Archive for March, 2012

Our next adventure required a 3:30 a.m. snowpack check.  I became quite good at sleeping whenever possible and putting snow on my face to jerk myself awake after the past week.  Slugging ourselves into a sitting position and peering our the tent door still wrapped tightly in sleeping bags, we awaited Roger’s decision on how stable the snow would be for us.

He poked around for a few minutes and said to activate plan B.  I liked plan B.  It’s first step was curl back up and go to sleep for two more hours or so and meet up at 7:30 a.m.  We packed up a day pack and hiked up to the base of the glacier again.  This time, instead of fighting the snowpack, we joined it!

Slightly to the west, an avalanche had left a large pile of debris that we would use to practice unburying beacons.  From a glance, avalanche debris just looks like lots of uneven piles of snow, but once on it I found out how incredibly difficult it is to move over it and more so to dig through it.  Once the snow falls, it solidifies.

We split into two groups of four and I went with the first group to find them.  We went about forty feet off to the side and turned our backs while the other group hid three backpacks with beacons, one without and partially covered someone without a beacon.  Then Roger yelled and we tried to run back over and begin uncovering.  We tracked all the beacons well and found the partially buried person easily enough, but the backpack without the beacon took us longer than it should have.

The second group went to do the same exercise.  Instead of partially burying someone, we almost completely buried Kyle by giving him a large air bubble with a small hole to the surface and stuck one gloved hand out.  Totally like the movie “Carrie” but without the pig blood mess.

After we played significantly finding the beacons, we took a long snack break and gathered everything up and headed down just a bit more to a preselected spot.  Roger then had everyone grab a shovel and dig a large pit about six or seven feet deep while others prepared the ropes for crevasse rescue practice.  The person on the end got to run and jump into the pit while the others had to catch him self arresting and pull him back out.  On round two, I got to run and jump which entertained me greatly until my feet became incredibly cold.  It was the kind of cold that you need to tuck your feet up into the pits of your knees to regain feeling in them or put them on a stomach.

We soon headed back to camp and I rejuvenated my feet and had a hot drink.  That evening, Roger shared stories of former NOLS students that he had to deal with including a rather determined outlaw near Vegas which enthralled us while we ate dinner.

I took the next morning off while Roger took Jonah, James, and Kyle up to try a peak super early in the morning before the sun rose.  However, the sleep in was not as sweet as planned because they got caught in the incoming northwesterly and had to run down from the wind, arriving back at 9:15 a.m.  Heeding their wind warning, we packed up and headed back down to the previous campsite where we planned to meet back up with Sean, Haley, and Tracy for a night.  Descending, we had a bit more trouble than before crossing the larger river despite crossing high where less water should flow.  We did a sketchy little dance and pack toss number.  The storm came in slowly as we made our way down through periods of light misty rain.  It continued to press down upon us while we argued about where to put the tent again.  We scouted around for quite a bit and all came up with one we liked best.  The wind ended up determining our choice, mostly so we could set up the tent and relax.

While the storm threatened to hit, Ryan played Mr. Fix It and worked diligently to fix a few holes our tent had accumulated.  Once it was fixed, we played cards for awhile during Kyle’s nap and listened to the rain come and go.

Around 4 p.m. or so, Sean, Haley and Tracy made it back and we got out to help them set up their tent quickly since they were cold and tired.

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After not sleeping most of the night due to the pounding, incessant wind, we managed to prop ourselves up while Roger, rather cheerfully told us that we all needed to wake up and set up the tent we broke down so we would have more room and not lay on top of each other.  Shuffling around trying to find whose stuff we slept on and get out, we threw on rain gear for the drizzle and all pitched in to set up the tent.  Roger boasted about how he and Sean turned their tent into a tent pole repair factory the night before and they had somehow fixed them all, although some still looked sketchy.

The wind had died down to a lower velocity and an immense fog had obscured the whole valley and any views we had of the mountains that surrounded us.  The dry river braids that were only a few feet from our tents had begun to run again with a decent flow, a mix of the rain and melting snow from above.

Since no one slept more than about three hours, if we slept at all, we hunkered down for another day staying pretty much to ourselves in our tent groups only leaving to go to the bathroom.  As soon as the other tent went up successfully, we all went back to sleep while the wind did not force us to make a shift schedule.

