Rome Ridge

22nd October 2021

Grade III, 2+

Mount Rolleston,

Arthur’s Pass National Park

 

Traversing the ‘horizontal’ part of Rome Ridge, just before the Shark’s Tooth, in the early morning sunlight.

 

“Looking at doing Rome Ridge Friday. Leaving around 3:15am”

“I’m keen!”

“Great. You can carry the rope”


After an amount of sleep that can only really be described as a nap, my alarm rang at half past midnight and I drove in to Arthur’s Pass National Park. I met Penny Webster at the NZAC lodge at 3am, and had a quick gear check (and I added the rope to my pack) before driving to drop my car off at the Ōtira Valley car park.

We started walking at 3:45am, climbing steeply through the native bush up the Coral Track, and reaching the bushline in under an hour and over 400 vertical metres. Out of the bush, our head torches were assisted by a full moon, and the eastern horizon slowly started glowing blue then orange. Easy walking up tussock brought us to the crunchy snow at about 1500m and we swapped walking poles for ice axes, beanies for helmets, and attached crampons to our boots.

We were soon at the first buttress, requiring both ice tools to ascend the beautiful polystyrene snow. With secure axe and crampon placements, and only the pool of light cast by my headtorch in view, I was blissfully unaware of any exposure.

Continuing on easier ground for a few hundred metres more we arrived at the second buttress, by this time with enough pre-dawn light to illuminate the full length of the snow gully we would climb. Now the exposure was real. The snow, however, was still beautifully firm, with each swing and kick sticking reassuringly. Swing, swing, kick, kick, swing, swing, kick, kick. Onto the top, and an undulating horizontal ridge leading towards the Shark’s Tooth and Rome Ridge proper. Although the angle was easy, the snow formed a sharp crest requiring a bit of delicate balance with one foot either side, and no easy way of leaning on an axe for support.

Climbing the first buttress under headtorches.

Until now the snow had been pleasantly firmer than we had expected. That changed moving out from the Gap. It wasn’t melting as such, rather it just had very little internal structure. Upward progress ground almost completely to a halt. Each axe placement sank to the elbow; every step brought you back down to where you started. All the while the drop beneath lurked waiting to drag me down further. Penny managed to make some upward progress to some rocks, so we decided to get the rope out so I had some physical support. For three 20-odd metre pitches I wallowed up the crumbly honeycomb on a top rope before finally reaching firmer snow and being confident to lead the fourth pitch to regain the ridge.

Mt Rolleston’s High Peak (2275m) and the Crow Glacier, viewed from Low Peak (2212m).

Rope packed away, it was now a relatively simple plod up the final slopes to arrive at the small windless plateau that was Low Peak. To the northwest stood Mt Rolleston proper, it’s High and Middle Peaks rising from the Crow Glacier. Below us the Crow River flowed south to meet the Waimakariri, flanked to the east by Avalanche and Lyell Peaks, and to the west by Mts Lancelot and Guinevere on the Jellicoe Ridge. Looking east revealed our ascent route, large portions hidden from view down the steep slopes. Our descent route was to the north, down the crest of Goldney Ridge then descending the Ōtira Slide into the head of the Ōtira Valley.

Team selfie of myself and Penny on Mt Rolleston’s Low Peak (2212m), with High Peak (2275m) behind.

Just off the summit the start of the descent is marked by the prominent Lion’s Rock, or The Finger. From here the slope drops about 200m to a small col on Goldney Ridge, then about 100m more to easier angled terrain in the upper Ōtira. At about 55°, this meant 300m of non-stop front-pointing. My toes and calves were screaming, despite the regular rest ledges Penny was chipping out for me every 20m or so. At least the snow was firm enough, despite the occasional stomach-lurching foot slip. I soon got into a rhythm, though the gentler slopes lower down couldn’t arrive quickly enough.

By the time we reached the point where we could walk down facing north and out from the slope the sun had softened the snow to the point where it was possible to ski, despite still wearing crampons. Our slope was safe from avalanches, but one gully over, into the Ōtira Slide itself, slush was continually pouring down from the upper slopes of Mt Rolleston. After removing our crampons, a final (controlled) bum slide brought us down to the snowline and the scree, and all that remained was a 90 minute walk out down the Ōtira Valley Track to my waiting car.

Rome Ridge is an absolute classic mountaineering route in New Zealand, and my first proper mountaineering trip in Arthur’s Pass. I’m extremely grateful to Penny for taking me along with her!

The route to Mt Rolleston Low Peak via Rome Ridge, descending via the Ōtira Slide.

Rome Ridge in the early morning sunlight.

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