Thursday, February 8, 2018

Mt Brewster

Smooth, round stones. Cool, clear water. Bare feet. Fording the shin-deep Haast River provided a blissful foot massage to bookend our excursion.

Mt Brewster as seen from Brewster Hut. Photo: Jim Davidson
Post-Christmas the days were hot, sunny and windless; perfect for climbing mountains. In order to avoid the worst of the heat it was late in the afternoon before my parents and I, along with our friend Andrew, set off from State Highway 6 towards Brewster Hut, perched high on the shoulder of Mt Armstrong. The evening was spent relaxing on the deck absorbing the beauty and grandeur of the surrounding mountains, while also studying our route for the next morning. 

Six hours return. That's what the guidebook said to reach the summit of Mt Brewster via the west ridge.

It was crisp and clear when Dad, Andrew and I set off just after 5am. Headlights were only required for a few minutes, and extra layers of clothing were soon stripped off as well. To begin with there was a rough trail to follow but then we continued sidling high instead of dropping down to the Brewster Glacier. Gradually the rock gave way to patches of snow and we donned crampons several times before finally reaching the lower slopes of Brewster. Andrew's crampons immediately showed signs of disuse with one strap disintegrating in his hands. Cable ties and a little ingenuity soon had a solution in place. We traversed low across the southwest face before climbing steeply up to the west ridge. For both Andrew and I it was our first serious climb in a while so it took time to get back into the swing of things. Front pointing in soft boots and old, dull crampons showed me how much I now take full shank boots and sharp crampons for granted. The morning was truly glorious and it was exhilarating to be high up in the mountains again. 

Andrew, Heather & Jim with Mt Brewster behind. Photo: Jim Davidson
Once on the ridge, the rock deteriorated to a pile of choss, requiring caution and careful testing of every hand hold in order to avoid raining rocks down on those below. Everything went swimmingly for a while as we worked our way along until the ridge began getting very narrow and exposed. We knew we were nearing the crux of the route which involves a short abseil down a vertical step. We also knew we were nearing or turnaround time of 2pm. So much for 6 hours return. Dad went ahead to reconnoitre while Andrew and I discussed the pros and cons of continuing. Getting the go-ahead from Dad, we roped up to proceed another 20 metres or so, which included standing atop a rock with nothing below on either side. After making this progress we promptly decided that were having an enjoyable day in the mountains and there was no need to push our comfort zones to tackle the crux and the final 60m scramble up loose choss to the summit. So we retreated with absolutely no regrets.

The chossy ridge. Photo: Andrew Shepherd
It was hot and calm so on reaching a less exposed spot we rested for quarter of an hour contentedly munching delicious chunks of Christmas cake. What a fantastic way to spend a holiday! Carefully picking our way back down the loose ridge took just as long as the ascent. Instead of dropping back down the steep snow slope we had come up we continued sidling down to the head of the glacier. Andrew's crampons once again needed emergency repairs, while I didn't completely trust my short, blunt crampons in the heat-softened snow. By this time afternoon cloud was starting to roll in around the peaks. Strolling down the Brewster Glacier was straightforward but hot. We were intrigued by a series of poles spaced out along the length of the glacier which were evidently scientific measuring equipment for studying glacial movement. Stepping off the toe of the glacier, we slaked our thirst from meltwater running down the rocks. These smooth, solid, ice-carved rocks were incredible and it was good fun scrambling along picking our way through the maze of humps and hollows. Such a contrast to the rock up on the ridge! 

Leaving Brewster Glacier. Photo: Andrew Shepherd
"Andrius!" We were back on the Mt Armstrong route and unexpectedly bumped into an acquaintance of mine from Auckland. Sometimes the great outdoors is truly a small place. Not long afterwards we were welcomed back to Brewster Hut by Mum, who had been patiently waiting for several hours past our predicted return time. We had doubled the guide book time without even reaching the summit! But we had thoroughly enjoyed ourselves in the process.

All that remained was to retrace our steps down to the valley floor, where the cool waters of the Haast River provided relief to hot, weary feet.

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