Kyle, Ryan, and I all passed out until about 1 p.m. when our stomachs began to growl for lunch, which we made in the vestibule as the clouds spit spurts of rain at the tent.  When we satisfied our stomachs, we played hours upon hours of rummy since Ryan had cards.  We did nothing else until dinner.

Not long after, the dread came back.  The wind picked up, bouncing around on the mountains and hitting us at all angles.  Sighing, we created another shift schedule, but this time, instead of four shifts, we only had three which compromised our sleep for a second night in a row.

Kind of lucky for us, the shifts ended around 2 a.m. when the wind turned to a downpour of rain, further raising the once dry river braid beds.  Too tired to get out, we hoped it would not overflow to foot and a half bank and curled deeper into our sleeping bags begging sleep to come.

Sean woke us up at 8:45 and told us to grab breakfast and hot drinks and meet up at 9:30.  Despite our slight grouchy-ness from lack of sleep and the confined area of the tents for two days, they decided we needed to head off to our previous plan of splitting up in two groups.

I went with Roger’s group to go make a higher camp and work on skills while Sean took Haley and Tracy to do a traverse through the Potts Valley where the Lord of the Rings was filmed.

We hiked up and found a good, flat area to camp near a few glacial erratics to protect us from any wind that might spark up.  As an extra layer of protection, we double poled the side not protected.

After working on a few crevasse rescue techniques, we all wanted to eat and get some sleep.  Since it was only Roger and eight of us, he said he would take five of us up a day and the other three could rest at camp until we came back in the afternoon to work on skills and such.

The next day, we had set a 5am leave time which seemed absurdly early, but we managed.  The day’s group consisted of Hidde, Heather, James, JD, and myself for an attempt of peak 2236.

Going up the left gully as before, we roped up on the glacier and slowly plodded our way up the glacier toward the peak.  The ridge we chose to hike up was on the further side, so we would follow the glacier much farther up than before and wrap around the backside of the peak.

We soon came to realize that the sun foiled our plan and we should have started considerably earlier than the already obnoxious 5 a.m.  Yet, we couldn’t have started earlier due to the intense fog that had narrowed visibility down to about 10 or 15 feet.  The sun melted the snow quickly and we began to posthole to our knees.  Within half an hour, we postholed to our waists.  We slogged along.  James broke trail for a good while up a sleeper section of the glacier while the rest of us continued breaking through the thigh deep snow and making an easier path out.

At one point James paused, only long enough to hear Roger yell from behind him, “James! Don’t stop! Just keep going as fast as you can until you can’t go anymore!”  James yelled something back about keeping a sustainable pace and Roger’s answer bellowed back, “Just go and when you can’t move, someone will take over!”  Typical Roger comment.

We got fairly close to the point where we would wrap around, but the snow became so deep and we postholed with every step.  We ended up having to turn back because through the deep snow we could only make about half a kilometer per hour.

When we got safely back to the edge of the glacier, we chose to do an anchor clinic and a bit of ice climbing for the afternoon to bask in the sunlight that we had so missed the past few days.

Easing ourselves back to camp, Kyle bounced out of nowhere with an intense amount of energy and shouted, “guess what’s different!”  Without much energy, we all had a few guesses but none hit the mark and his excitement seemed to grow with our lack of discovery.

After about half an hour, he finally gave in and took off his hat and we saw that he had Ryan and Jonah chop off his long pony tail.  He was so attached to that hair, I thought it would never come off, but it did.

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After the long, tiring day, we all slept soundly very early before the sun had managed to set.  Again, we had to wake early for the re-ration helicopter to come.  Half asleep, picking the sleep snot out of our eyes, we staggered into a group and waited.  Roger and Sean had mentioned something about weather coming in and the decision to fly or not to fly always came down to each particular pilot.  Basically, if the weather turned bad too quickly, we would end up pretty hungry until the weather went away and the chopper could land with our food.

Lucky for us, the sun still lit up the morning and the helicopter flew in more or less on schedule, although it did arrive a tid bit late.  With it came news that the New Zealand All Blacks had won the rugby world cup in a very good match as well as the weather report of 40mm of rain coming very soon.  As swiftly as the chopper had come, it left.

We sorted out the food, did tent debriefs and arranged ourselves into new tent groups which Roger and Sean decided to modify to make sure people who had not grouped together before shared a tent.  I went with Ryan and Kyle for the remainder of the mountaineering section.

