Somnus Couloir, Mt Somnus, Humbolt Range, Routeburn

Joel O’Rourke

New Zealand’s mountains have waived goodbye to the extended sunshine and has developed a serious melancholy; the doldrums of drizzle, cloud and humidity have set in. Whilst waiting for the inevitable return of consistent good weather the forecast came through with a Saturday of partly cloudy (and no rain!) and plans came together to walk in on Friday evening to the Routeburn Flats Hut and then set out early Saturday for a big day climbing up the Somnus Couloir to the summit of Somnus.

View Larger Topographic Map
SOMNUS: noun. 1. the Roman god of sleep Greek counterpart Hypnos. … “sleep personified; the god of sleep in Roman mythology,” equivalent of Greek Hypnos, son of Night and brother of Death, 1590s, from Latin somnus “sleep, drowsiness,”

Two hours of walking from the Routeburn car-park placed us at Routeburn Flats Hut for a few hours of sleep before awaking at 4:45am to get ready and leave by 5:30am to start the trek up the North Branch of the Routeburn track to the base of the Somnus Couloir. The Routeburn track itself is a small road that runs through the mountains, well marked, well maintained… The north branch track is what could be described as ‘loosely marked’ and ‘difficult to follow’. After a couple of hours of difficult travel in the dark, the light started to break for the day and we were close to the bottom of the couloir (thank god).

Another boots off river crossing (this would be number 2 of 4 for the day) and the ascent up through the grass and riverbeds to the base of the giant Somnus Couloir. It ascends as a couloir some 900 (!) vertical metres up the mountainside and opens up access to the glacial plateau at the top and the comparatively small knob of the summit of Somnus mountain.

A long crampon up the couloir with the morning light starting to work on the hanging snow and ice on the rock walls meant we got to experience a few large (and loud) collapses into the couloir that caused no substantive avalanche (as the snow in the couloir was already well pounded – and somewhat icy) but caused large sums of small to medium chunks of ice and snow to cascade down the couloir. Luckily, every one of the collapses occurred below us, it appears we had timed this perfectly as 20 minutes later we could have been in the crosshairs.

Reaching the glacial plateau at the top of the couloir was a relief as we got to have a small break at some flat ground and assess the final stage of climbing for the day – climbing up to the summit of Mount Somnus.

Unfortunately, the clouds started to roll in a bit as we reached the summit but with no time to spare, given the long walk back to the hut and then car-park, there was only one thing to do, ski down.

Photos do lie somewhat, the snow, for the most part in the couloir, was firm and there were certainly some hesitant turns and efforts to push thoughts of falling and sliding away.

Unfortunately, that’s not the end of the effort for the day, a long walk back to the Routeburn Flats Hut and then another couple of hours back to the car park makes for a memorable, albeit, very tiring ski.