MistyNites

My Life in Motion

Archive for the month “October, 2014”

Tasman Glacier Tracks

It’s a strange concept to consider that at the time of my birth, Lake Tasman was barely in existence. The Tasman glacier in Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park is New Zealand’s longest glacier at 27kms in length. It is, however, undergoing a rather fast rate of retreat and experts expect that it will eventually disappear completely. In the early 1970s, pockets of melt water became evident and over successive years these pockets increased in size and eventually merged to form the lake that exists today. The presence of the lake itself speeds up the retreat of the glacier, and now in 2014, the lake is over 7km long, with the glacier retreating at a rate of 500-800m per year. Within my lifetime, the lake is expected to reach its maximum size, and even over two visits 18 months apart I can see the difference in the lake.

The road to the Tasman glacier is not far from Mt Cook village, and was upgraded a couple of years ago to make it suitable for all cars. It was previously a dirt road suitable for only 4×4 in bad weather, so the area is now much more accessible all year round. From the DOC car park, the only spot with toilets, four different track options leave from here. I had arrived very early in the morning when the sun was just reaching over the peaks of the eastern mountain range, so parts of the walk were still in shadow. I headed first to the glacier viewpoint, the paths separating quite early on. Halfway along the left fork, the path splits again, the blue lakes one way and the glacier viewpoint the other. It’s neither a long nor taxing walk with only the latter section involving some rock hopping in a section that isn’t as well marked as the rest. I had the viewpoint to myself, and it was peaceful and quiet, just how I like it.

 

The lake is flanked on two sides by steep mountains including the backside of Aoraki/Mt Cook, New Zealand’s tallest mountain, with steep moraine walls piled high at the lakeside, a remnant from when the glacier was deeper and longer than its current position. In the distance, the glacier was visible, covered in dirt, and at the end of the lake, a few small icebergs floated near the river which escapes through the boulders strewn across the valley, before snaking towards Lake Pukaki. The boulders and moraine creates a barren, dirty-looking landscape which contrasts darkly against the blue-grey water of the lake. When I was here 18 months ago, there were more and larger icebergs on the lake than there were on this day. The photo on the info board at the viewpoint, taken just 3 years ago, shows a noticeable difference in position of the glacier’s terminal face which illustrates quite well the fast retreat of this glacier. Looking towards Lake Pukaki, the valley also looks barren, rocks strewn everywhere, with only the occasional hardy plant or bush poking through the debris.

 

Retracing my steps, I headed to the blue lakes, which are now green in colour. When they were named, they were glacier fed, providing the turquoise blue colour characteristic of glacial melt water, but with the retreating glaciers, the lakes are now rain-fed, allowing algal growth which gives the green colouration. A short path leads to the shore of the first of three lakes of varying shapes and sizes. Behind them, the mountains are scarred with avalanche paths and scree slopes. I had the lakes to myself also, and followed the path round the shore of the first lake and over the brow to the second and third lakes. In places, the path is broken with short sections of rock scrabbling, but other than these points, it is an easy to follow path. A pair of ducks mulled around on the second lake. The third lake was the largest and prettiest, especially with the sun by now reflecting off the surface giving it a brilliant blue-green colour. The area around the lakes was teeming with alpine vegetation, but unfortunately I was at least a month too early for the blooming of the colourful alpine flowers.

 

