25 February 2006

Life on the rocks

Three weeks on—and off—the road. Sometimes almost as far off the road as you can get in Aotearoa (well, maybe not, but it feels like it after you’ve walked for 9 ½ hours over hard country, carrying a third of your bodyweight). 3852 km of driving. Mountain summits to coastlines—on both sides and as far South as you can go in the South Island. A mountain of photos to work through, impressions to reflect on, words to muster. How do I show you what it was like?

Inadequately; but I’ll try. This is Part One, of an indeterminate and nonchronological series [click on the photos for a larger view] .

It’s Aotearoa’s second smallest bird—only the rifleman (Acanthisitta chloris) is smaller. Once, it shared the country with five or six cousins; now, only these two tiny species remain, the last of New Zealand’s Acanthisittidae. Once, it lived in the North Island too; now it’s confined to the South Island and is believed to be declining. You won’t find it anywhere below the bushline—it lives only in alpine environments, all year round. It’s piwauwau, the rock wren, Xenicus gilviventris. The IUCN’s fact sheet refers to it as the South Island wren, as “rock wren” is used for another species, which, however, doesn’t occur in New Zealand. For years, I’d wanted to see these birds; a year ago I thought I’d have a good chance while climbing with Terry and Lance at the head of the White River, but it wasn’t to be. After that trip, Terry carried on South and saw them while crossing Ball Pass in Aoraki/Mt Cook National Park. Back at Pohangina, I waited, sure my time would come. Then, at Arthurs Pass a few weeks ago I thought my chances might be good, but in five days there we saw no wrens. With the weather deteriorating, we returned to Christchurch, then drove South to Aoraki.


We’ve done the steep bit, the climb from Stocking Stream to the ridge just below Sefton Biv. Only five or ten minutes to go, a short distance over massive blocks of angular rock, hopping and balancing, picking a line through the maze. Sensing movement, I look up and find myself gazing at him only a few metres away. A male rock wren. He gazes back, bobs up and down and scampers off a short distance before stopping, bobbing, and looking at me again. I slip my pack off carefully and extract the camera; fit the big lens. He watches, as if waiting to oblige me.

I follow him for a while, gradually trying for better photos but aways enjoying the closeup view, the details of his feathers, the way he does that characteristic knees-bend, bobbing up and down on the spot. What purpose does it serve? There’s no sign of the female (I find her later), and communication seems to be achieved by the high-pitched, repeated call. Perhaps the bobbing helps him judge distance, the slight shift in angle enough to help him assess how far he has to hop/jump/flit to the next block in the piled-up jumble? It seems implausible, but it’s all I can think of—assuming, as is the wont of scientists, that it must have a purpose. But I’m not consumed by the question. Instead, I’m captivated by this little wisp of feathers—that’s how he seems to me. I can almost feel how little he weighs; if he sat in my palm or perched on my finger I’m sure I’d feel nothing but the tickle of tiny claws; it’d be like trying to feel the weight of an illusion. Yet he survives the winter up here, under the snow, in the crevices in this rock field. The incongruity of it—that this insubstantial, warm life makes its home in this hard harsh world; the biting cold; the snow, hail, and slashing rain; the long, freezing darkness—astounds me.

