White Out on Newton Pass
At 5pm every evening there’s a radio call with the DOC, for a weather update and a daily register of the groups staying at the hut. That night the weather report wasn’t looking great for the following two days. The freezing level was good, well below the altitude of the hut and there was ‘precip’ forecasted overnight but it wasn’t clear how long it would last and what visibility would we have. We began making dinner hoping for inches of snow, and clear conditions in the morning.
Unfortunately, you don’t always get what you wish for. We did get 20cm of snow but the clouds had settled on top of us. Waking up we could barely see the other side of the glacier at all. Undeterred, and whilst there were still small breaks in the cloud, we agreed a plan. We would skin across the Fox glacier, (1st image below), then up and over the Newton Pass and onto the Franz Josef Glacier.
We made good initial progress, laying down a set of skin tracks 2kms over to the ridge. Should the weather really deteriorate these would come in very handy. Especially, given the number of very large crevasses strewn across what felt like an ocean of ice and snow. The route up and over the pass looked fairly straight forward, but just as we neared the steepest section things started to change. The patchy weather became a full white out and some quick snow pack analysis revealed a weaker layer below the new snow. Nick wasn’t happy. On the steep section up to the col we could trigger a slab avalanche and it wasn’t worth the risk. Add to this the near zero visibility and we needed to turn around.
Being in a white out is completely disorientating. Skiing down a relatively easy 25 degree slope became very very hard. With no contrast and nothing to aim for, its really hard to tell what’s up or down. I remember thinking I’m going pretty quick, and only to realize I had all but stopped and was on the flat, at which point I fell over. Weird and scary and just hard. Closing your eyes is almost a good option.
We made it back to the hut ok. Using our skin tracks worked perfectly. Had these filled in with more snow, we’d have pulled out the GPS and compass to navigate around all the ‘large holes’ we went past on the way over. It had been an adventurous morning.
We were hut bound until conditions improved. So we ate lunch, had coffee and I studied the map. I then read the paper, had some tea and went for a snooze in my sleeping bag, (where it was also much warmer). Everyone did the same.
Wait long enough and things start to change. And so they did. By late afternoon, after getting up and doing rope work with Nick, brushing up on my glacier travel skills, the sun started to appear.
The following day started with similar white out conditions. So more coffee, tea, reading etc. Thankfully as the morning wore on the last of the clouds lifted and the whole glacier reappeared. Best of all, the fresh snow that had fallen 2 days ago was settled and ready for us to ski. Fresh tracks!
Sometimes, life is a waiting game.