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Mt. Earnslaw & The Dart Glacier

Updated: Nov 14, 2021

Date: March 2019

Participants: Jason Rose and Ivan Andrews

I’ve a confession, I’ve missed no less than three flights to Queenstown - as of writing this report anyway. This trip began with one of these missed flights, and as a result our plucky duo had to hitch to Glenorchy, and start walking from there to get to Mt Earnslaw.

After a lot of road bashing, rather unsuccessful hitchhiking and blisters, we arrived at the start of the Kea Basin track. The route to the Biv involved an invigorating 1800m+ elevation gain, with a glacier crossing right at the end of it. With my twenty-something kg pack full of mountaineering gear, food for 6 days and the fact that we’d basically just walked from Glenorchy, this seemed rather implausible. So naturally, we gave it a go. After dumping excess food and gear in Earnslaw hut, we proceeded upwards past Kea Basin. Negotiating a series of bluffs, and realizing that we were running out of daylight, we decided to camp at 1700m on a ridge leading up to the glacier.

This was quite a good idea as it turns out, because Mt. Earnslaw tends to get coated with verglas in claggy conditions, so during the clag the following morning, we’d have had a pretty bad time with climbing up to the East Peak. Luckily, we just had to continue negotiating bluffs up to the glacier, eventually arriving at Wright Col as the clag lifted. We had a spot of morning tea, then charged up the East Peak. It was a very enjoyable climb up a series of steep scree slopes and edges. There was some gorgeous exposure climbing a rising and traversing series of slabs and ledges. It also featured a fun little chimney for a few meters, and was the first time I’ve arm barred with a pack on. Eventually, we arrived at the summit scree field, and had a victory choc on top, staring down the gargantuan 1900m South Face and the Earnslaw Glacier. At 2830m, the East Peak of Mt. Earnslaw provides a gorgeous vista of Fiordland and Aspiring national parks. To our West, Mt Madeline & Tutoko, our North the Olivines and the chaos of the Twin Icefall, and our East the Dart Glacier & Mt. Aspiring.

Now that we had roughly an idea of where we were going, the descent proved straightforward, even though it featured some stimulating moments with snapping holds. We were rather keen to get down, as we’d had a look at the forecast and a nasty storm was meant to start in the evening, following into the next day with freezing levels dropping to the valley with a massive dump of rain and snow. We returned to our tent at 1700m, which fortunately the Kea had spared, and after a grand feast passed out in Earnslaw hut.

The next day, walking boringly along a valley, would somehow prove to be quite interesting. The track continued along up the Rees valley, which had now turned into a muddy mess. This would have been fine, except the track followed the bank of the river closely, with a steep drop into it on one side and for whatever reason, a BARBED WIRE FENCE on the other. In places, the track essentially tightroped between these two delights. I found out later after talking to a DOC warden in Dart hut, that the land was privately owned since 1900 and the current owner thinks that it is appropriate to not only own mountains, but refuses to sacrifice an extra meter of their 18,000 hectare station to allow there to be a safe track. This became quite an issue for me, because half way to Shelter Rock hut, I accidentally grabbed the fence when I slipped on the mud. The barbs were rusty and several went into my hand, deep. I cleaned and dressed it as best as I could with antiseptic cream and alcohol, but I’d felt the spikes scrape against bone. By the time we got to Shelter Rock hut, I’d developed a fever and was having trouble moving my rapidly swelling hand. You read stories of kings dying from septicemia from rose thorns, and tramping medicine waxes medieval. On the bright side, at least we don’t have leeches in NZ. We decided that we’d pull the PLB if my fever continued getting worse, but fortunately it was gone by the morning. I now carry antibiotic pills whenever I go tramping.

Having braved the perils of private property, our plucky duo went over Rees saddle into the Dart the next day, and up onto Cascade Saddle where they made camp.

Our main objective for the trip was to traverse as far along the Dart Glacier as we could, over Mt. Wahine to Pakeha Col if possible. This would however prove interesting, given the recent dump of snow and Autumn conditions.

The slopes up to Plunket Dome were hilariously cut up, and we were rather wary of weak snow bridges given the recent two day dump. By sticking to the rock rib and climbing up and across a few crevasses, we managed to get to the top rock band.

After many zany adventures, falling into schrunds and slots and all manner of scrambles, we managed to get to the top! After having lunch and faffing around for a bit, we began our descent. The snow had softened up slightly, and made for a lot of falling into stuff as we retraced our footsteps back to Governor’s Ridge and Cascade Saddle.

When we got back to Cascade Saddle, we worked out quite quickly why the Kea had spared our tent on Mt. Earnslaw. They were all at Cascade Saddle!

The following day, we packed up our tent and walked out of the Matukituki, enjoying free ice creams thanks to our much better luck hitchhiking and the lovely couple that bought them for us. Somehow, I didn’t miss my flight back to Auckland and managed to arrive just in time for my 11AM lab the next day.

This cheeky shit kept trying to steal my nut bars Ivan looking gorg with Mt.

and yelled at me whenever I stopped him. Earnslaw in the background, and yours truly in some terrifying lip zinc


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