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When a Sport Climber Goes Mountaineering – Ben hits up a TMC in New Zealand

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Walking up to Alymer Saddle. Photo: Jamie Robertson

Walking up to Alymer Saddle. Photo: Jamie Robertson

The following article is by Ben Alsop, one of the staffers at Mountain Equipment. He has been rock climbing for many years but this was his first introduction to the alpine world and he particularly wanted some alpine experience before heading to Patagonia next month. Whether you’re coming from a rock climbing background or a hiking background, a TMC (Technical Mountaineering Course) is perhaps the best way to safely enter the alpine climbing scene. As you will read, even with a bit of crappy weather, the guides do a great job in teaching all the basics of alpine safety. They’re also good at catering for a wide range of experience within the group. To hikers, a TMC opens up the possibilities of many high passes and glacier travel in New Zealand, for rock climbers it opens up the world of alpine rock, ice climbing and mountaineering. If you have any questions about a TMC don’t hesitate to give us a yell or better still, get in touch with the guys from Alpine Guides or any of the other great guiding companies in NZ. – Matt Eaton


The 18th of January 2017 marked the start of the Alpine Guides Technical Mountaineering Course (TMC) which is a 9-day comprehensive introduction to technical alpine climbing. I had never really dreamed of venturing in to the high alpine world until about 6 months beforehand when it seemed every other customer had just come back from an alpine climbing trip or was planning on heading over to New Zealand for a climbing trip or alpine course. So after a few weeks of thinking about it I decided I would try my hand at alpine climbing and booked a 9 day course with Alpine Guides based out of Mt Cook. Fast forward 6 months to January and I found myself on a plane about to land in Christchurch. I realised that it was actually happening and hoping all my preparation and training was going to pay off.

Day one was wet and windy in the Mt Cook Village which meant that it was snowing and blowing a gale up at Kelman hut located at the head of the Tasman Glacier, which was okay because it gave us a chance to introduce ourselves, do a detailed gear check and a brief introduction to the course and what we all hoped to get out of the course. There were 6 clients of various abilities and expertise and 2 climbing guides, Jamie was a senior guide having 15+ guiding experience with Alpine Guides including multiple summits of Mt Cook and trips to Nepal and Canada, and Tai a Japanese born guide with 4 years guiding experience in the mountains and 7+ years of white water kayak guiding knowledge. In that introduction period we went through some of the topics we would cover over the following days: Glacier travel, crevasse rescue, snow/ice climbing, belay techniques, route finding, mountain navigation, weather forecasting and finally avalanche hazard evaluation. That evening we drove down the road a few km to Unwin Lodge (A base for adventurers waiting for the weather to improve before heading up into the hills) where we cooked dinner and had an early night.

Day two brought about more rain and even windier conditions in the village so unfortunately all the helicopters were grounded. This did allow both Jamie and Tai a look at where everyone was rope skills wise, by setting up an anchor and a belay station and then prusiking up and down a fixed line hanging from the rafters. That afternoon we headed down to Twizel located at the south end of Lake Pukaki, to the indoor climbing centre they have there for a spot of leading and some more rope skill tune ups.

Heading up to the hills! - Photo: Jamie Robertson

Heading up to the hills! – Photo: Jamie Robertson

Day three finally brought a break in the weather, this meant that the Helicopters could fly, and meant I was going up into the mountains. By 9 am we landed at the head of the Tasman Glacier at 2200m and much to the guide’s dismay there was 40+ cm of fresh powder which was going to make walking difficult at the best of times. We left all our food boxes at the landing site and started up the 30o snow slope to Kelman hut, which is perched on the edge of a rocky ridge. It has some serious drops and if you weren’t too careful you could easily find yourself having a quick trip to the bottom.  Once we had emptied our packs of the non-essentials for day use we used the rest of the morning roping up for glacier travel and then walking across the Tasman Glacier and up to Alymer Saddle for some self-arrest practice, a quick introduction to building different types of snow anchors and discussions about what situations you would use each type. It’s so easy to lose track of time in the hills and before we knew it was 4 pm and we started our way back to the hut.

Scoping out the self arrest location. Photo: Jamie Robertson

Scoping out the self arrest location. Photo: Jamie Robertson

Day four had a predawn start so that we had time to walk down the Tasman Glacier a few kilometers to an ice cliff so we could try our hands at ice climbing. We had a great morning of ice climbing on vertical glacier walls but by about lunch time the winds had picked back up and we could see the clouds starting to blow in from the west. We decided not to try and navigate in white out conditions and left while the weather was still good. Luckily we did as within half an hour of reaching the hut the temperature had dropped a few degrees and you couldn’t even see 10 meters in front of you as you stumbled down the veranda to the toilet.  That afternoon was a bit lazy with a 2 hour nap for most of the crew. Late afternoon we reconvened and spent the afternoon learning to prusik past knots in the rope and then abseiling back down past the knot.