In our new tent groups, we cooked breakfast and went through the who’s going to do what when routine.  We wanted a cook rotation so one person had to cook dinner and then breakfast the next day, then we rotated.  If anyone needed help, they could ask for a sous chef.

After a hearty breakfast, we grouped together to discuss our last ration together and what everyone wanted to do.  With a lot of discussion, we decided to split into two groups, one to go make a higher camp to work on more skills while the other group made the last bit more of a backpacking trip and went over into an adjacent valley to explore.  At first, I wanted to go explore; I itched to move more.  But, then I realized I wanted more practice with the skills and joined that group.

While we debated routes and food rations since our newly formed tent groups had to have some modification, the sky began to darken well before sunset as clouds crept in to cut out the light.  It seemed as though the clouds wanted to give us that wonderful present in the form of 40mm of rain and soon.

We broke the meeting to secure our tents, anchors, any loose item strangling around camp.  Roger came around, thinking he was funny, and began tugging on every anchor of our tents, trying to see if they would come out.  He had all of us add more grossly heavy rocks to make the anchors even bigger.  Good thing the riverbed had plenty of large rocks near so we did not have to carry them too far.

Annoyed, Hidde retaliated and went over to test the anchors on Roger and Sean’s tent, finding one loose.  It began to drizzle, so we crawled into our tents, cooked in the vestibule and hunkered down for the longest night of the whole semester.

The rain came in spurts, sometimes heavier than other times, but always sideways, bent by the gust of wind that whipped through the valley.  At first, we did not quite appreciate the heavier rain.  When it rained harder, the wind did not kick up quite so badly.  At a drizzle, the wind howled through the valley trying to smash our tents down despite their position alignment with the valley.

As we tried to sleep, we would hear the gust beginning deeper in the valley and brace ourselves by each reaching for one of the three poles to hold it up from within.  Sometimes we wouldn’t have time to grab them sufficiently, so from a laying down position, our feet would shoot up, still tucked in the sleeping bag to support the poles.

This lasted until a pole snapped.  Shit.  We all rallied, getting our rain gear on and getting on top of the broken pole quickly before another one could snap.  I grabbed the other two poles from the outside while Kyle and Ryan made a quick change of the broken pole for a spare.  A few others ran to help us out.

A massive gust circled up in the valley and shot down on us, bouncing off the adjacent mountains which made it seem as though the wind wanted to attack us from all directions.  I had the two poles firmly within my grasp, but the wind came so fiercely that I had to lean all my body weight into the gust while holding my grip tight.  This happened many, many times during the night, too many to count.

While we fixed our broken pole, another tent broke one and everyone scrambled around to fix it.  Somehow, everyone seemed to work together well, despite the shouting to be heard above the roars of the storm and the sideways rain blurring our vision.

After about an hour or two of this, the other three person tent had a second pole break.  Instead of fixing it, they broke down the tent entirely and threw Hidde in with us while Tracy and JD jumped into the four person tent.  The quarters were tight before in the tents with three and four people, but with four and six respectively, it became interesting.  Between the four of us, we set up shifts so only one person had to be awake at a time.  Hopefully, this way, we could all get a little sleep at least.

I had to wait awhile for my shift and had to try to make my restless, anxious mind calm down enough to get a wee bit of sleep in.  It felt like right as I went to sleep, I was nudged to wake up for an hour between 12pm and 1am.  Multiple times, I had to race out of the tent, hold the tent poles, fix anchors, tighten the strings, add a rock here or there.  At first, to stay awake, I paced outside feeling the wind whip inside my jacket hood trying to expose my head to the rain.  Once I felt awake enough, I would sit in the vestibule until I heard a gust of wind coming and jump out.

Finally, 1am came round and I woke the next shift, wriggling back into my toasty warm sleeping bag.  I did manage a bit of sleep until 4am rolled up and I was woken up for another shift.  The wind still raged and I paced outside in wonder of the storm, tightening anchors and making sure the other tent did not need anything since I was already outside.
Since we had planned on meeting up at 7:30 am, before my shift ended, I went over toward Roger and Sean’s tent to see if they still wanted us to gather up through the mess.  I found one of their anchors had busted, so I fixed it while they told me to tell everyone to just hunker down to wait out the rest of the storm.

We continued the shifts another hour or so, then it just rained and we slept until 8:15 when Roger woke each tent and gave us the news.

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Wake up.  Pack up.  The day has come to change valleys.  Get some new scenery.  Enjoy a new glacier.  Gaze over at different ridges.  And let’s not forget carrying extremely heavy packs through the whole beautiful process.

