By Julian Hardy (NOTMC Member)
The North Otago Tramping and Mountaineering Club has a proud history of exploring our great outdoors that stretches back 45 years. The mountaineering part of club activities has waned over the years as more experienced members have retired, thereby leaving a void of opportunities and knowledge to pass onto newer members.
In December of 2021, a small group from the club tackled Gunsight Pass linking the North and South Temple valleys. While it is stretching to call this mountaineering, we did encounter ice and snow conditions. One of the newer members ended up slipping while traversing a snow field and slid 300 metres downhill onto rocks, badly cutting his hands. We were very fortunate that more severe injuries did not occur and we could continue with our trip.
This incident highlighted the lack of knowledge and skills amongst the newer members of the club in tackling such terrain. The club realised the importance of ensuring that members were not only given the opportunity to explore our region, but be trained and sufficiently skilled to do so safely. As a result, senior members of the club started organising with a well-respected and recognised mountaineering and ski touring guide, Murray Ball, to facilitate a training weekend.
The agreed venue was the Awakino Ski Field and Lodge. The ski field is located in St. Marys Range near Kurow (Richie McCaw country). The field has a 40 bunk accommodation lodge, situated at 1100 meters on the access road. This is at the limit of the winter snow line and therefore made quick, easy access to the ski field and basin to commence our training.
The lodge has two bunk-rooms and is heated by a combination of coal/wood burners and generated electricity. Fitted with flush toilets, hot showers, full kitchen facilities, dining room/hall, outside deck and outdoor heated spa, it made for an ideal place to hold a training camp. The lodge is original, dating back to the earliest days of skiing in New Zealand. It is also used for other activities, such as mountain instruction courses, tramping groups and mountain biking in the summer.
Eight members of the club eagerly agreed to attend and on the morning of 10th September, two vehicles left Oamaru and headed to a meeting point in Kurow where we picked up one of the participants for the weekend. Arriving at Awakino lodge by about 9am, we unpacked, claimed bunks and proceeded to meet Murray, our instructor, on the Lodge deck by 9.30am. Following introductions, Murray briefed us on what to expect from the weekend and gave us an overall plan. We then began gear checks to ensure everyone had the correct equipment: crampons, ice axes, helmets and suitable clothing.
Within a short distance of the lodge, a snowy slope allowed us to don our crampons and ice axes. We then learned about the various styles of crampons and the rudiments of traversing slopes using various techniques, including cutting step – the activity that filled in most of the morning. As the day progressed, we moved further back into the Awakino Basin and found a slope with a suitably safe flat area in front of it, in case of overrun while practising self-arrest using ice axes.
Murray was very thorough in the application of this training and had us simulate alternative ways of slipping: head uphill on stomach, head uphill on our backs, and then both ways with our heads facing downhill. This not only taught us how to self-arrest, but also how to turn ourselves around into a position where self-arresting can be achieved.
Day One of training was an informative, fun, and vigorous day – one where we ended up with various bumps and bruises, as well as a badly sprained ankle in one case. However, we all left with a lot more knowledge.
Saturday night was spent at the lodge along with some skiers who were enjoying the last few days of the ski season at the field. It turned into an enjoyable social evening with tales aplenty.
Day Two was meant to be a repeat of the previous day, but pushing higher into the ranges to practice on differing slopes. However, the weather curtailed much of our planned activities, as strong winds crossed the ranges and visibility was low. As a result, we ended up exploring the basin and using our crampons again, with one member remaining at the lodge due to the ankle injury. We learnt the techniques for glissading, as well as some basics on assessing snow slopes for avalanche risk.
The weekend overall was very rewarding, with all participants commenting how the learnings had given us greater skills and confidence in the outdoors.
Tramping clubs can provide a great deal to anyone who wishes to take up tramping and explore our wilderness. It is worth joining one of the multitude of clubs around the country to assist in learning new skills from those who have gone before.
The North Otago Tramping and Mountaineering Club (NOTMC) was awarded a FMC Training Grant: a cash grant to support the club to access this professional training. To learn more about the Training Grant, or to apply, please visit the FMC website.