Alpine skills

In August I lead my first trip for the Southland Section of NZAC for ages. Essentially a high altitude tramping trip, we climbed Corner Peak, at the south-west corner of the Takitimu Mountains. Like much of the area, access is via farm land. The owners of Wairaki Station were delighted to let us cross their farm and justifiably proud of their piece of Southland; their detailed instructions on which farm track to follow were most helpful.

Due to a misunderstanding, we found ourselves short of a set of crampons and an ice-axe. Well aware of Johnny Mulheron’s warnings about heuristic traps, I scanned the mountains above us, thought hard about the weather and recent snowfall, and decided that it was safe to proceed with Justine relying solely on a walking pole. We climbed out of the frosty paddocks, through new snow and then onto the open tops. Here we encountered wind-pack and freeze-thaw snow too hard to kick steps in. I paused and contemplated our next move.

Deciding that the run-outs were mostly pretty good, and that Justine had very good agility, we continued. I left my crampons on my pack and chopped steps. That way I had a good feel for the snow and more certain not to lead Justine into a risky situation. It worked well, though I felt it unwise to push for a further peak along the ridge – which would have been straightforward if we all had crampons.

In spite of having some good ascents under their belts, I was surprised how many of our youthful team weren’t that well versed in snow skills. We stopped often to discuss the snow, avalanche conditions, that indeed people have only one left foot (an important point when following in plugged steps), how to hold an ice-axe without embarrassing yourself and that there is a difference between a left foot and a right foot crampon.

Later in the afternoon we established a campsite in a windscoop, just below the summit, and admired the tranquil views of Manapouri and Southland below. The following morning we practiced self-arresting, but not before I warned the party of the myriad dangers.

Teaching yourself – as most of the team had done – is fine and in many ways commendable, but a laid-back trip such as ours is a great way to consolidate knowledge. Explaining your thinking to less experienced members is always useful; having a more experienced person to point out things is invaluable. Indeed, the take-home point I made was that no matter how experienced you are, you should always go with someone even more experienced, because there is always more to learn.

Camera problems

Imagine the vista from Corner Peak of snow-capped Fiordland mountains sweeping down to Te Waewae Bay and there, across Foveaux Strait, Whenua Hau and Stewart Island. You will have to, because I certainly don’t have any photos – my camera battery went flat.

Back at the road-end, the camera reconsidered and decided that the battery was fully charged again, though the good shots I could have got with it were long past. My thermometer indicated that the temperature had not been much below –2°C up on the tops, which is not that cold, when things failed. Subsequent Google research found my Canon G16 is only rated down to 0°C, which is not very practical. While wearing the camera inside my jacket would have kept the battery warmer, the steamy fug inside would have created its own condensation problems. A waterproof bag inside my jacket could obviate that problem at the expense of clumsiness. Others suggestions please?


My comments about tea in the last UJCC drew some comments. In the expectation of causing outrage from the vastly larger non-Anglophile tea drinking world, I have to preface that I am a bit fixed in my view of tea – if it’s not Assam tea, then it’s not really tea! My comments about Europeans and tea stem from my German friends, who drink tissanes and have the temerity to call them tea. Green tea from China and Japanese tea are not tramping teas, and nor is Earl Grey tea (though Count Down tea is). I find masala chai (Indian milky spiced tea) is great around the campfire in the evenings. I am consistent, because the chief ingredient is black tea from (you could have guessed) Assam.

OTMC member Tomas Sobek took me to task about my comments on European tea. Tomas says the Czech Republic (where he is from) has a thriving tea culture, which began in the mid-1990s, notably in Prague. Apparently their specialist tea rooms are nothing like English tea-rooms and have nothing to do with old Czech customs, though they are already becoming a tradition in their own right. Noel Bigwood emailed to say that my comments reminded him of going on spring musters with his father. His father would bottle up some very black hot tea in the morning. He would sheath it with a thick woollen sock, layers of newspaper and then another thick woollen sock. At afternoon tea time, it was still reasonably warm and much appreciated.

Thank you

As reported in the last Backcountry, I was made a member of the New Zealand Order of Merit on Queen’s Birthday for my services to conservation (conservation embracing outdoor recreation in this context, as well as biodiversity). I don’t know anyone who puts their time and effort into conservation, or FMC, with any expectation of reward other than the satisfaction of helping make New Zealand a better place. I was thus surprised as well as delighted to receive a royal honour.

Although not wanting to sound at all ungracious, I can say that if one feels pleased to be honoured, basking in the reflected glow of someone else’s glory is even more pleasurable: over the years I have derived immense satisfaction from vicariously enjoying the recognition given to various trampers, mountaineers, SAR personnel and conservationists I know. In that light, I wish to thank those who have congratulated me – and some of whom I don’t know, but who clearly read UJCC. I am most appreciative.

There arises one small problem: each member of our annual Moir’s Guide Editors’ Expedition team now have gongs. Will the topics of our breathless, uphill climbing debates move from arguing merits of different approaches to conservation to the more mundane issues of deciding who sits above the salt at dinner, and how precedence decides who has to brew the pre-breakfast coffee? Regardless, I am sure the debates will be merciless and that’s the way it should always be.

Ka kite,

Robin McNeill
‘Altagore’, 85 Sunrise Drive, Seaward
Bush, Invercargill 9812.

This column was originally published in the November 2017 FMC Bulletin. We will be regularly re-publishing a number of stories from Uncle Jacko’s Cookery Column here on Wilderlife.