Chapter 2: Winter 2019 Snow crafting with WTMC, Mt Ruapehu

Whakapapa ski field, above Iwikau village

Winter has been around for awhile now and the snow adventures have begun. This blog post is about the two awesome weekends of snow crafting I recently had on Mt Ruapehu, with the Wellington Tramping and Mountaineering Club, WTMC.

The snow crafting course was absolutely awesome! A massive shout out to our instructors, Henry (our leader), Gareth, Katie (incl., her partner, Mike, and their daughter, Rosie) Nick J, Elisabet and Nick H for sharing their knowledge and love for the mountains with us. Thank you all for volunteering your time and for being such awesome instructors!

But before I even start on the snow stuff let’s talk gear first!

Good gear is good to have

A couple of weeks before the first weekend of snow crafting our team leader, Henry, organised a meeting solely dedicated to what gear would be appropriate for the mountain conditions. I could not attend so I caught up with a friend who filled me in on what had been said at that meeting. Okay I am not going to go into much detail as it took us an hour to go over the stuff but there was a lot of info to take in, and I quickly realised that none of my existing gear (it had been recommended that we try out what we already had before buying anything else) would be okay for the mountain. For starters, my tramping shoes were no good for ordinary tramping let alone alpine stuff. It had been recommended that we may take as many as six pairs of gloves with us. Holy, that’s a tad excessive, right! At that stage of my life, I owned only a pair of running gloves. Surely, two pairs would be plenty! Hold this thought for a moment, I will get back to it later in this post.

I postponed the gear buying to the very last second as shopping does my head in and destroys my soul (sounds dramatic but the effects on one’s wallet could be quite painful). The shopping was a mega time consuming and underwhelming process as far as I am concerned. To begin and end with, it seemed to me that appropriate alpine gear was all the least visually appealing and most expensive items in the shop. Certainly, it is functionally before aesthetics. In the end, I just resigned myself to the fact that I was going to spend a lot of money on things I did not particularly like the look of, and would neither feel comfortable in. The alpine boots I got were 2 2/3 sizes bigger than the shoe size I usually wear (this is the way they should be apparently), and saying that walking in them felt slightly awkward is a massive understatement.  I owe my alpine booties an apology for being so judgmental and narrow minded in my initial appraisal of them. You are beautiful and reliable friends, alpine booties, and I look forward to many more adventures with / in you.

First weekend of snow crafting, 6-7 July 2019

Above Iwikau village

The weather was not playing ball that week (which turned into a theme for the whole snow crafting experience) so Henry made a call on setting off for the mountain on Saturday morning rather than Friday evening as there were chances of the roads being closed, and the very undesirable prospect of spending the night in the van. It was an earlyish start from Wellington and an afternoon start on the mountain slopes. Luckily, the weather had cleared by the time we got to the mountain and we had a most beautiful afternoon of learning how to walk on the snow. It’s fascinating how varied the consistency and structure of the snow could be, and even more fascinating (at least to me) is that people have come up with different techniques for walking on different types of snow slopes.

That afternoon we walked for several hours, trying out different techniques, such as kicking steps, ascending, descending, etc. I felt cumbersome and unsure of my step mainly because I still hadn’t got a good feel for my boots. Rocks were the hardest and there were plenty of them to navigate over. It was tiring not because the pace was fast, in fact, we didn’t go further than few kilometers if not less, but because of the attention required to navigate over the terrain. At least, I seemed to be focusing all my attention and energy on where I was putting my feet. Also, the atmospheric conditions added to the physical challenge somewhat. The air was super dry and it felt as if it was sucking all my moisture out relentlessly which in turn made me feel very thirsty. It was an engaging and interesting experience and the day was over in no time. Before long we were headed back to the lodge for our evening meal.

The Pinnacles by the Whakapapa ski slopes on our way back to the lodge

At the lodge, after dinner, Henry had a map reading / navigation session prepared for us. These are essential skills for anyone hoping to get into alpine tripping. Right, I wish that was not the case but it is what it is so I finally have to get on to it. I had some major ‘breakthroughs’ about using a compass and navigation in general after that session – I finally get what is meant by true north, etc.  Alright, alright there is a lot I need to work on but one has to start somewhere.

