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Beginners’ Snowschool #2 - 2010

Date:12th July - 15th July 2010

Authour: Alastair McDowell

Students: Matthew Lillis, Alastair McDowell, Manasvi Narula, Eleanor Riddick, Nico Thorburn, Stephen Waite, Hayley Ware, Will

Instructors: Craig Smith, Kathleen Collier

When the winter chill comes blowing in around this time, it can only mean several things: mochaccinos, thermals, and SNOW. Our group of ten trampers and climbers (or both) headed down to the mountains on a chilly Monday night for Round Two of this year’s AUTC & AURAC Beginner’s Snowschool. The majority of the group had little experience with alpine climbing, so this was the best place to learn the basics of mountaineering – ice axe and crampons techniques, ice climbing, self arrests, a trip to the summit, and avalanche rescue practice - they were all in store! We were in good hands too, Craig Smith and Kat Collier were our instructors, bringing with them years of alpine and tramping experience.

Just so that we could fully immerse ourselves in the sub-zero temperatures we would soon face on the mountain, we spent the first night tenting at a DOC campsite near Whakapapa, after arriving near midnight. It was COLD. Enough said. From the crack of dawn we readied ourselves for the steep three hour climb up the ski-field to our home for the next three days at the NZ Alpine Club hut. Luxury was an understatement – microwaves and kettles were a far cry from the bare sinks and open fires of the traditional tramping hut. We didn’t complain!

First up we learnt the technique of self-arresting using ice axes. We simulated falling down a steep slope in every possible position – feet first, head first, backwards… and those without gaiters quickly learned why they were useful! The idea was to roll onto one’s stomach from whatever position one was sliding in, head pointing up the slope. That way weight could be exerted from the shoulder onto the ice axe head, digging hard into the snow. Provided the snow wasn’t overly icy, you would slow down very quickly. The uncontrolled toboggan with eight of us linked together sliding down the slope was particularly exhilarating!

Later in the day we all had a crack at ice climbing. The key was to trust your equipment – the snow anchor we used for top-roping could theoretically hang a snow plough! Most of the techniques from rock climbing carried over - three points of contact at all times, but instead of foot and hand holds we had two slightly smaller ice picks and crampons to help us scale the ice-laden cliff face. This first experience in ice-climbing gave us a tantalising taste of a large part of what mountaineering was about.

The weather was amazing throughout the whole trip, and we were rewarded for our efforts that evening with an incredible sunset beyond Mt Taranaki, which stood crystal clear all of 130km away in the distance. The next day was reserved for climbing to the summit of Mt Ruapehu - the wind had picked up, but a thermal layer, tshirt, and jacket was sufficient for the climb. Kat taught us en route about how to test a snow profile for the risks of an avalanche – luckily we were treading on secure terrain! It was a moderate three hour climb to the plateau, but the last section of ascent to the one of the three major peaks, Paretetaitonga was exceptionally steep. Secure front pointing with the crampons and using ice axes kept us safe to the summit, and we stood at 2751 metres eating the most satisfying block of chocolate there was! Views were out-of-this-world, stretching out to Mt Taranaki. Closer down the mountain was Turoa and Whakapapa, and Mt Nguaruhoe & Mt Tongariro were remarkable from this height, everything perfectly clear. Unreal. The descent from the summit was easily twice as tricky, climbing down backwards made the foot placements harder to see, but nothing a little teamwork couldn’t fix!

Our evening talk that night covered the basics of avalanches, one of the major hazards of mountaineering in certain alpine areas. Temperature, snow sensitivity, and the aspect of the slope are all factors contributing to avalanche risk. Talk turned towards snow shelters – ice caves, snow mounds, snow trenches, and igloos. A couple of us were very interested in how they were made, and as it turned out, night-time or pre-dawn are the best times to make them. Matt Lillis was the most enthusiastic of us to make one, and before long Stephen and I were compelled to join him. We trudged into the darkness and the cold with five layers of thermals each. Brave, yes. Crazy… most likely. Hayley didn’t quite share our motivation to head out of the toasty hut at 9pm…”It’s just that it’s so…outside!”

We discovered the snow conditions were almost perfect for cutting out blocks of snow, they held together brilliantly without crumbling. So after nearly three hours of back-breaking shoveling, cutting, carrying, tripping… we had completed our very own igloo! Craig channeled our efforts as chief architect, but he was soon trapped within the cocoon of snow, as he wedged the blocks together higher and higher. To keep our shelter windproof we dug out a small tunnel through which to dive underneath the wall, leaving the roof unfinished till morning. Matt wasn’t satisfied there however, and though Stephen & I were reluctant at first, we eventually decided it was worse to leave any regrets on the mountain… so we joined him to spend the night in our brand new home! The open roof even made for a great star-dome! It was an amazing experience for us three - waking up at 7am after over six hours of sleep felt completely triumphant. Only one problem…how to wrench those frozen boots on…

We rejoined the team at the hut for porridge and carried on with the day’s activities; practising using the avalanche rescue transceivers. For the engineers in the group this was an interesting application, using the radio devices to locate another buried transceiver by narrowing down the distance from the victim that flashed on the screen. Once we had the buried beacon located to a grid square of about 30cm x 30cm we used avalanche probes (like long tent poles) to work out their depth, and finally shoveled out the transceiver to safety! Evaluating the course (inside our completed igloo of course), it seemed everyone had found the three days thoroughly useful and it had definitely inspired a new wave of mountaineers. Beginner’s school was an awesome trip, and I’m sure we’ll now all be itching to get more exposure in our new snowy playground and before long take on the Advanced Snowschool next year!


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