After spending a week in Mt Cook National Park for our High Alpine Skills Course in November, Jordan and I were eager to put our latest mountaineering and glacier travel skills to the test during our Christmas holiday in the South Island. Our guide, Paul Rogers, had recommended a 2+ route up The Minarets – a ~3,000m twin peak in Westland National Park – as a good objective.
We were excited to not only attempt our first 3,000m peak but to stay up at Centennial Hut – an iconic red NZAC alpine hut with spectacular views over Franz Jozef and out to the West Coast. I remember when we first saw this hut. It was displayed in the rolling credits at the Banff Film Festival held in Wellington by the New Zealand Alpine Club. Instantly I said ‘WHERE IS THAT HUT???’ And after a few Google searches we learned it was Centennial Hut and immediately added it to ‘the list’.
The only challenge is Centennial Hut is helicopter access only so we reached out to our friends at The Helicopter Line who provide charter flights for climbers and scenic flights over Franz Jozef and throughout Westland and Mt Cook National Park. Looking at the forecast there was a rare stretch of ~5 days of beautiful weather expected for the West Coast – not a common occurrence and one we hadn’t seen in our entire time in New Zealand to date!
So early morning on Boxing Day we met the guys at The Helicopter Line in Franz Josef, loaded up the helicopter and were off on our next mountaineering adventure! We had explored Fox Glacier when we first arrived in New Zealand (back when they still offered walk access) but had only seen Franz Josef in the rain when we did the walk to the terminal face with our friends Brent and Kristina last April.
Flying up the valley and over the magnificent Franz Josef glacier on a clear sunny morning was amazing! From above you really get to see an incredible perspective of the cracks and crevasses of the glacier. We passed waterfalls flowing down the mountains and endless snow-capped mountain ranges. As we neared the top of the glacier I could see perched on a rocky outcrop the famous red exterior of Centennial Hut. It was just as stunning in real life as the picture!
The helicopter dropped us off with our gear just a hundred metres above the hut. As we approach the hut we were surprised to see no one else was there! Dropping our overnight gear, we quickly suited up for glacier travel (luckily we remembered what we learned from our High Alpine Skills Course) and set off to put in a ‘boot track’ for the next morning to The Minarets.
Without a solid route description to go by, it took some trial and error to get started. We first tried to go back up the hill behind the hut and descend down the steep bank, but large crevasses on the mountain side stifled those plans. After sniffing out a few other options we decided to go down and around below the hut which still proved to have its challenges but was the safest option we found.
It was already nearly 11am by the time we left so the snow was already softening up quite a bit. A steep section below the hut meant we were sinking up to our waist in snow – not fun! Once on the Chamberlin snowfield we continued to dodge crevasses and snake our way across the glacier.
It was a cracker day! The sun was shining and there was no one else around. It felt great to be on the mountain again and despite being surrounded by snow, it was so stifling hot!
As we came around just below Matenga Peak we finally spotted our objective. The Minarets are a popular peak for beginner mountaineering looking to snag their first 3,000m peak. The route though is not easy as the face is prone to large crevasses this time of year, and while we could see several up the route, we were hopeful there was a way past.
Despite a steep decent in front of us, we decided to try going down (instead of around) but that was quickly halted when Jordan took his few step and landed in a crevasse up to his waist on the side of the mountain! I dropped to the ground as my training taught me and held him there as he climbed his way out to safety. Phew! That was close.
We decided to head down and around to get back onto the Chamberlin snowfield. This section was like trying to navigate a mine field. There were cracks and crevasses EVERYWHERE, leaving Jordan and I to concentrate on every step through this section. As we approached the base of the Minarets the route was quite intimidating. It was very steep and had a number of crevasses along our intended path, but from below it looked like it could be passable.
Retracing our steps to make the path even more noticeable the next morning, when we arrived back at the hut mid-afternoon we met another climbing couple David and Liv from Melbourne. They had walked over from Pioneer Hut and had spent the last 2 weeks in the mountains tackling a number of peaks. When they heard we had just put in a boot track to the Minarets they were overjoyed as they also intended to climb it the next morning. We spent the night enjoying some food and wine before heading to bed early.
Up at 2:30am for an alpine start, we set off just after 3:30am under the clear skies of a full moon. The light of the moon was so bright we didn’t even need our head torches on! In just under an hour and a half we had navigated our way across the snowfield and through the crevasses following our footprints to the base of the Minarets. Liv and David were ahead of us and already up the first pitch and traversing under a large crevasse looking for a way around.
