Mt Rolleston is the highlight peak of Arthur’s Pass, and just visible from Christchurch on a clear day. The most popular day trip in the area is a steep three-hour climb up to Avalanche Peak, straight from the village. From the top, there are views all around. But all eyes are drawn to a common focal point – from up the Crow River, along Rome Ridge – the high peaks of Rolleston, alluring and aesthetic from all directions.
For my final weekend, I was determined to knock the classic climb off the list, and found Hamish Cumming to join me to tackle the intimidating northern side of the mountain – the Otira Face.
In late summer, Rome Ridge is a choss pile and the Crow Glacier is broken and crevassed. The Otira Face however had seen several ascents by friends I’d made in the Canterbury Mountaineering Club. Owen Lee had also recommended the climb earlier in the summer. Armed with beta, to navigate the route and stay on solid rock, and a pristine forecast, we had high hopes of success.
Hamish and I used the CMC Kennedy Lodge as our Friday night base. Arriving after midnight allowed us only a few hours of precious sleep, and the next day would be long – but how could have we missed Rose Pearson’s masquerade ball?
We were on the trail up Otira one hour before dawn to maximise our chances of finishing before dark. Owen Lee told of suffering a cold forced bivvy on their descent, he didn’t recommend it. We knew we’d have to move fast.
Sure enough, we reached the head of the valley just as first rays lit up the top of the reddish rock face. Our route headed started up the buttress middle right, topping out just below the high peak.
While ‘lightening my load’ in the schrund at the base of the face, harness around my ankles, I heard the call “ROCK!” and looking up saw several head-sized boulders tumbling down towards me. I panicked for a second before diving to the slope for cover. Lucky this time. So when the climbing became too sketchy to solo, I was glad Hamish passed me the rack to lead. While I searched for protection placements, Hamish would have to worry about potential rockfall – knocking loose a few stones can quickly gain momentum on the wrong slope.
It was great experience leading the alpine rock. We simul climbed the entire route except for one overhanging chimney-squeeze section. That was just for fun.
I had neglected to tape up my known blister hot spots on my heels – this was a climb, not a long walk – but as it turned out the climbing was rather easy and fast. In return for our raging speed, my heels began to heat up. In anticipation of the five-day Kahurangi trip coming up, I patiently attended to my growing wounds before yielding to the call of the summit.
The final stretch to the summit ridge was on stacked boulders of the Phillistine ridge, probably remnants of some ancient geological process of the merging mountains. The very last 50 metres were glorious, as the landscape beyond the peak opened up to us. Stunned for a few seconds as to where we were in relation to the summit, gazing all around, the true summit was just 100 metres across the ridge, a big cairn trumpeting the high peak of Rolleston. Awesome!
Hamish coiled up the rope as he traversed right in behind, and a hearty high-five sealed the deal. Not a breath of wind at the summit, we were right in the middle of an enormous high-pressure system. It had taken seven hours from the carpark, leaving at 5:20am set us up nicely for a relaxed half hour lunch at half-noon to enjoy our lofty surroundings. Perfection. Well almost . . . The only thing missing was some cheese for lunch, I was just craving some fat. Muesli bars, dry fruit and dry wraps just weren’t enough.
Downclimbing from the summit brought us to an interesting abseil section: the second pitch, from pre-existing (backed-up) ab tat slings, brought us the schrund of the Crow Glacier. Now the end of summer, the glacier had melted well away from the rock face, creating an eerie abyss of darkness far below . . . I found myself a stable position bridged between the rock and rotten snow to wield my ice axe – still on abseil – so I could lunge over and plant all points into the snow, and quickly climbing up onto the upper glacier. Exciting!
It was now an easy plod over to Low Peak, and a laborious down-climb session down the Otira Slide. Slogging it out, and low on water & energy, it was a welcome sound and sight to refill at this mossy waterfall. Hamish had run dry at the summit, three hours before. I had attempted to melt snow, but my rate of thirst outweighed the heat of the day’s melting performance.
We reached the Otira Valley carpark after 12.5 hours on the go. A big day out, with huge success. But thanks to our early start, finishing at 6pm with plenty of daylight helped make the day trip feel only modestly exhausting. Beer and a bacon egg pie at the Bealey Pub finished off a memorable last day in Christchurch.
The next day I packed up all my belongings, fitting most in the car and only the bare essentials in my pack. I left the rest behind and hitchhiked north to St Arnaud . . . ready for the next adventure.
This article originally appeared on Alastair’s ‘Mountain Adventure Blog’ on 14 March 2013 and is reproduced here with permission.