Snow Caving Temple Basin - 22-23 September 2018

We drove straight to Gary and Margot’s bach at Arthurs Pass where we left the some gear, got into our tramping gear and shared out the party gear. There were a lot of cars at the Temple Basin parking areas and lots of mostly young people heading up the track.

It was the last weekend of the ski season and there was to be a big party at the lodges that night. It was a beautiful sunny day with no wind. We were stripping layers off although not to the extent of some of the young people who were down to bikini tops and colourful wacky outfits. At the shelter, we filled up extra water bottles although later found that this water had a rather unpleasant taste.

To avoid the ski runs, we headed up the rock and tussock to left of the lower rope tow. Below the top of the tow, we climbed up the snow to join a path to the upper basin, where on some rocks we enjoyed a leisurely lunch watching the skiers and snowboarders. At one point, I was startled by a young man on skis with a parapent upside down doing a flip not far in front of me!

In the tarn basin below Mt Blimit, in the lee of a wind drift, we found a suitable place to build a snow cave. We put on our overtrousers, raincoats and gloves. Gary had advised us all to bring spare clothes as we could get quite damp from digging out the cave. He also told us no matter how many people you were building a snow cave for, it would take about 3 hours to make it (and he was right). Gary drew a horizontal line along the drift at the level our sleeping platform would be. It was long enough for a person to lie down with a bit extra for boots at their feet. At the left end of the line, we started digging a tunnel into the drift below the level of the line gradually sloping it up towards the level of the sleeping platform. At the right end of the line we dug another tunnel straight into the drift above the level of the line.

We worked in pairs with one person digging, and the other removing the snow using groundsheets and tossing it down the slope, swapping over when we needed a rest. At first, it was hard working in the confined space of the tunnels, but once we had burrowed in some distance we were able to start digging out the area between the two tunnels. Progress was quicker after we had broken through from each side, and Gary was soon working on the shaping of our domed ceiling. We filled in the right hand tunnel, laid groundsheets on the platform then foam mats, topped with our usual sleeping mats and our sleeping bags.

It was still warm outside, so we cooked dinner on a rocky area not far from the cave. Gary provided a tasty main meal of chicken, vegetables and noodles with a satay sauce. Wang shared a Chinese moon cake to celebrate the Festival of the Moon. It was a lovely evening, we enjoyed the spectacular scenery as the sun went down. We could hear music from the party down below echoing off the peaks, and at one time the boom of explosives (we had been warned). Then it suddenly turned cold and we were off to bed.

Snow cave 1

I thought it might be claustrophobic and dark in a snow cave, but it was spacious and surprisingly light and quiet. No one outside the cave could hear you as snow kills the sound. We were all warm and slept reasonably well. Getting up in the middle of the night was a bit of an exercise retrieving boots and putting them on, then getting off the platform and exiting quickly down the tunnel which had become icy It was light and spectacularly beautiful night outside with an almost full moon, bright stars and a clear sky.

In the morning, Gary boiled the billy at the tunnel entrance and some of us had breakfast in the cave. We packed up. Gary, Peter and I put on our crampons and headed off up the ridge to Mt Blimit. We met a man coming down, who had spent the night bivvied up on rocks below Mt Cassidy. We considered climbing up to Mt Blimit, but decided not to as there was quite a lot of rock to traverse plus Gary thought there was likely to be cornices.

Snow cave 2

We headed off down the slopes towards the lodges. In parts, it was steep. Peter said at one point it was almost steep enough to go down backwards. I was using leg muscles I don’t often use! Gary kept disappearing ahead to check out the best route. The scariest part was crossing an icy gully with a rock rib in the middle of it. Gary made steps and told us to use the same holes he was making with his ice axe. It took me a while to work out how to get across the rock. Eventually, we reached safer ground. Gary was all for heading to the right for more thrills, but I convinced everyone it was time to take the easier route round, crossing the stream walking down tussock and snow patches, to the bridge near the lodges. Then it was a quick descent back to the car with lunch at Gary’s bach before driving back to Christchurch. Thanks to Gary for a fantastic weekend.

We were: Gary Huish (leader), Shi Ping Wang, Peter Umbers, and Sue Piercey PSP