Winter mixer

Onwards and upwards at the Remarkables Ice & Mixed Festival.

A four-limbed creature moves across the vertical face with careful agility. The rock is plastered with blobs of freezer ice. The creature’s extended arms end in singular sharp hooks and its lower limbs are adorned with multiple spikes, which it places carefully. It looks terribly insecure, but it climbs on, despite the gravitational pull. Every so often, it scratches at the blobs of ice and a cascade of white projectiles rocket downwards as though a bag of marbles has been opened and set free. Another creature at the bottom of the wall bows its head. This one doesn’t have sharp or extended arms, instead, it seems to be manipulating a single thread of flexible material. Thicker and darker than a spider’s silk, it doesn’t appear to be reeling a victim in, but rather tethering it to a destination as yet unclear.

To an extra-terrestrial, so much of this scene would surely seem odd, pointless, futile. I’d like to think they’d credit climbers as intelligent for organising their lives well enough to have both the skills and the time for such pastimes, but I’m not so sure. To the growing collection of climbers who band together every August at the Remarkables Ice & Mixed Festival, though, this kind of conduct is not only understandable, it’s encouraged.

The Remarkables Ice & Mixed Festival is a celebration of winter climbing. Based at The Remarkables, near Queenstown, the festival brings together winter climbing enthusiasts for a weekend of courses, competitions and socialising. It’s all run by experienced volunteers, who share their knowledge for a good cause, and gives both newbies and seasoned campaigners a chance to bump elbows with some of Aotearoa’s top alpinists.

Since attracting 120 people to the inaugural festival in 2012, attendance has held steady at about 150, even when the borders were closed. Courses regularly sell out six months in advance. There’s instruction in everything from snow craft, to backcountry ski touring, to ice and mixed climbing, to a Chicks ‘N’ Picks session. There are also awards (the Macpac New Zealand Alpinist of the Year is crowned at the festival), an auction, speaker sessions, a climbing quiz, not to mention plenty of jargon like “dry tooling”, “gully climbs” and “whippers”.

The festival is technically the “annual meeting” of the Expedition Climbers Club (ECC)  ̶  you become a member of the club when you enrol in the event. It all started when Ben Dare, now president of the ECC, and Daniel Joll were in Chamonix observing the French Alpine Team for their women’s mentoring programme. According to Daniel, it brought home the idea that “you need a large pool of other climbing partners if you want to succeed long term in the mountains. You can’t just rely on one or two people. That means putting yourself out there, making new friends and getting days out on the mountain.”

Spearheaded by Ben, Daniel and Steve Fortune, the idea of the ECC and the festival would be to gather climbers together with the goal of sharing knowledge and skills and creating new partnerships. As a non-profit, it also would serve as a fundraiser for the ECC Expedition Capital Fund. “There was a wild idea that every year if everyone got together, climbed together, raised funds… several years down the track we could have successful large-scale expeditions to big mountains,” Daniel says. Five years into this experiment, a small amount of cash from the interest earned off the fundraising capital was used to pay group costs on an expedition to Peru. Each year since, this sum has increased. Daniel hopes that one day the expedition grant could be in excess of $50,000. 

By then, he also hopes there’ll be plenty of keen expedition climbers. As Ben explains, the festival was launched during a period of ongoing debate around “the so-called death of alpinism” in New Zealand. “Since the first festival, it’s just been going from strength to strength.”

It takes the average walker about 40 minutes to get from The Remarkables’ ski field car park to the nearest climb. Just out of view of the ski field, the West Face takes centre stage for activities. A range of bolted and unbolted climbs caters to everyone from the absolute beginner right through to the elite.

A winter sport, mixed climbing is sometimes jokingly referred to as “rock climbing with crampons”. You need to be kitted out for ice and snow, with ice axes and crampons, but will often find yourself ascending dry rock. It’s tricky, and requires a specific skill set. At The Remarkables, ice forms each winter from snowmelt or rain seeping off snowfields above, trickling down into gullies or cracks in the rock, the most spectacular of which can look like frozen waterfalls. Climbers will look for routes with thin ice, or even a mixture of rock and ice for added novelty – hence the reference to “mixed”.  

There are many facets to climbing here, depending on the nature of the rock, the prevailing wind and the rotation of the sun. The ice climbing routes on the eastern side of the hill above Lake Alta have fantastic leads of pure ice, but with warmer winters recently, they’ve often been thin, too soft or have cracked and fallen off by the time the festival comes around. They do not fare well in the sun. The South Face of Single Cone takes a bit longer to reach from the ski field, but has longer ice lines all the way to the summit that make the journey worthwhile.

I make my way along the Queen’s Drive, a natural ledge system that serves as a convenient launch point for the majority of climbs on the West Face. It’s hidden in plain sight, just around the corner from what locals call the “ultimate view point” at the top of Shadow Basin. There’s a Learn to Lead clinic in the next gully, and I ask the instructor how it’s going.

“It’s a bit schmooey,” Allan Uren says. “That’s a technical term for mist and snow. It’s warm. It could be colder, but if it was, I’d probably be shivering. Everyone seems to be enjoying it.” Allan has been climbing rock, snow and ice for nearly forty years and is well-known in the community for his exploits. He’s been returning to The Remarkables since the mid-nineties and sings its praises. “As you get older, like I am, and get semi-retired, you can access the climbs easily, have a good day in the mountains, but then drive off, have a beer, and head home to recover. There is nowhere else like it in New Zealand for the alpine beauty, or concentration and variety of routes.”