As luck would have it, we had a good cause to gather in the morning for a little bit instead of chasing after Roger because we are one minute late.  Kyle’s birthday of course!  Sean and Roger spent a good portion of their evening specially crafting a Betty Crocker cake.  It turned out better than any of our attempts to bake a cake.  We sang happy birthday and the whole sha-bang, and we even brought back a few of our sea kayaking rituals which Roger found ridiculous and only let them continue for the sake of not ruining the birthday mood.

When the time came to leave, we heaved the incredibly heavy packs up and trudged along the valley floor toward the drainage that we took to get down two days before.  The top of that drainage marked the “easiest” way to cross into the Ashburton Valley; the pass itself did not have a name.

As we began hiking, we paused to smother on sunscreen and delayer since the sun had come out in full force to the point where I

Traversing across

Traversing across

hiked through the snow in a tank top.  I felt a little out-of-place trudging through snow that sometimes went thigh deep with a large pack, an ice ax in one hand and wearing just a tank top.

We examined the traverse from the drainage across to the actual pass before quickly scurrying across.  The sun had quickly begun to melt the snow which could have made parts unstable, but we pushed through quickly and soon landed in the pass which gave us a fantastic panorama view of the Ashburton Valley, so close, yet so different from the Cameron Valley.

We piled our packs and decided to run up peak 1972 which lay just next to us.  Since we somehow had energy at that point, or we just wanted an even more spectacular view, we went up.  All twelve of us.  The summit offered a better view along the ridge line in either direction and the surrounding sea of mountains.  The commanding view inspired us for that time, until we had to head all the way down skidding down some icy patches.  We had fun butt-sliding down from the pass as it was either that or posthole down the whole thing.

Once we hit the valley floor, the snow gave way to uneven tussock grass, matagouri, and spaniards.  The Ashburton River flowed by chilly from the glacier and along in a million braids that would sometimes surprise you at inconvenient times: like when you find the easiest way through the tussock, then the earth mysteriously drops a few feet down into a braid of the river.  I hate getting my feet wet.

Ashburton Valley, New Zealand

Ashburton Valley, New Zealand

Roger had a spot in mind that he wanted us to head to, so we went there and set up camp relatively close together otherwise the tents would end up in a dry braid of the riverbed.  With all the snow melting, that just did not seem like the brightest idea.

After deciding to meet at 8am, we all went to our tents, cooked dinner, and promptly passed out since the tiredness caught up to us in full force.

The next day ended up as one of my favorite days of the whole section.  We began by hiking up the left gully to the base of the glacier, which in and of itself took us up 600 meters of elevation.  Luckily, only the first part dove through tussock grass and then we went through dry riverbeds and snow.

Once at the base, we roped up with three rope teams and ten people total.  Heather and JD decided to sit this one out since they were still super tired from the day before.  I had Roger and Haley and I got the middle.

The fog that filled the valley stayed hovering down there while we hiked above and beyond it to feel the full power of the sun.  It was just like the mist in the book/movie by Stephen King, except nothing shot out of it and killed us or filled our corpses with spiders.  In response, almost every break we got, we smothered on sunscreen, and kept a hat and sunglasses on.

We got the very bare minimum basics of glacier travel while we scouted out the upper valley and what we could do in the next week or so, weather depending of course.  Because of the sun, we couldn’t wander around too much in the afternoon, so we headed back down to the base and found a good little ice climb to play.  We also did a bit of fixed rope ascension which ended up with multiple finger and hand bleeds.

Everyone managed to stay in a good mood the whole day and we all worked well.  At the last few hundred yards of snow we all

The fog

postholed at least once up to our waists which tired us out.  When we finally got back though, we were all starving!  JD had awesomely seen us coming and put on hot water which we immediately used to cook dinner.  Way to be one step ahead!

Another night, we all passed out super early because we were just beat.  Luckily, we would have the next day to re-ration and plan the rest of our section which had somehow gone down to only 9 days remaining.

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Beep Beep.  Beep Beep. 4:30 am wake up.  It’s still dark out.  My sleeping bag is warm.  Shit.  I want to go hiking.  I want to go hiking.  I sat up.  Step number one.  I drank some icy water to wake myself up on the inside.  Step number two.  Haley and I got breakfast water starting while sitting in our sleeping bags.  Step number three.  Wake JD up for breakfast and begin eating.  Step number four.  Run outside and go to the bathroom quickly.  Now we’re up.

