A Peek at Lendenfeld
Text and photosSonya Muhslimmer
Ledenfeld Peak. Look closely and you can see the other party reaching the false summit
I was recently reminiscing with some friends about mountain climbing trips in New Zealand I did around 10 years ago. As you do, we talked about the times when we were a lot fitter, stronger and younger and you wonder where all those years went. I really wanted to go back and try it out again as I really enjoyed the climbs I did many years ago. Oh, and the mountains in New Zealand are something else. Well anyway, my friend Julie still keeps in touch with her old mountain guide, so we ended up getting in contact with each other. The guide called me up and offered some dates.
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The Wanaka Tree
Those dates were pretty soon coming up so it would not leave me with much prep time. Considering it has been a long time since I had done some serious stuff like climb a mountain. Even during the last few years I have slowed down a bit on weekends (due to fires, flood and COVID) so I was not really physically prepared to do some major mountain climbs. However, after a few conversations with the guide and FOMO, the fear of missing out got the better of me and I started prepping. I live in the Blue Mountains so I have a good training ground. I filled up my pack with bricks and walked up and down the hills most nights for preparation.
I had figured just to go with what I could manage and even just to be in the mountains again would be enough. Oh and to have
a week off work, for me it was a win-win situation, and if I could get up a mountain or two, that would be worth it. So off I went.
I arrived in New Zealand on Saturday night in late November 2022 and stayed in Queenstown. The next day I had time to wander through the botanical gardens and the lake foreshore, do a little bit of shopping for my nieces and nephews and then catch the shuttle bus to Wanaka. After I arrived at my
accommodation, I took a stroll to that famous Wanaka Tree, and up along the lake to see some beautiful views. The Wanaka Tree is a willow tree and it sits alone in the water. Somehow it has become one of those famous Instagram destination, it is one of the most photographed and famous trees in New Zealand. The next day is where it all begins.
Day 1: Wanaka to FoxI was picked up from my accommodation by my guide Gavin Lang and we went back to his house to organise gear (transceivers, ice axes, crampons, snow shoes, ice screws, ropes etc). It was a beautiful day in Wanaka, the sun was out and hopes were high. The weather forecast was checked and there was a window of opportunity to get up the mountain that afternoon. And after this there were a few days of bad weather. We were soon on the way to the Fox Glacier. As we got to Fox Village the bad weather became more obvious. Well, we missed out on flying up in the helicopter by about 20 minutes, they had closed for the day due to bad weather. Bugger.
There is a small base camp hut right near the helipad that climbers can stay in just in case this situation occurs, so back to the hut we go. After a bit of a break and waiting to see what the weather did we went on the Moraine walk to the Fox Glacier, for something to do before hut fever kicks in. Prior to 2019 you could drive up fairly close to the glacier, however a major landslide destroyed the only road access to the glacier, so now it is walking only. This road was only repaired from a landslide just two months prior to it being wiped out again. Over 300 metres of the road was either completely washed away or significantly damaged. After already spending nearly $430,000 fixing up the first lot of damage, I can understand why the councils have not bothered to fix it up again. It was pretty impressive to see that’s for sure.
Day 2: Stuck at FoxThe weather was bad, the mountains were so far away, I have spent a lot of money to get there and I am stuck at base camp. I was not happy. I know you can’t do anything about the weather so I just have to stick it out. It was a very long day today, we did a bit of Prussiking and rope practice, another walk to town. I went to watch a bunch of people talk about helicopters in a hangar. Gavin was preparing to change the poo drum at the mountain hut so he had to learn how to manoeuvre around it and an active helicopter, so at least there was some activity for the day.
Day 3: Still at FoxWell, today was another very long day indeed. Again more rope practice with the z-haul pulley this time. The z-haul is an effective method of pulling someone out of a crevasse, and is a good one to know. In my canyoning training days we learnt this and it is something not used much, but again it's a really good thing to know, as you never know when you may just need to use it. After what felt like an eternity, in the afternoon we took a walk to the south side of the Fox Glacier, along the track known as the River Walk, through some beautiful and ancient podocarp rainforest with a glacier viewpoint along the way. Once you reach the end of the track, well it is an extreme flood hazard after that. Walk at your own risk. The weather cleared up today and on the way back to base camp we stopped in at the local pub for some hot chips.
