By Alastair McDowell
It was a case of either adventure no matter the cost, or sheer ignorance that brought eight of us to sign up for Mark Flintoff’s ambitious club trip to climb Mt Huxley. The north-east face is usually climbed over three full days. However, a late ankle injury caused a power-shift and the prolific Nina Dickerhof took charge. She (wisely) decided to abandon Mark Flintoff’s ambitious goal in favour of a more achievable target – the Nun’s Veil.
A prominent peak in the lower Tasman Valley standing at 2749m, the Nun’s Veil definitely has an aura about it, especially with horrific notches and jagged choss-piles accompanying its skyline. We had plenty of time to take in the landscape while waiting for Glacier Explorers, the Tasman Lake jet-boaters, to zip us across the water, for the small token fee of a dozen beers.
The approach via Gorilla Stream remains true to the Mt Cook region, involving several long sections of groveling interspersed with the usual thirsty stream-bed slog. Nearing the end of a ten-day sun-streak the valley was bone dry and the heat caused our party to stretch out into the glaring haze.
Within six hours we had passed two semi-sheltered rock bivvies, but these are only useful for three day trips. Fearing the incoming north-west change, our campsite was set for high up on the Nun’s Veil glacier, on a flat section at 2200m visible from the valley floor. Once on the late-season snow our progress up the glacier was rapid, the odd crevasse was easy to bypass and ropes stayed in packs throughout.
The campsite was pure luxury – spacious flat snow for our tents and bivvy bags, with tasty flowing water nearby beneath an imposing icefall. Instead of the usual lightweight approach to sleeping on my pack foam and coiled rope, I was amazed at the difference in sleep quality with the simple foam matt. The art of lightweight alpinism is never without sacrifice.
A generous alpine start forced us to attack the steepest 200m section of the climb in darkness. The snow conditions were ideal on these south facing slopes, yet the sudden change in exposure overwhelmed a few members of our party. Despite offers to pitch the crux, three chose to down climb and ascend the Nun’s Nipple whilst the remaining five of us continued the climb the Veil.
A short traverse below the major schrund unlocked the final snow slopes to the blocky summit. Six fifteen AM – it was the earliest summit I had bagged, allowing us a satisfying few minutes wait before dawn’s first rays broke through the horizon lighting up Aoraki/Mount Cook’s Caroline Face. But the most interesting sight in our vast panorama was the sprawling debris deposited by the recent Dixon rockslide, coating much of the Grand Plateau. The sun was quickly concealed by dark cloud as we began the long descent.
The Nun’s Veil is a great climb to get high in the Mount Cook National Park with relative ease. Very accessible at grade 1+, it’s a perfect weekend trip to increase your confidence on steep snow terrain, with a delectable Saturday night bivouac high on the glacier. Go to it.
This article originally appeared on Alastair’s Blog on February 4th, 2013 and is reproduced here with permission.