The rustling of backpacks, boots, and sleeping bags filled the morning stillness.  Not many talked since no one had seen the sun yet and the morning cold still iced our bones.  Headlamps flickered in all directions as we packed day packs for a morning adventure.  Because of the dumping of snow the previous few days and the warmth predicted for the afternoon, we would have to start very early in order to have better snow travel conditions.

We split into two groups to cover more ground with a smaller amount of people.  Sean took Haley, Heather, James, and Jonah up on the Cameron Glacier while Roger took Ryan, JD, and I up to climb a peak or two behind the hut, in a direction we had only gazed upon and not explored.  Tracy took a knees-rest-day since they split with pain worse than splitting firewood, Hidde woke up feeling sick, and Kyle just wanted a rest day.


The four of us headed out through the fresh snow and over snow-covered moraine to get to the first slopes to climb.  We began long, relatively steep zig zags to gain elevation and not burn out our calves.  The first hints of dawn had begun when we left the hut and as we made our way up the slope, the sun began to rise through a purple-pink sky which lit up the layers upon layers of mountains surrounding us.

Taking a five minute break every hour or so, we shoveled down more calories to keep us warm and walking.  Roger doesn’t seem to like breaks much and kept pushing hard to get higher faster.  He did have a reason for doing so; as the sun came over the mountains, it began warming the snow and we began to sink more.  We found small, high meadows and a few slopes with waist deep snow which we postholed through.  Trying to stay near chunks of exposed scree, we had an easier time from not postholing, but then we had to watch our footing more in case the loose scree just gave out under our weight.  We began connecting partially exposed scree patches to each other trying not to find more waist deep snow.  Postholing exhausted us and by the time we hit the third peak, we knew we didn’t have much climbing left in us.  Getting to that last peak, the snow was so deep that I began almost crawling up.  I found that I sunk less if I used my shins as a crude snow shoe instead of my feet because it spread my weight better.

Our “rest” on top of the peak was really a “shovel food in the mouth and find the safest route down” since we could see so much from there.  A few of the slopes we climbed up, we now had to avoid because the wet, warm snow had not bonded to the bottom layers and could slide easily.  We headed toward a drainage and then followed that down.  In just a few hours, the snow had melted significantly: water ran through the drainage under the snow and the snow-covered scree slope that we started on now had only a small three inches or so on it.  That part was the worst because every step became loose and it jarred at the knees painfully.

We got back to the hut for lunch which all of us were ready for as we had about run out of snacks that we had brought up.  Conveniently, the other group got in about 15 minutes after us and we all ate together outside since the sun shone so brightly we only needed a long sleeve shirt on.  When we had trouble figuring out which of the bags of powder was which, Roger joked saying, “Just do what any good drug dealer does, dip a finger in and try the product!”  While we traded food and bargained around for our favorites, Roger and Sean had a little powwow planing session to the side of the hut.

They decided that we should move about 200 meters across the river for “mental stability” and avoid the hut area, so we packed up and moved that afternoon.  Right as we tried to set up the tents, the wind picked up something fierce.  With it came some drizzly rain and we all stayed in the tents the rest of the night not wanting to go out in the windy rain.

The next day, due to shitty, rainy, overcast weather, we had a rest day where we all stayed in our tents pretty much the whole day, occasionally jumping to another tent to see different people.   Eventually, when the rain ceased, we had a small gathering where we decided to change valleys the next day and head over to the Ashburton Valley, adjacent to the Cameron Valley.  Big move day on the mind.

Layers upon layers

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In the wee hours of the morning, we awoke groggily to about an inch and a half of snow resting of top of our tents weighing them down and making them heavier and wet.  Rubbing the eye snot out of our vision, we managed to cook some breakfast, or rather just heat up water to dump over some oatmeal and make instant coffee or tea.  That’s about all we managed on the breakfast front.  Figuring it would take more time than usual to pack up, we woke up two and a half hours before we needed to meet up to leave.  We needed it.  It took forever to dig up the ten snow anchors that held the tent in place all night.

Roger and Sean had seen a weather report when we got re-rationed and knew a weather bomb would come in sometime during the day and we should retreat down to the hut area.  However, when we staggered over to the meeting place, the sun shone high in the sky and it was clear as a bell outside.  So plans shuffled around and we got to practice falling on ropes with full packs on, which, by the way, is super awkward.  At least the snow was soft to break some of the falls as we passed through a little obstacle course Roger and Sean eagerly set up and one of us would fall at their signals.

