Mt Una, 90th Anniversary climb
Queen’s Birthday 2009
As the four of us prepared for our winter attempt on the mighty Mt Una – the highest peak in the Spencer Range - we factored in what we thought were four important considerations. First up, it was going to be cold (we were tenting). Second, there was going to be quite a bit of walking along the St James Walkway (both ways). Consideration number three was that our feet were going to be in water (rivers) more than we cared to think about. And lastly, the climbing could be pretty variable (early winter conditions). The weather wasn’t an issue - our timing was perfect. The end result of these considerations made themselves perfectly obvious late Saturday May 30 at the Lewis Pass road end when we shouldered big and heavy packs and staggered off in the twilight towards Cannibal Gorge Hut.
Sunday was a snowy day as the expected southerly did its thing. We crossed over Ada Pass and down to the Christopher Junction for the first of what would be many cold river crossings in store for us that afternoon. There was some thrashing around in scrub trying to locate the correct braid of the Christopher, with a near perfect circle being blindly completed by Paul, before we decided that we were right first time and off up the river we went. Nightfall saw us at the junction of the West Branch which would lead us up under Una. The stony camp site and David’s fish curry finished off a moderately happy day of only mild misery, but we were right, it was cold!
The weather on Monday was not good enough for a long range attempt on Una, so we packed up the camp and followed the dry stream bed (where was the water?) up into the white basins of the upper west branch for a higher tent spot just above a frozen waterfall. An afternoon snooze as the weather steadily cleared brought us our first bit of luxury on the trip. Scott’s pasta meal raised a few eyebrows and internal digestive noises but the night passed without incident, David managing to keep warm in two pairs of long johns and his down jacket inside his sleeping bag!
Tuesday. A beautifully fine day and worthy of the 6am departure we put ourselves through. Quite deep fresh powder and the odd bit of exposed old underlying ice caused us few problems as we steadily gained height towards our objective. David and Scott plugged magnificently up the lower slopes and couloir onto the level section of ridge between Una and Duessa. John led through up a narrow snow shute onto the final exposed section of the ridge leading to the mountain’s south summit. This last section consisted of soft crusty ice, which Paul followed to the top. The main summit of Mt Una was there before us, only 40 metres higher but 250 metres away along a tottering, poorly consolidated snow/ice ridge. We looked at the clock – darkness was less than five hours away – we looked at the ridge, we looked at each other, we discussed, and we decided that this was our summit for the day. One abseil and some careful down climbing saw us off the peak and lunching in the late afternoon sun.
The next five hours were really just an all out effort to reach the relative comfort that Christopher Cullers Hut, back at the Christopher/Ada junction, would offer. It would also ensure that we would catch the 10.30pm ferry home the next day. Descending a frigid river in the dark, with verglased rock and pervading coldness everywhere is not everyone’s idea of fun but, we were four persons intent on a night in a hut not a tent, a hot meal easily cooked on a bench, not on slippery frozen ground, bunks, not lumpy mats, and all those perceived luxuries, so we preserved and it was at 8pm that we stumbled noisily into the tiny tin shack that was our desired haven. Thank God it was empty. John cooked for two hours – tea, soup, Moroccan couscous, more tea and fudge – heaven! I unashamedly spent most of that time working on thawing out my wooden feet and consuming all that was put in front of me.
Wednesday started with a stunning frost and numbed fingers wrestling with frozen boots. Coaxing out the last drops of fuel I managed to serve the troops a three course breakfast to sustain us for the beautiful walk out, and yes, we made the ferry with 5 minutes to spare.