Mountaineering is fairly limited in Australia and it is probably fair to say that it is mostly restricted to playing around and training for places like New Zealand. However all mountaineering is potentially dangerous and participants should be aware of things such as assessing avalanche risk, belaying and rescue techniques. Remember that even very experienced people can and do get into trouble.
In Victoria most mountaineering takes place on the West Ridge of Mount Buller and locations on Mt Bogong and Feathertop. The steep slopes of mountains near Mt Howitt also offer excellent mountaineering, although access is difficult in winter.
In New South Wales mountaineering is largely confined to the Main Range of the Snowy Mountains. Popular locations include Blue Lake, Watson's Crags and Mt Townsend.
When snow conditions are good, dozens of mountains in Tasmania offer quite challenging climbs. The first winter ascent of Federation Peak, Australia's most iconic mountain, was on 11 August 1978, when Kevin Doran, and Nick Williams made it to the top. They abseiled down the peak at dusk and lost an ice axe before arriving at their camp at 10:45 pm.
There are two types of ice axes. Walking axes are all you will need on introductory trips. A 70 cm shaft means they can be used as a walking stick in your uphill hand and easily swung around to self arrest if you slip. The second type is the shorter handled climbing axe with a much more aggressively angled blade. These are really just for serious climbing with ropes, harnesses and rock climbing style protection, as are ice hammers.
Crampons stop your feet slipping on steep snow and ice. They can be loosely defined by the number of points they have. 'Instep' crampons are attached to the instep of your boot and are often called '4 points' even if they have more. They are fun and cruisey and great for messing around in. '6 points' are a bit more serious and are attached under the ball of the foot. ?10 points are the full length of a boot and typically have 6 points under the ball of the foot and 4 under the heel. 12 points are similar, but have extra forward pointing spikes for serious climbing. Be careful not to gash your leg with these more full on crampons.
Cheaper crampons are often stamped out of a few pieces of metal, then welded together and bent to shape, whereas quality crampons are assembled from a lot of separate components. For most Australian purposes, either is fine.
If you have 10 or 12 point crampons, you should wear them with rigid boots as they are not designed to flex under the arch of the foot. If you don't have fairly stiff boots, crampons can fall off, bend or break. If you're keen, there are specialised plastic climbing boots.
Hiring and buying equipment
Crampons and ice axes usually cost $15 each per weekend. In Melbourne you can hire them from Bogong in the city and Wilderness in Box Hill. Phone the shops to check availability on a particular date.
Cheap new ice axes and 12 point crampons start at about $120 each. You can buy instep crampons for $30. Top quality equipment costs about double these prices. Both Ebay Australia and tradingpost.com.au have this stuff in good condition for half retail price surprisingly frequently.
If the exhilaration of snow walking and basic mountaineering in Australia has you hooked, you may wish to go further. The Australian Division of the New Zealand Alpine Club is a worthwhile group to join, they run fairly challenging trips in this country.
But if you want to go a step further, you should consider the Southern Alps of New Zealand in summer. New Zealand's Southern Alps offer climbs as hard as anything in their European namesake, but also offer some easier climbs of significant peaks. However you should not just wander over there without arranging for some formal instruction.
In Australia you may have learnt the basics of how to use an ice axe and crampons, as well as the dangers posed by cornices and the occasional avalanche. In New Zealand everything is a bit harder, much bigger, and much more dangerous. Before you venture out, you should know:
- The correct use of ropes and related techniques, belaying, anchors, etc. Avalanche rescue.
- The many dangers of glaciated areas. In particular crevasses, unpredictable avalanches and rock falls.
- An awareness of truly extreme weather. You may have put up with a multi day blizzard in Australia, but in New Zealand they last longer, the winds are stronger, they dump a lot more snow and there are very few relatively sheltered, flatish places to pitch a tent or dig a snow cave safely away from avalanches.
So if you go to New Zealand, pay for a mountaineering course, they're not cheap, but they could well save your life. Then you will be ready for real mountaineering on one of the easier "Three Thousanders".
