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Heels 1973

A Climb Of Mount Cook

page 3

A Climb Of Mount Cook

The four of us had been at Empress Bat in the upper reaches of the Hooker Glacier for day after day of shrieking wind and driving snow. Our objective was the high peak of Cook, but apart from a brief recce to 10,000 feet on the West Ridge and another to about the same altitude on the North-West Spur, we were restricted to the frustrating routine of hut drill. Food was running short, and it seemed we might have to move back down valley with our mission unaccomplished.

On the afternoon of the tenth day, however, the weather cleared to reveal blue skies and a thoroughly plastered mountain above us. It would take at least a full day of sunshine to bring the rock right, but we just didn't have that much time left - the attempt would have to be made next morning.

The alarm clock woke us at midnight. I looked out the door and saw the Main Divide across the valley bathed in moonlight, with the stars shining overhead. It was calm and cold: excitedly I realised this could well be the day I had long dreamed of. In those moments immediately before setting off on the climb the tension was rather similar to that which one might feel on the starting line prior to a race. I sensed this was going to be one of those thrilling days one always anticipates but rarely ever actually experiences.

We dressed, ate and roped up, then stepped out of the hut our crampons barely marking the snow's surface. The hut is 8000 feet above sea level, and our route took us across the lower Empress Shelf for about a mile before we began to really gain height. Bright though the moonlight was, we were in the shadow of Cook's massive western flank, and our headlamps were a necessary aid in finding a way across the minor crevasses to the 'schrund and ice wall at the foot of the snow couloir which split the West and North-West Ridges. The wall was only about 15 feet high, and with some pushing from below then hauling from above we were in a position to tackle the couloir itself. These days when steep faces are nonchalantly knocked off by novices, a mere 45-50 degree slope stretching 1500 feet up into the darkness seems scarcely worth mentioning, but I can still recall the difficulty we had in establishing shaft belays in the frozen snow, and the strain on our calf muscles as we front-pointed up towards the now lightening sky. We neared the couloir's exit - in fact the first pair had already reached the crest of the delicate arete at 10,000 feet where the North-West Spur abutted into the cliffs of the West Ridge, and Alex and I were about a rope's length below when, with an echoing crash, an enormous boulder fell from the slabs far above - released from the mountain's icy grip by the first rays of the rising sun. page 4 Perched shoulder to shoulder on our tiny stance we watched in speechless horror as it plunged down. When still a hundred feet above us it veered to one side, but our relief was only momentary as a smaller piece detached itself and came straight at us. With my arm across my face, I felt the breeze as it whirred past. Alex wasn't quite so luckly, but despite his exclamation that his arm had been broken, he escaped with a bruise and a ripped sleeve.

Hurriedly scrambling out of that hideous place, we traversed to the right to gain the upper Empress Shelf under the middle peak. From here we planned to climb straight up to the col on the summit ridge between the low and middle peaks. We looked up - a thousand feet of green ice had to be scaled, and just how steep it was we wouldn't know until our noses were pressed against it. But the real problem wasn't to be technical difficulty of the climbing - it was the ice the recent storm had deposited on the rocks of the low peak - great plates of it were falling off in the sun's heat, and the debris was raking across our proposed route on the face. In those far-off lays crash helmets were unheard of, so we put our spare gloves inside our hats and decided it was justifiable to push on. Up we slowly went, chipping steps in the glittering ice and belaying off large barbed ice pitons (ice screws had been vaguely heard of, but none of us had ever actually seen any). Every few moments we had to stop climbing to protect our heads as yet another barrage crashed down from above. On the 65 degree slope I felt like a fly on a window pane, and the continual humming and whistling of the projectiles all around was bringing us to the verge of hysteria. Although the only damage suffered so far was a squashed water bottle, it seemed only a matter of time before somebody received a direct hit. Too much time was being spent in digging out the pitons as we left each stance. Ice pitons hammer in much more quickly than a screw can be inserted, but removal is the bugbear: they freeze in and have to be literally cut out of the ice - right down to the very tip. In the end we simply left them behind, which lightened our loads considerably anyway.

We reached the summit at 2.00pm. At our feet lay the Caroline Face. I don't recall that it had a name then - certainly there had been no talk of climbing it. At that time the East Pace of Cook was the current "Last Great Problem", being compared - as the Caroline itself later and equally fallaciously would be - with the North Wall of the Eiger. The ridge between the two lower peaks was in good order, and we were soon atop the middle peak at 12,173 feet, having our first real rest and food since leaving the hut. Ahead of us lay the soaring ridge to the high peak. Our hearts sank as we contemplated the task which now confronted us, as the whole way was over more of the solid green ice we had encountered on the Hooker Face. Progress was pitifully slow as we picked our way along the graceful aerial staircase. The traverse was made about ten feet down on the Hooker side of the ridge to avoid the cornice. The exposure was accentuated by our inability to get any belay anchorages, In fact, by 6.30pm we were still only half way along the ridge. We had a consultation: a page 5night out was inevitable, but the ridge was the last place to want to spend it on. We resolved to dispense with step cutting between stances, now having only two big ones at each rope's length.

We made it on to the summit at sunset, and after the briefest of pauses moved off down Zurbriggen's Ridge. Five hundred feet down the ice cap it became too dark to safely continue, so we cut separate niches in the ice and sat on our ropes to await the dawn. Our complete lack of bivouac gear made for a bitterly uncomfortable night, but I didn't mind in the least: silly as it may sound now I had climbed the mountain of my dreams, and the price of a benightment was one I would willingly pay.

The golden sunrise seeped into our chilled bodies as we untangled our frozen ropes preparatory to leaving the bivouac. We were on our way by 5.00am. and by six the sun had disappeared as yet another 'nor-west storm rolled in across the Divide. Forcing a route down to the Grand Plateau became a hellish task as rain and sleet swept over us in minimal visibility. As we cut steps downhill the wind was so strong it blew the ice chips upwards and over the ridge above us.

Some 38 hours after leaving Empress, we staggered into Haast Hut on the eastern side of the mountain. How marvellous it was to be out of the rain and wind. I sat on the bunk's edge staring into space. Someone took my crampons off and unclipped the rope from my harness. The hut occupants, incredulous at our unexpected arrival, fed us soup and biscuits - all we'd eaten that day was snow. Next day we would have to think about climbing back to the Hooker to recover our gear, but that is another story. I got between two mattresses and slept.

A well known chief guide named Duff
Turned out to be a creampuff
When asked one fine day
Which was the right way
He led us over a bluff