I spent Saturday morning working from home, slowly giving up hope of getting out for the weekend. I sent out a half-hearted email to the list in the vain hope someone had something exciting planned. The only response I received was an invite from Cara, the American who I had handed a life jacket in the gear room a few days prior for her planned trip to the Nuns Veil by Mt Cook. I ummed and arred for an hour or two, weighing up missing class on Monday to frolicking in the snow. You’ll never guess what I choose.
So that was how I found myself in a car with Cara and Olivia (another American) hurtling towards Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park at ‘far too early’ o’clock in the morning. It was about 11am when we spilled out at the carpark by Tasman Lake. As per usual there was a lot of faffing before we got underway hauling our vessels towards the lake. The plan was to paddle across the lake, then walk up Gorilla stream to the base of the Nuns Veil glacier. Depending on the time, there was an option of camping there, before an alpine start the next day to get up the Glacier before walking back out the same way.
When we reached the lake we saw a fleet of house sized icebergs, patrolling the opposite shore, our destination. Rather than dread, this filled us with childish excitement. One of the jetboat guides obviously overheard us doting on these icebergs and felt the need to warn us about the potential for an iceberg tsunami. This sounded like the basis for a great Antics story to me but the girls weren’t too keen on ending up in the drink. In a rather upmarket turn for an OUTC trip, we had proper packrafts instead of aquanauts, which soon were stacked with packs and people. Precariously we paddled past the giants. No tsunami warning was needed to put us on edge, we were already unstable enough in the water due to the sub-optimal weight distribution on the rafts.
Despite this we somehow managed to navigate the ice field, avoiding any Titanic moments. We hauled our gear up onto the shore and stowed the packrafts for the return journey. After half a k of shitty moraine travel we were on the valley floor, heading in the direction of Gorilla stream. The sun’s harsh rays assaulted us as we undertook the 4km march to the valley. A couple of wrong guesses as to which valley it was later and we were once again on shitty moraine. Not far up the stream the valley narrowed and we were channeled up the true right bank, boulder hopping and scrambling. There was a rough route forged through the undergrowth on the side of the river, navigating the major obstacles and marked by cairns.
Once we forced our way through the most difficult of the obstructions we consulted the map. To our dismay we had traveled a piddly 1.5km of the 9km to the head of the valley. Were we ever going to make it?? Some hunters crossed our path, fresh from hunting the ‘hundreds of Tahr’ that inhabit the steep mountains surrounding the stream. From this point the stream was crossable and we weaved from bank to bank as we climbed up the valley. Soon the stream disappeared altogether and we halted to fill all of our vessels. Cara retold her experience of ‘extreme’ dehydration on a trip to Mt Earnslaw after the party forgot any gas to melt snow. On this trip she was making sure she was VERY well hydrated. From this point the going sped up, crossing fields of loose moraine punctuated by large water worn boulders. The pace was fast and I am not afraid to admit the combination of it with the sun was wearing me down. In the distance we spotted a couple of brightly coloured blobs, which turned out to be tents on closer inspection. These were more hunters, this time with girlfriends. We came to the conclusion that these were heli-wanker hunters, as the girlfriends commented on how we must have had a ‘long walk’. Moving further up the valley we tried our best not to look like Tahr, best to be on the safe side. Not far from the hunters camp we came across a rock bivvy with some substantial stone constructions surrounding it. It was questionable just how much rain the bivvy would keep out, but it would make a good shelter for a tent or a fly.
Just above the bivvy we encountered snow for the first time on the trip. Wet, slushy shit. Nine out of ten footsteps would be fine and the tenth would plunge you knee deep into the snow. This wore me down even more, so when we finally reached the head of the valley I was buggered. It had taken us only 5 hours to reach this point, despite reading some accounts of it being an 8–10 hour walk. When Cara suggested we should look for a campsite rather than climbing higher I was more than happy to oblige. Just further up there was a large rock with a snow pit to one of its sides. After some renovations this pit was large enough to fit our two tents. Dinner that night was egg noodles in peanut satay, with a few veges mixed in. Gourmet by my standards. By 8pm we were in our pits and fast asleep.
I woke in the night, accompanied in my sleeping bag by a semi-frozen drink bottle and my boots. I stared at the ceiling of the tent flapping in the wind and wondered how long it was until we could get up and go. Eventually 4am rolled around and the girls stirred out of their tent. Despite not being able to sleep well it was hard to part with my sleeping bag. We packed up camp and started in the direction of the Nuns Veil. After climbing all of 100m we were confronted with a somewhat alarming sight.
A large avalanche filled the entire valley, side to side with no way around. We stood there in shock trying to think up a plan. Each of us was going through the different stages of loss. First came denial, surely this had happened days prior and would be safe to travel over now. Then anger, we had come so far and we were so close to our prize, like what the fuck. Third we tried to bargain with the mountain, surely it would be fine now, if we were careful it would be fine. Then came the sadness, ugh we were so close! Despite my apprehension and buggeredness the day before, I was ready to climb a god damn mountain, just to have the opportunity taken from me. Finally came our acceptance of the fact that it would be dumb to convince ourselves to continue with our minuscule knowledge of avalanches and lack of rescue gear. So reluctantly we started to trudge back to camp. The girls were markedly slower in packing up the remains of camp now their prize had been stolen. By the time we started down the valley the sun was starting to rise, filling the sky with light.
As consolation the night had frozen the snow hard, so the walk out was a lot less physically intensive. We spotted the hunters high on the hillside and soon passed their tents. As we descended we questioned whether this really was the same valley we had walked up the day before, as nobody had any recollection of the terrain. Perhaps in our grief we had blocked out all of our painful memories. The way down was quicker than the way up, although we had to take more stops to take layers off as the sun rose higher. Just before the spot we had met the first set of hunters the day before Olivia let out a scream. Startled I looked up expecting to see imminent death coming down the hillside. Instead what I saw was a dead Tahr laying on the bank by the creek sans head. Nice?… By the time we reached the Tasman Valley it was only 10ish, thanks to our early start. In the distance we could make up the wall of moraine that hid the lake. It was a slow trudge towards it, the wall seemingly never growing any larger. Eventually it did and we once again laid eyes on the lake, full of icebergs as it had been the day before. As consolation for our loss we allowed ourselves a paddle around the ice unencumbered with packs. I was persuaded that perhaps summiting an iceberg was not worth for the risk of it flipping and finding myself in the freezing water (and dying). Instead we headed back and loaded the craft with all of our gear before setting off across the lake.
The paddle across was not difficult, soon we were back on dry land packing up our vessels. With arms full of packraft and all manner of mountaineering equipment poking out of our packs we wombled up the path towards the car. We must have seemed like a very strange trio to the passing tourists. Despite not actually climbing The Nuns Veil, we had been rewarded with an iceberg paddle and an interesting valley walk as consolation prizes, so not all bad. In the words of Arnold Schwarzenegger, “I’ll be back”.