I first saw Pluto Peak when I attempted Mt Earnslaw for the first time in December 2017, my legs were pathetic and I had severe cramps that trip but that’s another story…
From Wright Col, Pluto Peak is hard to miss. A towering column of rock that stares back at you from the other side of the Bedford Valley. Since then it has always remained in my mind as a cool peak to try someday.
It’s over a year later in February 2019, José had been thinking about climbing Pluto Peak after seeing it from the Dart Valley from another trip. A good weather weekend had shown itself that February and plans were in full swing for the weekend of the 16th.
There was limited information about the climb and it looked relatively straightforward on the topographical map. There were only two trip reports I found and they were both from the same trip. We followed roughly the same route, well half of it (they completed a traverse from the Rees over Earnslaw and Pluto and out through the Dart), from Southern Alps Photography
16th Feb, Day 1:
José , Camila and myself meet up in QT on the Saturday morning and head out towards Glenorchy. It is not until after 1pm that we are on our way!
From the topographical map, it was a ~7km saunter up moderate terrain to reach the flats to camp in Spaniard Valley (a fear inducing name for anyone who has encountered the vicious vegetation). We enter the bush and within half an hour it’s clear that travel is going to be slower than expected.
Navigation and terrain are not great.
Surrounded by the thick canopy of the forest above, there are no reference points making navigation difficult. We have to constantly check the GPS (see smartphone) to see where we are.
The vegetation and deadfall means we can hardly walk in a straight line for more than ten steps. We get bluffed out every now and then and have to trust that we are heading in the right direction with no indication other than a little dot on the screen moving (everything looks the same in the forest for the next couple of hours).
Three hours later we reach what was to hopefully be the first milestone of progress, Valpys Pass. However, the pass is unrecognizable from every other bit of forest we have been walking through. I was half expecting something more… distinct, but nope, just more forest so we continue onward and upwards.
Eventually we reach the edge of the bush line and see the blue sky for the first time in six hours. I am elated until I see what lays between us and the way up to Spaniard Valley.
The bush bash from hell.
A 200m stretch of dense Matagouri, Ferns (and other bush plants which I have no idea the name of) separate us from the sweet, sweet smell of victory.
As I enter the bush salad, I’m completely engulfed in flora. My feet balancing on branches, unable to find the ground. I find the most efficient method of movement through here is falling through the vegetation and landing somewhere marginally more pleasant.
It takes 20 minutes to pass through all the nine circles of hell, that’s a whopping 10m/minute! Usain Bolt would be proud.
On the way up, I remark on the large number of Spaniards lurking around… Until we reach the flats and boy oh boy. The evil flowers litter the valley, indicating the presence of all those spiny fuckers.
Luckily they’re all easy to avoid but the number of Spaniards is amusing. While writing this post, I managed to find this entertaining read of some initial encounters with Spaniards from February 1894, while researching how this name was endowed onto them, which definitely capture much of my sentiments towards them.
We see Pluto Peak in all it’s splendour and glory and it looks epic. Like a miniature Matterhorn, it’s a pointy peak alright (maybe not so much from the western flanks).
A full moon rises up next to it, wildly appropriate considering the extraterrestrial name of the mountain.
We walk up the valley a wee bit to set up camp for the night, it’s rather late and the sun is starting to set. The tussock is pretty dense and it takes more effort to find a suitable camping spot than expected.
- Near water
- Free from vegetation (relatively)
We find a spot that seems appropriate and I start putting up my tent when one of my tent poles snaps.
That’s okay, I tape a peg to it and my home for the night is done.
I realise I pitch my tent in a marsh.
I pack it in for the night in my broken marsh home.
Tomorrow is a long day with over 1200m of vert, which invariably will involve some route-finding, the 1200m descent back to camp and the ~1000m (7.3km shitty bush bash) back out to the carpark.
17th Feb, Day 2:
We leave camp at 7AM and start wandering up the valley. A route on the far (true) left becomes obvious as we get closer. After some scree slopes, we reach some solid rock. The first time for the trip! Everything goes pretty smoothly after, which makes for a rather boring post sadly.
We reach Pluto Col just over 3.5 hours later. The weather is beautiful and it’s a weird feeling staring back at Esquilant bivy from the other side of the void. Thinking I was just there last year, I wondered if anyone was over there looking back at us.
We head up a wee bits more up some scree to the base of Pluto and sidle across a ledge on the west face. We reach the NW face of Pluto Peak and there it is, the stairway to heaven. An easy saunter up the gully and we’re on the summit!
It’s a blue bird day and we have unrestricted views. Tutuko dominates the western vistas and we make out the familiar shape of Aspiring north-east of us.
We attempt some summit acro, I say attempt because loose, sharp rocks are quite uncomfortable to base on and legs don’t work so well after 10 hours of walking (surprise).
The walk back down to camp is pretty uneventful. After some rest and refuel, we pack up and start making our way back to the car. Once again crossing the bush bash from hell.
I try straight line a shortcut in an attempt to save some time but the topo map doesn’t have enough detail to show some of the rolling terrain, we get bluffed out a couple of times.
Traversing across the top of a cliff at one stage, I hear a scream behind me and see a flash of blue. Camilla almost falls off a cliff. Da fuck. After some regrouping, I decide it’s best to try and use the backtrack function on my watch to follow the route we took up.
Even getting back to our ascent route proves incredibly difficult from all the mini hills and cliffs that are not visible on the map. We effectively follow a parallel route to what we had gone up on.
It’s getting dark. At some point we reach a stream (it’s pitch black at this point and we’re following our headlamps which light out not more than 5m ahead of us). It seemed like a good idea to follow the stream down but there is a huge amount of dead-fall, movement is excruciatingly slow as we have to constantly clamber over logs and branches.
Bush bashing in the dark definitely ranks up there on one of the more frustrating experiences in my life…
Eventually we make it down to a trapper’s track, which is not really a track, and not really that useful in the dark.
Squinting for little bits of blue tape with nothing more than the illumination of a headlamp is actually pretty difficult it turns out.
It is 1:30AM the following morning when we get back to the car, 17.5 hours from when we started.
Tired and hungry, but surprisingly not exhausted. Turns out all those previous epics have trained me well!
The sky is clear, the stars are out, it’s a beautiful night.