In stark contrast, the path to the lake side and river was a barren land of boulders and bare-looking bushes. I was surrounded by people as this path leads to the jetty where boats are boarded to tour the lake. A bus party of tourists were noisily chatting as they walked in procession along the gravel path, and I skirted round them as quickly as possible in an effort to return to some peace and quiet. After winding round the moraine wall, the path splits off to go to the river, and from here onwards, it is like walking through a sea of rocks.  Boulders lie everywhere, and the river is very well hidden, deep down in the rock bed, until it appears all of a sudden as a colour contrast to the barren rocks that form its banks. The path ends on the moraine wall just above where the icebergs rest near the start of the river. A route down to the lake side is clear enough to follow, and I quickly headed down to the lake edge to stare directly at the icebergs at their resting spot. They weren’t the biggest icebergs I’ve seen, but looking at them dead on, they still provided a stunning vista as they shone in the sunlight with the snow-covered mountains beside them. I picked my way to the river and sat on a large rock to admire the view and watch the tourist boats pass by. It was a beautiful spot to sit until the flies realised I was a tasty meal. Bigger than sandflies, I’m not sure what they were, but I ended up bearing the marks of multiple suckers up my arms, legs and chest for days to come. I put up with the biting as long as I could tolerate before heading back to the car park and starting the long journey home.

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Sealy Tarns Track

For the second time in my life, I was defeated by a mountain. Call it fear, or a self-acknowledgement of my personal limitations, but sometimes, I have to know when to quit. I’m an avid hiker, and love getting out into the wilderness and the mountains, but when it comes to tramping, there are three things that I don’t enjoy: lots of stairs, boulder scrambling, and rock faces to negotiate. I’d happily walk up a steep path than have to negotiate the monotony of flight after flight of stairs, and somehow I lose the enjoyment of a walk if I have to get down on my hands to negotiate a boulder field or haul myself up a rock face.

I awoke in Mount Cook village to another glorious blue sky with the sun beating down from above. Knowing how fickle the weather can be in the mountains, I got going early. From the YHA hostel in the lower village, the path snakes through to the Hermitage hotel in the upper village and near there, a shared path leads off towards various end points. This first section is the same start as that for the Hooker Valley track, but today I took the left fork towards Kea Point. Mt Sefton glistened in the morning sunlight as I headed nearer it. Along the path the Sealy Tarns and Mueller Hut track split off into the bushes, but I headed forth towards Kea Point which sat on the moraine bank of the Mueller glacier terminal lake. A small amount of cloud swirled around the summit of Mt Sefton and Mt Cook lay half in shadow in the distance. There were no kea to be seen, and only a few dedicated people were up at this time, so the viewpoint was peaceful and quiet.

 

On the return trip, the valley opened up before me, with the Hermitage hotel just poking up above the bushes. Back at the start of the Sealy Tarns track, a sign warned of avalanche risk for those heading to Mueller Hut on the Sealy range. I was heading as far as the Sealy tarns, but at the back of my mind, I hoped to continue up to the hut if the conditions would allow. Soon after getting on to this track, the steps started. 2200 of them to be precise. The altitude gain is around 540m, and it is mostly achieved through negotiating step after step after step. Despite my dislike of steps, the view is fantastic from every available vantage point. With increasing altitude, a slightly different perspective is obtained of the hooker glacier, the mueller glacier, and the valley past the village. Mt Sefton felt increasingly within reach, and there was a frequent burst of sound from avalanches cavorting down Mt Sefton’s slopes.

 

On this occasion, the snowline was at the level of the tarns. Some stale snow was scattered by the path just below the final gain in height, and the tarns themselves were frozen over. A picnic table has been erected to give a perfect spot to stare out at the world below. After a brief respite for fluid replenishment, I decided to give the Mueller hut track a go. On the ascent to Sealy tarns, I had met a few hikers coming down who had spent the night in the hut. They had reported that there was plenty of snow between the tarns and the hut, and that it was quite slushy in places. By the time I reached the tarns, a group of friends that I had met lower down on the track were disappearing into the far distance above me. Another sign warns of avalanche risk, and from here onwards, the path is narrow, rough and marked only by orange poles.