I ask him why he got involved. “I admired Dan’s courage in setting something up from scratch, but also his philosophy of trying to get experienced climbers to instruct for a very cheap price. It’s a very different feel and knowledge base to if it was run by guides, who are fairly formulaic and very conservative.” He looks me in the eye and smiles. “This is good solid experience, but they’re not wrapped in cotton wool. We teach them modern climbing techniques without stifling their creative juices, delivering an ‘out-there’ experience, but still keeping people safe.” 

As for safety, there have only been a few minor injuries across the 11 festivals, the injured parties and their peers afforded valuable lessons without paying the ultimate price.

Each evening after dark, climbers begin trickling into the Queenstown Events Centre, their smiles a glowing reminder of the day’s challenges, and of overcoming them. The evening festivities are an integral part of the weekend and a chance to mingle with instructors, make new friends, and hear some tall stories from the invited speakers. Climbing celebrities like Lydia Bradey, the first woman and the only New Zealander ever to summit Everest without supplemental oxygen, and Tim Macartney-Snape, the first Australian to summit Everest, have spoken at past events.

There’s also an auction, which, on the surface, is an honest fundraiser driven by the generous donations of a host of sponsors, but often becomes a stand-up comedy experience. Jono Clarke takes centre stage as auctioneer, where he pokes fun at the sponsors who have donated equipment and clothing – a pretty risky thing to do – and interjects Dad jokes followed by jabs at the audience for being stingy. He even manages to sell some old climbing gear recovered on the mountain, back to its original owner. The crowd loves him. 

Despite only being in her early twenties, Maddy Whittaker has been instructing at the festival since 2020, and I seek out her advice for someone who feels intimidated about attending for the first time: “We are our own worst critics. If you feel that you are the least skilled in the room and shouldn’t be there, chances are, everyone else is feeling the same. Start a conversation with someone around you, no matter what level they are at. It would be boring if everyone came only once they knew how to climb.”

In 2020, ECC members elected to contribute $1000 towards Maddy’s Southern Alps Traverse project, a three-month, 651-kilometre traverse along the spine of the Alps. Her film about the experience, Traversing the Night, was named the best New Zealand-made film at the 2022 New Zealand Mountain Film Festival. “Usually the ECC funds overseas trips, but this was during Covid, so they funded local expeditions,” she explains. “For us, it made that trip possible, and when you see other big overseas expeditions getting $10,000 that’s a real game changer. It’s great to have climbers supporting other climbers to get out by reducing that financial barrier.”

Over at the bar, there’s a queue three deep for the free beer, where Wānaka’s Ground Up Brewing are serving climbing-themed craft brews, named after routes on The Remarkables, naturally. One of the seasoned attendees jumps the queue, serves herself from the tap, shortens the wait time, and relays ‘beta’ (technical details) about the new route she’s just completed.

I get chatting to Angelica and Vitalii Shevchenko, a Russian / Ukrainian couple who’ve flown down from Auckland for the fourth time in as many years. After searching for introductory climbing courses online, they were attracted by the low cost of the festival’s Snow Craft clinic as compared to the cost of private guiding trips with commercial companies. Angelica explains how they initially knew no one at the festival, and how they soon felt supported. Since then, they’ve been actively climbing with the knowledge they gained, and enrolling each year in successive clinics.

I wonder if they think the festival is a place to unite and show how climbing can transcend politics. Angelica responds politely, “definitely so… there are no nationalities on the mountain. We’re all the same in the eyes of nature. Let’s leave the things that don’t belong to the mountains behind. We may all be of different origins, but in climbing all borders disappear.”

Vitalii tells me about his fondest memory from past visits. “We attempted Single Cone one year as part of the ‘social climb’ on the third day. We heard a roaring sound; a guy in his thermals was emerging from a cloud of snow dust with one axe in his hand. He was just racing down Single Cone. While passing by he shouted to us: ‘It’s a new record!’” It was Alastair McDowell, setting a new time record for completing the Remarkables Grand Traverse, a ridge traverse of Single and Double Cone that is considered a classic New Zealand single day alpine route. Alastair, one of the keenest festival instructors, had perfect conditions on the day, but his time, just one hour 20 minutes, was beaten by two minutes the following week.

I followed Alastair onto the West Face one year to film him attempting a tough technical climb. It takes delicate balance to hang on tiny edges during the final move on steep rock. He was barely hanging on, with just the front points of his crampons and axes. After a valiant first effort that ended with a broken ice axe pick, Alastair started again with a borrowed axe. This time, just shy of the top, his axes popped off the holds, but his crampon stayed in place, flipping him over before the crampon broke free from his boot. His flight into space earned him the ‘Weekend Whipper’ award. The YouTube video (Alastair McDowell takes a whipper) has now been viewed over 80,000 times.

Back at the events centre, I’m deep in conversation with Will Stewart, a beekeeper (like our most famous mountaineer) from Hamilton. He’s a self-confessed overthinker who’s pretty hard on himself. He’d been climbing on The Remarkables with a friend for a few days prior to the festival. He describes all the preparation he undertook, checking the weather, the avalanche reports, the topographic maps, but when he got to his chosen climb there was water flowing behind the ice. He felt intimidated by it, so they just watched and waited before heading home. Will desperately wants to know if he’s making the right choices on the mountain. How can they know if their decision was good or not? I ask him if staying alive is proof enough. He softens a little.

The conversation moves sideways to the complex world of decision-making and risk analysis, and I’m drawn in because of what he reveals: that his skill for problem solving in daily life has improved after dealing with the difficulties of the mountains. It’s a reminder this pastime is not futile, or odd, at all.

Words and photos: Gavin Lang