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Monday, 17 October 2016

Three Peaks - A Blue Mountains Challenge

I pedaled frantically through the streets of Sydney with no regard to the precious glycogen stores I was burning through. I had stayed at the party for too long, and now had only fifteen minutes to reach the train station six kilometers away. I dashed onto the 10pm train with minutes to spare, regretting the adrenaline overload that would prevent me from getting any valuable sleep before I was to embark on this epic journey. At over 90 kilometres and 5000 vertical metres of climbing, The Three Peaks challenge is a true test of physical and mental stamina, involving a committing element of remoteness and off-track navigation in the mix. Since the 1960s, the challenge has forged legends and broken souls and remained a classic in Blue Mountains lore ever since.

At a stroke past midnight I rode through the flickering lights of Katoomba’s nightlife, ditched my bike at the official start on the Narrowneck Plateau, and set off into the darkness. Solo, onsight.

Heading out from Katoomba at midnight, excited about what is to come...
Jogging along the mind-numbing 10km stretch of gravel road along the Neck, it wasn’t long until the natural urge to sleep began to gnaw away at me. Even the prickly road side seemed a tempting place to lie down. Soon after 2AM, a toilet block at the end of the road came into my headlamp beam. Out of the cold wind, I curled up on the concrete for ten minutes to recharge, before topping up my electrolyte supply with potent energy drink and popped a 100mg caffeine pill, resolving to push on through the night.

I would need to be alert as a dropped off the Narrowneck buttress, descending steep rocky trails, and down-climbing a vertical cliff thanks to the ancient Tarros Ladders – iron rungs and spikes cast into the sandstone. After that brief excitement I was well and truly awake for the long undulating trail traversing the Wild Dog Mountains. Running alone through the bush at night can become lonely, so I cranked up the music to keep my spirits high. But every so often, a loud rustling from within the bush would break through the head-phones and startle me. Kangaroo, wombat, wild dog? In my caffeine-induced sleep-deprived trance, my mind was taking me for a wild ride.

Mt Yellow Dog, nearing the end of a long caffeine-induced night
I checked my watch on Mt Yellow Dog, 5AM. Dead of the night. But the exhilaration of the Yellow Pup Ridge descent to the Cox’s River pumped much needed adrenaline through my veins, and as the river came into view so too did the first glimmering of dawn. Here many choose to rest as their first stop, but I decided instead to down a bag of muesli and start up the long Strongleg Ridge to Cloudmaker, and crash when the time came. Sure enough, as the sun rose on me atop Mt Strongleg, I fried instantly, and collapsed on the trail, sprawled out flat on the bush floor.

I awoke to the sound of Coldplay, and hoped I hadn’t missed too many tracks as I staggered back to my feet, dazed. Fortunately, since this was also the route for the popular Katoomba to Kanagra (K2K) crossing, there was a vague trail along most of the undulating bush ridge towards Cloudmaker, the first of the three peaks. The final stretch of navigation to the summit was testing, and doubts crept into my mind that I had gone too far, there was no clear peak amongst the flatness… when the rocky cairn and its metal log-book holder appeared through the trees I clenched my fists in jubilation. Having travelled through the night to arrive at the first checkpoint in good time felt sweet indeed. 

Cloudmaker, peak number one

Reading through the Cloudmaker log-book there was an entry from another hiker made on today’s date… Was someone else also on the Three Peaks quest? This riled me from my rest, and I quickly set off again in search of the second peak – Paralyser. I followed the compass to end of a long spur which abruptly dropped off in steep cliffs, forcing me to backtrack to find an easier descent. All the while, my jaded mind was constantly scanning the bush ahead for any sign of the mystery person from the log book - surely he couldn’t be far ahead? Eight hundred metres down into Kanangra Creek saw me shoe ski scree slopes, plough through scrub and dodge stinging nettles to reach the tropical creek floor of the valley. Still no sign of the man, but it had provided incentive to push the pace. The sun was now scorching, so I doused my cap in the cool river water and filled up another two litres for the next slog, a nine-hundred metre ridge climb to the top of Paralyser.

Paralyser, the second summit

I tapped into new energy on the ridge, swallowing up the vertical as the valley floor fell from my feet. Ninety minutes later I was on Paralyser, starting to feel the burn of the ascent, but keeping well hydrated despite the heat. Now 12 hours in, I reminded myself that this was only halfway. And the crux was just ahead - the final 1000-metre un-tracked ascent of Guogang.

Guougang appears through the bush

I raced off the flat summit of Paralyser to the north-east, keeping an eye out for a ridge to begin forming that would lead out to the Whalania valley. Once out on the narrow ridge, I scanned the opposite side of the valley to pick out Nooroo Buttress, the acclaimed ridge towards Guougang. A quick scan of the map to match up my view to the map, and I was flying down into the Whalania, and then up towards the third and final peak.

