Annette Plateau

7 – 20 March

While I’m rather partial to wee adventure in the hills, our recent PTC trip to the Annette Plateau delivered a little more of an adventure than I had expected…

So how did it all start? Plan A was a four day mod-hard trip to the Serpentine Range got abandoned with high travel costs for a party of three and uncooperative weather. After some debate the Mt Cook region was closer, so the option of a 3 day trip to the Annette plateau got wings. Wow! I thought, another alpine trip! Yay!, I said, I’m keen! How often is the Plan B more exciting than plan A???

The weather forecast had suggested a brief fine spell. Just enough time for us to achieve our objective of reaching the plateau and maybe even a climb if we were lucky. But we knew we’d need to be lower down by Monday as a northwester loomed over the forecast charts. So we drove to Cook, staying at Unwin Lodge for Friday night, then we walked up the Sebastopol ridge in the mist via the Red Tarns for several hours on Saturday. Where the upper part of the ridge began to climb steeply, was critical decision time. We needed to decide if we sidled off the ridge to the ice/snow or continue up the ridge along the rock. Sunshine broke through the mist, giving us a route and the decision was made to head left for the snow.

We donned our crampons and with careful route-finding to avoid the slots, we soon popped out on the Annette Plateau to amazing views of Mt Cook and the Main Divide! Even though it was now 5:30 pm abouts, we bagged an easy Mt Annette after a shortish rock scramble. Finding a place to camp for the night was a little more fraught. Our wishlist was a fine piece of real estate that was relatively flat, had a view of the peaks , evening and morning sun, on stones - not ice, with a water supply. But we got lucky and I started cooking dinner after finding a number small water collection pools in the rock. Geoff and Raymond scraped out two sites for the Minaret and Microlite. Geoff had much fun telling Raymond how fussy I am with not wanting to lie with my head downhill (true, cos it gives me headaches), and how he was required to carry a level to check that tent site was flat (not true - he doesn’t!). While we dined on mince couscous with fresh green beans, we were rewarded with an amazing rosy-pink light on Cook as the sun set. Capturing shots of Cook with the light changing from rosy-pink to gold was a major distraction to eating our dinner … and the night sky - views that I will never forget.

Next day dawned beautifully fine. We were entertained over breakfast with thuds and crashes followed by clouds of ice and snow avalanches peeling off from one of the hanging glaciers under Mt Sefton. The finale was a thunderous roar as a large serac collapsed onto the glacier below. A quick pack-up saw us heading off for a day trip to Sladden Saddle and then onto the Sladden Glacier. The snow conditions and slots presented no problems. The wind was beginning to get up, but we found a sheltered lunch spot in the lee of the hills before attempting Mt Sealy. We weren’t that hopeful of success as Simon Middlemass, Unwin Lodge had mentioned that it had nasty rock and hard ice (both true) and suggested Mt Jean and Mt Jeanette as better options. And sure enough we decided that the south facing ice required 2 tools (which we didn’t have) so we turned back. I was pleased about that, as I’d just slipped about a metre or so on the weetbixy argillite and was not only sporting grazes and bruises, but my confidence had been dinted somewhat. We had plenty of time to scoot round to Mt Jean, and Raymond and Geoff scrambled up the warm rock slabs to the top (I chose to soak up sun instead). Then we were soon heading back to our tent site, with enough daylight left, thankfully. Back at the camp site we had a serious discussion about whether to drop down several hundred metres as the wind was picking up and our tents were very exposed. A quick hot drink helped to re-coup energy levels for the pack up and walk down. About an hour later and just on dark, we found a wee basin with a tarn and some flattish gravel, tucked in under the glacier that was considerably more sheltered than our prior previous spot, with only a short descent required to be on the sidle out to Mueller hut. The wind was getting up by that stage so we opted not to pitch the tents but instead huddle sardine-style in our sleeping bags in the lee of the ice. Fortunately there was enough shelter under the overhanging ice to fire up the stove and cook up a meal.

So much for sleeping… all night the wind constantly tugged at our bags or tried to tip us off our mats. The boys were kind and placed me in the middle and tied inside my bag to avoid the cold I did manage a few zzz’s. Geoff complained of wet feet of wind whipped water off the tarn. As dawn broke we could see the waterspouts and spray off the tarn that was soaking our bags, and a gale was blowing across our camp.

Breakfast was major challenge, but we were adamant we needed sustenance. So would be the effort to get down to Mueller Hut, now the wind was so bad… 100 km/hr at least. Geoff vowed he’d never used so many matches to light the burner (at least 11?). Every move was carefully orchestrated in case our stuff blew away. Holding onto your coffee in one hand and a bowl of pog in the other, while lying in your pit to keep warm, became a major achievement. Packing up was less successful. Standing up in the wind gusts resulted in one losing hold of that item one was carefully stowing away, as one grabbed the nearest rock to steady oneself - I lost a billy lid and a ground sheet, sorry Brian! I also lost my climbing helmet. One of Raymond's gaiters was ripped off and Geoff had no idea at what stage of the night he lost one of his. Geoff was amazed when he saw the billy lid spin up to at least 50m up, asking me what on earth was that. Because it was spinning so fast it looked like a ball!

We linked arms and retreated towards a large pile of rocks that offered some shelter to decide what to do, when a wind gust lifted all 3 of us clean off the ice. I then got dragged along the ice, hanging on to my buddies for dear life. Having never experienced such strong winds, I protested in a very un-ladylike manner…. Geoff deposited me behind some the rocks, while they reconnoitered another route down. After a short while they came back to get me. We then waited a short while to see if the wind would drop but to no avail, so we set off on the new route. Once off the Plateau and on the sidle to Mueller Hut the wind was gusty but manageable. Big clouds of dust were blowing up from the Mueller Glacier. Walking while holding the odd rock for steadying and we were soon making steady progress. Thinking all was well now, bar the odd gust. But as it happens that was not to be the case… An hour on, and Raymond was picked up by a gust and blown into some large boulders. This time he’d landed on his left wrist. It didn’t look good. His wrist had that odd out-of-alignment look to it - not at all good. l rapidly put my PTC-subsidised –Outdoor- first aid course to use and strapped it up, plus administering some codeine. It was now a slower trip down as Raymond with one-arm-only balanced his way through the rocks and wind gusts. We made the hut by 2pm and checked in with a delightful Californian warden who tended to us with offers of chocolate biscuits. We made a brew, lunched and slowly headed down to Mt Cook village. Geoff and I shared the driving home, and delivered Raymond to A&E before midnight. Our diagnosis was correct - a couple of fractures. While an epic trip, it was magical. I’ve also learnt to check for how close isobars are on the forecast charts rather than just the absence of precipitation! Thanks Raymond for a great and very memorable trip.

Party was Raymond Ford (leader), Geoff Spearpoint, Liz Stephenson (scribe)