After completing our Intermediate Snow Craft course with the New Zealand Alpine Club in August, we were keen to put our multi-pitch rope skills to the test on one of Mt Ruapehu’s most challenging peaks.
Girdlestone (2,658m) sits high on the south-eastern side of Mt Ruapehu in New Zealand’s North Island and has been dubbed one of the mountains most satisfying peaks. Accessible from the Turoa side, there are a number of routes to choose from to reach its iconic peak. Recommended as a great climb to attempt our first Grade 2 route we pencilled in the second weekend in September to tackle the South Face with friends Jade and Michael (who just completed the TTC Alpine Instruction course).
In New Zealand, Grade 2 routes are generally classified as containing steeper sections that may require the use of technical ice axes and a rope. Over the last year we have built up our mountaineering experience on a number of Grade 1 routes that usually only require crampons and a walking axe. Jumping to a Grade 2 route requires the skills we have recently acquired in building snow anchors, belaying and multi-pitching on snow.
With the weekend fast approaching, we carefully watched the weather as the long-term forecast wasn’t looking promising. We decided to head up to the mountain no matter what but with Saturday forecasting high winds, avalanche risk and poor visibility, we decided to get familiar with the Turoa side and do some practice pitching before our attempt at Girdlestone on Sunday.
Waking up that morning we didn’t know how much we would get to explore as the weather had completely packed in. With avalanche conditions at Considerable, the ski lifts hadn’t opened yet, but we started up the hill and spent the first hour walking in severe gails and poor visibility as we made our way up the ski field towards Giant Café. When we arrived we were the only ones there and got some interesting looks from the workers as they wondered how (or why) we were there in weather like this. We spoke to Ski Patrol who advised they were doing some major blasting in the area to clear the avalanche risk, so we were confined to the café for the next few hours waiting out the weather.
Just after lunch the skies began to clear and we were given the green light to head out, so long as we stuck to the eastern side of the hill. Despite our ambitions, we weren’t going to get in any summits today, so we walked down towards the Nha Wai Heke chairlift and found a nice little gully with a steep slope to practice some pitching. The sounds of avalanche blasts echoed through the mountains the rest of the day as we perfected our techniques, communication strategy and got ready for our big day ahead.
The next morning we were up early and were on the hill just after 8am. It was a beautiful clear day therefore the hill was already quite busy with skiers flying past us as we walked up the ski field. It took us nearly 3 hours to reach the top of the hill and cross the Mangaehuehu Glacier to reach the base of Girdlestone. Looking up at its gnarly ice boulders and steep face it was pretty intimidating as we put on our harnesses and technical ice axes.
Walking in single file, we began to climb up the steep icy South Face. Each step required some intense concentration as the crusted ice layer didn’t provide a lot for our crampons to grip. We aimed for small soft snow patches as much as possible as it provided a momentary relief in stress levels. About 100m up the ascent, we had to switch to front pointing as the angle got steeper and it was safer to have as many points of contact as possible. With every step it took several kicks to attempt at getting a grip on the ice to feel comfortable to put our weight on to move up. This proved to be very exhausted and definitely slowed our pace. The conditions were probably the iciest we had experience yet and with that degree of angle it was another heart pounding 100m before we reached a small plateau and could take a rest.
It was here we reached our decision point. It had taken us over 2 hours to go 200m vertical and with a pace like that there was no way we were going to make the summit before our turnaround time of 2pm – especially since we definitely needed ropes to continue. Looking ahead the conditions only got more steep and exposed and with not enough time to make the summit meant if we continued on we might not have an easy escape route and down climbing that section would be very dangerous. It wasn’t an easy decision as we had never had to turn around on a mountain before, but we made the right choice to turn back. We spent the rest of the day practicing more pitching on the steep icy conditions, but with a better run out at the bottom.
It was disappointing that we didn’t succeed in our first Grade 2 attempt but the conditions really increased the degree of difficulty and exposure – it just wasn’t worth the risk. Determined to tackle Girdlestone once and for all, we scheduled in another weekend two weeks later for a second attempt.
This time the weather was looking much more promising. Saturday was forecasting low clouds on the South, while Sunday to the North so we decided to spend Saturday peak bagging up at the summit plateau from the Whakapapa side and leave Girdlestone for Sunday. Our first (and best) of the day was reaching the top of Paretetaitonga (2,751m) where we had some nice front point sections before scrambling up the narrow ridgeline to the summit. Looping back we then snagged Dome (2,672m) and Glacier Knob (2,642m) before doing one last practice pitch near Tukino Peak.
The next morning we were ready for this! We decided to save nearly 2 hours and take the chair lift up (I know it felt like cheating but was worth it to have more time) and then crossed the Mangaehuehu Glacier to the base of Girdlestone. WOW! What a difference in conditions! The weekend before the mountain received a huge dumping of snow so the it was covered in a beautiful layer of packed snow – a lot different from the crusty, hard icy conditions from two weeks before.
We pretty much sprinted all the way up to where we had turned back last time and reached that point 3 hours earlier than we had two weeks before. We didn’t need to front point so we had lots of energy and time left to push on! And the conditions meant this area was 1000x less scary than before! So much so we decided to solo the traverse across and front point up without ropes. Since we could easily punch our boots into the snow we had lots of grip that the exposure didn’t feel so high.
The next hour Jordan and I continued to solo up as we felt really comfortable with the conditions. Our friend Helen had joined us this time as well and was paired up with Jade and Michael who decided to pitch a few sections up to the ridgeline before the summit. With time on our side it was the right decision as it’s best for each person to decided what they are comfortable with.
However, there are benefits and drawbacks to bringing out the rope on the mountain. While it provides comfort of having some extra protection when the conditions push your comfort levels, it does add a significant amount of time and must be factored in when planning a climb. The other challenge is how the conditions affect your ability to create strong and reliable anchors. If it’s powdery and soft, you’ll have a hard time creating a solid anchor.
With everyone at the ridgeline we eyed up the last and final stretch to the summit. It was definitely time for Jordan and I to pull out the rope as it was a ~60m steep section with quite a long run-out below. We traversed along to the shoot and set up our anchors. This was the first time Jordan and I would actually NEED to count on our anchors so the pressure was definitely on!
Jordan volunteered to lead up, making his way up the steep section being the first to reach the summit as I belayed him from below. He setup an anchor at the top and before I knew it I was following his foot steps, front pointing the 60m to the summit! Helen, Jade and Michael came up as a group as well and we all celebrated finally tackling Girdlestone and completing our first Grade 2 ascent!
The views at the top were incredible too! It was the first time we had seen Mt Ruapehu from this perspective. Tahurangi (2,797m) the tallest on the mountain looked spectacular and the summit plateau could just be seen in the distance covered in a light layer of cloud. Boy we lucked out on the weather! The other side of the mountain was covered but Turoa side was completely clear.
After a few photos (and a summit shot from another fellow climber carrying a flask of Fireball) we decided to down climb and head back down the mountain – totally satisfied with our achievements for the day. Retracing our steps we were back at our pitching point and decided to pitch the traverse across to the South West face and down Mangaehuehu Glacier.
Although we were disappointed we failed in our first attempt at Girdlestone, it made our second attempt so much more satisfying! It was exciting to put our newly acquired anchor building and pitching skills to the true test and has only made us want to do more challenging climnbs in the future!
Have you ever had to make a tough choice to turn around on an adventure?