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I really didn’t want to concede. It’s supposed to be third time lucky, but there on steep, slippery scree, with minimal visibility in all directions and still another 650 metres of climbing to go, reaching the summit of Mount Travers would be pointless. ‘It’s August. Where’s the damned snow?’ We were approaching 1,700 metres and the only sign of it was intermittent seams running down from cracks that emerged out of the damp clag. ‘We’re going too slow and there won’t be any views, even if we do carry on Shaun.’ My climbing buddy was relieved. He’d been pondering how to persuade me to quit, knowing that this attempt on Travers, via the easy (but long) summit Creek route was my third. I’d already been turned back on the summit ridge via the southeast face one October by deteriorating weather, and in May by loose, patchy snow and verglas at the notch at 2,000m on the south ridge. Third time not lucky then.
As photographers, Shaun and I were consoled as we trudged back through mossy forest beside Summit Creek in soft, muted light. ‘The forest here in Nelson Lakes is hard to beat’ Shaun exclaimed, as he pulled out his camera. ‘Yeah, the light’s perfect for forest photography alright’ I agreed. Darryn, the third member of our party, patiently waited when we found a luxuriantly moss-covered, five metre high waterfall grotto to photograph. A little later, back on the main trail between Upper Travers Hut and John Tait Hut, we did the same at Travers Falls, before returning to John Tait.
That afternoon we dried out and discussed options. A blocking high to the east had created ‘groundhog-day’ claggy conditions – no wind, but no change either. We agreed to climb to Cupola Hut next day and then, if the weather relented, have a crack at Mount Cupola. Given the mild temperature and soft snow, we left our rope and harnesses, plus some food, at John Tait. At least our packs were now a bit lighter. If the clag remained, we might at least be able to venture over Gunsight Saddle beneath the imposing south face of Cupola, before traversing south and east around to Travers Saddle. Shaun and Darryn had covered this route in the opposite direction many years ago, so even with poor visibility, we figured we’d be okay.
I’d only been to Cupola Hut once before. That was a July trip and that time, the snow was so deep we had to dig our way into the hut. The shovel mounted above the hut door is there for good reason. That afternoon, we managed to reach the ridge above the hut at 1,940 metres, but next morning as we approached Mount Cupola, we crossed one pile of avalanche debris after another as the clouds came down to meet us. We retreated, only just getting out before a ‘weather bomb’ hit the region, bowling trees in downtown Nelson as we slurped consoling beers.
I remember Cupola Hut as a very cold spot, but this time there was no snow to dig and a potbelly stove had been installed. Built in 1957 as a base for scientific researchers, Cupola offers eight bunks in a long oblong box with plenty of windows. Situated just below the tree line amongst beautiful beech forest, the view to the south face of Mount Hopeless, with its intimidatingly exposed couloir route to the summit, is spectacular. Just a minute’s climbing above the hut and you’re in open, rolling tussock with views of peaks above from north to south, when looking west; and more open vistas down Cupola Creek to the St Arnaud Range when looking east.
After settling in, that afternoon we made a recce above the hut to check out the route up 2,260 metre Mount Cupola and also south to 1,780 metre Gunsight Saddle. While I was very keen to climb Cupola, both options looked enticing. The weather would determine which way we went next morning.
We enjoyed a cosy night until my bladder overwhelmed what Shaun likes to call ‘pit-suction’. A good reason at least, to check what the dawn had on offer – clear skies, but still heavy clag on the peaks – so we packed everything for a trip over Gunsight Saddle.
Sunrise is drawn out in August and comes late. At about 7.30am, just after we reached the rolling tussock, the sky tinged red, compelling Shaun and I to extract our cameras. There aren’t many better ways to begin a day than a nice sunrise in the mountains. It had all three of us grinning, oohhing and aahhing. Cupola was a black sheer wall of ramparts merging in to fiery-red, swirling cloud, reassuring us that we were not un-necessarily passing up a good chance to climb the peak that morning. The clag remained in place all that day, indeed lowering as the day wore on.
Gunsight Saddle though, was clear and beautifully tinged with warm dawn colours. Reaching it required a hundred metre drop, before climbing steep tussock to a basin. This is where we reached patchy snow. I put my crampons on to justify lugging them all that way. The others couldn’t be bothered and, given the softness of the snow, there was no need to.
From the Saddle further south, through swirling clouds, we could see sections of Mount Franklin, at 2,340 metres, the highest peak in the Nelson Lakes – two metres taller than Travers. From the saddle we dropped 300 metres, below the snowline to skirt across scree slopes. At one point we actually got bluffed, requiring another drop before we could then make a beeline to a second un-named saddle, back up above the snowline at 1,800 metres.
From this nameless point we looked south again, across ridges coming off the east side of Travers, to Travers Saddle, almost at the same height as where we stood. Between us, again below the snowline, were about two kilometres of slippery scree and tussock. This time we had to drop to 1,400 metres, before joining the trail from the Sabine Valley. The terrain was not friendly, with several hidden bluffs to negotiate. At one point I managed to slice a section of skin off the ball of my right hand. The blood flowed freely and I was surprised at how bright red it was. ‘You must have a high haemoglobin count’ explained Shaun, as Darryn patched me up. Just minutes later Darryn cut his thumb and I returned the favour.
It was a relief to be on a trail again, but that was short-lived as we climbed back in to snowy mush. ‘I’m over this crap’ exclaimed Shaun as we slowly approached the saddle. Nine hours into our day’s journey I was too tired to do any more than grunt confirmation. If snow is in condition it’s a joy. When it’s not it’s a torment. At least we were on our third and final saddle and gravity would assist until we reached Upper Travers Hut.
During the Te Araroa season, Upper Travers Hut can become a zoo. Now we had it all to ourselves and enjoyed sleeping on double mattresses out in the dining room beside the stove. Next morning dawned cold and crystal clear – a summit day perhaps? But not for us – time had run out as we prepared to head back down valley. By early afternoon the clag had returned and later, it began to spit on the windows of Lakehead Hut.
Ah well, Three Saddles – one to mark each of my failed attempts on Mount Travers. It could be worse – as people like to say, ‘those mountains aren’t going anywhere’. I do wonder though, with climate change, if climbing windows are becoming rarer to come by.
Peter Laurenson is a member of the New Zealand Alpine Club and editor of FMC’s Backcountry.
For more images and info about Peter, visit www.occasionalclimber.co.nz