NZ mountaineering: Where to start
A mountaineering course is a really good idea. It gives you the basic technical knowledge, and a few concepts of decision-making. But experience is yet to come.
As with anything, the smart idea is to start small and work up from there. Much of what we call "experience" is just learning from our mistakes. It makes sense to start on smaller mountains which are more forgiving of mistakes, and allow the novice to live, and learn, from the experience. So don't head straight for Mount Cook or Mount Aspiring, just because you have heard of them, and they are over 3000m high, and climbing them will impress your friends.
The Arthur's Pass area has a few challenging peaks, which while they have been fatal in the past, tend to allow learning to progress without too much attrition. Day or overnight trips can be done from the village. The village has a NZ Alpine Club base lodge, information centre and cafe/bar, and is on the main road with bus services.
Wanaka is a funky town with lots of entertainment, including rock climbing at handy crags for the bad weather days, pubs and cheap campgrounds. The surrounding region including Mt Aspiring National Park has an enormous number of peaks, start small and work up from there to the centrepiece itself. Local knowledge can be gained from the guide companies in the region.
At Mt Cook NP region: Kelman and Tasman Saddle are popular huts with straightforward peaks nearby, hence popular with climbing courses, and that's probably where you went for your technical mountaineering course, so you will want to go elsewhere next time. Mueller is large and easily reached on foot, which saves on helicopter access, and means you can walk out easily in inclement weather. Barron Saddle Hut is a short and cheap heli ride away, and the high level walk (or ski) from Barron Saddle to Mueller is a good day-long trip.
Westland National Park is the "other side" of the main divide from Mount Cook. Base town is Fox Glacier or Franz Josef Glacier. Fox Glacier has a NZ Alpine Club base lodge, HEL Porter Lodge, beside the camp ground and within 10 minutes stagger from the pub. Not many alternative activities on wet weather days. And wet is very wet here.
Westland National Park has major technical routes on main divide peaks, and also less technically challenging but equally scenically attractive peaks. It is glaciated terrain and gets some seriously bad weather. Helicopter access is usually taken to high altitude huts belonging to the NZ Alpine Club. The advantage is that the vertical gain from these huts to such peaks is not huge, hence you can do climbing on big peaks, as technical as you want, but with slightly smaller climbing days than say Aspiring or Cook.
Guide books are available from the NZ alpine club. See the publications link.
Huts in the New Zealand mountains
New Zealand's strong mountaineering history and the efforts of many alpine club members and national park staff over the years have created a magnificent network of high altitude huts in the alpine regions. Most belong to the Dept of Conservation or mountain clubs, and are open to all on a "first come, first served" basis, and cannot be booked in advance. Usually there is no warden, and all parties must be self-sufficient with bedding, food, cookers and fuel. Some huts are private, e.g. guiding companies or musterers' huts in high country sheep stations, and permission from the owners must be obtained in advance to use these.
Please treat all huts with respect, and be considerate to other users.
- Be very careful with fuel cookers and fires, fire is a big risk. Do not open any fuel container inside a hut. Leave a window partly open when cooking.
- When you see new arrivals approaching a hut, it is courtesy to put a brew on for them, and tidy up to make room for them. It is unacceptable to tell people that a hut is already full and attempt to turn them away.
- Do not put food scraps down the toilet. Toilet drums are flown out by helicopter at great expense.
- Carry out all your rubbish, and if necessary, any other rubbish you see lying around.
- Leave windows and doors securely fastened upon departure. A window left open can cover the hut's floor with wind-blown snow - not a nice surprise for the next occupants.
- Pay your hut fees. Huts are expensive to maintain, and the only way it can be done is if everyone pays their fees. Pay at Dept of Conservation when you come out, or by mail to the hut's owners.
New Zealand has a fine tradition of hospitality in the mountains. Please play your part in maintaining this and encourage other hut users to do the right thing too.
Walking in the snow and mountaineering are potentially quite dangerous activities. Don't do them without an experienced guide.
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