A three day weather window appeared on the forecast scheduled for the last few days of October. Greg Young and I had been waiting for such an opportunity to get flown up to the largest glacier in New Zealand, the Tasman Glacier and attempt to climb and ski a classic mountain in the Mt Cook National Park, Elie De Beaumont (3109m), the 16th tallest mountain in New Zealand.
Unfortunately, Greg couldn’t fight off his chest infection in time and unable to round up anyone else to go on the trip, I turned to the internet and managed to cobble together a rag tag group consisting of Michael Jarret, a kiwi electrician from Wanaka and Marko Ross-Bryant, an American who spends the spring and early summer riding bikes and climbing in Queenstown.
We arrived at Unwin Lodge, the NZAC club lodge, located just outside Mt Cook Village and opposite the Mt Cook Airport, with high expectations. However, things were off to a slow start as Saturday morning rolled around and the Tasman Valley was cloaked in dark clouds that refused to budge all day.
We were forced to spend another night at Unwin Lodge with hopes that the next day would bring the bluebird, light winds and cold temps that were forecast.
Sunday morning came around with sunshine and no clouds in sight and we managed to get the light plane up to the glacier. Unfortunately, the pilot must have had a bit of a mind-blank as he landed on the glacier and said “Tasman Saddle Hut – hop on out” and with that we jumped out, quickly unloaded our skis and backpacks and watched the plane take off again to drop the other three occupants of the plane over the pass at Murchison Hut, however, upon looking around he had not landed at the landing zone for Tasman Saddle Hut but for Kelman Hut! So instead of being a short stroll from Tasman Saddle Hut we were 2km from where we needed to be. Roping up our food box, we dragged it and our baggage over the glacier to the hut and prepared to make a late start for climbing Elie De Beaumont.
Our plan to climb Elie De Beaumont on Sunday was to ascend via the Anna Glacier under Mount Walter and then up to the col between Elie and Walter and up the shoulder to the summit. This route has some exposure of snow falling off Mount Walter’s east face and given our late start this was our primary concern. Thankfully, the cool temperatures in the morning kept the snow and ice stuck to Mount Walter and we ascended up the Anna Glacier crossing the snow bridges over the large crevasses, that later in the summer climbing season, melt away and cut this route off.
The climb, although not very far from the hut (4km) and not very much climbing (about 1000 vertical metres), was pretty tiring and by the time we reached the top all three of us were pretty tired. It certainly took longer than any of us had expected. We generally had nice powder snow (between 20-30cm of fresh snow) all the way to the summit apart from a small ice section on the ridge above the col between Walter and Elie and the slope off the summit to the top bench which was a stiff wind slab.
The powder was surprisingly light and dry winter snow, even late in the day when we descended, the southern exposure of the mountain does wonders for the snow quality.
We had to put some protection in for the icy ridge section above the col as a slip on the hard ice could have resulted in falling off the steep west faces of Elie De Beaumont, a result best avoided. On our descent, we belayed this section to avoid any complications late in the afternoon.
Ecstatic with the success of our day, we skinned back up the Tasman glacier and through several crevasse sections to the Tasman Saddle Hut. The Tasman Saddle Hut sits on the upper neve about two kilometres below the top of the glacier and sits precariously on top of a cliff face which allows it to avoid being affected by the flow of the glacier. The Tasman Glacier flows downhill between 477 and 822 metres every year.
Monday was always forecast to be a bit marginal, with partly cloudy conditions. However, we awoke to zero visibility, occasional snow flurries and strong winds. A long breakfast and some waiting time for things to improve and now or never time arrived at about 10am. We experienced some zero visibility glacial skiing until we broke through the cloud that was stuck in the Tasman Neve and then skied down the Tasman to Darwin Corner, the usual pickup for the ski planes at the end of a trip. Unfortunately, the transient one bar of cell coverage wasn’t good enough to make a phone call to the airport and we had to pull out the Sat Phone, only to receive the news that it’s too windy for the planes to fly but that we could get a helicopter pickup. We chose to do that instead of walk all the way through 20+km of rocky glacier and moraine walls to the Tasman Lake carpark. The extra time waiting for the helicopter allowed us to have a look around and find the rumoured tractor on the lower flank of the white glacier of the Tasman. This tractor was originally used in the 70’s to help build runways for the lower powered planes, but was lost and abandoned and has now become embedded in the glacier and travelled 5km downslope since the 70’s.
Even though everything played against us, from the weather to the logistics of the flight in, it did all come together so that we could achieve the main objective of the trip and in unbelievable powder conditions to boot! I’ll be back up the Tasman Glacier many more times in the future and it was great to have a look around this season. Unfortunately, the weather doesn’t look conducive to any more trips this season as New Zealand becomes entrenched in a westerly flow for the foreseeable future with no breaks in the weather for as far as can be forecast.