Impressions: New Zealand’s South Island

New Zealand. It looks fairly small on the map. At a glance it’s a wobbly, malformed pair of boulders drifting slowly away from the Australian coast, into the Pacific Ocean.

Look closer. A mishmash of place names. Etymologically, New Zealand sounds like a country discovered and named with Tolkienesque enthusiasm, but with a lot less linguistic consistency. Scottish labels dot the landscape like peppercorns on wrinkled cloth. They form a strange mix alongside Maori and American English. Glentanner, Glenorchy and Invercargill contrast with Waipara, Kaikoura and Hokitika. Shingle Creek, Mount Huxley and Hanmer Springs sound like they come straight from the States.

New Zealand is lonely and beautiful, the South Island especially so. The land east of the Alpine divide is free of human habitation for vast, numbing expanses of scrubby wilderness. The mountainous west is even emptier. The scale is both impressive and humbling. Driving through the South Island from Mount Cook village to Wanaka, New Zealand from the inside of a car feels like a bastard hybrid of Scotland and the USA. The rolling matted grass hills and barren slopes, parched by the summer sun, weirdly resemble a drought-stricken Caledonia. At the same time the vast irrigated fields and jagged Alpine ridges lining the western horizon bring to mind Dakota or Montana.

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Big skies and long horizons

Just like America, here in New Zealand the car is king. Without one you’d better be prepared to hitchhike or do a serious amount of walking. Towns sprawl unimpeded for miles, their inhabitants unconstrained and unconcerned by any need to economise on space. With so much of it to fill, the indifference seems almost wilful; a sharp contrast to the space-scrimping mindset forced on us Europeans.

The towns, when you reach them in the car, feel like border towns. Islands of civilisation – petrol stations, McDonalds, hardware stores, maybe a hunting store – they’re a chance to restock and grab a coffee before the next push.

Take Twizel for example. Population: 1,200 sunburned Kiwis. The first you see of it is the airfield by the road, a fat red biplane squatting on the tarmac. Further on, the Musterer’s Hut looks and feels like a Mid-West saloon, a coffee machine standing in for beer taps. A souvenir shop tagged on to the café flogs thermos flasks and postcards of kiwis, sheep and mountain vistas. It’s an island in the desert.

Heading further west on smooth tarmacked roads, the mountains solidify and then loom overhead. Soon you are amongst them on winding Alpine roads. The Southern Alps are the crumbling spine of the South Island. And they are crumbling. The rain seeps into them, freezing and shattering the brittle rock, reducing rocky tenements to jumbled spoil. The mountains in the west create their own, new, New Zealand; still wild but wet and lush where the east is arid.

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Sometimes, New Zealand feels a lot like Scotland

New Zealand feels like a young country, still settling into its own sense of identity. It feels somehow incomplete and yet to fill out, like a designer-made country for whom the market suddenly dried up. A Magrathean customer contract. The mixed-up place names only add to this sense of exciting, confusing emergence. The country is still forging an identity, mashing traditional Maori together with its newer Scottish-English Caucasian legacy to create something new.

Note: at the time of posting, New Zealanders are voting on a new flag. They have the option to replace the traditional Union Jack-based flag with a new silver fern-dominated design. Current polls indicate that the old flag will be retained; an interesting and perhaps unexpected choice in a young and growing country.

Speargrass, scree, summits and skies; lessons from North Peak (2628m) in New Zealand

So. Alpine mountaineering in New Zealand. In short, it’s tough.. but seriously rewarding.

Right now I’m just under halfway through two months in New Zealand. Because my main aim here is to build on my international mountaineering experience, I set my sights on summitting three separate Alpine peaks here in the South Island. And on Monday 22 February I stood on top of the first one – North Peak, 2628 beautiful metres above sea level.

As I soon discovered, one of the things that separates mountaineering in New Zealand from the Alps (for example) is the sheer remoteness of many of the peaks. Long walk-ins are the norm; there’s a reason why people who can afford it use helicopters to get them to start of the routes! North Peak is typical. Located in the Jollie Range in Canterbury, just getting to it takes a 19km hike over jeep trail, across rivers and through dense bush.

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An easy start on the jeep trail from Lake Heron. This didn’t last.

It started easily enough. Planning to split the approach over two days, we set off on a sunny late-February afternoon. My friend and I were joined by Kevin Patterson, a Kiwi with over 50 of New Zealand’s Top 100 peaks already under his belt. The first mountain hut we reached – Downs Hut – was inconveniently locked, so we pressed on to Thompsons Hut just 4.5km away. This is where the easy ground ended, along with my initially bulletproof faith in our map. Unlike Scotland, maps here really can’t always be relied on to show access routes. As it turned out, the overgrown jeep trail we were following had been obliterated by a landslide into the Rakaia River valley. We came across this near-vertical dead end just as it was getting dark and spent the next two and a half hours of darkness struggling through the bush before finally getting to the hut at 10.30pm.

