This winter we have had some great mountaineering experiences and have taken a few more courses with the New Zealand Alpine Club to further our skills. After a successful summit of Girdlestone on Mt Ruapehu in the North Island, we decided to make our next adventure a bit more advanced by attempting Mt Hopeless in Nelson Lakes on the South Island.
Our friends Jade and Michael had been recommended this mountain from their alpine course instructors so we planned on a weekend in early October for the four of us to take it on. With weather always a factor we booked flexible seats on the Interislander ferry and crossed our fingers for good weather!
The week of our departure we had a planning session at Jade and Michael’s where we mapped out our intended route. There are 7 different approaches you can take to reach the summit, however we chose the Grade 2 Hopeless Creek route as it was recommended from some of our friends in the alpine community. Considering it was a 5-6 hour walk in and a full day to summit, we decided to take an extra day off work to make it a 3 day weekend so we had plenty of time for the summit without being rushed.
The weather was looking really good for the weekend so we decided to go ahead as planned and set off on the Interislander ferry just after work on Thursday. It was a beautiful night for a sail across the Cook Strait and as the ferry left Wellington harbour, we settled into an intense game of Euker! (If you haven’t played before it’s a really fun card game especially for long rides!)
Making great time on the water we landed in Picton just after 11pm. With an 8am water taxi pick-up the next morning from the dock on Nelson Lakes, we decided to drive the 1.5hrs to the Kerr Bay DOC Campsite so we were ready to go in the morning. Setting up our tents in the dark it wasn’t long before we were snoozing away.
The next morning we awoke to a cool sunrise as the early morning fog clung to the mountains before burning off. We cooked up a quick breakfast in the DOC shelter and organized our things for the weekend. This was the most gear we had taken on an overnight adventure as we had all of our mountaineering gear, ropes and technical ice axes in addition to our tramping gear. The packs were pretty heavy!
Just as the water taxi arrived the skies were beginning to clear and we got a glimpse of the snow-capped mountains in the distance. We cruised along the water, saving 3 hours of walking around the lake, and were dropped off at Cold Water Hut on the other side at about 8:30am. From here it was a 5-6 hour walk to Hopeless Hut and with the full day ahead of us we set off at a good pace.
The trail followed along the river for the next few hours as we zig zagged across a number of streams. In New Zealand ‘river crossings’ are a regular occurence along many of the backcountry tracks and while I have yet to experience a true, waist deep, wide river crossing – it doesn’t mean I don’t cringe every time there’s a chance my feet could get wet. I just like having dry boots! But no matter how small the crossing, I always seem to slip and find a way to get my feet wet 🙁
It was a good thing the sun was shining as it wasn’t long before my feet were dry again. A couple of hours into our hike we decided to take a break next to the river and fill up our water bottles. It was so nice to be outside and not covered in a ton of Gortex gear. We had spent nearly every weekend up on Mt Ruapehu I had almost forgot was it was like to go tramping in normal clothes!
The sketchiest part of the track was when we had to carefully walk along a steep rockfall area next to the river. It had only a narrow beaten path just wide enough for one foot to step that required some intense concentration to keep our balance and footing in check.
As we walked further into the Nelson Lakes National Park, we began to see more snow-capped peaks surrounding us including our first glimpse of the Mt Hopeless range. There was still a good amount of snow for early October, so we expected to have plenty of crampon time tomorrow during the summit. While the true summit of Mt Hopeless can’t be seen from here, it was a good view of our route up Hopeless Creek.
Nearly 5.5 hours since we were dropped off by the water taxi we landed at Hopeless Hut. Nestled in a valley between the Mt Hopeless and Mt Angeles range, the small 6 bunk backcountry hut was full of character and charm.
When we arrived we met Ian – a seasoned Kiwi mountain man who was planning his 5th attempt at summiting Mt Hopeless. Dropping our packs we decided to do a bit of a recce up the Hopeless Creek track so we were familiar with the path when we started before dawn the next day. After a delicious meal of couscous and chorizo, compliments of Jade, we crawled into bed as we dreamed of our snowy summit tomorrow.
At 4:45am the sound of our alarm awoke us from our slumber. We got moving a little slower than expected so it wasn’t until 5:45am before we were heading down the track. With our head torches lighting the way, we followed our path we had scouted out the night before, rock hopping along the creek before scrambling up the bluff in the barely there cairned trail above the gorge. By the time we reached the top of the bluff there was enough sunlight to turn off our headlamps. As we reached the upper part of the stream where it leveled off, we stopped for a break and enjoyed the colorful sunrise as the morning cloud burned off.
From here we began to climb through the scrub and onto a series of narrow ribs. The next 2 hours were a scramble up the rocky ridgelines as we followed the cairns up the mountain.
As we looked back we had a stunning view of the Mt Angeles Range . If we had more time we considered climbing up from the Hopeless Hut side over the range and up to Mt Angeles Hut – but that would have to wait for another time.
Route finding for this adventure was fun as the spaced our cairns meant we were on the look out at all times for a sign of where to go next. We managed well and never made it off route thanks to a great team effort. A few hours into our climb we were finally starting to reach some snow patches which meant it would soon be time to transition to crampons.
At just over 1,800m we pulled out the ice axes and laced up the crampons to set off on the snow slopes. Zig zagging up the mountain we carefully plotted out route, keeping an eye out for any signs of avalanche risk. The trail went up a well know avalanche path and the guidebooks warned of avalaches in early spring so we were on high alert.
