Murchison Glacier – Tasman Glacier
4-11 February 2017
New to the club, I heard of the annual Geoff Spearpoint alpine trip while on a club trip on Show Weekend. I heard it was to be up the Murchison Valley and down the Tasman Glacier and it was suggested I might enjoy it. No, I couldn’t make it as I had a week planned to go tramping with my daughter the week before. But the seed was planted and it thrived.
Geoff’s trip won out, I put my name down and started in earnest to get fitter. It was a trip I had wanted to do for over 25 years and what an amazing trip it was. Eight days of fun, comradeship, laughter, hard yacker and stunning views. The biggest concern before the start of the trip was the weather. We’d had very unsettled weather for the last month, would this week be any different? Geoff had planned several alternatives but I was sure hoping the original plan would win out. It did.
Day One was a reasonable 9am start from Christchurch, travelling down to Mt Cook. While Geoff signed in with DOC we headed to Tasman Lake to meet up with the boat taking us over the lake. A quick 5 minutes ride across the lake had us leaping onto the shore hauling heavy packs from the boat. Hefting our heavy packs it was up to the top of the moraine, then negotiating our way through big boulders. Trying to keep our balance with our laden packs, we made steady progress for 10minutes. Then disaster struck, Merv lost his balance, tumbling from the moraine top down among the boulders. Being at the back of the pack I hadn’t witnessed this and thought he had just tripped and hurt his knee. Gaylene had him propped up against a rock reassuring him. As a nurse I thought it best if I popped over to check the knee out and saw one almighty laceration. Oh dear, there would be no continuing for Merv. On further investigation I was informed what had happened, by this stage Merv was in a little bit of shock, looking very pale. Luckily no head injury had been sustained. We covered and wrapped his knee, gave some pain relief and waited till Merv felt better. Fortunately we had cell phone coverage, so Geoff organised for Merv to be picked up by the boat and taken back across the lake. It was a sombre start to the trip but also a reality check that anything can happen at any time, a reminder to take care at all times. We continued on over the moraine following the true right of the Murchison River for several more hours till a flat campsite was found. In no time Geoff had a fire going, dinner cooked and eaten. We slipped thankfully into our tents as darkness approached.
Day Two started with the cursing of the noisy tents. The wind had picked up during the night and some of us had to get up to secure tents. But the worse part was not being able to sleep due to the noise the tents made. So grumbling aside, we packed up and were moving by 8.30am. We continued along the moraine by the river then onto the river flats. First swim for the day was had by Liz and Geoff, some sort of competition I hear. We continued up the river flats making good progress in the heat. Lunch time and another swim by Liz and Geoff joined by Gaylene, Gary, Aarn and Raymond. Our destination was Liebig Hut. Continuing up river we scouted possible crossing places, thought we found a suitable one only to have to re-cross back as we couldn’t get across the next braid. Gaylene and Aarn became guinea pigs, testing the waters first, thanks guys. Another suitable place was found and we teamed up to cross. It was certainly one of the more difficult crossings I’ve done for a while. It was then a gentle meander up to the hut. Resident at the hut was a lone English man Ben, who had flown in for a spot of hunting, though the Deer and Tahr appeared to be rather elusive. As only a six bunk hut, several of us chose to pitch tents for the night. Tuning into the Mountain Radio forecast at 7pm the forecast for the next day was for heavy rain and winds in the afternoon /evening. The decision was made to spend the next day in the hut waiting out the weather.
Day Three dawned fine. Tents were packed up. An enjoyable morning was spent chatting with Ben till his pick up at 11.30. A gourmet seafood soup was cooked for lunch from food left behind by Ben and others. We whiled away the afternoon practicing our rope skills as the weather deteriorated outside.