Ice climbing on glacier walls. Photo: Jamie Robertson

Ice climbing on glacier walls. Photo: Jamie Robertson

Day five was a complete write off as the weather was too cloudy and snowing for even a thought of walking outside. This meant a leisurely start with copious amounts of tea and coffee. By mid-morning we started a few of the theory lessons such as avalanche safety and how to avoid them and what to do when you are in one. Following this we had an introduction to crevasse rescue and rigging hauling systems to pull people out of a crevasse. After a lunch time break we went about setting up these hauling systems inside the hut to familiarise ourselves with which rope to pull and which to attach pullies and prusiks to. Jamie and Tai also taught us some rope tricks to speed up the process and to also transfer some of the weight off your harness on to a temporary anchor while you work at building a more structural one.

Leaning to prusik ourselves out of a crevasse fall. Photo: Jamie Robertson

Leaning to prusik ourselves out of a crevasse fall. Photo: Jamie Robertson

Day six brought with it the fine weather again allowing us to escape the hut once again, this time to find a nice looking crevasse and throw ourselves in and then escape its icy clutches. The first set up involved being lowered in and then prusiking up and out with no assistance, the second time involved a 2:1 pulley system where your partner helped haul you out. The third time involved the scenario where you had to first arrest a fall, build an anchor to transfer the load so you could escape the system and then abseil down to your partner, administer first aid if needed and then create a 6:1 hauling system. This system is energy efficient but not rope or time efficient with it taking at least an hour to build an anchor and set up the system and then 20 minutes to haul the person the 12 m out of the crevasse. Talking to Jamie I discovered that even a guide can take this long. He mentioned that the quickest he had seen someone rescue a partner was 40 minutes, quite a long time if you have a serious injury or if it’s seriously cold. Luckily in the 15 years he has been a guide he has never had to use this system. We took turns being the rescuers and ‘rescuees’. I have to say that willfully jumping into a crevasse that is seemingly bottomless went against almost all of my life preservation instincts but was an awesome experience. This took us most of the day and by the time we finished we had enough time to walk up to Tasman Saddle Hut and take in the remarkable views of Mt cook with the sun behind it. Walking back to Kelman we saw 15 avalanches in the course of the hour and a half walk, some ranging at size 1 avalanches all the way up to a size 3 avalanche (size 3 is large enough to cover up a small truck and roll a small SUV). It was early to bed this night as we had a 5 am start the next day.

Hauling someone out of a crevasse. Photo: Jamie Robertson

Hauling someone out of a crevasse. Photo: Jamie Robertson

Climbing Mable using 'T' slots as our anchors. Photo: Jamie Robertson

Climbing Mable using ‘T’ slots as our anchors. Photo: Jamie Robertson

Day seven meant an early start so that we could go and climb a peak and be back at the hut before the helicopters came and picked us up at 1:30 pm. Mable is a small peak located behind Kelman hut and is an easy grade 1 climb. It was easy enough to solo as demonstrated by Jamie and Tai, but they wanted us to put all the information we had learnt into practice so we did 9 pitches up a 45o snow slope. The snow had an icy crust on it but as soon as you broke through it with your axe and crampons you sunk into a foot of loose powder making it a difficult climb. ‘T’ slots were our main anchor set up which took twice as long to build as it took to climb that pitch. After nine pitches we made it to the summit at about 10 am just when the cloud cover broke and we had stunning views all the way to the west coast and the Tasman Sea. From the summit we abseiled down the northern ridge following a few ring bolted anchors. We made it back to the hut about 12:30 pm to hastily pack and tidy up the hut and then raced down the hill to the landing site only to sit around for about an hour as the helicopter was delayed due to high gusting winds at the Mt Cook airport. That afternoon was filled with a good shower and a nap followed by a much needed pub meal back in Mt cook village.

Day eight and nine were filled with some final lectures about mountain weather and some single and multipitch climbing on the rock around Mt Village. It felt good to be pulling on rock again, and the added reassurance of climbing on bolted routes was enough to put nerves back to rest.

All in all it was an amazing experience and well worth the time and effort that went into it for preparation.  Some things I would recommend:

  • Be Prepared to drink copious amounts of Tea and/or Coffee
  • Hurry up and wait (certainly for helicopters)
  • “Be Bold and Start the day cold” a quote from Jamie (it’s amazing how little layers you need once you have been walking for 15 minutes)
  • Be prepared to run out full 60 m pitches with little to no protection (can be unnerving certainly to a sport climber like myself) :)
  • Pack for each day the night before (makes the mornings a lot faster)
  • Pack only the essentials
  • Fit your crampons to your boots before leaving the hut (make sure they are the correct type as well)
  • Comfortable and light helmet is a must!! You will be wearing it every day all day and the lighter the better.
  • Uncoil your rope each night (nothing worse than a kink in the rope)
  • Comfy hut shoes
  • Take a book and a few magazines (for those hut days)


I’d like to give a big thank you to Alpine Guides New Zealand and in particular Jamie Robertson and Tai for a great and informative trip. They certainly opened a whole new scope of climbing and adventure possibilities! Thanks Jamie for also taking great photos of the trip. As our hands were either cold or busy, it was quite hard to think about scoping good shots.

By Ben Alsop

Rubbish views from Kelman Hut :) Photo: Jamie Robertson

Rubbish views from Kelman Hut :)
Photo: Jamie Robertson

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