A Mischievous Fairie Queene  Her Ravenous Sandflies and Spiders

In an account of their victorious trip, Lorraine Johns, Nina Sawicki and Simon Bell tackle the Fairie Queene in the St James Conservation Area near Lewis Pass in February 2012.

This is just one of the stories in Simon’s Trips, a book honouring the life of NZ mountaineer, Simon Bell.

After his disappearance on Pikirakatahi/Mt Earnslaw in Jan 2015, his parents, Colin and Jeni Bell, compiled the book from Simon’s accounts and photos. Lorraine Johns, Rob Hawes, the late Steve Dowall and other friends also contributed stories of tramping or climbing trips they made with Simon.

Simon’s Trips was originally a gift to his family and friends but was later made available in return for a donation to the FMC Mountain and Forest Trust. These donations paid the majority of the costs of digitizing FMC’s publication ‘Safety in the Mountains’ (available here as the ‘Manual‘) and establishing the Wilderlife website. Simon’s estate contributed the balance.

We will be regularly re-publishing a number of stories from Simon’s Trips here on Wilderlife. If you would like the complete PDF, Simon’s Trips may be downloaded here, and a donation made here.

By Lorraine Johns (February 2012)

To celebrate Waitangi Day this year, Nina, Lorraine and Simon decided to launch a covert mission to conquer the crowning glory of the Spencer Mountains, ‘the Faerie Queene’ (named after Britain’s Queen Elizabeth I, or more precisely, named after a 16th century poem by Edmund Spencer, written in her honour).

On the way to the road end, plotting over pies and hot chocolate at the Culverden Bakery, I warned my fellow adventurers that, in the mystical realm of the Faerie Queene, there would be no cute elves, singing pixies and laughing unicorns. Little did we know, however, that we would encounter an evil host of treacherous vampires (also known as sandflies) and terrifying creatures with sharp pincers (also known as spiders), which guard the Queene’s flanks in summer.

Inconspicuous, with helmets, ice axes and crampons dangling from our packs, we slunk down the St James Walkway to Camera Gully Gorge. Once there, like in a game of chess, we would commence a series of strategic manoeuvres to take out the Queene.

For those who cross Waiau Pass or wander the Saint James, the Fairie Queene dominates the landscape in Lewis Pass, sprawling the length of the valley as it opens up nearing the Waiau River. However, once we were opposite the entrance to Camera Gully Gorge, all we could see were some rather hostile looking bluffs. A closer examination of the map confirmed that the best option for a high camp was right where we were standing, despite difficulty in finding a single spot which was not host to a spider’s nest. As the area was swarming with the Queene’s spies, we retreated early to the ‘safety’ of our tent, trying not to think too hard about everything else that had retreated with us.

We were up and off in the dark, still being chased by creatures set on extracting our blood from our bodies. The first challenge of the climb was to gain safe ground above an eight metre waterfall. Here, the top secret mission planning document we were using (also known as a guidebook), suggests that you bypass the waterfall on the true left of the river. Of course, going up on the true left would have been what the Queene was expecting. Cunningly, we went up on the true right. After a sidle on some grade 14 grass (aye, there is such a thing), Nina and I declared we would rather climb up the waterfall than retrace our steps, so it was on the true right we continued, emerging well above the river and the route.

The next challenge was to interpret the guide book’s directions, which commanded us to strike out above a tarn and gain a ridge south of Gloriana. There was a slight hitch in that the ridge south of Gloriana leads you to … well Gloriana. Not Fairie Queene. The only tarn in existence also led to Gloriana. We could have been confused, but we knew this was all part of the Fairie Queene’s mischievous plan to mislead us.

Following our noses, we continued north, as the river disappeared under our feet below a towering mound of scree. At this point, the Queene woke to the realisation that her outermost defences had been breached. Suddenly, cloud began to roll in. At the same that Nina and Simon speculated, “This doesn’t look ominous,” I exclaimed, “This looks ominous!”

We then lost visibility for the climb, at the same time as discovering that the Queene suffers from serious choss outbreaks in summer. We followed Simon through the crux of the climb, which turned out to be the 200m just below the summit ridge. The rock wasn’t too bad, but it wasn’t too great either, and visibility was down to 20m, which did not help with assessing the best line. We were wondering if the Queene was going to turn out to be a bit shabby, in her summer garb. Once on the ridge, it was checkmate for the Queene. Despite a deep, narrow, rock crevasse (the words ‘nasty rash’ came to mind), and a tiny, almost cheval-like section, the rocky kilometre long ridge was a straightforward pleasure to traverse.

However, the Fairie Queene did have one final trick up her royal robe. Upon reaching a pole we thought marked the summit, and dropping our packs, Simon pointed out that he could see another pole on a rocky outcrop that looked slightly higher. Dutifully, we continued on. A little to our surprise, despite the grade of Fairie Queene, there was something bordering on a grade 10 rock step leading to the true summit. We noticed someone had left gear for an abseil. On the summit, some little sort of geodactic trig, complete with graffiti, persisted. It looked like the Queene had lost her temper with its predecessor, which was smeared over various rocks.

Despite the limited visibility we got at the trig, the weather had cleared in some directions. It was a stunning place. The gnarly ridge leading along the Spencer Mountains is striking. The wide Saint James valley is picturesque. But most of all, I appreciated the view into the Matakitaki, with shining little tarns; the gleam of a larger lake; large tussock benches with sweeping rock slabs above; and mountains looming through cloud everywhere, black and white and jagged. I think Fairie Queene would be a dream to ascend from this side, with a high camp based near one of the many tarns.

Soon, however, it was time to head down. This was largely due to the plague of sandflies that had congregated on our sweaty packs at over 2000m, while we were detouring to the real summit. As everything else was tucked away under clothes and gear, they had reached a new low of feasting on our faces. Perhaps, sufficiently appeased by the delight we displayed on summiting, the Fairie Queene permitted us an uneventful and quick descent, despite some rain. The scree crux hadn’t really improved since we last saw it, and we were grateful to Simon who picked a safe route down.

We had ditched the ice axes and crampons the previous day, but it turned out that there were still a few very deep, compact basins, that were impassable for our group without gear. Thus did we ultimately end up grovelling between a rock and a hard place (a shrund, hugged by steep, loose choss), using some pointy rocks as ice axes to downclimb the last ten metres of snow to easy ground. This time we took the true left of the waterfall, a route plagued by speargrass. Nina then, queen-like, commanded a sleep in, after we consumed her delicious dinner.

We eventually woke the next morning to discover little red welts all over our legs. The Queene’s vicious little vampire army had bitten us a multitude of times through trousers and whatever else we were wearing. The head to toe insect repellent I had been wearing seemed to do little more than season me to taste. Perhaps the Fairie Queene had also detected my irreverence for her beloved Spencer, as I managed to get bitten by a spider that crawled down my gaiter during the walk out – turns out that I am allergic to spiders.

However, the feeling of being under siege (and in pain) soon passed, as we were already daydreaming about visiting a snowy Gloriana and conceiving other grand adventures in the spectacular Spencer Mountains.

We will be regularly re-publishing a number of stories from Simon’s Trips here on Wilderlife. If you would like the complete PDF, Simon’s Trips may be downloaded here, and a donation made here.

Wilderlife