Day Four was an early start, planning to get away by 8.ooam. Our aim was to get as far up the glacier as possible and hopefully make it to Murchison hut. We headed up valley in clearing weather. We skirted around Murchison’s terminal lake full of floating icebergs. We spotted a couple of people walking up the other side of the lake, next thing we knew they were kayaking among the icebergs!! At the head of the lake we tried to find the best line among the rock strewn debris on the glacier. This went on for a number of hours and we were eventually relieved to finally reach ice. Crampons were donned and we continued up the glacier, making our way through and among the crevasses. The crevasses started to get larger and the jumps across bigger as the glacier steepened. As there was little or no snow on top, no need to rope up, saving valuable time. Murchison Hut came into view perched on top of a rocky ridge high above the Glacier. It looked oh so close, but oh so far. The final approach to the Hut was a steep snow slope, and then jumbled rock the last 100m. Thanks Raymond for plugging the steps up the slope. By this stage it was starting to get dark and we spread out to locate the hut. Hut located after a 13hr day, epic! We tumbled into the hut, people were exhausted, flopping onto the bunks, except Geoff and Gaylene. With super efficiency they had the cookers going and dinner on. I was impressed with the speed they managed this. Then Gary at lightning speed exited the hut to vomit over the balcony. Not feeling the best, we tended to him, giving him an electrolyte drink and put him to bed to sleep it off, saving his dinner for the morning, hoping it wasn’t a bug for all to catch. The bunk at the end of this day felt damn good.
Day Five arrived in a blanket of fog, rime and light snow. Won’t be going anywhere until this clears. Geoff decides to wait to make a decision to move on till after lunch. We need good visibility to go over the Murchison head wall. Gary’s feeling better. A large hot lunch is cooked and consumed gratefully by all. Weather starts to clear, decision made to go. Today is the crux of the trip, can we make it over the headwall? It wasn’t possible 2 weeks ago, too many slots, what will it be like today? We rope up for the glacier travel. Chris is resplendent in chux multi clothes and safety pins as sleeves for her shirt, hers accidently left in the car. This is serious sun-burn country. Geoff leads, keeping a steady pace. It’s a stunning and beautiful setting, just magnificent country. Words can’t really describe it, this is what I came for. The travel up to the Murchison head wall was one of the easiest of the trip. Geoff leads us up the wall, the only concern I can see is possible slots at the top. No problem, we belay to get over the slot. Fantastic, we don’t have to go back down the Murchison, I’m thrilled not to have to experience that moraine again. And then it fogs in, we don’t get to see the view down the Tasman! We make our way towards where we think the Kelman Hut is. Gaylene & Tony glimpse a toilet up above us and we make our way there. Kelman hut is a welcome sight, it is warm, has gas and solar lights. Late dinner again, becoming a bit of a habit.
Day Six starts early. I get woken at 3.30am by the other climbers in the hut getting up to climb Mt Aylmer before flying out later that day, plus the snoring has kept me awake most of the night. I get up to the loo to witness a light sprinkling of new snow but now a clear sky with stars out. Back to bed for a couple hours of sleep, to then be woken by Gaylene and Liz at 6am, rearing to go. But they hadn’t informed Geoff! Coffee in hand, Geoff slowly awakens. Geoff decides today we’ll climb Mt Aylmer a 2699 metre peak on the main divide, visit Tasman Saddle Hut then make our way down the Tasman Glacier. An action packed filled day. The fog arrives again but looks like it will clear. Leaving the hut at 8am, we witness a beautiful display of glittering ice crystals in the sky. We rope up to travel across the neve to the base of Mt Aylmer. At this stage I’m feeling rather nervous, I’m not keen on the exposure along the ridge and say I’ll just wait here. I haven’t done this sort of climbing for 20 years! Geoff will have none of that, he says we all go. With his confidence, experience and awesome leadership skills he leads us to the top, belaying each other for support. The views were stupendous; we could see the Tasman Ocean in the distance, Mt Cook, Tasman and many more peaks. I’ve also climbed a lot steeper terrain, so my anxieties were unfounded, as long as I didn’t look down! After congratulatory photos it was back to our packs down on the neve and lunch. The Tasman neve is a hive of activity today, helicopters flying people in and out and several groups climbing Mt Aylmer. Off then to visit Tasman Saddle Hut for Geoff’s requisite photos. Yet again an amazing location for a hut perched on top of a rocky ridge overlooking the Tasman. Superlatives are hard to come by now. Back again to our packs and the start of the decent down the Tasman. Soft snow initially, then hard ice. A ski plane circles above us wanting to land, we are on his runaway. Scampering out of the way the plane flies in very close to land. The pilot enjoyed that! Making good progress we descend around halfway down the glacier when Gaylene suggests camping for the night. We head over to the moraine looking for a suitable campsite. While Gary boils the billy for a brew, Gaylene, Tony and Geoff depart in different direction to sus out a campsite. They return some time later with the best they could find, a rocky strip of moraine. Off we trot to pitch tents and enjoy a late meal proficiently cooked by Liz.
