Kiwi experience

Posted by Tarquin Cooper on 31/03/2007
Tarquin leads the first pitch to the summit ridge.

Tarquin Cooper experiences the delights of alpinism - South Island style.

Alarm bells should have rung when my partner wanted to push the two-day approach into one. “We should be alright,” he said. Now, twelve hours in, only one thought is on my mind - there have got to be better sports than this. I’m so thirsty I’ve started fantasising about it; diving into a swimming pool of lemon squash, mouth open like a whale.

I’m attempting a winter ascent of Mt Cook with Rohan Kilham but this is just the walk-in. At 20km and 1,800m up, even the guidebook says making the hut is an achievement. Before we set off, Ro, who knows the area well, promised it would be fun. After 12 hours, his language is a little bit more precise; “F*ck it, this sucks.” It’s dark, we’ve still got several hours ahead of us and we’re out of water.

So far the day had offered us a nothing but a gauntlet of hazards. First there was the frozen lake. Quicker than the moraine but would it hold our weight? We’d looked at each other, searching for an answer that neither were equipped to give. In the end I’d undone my rucksack waist belt and taken the first tentative terrifying steps. Half way across my heart almost burst when I lost my balance and slammed into the ice. But it held, somehow. On terra firma, the relief was palpable. But then we glanced back and watched with a mixture of curiosity and horror as a large boulder rolled down the hill and smashed through the ice just where we had been. Time to move on.

Fear is omnipresent. The avalanche threat is real. But what really makes me brick myself is the icefall up ahead. Think Khumbu without the Sherpas and ladders. Recent snowfall means that many will be covered and Ro had warned me to get over my Euro hang-ups about falling into crevasses. In New Zealand, “popping a slot” is nothing to write home about.

To think that this trip was supposed to restore my pride. My last effort, to get up Nepal’s Cholatse proved to be a bit too ambitious and we turned back before we really committed. I met Ro during the trip and six months later he mentioned New Zealand. It sounded perfect; I was keen for some classic alpinism, a proper adventure away from crowds and telepheriques, something hard but something do-able. Now my bluff had well and truly been called - this is as proper as it gets.

Towards dusk, we approach a crevasse just a bit wide for comfort. Ro is nervous but crosses it OK. I’m very nervous. I get half way across and feel the snow give way, followed by the unpleasant sensation of falling backwards. Never have I screamed with such abandon.

It is shallow, I don’t go far. But by the time I heave myself out it’s an hour later, dark and I’m even more thirsty. We carry on but the icefall envelops us like a malevolent maze. It’s a painful process of climbing, traversing, back-tracking and swearing loudly. We try making for another hut, seemingly nearby but just get sucked deeper in to the icefall. We turn around. We push on.

Ro, leading, is able to ascend a steeper gradient than me, possibly because he has a heel raiser on his bindings. I know, blame your gear, but you should have seen mine. I did my shopping on eBay - probably not a good idea at the best of times - and my gear never showed. What I was left with was a compromise to put it politely - a pair of retro 190cm straight skis, complete with a pink motif, which were attached to my leathers with some equally retro bindings. Ro found me a pair of skins from that great ski-touring nation of his, Australia. They were plastic, stretchy and had a habit of coming off - as indeed did the skis.

A look at the watch: 9pm. Still another 700m of vertical to go, another three kilometres. We make a vain effort of soldiering on before accepting the inevitable - bivvy time. Unfortunately, because we’d planned on reaching a well-stocked hut, we have no saucepan and only one roll mat and one bivvy bag between us. We reckon we can use the shovel to melt snow. But then Ro can’t find the lighter. Never mind, I have my stash of emergency waterproof matches (Ray Mears eat your heart out!) Then the stove refuses to work. Ro takes it apart and saves the day but our clever system has a flaw - the melted water has a habit of escaping through the shovel’s holes and extinguishing the stove. By the time we’ve melted two litres I have only four matches left. Then we accidentally kick the whole thing over anyway.

In the morning we are understandably slow to get going. I struggle to poke frozen contact lenses into my eyes whilst Ro battles to get some feeling into his feet. Taking a leaf out of the climbing classics that line my bookshelf I offer to massage them. That’s what real climbers do isn’t it? A swig of water and we are on our way. After five hours of slogging up the mountain we reach the hut. It’s better than most summits; Ro and I hug in an embrace of total relief, exhaustion and joy.