This went on until the weather bomb decided to show it’s ugly face and everything began to get whiter and whiter.  Visibility began dropping steadily and we quickly made our way back to the hut and our food cache.  Once we uncovered it from the rocks, we set up our tents and bolted inside to make hot food and drinks to warm us all up.  We all voted to stay in that night as long as no one else came in.  They didn’t.

Instead the weather bomb dumped over a foot of snow and all three poles in the four person tent snapped and someone woke all of us up sometime in the middle of the night to run out and take down the all the tents.  Groping for boots, headlamps, and jackets, we managed to get up around 4 a.m.  Immediately after stepping outside, everyone seemed to pause as we went up to our knees in fresh powder.  No one seemed to understand fully what happened since we were all still half asleep.  No 5:30 a.m. wake up to hike call!

When we woke up a few hours later, visibility had decreased to about 10 feet maximum and all we could see out the window was a featureless bright white.  The wind blew so strong that no one even wanted to go as far as the privy (which stood maybe 30 feet from the hut and we couldn’t see it.

Twelve people.  One hut.  Lots of gear.  No space to move.  Roger decided to teach us how to predict the weather to grab our attention away from killing each other.  Then Tracy read the Hobbit out loud to a few loyal listeners while Heather, Jonah, and Hidde tried to do an ab workout in their bunks and I wished I had headphones.

The next day started out the same.  Whiteness.  Everywhere.  Instead of having to get up to break down tents in the middle of the night, we had another surprise.  Only four people double bunked that night, so Roger chose to put his sleeping mat down on the floor.  We all chuckled as he went to sleep with his headlamp and sunglasses still on his head, ready for action.  Then, out of no where in the dead of night, CRASH! Everyone but Ryan jerked awake to figure out what made the defining noise.  Luckily, the hut was small and it didn’t take long to figure out what was out of place.  JD lay on his back, still half in his sleeping bag, inches from Roger’s head.  Roger just blinked a lot as if he hadn’t quite wrapped his head around it.  JD had been on the third bunk up and had rolled off, catching his leg on the second bunk and landed on his back, sprawled out on the floor.  Surprisingly, he got up unhurt after he realized what happened and went back to bed.  Although, some bunkmate shifting happened so he could have his own bunk…on the ground level.

The morning dragged on like the morning before until suddenly the whiteness began to lift slowly and we could see the privy.  Then we could see further and further and the sun broke through with blue sky right behind it.  Quickly, Roger and Sean scrambled to organize a glacier scout mission.  At that point, I wanted whatever had fewer people in it.   When most people went with them, I decided to walk around camp outside with Heather and JD while Kyle chilled by himself in the hut with a book.  It appeared that everyone needed space after being shut in for a few days.  We made a snow man from the fresh sticky snow and a snow angel.  Kyle saw and came out with hiking poles to put in as arms.

When the other group came back, we buried a few avi beacons and raced around to dig them up making all kinds of trails in the blanket of snow.  Of course that ended the only way it possibly could: a snowball fight!  And thus, cabin fever ended. For now.

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My watch alarm beeped obnoxiously by my head at 4:30 a.m.  The stars shone brightly.  No sign of the sun had yet appeared in the sky.  Half asleep, I began to get things ready with Haley while JD lifted his head and watched us for a moment while we began to heat water for breakfast, then he went back to sleep, deciding not to go that day.  Two days of dehydration and one of moderate hypothermia had taken a toll on him and he wanted to sleep several more hours.

With our headlamps, we made breakfast in the vestibule of the tent while sitting in our sleeping bags because we found it too cold to completely get out of them.  Neither of us functioned very well that early.  Haley had not had her coffee yet.  Enough said.

After eating the nice warm granola and oatmeal mix, we rumbled around getting dressed and getting day packs together as dawn broke over the mountains.  JD somehow managed to sleep through all of this.

Breaking out of the tent, we moved to our perspective groups.  I was heading with Roger, Heather, Tracy, James, and Kyle up toward The Marquee 2100m.   Roger wanted to have us practice climbing while on rope on steep slopes to increase our comfort levels.  The other group made up of Haley, Jonah, Hidde, and Ryan went with Sean in the other direction to work with the avalanche beacons.