Day 4: Fox to Pioneer HutI was under the impression we were going to be one of the first to fly, so I was a bit surprised when we got to the helipad that there were already tour groups going up and another group waiting. We got the gear out of the car, placed it behind the fence ready for the helicopter to come back, in the same time the clouds started rolling in, the organiser comes down to the helipad and says no more
... we missed out on flying up in the helicopter by about 20 minutes ...
The z-haul is an effective method of pulling someone out of a crevasse ...
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flights due to bad weather. I was gutted. The tour group left and we were talking to the pilots for a while, then we left. There is a vantage point to see up the valley so we drove there to check it out, there was no visibility so back to base camp we go. After a bit of moping about, we contacted the organiser and made our way down to the helipad to see what was going on.
There was a small window of opportunity that opened up, and just like that within five minutes we were in the helicopter. It seems so strange it was such a long wait then all of a sudden within minutes it was on. Pioneer Hut sits at 2288 metres high on Pioneer Ridge, on a side of a rocky cliff above the Fox Glacier neve. This is one of the busiest alpine huts in New Zealand, and sleeps up to 16. The pit toilet, well, I must say has the best views in the world. It was another world up there, the skies were clear, it was perfect. We got out of the helicopter, got the gear into the hut and organised ourselves and our gear, roped up and went exploring, for about 500 metres. Then the weather came in and visibility was
quite bad, so we went back to the hut to practice self-rescue with an ice axe in a safe place, where there was no risk of falling into a crevasse. The weather cleared up for the late afternoon so I enjoyed the immense view. There is something so humbling being up here, another world away. I must admit I was blown away and I did feel a little overwhelmed by it all.
There were five other people in the hut, who had just finished their studies at Uni and were up there for three weeks; gee they had a lot of gear. It was good to have other people to talk to and share experiences with. After dinner it was off to bed as we have an early start in the morning. The group were also gearing up to leave the hut around 1.30 am to do the same peak as us; we were planning to leave at 6 am.
Day 5: LendenfeldToday was the day we get to do some mountain climbing, finally. The alarm was set for 5 am and after breakfast, we were off. The destination was Lendenfeld Peak at 3194 metres, 900 metres above the hut, just 500 metres lower than Mount Cook and it is the eighth tallest mountain in New Zealand. The climb was an 8.2 kilometre round trip and we completed it in just under nine hours. It was a stunning day, with the snow crisp and solid underfoot.
Just as we were starting to climb the near-vertical part, the party of five that left at 1.30 am had just reached the summit. I must say we either did really well in catching up to them, or they were going at a slower pace. I guess my advantage was that I had an experienced guide who was familiar with this terrain and they did not, so I was assuming they were taking their time crossing avalanche-prone sections
The first sight of Pioneer Hut
The pit toilet, well, I must say has the best views in the world.
and walking very precariously, dodging crevasses along the way. As we made the summit, the clouds started coming back in and disturbing the view, and my what an amazing view it was, looking over to Mount Cook and Mount Tasman. Once you stopped moving you started getting cold, so there was not much time on the summit so back to the hut we go. There was a section I was down climbing and I stepped over a crevasse, and just kept looking down into the hole with that awe of how far does that go down. Wow it was daunting. You really have to concentrate on everything constantly as one wrong step can land you into trouble. Also, when you are
crossing sections of avalanche territory, and little bits of snow are rolling down a steep gully you are standing in, it makes you move a bit quicker, however you want to make it as fast, and safe as possible. It was good to be back at the hut with a hot cup of tea in hand.