 

It started off innocent enough: a rough, stony path that was easy to follow, but not hugely far up was a small rock face to scramble up, and a little beyond that another one. It was at this point that I started to question my sanity. I had done that one thing that no hiker should do: go off tramping without telling anyone my route plan or expected time of return. Not only that, but I was not at my peak level of fitness, and here I was, on my own with no-one to spot me, negotiating the best route up a rock face. Granted, it was just a small rock face, not one that needed ropes or special equipment, but I found myself pausing to decide in my head the sense in going on. I was keen to get up to the hut, to see the view, feel the achievement in doing so, and be able to tell people I’d done it. On the other hand, my dislike (and a touch of fear) of rock scrabbling, and the thought of tackling all of this just to find out that I couldn’t get across the snow, eventually made me turn back and return to the tarns.

 

Sealy tarns sits at an elevation of 1250m, and I estimate that I gained maybe only another 50m, if that. With Mueller hut at 1800m, it would have been a long stressful hike onwards for me. Defeated, I returned to the picnic table and hoovered up my lunch, my pride slightly wounded.

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A view worth slogging up the stairs for… #NZMustdo #MtCook

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Just 45 mins earlier, the view from the tarns had included a lot of cloud that had billowed over Mt Sefton, but shortly after my return, the cloud had burned off somewhat and the view was delightful. Several avalanches skipped down Mt Sefton’s slopes, and the full colour palette of the Mueller glacier lake was evident below. The amount of sediment in the water determines the colour, and there was a mix of blues and greys. Unfortunately, the alpine flowers were not yet in bloom, and I’m sure they look spectacular when the time is right. Two kea appeared to goad each other, one landing briefly near the table. Many hikers appeared, and sat for a while, and I spent around 45mins soaking up the view, reluctant to leave. Eventually though, I thought it only fair to leave the view for others, and I headed off back down the many many steps to the bottom.

 

This time round, with less exertion required, I could actually pay attention to the creatures and plants around me. Little birds flitted between the vegetation, some curious, some alarmed by my presence. There were crickets everywhere: brown ones near the top, and green ones lower down. I learned later at the Mount Cook visitor centre (which is well worth a visit!) that these are adaptations to the environment, and that other colours appear at other altitudes also. I also discovered at the visitor centre, that there was an ice and crampon warning for the Mueller Hut track which made me feel slightly better about my failed ascent. By the time I was near the bottom, the cloud had started to roll in again, and the summits of Mt Sefton and Mt Cook were once again shrouded. The morning is definitely the best time of the day to get out in the mountains. I reached the Hermitage hotel, and sat absorbing the sunshine, gazing over at the statue of Edmund Hillary who forever gazes towards the summit of Mount Cook.

Hooker Valley Track

I grew up in a suburb of Scotland‘s largest city, Glasgow, inland and away from the coast. I would always enjoy trips to the beach or into the hills, but I didn’t necessarily crave them. When I left home I moved up north to Aberdeen, and spent the next 5 years of my life living by the sea. I could smell it every day, I could see it everyday, and I routinely spent evenings after work or weekends pounding the local beaches or promenade listening to the waves crashing and falling in love with the ocean. Now I think of myself as a ‘coast’ person, someone who loves living by the sea and craves to be near it. Over this same time frame, I developed a love of hiking and camping and would disappear into the mountains and hills as much as possible, scaling my first Munro (a mountain in Scotland >3000ft), and acquainting myself with as much of the nearby National Park as I could. And so I also crave for that mountain view – the sight of majestic mountains towering above and around me. Living in the Canterbury Plains, I can spy the Southern Alps on the distant horizon, and when the opportunity arises to go play amongst them I grab it with both hands.

Mount Cook Village is a small settlement nestled in a valley under the shadow of New Zealand’s largest mountain, Aoraki or Mount Cook. It sits within the National Park of the same name, and lies at the end of a long road that snakes up the western shore of Lake Pukaki. I’d been here twice before, once in winter when the snow on the ground limited the ability to go exploring, and once in autumn when it was raining and misty. I had been eager to do some hikes around here, and I was also keen to see the alpine flowers in bloom so as soon as spring hit, I made sure I could find a free weekend to go there. It is a roughly 4hr drive from Christchurch, so I arrived just after midday and set about getting ready to go for a walk.

