Walk before you can climb

Connor Benfield | 6 minute read

Back in August, Queenstown hosted a swag of experienced mountaineers at the annual Remarkables Ice & Mixed Festival. It’s probably the largest gathering of mountaineers in New Zealand each year, and this year’s festival drew climbers from as far afield as Poland. As a sponsor of the event, we decided to send our social media guy, Connor down to get amongst the magic of the Ice & Mixed. He’s Australian, so we thought it’d be a laugh to listen to him whinge about the cold, but we also wanted to get a report on proceedings from someone who has no prior experience of the mountaineering community. He provided us with both, but we’ll spare you his cold weather whining, and instead provide you with his report on the Ice & Mixed Festival, specifically how old mate fared in Snowcraft 1 – a clinic he took as part of the festival that is designed to give newbies an introduction to moving around in a snowy, alpine environment.

Mountaineering is scary, isn’t it? I’ve seen Vertical Limit, Touching the Void, Everest – this is dangerous stuff. So surely it’s a bad idea to send me, a man who’s only experiences above 2000m have been in an aeroplane, to climb a snow covered mountain. It seemed like a recipe for serious injury, or at the very least, embarrassment. And the latter is probably the thing I was most concerned about – mountain climbing seems so inaccessible to someone outside of that community. There’s so much gear to buy, so many weather patterns to be aware of, and so many dangers that are inherent to an alpine environment. My strategy going into the festival was to own my incompetence, wear it like a badge of honour and embrace the opportunity to learn. I arrived at the Queenstown Events Centre on the first evening of the festival, and quickly found myself in a conversation with legend of the mountaineering community, fellow Australian, Tim McCartney-Snape – the first Aussie to summit Everest unassisted, and by all reports, still one of the gutsiest climbers in the room at the age of 62. I joked with Tim that he’d be able to identify me the following morning on the mountain because, “I’ll be the bloke with his crampons on the wrong feet.” To which Tim responded, “No, you won’t.” At the time, I thought that Tim might be overestimating my ability – perhaps he could see a glint in my eye that suggested I had the gumption required for this mountaineering caper! He hadn’t. He just knew the syllabus for Snowcraft 1, which includes getting your crampons on the right feet.

Plotting a route for the day | The Log Book

I awoke the following morning to snow. It was cold. There had been significant snowfall the last two evenings, and the festival officials had warned us that it would be a chilly day on the mountain. I met up with my fellow Snowcrafters at the bottom car park of the Remarkables Ski Field – we were a motley crew, made up of the greenest of the green, right through to experienced rock climbers, who were up-skilling to bring alpine climbing into their repertoire. It was intimidating rolling up at the meeting point that morning. The fear of of making an idiot of myself was real. We drove to the base building at the Remarks ski field, and set up a spot in the cafe to set our intentions, plot a route for the day and go through the safety briefing. We took our time in the cafe, but when we did eventually make it outside it dawned on me – this is going to be quite different to Vertical Limit. We started by learning how to walk… left, right – kicking steps in the snow so you don’t post hole thigh deep. It was humbling, and a bit of a frustratingly slow start, but certainly not as intimidating as I thought it might be. The rest of the day was spent learning the rudimentary skills required to safely move around a snowy alpine environment. There were no close calls, no need to fling myself across gaping chasms or catch fellow mountaineers one handed as they plummeted from an icy cliff face – in fact, the closest I came to falling was when we learned how to fall safely – using my ice axe to self arrest as I skidded down a gentle, icy slope.

At the end of the day, we headed back to the events centre to debrief over Thai food and beer. I was buzzing at what we had learned. On paper, it didn’t seem like much, but there’s a real high that goes with new outdoor experiences – I’d experienced it in the hills and in the ocean, but never in the mountains. My buzz was abruptly put on ice when we heard about an avalanche that had hit an experienced group leading a clinic in a different part of the range. It was a minor slip, sending an ice axe or two skidding down the mountain, but it was a timely reminder that climbing mountains is inherently unsafe. The onus is on each individual to be competent, to be responsible for their own safety, for the safety of their fellow climbers, and to never let these high standards slip – the consequences of doing so are so, so severe. And it was because of this reliance on your fellow climber that I was beginning to understand one facet of the appeal of mountaineering. It’s a camaraderie that you don’t get with typical weekend sports, and it’s infectious.

Got ’em on the right feet | The Log Book

Day 2 of Snowcraft 1 – I pulled the blinds at 6am, and as the sun rose, I could see that today was going to be a good day. Blue bird, and not a breath of wind – this was more like it. Again, we rendezvoused at the Remarkables Ski Field base building, and plotted a route for the day. We would shoot for Telecom Tower – 2200m above sea level. We loaded up, strapped our crampons on the correct feet, and set out. Our party of 12 broke up into two groups of 6. Within our groups, we would take turns breaking trail, plowing a path through the un-groomed snow that lay between us and our objective. Our smiles grew with the altitude – it was an amazing feeling watching the world shrink away below us. On Day 1, our vision was limited to maybe 100 meters at best, but today when we looked west we could see Aoraki and Mt. Aspiring peering back at us, and to the south, the Darrans in Fiordland. It’s obvious, but the views must be a big part of why people do this. There are few things more liberating than sitting a couple of thousand meters above the rest of the world, completely removed from the noise of regular life. As we continued our ascent, our instructors made a point of chatting to each Snowcrafter – vibing out our aspirations and helping us plan our next trip using the new skills we’d learned. Again, that sense of camaraderie hit me. This is a community that doesn’t focus on achievements, rather attitude and positivity. Sure, those who climb scary, challenging routes are held in high regard, but that seems to be a result of their commitment to the craft rather than a bi-product of the routes they’ve ticked off.

Fittingly, the peak of the day was the summit of our trip – Telecom Tower. Lake Wakatipu exploded into view as our heads popped above the ridge-line. I could’ve sat up there for hours taking it all in – to see a view like that, having worked hard to get there nourished every part of me. Pure stoke. We soaked it up for maybe half an hour before we decided it was time to descend, which was an unexpected treat. Obviously walking up hill means you’re looking up hill, only occasionally pausing to turn and take in the views behind you. But when you’re going down hill, the best bits are in your eye line.

Summit buzz | The Log Book

Again, we returned to the events centre that evening to share stories from the day, to drink and be merry. The main conclusion I was able to draw from my 2 day brush with the climbing world, was that it isn’t something to fear. That’s not to say you should dive in headfirst without the proper prep, gear, and someone to show you the ropes – definitely don’t do that. But if you can find someone who knows what they’re doing, there’s a really good chance that they’ll be more than happy to answer questions, give advice, and even let you tag along on their next trip. Even the most skilled and experienced outdoors-people were rookies once – if you go at it without ego, ready to learn, you’re guaranteed to walk away with a big smile on your face.