High above Queenstown and Lake Wakatipu the skyline is jagged with rocky spires. From almost the lake’s edge the ground rears up skywards through a wild country of grassed ridges and walls. All of this catches the wind, the storms, the snow and the late afternoon light. So close to civilisation but not to be underestimated.
A friend and I did a climb on the North East Buttress of Single Cone, one of the three pinnacles on the Traverse. The rock was coloured grey green and veined white. Smooth slabs had off sloping holds and overlaps. After two pitches we reached the less steep upper section where we could unrope and scramble. Up gullies, featured walls, slabs and finally the main ridge which ran through to the top. This climb was a familiarisation of the access, the climbing and also primarily a chance to scope out the descent at the end of the Traverse. All checked for the next day I scrambled down to the walk down track.
We all walk our own line of risk within a complex interplay of skill, experience, confidence, motivation. On my traverse day I would be going solo.
I drove up the winding mountain road with my favourite tunes cranking through the spectacular landscape. An hour’s hike up from the ski field base and past Lake Alta arrived me at the Traverse proper, below a set of cliffs that topped the main ridge and provided a high point for a communications tower. At this level I headed across a large undulating shelf. I undulated down at one stage instead of regaining the ridge which meant that I had to scramble through some tricky terrain before I could climb up to a helipad. This switched me on, focussed my mindfulness about each move, made me start to feel “out there” a little, exposed. I’ve done a few solo things, including some long climbs at Arapiles. My mind tangled with the contrast to having a buddy around. A list of about a hundred mountains to climb in New Zealand and only probably 20 more years (61 now) to do as many of them as I can carries part of my motivation. Plenty of rockclimbing and hiking are under the belt but I only started serious mountain climbing two years ago with a sudden set of circumstances that enabled me to have the time and the means to stretch into real mountains. An unexpected dream coming. In my backpack I carried a harness, short rope and a small rack of gear for any difficult and scarey descents. Or to retreat.
“To be clear, I normally climb with a rope and partner. Free-soloing makes up only a small percentage of my total climbing. But when I do solo, I manage the risk through careful preparation. I don’t solo unless I’m sure I can do it.” Alex Honnold.
The day before there had been about ten parties on the Traverse whereas on my climb day I could only spy out one other. They were up ahead, roping up the ridge towards the North Peak of Double Cone. There was an easier route up a series of ramps on the left side of the ridge which I scoped out as the most straightforward way ahead (this is the route in the guidebook photo topo). Once I started though the actual ridge became my route of choice – the rock was mostly sound and the actual climbing moves were fabulous. Not hard but interesting. Huge drops down either side of the knife edge. Queenstown way below, snowy, iced mountains to the west including Tutoko and Earnslaw which remained on my list, and Aspiring. Way to the north Cook’s distinctive shape was visible on the horizon – beckoning. Narrow flat sections required confident balance, in places I crouched and ran a hand along the edge. When the holds ran out on one side of the ridge there was often an alternative on the other. A steepening towards the top drew me away from the edge then to the summit. The views all around were sensational.
It took a little time to find a way down the steep section to the gap between the North and South Peaks. The guidebook recommends considering rappelling if the sloping ledges are covered in verglass (frozen water ice). Fine in good hiking boots and dry summer rock. In many places the rock was scratched from crampons. The prospect of a winter climb, with a buddy and a rope, was enticing but a completely different sort of challenge. The group in front pitched their way up slabs from the gap, the top of the Petit Couloir, and an exposed arête. I found solid holds for hands and feet and continued up to the south summit of Double Cone. Rock shoes lay unused in my backpack. I first lunched on top while the other group did the same on the next pinnacle. Across the void we nodded at each other and exclaimed the beauty of the day. I loved being on my own, felt I was in my element, wide awake to the world, confident moving over the warm rock, in striking terrain.
Between the South Peak and the next gap, the Grand Couloir, was uncomplicated. I left the others, who were pitch climbing up the edge of the ridge, and this time followed the photo topo from the guidebook up a series of linked slabs and to the top of Single Cone. These slabs were riddled and crisscrossed with extrusions of white quartz, in beautiful profusions of patterns and wriggles, that appeared like writings, hieroglyphics, telling the stories of the mountains for those that could decipher the language of the rocks. I could only ponder the geology and appreciate the aesthetics of the figures. Run my fingers over the intricacies. Second lunch on the summit. Two other later climbers topped out on the South Peak of Double Cone. Their silhouettes against the deep blue above the horizon of the Main Divide looked stupendous. In my exuberance I felt like shouting over to them to ask their email addresses so I could send them a couple of cracking photos.
On the familiar ground of the ridge from the day before I descended. Not quite so keyed up from the unknown. The South East Gully must have been a little further along the summit ridge – I would probably need to rappel this if I climbed the traverse in winter. Back down to Lake Alta, hardy people swam in the glacial green iced water, tourists hiked up in the afternoon for sunset photos.
Scoping out the access the day before was very beneficial.
Conditions can be changeable – wind, rain, snow etc – can change the nature of the Traverse significantly.
As an Australian rockclimbing instructor I would always recommend having a rope, a buddy to hold the rope and gear for pitching.
The info and photo topos in the “Queenstown Rock, Ice and Boulders” is excellent and highly recommended. $50 for a “Grand” adventure. From NZAC or outdoor gear shops in NZ.