Ten sailors from submarines in Plymouth have completed a testing adventure training exercise in New Zealand – despite treacherous weather conditions curtailing their ambitions routes.
The nine submariners from Plymouth-based HMS Triumph and Faslane-based HMS Vigilant have arrived back in the UK from Exercise Kiwi Summit after bidding to complete three challenging trekking routes across the remote and mountainous South Island of New Zealand.
Using mountain huts and emergency bivouacs for shelter, the team planned to spend two weeks trekking and were without a guide and totally self-sufficient – but the worst weather the New Zealand mountains could throw at them tested the sailors more than expected and caused one route to be abandoned.
The expedition was backed by the Royal Navy and the submariners also proudly represented their service and their submarine, including as guests of the local ANZAC Day ( New Zealand and Australian armed forces national remembrance day service).
Despite the many months of planning, there was nothing the team could do about the weather with heavy rain of up to 40 cm-a-day predicted (the highest single day’s rainfall ever recorded in the UK was 279 cm in 1955). This heavy rainfall in mountainous areas brought the risk of flash floods and landslides and the rivers and streams the team planned to cross were impassable. Even the alternate plan to cross a river by jet boat was impossible due to flood debris.
Expedition leader Petty Officer Phil Blight – a Joint Services Mountain Expedition Leader said: “Obviously there was an initial sense of disappointment at not completing any of the planned treks. But the team, who mostly began as novices to summer mountaineering, spent many days in very demanding conditions, adapted quickly to rapidly changing plans, and
remained motivated and in good spirits throughout. Seven of the team gained a Summer Mountaineering Proficiency qualification and two of them achieved the Mountain leader (Training) award. So as far as the aims of Royal Navy Adventurous Training are concerned there can be no doubt these were well and truly achieved.”
The weather forced the postponement on the first trek – Gilespie Pass – by several days. On re-starting, the trekkers began well but on steeper ground progress slowed by landslides which in turn caused unstable ground above a river in full flood conditions. Once across this dangerous route however, hopes for easier progress were dashed as a side stream that should have been easily crossed proved too hazardous – so the route was abandoned. The team had to spend the night on the river bank after their promised evacuation boat could not cross the swollen river in the dark.
The weather later briefly improved with a few days of sunny weather, but the peaks became snow-covered so the team’s ambitions had to be scaled back.- totally abandoning the second route to give more time for the third trek.
Several low-level walking days saw the team visit Aspiring hut in the heart of the Aspiring National Park, and Rob Roy Glacier, as well as the more demanding ridge walk Mount Alpha to Mount Roy, both over 1,600m above sea level.
Members of the team kept themselves busy during bad weather with mountain biking, archery and clay pigeon shooting, luge and even sky-diving, and bungee-jumping.
Despite the weather conditions they made one last attempt at the final third very remote route, but at a lower elevation to the others to avoid snow. After a three hour journey the sailors began their trek and got up to their waists jn water during many hours of hard slog through rain forest and swamp which tested the endurance of all involved.
After reaching the overnight hut and receiving the weather report by HF radio the weary submariners discovered there was worse to come. More snow and wet weather was forecast. But as it was their final chance to complete one of the planned treks they set off the following day determined to give it all to complete the route. However, wet clothing, bad weather and fatigue meant a decision was made to turn around at the high point of centre pass at 1,000m. They sadly returned to Queenstown after a further night in a mountain hut to dry out and began preparations for their premature return to the UK .