Day 6: Pioneer HutToday we were attempting Glacier Peak which sits at 3002 metres high, again leaving at 6 am after breakfast. After walking about two kilometres, and just about to get onto the steep, near vertical climb, well maybe not vertical but very steep part at least, I had decided I could not continue. I was feeling queasy, out of breath, complete lack of energy and my hip was starting to feel sore. I have suffered from bursitis previously and seems it was resurfacing, and we were planning to walk down to Chancellor Hut in the afternoon. This walk out was another eight kilometres, crossing over a few glaciers with a crevasse risk and I don’t think I could have managed. Was it altitude sickness or just pure exhaustion? I didn’t think the climb yesterday
The summit view from Lendenfeld Peak looking north
You really have to concentrate on everything constantly as one wrong step can land you into trouble.
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The view from Pioneer Hut at 5 am. Picture perfect
was that bad. I was tired coming back to the hut but physically I felt ok. It was bittersweet turning back as the weather was perfect and I was here to climb a mountain, I just felt that I could not do it. We went back to the hut to rest. I really wish we could have got up here earlier as we literally wasted three days at base camp due to bad weather, a lot of time lost there.
In the afternoon we started walking out. After about two kilometres, I was really struggling to walk. A few steps and I was out of breath, feeling like I was going to be sick and my hip was really sore. So we decided to go back to the hut and call a helicopter for the next day. I didn’t really want to cop a huge bill for the flights, but I don’t think I had much choice. We could have attempted to walk out the next day but the weather forecast was not looking great and I had to be on a flight back to Sydney in two days so I doubt we could have made it in time anyway.
Day 7: Pioneer to WanakaThis morning was just waiting for the helicopter. It was coming at any time there was a gap in the clouds that the pilot could fly through. We had to be ready as they could have come any minute, and from the helipad at the road the flight only takes around 10 minutes. So while we were waiting, Gavin made a few markings in the snow for the helicopter to land safely, then we waited a bit more. It was interesting looking down in the valley as the clouds were quite thick below us, but it was a perfect day up here. We were on the radio a few times checking in to see
It was coming at any time there was a gap in the clouds that the pilot could fly through.
how the weather was on the ground. I was a bit concerned that the clouds were rolling in and they were going to cancel flights again. Eventually we got the call that they were on their way. It was quick grabbing the gear and getting to the landing pad. As soon as the helicopter landed, I hopped into the front seat, buckled up and Gavin loaded the helicopter and before you know it we were on our way.
The flight down was pretty interesting as it was a scramble to find a suitable spot to get through the clouds. The pilot asked me to put my camera away as it was a bit tense there for a minute, however he managed to get through with a few interesting manoeuvres, and I held on tight. I must say it was a bit of a thrill, and I have a lot of respect for those helicopter pilots. Once we were back on solid ground it was back to Wanaka.
Day 8: Wanaka to homeToday was just a travel day. I was picked up by a cab at 7.15 am from my accommodation, got the shuttle bus back to Queenstown, then waited at the airport for a few hours for my flight. I managed to get a few last souvenirs for my nieces and nephews at the airport, then I arrived in Sydney in the afternoon. I caught a train back to the Blue Mountains, which takes about two hours and arrived home about 8.30 pm, 10.30 pm, NZ time. It was a long day.
I have a bittersweet feeling about this trip. I got stuck in a hut down in the Fox Village for three days, which felt like an eternity. It would have been so much better to be on the mountain, but I know you can’t do anything about the weather. It just felt like an absolute waste of time, and a lot of money
wasted. I feel also if we did get up there earlier I could have done a lot more climbing, so I missed out on a lot. On the flip side, I had my first ever helicopter ride, I learnt and had a refresher training on rope skills and self-rescue with an ice axe. I climbed a mountain and I got to hang out for a few days in absolute stunning mountain terrain. It really was another world up there so I can’t complain about that.
Lastly, I will tell you a little bit about my guide, Gavin Lang. He has been guiding since 2004 and has climbed all 24 of New Zealand’s highest mountains. Being a mountain guide, a photographer and an author are some of his many talents. I was in good hands. You can check out his work at Seeking the Light - Potton & Burton and also at First Light Guiding.
Just before the summit of Lendenfeld PeakGavin Lang
I must say it was a bit of a thrill, and I have a lot of respect for those helicopter pilots.
I have a bittersweet feeling about this trip.
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