Note: This trip report is part of the TetonAT Trip Report Contest. Hamish is now in the running to win a FREE pair of Black Diamond skis based on viewer response and the TetonAT panel of judges! Good luck Hamish!!
Benji fords the Rees River on the way to ski Mount Earnslaw.
Tak! Ski planks clapping.
Shoosh, shoosh, shoosh, shoosh. Striding through water.
“Nooooooo! Gutted aGAIN, man!”
It’s dark. It’s 2am New Zealand time. We’ve just crossed the Rees River for the fourth time through thigh-deep icy water and are crunching across frosted grass. Jonathan’s knee is hurting. This is at least the fourth time he’s tried to ski Mt Earnslaw and turning back now would be the shortest attempt yet, plus there is most likely 30cm of powder waiting for us on the peak. Regardless, he has an injury that hasn’t fully healed and he knows it’s not going to last through the 2300m of riverbed walking, uphill hiking, skinning, and boot packing that lies ahead. The team isn’t interested in splitting up and ipso facto, we’re going home, wondering how much effort and luck it will take to one day bag this peak.
New Zealand is way south. It’s down under under. It’s also upside down. They drive on the left, light switches flip down to turn on, bicycles have the brake levers reversed, and yes, whirlpools spin clockwise –as do low pressure systems. For North American mountain people the mental pretzel is having north be the solar aspect and south winds bring cold air. NZ is an island in the South Pacific and the south island is right on the roaring 40s latitude so storms are fierce and unimpeded. Besides the quick-changing weather, the mountains are also burly as hell without the high country access that I’m used to in Colorado. The snowpack is way more complex too. In CO, you have windcrust on top of facets and that’s all you need to know. Down here, we have a solid spring snowpack, but in the last week it has rained, snowed, graupeled, and frozen to give us the craziest surface conditions I’ve ever seen.
Jonathan surveys Mount Earnslaw.
The most important strength for the Kiwi ski-mountaineer is patience –waiting for the right conditions. The second most important attribute is an ability to ski any and all kinds of mank –to suffer through less-than-ideal conditions. The latter was on display during our return to Earnslaw a week later. This time we offered a bounty of beer and petrol money to have a friend’s dad drive us up the valley and across four of the river crossings. The last was too deep and we had to dismount there, wading across the river anyway.
You see, Jonathan (Aussie) and Benji (Kiwi) have something of an obsession with this mountain and were almost on a vendetta to ski it, despite multiple failures before. Besides the vendetta, it seems that Earnslaw requires a stiff entry fee. Multiple attempts plus heaps of luck to line up the right conditions, a good partner and two days off. That reminds me; there’s a third attribute useful to Kiwi ski-mountaineers: flexibility. One might have to improvise or revise plans based on conditions…or events.
Back to the first crossing for a moment: before daybreak, we moved boulders to clear a path across for the truck. To get across without soaking our feet prematurely, we jumped across at a narrow spot between rocks. As Jono leapt, his loosely-tied shoe came off and fell into the rushing froth. Cursing and chasing as it shot away down the muddy torrent, we lost the shoe –and possibly another opportunity to finish the mission. Here’s where the ability to suffer kicks in though: J-man pulled on some dry socks and took the tongues out of his Garmont Megarides, ready to hike 20km and 1200m vert in his AT boots! As one alpinist friend of mine, when faced with a similar situation, would lustily growl: “Sufferrrr! For my part, as long as I get a good story, some cool pictures, and feel totally spent at the end, a mission is a success. So I was still in it. Benji and Sheena? “I reckon we’ll have a go.” Good. We’re off again!
Jonathan and Sheena hike up a beech forest to snowline.
The trudge from valley floor, up through moss-covered beech forests to tree line was unremarkable, except for the brutal amount of vertical to cover. The relief is so huge it makes you feel like a Hobbit climbing Mt Doom. Above tree line, the death march continues, but there is incredible scenery to distract you as you climb into Kea Basin, with waterfalls, hanging glaciers and the many peaks of the Southern Alps all around.
After climbing a long spine above Kea Basin, we finally arrive at the snow and take some of the weight off our backs. It’s noon, we’re about 1000m below the summit and we’ve just started skinning. Maybe familiar to folks in the PNW, but a pretty big adjustment for me from Colorado. However on skins, with lighter packs, we seem to move a lot quicker and are soon below the East Face, brewing up and stashing our overnight gear below Wright Col.
Blue-To SE Ridge, Red-NE Ridge.
We decided to traverse across the glacier to the SE ridge, hoping that it would be easier terrain than what we could already see on the NE ridge. Despite boot-friendly snow and extra gel shots, we were still running out of time. We boosted across the glacier and up the 45-degree slope to the shoulder and regrouped on a knife-edge snow ridge.
Jonathan Benji and Sheena on the knife edge ridge of Earnslaw.
It was about 6 in the evening by the time we got here and the ground ahead involved verglassed rock slabs or thin snow. Hard to protect in any case, but not the kind of ground you can get four people over safely when daylight is fading…and you still have to descend by the same route…which is on the opposite side of the mountain from the hut…which you still have to find. We just had to turn back or risk a serious epic in the darkness. The skiing was, in sarcastic Kiwi-speak, “average” (translation: sidestepping down 5cm-thick breakable wind/rain/sun crust).
Spirits were kind of low as we headed to the Bivy, but still hopeful for a quick ascent in the morning before conditions deteriorated again. The “Esquilant Bivy” is actually a comfortable little hut in an amazing location, built by the New Zealand Alpine Club (NZAC) and a good place to recover before trying Earnslaw again in the morning. (If you ever go there, I recommend leaving the door open while you’re on the pot!)
On the way to the Esquilant Bivy.
Monday morning, early. Jonathan and Sheena: “No mate, I’m shagged. You go on.” They decide to sleep in and recover, but Benji and I are headed for Earnslaw. I’m determined just to bag the summit, but Benji actually wants to take his skis up, despite the horrendous snow surface we saw the day before.
Hamish Gowans on the Northeast Ridge of Mount Earnslaw.
Benji and I just met a couple weeks ago, but we share a familiarity with mountains that helps us mesh into a fast-moving team and we are bolting up to the short technical section of the East Face before 9am. We negotiate a couple mixed pitches and crampon to the top. (Side note: local custom is not to stand on the very top as legend has it that an ancient Maori chief’s head lies under there and you’re stepping on it with crampons!). The snow conditions are even worse. Not even really snow, but crusts and rime feathers up to 35cm long, coated in ice bubbles. Still, Kiwi-skiers have seen it all and Benji is just going to ski regardless –not like a spoiled CO boy! Kiwi mountaineers are f***ing hard! It helps you understand why Sir Edmund Hillary is on the NZ $5 bill.
And that’s how you “ski” a peak around here. You definitely have to try more than once, unless you’re very lucky. The conditions are 70% likely to involve serious mank on those rare days you have a weather window. The peaks are burly and involve a serious approach, plus huge elevation gain (unless you pay for a helo drop). Basically, nothing is a gimme. You have to earn it. And I think that’s where the name for this peak comes from. You have to pay your dues; that’s Earn’s law.