Mt Longfellow

10-11 November 2018

Thick cloud the previous night held the promise of a Sunday morning sleep-in followed by a leisurely wake- up and retreat to lower levels. That wasn’t allowed on Mt Longfellow.

It was Laurayne’s first PTC trip as a leader, and at first light she was taking the role as motivator and coordinator seriously. “Come on, there isn’t a cloud in the sky, the top’s just there, this is a great chance, we won’t get better conditions...”, and eventually she had everyone up, munching breakfast and putting on frozen boots.

The trip hadn’t started so auspiciously. The spring weather forecast had vacillated between gloom and doom to settle on a major weather event for the Thursday/Friday, with possible improving conditions over the next few days. Laurayne had checked with Merv and Gary, who were mildly optimistic while Peter was still looking for the cancellation email when the others arrived on Friday afternoon. The Waimakariri River extended way beyond its banks, the Hurunui River was an impressive sight with wall to wall water, but the rain eased as we set off from the Sister’s car park and there was light ahead as we headed towards Lake Sumner.

The vintage Gabriel Hut was a welcome sight just after dark although we never found the camouflaged toilet until morning and the permanent hut residents kept scrambling far into the night.

An early start the next morning held the first sign that things would not go according to plan. Merv, nine years before, had walked the Lake Sumner beach around to Evangeline Stream. This time, forlorn Department of Conservation markers were attached to trees well out into the water and flood debris was floating well into the bush. It was too cold to swim so we started to climb. Up through thick regrowth; no good; try higher, perhaps back at the lake edge; nope! A painful kilometre in the first hour and the advantage of an early start was vanishing. Peter was just commencing another climb when a vision appeared through the trees below us. A marker; well away from the lake edge; a track! It was overgrown but very welcome and we were off. We reached Swell Bay to see the track again disappear below the waves and so scrub-bashed north directly towards Evangeline Stream rather than following the coast.

Pink tape marked a route up Evangeline Stream, but that meant crossing and re-crossing where the water was impressively high. The few crossings we tried got even Peter’s shorts wet, so mostly we scaled bluffs, skirted boulders and clambered around cliffs. Evangeline Biv was a welcome sight, but not the news that we were now only one hour ahead of Merv’s previous trip that had driven up Saturday morning, nor was the news that we still had 800m to climb to the top of the Glynn Wye Range. Packs on and upward. The tussock shown on the map turned into alpine scrub that required many traverses until we could ascend small side streams. Even tussocks were an issue as our legs were so tired after earlier scrub-bashing that we had to walk around them rather than stepping over. Then the scree; two steps forward...! Another 100m up, then another. It’s amazing how 200m to go sounds twice as good as 300m. Finally, we reached ribs of solid rock that reduced the back-sliding and the slope started to level off. Then came the views, through drifting cloud but spectacular, with the large Gabriel Tarn directly below down a snow slope. There were some feeble jokes about ascending Mt Longfellow that night before a rapid descent to a fantastic camp site just above the tarn after 11 hours on the move.

After the Laurayne alarm clock the next morning, the 300m ascent back to the top of peak 1880 seemed a breeze after Saturday’s effort. Views in all directions. The ridge towards Mt Longfellow got spikier as we progressed while Merv decided that his fingernails weren’t up to the holds and turned back. The drop-offs became more impressive until we reached a cliff before the last easy stroll to the summit. Not good; the snow to the left didn’t reach the top and the cliff line to the right just kept going. There was a small notch down that we may have been able to slide but the landing didn’t look good and ascent might be an issue. Oh for a short length of rope. The top was only 180m away but not a good place to get stuck as Merv had the PLB, and so we turned back.

Down to the tarn and a quick pack-up. The descent gave us time to consider exit routes. We had planned to climb out directly to the east but the tussock looked thick and the slope steep. A slightly higher col to the north looked more inviting and after kicking a line of steps up a convenient snow slope we arrived at the top of a fantastic scree basin. All downhill from here! The 600m descent to the bushline went quickly although some words were said about Gary’s Plan B of reversing the trip mentioned when we were thrashing around the lake. Some scrub-bashing as we entered the trees, but a deer highway appeared through the thick regrowth and we were off. Areas of tree-fall delayed us as we neared the Jollie Brook but still reached it by 1pm. Finally a track! Well, one marked on the map anyway. Occasional markers were sighted but did not seem to aid navigation. The deer highway down the tributary seemed luxurious by comparison. We finally staggered out to the groomed footpath on the Gabriel-Jollie Brook circuit by 3pm. Over the low saddle to Gabriel Hut (who said it was all downhill?) and a welcome rest.

The last two hours down to the Sister’s car park was a bit of a blur. Head down, keep going through some great conversation and a fear that stopping would mean an impossible re-start. It was great to look back up to Mt Longfellow as it vanished in the distance to see how far we had come. Laurayne was still talking about a return to complete the last 180m but the rest of us were muttering “near enough”.

We were: Laurayne Devery (leader), Merv Meredith, Peter Umbers and Gary Huish. (GH)