Otira Slip and Slide (Part Two) – Mt Rolleston Low Peak (Almost)

“On a Mish” #165 Otira Slip & Slide (Part Two). Otira Valley. Arthurs Pass National Park. 27.8.2014. Knowing you are hiking into a place that is not only dangerous, but has also claimed lives, keeps your senses alert. A disaster back in the day took the lives of not only the climbers, but some of the rescue party as well and has gone down as one of New Zealand’s worst mountaineering accidents. But roads have killed many too, and we still travel on them. We don’t venture into the mountains to die, we do it to live!

An early-ish start the next morning had us putting our crampons on at the door of the tent. My version of a dream start to the day!

As we got ourselves ready in the dull early morning light, I realised we were under the watchful eye of the same Kea who had visited our camp the day before. We were ready and the mischievous parrot was still hanging around. Hoping we wouldn’t return to shredded tents we set off on our adventure up the Otira valley.

The going was easy at first as ski tracks led the way up the snow-filled valley to its head. The mighty west face of Mt Rolleston(2275m) is an intimidating sight, and also the scene of one of New Zealand’s worst mountain disasters. We both paused and stared in awe at the colossal cliffs, bluffs and gullies. When compared with some of our other peaks here in Aotearoa, Mt Rolleston stands many metres lower. But its uplift is great and when standing at its base you have no thoughts of it being much shorter than other mountains. It was both impressive and intimidating.

To get higher up the mountain we had to tackle the infamous Otira Slide. The slide is a snow-filled gut which is prone to avalanching and also having avalanches rain down from above. The snow within the slide was soft and deep, and it had us slipping and sliding our way slowly upwards towards the base of the final climb to Low Peak. The going was tough and had our calves and quads screaming just to gain a few inches with each step. But every time we stopped to suck in some much needed fresh mountain air, the awesome views made it all worth it.

A mix of avalanche pinwheels and the slushy condition of the snow had us slowly realising this wasn’t going to be the day we would climb Mt Rolleston’s Low Peak. Turning back is never easy after putting in a lot of effort and there was definitely a battle in my head between going on or stopping. Risking it or taking the safer option. Hard choices to make, but knowing some have made the wrong choice which cost them their lives in this very place made turning back a little bit easier.

Mt Phillistine(1967m)

The feeling of failure soon disappeared because we were both excited about the way we would be getting back down. Our usual choice of transport when travelling with gravity on our side is glissading (sliding on your bum). Slipping and sliding your way down a snow covered mountain slope is a truly epic form of transport! But first we had to carefully downclimb the first part of the steep gully we had climbed earlier in the morning. Down climbing soft snow on ground steep enough that you can look between your legs instead of over your shoulders to see where you are going is exhilarating to say the least. To add to the fun was the fact that the snow was slowly slipping away with each step. We had to be careful but also quick when it came to downclimbing the Otira Slide.

Once away from the steep ground we were on perfect glissading slopes and the fun began. This was the one benefit of the soft and slushy snow, as we zoomed our way down the mountain at speeds close to out of control. Ground that had taken us a couple of hours to climb zipped past in seconds. The sliding completely made up for the lack of a summit to stand on.

Still pumped up on adrenaline we skipped back down the remainder of the hike to the campsite, which thankfully hadn’t been shredded in our absence. It was a real testament to how cold the small valley really is as we were amazed to find that even though it was late in the afternoon our tents were still frosted solid. The ice was not kind on my fingertips as I pushed past it to get the stove to cook dinner.

Once again we spent the evening time getting a fire going, however the second round was much easier. Somehow we got a little amount of wood to burn on top of the snow and ice.

Early-ish the next morning I woke up puzzled with my tent shaking due to an unknown force. There was no wind in the valley so ‘something’ was making my tent move. Lucky for us here in Aotearoa we have no dangerous animals, so we have no fear of becoming an animal’s breakfast. I cautiously poked my head outside to see a Kea tugging on my tent’s guy ropes as if to say “it is time to leave”. We got the message and in the low light of the morning we began packing up our camp.

Summit or no summit, a mission out into the wilderness is always successful as long as you return alive. We had gambled with a place of known danger and while we might not have won the game, we folded on our hand instead of risking losing it all by going all in. Mountaineering is a pastime pleasure much like poker. However, the risk of playing a bad hand in the mountains can end in game over with no chance of a re-do!!

New Zealand. What a place to explore!

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