My first attempt to climb Mt Brewster took place in early 2013. First though we had to wait out the summer storm that cut off the West Coast and stranded both tourists and locals. While there are few places that rival Wanaka if weather forces confinement we were well and truly ready for the hills when the Haast River was finally fordable.
“The next time you’re planning a trip to the backcountry, your enthusiasm sparked by some glossy coffee-table book picturing snow-capped peaks under perfect blue skies, you would do well to keep in mind whence that glorious snowpack came. It is the nature of mountains to wring from the winds what moisture they happen to be carrying.” John Krakauer.
The first time we checked the river, on New Year’s Day it was still flowing fast and deep so we returned to Wanaka. A further twenty-four hours made all the difference and second time around we were able to cross safely from Fantail Flats and haul our packs through beech forest then tussock to Brewster hut. The climb is staircase direct but the views from the tussock basin where the hut is situated, of the Makarora valley, Mt Armstrong and Brewster erase any memories of physical exertion.
I recall doing many things during our Wanaka confinement but route research was not one of them and nor was checking the state of my gear. Next morning we left the hut at 6.30am, quite late for what we had planned going by the accounts recorded in the hut book. At least we had visibility which was useful as the ascent and sidle around the slopes of Armstrong via a series of narrow rock benches, tussock, rubble and waterfalls to the glacial lakes and Brewster Glacier itself is not easy to pick out despite a smattering of cairns marking the way. The trick is to traverse at between 1750 -1800m, something we worked out by a process of elimination.
At the glacier toe we put on our crampons and roped up. About a third of the way up the glacier I noticed there was something wrong with my right foot. Bending down for a closer look I saw that the crampon bail had snapped in half. Should we turn back? We’d come so far, I was feeling confident and the snow was not icy. “People used to climb mountains before crampons were invented” I thought, “how hard can it be?”
We completed our glacier crossing to the West Ridge and commenced our ascent, DJ leading the way, cutting steps where possible. I followed favouring my left foot. As it was mid-summer much of the snow had melted off the ridge exposing the rock below. We made slow but steady progress as the day heated up. After a few tricky traverses across steep snow ridges it was back to mixed climbing. DJ went ahead to check out possible descent routes as he was worried about retracing our steps. The climbing was definitely awkward and seemed harder than the 2 grading assigned to the route.
At noon still a couple of bumps from the summit proper we made the decision to turn around. To get to the summit would require at least one rope length of pitching and we didn’t know whether we’d be able to abseil off the summit down the south face. We had heard that this option gets cut off in summer when the bergschrund opens up. If we couldn’t abseil off safely we would be looking at a very long, tedious descent down the west ridge with the possibility that we would not reach the glacier before dark. Retreating seemed the prudent option.
I should mention at this point that the views from the summit ridge were spectacular, offering a unique perspective looking along the spine of the main divide towards Mt Cook. The scenery certainly helped motivate me although I noticed it less than I normally would because I spent most of my time watching where I put my right foot. I guess those early mountaineers didn’t spend a lot of time admiring the views either.
It was a good thing that we turned round when we did as descending with one crampon was much more challenging than ascending. The snow was softer now and consequently less stable underfoot. Down climbing felt very insecure. I was relieved when we had descended far enough to abseil off the west ridge to the glacier. However, abseiling was quickly abandoned when it became apparent that it was both quicker and safer just to down climb the soft snow.
Back on flat ground we walked quickly across the glacier to the lakes where we rested and ate a late lunch while enjoying the view across to Mt Aspiring, Rob Roy and Mt Avalanche. This would be a superb camp spot we thought – scenic and no need to locate rock ledges by feel and traverse rubble and waterfalls in the dark. We also noted the rock walls built by climbers for that precise purpose…
Almost a year later, we again slogged up to Brewster Hut. This time we carried on past the hut and set up camp at the glacial lakes. This is a five-star camping spot even if you have no summit ambitions. It reminded me a little of Cascade Saddle though the latter is probably very busy in the middle of summer. Both campsites offer marvellous views of iconic Mt Aspiring National Park landscapes for relatively little effort.
This time we decided we’d try the south face of Brewster. This route is graded 2+ and I was on a mission to tick off 2+ routes but the main reason for selecting this route was that it looked a lot quicker and easier than the west ridge and it was covered in snow – no mucking round with mixed climbing. The south face is steeper than the west ridge but still only 40-45 degrees. I checked my crampons carefully before we headed up given I was now experienced enough to know exactly how hard descending steep slopes is without them.
It took us no time at all to cross the glacier. Determined to give ourselves plenty of time we set off as soon as it was light. The glacier was well filled in so we didn’t rope up. At the base of the south face we selected the most benign looking snow gully and headed up. We thought we may have to pitch the top bit but it turned out to be okay with two tools so we continued in this mode to the top. The last couple of hundred metres required front pointing and my calves were screaming by the time we topped out. Travel was quick as anticipated and we were on the summit a couple of hours after leaving our campsite. There was a stiff southerly blowing so lingering held little appeal. Plus the weather was on the turn with cloud beginning to pile in from the west.
We were a little concerned about getting down the south face but the snow was firm thanks to the cold conditions. We were able to follow the summit ridge for a bit and then select a good spot to down climb from. Initially the down climbing was steep and demanding but the slope angle reduced quickly and we were able to make a methodical and uneventful retreat to the floor of the glacier.
We were back at our camp site in time for morning tea. We timed things perfectly as the summit was now obscured by thickening cloud. After packing up we headed back towards Brewster hut. DJ had a sore knee by now. It got steadily worse as we made our way across to the ridge high above Brewster hut. After an hour with the heavy packs climbing then descending uneven ground DJ was in a lot of pain. We stopped for some first aid and rejigged the gear so most of it was in one pack. I took that pack and headed down ahead of DJ. DJ rested for a bit then descended with the other pack. We considered staying the night at Brewster Hut to rest the knee but it was only noon and it seemed unlikely it would come right overnight. We decided it was best just to get the descent over and done with. Sitting around would just give it time to seize up completely. The next couple of hours were very long, painful ones for DJ. The descent from Brewster hut is bad for quads but you can stretch and massage them afterwards. The descent is horrible for knees. I reached the car first and packed away my gear then headed back up to relieve DJ of his pack.
It was great to climb Mt Brewster on our second attempt. The south face is slightly more technical and hence a better climb than the west ridge. Because the route was quick we were able to utilise our narrow weather window to get up and down before visibility was compromised and this being our second attempt we’d learn’t from the mistakes we made the first time round. We also made full use of our allocated luck – our weather window was small and DJ’s knee could have easily given out earlier. Although Brewster is highly accessible by New Zealand standards like the rest of our backcountry, it should not be underestimated.