The Hooker Valley track is the most popular walk amongst visitors and is graded as an easy walk suitable for families. It can be started from the White Horse Hill campground (an estimated 3hr return), a short drive from the village, or it can be reached from the village itself via a connecting path (an estimated 4hr return). I was staying in the YHA hostel in the lower village, from where a path snakes through the village to the Hermitage hotel in the upper village. Near here a path leads to several hiking options: Kea Point, Hooker Valley, and up one of the mountains to Sealy Tarns and Mueller Hut. Even from the hostel, there is an impressive view with the snow covered Mt Sefton towering over the village. There were regular sounds of crashing ice as avalanches fell down Mt Sefton’s slopes sending a cloud of snow behind it.

 

The initial section of the walk is through bushes, then across some open scrubland and finally over a stony dry river bed until a marker denotes a split in the path. Taking the right fork, the path continues to White Horse Hill campground, where on the opposite side of the road, the start of the Hooker Valley track is evident with a domineering Mt Cook visible behind. It is a well marked and maintained walk on a mixture of gravel paths and raised boardwalks to protect the alpine plants. Despite reading that the alpine flowers would be out in spring, I was clearly early as there were none in bloom and they didn’t look close to it either. I later discovered that they wouldn’t appear till late November, meaning I was over a month too early.

 

There were a few detours from the main path, and I chose to do these on the return leg, but after a few twists and turns, the Mueller glacier and terminal lake came into view at the foot of Mt Sefton. As with many glacier-fed lakes, the water was a cloudy grey colour due to the suspension of sediment swept down from the rocky source of the glacier, and the river draining from this lake led away from the end and started its snaking journey through the valley to eventually drain into Lake Pukaki. The first of 3 suspension bridges on this walk crossed the river, and the river bed was strewn with large boulders left behind during the last age of glaciation. I had arrived in Mount Cook to gorgeous sunshine and clear blue skies, but as often happens around mountains in the afternoon, large clouds started to roll over Mt Sefton and the neighbouring mountains and threatened to block out the sun. At this stage, Mount Cook was hidden out of view so I had no idea what view to expect at the end of the hike.

 

The second suspension bridge crossed the Hooker river as it tumbles down stream from the Hooker glacier, the destination of my walk. Shortly after this bridge, Mount Cook (thankfully not hidden by clouds) came back into view and dominated the skyline for the rest of the hike. There was the start of a lenticular cloud (my favourite type of cloud) crowning its peak, and I could see the clouds on the neighbouring mountains form and disperse as they curled over their summit. They would continue to threaten to occlude the sunlight but then wisp away at the last minute.

 

As such a popular walk, and being a weekend, there were a lot of people out on the track that day. A congregation of them hung around a small hut further along the track which boasted an unobstructed view of Aoraki, and this is the only place on the track (apart from the campground) where there is a toilet. A small stream trickled by, and several families milled around here. Further on, the track continued through the alpine vegetation until the third suspension bridge was reached, and after this, large boulders appeared as a moraine wall was reached to demarcate the end of the glacial lake on the other side. Snaking through the boulders, an incline brought me to my first sighting of the Hooker glacier and its terminal lake on which floated some rather large icebergs.

 

Unfortunately, it was quite cloudy overhead, although Mt Cook’s peak remained unobscured. There was a picnic table at a raised viewing area, but most people headed down to the stony shore at the end of the lake and absorbed the view from there. Lapping at the shore were multiple smaller icebergs at the end of their melt, and the shoreline resembled an iceberg graveyard. I had previously seen these up close on a boat trip on the Tasman glacier lake and the colour and clarity of these ‘bergs are amazing. The larger icebergs afloat on the lake were dirty from the moraine, and the glacier itself was barely distinguishable from the surrounding land due to the moraine deposits on the surface. Previous to my first up-close view of a glacier in Chile, I’d always thought of glaciers being pristine white from the snow and ice, but aside from the Perito Moreno glacier in Chile, every glacier I’ve seen since has appeared dirty, covered in a layer of sediment and debris chucked up from the valley walls as the glacier moves down the mountainside.

