Trip to Barron Saddle

Skinning up towards the Metelille Glacier, Mt Cook
Week two of the school holidays and it was time for another adventure. We were supposed to be organising the National Ski Orienteering Champs at the Snow Farm in Wanaka – but there had been so little snow we thought perhaps we should call it off.

After a quick phone call to the Snow Farm however, we were assured that there was enough snow to run the ski orienteering. This gave us a timeframe – we would need to be ready with courses planned by Friday morning. It was only Monday, so surely that was plenty of time to squeeze in a trip.

We decided to head down to Mt Cook, and Joe decided to join us too. After a bit of reading and consultation with CMC gurus we decided a ski trip to Barron Saddle sounded like a cool challenge for us.

Leaving Christchurch late on Monday night we drove South laden with gear. We crept into the Wyn Irwin Lodge at 1pm, and marvelled at the fluffy snow lying all around.

In the morning it was very cold and clear and all the peaks of Aoraki stood above, looking blue in the morning light. The hut warden gave us some good tips about the route in and we set off walking through the snow towards the Mueller track. 

Snow on the bushes on the way up to Mueller Hut
We climbed up through snow covered bushes and slowly we warmed up as the sun came out. The views were magic, with fresh snow around the Sealy Tarns and sparkling peaks. It took us a long time to reach Mueller Hut, and we realised we were probably going to be finding Barron Saddle in the dark.

Skins on after Sealy Tarns
The markers to Mueller Hut
From Mueller we had a small descent on some lovely powder and we whooped as we passed a couple of Australians returning to Mueller around the Kitchener Slopes.

We put our skins back on then and climbed up for a long time until we reached the Metelille Glacier. By now the sun was sinking. We put on our skis and with heavy packs turned our way down into the blue freezer of the Mueller Glacier.

Nice lines on the Metelille
After a short scout we found a way down some loose snow covered moraine onto the glacier. We decided to rope up as it was getting dark and we didn’t know what lay ahead – we had been told that the Mueller glacier is pretty straightforward with few crevasses.

We skinned over the lumpy glacier to the true left side and headed up. It was a long skin and became a little eerie when we had to cross huge ice avalanche debris which had plummeted down from Vampire Peak above. The avalanche had managed to climb about 100m uphill onto the glacier.

The sky grew dark and we put on our headlamps. Chris lead on and the glacier became flat and wide. Finally we reached the head of the glacier, removed our skis and boot-packed up onto Barron Saddle. It was a relief to be up at the Saddle, and we grinned at each other. 

Digging the hut door open
However, at that moment mist rolled in and a strong cold breeze started to blow. We put our heads down and ploughed along the ridge towards the hut that we knew was nearby – and suddenly there it was right before us, a very welcome sight.

Later in the night after a yummy feast I went out to the loo and the moon had come out. It lit up all the peaks opposite from Mt Sefton to Scissors, and I could see our route up the glacier as if it was daylight!

The next day was misty with light snow blowing by so we enjoyed digging a toilet path and just being where we were. In the afternoon the mist cleared completely and it was beautifully sunny again, so we decided to investigate our route out for the next day.

A steep climb after leaving Barron Saddle
We wanted to ski out via the “high route” along the range that leads to Mueller hut. There was a short ski down from the hut, then we climbed up a gully and out onto a broad glacial spur. We looked up and could see a clear saddle high on the side of Mt Darby and assumed that must be the saddle which lead into the Sladden Glacier.

Skinning Up

We skinned up the slopes towards the saddle. The last section of the saddle was steep; it was only about 20 metres high with a gentle basin below. We started boot packing up with Chris out in front.

Just then I heard Chris shout and I saw snow moving in front of me. I immediately lost my footing and floated with my skis back down to the bottom of the slope. Chris had released a small slab avalanche. Joe had stuck his strong skis into the snow hard and held onto them as the avalanche went past. It was very small (grade 1) and no harm could have been done, but I still got a fright. It happened so quickly! 
On the saddle below Mt Darby
From the top of the saddle we looked down to the Sladden Glacier. Our hearts sank - the drop was steep! Directly below the saddle were bluffs. Chris and Joe spent about an hour scouting about for a route through. 

After a lot of indecision Joe managed to find an exposed, but good way of traversing directly across to some snow gullies which lead down to the glacier. We were surprised at the exposed nature of the route – I remembered reading something about traversing steeper slopes, but this route was crampons, ice axes, ropes and anchors stuff! 
Sladden Glacier
We enjoyed some lovely but careful turns back down the gentle slopes, then down the steeper gully into the basin before Barron Saddle. The mountains around provide a continual stunning backdrop in this area. I was thinking how lucky I was to be able to go places like this, but how careful you need to be.

