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Heels 1970

Nearly The Nun's Veil

Nearly The Nun's Veil

The trouble was, you see, that the weather was the wrong sort, and Unwin Hut too comfortable. It was a cold windy rain that fell all day long on Saturday, when we went to the Hermitage. It cleared on Sunday to reveal a neat maxi-type snowline at about 3000' - not much good for climbing around here. We lazed around on a boulder problem near Wynn Irwin Hut, and the cliffs at Sebastopol. The weather was now too good. The sun shone fiercely on Monday, when we managed a very lazy and enjoyable walk to the plastered summit of Sebastopol. Sitting up there in the sun, looking at everything else "out of condition", our thoughts went from flying in to a high hut with hopes of a climb or two without skis; to skiing on the Ball Glacier; to rock climbing on Sebastopol; to just lying in the sun. Reports of eyebrow-deep snow while wearing skis drifted into our despondent ears from various places. Rain was needed to consolidate the snow. The days passed. Days of comfortable luxury sitting around Unwin, eating delicious steak every night in front of a hot fire, talking with Harry Ayres. Harry's sage words of doubt about climbing anything in its present condition keptus out of the hills. We went skiing on the Ball Glacier on Tuesday and recce'd a peak on the Liebig Range from the car that evening. Its name was the Nun'sVeil. We had a day's good weather left, according to the weather map, so....

We jumped into the car at 7.00am on Wednesday and headed for the Tasman. The radiator boiled just after the Hooker Bridge, and again soon afterwards. The thermostat had croaked. Abandoning the car we took off up the road on foot at a swift pace, turning onto the vast slag-heap of Tasman moraine after an hour page 19or so. Prolonged moraine-hopping is a tiring business, and we paused to push some very large boulders over a hundred-foot drop into a melt-pool. Fantastic splashes and cackles of glee. When the sun caught up with us we sped away over the Murchison River and up into the burnt scrub on the flanks of the Liebig Range. The scrub gave way to a creek bed full of spaniards and glazed boulders, and before long it was a plog plog plog in fresh snow. We stopped more frequently to look at our surroundings, which were an overpowering white, and ourselves, who were an equally overpowering black - from pushing through acres of burnt scrub. The three little nigger-boys had six oranges and about twenty biscuits to last them the entire trip, and these were rationed out with care at stipulated intervals. The effort of plugging a track, something like a deep furrow rather than individual steps, had us wheezing by the time we reached the bottom of the big couloir which we had chosen to lead us up to the north of the peak. The couloir fortunately contained harder snow, which made progress easier. Above us, the wind was swirling clouds of snow in flurries from its resting place on the rocks, with plates of wind-packed slab wheeling and dancing in the sky - the first signs of the approaching nor'wester. My companions, tiring of the snow, urged a direct assault on the rocks leading to the summit, so we edged out of the couloir onto a mixed snow and rock route. Any rock that wasn't covered with snow was pretty darned steep. Our route up a promising-looking gut turned into a careful rock step and then promptly ended in an icy cave with an associated overhang about ten feet high. "Mad dog" Hefferman was keen to try it, although we had no rope, and persisted for some time after dismantling part of it and sending it down to an unsuspecting Gooder, thirty feet below. I crouched under another little overhang, with a mild attack of "sewing machines" in my legs, and looked out at the weird sight across the Tasman. Powder snow was being whipped off the ridge crests of the Main Divide and the Mount Cook Range into the rays of the setting sun. Combined with the thin, faraway, clouds, the effect was a little strange and eerie. Closer, the wind came in howling gusts, with tumbling white wraithes of powder blotting out the sight of an enormous nearby overhang, in a tingling, stinging rush. It would have taken another two hours to find an easier route over the remaining 500' to the summit, and as it was 5.00pm in August we reluctantly decided to retreat. We stomped back down to the couloir, sat down and took off for lower parts on our behinds. 3000' of "crestarun", half blinded by snow and we were back in the lower snow basin again. Four hours to go up and nine minutes to come down.

Bye-bye to the Nun's Veil; a beautiful peak, as aptly named as the Minarets. Our tracks of the morning had already been neatly covered with a thin sheet of wind-pack. We ate our second-to-last orange and raced off downhill over the boulders and into the scrub and darkness. Rather than bash our way blindly over the Tasman moraine again, we followed the bed of the Murchison making good time until we reached the Tasman River, which was waist-deep and predictably cool. Once past that we steered a diagonal course across the grass and water courses of the Tasman Valley, with the distant lights of Unwin urging us on. An hour later and we were still only half way across. And then we came across another Tasman River, bigger and faster and deeper than the last, with "Not Negotiable" written all over it.

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The last orange was peeled and eaten, then we turned upstream, into the wind, away from the lights of civilisation. My torch was playing glow-worms again, so at half past nine we drank a refreshing draught of deliciously cool Tasman River water, enriched with many vital minerals, and lay down in splendid comfort on genuine Tasman moraine, fanned by the gentle north-west wind and the feather-soft sand it carried. Words to describe it nearly fail me.

To cut a sick story short, it took one hour forty-five to walk around the head of the river, and back to Unwin in torrential rain the next day, where we pounced on the remaining steak, eggs, cheese, toast, coffee, biscuits, sausages, biscuits, orange, toast, cheese, Milo, Tang, Fresh-up, cheese, soup, jam, butter,crackers, condensed milk and tea, like wolves. And as I write this, in front of a hot fire a day later, the thunder and lightning and wind and rain seem to be easing a little. But the eating hasn't eased at all.

- Peter Radcliffe, accompanied by Dick Hefferman and Ross Gooder.