Again, we learned that Roger hates tardiness and he tried to leave without several people for the third time.  It was worse than my mother was growing up–she would just scold me, Roger just left.  If you weren’t there, so be it…it sucks to be you.  I’m pretty sure that Sean warned him that we had a slight punctuality problem and Roger just decided to rid us of it shock-doctrine style.

Another thing about Roger: he likes to go fairly straight up, less zigzagging and get to the point.  We did just that for an hour, until he decided we could take a water break and rope up.  Since the sun had not hit the slope we climbed, the snow still held excellently as we kicked out sturdy steps.  On the bad side, it made us fairly cold and we couldn’t stop for long.

We climbed on the rope for another hour or so, then as we grabbed some trail mix snacks and water, Roger taught us how to build snow anchors.  I found it fascinating what two feet of snow could hold!

Eventually, we got to the top of the ridge and got an amazing 360 degree view of the Cameron Valley.  The sun hit us and instantly warmed us up from our past few hours of freezing feelings.  We all looked around in awe, then:

“Guys, I can’t feel my foot,” Kyle said.

“I’m having a little trouble with mine too,” Heather echoed.

Roger sighed a bit and looked around at us, “Guys,” he started, in all seriousness, “this is when you find a buddy with a warm stomach who is not cold.”

Everyone glanced around.  I had already done that for a friend a year earlier and had gotten over the grossness of other people’s feet on my stomach, so I volunteered.  The two of them sat down and put their cold, stinky feet on my stomach for a few minutes while we passed around snacks and admired the view.

We started to go further a bit later.  When I postholed from the warmer snow, I realized I did not have my left gaiter on.  Perplexed, because I had not taken them off all day, I had no idea where it had gone.  I spoke up and we went to search for it.  When nothing appeared, I had no idea what had happened to it.  Somehow, I hoped that in my tiredness in the morning, I had left it by the tent and had just not noticed I only had one on since I had not postholed until the top.

Heading down to beat the melting snow, Tracy felt uncomfortable because her knees were bad and hurting her on the descent.  Knowing knee pain all too well, I stayed near just to give her a little comfort when Roger came up with a better plan.

When Tracy saw his idea, she laughed and said, “You’re putting me on a leash???”

Roger looked at how he had tied the rope around her waist and then to him and then replied, “Don’t say ‘leash’; I’ll loose my job.  It’s a short rope.”

Right.  Short rope.  Sure Roger.  Whatever it was, it worked and made Tracy feel more comfortable descending.  At each break, we lathered on more layers of sunscreen since we not only had it coming from the sky, but also the reflection off the snow below.

When we got back to camp, I went back to the tent to search for my missing gaiter, hoping that I just had a dumb blonde moment and left it there.  In the meantime, James had McGiver’ed a few solutions to make a gaiter out of miscellaneous items I could spare in my pack.  Every five minutes descending, he would turn and ask me if I had certain random items.

Fortunately, I did find a gaiter.  Unfortunately, it was Haley’s and not mine.  Now, more confused than ever, I worked on sorting out things until about 15 minutes later when the other group came back and Haley said she had accidentally grabbed one of my gaiters.  Basically: we each had two gaiters, they were just mixed up in our scramble to try to be on time and I just pulled a dumb blonde moment.  Great.

After lunch, we built bigger anchors and tested them by running and sliding with all of our weight.  We found this all very amusing until it started to drop freezing rain on us.  Then we all ran back to our tents and cooked dinner in the vestibule sitting in our sleeping bags.

The freezing rain turned to snow and the wind picked up that night.  Around 7 or 8 p.m., Sean came around testing our anchors.  He made us redo a few and proceeded to stand there with a hot drink while Haley and JD dug out the anchors to reset them in the wet snow while I continued making water from snow for us to drink that night and the next day since we had used most of it to make dinner.

“Are you going to just stand there and critique us or are you going to help,” Haley finally said as Sean told her to redo something that she had just redone.

Sean dove in and helped after that.

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When we awoke, we found a fresh foot of snow blanketing the landscape in all directions.  The clouds had lifted to only cover the mountain tops and finally left the valley exposed to plain sight.  Excited, we looked around at our surroundings in a new light, laughing at the bright, beaming purple door of the hut which seemed like a stark difference to the white that enveloped us.