Leaving Barron Saddle in the morning light

In the morning the sky was clear blue, with pink over the Scissors. We skied confidently down our tracks from yesterday, our skiing improving over the days. Up the skin tracks we went and reached the Saddle in good time. The sun was just rising on the other side of the saddle.

We put on crampons and stowed away our skis. The snow was not great, with a fairly soft loose layer on top of a very icy hard layer, yucky for a secure ice axe placement. We cautiously made our way along the ridge, until a small step. I decided it was definitely rope time, so we set up an anchor and belayed the step.

The steep climb from the saddle
I was way too focussed here to notice that cool plant growing on the cliff!
We continued along the top of the bluffs and then it was just a small rock/ snow gully scramble which we also roped and into the snow gullies. It felt great to get off the exposed terrain – in particular we had felt our packs! We descended down to a ledge for lunch.
Phew! A nice spot for lunch
That little section had taken us 2 hours to get along! We munched sandwiches and hoped the rest would be more straightforward. From where we sat there was a steep sidle onto the flatter and happier slopes of the glacier. Chris headed across with no issues, and I clipped my skis on feeling sure of my decision.

As I soon as I started traversing I hit a hard patch of wind packed snow and suddenly my ski was off and before I knew it I was tumbling down the steep slope! I kicked my feet in hard and managed to stop, but not before my ski disappeared off down the hill.

I felt such a fool, what a stupid mistake. I think my ski boot had not been properly in my binding! I had to put my crampons on because the snow was icy underneath, and I shakily cramponed my way over the Chris, feeling very upset. He then went over and managed to rescue my ski from further down the hill and brought it over. The front part was completely snapped – my new ski was broken!

Luckily, when I put them on I could still ski, so we made some gentle turns on fresh powder down onto the Sladden Glacier. We skinned up the glacier and then I had to crampon down onto the Metelille – even though my ski worked I didn’t trust it on steeper ground.

Some nice easy sking on the Annette Glacier

The others made light turns down the glacier. It was late afternoon as we crossed the Metelille and the snow was lovely. Fresh powder and amazing views, we enjoyed a few extra runs up and down the hill.

As the sun set we descended off the Annette and back to our skin tracks round the Kitchener. There were many loose snow avalanches that had come down from here, but luckily for us now it was late in the day and things were freezing up again.

It was crampons on again to traverse the steeper slopes and then a short skin back to Mueller Hut just on dark! What a day it had been. The Taiwanese man staying at Mueller was very surprised to see us and made us a delicious cup of tea. He was even more surprised when he found out we were going to head on down to MCV that night – but that was where our dinner was and we wanted dinner.

The first part of the ridge down from Mueller was beautiful skiing and sparkled in our torch lights. I then had to crampon down to the tarns, while the boys whooped their way down through nice powder on skis. There was a lot of loose avalanche debris here too from sun in the day – night-time skiing has its advantages.

The Mueller track was now slippery with a thick ice coat from all the people walking on the snow in the day. Joe thought the steep ice covered stairs were the most treacherous part of our day and took several painful slides!

The lights of the village twinkled below us and we got hot walking down. Finally we reached the bushes and the turn off to Wyn Irwin – where a hot meal and even a hot shower awaited.

The following day was spent madly planning orienteering courses in the lovely setting of the Old Mountaineers Café. The new slip which we learned had taken out Gardiner Hut coming off the side of Aoraki was clearly visible from the big window. We also learned that the friendly tea giving Taiwanese man at Mueller had been helicoptered down because he had been missing for two days!

We left the Village in the afternoon headed for two days of fun Ski Orienteering action at Snow Farm.

I love being in Mt Cook, it is the most amazing place. But on this trip I also learned how easy it is to make a silly mistake - the mountains are risky business! I wonder if I can fix my ski...

There is Mueller Hut!
We found out later that the route we took over Mt Darby was not the route actually described in the NZAC Backcountry Ski guide. That route follows a ledge at the 2000m contour (much lower than we were) around Mt Darby. It sounds like it has some objective danger (rock fall, ice cliffs) but is quite probably not as steep.


Anne said…
Fantastic photos. I was exhausted just reading about it all!
Anne said…
Fantastic photos. I was exhausted just reading about it all.
Frances said…
And I was scared just reading about it. But wonderful to make the most of that amazing environment before it all melts away!
John Hilston said…
An ideal place to feel what the snow-fall is.
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