It’s been quite awhile since I’ve written of my travels, or more precisely, it’s been quite awhile since I’ve had time to sit down. For a short time, my life studying in New Zealand began to approach a routine, and I started to get pretty comfortable with balancing the demands upon me, which are far from burdensome. Only three classes are required of me, since Otago classes count as 4.5 US hours apiece. With this rather light workload, I was loving life with plenty of time for my first loves, God and people. I talked in ‘Faces in the Fire’ about some of my good friends – and people are being added to that list constantly.
But if you’ve been reading this blog you know that I crave adventure. An irresistible thought came to mind: what if I try to break into the alpine? I considered just going with some people, but the mountain heights are far more dangerous than I knew; and I knew at least that. So I investigated the available mountaineering courses and came up with one. Setting aside a few days of school, I decided to go for it, which was truly a last minute decision. Three classes suddenly became too much, as I rushed to finish assignments early in order to leave.
On a Sunday, after a great service and a good time of fellowship with friends, I took a bus to Wanaka, where I stayed at a backpackers. The next day, I met Paul, my guide, and we discussed what range would best foster my learning. We settled on the West Coast, where the Southern Alps come so close to the sea that the terminal moraine of Fox and Franz Josef Glaciers rests out in the water (both glaciers also descend down into the rainforest – quite a spectacle!). We drove out, but the weather was bad that night, so we had to sleep in town. The next morning, just as my guide predicted, the sky cleared to crystal, and we flew up. That first day was filled with instruction on all kinds of stuff, but one thing in particular stood out. Mountaineering often involves glacier travel, and in our case we were surrounded completely by endless rolling hills of white – a Great Plain of Ice. The glaciers flow downhill just like their liquid cousins, so areas of expansion cause massive cracks to open in the ice, called crevasses. These go very deep into the ice, and falling in one is an extreme hazard – I can’t even tell of how many stories I heard from Paul of harrowing falls, all, of course, due to bad decisions or inadequate protection. But an important part of protecting yourself is to be able to pull yourself out of the crevasse when hanging on a rope. Although the occasion is exceedingly rare given proper risk management, it’s a necessary skill. So Paul picked a crevasse right next to the hut and lowered me down into it. Before going down, I had no idea how big it was, so when I saw the fifty meter drop into nothingness, I gave a shout like I had just been poked with a hot poker. The sheer beauty of this marvel was equal only to its terror; gravity suddenly became a taunt. The snowy designs of the lip descended down precipitous icy slopes until the fissure was narrower than I could have descended into. It was at least a minute before the smile returned to my face, but I eventually relaxed, trusted the rope, and siked myself out.
The next day was early – up at 5:30, out at 7. We descended down a steep slope then walked along Explorer Glacier – carefully – for an hour until we reached the base of Glacier Peak. As we walked we watched the sun glimpse over the Main Divide of the Southern Alps. We headed up the slope, doing some pitch climbing and some soloing (short-roped, for the time). The slope looked utterly impassable, but we snaked a path around huge crevasses, even crossing one on the debris from a large icefall. At one point, we ran into a huge ice overhang which threatened to send us back from where we came. But at last we climbed just over 3000 meters to the peak. Glacier Peak is along the Main Divide, so as we walked out onto the massive corniced peak the whole of the Central South Island came into view. Mountains reached as far as I could see – further, in fact. To the West was the Tasman Sea, seperated from us by perfect white and lush green. We descended, ate lunch, and lost a glove to a crevasse along the way. But that was a small loss compared to the knowledge and experience I had gained. We walked along the seemingly endless white, and I wondered that I really was in such a fantastic place.
The day after that was earlier yet – up at 4, out at 5:30. This time when we left, the stars were still clear in a black night sky. Walking along the glaciers that morning was quite surreal, with the formless shadows of mountains surrounding me and a directionless trudge toward Marcel Col. On the way, we were forced to cross a significant rockfall. Even as we watched, rocks came hurtling down the hill with frightening speed. One was as big as a basketball. The pace quickened for a minute – but hurrying is never advisable. In time we were in position to begin the climb. The route was straightforward but still intimidating. A steep slope twisted steeper and steeper until flattening out at the top. At first I was completely overwhelmed, but with time and height covered we reached the summit. Lendenfeld Peak is around 3150 meters high, so we could see ever further. Paul got out a satellite phone, and to my astonishment, called the office from the most remote place I have ever been at. Another great summit, which would be my last of the trip. We went back past the rockfall and across the hot glaciers in the afternoon sun in as little as we could, which was still a lot, to prevent sunburn. I found it interesting that the most warm clothing I ever needed was chilling in the hut at night and in the morning.
Of all the places I have gotten to see and be a part of during my New Zealand study abroad adventure, this place is surely the best. A poster in our hut called it ‘Godland’ and I must totally agree. The majesty of the high mountains, which is present in many places around the world, and the chaotic perfection of it makes its slopes the Boulevards of Paradise. Even more striking is their silent solemnity. As I listened to Paul’s tales of climbs gone good and awry, I looked at the rocky stallions and realized that these have been here, and will be here, and that I and the very few people here are just passerbys.
The rest of the course mainly consisted of instruction and rock climbing, although one key thing was a much smaller peak which I soloed entirely, keeping with the theme of building independence on the mountain. I returned back somewhat a different person – having seen things beyond what I had ever known, being filled with humility rather than pride. I can only hope to continue returning to the Boulevards.