Exhaustion setting in on the third ascent of Guougang

The day grew late as I approached the, again, rounded summit of Guougang. But something didn’t line up. An un-mapped fire-trail appeared, heading west. The summit was to the north, but in that direction the terrain dropped away. Had the magnetics in my phone distorted the compass? What was going on? After a night without sleep and 16 hours on the go, my shattered brain couldn’t handle this. I checked the GPS for the first time, and my blunder was revealed. I had climbed the wrong mountain. I had climbed a spur one parallel to the Nooroo buttress, which had later veered away towards Mount Krungle Bungle. With the compass stowed on the ascent, I hadn’t noticed my bearing change.

It was 4:45pm, I was now racing time to reach Guougang by dark. The situation was recoverable, but I was faced with an extra four-kilometre ridge traverse through complex and unknown terrain, using up precious day light. Cursing my careless error, I gulped down a gel, desperate for an extra surge of energy. Once I had accepted the situation, I plotted out the new route and set off along the vague and undefined ridgetop. The gel was metabolized like fire and I blazed like a mad-man through horrendously thick scrub, I could no longer feel my shins, all that mattered was finding the third cairn of Guougang before night-fall.

The best moment of the journey, emerging through the dense bush to the hard-earned summit pyramid of Mt Guougang
It was just after 6pm when the glorious summit cairn appeared. I was so relieved. But my problems weren’t yet over, unfolding the map revealed a long and complicated 6-km ridge-line descent to the Cox’s. My heart sunk. Almost immediately the navigation proved difficult and the scrub dense. And as darkness descended on me, so did the rain.

In the twilight, my headlamp almost made it more difficult to see, droplets of rain and fog reflecting the beam of light and soggying my map. After several hours of thrashing around in tree fall, bluff zones, slimy creek waterfalls and fields of stinging nettle, becoming totally drenched and exhausted while making little progress, I finally decided to call it a night and find somewhere to bivvy until dawn. Thankfully I stumbled upon a fallen tree whose dry straw-like leaves formed a dry base and a meagre shelter from the elements. My foil space blanket ripped instantly as I curled into an awkward cramped position in my suffer-bivouac, my warmth slowly draining away.

When dawn eventually rolled around, I couldn’t find my compass. I clawed through the straw in vain for my most important tool. But as the light began to reveal the shape of the land, a route through to the Cox’s revealed itself. I knew I only needed to navigate to the river before I was back on the safe return trail to Narrowneck. I set off anxiously without my compass, and thankfully, a couple of hours later emerged at the banks of the flooded Cox’s river. Upstream I found a safe crossing and clambered up to the Yellow Pup ridgeline for the long grind home to Katoomba.

In the day, the Wild Dog mountains passed at a swift jog, the Tarros Ladders were a mere scramble but the long gravel road of the Neck was a mind numbing final hurdle. Back on the bike, I slowly peddled my way back up the hill into Katoomba, for a round trip time of 38 hours. Wow. What a wild ride it was. But even before I’d arrived home on the Blue Mountains train, I couldn’t help myself from plotting out the next attempt. Lighter, faster, less-sleep, and less-lost. A sub-24 hour Three Peaks. It had to be done.

Three Peaks - 90km distance, 5000m vertical

Tuesday, 12 January 2016

Winter in the Darrans

The Darran mountains of Fiordland is an intimidating place. In summer, sheer granite rises out of the glacially carved valleys, swathed in mist and vegetation, waterfalls searing down from hanging snowfields following the inevitable rain.  But in the depth of winter, when sub-zero temperatures take hold, the resources from this endless precipitation is embraced, when, if you are lucky, those precipitous faces are coated in a thick layer of ... ICE.
Steve on Squealing, Cirque Creek. Photo: Ben Dare

We pulled off the Milford highway near Homer Tunnel at 2AM, sliding down the icy lane to Homer Hut, our base for the following five days of the Darrans Winter Meet. Climbers from around the country would congregate here during the week to climb the surrounding peaks and ice routes.

Weary from the ten-hour drive from Christchurch, but eager to sample the conditions, Reg and I woke early to try a route on the Tunnel Bluffs.

Homer Hut - our comfortable base for the week
Large amounts of new snow banked out the base of our chosen route on the Tunnel Bluffs, thankfully the approach was short with only limited snow plugging. What would typically be intricate mixed climbing was now a straightforward snow climb until the angle steepened into a full pitch of exciting WI3. I led the pitch, eager to gain more experience on the icy sharp end. As I brought up Reg, our Australian compatriot Lincoln had caught us up and was keen to follow. He tied into one of the two half ropes and we expanded to a party of three. Two or three more pleasant pitches later we had reached the crest of the Homer ridgeline with spectacular views down the Cleddau leading to Milford and towards Mt Crosscut.

