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“Mt. Tyndall”, or “How to go 30 Km and up 2100 vertical meters in 29 hours without breaking down”

Rumblings in the evening from the avalanches from mountainsides not so far away reminded me that we were in snow country, despite the heat I felt all throughout the day. When the sun sank past the western ridge it was readily apparent that the heat I so much wished would go away early was indeed doing that, and doing it quickly. A chill wind bit into my bones, and I knew that I needed to eat with purpose and get into the sleeping bag. It had been a long day and I needed sleep, but sunrise could come too soon.

We started at a car-park in Dunedin at 6:45 that morning, collected gear and all five of us (Stu, Rob, Lara, Phil, and me) somehow managed to get all of our things (and our bodies also) into a Toyota hatchback, which did surprisingly well considering its load. We drove through Central Otago, which is where the scenes of Rohan from Lord of the Rings were filmed. Long swathes of brownish brush filled the landscape occasionally broken up by a row of trees or a cluster of buildings that indicated that modern people really live there. We pasted Cromwell and then Wanaka with their beautiful lakes that are right up to the town, having great hills coming straight up out of the shores. Simply gorgeous scenery.

We arrived at the car-park in the Mt. Aspiring Wilderness area just before noon and set off shortly after distributing some gear and making final checks. We set off on the trail to the Mt. Aspiring hut, which would be our first big stop for the day. It is a long, flat trail mostly, and it took about 2 hours to get to the hut. I was a bit sore by this time, having not done much in the way of hiking/tramping with a heavy pack in some time. We ate there and rested a bit, filling our water containers again, having first done the same in the river. I couldn’t believe that they drink straight from the river, but apparently this isn’t full of parasites like so much of the streams in the US are.

As we still had a long way to go, we began going up through the bush trail towards the Cascade Saddle. It was a bit disheartening to see that the sign estimated 5 hours to the saddle, but I was determined to give it a go. It didn’t take long to see that I was not the most fit of the group, and after a little more time I was falling behind. One of our group, Phil, decided that he would stay back with me and make sure that I kept going and didn’t get into a tight spot or something. The bush was tough going but we finally prevailed and made it out above the tree-line. By that time I thought I was going to have to stop, if only because I knew that I would have to go back down and out the next day anyway. Every time we stopped and discussed this, though, I ended up deciding to keep going for a little while longer, so that I could at least find a reasonably good spot to set up a tent. This went on until we were almost at the ridge, whereupon I determined that I would at least make it to the place we were going to camp.

When we finally made it there, we set up camp on a little clear spot right on the edge of a cliff. There was plenty of room, but just knowing that we were a few feet from certain death was kind of fun. As we finished setting up, the skies were turning pink and red and then dark blue. We made dinner and then as it became really cold, we finally retired. And we were tired indeed.

The alarm went off at 5 am, just like we had agreed upon, but nobody really was in a hurry to get up. The wind was starting to come in with more force, and with it the cold of the nearby glaciers came, as though they didn’t want to see us come forth to attempt climbing one of their own. Undaunted, we did eventually emerge from our shelters to brave the winds and begin the last part of our quest.

By 6 am we had secured our gear in the tent, and taking only that which was necessary, we set off to climb to the top of Mt. Tyndall (2496 meters). From where we were camped it is only about 3 Km, but that terrain is up and down, then up again over crumbly shale-like schiss, which is only a little harder than shale, but just as brittle. Suffice to say that it was not easy-going, even for an easy-going lot like us.

We began to see the first breaks of sunlight coming over the ridge as we came to the beginning of the snow-field that we had to cross. Donning our crampons for sure traction in the ice-like snow, we set out to take the peak. This went for almost an hour before we finally made it to the rocky peak. Here most took off their crampons to get better footing on the crumbly rock. We took off our packs and anything else that we didn’t need for the final push. I had come all that way, the whole time both doubting that I could do it and determined that I would, and here I sat down and really almost quit. All I could see was another 50-60 meter climb up steeper and less trust-worthy rock, and I didn’t want to even try it. I had been looking at the last bit for almost an hour wondering if they were really thinking about trying to climb it without rock climbing gear, but that was exactly what they meant to do. I even told Stu that I was just going to sit and wait, but he wouldn’t even hear it: “what are you talking about? You’ve come all this way- it’s right here.” And I had to laugh at myself. What was I thinking to have even said it. I knew that if I went there and came that close without finishing it for reasons other than the weather (which was perfect at the time) or my personal safety (which was not really that much an issue), then I would regret it. He was right, so I took off after him, still with my crampons attached and ice axe in hand. As I said most had already dropped off their crampons, but for a while I found that I could get a pretty good grip in the crumbly rock with them. That didn’t work out for the last bits though, and I found some spots that would have been a lot easier without them, but by that point I didn’t know what I would do with them if I took them off for fear of losing them. So I came to the last small section of about 10 meters with my friends sitting at the top just waiting for me to join them. It was a bit difficult to climb with the crampons, but I made it pretty easily. Upon reaching the top, I saw a little point on the other side of the group that was higher than the rest, obviously the actual summit, and so I went to it and grabbed ahold of it, only to hear the others say that they hadn’t been too keen on doing that themselves, as it was quite exposed, and one false step might mean a pretty nasty fall down a pretty high cliff. That was cool to me though, because I then knew that although they were more fit and prepared for the climb, they did it with me as a team. We were in it together and we were sharing a moment of delight in the early morning sun, in the cold wind, and in each other’s lives.

