Never Truly Lost

– A Litter Bugs Guide to New Zealand

by Bob Sault

After extensive discussion (two phone calls) and preparation (buying the plane tickets), John Atkinson and I had decided to do a ski trip to the upper Godley valley in the Mt Cook region of New Zealand . After more extensive planning (two more phone calls to determine who would bring the billy, stove and rope&emdash;we eventually both brought stoves), and all was ready. I was cheerful during the drive up the Godley valley, in the back of Bill Preston’s 4WD (we had paid a hunting guide to drive us the 60 km from the main road to within a few kilometres of the Godley Glacier). The weather was clearing, and the forecast for the next few days was good. However this mood soured when John discovered at the end of the road that he had lost his wallet. I had bought John’s plane ticket (because of the late decision to go, it was the easiest way to ensure that we both managed to get seats on the same plane), and as part of the repayment, John was paying for the large expenses in NZ. Consequently John had most of the money that we would need. Bill Preston had that look of “sure&emdash;you want me to believe that one?” when told of our lack of money, and how we would put a cheque in the mail&emdash;in a few weeks. It did not take long to walk the distance to Godley Hut, despite the poorly packed rucksacks, bulging with our food supplies&emdash;bought from the petrol station mini-mart at Lake Tekapo. A short walk that afternoon showed that the ice on the upper Godley Lake was probably not skiable. In the meantime, I had managed to lose the wine bladder I had carried down to fill with water. No great loss&emdash;John had another wine bladder. We just had to empty the original contents. Our assessment of the ice on the lake proved to be accurate the following day. I took a short swim with my skis and clothes on to prove the point. Rather than skiing the lake, we bashed around the moraine edge, working our way over the various avalanche cones. We eventually turned back a hundred meters from the Godley Glacier proper, when we would have had to traverse underneath a wall which was sending down a continuous stream of rocks&emdash;this had to be New Zealand.

Another daytrip from the Godley Hut, up Fitzgerald Stream, saw us threading our way past innumerable small avalanche cones, and sidestepping an occasional rock fall. At least we stayed on our skis all day that day. However with the upper Godley blocked off, and the weather still good, it was time for us to move across to the Murchison valley. I did this with much regret, imagining the weight of all the food, and the skis that we would invariably carry a good distance. The proposed route was the Classen Glacier and Saddle. However this suffered much the same f ate as the upper Godley. We found ourselves in a situation where we could descend either a gully with rockfall debris, or a gully with avalanche debris, to get to the Classen Glacier. They were gullies requiring belaying, and the thought of this type of climbing with 25 kg packs (topped with skis) appealed to neither of us. So it was piking time, further down the Godley to an easier pass &emdash;Armadillo Saddle. Rutherford Stream&emdash;the valley leading to Armadillo Saddle&emdash;proved to be even more of a bowling alley than Fitzgerald Stream, with us needing to cross many large avalanche cones. But be grateful for small mercies&emdash;the avalanches had completely y buried a waterfall marked on the map, making the g going easier. The danger of avalanches&emdash;in the ~1 early morning when we did this section&emdash;was t pretty low anyway. After a slow climb, we had a 4:00 pm lunch at the top of Armadillo Saddle, in deteriorating weather. The descent started down a small avalanche gully, across e a broad shelf, and then another avalanche gully. The gullies required climbing, so it was off with the skis and into the pack. John showed the proper glissading e style at the base of the gullies, doing his best to h imitate an avalanche. He also found a schrund in one of the gullies, and kindly excavated it a modest amount, so that I (who was following) might take an unintentional tour of its lower depths. Once down s on the Harper Glacier (a feeder of the Murchison), it was time to inspect a map to determine the best route to the Murchison proper. But Hughie was not s in a good mood, and a particularly strong gust of wind ripped the map from my hands. Soon it was out of sight.

By dusk we were down on the Murchison Glacier, and John was keen to try to get to the Murchison Hut about 5 km away. Given the blizzard that was building up, it would be great to get there&emdash;but during a blizzard, across a slotted glacier, at night? After a few hours of effort, which included the need to ropeup for glacier travel, we admitted defeat. We dug a hole for the tent at the edge of the glacier, and it was not too long before we were in my cramped bivvy tent, eating a midnight snack of chocolate and cheese (the first food to surface out of the packs). John suggested that I had bought such a small tent so that I had an excuse to cuddle up to someone. I assured him that I did not have him in mind! To make sure of this, John found it an opportune time to have an attack of the lergy, luckily vomiting into his bludgers bowl. As we fell asleep, John joked about the amount of snow accumulating, and how a “runner” would have to go out and dig the tent out at 1 o’clock. “Oh, you mean in 25 minutes” I laughed. By 2 o’clock, snow had accumulated to the height of the tent (140 cm) on two sides, and the tent was starting to collapse. Certainly it was becoming even more cuddly inside. So it was time for the “runner” (me) to put on my damp clothes and dig the tent out. “That’s a NOBLE job you’re doing out there” called John (from the warmth of his sleeping bag). Was that “Noble” or “noble”? Was he referring to me kicking and shovelling him as I dug at his side of the tent? The snowfall fortunately eased off somewhat, and it was not until 8:00 am that the tent needed to be dug out again. By this stage it was clear that the campsite was on a mildly avalanche prone slope. We could not afford to sleep in, as we might have wished. Digging the gear out took its time&emdash;even upright ski-poles had been completely buried. A few small avalanches reburying things did not speed matters. Given the situation, it was surprising that the only gear lost was a tent peg and a guy rope&emdash;plus… There may be some doubt as to where our only billy was lost. It may have been at this campsite, or it may have been while rigging up for glacier travel in the dark the night before. The net result was the same – no hot food and nothing to melt snow in. The rice and stove fuel suddenly became little more than ballast. Luckily we could get by quite nicely on slabs of butter, cheese and chocolate, and snow can be substituted for water. Looking for the hut in the continuing blizzard was no more successful than the night before. We eventually gave up, and skied several kilometres down glacier, to camp by some erratics near where the Manning Glacier meets the Murchison. From here we could enjoy the show of the rockfalls and avalanches and a tent that was better erected. The following day dawned sunny, and our wet gear was soon strewn over all the nearby erratics, drying out. John whipped up some ice-cream for breakfast (snow, milk powder, sugar, honey, etc). A black garbage bag full of snow proved a tolerable way of making water in these conditions. John was still feeling the effects of the lergy, and I was feeling the effects of a high slackness coefficient. We did not move that day despite good weather and snow. We were lulled to sleep that night by the thunderous sounds of avalanches off a nearby (but not too nearby!) wall, as another heavy snowfall started. Our time was now spent, and we had to start skiing out the next morning. In clearing weather, we skied down glacier over the worst of the Murchison’s moraine. Having bashed this moraine in summer months, it was an incredibly satisfying experience. A few hours walking bought us to Liebig Hut and a billy to cook in. Several hours walking the next day, including the tedious crossing of the moraine on the lower Tasman Glacier, and we were on the road out to Mt Cook village – just as the weather was turning truly foul. Once out we learnt that John’s wallet, still containing all the money, had been found by a farm worker on the lower Godley valley property. Bill Preston kindly arranged for it to be left at a petrol station, so that we could retrieve it on the bus trip back to Christchurch. In all, it was 10 days away from Sydney, 8 of which were spent out. By New Zealand standards, we were lucky with the weather. Probably the only dampener was problems with glacial lakes.