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Self Arrest on Foggy Peak

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“Do you want to learn how to self-arrest tomorrow?” asked Richard, our New Zealand friend. We thought about it for a second and looked at each other. Did we want to voluntarily throw ourselves down a steep snow-covered mountain until we were hurtling out of control with only an ice axe to stop our progress? Of course we did. We quickly made arrangements to meet up with him and two of his workmates the following day, before Barbara had any time to reconsider.

We had met Richard in Indonesia and had spent a couple of days exploring what little climbing Sumatra had to offer. Foolishly he had given us his address and a month later we turned up looking for him to show us the best that climbing in Christchurch had to offer. Already he had brought us rock climbing on Port Hills, where, as a man more than ten years my senior, he put me to shame.

The following day we met up with Richard and his two work mates: John and Francis. While John was about the same age as Richard, Francis was old enough to be my father. Now mountaineering is not really a young man’s sport, as the foolhardy tend to end up in rather a mess at the bottom of a crevasse, but I really didn’t expect a man of sixty odd years to be learning how to ice axe arrest. He didn’t seem one bit phased by what the day had in store and I felt nothing but admiration.

Francis drove us out to Foggy peak and quickly conversation fell into the timeless banter of shared experiences. Francis good-naturedly slagged off a mutual acquaintance who got lost in the mountains and had to be evacuated by helicopter. Everyone had a good snigger at his difficulty finding tramping partners. “So when did this happen?” I enquired. “Oh, let me see … it must have been about 1983, or thereabouts.” I shook my head in amazement that they were still slagging off this guy after twenty years. I guess amongst friends old embarrassments never really die and the best you can hope to do is to live gracefully with them.

Foggy Peak loomed up in front of us and it didn’t look inviting at all. It wasn’t that big but it was unremittingly steep and covered in scree before the snowline. The climb was a slog, each step made more difficult by the give of the gravel underfoot. The wind didn’t make it any easier and pummelled us as we took nearly 90-degree switchbacks to lessen the incline. Every time I turned to face the wind, the metal fastening on the collar of my jacket whipped against my check in a literal and metaphorical slap in the face. All my attention was focused on the stones and rocks underfoot and my energy on keeping up with a man twice my age, so my progress continued to be marked by resounding thwacks.

By any normal standard we were coping quite well. We maintained a steady clip uphill and really didn’t have to stop that often. Barbara very sensibly slowed her walk to one she was comfortable with and Francis, feeling that she was missing out on conversation, fell back to chat to her. He wasn’t as fit as the other two, he lied, and continued to chat on cheerfully while easily making his way up the 30 degree incline. Barbara, red faced, stared intently at where her feet were going and kept her replies down to a breath saving yes or no.

All said we made the summit in good time but were almost blown off it. On the descent we found a strip of snow suitable to learn ice axe arrests. First of all Richard showed us the correct way to walk with an ice axe, using it like a short walking stick, plugging it into the snow every two steps and ensuring it was always uphill of our bodies. If we slipped we would have to push the head of axe into the snow and get the weight of our shoulder behind it …and hopefully stop before too much momentum built up.

We all mastered the basics without too much trauma but Richard was intent that we should learn to arrest from a speeding slide. We took turns glissading (skiing on your feet) down the slope until our legs went out beneath us and we were shooting uncontrollably down the slope on our bums. Quick as we could we turned on our sides, forcing the pick into the snow and pushing our weight on top of it, praying it would stop us … it did. A few runs down the slope successfully stopped and I was feeling confident enough to try arresting from a headfirst upside-down slide. While fun I wouldn’t like to have to do it in an emergency.

Ice Axe Skills 101 now under our belts it was time to return to the car. As much as climbing scree slopes isn’t fun, descending them is. Richard, as normal, took the lead, literally running down the slope in an accelerated lunar walk. We looked at him in amazement as he seemingly floated at the apex of each stride, each leg coming down with a soft slide as the stones and gravel gave way underfoot. Soon all five of us were racing downhill, feet sliding on the loose surface but becoming airborne again before we lost footing. It looked dangerous and foolhardy, but it was fast.

Exhausted after our day I slumped into the back of Francis’s car content not to be moving and glad of the ride home. My eyes quickly grew tired while Richard, John and Francis discussed plans for a three day trek over 3 of New Zealand’s highest passes, where their new ice axe skills would be put to the test. As I fell asleep I hoped that in my sixties I’d be tramping up hills and over passes.

New Zealand Pictures - click to enlarge
Picture of the view from Foggy Peak near Christchurch New Zealand pictures
Photograph of Barbara on Foggy Peak near Christchurch New Zealand pictures
The view from Foggy Peak

Barbara looking windswept

Picture of us having lunch on Foggy Peak near Christchurch New Zealand pictures
Photograph of Richard on Foggy Peak near Christchurch New Zealand pictures
The Famous Five have lunch

Richard - a veritable mountain goat

Picutre of the view from the top of Foggy Peak near Christchurch New Zealand pictures
Photograph of Barbara with her ice axe on Foggy Peak near Christchurch New Zealand pictures
View from the top of Foggy Peak Barbara and her ice axe