But all things must come to an end, and we had a long way to go. Another 3 Km back to camp was as hard as I thought it might be. After mostly going down, at times too steeply for my poor legs and feet, I came to the last part of that trek which was back uphill. I thought that I would never make it, but one step at a time gets you there, or so they say, and I eventually made it back to camp. There we boiled up some water for food and drinks, ate well, and packed up to go home. By that time it was already noon, so we knew it was going to be a long day. Starting back down the trail above the tree line was tough on my legs, as the steps were often slippery and steep, making it difficult to keep a regular pace, and making it very painful in my knee, not to mention the burning pains in my legs, which were beginning to rebel and shake at times when I didn’t stop to rest a minute. We found that getting down to the hut was certainly easier and faster than going up, but by that time I was not the only one having pain and difficulty, as two others joined me in lagging behind. Fortunately for my ego, they let me set the pace and they stopped whenever I stopped, commiserating with me about how useless we would be at work this week and how so few people would understand why we put ourselves through such pain and suffering when we could have just as easily had a nice couple of days at the beach or something else equally relaxing. They made me feel that I was not alone, I was not the only one who had a hard time with what we did, and they made me feel equal in the share that we had accomplished a difficult goal together.

We made it to the hut in 2.5 hours, which was about half the time that it took to get up to the campsite the day before, but we were certainly much more fatigued, and the 10 Km walk out really didn’t look very appealing at the time. So we took a break for several minutes until it became clear that the skies were getting more and more foreboding up the valley. The first few drops of rain were in fact beginning to fall at the time that we left. We walked in the bright afternoon sun for two hours, stopping some to rest and to have a drink of water. But oh weren’t we feeling a bit low when a group of older guys (40-65) past us at a fair clip on their way out, after having climbed Mt. Aspiring the day before and hiking out from a camp that was at least 5-6 hours farther up the river from the hut. We took comfort in the thought that they lived nearby in Wanaka and were probably all former mountain guides who were so fit because they did that every couple of weeks anyway.

The car ride home was interesting if a bit cramped. I fell asleep on the rough and bumpy grated road, which made them all chuckle a bit, but when we stopped in Wanaka we had a nice meal (I had fish and chips). The rest of the way home, we chatted about all sort of things, sang along with Simon and Garfunkel, and generally had a good relaxing time. But you should have seen us getting out of the car. It wasn’t easy, but I’m glad I did it.


Comment from The Traveler
Time: 28 February, 2006, 11:38 am

OK, sorry, I know that is long for a blog, but how can I tell a story without a few colorful details? I hope you like the pictures. They just don’t do it justice. It was so beautiful.

Comment from Dovie
Time: 1 March, 2006, 2:18 am

Dennis…gotta admit when I saw how long the story was, I was a bit hesitant (I mean, I try to cover a lot of Internet ground while I munch on my lunch). However, after reading it, there’s nothing I would have you leave out for the sake of brevity. Great story!

Comment from Jen
Time: 1 March, 2006, 10:20 am

that long post deserves a comment. i wish we had mountains in houston. hug a kiwi for me.

Comment from dennis
Time: 1 March, 2006, 12:21 pm

Thanks, dovie; always nice to please you with a story that’s not just from the ER.

It’s Wednesday here- my legs still hurt…

Comment from steven
Time: 2 March, 2006, 12:42 pm

That sounds awesome. I’d love a chance like that. Crampons? I never even get to don the word, much less the thing itself. Count your blessings. (I did recently use a rock to scratch my e-mail on an impossible-to-reach overhanging ledge far up a steep cliff in Palo Duro canyon. Still waiting for an rsvp.)

Comment from Mom
Time: 5 March, 2006, 4:46 am

I reread your last sentence. Hilarious! You could
still be in the car, so I’m glad you got out, too!

Looking forward to more photos. Take your camera
everywhere and show us your new life and your new
friends and your new church and your new job and
you new hangouts. We love the scenery, but that’s
just not enough.

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