Reaching the snow-filled basin at 2,000m we pulled out the map and began discussing our route options. With the summit still not in view it was difficult to know the best way to reach the top. Surveying the basin we decided to head up towards the right and navigate the ridgeline towards the summit.
At this point Ian caught up to us (as he set off later that morning) and watched as we plugged steps up the mountain, hoping his 5th attempt would be a success. The snow conditions were pretty good so our crampons gripped the snow while still staying firm. We aimed for a blouder at the top of the basin as a good resting point before considering our best route up the next steep section.
You can see the level of concentration on Jade and Michael’s face before we ascended up the ridge frontpointing. The exposure was just taken to a whole new level so the mental game had begun!
Jordan lead the way as we soloed up the mountain. The snow conditions weren’t great for building anchors so we decided not to rope up since the softness of the snow gave us confidence in our footing. No matter what though, front pointing is always pretty tiring. Going straight up a mountain makes my calves BURN and reaching the top where we could rest was a welcomed relief.
Looking over the other side of the ridge we could see Lake Rotoroa in the distance. Once Jade and Michael had made it up to the resting point we plotted our next move.
From here the real adventure began! Although we still couldn’t see the true summit of Mt Hopeless we expected it was not far from the highest point we could see. The only way to get there though was to navigate a very narrow ridgeline that provided some pretty intense exposure. With the path full of cornices and severe drops on the other side my heart began to pound as I doubted whether we should continue on.
Jordan yet again offered to lead the way and as I watched him struggle to get good foot placements along the first sketchy section my pulse quickened yet again. It was my turn now to go. I carefully followed his footprints as I came up to the heavily corniced point with a huge drop to the right. I said to myself “one foot, now the other – don’t look down!”. Those were the most terrifying steps I had taken yet in our mountaineering experience. Needless to say I was happy to make it across safely and continued on behind Jordan.
This was definitely a true test of mental strength. This climb wasn’t physically challenging but the mental pressure that kind of exposure puts on your mind can be crushing. Although it was an adrenaline pumping hour, I couldn’t help but smile as I looked around at the incredible mountains surrounding us. We couldn’t have had a more perfect day with not a breath of wind and sunshine for miles!
Reaching what we had initially hoped was the summit turned out to be disappointing as the true summit of Mt Hopeless FINALLY came into view.
At this point Jade and Michael had had enough. The exposure was starting to be a bit too much and looking at that summit they were happy to call it quits there. Jordan and I continued on a little further as we contemplated our decision. It looked to be one, maybe two, pitches to the top, but to get ourselves onto the side to make the final climb was a bit tricky with no where to setup a good anchor for the traverse to that point. To make matters worst, Ian had caught up to us eyeing up the summit as well and started to put pressure on us that the only way he was going to finally summit the mountain was to get on our rope.
Now when it comes to the mountains trust in your group is huge. Considering he had teased us for taking so much unnessessary gear since the start, and the fact that we had no idea what experience, if any he had with ropes in the mountains, you can imagine why we were hesitent to agree.
At least 20 minutes passed before we finally decided it just wasn’t the right time to attempt the summit. With Jade and Michael looking to head back, and not wanting the risk of Ian on our rope (but not knowing how to say no and leave him behind), we called it there. It was really disappointing as the conditions were great, it just wasn’t worth it in the end. Jordan especially is always pushing to go “just a little further” but in this particular case we both felt so accomplished getting as far was we had that the extra bit to the summit just didn’t seem like a big deal. Of course it’s easy in hindsight to just say “we should have just done it!” but I’m glad that both Jordan and I are pretty cautious when it come to mountaineering decision making because being over-confident can have big consequences.
Retracing our steps back along the ridge was a little easier this time. Jade and Michael decided to bring the ropes out for a little extra protection so Jordan and I jumped ahead to solo our way back down. Luckily we had lots of time left in the day as it was just after lunch at this point.
As Jordan and I returned to the basin we ate some much needed lunch as we watched Jade and Michael make their way down. Again the only draw-back to bringing out the rope is time. It takes a lot more time to build solid anchors and belay each other through the tricky sections. As we waited the temperatures rose and I just couldn’t help but take off a few layers to cool down 🙂 Nearly and hour and a half later they joined us at the basin and couldn’t have been more happy to be back on solid ground.
With the toughest part finally over, we headed back down the mountain towards Hopeless Hut. The walk down was tough as the sun had softened the snow so much we were sinking up to our waist at times! That made for a slog back to the rocky ridgeline but from there we were able to retreat towards the creek to fill up our water bottles again.
We landed at the hut just after 5pm – a near 12 hour day. It was such a good feeling to peel off those mountaineering boots and put on my slippers at the hut as we cooked up a well deserved meal. The next morning we made the 5 hour walk out and reminicsed about the adventure we had the day before. Jordan finished it off with a running dive into the cool Nelson Lake waters! Brrr!!
Although it was disappointing to not have made it to the true summit – I was proud of how far we made it and no doubt it was an epic adventure we won’t soon forget! The track record for this mountain is pretty poor as we know a number of people who have had unsuccessful attempts – must be how Mt Hopeless got its name!
Big thanks to Interislander for supporting our journey across the Cook Strait!