Setting up our first anchor I started prepping for the first lead. Sunlight was starting to kiss the top of the mountains as the sky lit up with a rainbow of colors. It was a clear day with little wind, but the snow was hard packed and icy and my confidence began to weaken. Although this is likely considered ‘perfect crampon conditions’, I much prefer the snow to be a tad soft so I can get a confident placement with each step.
I swung my axes and they barely penetrated the snow. As I stepped up and kicked my crampons into the ice, they too barely made a dent. I must have made maybe 6 steps and decided NOPE – this just wasn’t worth it. My comfort level dropped with every step that didn’t feel secure so I down climbed back to Jordan and secured myself as we talked over next steps. Jordan decided to try leading so we switched off and he set off up to the first overhang maybe 20m up. He stopped just over a lip and belayed me up to him but he wasn’t feeling confident either. It was already 6am and we had barely covered any ground. Not being able to see Liv and David we couldn’t tell if they had successfully continued on, but we decided there that this route, and conditions, were just a bit over our abilities. It was disappointing but the right decision in the end.
As we retreated to the base of the Minarets, Liv and David came into view (look for the two tiny dots half way up the slope in the picture below). We were surprised they hadn’t progressed much either as they were having to traverse back and forth across the face to avoid the large crevasses. We watched them for the next 2 hours as we explored a few gullies in the area, but it was clear they too were not going to make their objective.
This time of year is a gamble in the mountains. While the days are long and the weather usually more favorable, the warmer temperatures erode the snow pack and often reveal large crevasses normally covered during the winter. This was the case for our route and with not enough time and no other option to pursue our hopes of climbing a 3,000m peak were over.
On our way back towards the hut, we took the opportunity to climb up that steep section we had attempted to downclimb the day before when Jordan fell through. We practiced pitching and our transitions before crossing the snowfield back to the hut. When Liv and David returned they shared their struggles zig zagging across the face and navigating the huge crevasses. They were disappointed as well but looking at the conditions knew there was just no way to be get up and down in a reasonable period of time.
We spent the rest of the day relaxing, playing crazy 8’s and swapping stories with Liv and David. I love that part of mountain life – while it can be intense at times, in between it can be so relaxing and good for the soul. That evening we were treated with another colorful sunset as we hacked a plan for the morning.
This time up at 4am, we headed towards the Frenchay Col with Liv and David who were planning to attempt Conway Peak. As we cross the Davis Snowfield we had another beautiful sunrise that lit up the sky with beautiful colors. This is what I’ll remember most about our trip. Being surrounded by giants while feeling so lucky to be alive! It was definitely worth the early wakeup call even if we didn’t get to climb any major peaks.
Within an hour and a half we made it to the base of the Col. Liv and David were carrying their overnight gear as they were heading back to Pioneer Hut so they dropped their packs and went light carrying only their rope, harnesses and ice axes. We followed suit, soloing up the first section but as the slope steeped and the exposure to crevasses on the col increased, we decided to pull out the rope for some more practice and added protection.
After two pitches we made it to the top of the Col and as we came up over the ridge we could see down into the valley to Tasman Glacier and the Minarets in the distance. Liv and David were off starting their pitch up to Conway Peak but with the sun baking that face already, we could see they were beginning to struggle. Just as we started to head back down the Col they had turned around as well. We learned later that as they had reached the bottom of the Col a large rockfall came down the mountain very close to where they had been pitching. They were very thankful to have made the decision they did to turn around at that point.
On our way back to the hut we detours a bit to check out some of the large crevasses at the top of Franz Josef. These incredible formations really make to feel small and thankful for the skills we had learned in our High Alpine Skills course that allow us to now safely explore these areas. As the sun began to get hotter, we started to bake on the glacier so we retreated back to the hut for an afternoon nap.
With our heli pick-up not till 5pm we had time to enjoy the hut all to ourselves on the beautiful afternoon. As I sat one the deck looking out over Franz Josef and the surrounding mountains I etched that view into my memories forever. I LOVE being in the mountains and am already looking forward to next season!
Just as we were leaving 3 helicopters full of climbers were being dropped off at the hut for the next few days. What luck did we have to have that place to nearly ourselves for 3 days in some of the best weather I had seen on the West Coast! As The Helicopter Line flew us back out over Franz Josef, we said goodbye to the beautiful mountains of Westland National Park – can’t wait to see you again some day!
Check out Episode 55 – Centennial Hut
Special thanks to The Helicopter Line for flying us up to Centennial Hut!