At the bivvy we bask in the sun and my sweat-saturated top, draped over a rock, quickly dries warm and fluffy in the wind and intense light. Cloud slowly thickens towards evening and hogsbacks begin to form, suggesting tomorrow might not be so fine. Every few minutes, something collapses in one of the many nearby icefalls—sometimes it’s just a serac tilting, sometimes it’s a tremendous boom and long roar as something calves and disintegrates down Sefton’s eastern face. Beside and above us, the Te Waewae glacier clings to the steep mountainside. High up, it’s very broken apart but still beautiful—long, sweeping curves and perfect, sharp arcs where the textured snow splits to reveal deep, gaping crevasses—but further down, closer to our level, it’s chaotic, ugly, shattered, riven: impressive but fearsome; a place no sane person would enter. Here, we’re on a promontory where nothing can fall on us. Rock and herb field; snowgrasses; gentians; many other tough and lovely plants, all flowering or seeding. The six o’clock sun begins to accentuate features, like the edge of light where ribs of rock fall against a background of dark gullies, or the olive-green and dull yellow snowgrasses illuminated against the far below, far distant, cloudshadowed Hooker Valley. Through binoculars, we can see people at Mueller hut and I’m glad I’m here, just Jonathan and me and the wrens and an occasional alpine weta, not there with the crowds paying $35 a night and looking through binoculars at the two tiny figures enjoying the evening at Sefton Biv.

Morning, and a rainbow arcs across the face of Sefton. Hazy sunlight filters in long shafts down the dark sides of the Mt Cook Range, directly opposite us across the deep space of the Hooker Valley. Southwards, the Mueller looks grim and remote, but high above on the flanks of Sealy and Annette, sunlight finds blue-white glaciers and névés. They gleam, brilliant, vibrant, in the early sun. We’re on the edge of the rain. In front of the biv, if you don’t go too far, you’re sheltered from it; step out to the side and you’re spattered with wind-blown drops. I light the MSR and begin heating water for a brew. Here, life reduces to simple decisions: when to eat, which route to take, whether to continue or turn back. Sometimes these seem trivial; sometimes your life depends on your decision—but even then, it’s not complicated, because your goals are few, clear, and immediate. This is life pared down; this is the essence of life. I guess it’s how wrens live.

Photo 1: This isn't technically the best photo, but to me it best reflects the character of the wee guy. I managed to rescue the image with some rough and quick post-processing (a modicum of contrast tweaking and sharpening, if you need to know).
Photo 2: If there ever was a room with a view, Sefton Biv is it. It sleeps four people comfortably and you can stand upright in the middle.

Photo 3: Across to and up the Mueller, early morning.

Photos and words © 2006 Pete McGregor

08 February 2006

On the road: an update

Arthurs Pass National Park, in New Zealand’s South Island. Southern beech (Nothofagus) forests; wide riverbeds; steep, rough, mountain streams; gorges; shattered rock and vertical bluffs; snowgrass basins and subalpine scrub; waterfalls. The home of kea, the superintelligent mountain parrot; miromiro (tomtits); and many other birds, including our smallest, the thumb-sized rifleman. The dominant peak near the village is Mt Rolleston (2271 m)—not the highest in the park, but the most common mountaineering objective.

Jonathan and I climbed it on Friday, via the easiest route, the Otira Slide, but saw little except the inside of grey, swirling cloud; loose, blocky rock; and the long, steep slope of old snow that gives the Slide its name. On Monday, now knowing the descent route from the High Peak, we climbed Rolleston again, this time up one of the harder routes, the Central Direct buttress on the Otira Face. Perfect weather for climbing: high, lumpy cloud affording some shade from the summer sun; just enough breeze to keep the temperature comfortable.

From the summit we looked down to the Crow Glacier. Clean, white snow gashed with deep crevasses; big bergschrunds separating rock from striated ice; further away, the icefall, a mass of seracs teetering on the lip of the glacier. Clouds drifted slowly above, their shadows echoes on the neve. Down in the Crow Valley, just beyond the point where the beech forest began, the tiny, dull orange rectangle of Crow hut was one of the few visible signs of other humans.

This is the real world; this is where and how you live.

We’re in Christchurch now, about to head further South. I’ll post photos and more details when I return to Pohangina; maybe another quick update or two before then. Meanwhile, if you haven’t already done so, have a browse around the blog, and for older posts, including other mountaineering and a few snippets from overseas in 2004 (Mongolia, China, Japan, etc.), try this blog’s predecessor at www.xanga.com/pohanginapete.

Stay safe and happy, and look after one another.