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Pushing through the dense bush

There are two South Island plants which make ‘bush-bashing’ in the South Island really tough. Matagouri is a tough, tangled shrub which can growing up to 3 metres high. It’s dense and bristles with needle-sharp thorns and it just so happened that Thompsons Hut was well defended by it on three sides. At one point we were literally crawling on our hands and knees, in the dark, to get through! Speargrass, also known as spaniard, was another pleasant surprise. Innocent at first glance, its leaves are tipped with wicked points which lance through gaiters and trousers and puncture your skin. The trick is to step directly onto them and (hopefully) get stabbed less. Imagine stepping on a green pincushion and you won’t be far off.

Day 2 dawned bright and dry, in keeping with the forecast we had carefully checked. The weather can change notoriously quickly in New Zealand and the consequences of getting caught out high up can be very serious. Our weather window was set to last a good four days. After a relatively short 2.5km along the banks of the Rakaia we made it to Banfield Hut, our base for the attack on North Peak.

A 5am start on Day 3 should have ensured good progress. Unfortunately, the uneven ground and impenetrable bush made swift going impossible. Despite scouting out the approach to the screes at the base of North Peak the evening before, it took us three hours and a good bit of roughed-up skin to make it less than 2km in horizontal distance. This cut only 450m out of our total ascent of 1,900m for the day from hut to summit.

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Emerging through the cloud inversion. Photo credit: Romain Sacchettini

We set off up the screes – our only ‘easy’ few hours of the day! – in good spirits though, and made it to the lower reaches of the Assault Glacier (at about 1900m in altitude) at around 11am. It was hot and sunny; the first time I’ve done a glacier traverse in a t-shirt! Roped up together, we wove around the crevasses as we made our way up the right-hand side of the glacier towards what looked like the easiest ground onto the ridge. Unfortunately our progress was halted by a massive glacier-wide bergschrund, rendered invisible from below by the convex curve of blinding ice.

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On the Assault Glacier. In a t-shirt!

A traverse below a precipitous ice cliff across to the left-hand side allowed us to make it up to the ridgeline at about 2.30pm. A final hour and a half of exposed scrambling over steep drops saw a 4pm summit (far later than I would have liked) of North Peak – our first Kiwi conquest!

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Romain, me and Kevin at the summit of North Peak in amazing weather

The route up over the glacier and along the ridge had only been New Zealand Grade 2 – roughly equivalent to the French PD in technical difficulty. However, the real challenge had come from the long and strenuous distances involved rather than the technical challenge. This was something I had already read about, but couldn’t fail to fully appreciate as we reached the summit.

Having made a late ascent taking a total of eleven hours, our priority was to get down as soon as possible. Unfortunately getting back to Banfield Hut took another eleven hours, compounded by our having to cross a Jagged Stream swollen by meltwater and then having to negotiate the bush-choked valley in the dark again, albeit in descent. A 2.30am finish rounded off a leg-destroying 21 and a half hour day! This had the dubious honour of being my longest mountain day out to date.

We had a deliberate late start on Day 4 after a much-needed eight hours of sleep. Despite our heavy rucksacks the 19km return to the car felt like a picnic compared to the efforts of the day before. The streams intersecting the path barely slowed us down, though we were all grateful to see the car come into view just after darkness fell. A mere 40 hours of walking, bush-bashing, glacier-traversing and scrambling in four days meant our first Alpine peak in New Zealand’s South Island was in the bag, along with a healthy respect for the seriousness of mountaineering here.

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The trek back to the car, with the Rakaia River valley below. Photo credit: Romain Sacchettini

So in summary, the main lesson learned is: when mountaineering in New Zealand, pay close attention to the likely ease of negotiating approach sections and non-technical lower mountain slopes. Don’t focus solely on the technical mountaineering sections (though of course you need to fully understand and appreciate this too). South Island bush can be incredibly dense in wind-sheltered valleys and lower slopes. Likewise consider alternative routes of least resistance through careful examination of the contours, because trails shown on the map might not exist on the ground.

These challenges can really drain your energy, especially since you’ll be facing them weighed down with a rucksack full of climbing gear, food, clothing and camping gear. New Zealand is beautiful but mountaineering here demands very good forward planning.