Like most other Wannabe Mountaineers, we had read all the famous mountaineering tales and volumes of high adventures were crammed into our bookshelf.
The names of mountaineering legends such as Sir Edmund Hillary, Sherpa Tenzing and George Mallory were as familiar as old friends and as we read, we shared their hopes, their agony and their triumphs as they conquered the greatest mountains in the world.
Of course we couldn’t possibly really relate to their struggles as we read, curled up on the lounge room sofa, gorging vast quantities of organic fair trade chocolate in our comfortable Fremantle home, with not a mountain in sight.
But the stories fascinated us and we vowed that we would one day venture forth from our ushy city slicker life and find ourselves a ‘real’ mountain to climb.
After a quick Google search on mountaineering courses, we chose Alpine Recreation as the lucky company to take us on our first mountain climbing adventure.
Situated in Lake Tekapo and a stone’s throw from Mt Cook National Park, Alpine Recreation offered the best value introductory mountain climbing course and the only privately owned, fully equipped hut in the National Park.
The company itself also appealed to us - a 27 year old, owned and operated family business led by Gottlieb Braun-Elwert, one of New Zealand’s most experienced and well known mountain guides. So far so good!
The company also practised a ‘tread lightly’ environmental ethic, which appealed to us enormously as dedicated Fremantle greenies.
The course was everything we had hoped for…and more! Upon arriving at Lake Tekapo, we were greeted by our mountain guide Wolfgang Maier, a highly experienced German mountaineer, part mountain goat and rock climbing climber extraordinaire.
We were to be joined by a group of four doing Alpine Recreation’s ‘Ball Pass Trek’ – New Zealand’s highest guided trek, crossing the Mount Cook Range from the Tasman Valley to the Hooker Valley.
The Ball Pass group was led by another German guide, Martin Hess, now a permanent resident of New Zealand, famed for his wacky sense of humour and ability to turn seemingly simple mountain fare into a gastronomic feast.
After topping our packs up with fresh supplies and climbing equipment, we drove towards Mt Cook Village and the start of the trek to Caroline Hut.
After passing the startling turquoise blue waters of Lake Pukaki and bumping along a rocky track, we soon arrived at the foot of the Tasman Valley.
The 850m climb to the hut involved a fairly demanding 5 hour steep uphill trek, scrambling up and down rocks and boulders for the most part. Upon reaching the top of the ridge, the view of the snow covered Caroline Face of Aoraki Mt Cook in the distance was awesome. Clichéd as it sounds, the great mountain seemed close enough to touch and the silent reverie of our party was broken only by the constant crack and rumble of avalanches of snow and ice tumbling down its steep slopes.
We were happy to reach the cosy Caroline Hut and relax on our bunks with hot cups of tea, watching the sun go down behind the great mountain.
Christmas Day we were woken at the very civilised hour of 7am and as we ate breakfast we watched mischievious kea’s flap around the hut looking for expensive climbing gear to chew on or steal. Keas are the only mountain parrots in the world and are renowned for their curiosity, intelligence…and penchant for climbing gear and anything else they can get their beaks on.
After breakfast, we crammed sandwiches and bars of chocolate into our packs, along with an assortment of gloves, gaiters, waterproof pants and jackets. By 8am we excitedly set off for our first mountaineering lesson of the day–glacier travel.
Learning to walk safely on snow and ice is essential and we were each adorned with a climbing harness and carabiners, crampons (spiky metal attachments that strap onto boots, allowing superior grip on snow and ice), walking poles, ice axes, snow stakes, and helmets we made our way to the Ball Glacier
Here we learned how to walk on ice and snow, wearing crampons and ‘self arrest’ in the event of an accidental fall down an icy slope. Self arresting involved taking turns in sliding down snow slopes on our posteriors and once a good speed was reached, rolling over and stabbing our ice axes into the snow to stop the slide. Once satisfied we had mastered the self- arrest, our guides roped the party up in preparation for the glacier crossing.
Roping up is a basic safety precaution for glacier travel, in the event someone falls down a slope or into a hidden crevasse, the rest of the group will be able to hold the person until they can either climb to safety or be pulled out by their companions. Once roped up we traversed the Ball Glacier in a silent and mesmerising world of white and ice underneath a clear blue sky.
Only the sound of ice crystals being crushed underfoot could be heard. I began to understand why people are drawn to the mountains, such an intensely beautiful and harsh world where a wrong step could literally be the difference between life and death.
In such places all thoughts of the outside world rapidly disappear as the task of just putting one foot in front of another is all that matters. To me, this was the what ‘living in the moment’ was all about, being on the edge at the mercy of nature - such moments in life are few and far between for the average city slicker…
That night, thanks to our talented guides, Christmas Dinner at Caroline Hut was another gastronomic feast and after much toasting, merriment, popping of Christmas crackers and games of Uno, we snuggled into our warm sleeping bags, dreaming of carabiners, figure of eight knots, crampons and ice…
Over the course of the next four days, Wolfgang (who was immediately nicknamed the The Big Wolf) taught us everything we needed to know about travelling safely in the mountains.
Not only did we learn how to walk safely in all types of mountainous terrain, we also learned how to extract ourselves from a crevasse, proving that those itty bitty little front points on our crampons could indeed hold our entire body weight (I took some convincing!).
Rock and ice climbing and abseiling were practised and any fear of heights (or falling) was soon forgotten as the business of finding decent hand and toe holds (on impossibly tiny bits of jutting out rock or on hard slippery ice) took priority. There really was no danger of falling as Wolfgang had us attached securely to a top rope at all times….and I tried not to think about how strong the rope was!
On a perfect clear day on the fourth day, we climbed Turner Peak – only staying on the summit long enough to take a few photos before heading back down. Minutes after arriving at the summit, the weather had turned and ominous black clouds were streaking in overhead from the West Coast, bringing with them the promise of high winds and snowfall. But we were ecstatic, we had finally realised a long awaited dream, albeit we had climbed a modest mountain, we had done it safely and in good time - it was a great beginning. Of course this would not have been possible without a professional mountain guide.
His mountaineering skills were outstanding, and he was also incredibly patient, giving us time to get used to a strange environment and even stranger equipment! His constant encouragement, particularly during testing moments such as ice climbing and crevasse extraction gave us the confidence to trust in ourselves and do things that were way outside of our comfort zone!
All too soon, the final day arrived and after a 4am start, we began the 9 hour trek out of the mountains via the Ball Pass. As always, the scenery along the way was stunning, the highlight was watching the South Face of Mt Cook turn orange in the light of the rising sun.
The trek through the pass is no mean feat and not for the unfit or faint- hearted. Upon reaching the Hooker Valley, rocks, snow and ice were suddenly replaced by spectacular alpine vegetation – delicate white mountain daisies swam at our feet as we made the final descent to Mt Cook Village.
Where: Alpine Recreation, Lake Tekapo, South Island, New Zealand
Cost: $1500 four day introductory course; $2080 six day intermediate course (per person for 2 people). Generous discounts for group bookings of 3 or more.
Best time to go: November to April
Pre-requisites: Good fitness, able to hike and climb over rough terrain for extended periods carrying own pack. No fear of heights!