New Zealand’s South Island is a mountaineering gem. The range is as large as the European Alps but has a fraction of the visitors. The Aoraki/Mt Cook National park is home to more than 140 peaks over 2,000m and 19 out of 20 of the country’s 3,000ers. Scope still exists to snatch first ascents (particularly new winter lines). It’s wild and remote yet there’s a first rate back-up system in place. Writing intentions isn’t just a formality. Park officials will look out for you and monitor your plans over the hut radios in a way that isn’t possible in the European Alps.

It comes at a price. South Island is basically all on its own in the middle of the Southern Ocean - when storms hit you’ll know about it. Often it’s a case of turning round at the first sight of high cirrus and sprinting for the nearest shelter. In 1982 Mark Inglis and Phil Doole famously got trapped for 14 days on Mt Cook. They both lost their legs to frostbite but did well to survive. Inglis went on to summit Everest last year.

The mountain has three peaks running along a northerly ridge: High Peak (3,754m), Middle Peak (3,717m) and Low Peak (3,593m). The standard route is to High Peak via the Linda glacier from the east. One of the reasons for its popularity is that it’s possible to cheat, sorry, I mean take a plane from the village airfield direct to the hut. The Hooker valley on the west is a no-fly zone which makes it a bit wilder. We planned to ascend via its standard route, the Porter Col. Mostly a plod but with a 120m section of ice of about Scottish 3.

Ro and I enjoy the sanctuary of the hut. But the peace of mind does not last long. Standing on the balcony, gazing at the distant lights of Mt Cook village 20km away, so close yet so far, does strange things to my stomach. The forecast is not good either - 90kph winds at 3,000m, not ideal for an ascent along an exposed ridge at 3,700m. During the night the wind is so strong the hut vibrates and the ventilation shaft blows like a horn. I don’t sleep a wink. We leave the hut door at 3.30am, both convinced we’ll be back in bed within the hour. Outside it sounds Antarctic. Ro and I exchange eye contact but he doesn’t want to be the party pooper any more than I do. Out we go.

To our delight, as soon as we turn the corner we’re in the lee. Conditions are fine. I lead and pick a way up 500m of icefall under head torch. It feels great. We gingerly step over numerous crevasses and around a few dodgy seracs but nothing too serious. At 3,000m we take a right and traverse for a kilometre. Then it’s more plugging steps to reach the couloir that will take us to the ridge. Music plays in my ears. I’m so light I feel fantastic. An awkward ‘shrund later and we’re at the icewall in time to watch the sun rise over our shoulders. Beautiful, but brutally cold. We’re now at the full mercy of the wind and I have to fight like hell to keep my fingers alive.

I lead the way up the hard ice, a full rope length with just two runners. I love it - for most of the trip, I’ve been the passenger, deferring to Ro’s experience as decision maker and leader. It’s important to me to have this lead. Up on the ridge the wind is something else, gusting to just short of knock you flat. We are nervous about conditions - is it getting worse? But we’re so close. I lead onto the ridge and that’s when it happens, that brief moment when the button gets pressed, the moment when suddenly the appeal of this strange sport makes itself known. It’s like the favourite track coming on the iPod. Onwards to the summit. Every step feels gloriously heroic. I have a new lease of life. All the struggle and toil blossom into something beautiful - reaching the top of a mountain. We summit Middle Peak at 11.30, hunched over against the wind. Epic.

We had considered a full traverse along the one-mile ridge, considered one of the classics of the range but there is no question of that now. We whip the cameras out and get the hell down, stopping briefly for refreshments at Middle Peak Hotel - the crevasse where Inglis and Doole had their unplanned stay. I’m glad to leave after only five minutes.

At the top of the icewall Ro could be forgiven for feeling nervous. The last time he was here his anchor ripped and he and his partner David Tuck rag-dolled 400m. He suffered leg and back injuries and couldn’t move while Tuck could walk but suffered head injuries - one eye swelled to the size of a tennis ball. Despite this Tuck made it to the hut to sound the alarm in a typically Aussie display of manly qualities. We opt to pitch it and down-climb. By now, there ‘sonly one thought on my mind and that’s the brandy hot chocolate waiting for me at the hut. We get there at 4pm without too many dramas - well apart from Ro disappearing in a slot - it was his turn after all. The ski out developed into a proper test of humour though. Ro also had a theory that we’d be safer unroped. “We’ll be alright,” he said.

I should have known better.

Tarquin Cooper is a freelance journalist and climber. He writes a monthly column for the Daily Telegraph and contributes to many other publications including Men’s Fitness, although he doesn’t have a sixpack. He’d like to thank Crux for the sack, Suunto for the watch and Peglers for all the discounts.

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