Day Seven. Fine weather again, Geoff is certainly in the good books with the GodsJ. Our goal today is Ball Shelter. Steady progress is made down the glacier. As we stop for a break I notice some sort of machine on the right of the Glacier, “hey guys” I say, what’s that? It takes a while for them to spot it, and then we’re off to investigate. A snow plough/bulldozer left abandoned many years earlier. A very strange sight indeed. Gary climbs in for a good photo shoot. Three hours into the day I inform Geoff of my very swollen and sore knee. I’d twisted it the day before and now it is very painful to walk on. It is certainly a distraction from the enjoyment of the day. At lunch I take stock, tape and bandage it and take plenty of pain relief. Thanks Geoff for your codeine and Tony for the loan of your bandage. The rest of the day comprised of ice, then rocks again on top of ice. At this stage I was feeling a little nostalgic for a bit of bush. As we came up to the moraine wall leading to Ball Shelter it was suggested by Gaylene to camp the night, then head up in the morning as we were all rather tired.
Geoff was in agreement, so we camped below among the rocks with the tussock tantalising close. Geoff proposes this is the one location we should use those poo pots. Much hilarity later, a number of poo pots are filled.
Day Eight dawned fine again. A hop, skip and jump to our cars. After breaking camp, Geoff looks for a suitable point to head up. Penny had said she had gone up the moraine around 800m further down. Geoff investigates and decides it’s the best choice. He leads the party of ten up, no problem. On top, packs are dropped and off everyone heads to investigate Ball Shelter, minus me. Now my left knee is swollen as well, I need to keep going so I don’t seize up. I make steady progress down the Ball road with Raymond, Chris, John and Gary. The rest wish to stop for lunch at a waterfall but our group is intent on continuing. It’s a scorcher of a day and nearing the cars the others decide for a refreshing swim. I don’t dare, I’m afraid I want be able to start again. I make my way to the cars, Gary’s keys in hand. On arriving I drop my pack and head for a swim at the car park, despite all the tourist numbers. As the others arrive, we change and pack up waiting for Geoff, Liz, Tony, Gaylene and Aarn. After an hours wait, no one to be seen, we decide to head to the village for a bite to eat. Oh dear, Gary’s car won’t start, a flat battery. Help is gathered from a local tourist and within no time we were on our way. We pick up gear Merv has dropped at Unwin hut and head to the Mountaineer’s Café. The others join us and cars seats are shuffled to fit 10 people into 2 cars instead of the anticipated 11 people in 3 cars. Goodbyes are said and off we travel home after an eventful, fun packed 8 days of tramping and climbing. It was an amazing stark landscape. I was so appreciative of the chance to tick it off my bucket list.
The ride home was just as enjoyable as the trip as Gaylene and Tony regaled me with their survival story on the high seas. I still think of it now and again. Gaylene, you really do need to put it in print.
BEST GOUMET MEAL: Goes to John, loved the dehydrated Passata sauce and anchovies.
BEST FASHION STATEMENT: Chris for her Chux multi cloths and safety pins for make shift sleeves.
MOST CHEERFUL PERSON: Gaylene for your positive encouraging attitude at all times.
MOST SUPPORTIVE ENCOUGAGING MEMBER: Goes to Gary for looking after us tail end Charlies. I appreciated you letting me follow you when I was struggling.
LEADERSHIP AWARD: Undisputed champion Geoff. For your calm, experienced manner. Taking everything in your stride. You made the trip possible. Thank you.
GENEROSITY AWARD: To Tony for the loan of your bandage, straight off your own leg!!
BEST DESSERT: To Raymond for carrying the Rocky Road all that way. Loved it, appreciated by all.
GEAR EXPERT: To Aarn for your innovative pack designs. You’ve made my pack carrying pain free. Luv it.
THE ONE AND ONLY MEAT DISH: Thanks Liz. I’m a bit of a carnivore at heart.
We were: John Allan, Raymond Ford, Gary Huish, Tony Lawton, Chris Leaver, Merv Meredith, Geoff Spearpoint (leader), Liz Stephenson, Aarn Tate, Gaylene Wilkinson and Angela Grigg. (AG)