The next morning we were split into teams of five and tasked with preparing an hour return trip from the lodge. We had one instructor come with us, act clueless and let us take the lead. The idea was that we looked at the map, picked an hour return route (preferably a loop) got the coordinates and then used a compass to navigate to our plan. Easy, right! Well, not really! Apart from sticking to our predetermined direction of travel (only because we didn’t go very far at all) we were a little confused and very unsure. Our plan was to walk out to a ridge about a kilometer away from the lodge and then loop back. Ambitious! We got out as far as 200 meters away which took us like half an hour and a thousand stops! But we were not the only ones in overestimating the distance. My step counter was as far off the mark as we were. Anyhow, good lesson! Alpine trips are not easy and require a fair bit of brain work.

After a short debrief in the lodge, we were back on to the snow fields, in the early afternoon, to practice using our crampons. It turned out the way to walk with them on was pretty much the opposite of what we had learned the day before. My brain was a wee bit confused but I loved the crampons. They made me feel super safe on the snow, especially on the slippery bits. That was fun and it came to an end too soon as is often the case with fun things. We had to pack up and head back to Wellington, if we wanted to be home before midnight.

For the second and last weekend of snow crafting, Henry was going to email us some homework.

The homework

Sure enough a couple of days later we got an email from Henry with the details of the homework. We were split into teams and given the coordinates of a site to get to, and once there build a camp site. There was a whole load to this task, weather forecast watching, including avalanche forecast, route planning, camp setting, and so on and so forth.

I decided to educate myself further on mountain weather and avalanches so I took to the NZAA website and did the online intro course on avalanches. The facts and stats around surviving an avalanche are quite bleak. Avalanche by Leonard Cohen started playing in my head.  Then I watched some stomach turning footage of people triggering avalanches and now Stefka Subotinova’s Prituri se planinata (Стефка Съботинова – “Притури се планината“) was playing in my head. The more I learned about avalanches the less I wanted to know about them. The message our instructors were trying to get across that we should avoid avalanches at all costs started to sink in. One thing is for sure they are quite a phenomenon.

The trip planning

The Monday before the trip we had a group meeting to put together a plan for the day trip and to assign each other responsibilities. We discussed the weather, the route, the camp and a hundred other things which went right over my head. This went on for about 2 hours. There’s so much to talk about when it comes to alpine trips, and this was only a pre-trip planning meeting. We got another two hours or so later in the week to further talk about our plans. May sound excessive to most but there is way too much to consider when it comes to alpine trips, especially if the group is a bunch of newbies!

Second weekend of snow crafting, 20-21 July 2019

Day one

With teamie and navigator, Anne, outside the lodge before we start our march into some challenging weather conditions on the slopes of the mountain. It was a team effort to get my helmet on somewhat right (thank you people for not giving up on me)

It was almost trip day and the weather forecast for the weekend was pretty grim, a lot of rain and wind and general unpleasantness. Anyhow, we had to make do with what we had. So we were off to the mountain on Friday night. On Saturday morning, after breakkie, we presented our trip plan to the rest of the group and luckily we did not get any boos from the crowd. We got to choose the instructor we wanted to be part of our group and we went for Katie. We were then out of the door and on our way to the camp site up the mountain by 10.30 am.

Although the weather was not great it was not too bad either. Well, at least for the first 15 minutes or so of the walk. Before long the wind and rain (or maybe it was sleet) started blowing from the right (west) and before I knew it I was soaked through and through. My first pair of gloves got soaking wet almost immediately and I had to change into my second and last pair of gloves (which I had planned to save for after we built our camp).  Now I got why having six pair of gloves would not have been such a bad idea. Noted.

This was taken on day two (was way too challenged by the weather conditions to take photos on day one) but gives a sense of what the viz was like rse
This was taken on day 2 (was way too challenged by the weather conditions to take photos on day 1) but the viz or lack of it was similar, if not worse on day 1 too

Our navigators, Anne and James, made a very decent job of leading us and we stuck to our choice of route. Guys you’re awesome! Then we hit a super exposed slope and got battered by the wind and whatever happened to be falling out of the sky at this point in time. Then we found shelter from the elements and then we were back into the thick of it. It altered like this every five minutes.

At some point, I noticed that somehow my waterproof shoes had filled up with water. How did this happen!? I had to park this issue as I had other more pressing things to attend to (like directing energy to my frozen hands which was not going all that successfully).

