Franz Josef Glacier mission Part II: Descent from Almer Hut via The Goat Path.
Franz Josef Glacier Guide’s Brett is back with Part Two of his epic mission in the Franz Josef Glacier backcountry. Last time we left Brett and the four other Franz Josef Glacier Guides they were at Almer Hut, overlooking Franz Josef Glacier. In Part Two, the guides make their way back home via the challenging and seldom traversed Goat Path.
The day started out slowly. After the previous day’s attempt at the Minarets, and cider and pizza at Almer hut, no one was rearing to go early. We sat around drinking coffee, before slowly packing our bags. Around 10 o’clock, Tai, Richo, Jagged, Rowan and myself finally walked away from the hut, walking out via the Goat Path. We were in for a long day of ridges, steep descents and bush bashing. The path isn’t a commonly travelled route and getting lost up there is a very real possibility.
We had to cross over Almer Glacier, a relatively small glacier that runs into the much larger Franz Josef Glacier. We crossed over a flat area with few crevasses, strapping on our crampons we made short work of it, and continued along traversing the valley walls.
Around lunch time we arrived at the official start of the Goat Path, marked only by a fallen down rock cairn. Tai pulled out the map and the compass and confirmed that we were in the right spot. He told us a story of a former glacier guide who got lost up there starting out on the wrong ridge line and dropping into the adjacent valley, the Callery. The old gold prospectors’ legends of the Callery tell of a gorge so deep and narrow that the thin bit of sky you can see from the bottom remains black, day and night, as light can't penetrate its steep and deep walls. It wasn't a place we particularly wanted to be.
As we sat having our lunch, the valley started to clag in. It’s a common occurrence in the Franz Josef valley, as afternoon clouds build up and affects the visibility. This cloud was about to make our life pretty difficult.
We strapped our crampons back on to help provide more stability on the soft dirt and shingle of the ridge line. About 50m along the ridge line split in two and Richo and I choose the wrong way. By this time we couldn’t see more than 20m in front or behind us. Luckily, we realised our mistake, and back tracked. This was to set the tone for the next 3 hours.
Every 50-100m we had to stop and get a new compass bearing to make sure we were on the correct ridge line. It was extremely slow going, but we knew we had to get it right. Other ridges branched off our path in both directions. If we had gone left to early we may have found ourselves bluffed out and having to bush bash through the rainforest until we could find a path down. If we had gone right at the wrong spot, we may have found ourselves heading towards the deep Callery gorge.
As we descended we came to the bush line where we had to push through thick west coast sub-alpine scrub. Despite the slow pace, and the possibility we were on the wrong ridge, our spirits were high. The problem solving kept us engaged along with the occasional thrill of surprising a Himalayan Tahr (an introduced mountain goat, a favourite for New Zealand hunters).
The Goat Path follows the ridge line for around 1.5-2km, depending on where you leave it to drop down into the valley. We were aiming for a scree slope that Richo had climbed on a previous hunting mission. He hadn't made it to the top but the map indicated to us that we should walk directly above it. The plan was then to follow the slope down into Rope Creek, find the Roberts Point track and walk out back into town.
After three hours of slow moving, we started a small uphill section of path. We hoped this small incline would take us over Mount Gunn and the scree slope was just around the corner.
The scree slope was where we thought it should be but with little visibility we still couldn't be sure it was the correct one. We made the decision to follow it down, hoping our navigation skills had led us to the correct place.
As we descended we came out of the cloud, and to our relief we discovered we were in exactly the place we were hoping for. Even Tai, with his characteristically calm demeanour looked a little relieved. We kept moving down the slope finally meeting up Rope River. At this point we knew it was just a matter of following our nose and linking up with the Roberts Point track. I thought at this stage it would be a simple walk out. I was bought back to reality as Jagged's feet slipped out from under him. Slippery rocks spread throughout the track kept us on our toes, and occasionally, off our feet.
A couple of hours later, five tired, dirty and happy glacier guides with packs overflowing with ropes, crampons, helmets and ice axes walked into the Landing Bar. We got a few bemused looks from the tourists out for a quiet meal. Beer and food soon followed and we enjoyed that tired, satisfied feeling that comes after completing a successful mission into the wilderness.
The following day I gazed out the window of the helicopter on my way to work. It was a beautiful, clear morning and I could see the ridge line that was the Goat Path. It surprised me how steeply the mountainside fell away below it. I had moments where I was cursing the clouds, but at no time had I given thought to what would have happened if one of us had slipped. I never got the sense of how exposed we were. If it had been windy or raining hard it would have been a dangerous place to be.
Given all the wild weather we have on the West Coast, I decided a bit of cloud wasn't so bad.