 

I sat for a long time on the lake shore, blocking out the noises of other people and just soaking up the view and inhaling it all. Eventually, the clouds started to build up and some spots of rain could be felt. It was also exceedingly windy at the shoreline, and eventually, I decided to head back. I left just as the summit of Aoraki disappeared behind the cloud. The route back retraced the same route I had come by, but I followed the detours as they appeared. Firstly, there was a little tarn which is the name given to mountain lakes that have formed in an excavation created by a glacier. I investigated the hut that I’d ignored on the way up, and wandered along the edge of the stream at its side. The view on the way back was towards Mount Cook Village and the Hooker river snaking down the valley towards Lake Pukaki. The cloud had by now passed over the summit of Mt Sefton and hidden it from view, and was threatening to dump some rain on the village.

 

There were a couple of viewpoints that I had skipped past on the way there, giving alternate views over the Mueller glacier and its terminal lake, and nearer the campground was a memorial erected to remember those that had succumbed in the mountains. It was originally erected to remember two particular adventurists who had perished in an avalanche in 1914, but since then further plaques have been erected to remember those who had come to strife since. It was sad to read how young many of them were, and there was a definite trend relating to the location of several of the deaths. Even for the highly trained and experienced, these are dangerous and unpredictable mountains to play in.

 

The final detour was to Freda’s rock. As unassuming a rock as it was, it marked the spot where an explorer called Freda Du Faur had had her photo taken after becoming the first woman to ascend Mount Cook in 1910. This was at a time when it was frowned upon for an unmarried woman to spend the night in the company of a man, never mind go mountaineering. From here, it was a short walk back to the campground and then along the same path back to the Hermitage and the village where a warm shower and a nice cold cider awaited.

Blood Moon

October 8th 2014 saw a lunar eclipse visible in the skies above New Zealand. I don’t have a fancy expensive camera, but it was still a beautiful thing to watch the moon turn red.

Lunar Eclipse

Lunar Eclipse

Lunar Eclipse

Lunar Eclipse

Antarctica

There’s one continent on Earth that I am yet to reach: the little-known, little explored, white continent at the bottom of the planet. Growing up with the BBC’s stunning natural history series’ I have long dreamed of visiting there, but since moving to Christchurch, New Zealand 3 years ago, the country’s gateway to Antarctica, I have yearned for it even more. The city hosts the US Antarctic Survey as well as offices for a few other countries, and it is from this very city that scientists, photographers, videographers, and a lot of support staff head off each spring, and return to at the end of their contract. I’m insanely jealous.

Every two years, Christchurch hosts New Zealand IceFest, a celebration of all things Antarctica, and a chance to demonstrate the city’s connection with the continent as well as an opportunity for Joe Public to experience in some little respect what goes on down there. With so many Antarcticans (as they like to call themselves) around the city, I’ve found myself becoming a bit of a groupie, attending talks, open days and soaking up the atmosphere.

 

There was a good turn-out for the opening ceremony which involved a team of huskies pulling one of Christchurch’s famous trams through Cathedral Square. On board the tram was the city’s mayor, Lady June Hillary (Sir Edmund Hillary’s wife) and a team of children dressed up as penguins. Awaiting their arrival at the specially erected IceFest Hub was an icy ribbon to be ‘cut’, or in this case, hacked at with an ice pick. Nearby, an ice sculptor made some impressive sculptures of an emperor penguin and an Eskimo out of a block of ice. In the vicinity there was an exhibition of Antarctic photography as well as a Hagglund (snow mobile) on display.  I attended a talk comparing aspects of the Arctic and the Antarctic, given by two people that had spent a combined 26yrs between them at that great continent at the bottom of the world. I listened in awe to their tales.

