hut **
We’d been wanting to have a rest day for a few days now, but the weather was just too good to stop. So we had our rest day here in the continuing sunshine amongst the amazing mountain scenery. The day went by quickly as we read and napped, and we barely moved more than a few metres from the hut!
** Day 9 – Continue to Blue Lakes car park (end of walk) **
As we had to cross the Murchison river, we got going just before dawn hoping that the river levels would be lower to make our crossing easier (as the heat of the day will speed up the melting of the snow/glacier and hence increase the depth and current of the river). We arrived to the river just as daylight broke and looked for the most braided section of the river. We back-tracked a little to where there were about 6 ice-cold fast-flowing channels to cross. I opted to cross barefoot as I needed to keep my boots dry for our next trip. We got out our ice-axes to use for a third balance point, unclipped our waist straps on our packs (in case we fell), and then began the ordeal.
The first channel was small, but the water temperature sure as hell had our feet tingling. The next two channels were flowing quite fast and we hoped weren’t too deep. Greg went across and made it without stumbling too much, passing through a couple of waist deep parts. I followed Greg’s lead as my toes began to slowly numb. After crossing the last few channels my toes were truly frozen.
We then continued for a few easy kilometres down the valley until we reached the moraine wall where the Murchison valley met the Tasman glacier (that is covered with moraine at this point). After we reached the top of the of the moraine wall at the lowest point, we had two choices: 1. Head backwards 4km up the glacier a little and cross to Ball shelter (where we’d come down the moraine wall on the first day), or 2. Head forwards 6km down the glacier and cross to reach a low point in the moraine wall on the other side. We checked the map and decided on the second option as we figured this would be quicker. We passed by a couple of pretty, crystal-clear lakes before we reached a dead-end high above the terminal lake of Tasman glacier! We had planned to cross above the top end of the lake but somehow the large lake was already below us? How could this be? We soon figured out that our map was old and the lake had grown substantially since it was printed! What a pity, this meant we’d lost about 1-2 hours of hard walking on the moraine, and we’d have to backtrack to the top of the lake. This we did, and then head straight for the steep moraine wall on the other side, hoping to find a way up. We had lunch at the bottom of the moraine wall while we looked for a safe route up that would not collapse under our weight and send rocks plummeting down.
Greg was confident of a route up, so I followed him up as he chose his steps carefully. There were a few minor rock falls as we made it to the top to rejoin the track. We were nearly back! Just a few kilometres left on the easy track now. We gulped down some much needed water and then walked back to our hire-car, arriving at about 4pm.
** Final comments **
We had now completed a circuit of two of longest glaciers in New Zealand! It was a hard trip over some difficult terrain that posed some difficult challenges for us to overcome. The reward was the truly remarkable scenery in a unique alpine environment that we were immersed in; seeing, hearing and feeling so many new and amazing things.
After this trip we had a couple of days to relax beside Lake Wanaka before meeting up with Rob and Ashley for our next trip, an attempted ascent of Mt Aspiring.
I’d like to sincerely thank Andrew Mitchell and Andrew Jacobs for the mountaineering skills training they provided during a SURMC/SUBW training weekend held in the Snowy Mountains last September. Without this I would not have been able to lead this trip over the glaciated/alpine terrain we covered, and enjoy the splendours that this environment offers.
And to the SUBW and SURMC clubs, a big thank you also for the support (and gear) available through these clubs that make these rewarding trips happen.