1-9 February 2014
The Volta Glacier is a fascinating alpine playground located 10km to the north-east of Mt Aspiring. The upper glacier is relatively flat at 1900m only 500m lower than the enticing peaks of Fastness, Glacier Dome,
Tantalus and Pickelhaube, with the north face of Mt Aspiring as an imposing background. It would be more frequently visited if not for the difficulty of access, as anyone looking from the East Matukituki on the popular Rabbit Pass route can attest. Geoff had found a back-door many years ago around the end of Beauty Ridge but the normal approach up the crumbling Ruth Ridge was enough to deter many mountaineering parties. There was another route through the Tartarus Icefall. Direct access up the Ruth Stream was impossible but parties had gained access from Aspiring Flats and Wilmot Saddle down an exposed ridge into the head of Ruth Stream. Even this route had issues. Phil Novis accompanied Geoff on a recce a fortnight before the trip and is understood to have observed “you won’t get a tramping party down here, so where are you going to take them?” Geoff may have taken that as a challenge.
With that background, the ten of us set off up the East Matukituki under clear skies with much anticipation and just a touch of apprehension. We finished Day 1 at a small campsite before Junction Flat with most people sleeping out with a reduced sand-fly population compared to the usual campsites. The little beasts still encouraged an early start next day to Aspiring Flats with a side-trip to the Rock of Ages bivouac so Doug could fix its position compared to the incorrect map location. Then it was up the appropriately named Rainbow Stream with wind blowing the multitude of waterfalls into a curtain of spray below the ramparts of Fastness Peak. Higher up the valley, the summit of Mt Aspiring made an imperious appearance, requiring many photo stops. Many of these hadCalum as model, since his camera had failed due to a dud battery batch. Finally we gained the Day 2 campsite at the 1682m Wilmot Saddle and the first of many tactical discussions about the weather forecast. Prospects of worsening weather could mean only a day trip to the Volta and a retreat to the East Matukituki over 1859m Sisyphus Peak but we decided to climb it anyway for the evening light, leaving Merv to cook the evening meal. The evening mountain radio forecast improved so our ascent was justified and we were off to the Volta in the morning!
The snow-grass-covered ridge into Ruth Stream was spectacular in that any slip would mean a rapid completion of the 500m descent. Geoff safeguarded us by treating it as an alpine climb using crampons, ice axes and snow stake belays at the critical points. The middle belay involved 40m of near-vertical vegetation but it was amazing how normally slippery dry snow grass fronds and flexible alpine plants behave when impaled with a set of front crampon points. After a welcome relief in Ruth Stream for a belated lunch, it was time to regain all the height we had lost. The Tartarus Icefall has retreated and the climb was a relative anti-climax with only one belay over a crevasse in the gully. Then we were on the Volta! The vista was stunning but so was the wind as we searched for a sheltered Day 3 campsite. A series of tarns in glacier-ground rock gullies provided water but nowhere was calm. The evening weather report had worsened and north-west gales were forecast for the following night. Another tactical discussion – retreat to Ruth Stream or snow cave further along the Volta? Geoff got the answer he wanted and next morning we set off into the gathering cloud. Snow caving with only ice axes, billies and bowls is interesting and while Douglas gained the ice axe enthusiasm award, Chris showed her style at snow clearing. Three hourswork made a cozy retreat on the south-east side of Glacier Dome and the remainder of Day 4 was spent heading back to fill water containers at the previous campsite and discovering just how protected our position was from the wind. Day 5 started slowly but improvement in the weather encouraged an expedition to 2367m Glacier Dome. Drifting cloud provided tantalizing glimpses of future routes, both across the slopes of Pickelhaube and Geoff’s back-door to the Beauty Ridge. There was a contemplative silence as he described the route while we all considered the impressive cliff lines below it. Previous footprints led through the crevasses to the top and some very happy people added to their collection of summit shots in the cloud.
For many of us, Day 6 was the most spectacular we have spent in the mountains. The promised fine weather arrived and cameras were going crazy. We crossed from the Volta to the Purity Glacier and then some prospecting of routes was required before we traversed high across the slopes of Pickelhaube. We wended our way through the crevasses under Beauty Ridge while watching a chamois demonstrate the advantages of four-hoof drive. Then it was down to the scree traverse we had seen from Glacier Dome. The map shows a slight gap in brown contours at 1600m and a series of gullies provides a very reasonable tramping route out onto the terraces high above the Waiatoto River. An old deer trail provides a route in places at the 1600m level above the Pearson River and around to above Jimmy Creek. At this point our objective of Pearson Saddle looked so close and a similar height but it’s a long drop into Jimmy Creek down a trail that looks more suitable for mountain goats than deer and a longer climb back up the other side.
Camping in tussock that night with tarns for a wash was a novelty. Aarn demonstrated his softer side once he had donned his five-toed shoes that were very adept at trapping alpine flowers between the toes. Day 7, back on the tourist trail above Rabbit Pass, saw us starting to encounter other people again. We dropped our packs to go back and stare at the route up the waterfall, pleased not to have to attempt it. Then it was Rabbit Pass itself, splitting into two groups to minimize the rock-fall risk. Ruth’s digging efforts on the snow cave were unfairly rewarded when she put her back out coming down the rock scramble but she managed to continue. It’s a long way down to swimming spots on the river but we spent time looking up at the edge of the Volta thinking, “been there”. Crossing Ruth Flat was certainly interesting as we gazed up at the descent ridge into the upper basin and the ascent route up the Tartarus Icefall. The end of Day 7 involved the haul up onto the sidle track above the Bledisloe Gorge and it was “bledi-sloe” going, particularly crossing the washed-out side streams. We finally reached a campsite near and on the track at the edge of a large burned area. Another night out for most of us and a spectacular view of sunrise on Mt Aspiring before the walk down the East Matukituki.
A fantastic trip with many highlights. Geoff again demonstrated that careful management can get tramping parties into areas that might otherwise be considered as mountaineering preserves.
Trampers: Ruth Barratt, Raymond Ford, Doug Forster, Chris Leaver, Calum McIntosh, Merv Meredith, Geoff Spearpoint (leader), Aarn Tate, Douglas Woods and Gary Huish. (GH)