Since the day before seemed to take more out of us than we planned, Roger and Sean decided to teach us essential skills, i.e. the basics.  For this, we took day packs of snacks, water, and extra layers and hiked a little less than a mile to a nicely graded slope on which to practice.  We had to climb over a large streak of moraine to get there and from the top of it, we saw down valley all the way back to where we got dropped off from the bus.  The scene had changed completely from the day before.

The first half of the afternoon, it felt like we were kids playing in the snow, sliding down, screaming and having fun.  Except we began to learn more advanced ways of stopping ourselves in technical terms.  First, we had to run and slide, digging our elbows in, proving that we could stop without the ice axe.  Then, we worked with the axes, which worked a hell of a lot better and we stopped much quicker.  Once a bunch of us had gone, we had good tracks made and sliding became faster and of course, more fun.

Our favorite slide quickly became the toboggan slide where we all sat down in a line holding onto the person behind us’ legs and launched ourselves down like a human bobsled.  Of course we had Roger video us on someone’s camera to watch us all fly down screaming, then bail off all different directions before the rocks.

After a snack break, we hiked uphill toward a peak 2100 meters just to get the feel of picking good lines and paces through the snow that everyone could sustain, switching people breaking trail.  When we came up to some exposed rocks, we stopped to boulder around a bit which was quite difficult in huge mountaineering boots.

Going back down, we plunge stepped until we got closer to our tracks, then slid down the rest of the way.  Back at the hut, we cooked up some snacks.  Quesadillas quickly became the warm, quick snack of choice.  I modified it to a peanut-butter-illa by substituting peanut butter for cheese.

While we chatted about avalanches and what caused them, we heard other people outside.  It surprised us a bit, but we made room quickly and moved back out to the tents.  Cameron Hut was so comfortable, but we gave it over to the other two who lived up in Auckland and had come down to climb a peak over the weekend.

The next day, we had our first helicopter re-ration which was a whole new experience since we had basically carted our re-rations around in the form of food babies before.  It did come just after 7am in the morning, so we all drowsily managed to get out of bed and wait.  Amy, the program supervisor came over too as we quickly dumped several large bags of food into a large pile in the snow and gave the bags along with our trash back to the helicopter people.  Before we knew it, the helicopter left and we now had to sort through all the food.  Three people set about doing that task while the rest of us began heating water for hot drinks and cooking up some breakfast.

Hiking up

After some grub, we played around with the avalanche beacons, harnesses and other miscellaneous gear while Roger and Sean plotted.  They decided we would hike further up into a small side valley and camp up there on the snow to teach us how to better deal with the cold since they seemed to think that we needed a bit of an ass kick.

We separated out three days of food from the eight days of re-ration and made a cache that we buried under rocks to keep the kea birds from stealing it and packed everything else up.  With our newly heavier packs, we all were glad when we found out we only planned to go about a mile and a half up, but gaining about 500 or 600 meters.  I wished I had my ipod, at least to stick one earbud in and rock out a bit to forget the 50ish pound pack that I threw on my back.

The sun came out that morning and exposed the mountaintops which we saw for the first time and motivated me to move along, examining what the clouds hid the past few days.  We went up all in one group which became a long string of people moving at different paces following the same tracks.  Breaking new tracks would make an unnecessary effort.

When we saw a few boulders, we stopped and picked out spots to dig our tents in.  After making flat platforms for them by stomping the snow down, we set up the tents and had to bury the anchors.  Hiking poles worked excellently for this because we could dig long holes easily with the ice axes, wrap the string of the anchor around it, place it in the snow, then re-bury it.  This process took quite a bit longer than we expected and turned out to be fairly exhausting.  While some of us set up the tents, others went to dig out a kitchen and a latrine.  A large indent about three feet deep constituted the kitchen which had patted down counter area on one side to cook on, and another area on the lower side to sit on so not too many cooks were in the kitchen.  The latrine, on the other hand, was basically a large hole to duck into with a smaller hole to squat over.  It also had a fantastic view down the valley and across to other peaks.  It made for a fantastic morning bathroom experience.

After dinner and making water, we all turned in early to hang out with our tent mates because no one wanted to hang out outside of their sleeping bag once the sun went down and the temperature dropped.  Since we did not camp near a water source, we had to make it from snow which took an extended amount of time and fuel.  While we labored to make water, Roger and Sean split us into two groups to start a morning adventure to which we were supposed to be ready to leave at a whooping 6:30am.

Cameron Hut, New Zealand

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