 

The following day there was sled dog racing set up at Hagley Park, where local and national competitors came to display aspects of the sport. It was rather cold and windy, and many of the dogs were easily distracted from their race but it was lovely to see so many huskies amongst many other breeds, showing off their racing skills. That afternoon, I attended a talk from 4 speakers (including Anthony Powell who has made a name for himself filming for the BBC amongst other things) who had ‘wintered over’ in Antarctica many times. They jovially described the humourous and unusual aspects of life effectively stranded in a land with no daylight for 4 months of the year, in a small community on the ice. Having previously viewed Anthony Powell’s amazing movie Antarctica: A Year on Ice last year, I had an idea of what they were talking about, but as they said, it must be an experience that is hard to describe and hard for others to fully comprehend. Like when I watched the movie last year, I listened to their stories and imagined it could be possible for me to get there too one day. So few of us in the world will ever have the privilege of spending much, or indeed any, time on Antarctica, and I really recommend the movie to give some insight on what happens down there.

 

People in New Zealand may be aware of a tv programme called ‘First Crossings’ made by two men, Kevin and Jamie, who recreated many of the country’s first explorations through remote parts of the country. Several years ago, they also walked to the South Pole in the first unsupported and unsupplied Kiwi attempt. I’ve found their tv show fascinating, but listening to them in person, they were very compelling speakers. It takes a special person to make tales of starvation, blisters and utter determination a funny yarn, and they captivated the audience and had us in stitches throughout the show. I had previously bought the book of their expedition, but haven’t gotten around to reading it yet, and they managed to persuade me to get started with it.

 

One of the big events on the IceFest calendar was the Antarctic Air Day out at the airport. Large air force planes from the US Air Force and the NZ Air Force take off from here during the summer season loaded with people and freight to head south to the airfield that services both Scott Base (NZ) and McMurdo Station (US). On this day, there were 3 planes on the tarmac opened up to the public to allow an insider’s view into the behemoths of the sky. It was reported on the news that evening that 7000 people turned up and queued to get their turn to wander through the planes and see inside the cockpit. The larger plane belonging to the US Airforce has a flying time to Antarctica of 5hrs, whereas the slightly smaller plane belonging to the NZ Air Force gets there in about 7-8hrs. The inside of both planes is nothing like a commercial jet (which was also available for a wander through), and every inch of wall space was taken up with wires or switches or hooks or safety devices. I can’t begin to imagine the noise that must emulate from these planes on the long, packed and potentially uncomfortable flight. The cockpits were a mass of computer instrumentation and the planes are capable of landing in a variety of weather conditions, including in complete darkness. Whilst we queued to wander through, members of both country’s airforces were on hand to answer questions and describe what it is like to work and fly in these massive planes, as well as their trips to Antarctica.

 

Across the road outside the International Antarctic Centre, one of the city’s family attractions, a myriad of stalls and activities had been set up outside to entertain the kids. There were Hagglund (snow mobile) rides, mock up Antarctic tents, ice sculpting, and the chance to enter the passenger terminals of the US and NZ Antarctic Programs, a privilege usually only for those flying down there. There was even the opportunity to dress up in some of the many layers of Antarctic clothing to have your photo taken. It was a beautifully sunny day which helped to bring out the crowds.

 

That afternoon, I headed back to the IceFest hub in Cathedral Square to attend a couple of talks relating to the use of dogs on the ice in the past, and some of the speakers had been on the ice in the 60s when it was still commonplace to use and train dogs for service and transport. It was clear to see that many Antarctic ‘veterans’ were in town to visit and many of them shared their stories of their time on the ice. That night, I headed back to Cathedral Square with my chair and jacket to attend an open-air screening of Anthony Powell’s epic movie Antarctica: A Year on Ice. This was my third time seeing the movie, and it still brings out the same emotions every time I watch it. Anthony himself was there for a Q&A afterwards, and it was a good turnout and was exceedingly well received. Two weeks into the IceFest and I’m still very much a groupie, and still very much in love with the continent that remains just outside my grasp.

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