Learning to slide down a mountain

Looking over Whakapapa Skifield,
Mt Ruapehu.

For two of the last three weekends I’ve been taking a snowcraft course with tongue and meats up at Mt Ruapehu. The course is basically a toned down alpine course, which includes things like ice-axe and crampon use, but doesn’t go as far as covering ropes. (I’ll leave that for later.) It’s been a lot of fun, even though the weather hasn’t been too co-operative.

We began the first weekend (11th – 13th July) with a heavy rain warning after a heap of messy weather came in from the west and stalled over the top of the North Island, thanks to an big and stubborn high pressure system off to the east that wouldn’t get out of the way. The consequence of this, besides lots of rain, was some very slushy snow. We spent some of the first Saturday just talking about avalanches and various snow formations, but walked around outside for a couple of hours and talked about a few basic things. Generally we ended up sliding around on Whakapapa Skifield (which was closed), having snowfights and chatting to the odd snow patrol person who skied past.

Sliding around the skifield
on Saturday afternoon.

By Sunday the messy weather was much more favourable and with the sun out, we split into groups and went for a bit of a wander through the collection of lodges and up the mountain. One of the lodges that we passed, belonging to a club which I won’t bother mentioning, was probably hosting some kind of medical convention given the 2m high snow statue that had been built out the front.

Unfortunately most of the snow was still very slushy so it wasn’t ideal for cramponing or self-arresting, which are the two things I’m most interested in right now. It might have been lucky that we weren’t on steep ice because one of my crampons broke, and it’s a bit dis-concerting when the back half of your crampon just flies off. After chatting with a few people in the club it sounds like it’s not the first time it’s happens and might be some kind of design flaw, but the specific problem seemed to be that the sizing clip on the Grivel G12 New Classic crampon that I was borrowing simply fell out, disconnecting the two ends of the crampon. We put the clip back in, but within 5 minutes it had flown out again. I was able to keep going because Pete had (for some reason) brought some wire up the mountain, and Matt had (for some reason) brought some pliers up the mountain, and we were able to do some running repairs. I might post more about the details later.

Practicing zig-zagging near
the NZ Alpine Club hut.

Despite the slushy snow we did at least find some areas of vaguely harder snow and were able to practice technique, which in my particular group meant practicing a variety of different techniques for self-arresting from different situations. Eventually we made it up to the NZ Alpine Club hut (or one of them), and nearby we found some much harder icier snow in which we could actually make proper use of crampons. It was a shame that we couldn’t have stayed for longer, as we had to turn around and slide down the mountain in order to get back to Wellington on time. We were back at the lodge by 2pm, and after a good tidy-up we headed home.

We began the second weekend (25th – 27th July) in the face of some extreme weather warnings and predictions of the worst storm to hit New Zealand in 12 years. By the time of the weekend the actual storm was aiming a little further north of Mt Ruapehu, but we still had the edge of it which, unfortunately, meant some extreme gale force winds coming from the east.

Practicing ice slopes.

It was still calm when we arrived at 11pm on Friday night, and with the latest forecast predicting that the storm might not hit until late on Saturday morning, we made plans to be up at 5.30am and out the door at around 6.30am, weather permitting. On Saturday morning the air was a bit breezy, but it was easily possible to go for a walk outside. The harder snow meant we were able to practice using crampons and ice axes in much more realistic conditions. Over the next three hours my own group made it up to the same Alpine Club hut we’d visited 2 weeks before. By now the weather had deteriorated quite rapidly and the hut was barely visible from 100 metres away. We were forced to shelter behind it from the gale-force winds for a while as we took out some snacks. On leaving we headed over to a windy ridge and looked over the skifield, and watched as the skilifts and towropes still operated, full of happy skiers were still being towed up the mountain in gale-force winds. It was a little surprising, but perhaps it was slightly more sheltered over there than it was along the ridge we were on.

We weren’t far from our lodge but getting down again was still an experience with some very strong gusts throwing snow at us from behind, which I have to admit was better than in-front. There were several occasions when it was just necessary to crouch and dig in the pick of the ice axes to prevent getting blown away. We reached the lodge within an hour or so, and turned on the radio to hear about how the skifield was now being evacuated. The DomPost has a good write-up about how skiers were forming human chains and such.

The blizzard continued for the rest of the day, but after some enthusiasm was drummed up we ended up going outside (still in the blizzard) to practice building some emergency shelters, specifically a snow cave and an igloo. I’m not sure I’d want to say it was fun doing this whilst being blasted by strong gusts and generally having trouble seeing, but it was very educational and I think everyone was impressed about the effectiveness of both kinds of shelters. The main problem, of course, is that they take several hours to build which doesn’t make them very practical in most circumstances.

We woke on Sunday morning and although the winds were still gusting fairly strong and relatively cold, it was nowhere near as bad as the previous day. This was a sign that the main low-pressure system had mostly passed through, and we began preparing to go out again for some practice with transceivers and with proper self-arresting. Regrettably though, with the forecast of a southerly front due to be coming up later in the morning and with the previous day’s issues in evacuating so many skiers from the mountain, we were told, just as we were ready to get going, that we should get off the mountain immediately. More specifically, I think we were told that if we didn’t get out now while there was still actually a road, there was no way we’d get out later.

So that was it. It was a shame that the weather prevented a few things, but I think we still covered a lot and I’m glad I did it. Besides the experience with using ice axes and crampons, there were quite a few other useful insights that I gained. For instance, after walking around on Saturday morning of the second weekend, I think I can now much more easily appreciate how people can simply walk off bluffs in snowed-in conditions. Hopefully I’ll get to use some of the skills properly in a few weeks when we head down to Mt Angelus.

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