As we were on a ridge it started getting very slippery so we had to put our crampons on. At this point Katie took over and found us some flattish spots on the side of the ridge where we could safely put the crampons on. Jeez, it’d been a couple of weeks since I’d had my first practice of putting them on. And that one time I hadn’t had to face vicious wind and sleet slaps in the face.  That was perhaps one of the most challenging things I have had to ever do but I managed to remember how to get them on correctly somehow. Not that I had any other choice. At this point we had been walking for more than a couple of hours already and made a decision as a group to turn back and abandon our plans of making it to the camp site. According to Katie’s GPS, we were not all that far away from the site, though. In all honesty, I don’t think I could have taken any more cold and wet that day. Also, we were not the only group not to make it to the camp spot. Actually, no one did.

On the way back we got off the ridge, where we had been walking so far, and walked towards the ski fields. We came across one of the other groups and took shelter in a bar by the Sky Waka Gondola. It was nice to be out of the cold and wet for a little bit although to my disappointment they didn’t have any hot drinks there. As we had some hours left before the day was over our instructors thought we could do with practicing self arrest. So before we got too cosy we were out of the bar in search of a nice steep slope.

It did not take long to get our slope and we got down to throwing ourselves into the task of self arresting. I found the self arresting challenging as having to bring the ice axe across my body and the adze under my shoulder just felt weird – simply, I’d rather keep sharp objects far away from my face. It was one of those things I was glad I did it once it was over. I just hope that I never, ever have to put this into practice in a real life situation. After we destroyed the snow on the slope with our attempts at self arresting it was finally time to  head back to the lodge. Yippee! The prospect and excitement of putting on a dry change of clothes all made for a very speedy descent down to the lodge. And didn’t it feel good getting rid off my sodden wet clothes!

Day two

Bright and early, on our way up to the coveted camp site spot

The weather seemed to be improving so our instructors decided to lead us to the camp site spot where we were meant to go the day before. The weather was nice at first, but as soon as we hit the first exposed slope it started getting a little temperamental again. So it didn’t take long before I got wet again which was an opportunity to figure out how my boots got soaking wet the day before. So it turned out it all started from the outer trousers; they got wet first, then the long johns (don’t judge my fashion choices) absorbed the moisture from them, then the socks got into the water absorption act and finally all excess water got deposited at the bottom of my boots; the water stayed there as the booties are indeed waterproof and it had no way of oozing out. Fully waterproof trousers are in high order in addition to several more pairs of gloves.

Striking a pose just before we descend to the camp site

Although it was challenging walking up the mountain, because of the weather conditions, we made it up to the camp site which felt good and satisfying. I was so, so very happy we got there as it meant that we were going to have the chance to build our snow camp. The thought of having a little play with our shovels in the snow seemed to boost my blood circulation levels and take off the edge of the cold. Well, the observed improvements in my bodily functions had more to do with the weather than anything else. By the time we got there the weather had calmed down, the wind had dropped and it had stopped raining. Hooray! It’s interesting how wet clothes could still be a source of warmth as long as there’s no wind, rain, snow, sleet, etc. Also, for the first time that weekend, I could fully see and enjoy the beauty that surrounded us. We were on this massive plateau and were enveloped in whiteness. It was so beautiful!

The snow camp site

Before we got onto the task of building our camp, we came across a group who had built a snow cave nearby. How awesome is that! They invited us in which was my first time ever in a snow cave. It was super spacious (there were seven of us in and according to the hosts it could fit in another seven), and super toasty and cosy.

Our instructor, Katie, emerging from the snow cave

We then got on to building our camp which was so much fun! We build a platform to pitch our tent, dug out a latrine and built a kitchen where we enjoyed a cup of tea. That was my favourite activity for the entire weekend, that is having a cup of tea in our snow kitchen. After we enjoyed a cuppa in our beautiful kitchen (designed and built solely by Mark) we had to destroy our camp and head back to the lodge and then Wellington. It all came to an end way, way too soon.

With my teamies enjoying a hot cuppa. From left to right Miro (Master Tea Maker), Mark (Chief Kitchen Architect), myslef (Latrine Builder), James (Chief Tent Architect)

The snow crafting was a most humbling and enriching experience although there is no denying that the weather made it very, very challenging, even mega uncomfortable and unpleasant at times. Still there is no other place I’d rather be than the mountain and I am looking forward to more alpine adventures this winter. There is even the prospect of going up Mt Taranaki (the one responsible for getting me into this alpine stuff in the first place) but that’s not until September.



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