Following the final pitch on Blurred Vision (4, IV), Mt Crosscut in the background
We climbed as a three along the snow-fluted ridgeline, placing protection as we travelled, belaying the leader through any tricky sections. Once at the base of Talbot's ladder, we were treated to a long glissade descent back into the Macpherson Cirque.

Simul-climbing along the Homer Tunnel ridgeline after topping out our route. Photo: Lincoln Quilliam

Macpherson Cirque (left), Getrude Valley (right). Photo: Lincoln Quilliam

Lincoln on the Homer ridgeline, Mt Moir Massif behind. Photo: Reg Measures
There, something caught Reg's eye. A glowing blue streak of ice searing through the centre of the 200 metre high face of Macpherson Cirque. Walking to the base and striking his ice tools into the freeze confirmed its quality.

Reg returned to the hut sometime later, eyes wide open, raving about the mythical ice line, Stirling Moss, now seemingly in top condition, un-climbed in twenty years, still awaiting its third ascent...

Stirling Moss, a 200 metre ice route in the Macpherson Cirque

Captivated by his enthusiasm for an attempt on the historic line, first climbed in the big winter of 1992, I agreed to follow Reg up the difficult route. Unsure if I would be capable of climbing such steep ice, truly vertical in several sections and rated at WI5, I was full of apprehension as we approached the awe-inspiring wall. As we geared up at the base, Reg announced that he would be leading the first two crux pitches, and I would be leading us to the top-out of the wall. I agreed, not quite knowing what lay in store, but my sense of adventure ingited...

Reg leading on the first pitch of Stirling Moss
An ice-climbers ritual, Reg swung his arms violently in a circular motion to force warm blood into the finger tips, checked the rack of ten ice screws and quick draws were in order, and then planted his tools and crampons into the ice. I fed out the double ropes, standing well to the side to avoid the shards of ice raining down as Reg hacked his way up the luminous blue water ice.

Pausing only momentarily to fire in the ice screws, he pulled through the first overlap without hesitation. I took note of his excellent technique, finding quick rests where possible and charging through the steepness, hooking tools between hanging icicles and swinging with precision.

The ice felt even steeper at close range. Following the bulging blue streak, I hung from my arms to insert Cyborg crampons into the brittle ice, thankful for their agressive, freshly sharpened vertical points. Standing up, locked off on one tool, I swung overhead several times into shattering ice before I gained solid purchase. The pump was real, the sweat was dripping, and the focus reigned tight. Pulling past the difficulties, I climbed up to Reg at the anchor breathing heavily.

"Wow. I've never climbed such steep ice...", I told him.

Reg smiled with the glint of a madman as he eyed up the pitch above - the crux - a roof with hanging chandelier ice touching down to the ice below. This is the gnarly section that culminates in a pull-up on frozen turf and has spat off at least one climber in the past.

Reg leading the crux second pitch of Stirling Moss
Reg worked his way up to the overhang, traversing beneath the waterfall, regretting his choice of softshell jacket as he was partially soaked by the icy spray. The heavily featured ice allowed creative hooking, saving power and energy for the crux moves.

Reg slung a large icicle and placed a short screw into the pillar for protection, hooked the hanging column and moved left into an awkward, off-balance stance. Tenuously, he swung over the lip, finding just enough ice to the left of the main flow and pulled over the overhang, committed to the sequence. An impressive lead.

The rope eventually came tight on me, and I marvelled at the boldness required to lead into such uncertain terrain. Relieved as the angle finally relented, I remembered that I would now have to fulfil my part of the deal. The next two pitches were mine.

Reg following the third pitch, a long pitch on un-relenting waves of 70 degree ice
Fortunately, the angle of the clean slabs of water ice seemed reasonable, and I was initially at ease with the prospect of taking the lead. However as I ran the rope out further and further, the fatigue was accumulating, and each ice screw seemed to disappear far below so quickly after each placement. The exposure was immense. I held out hopes of finding a belay ledge, for rest, but as I climbed to the end of the 60m pitch, I was forced to settle for a hanging stance on the 70 degree ice slope.

By the time Reg joined me at the belay, despite my nerves for the final pitch, the discomfort of the belay motivated me upwards and I racked up once more, psyched for the top-out. 

Reg following the third pitch of Stirling Moss, removing an ice-screw placed during the lead
A previous party had placed a bolt on this last pitch, complaining of 'sketchy snow', and I understood their fear. The ice quality deteriorated in places, requiring calmness and perseverance to search for secure holds before moving higher. This pitch of WI4 was a real challenge, but with the top-out in sight I kept moving higher, and with relief and satisfaction I reached plastic neve and charged to the top. The stoke was high.

Four long abseils later, Reg and I stood at the base of the route again, and at the same moment saw Steve & Ben returning from their climb of Gomer and a WI6 pillar on the upper tier. We returned to Homer that afternoon for a well deserved rest, and to scheme a plan for the last day of fine weather.

Ben Dare, pysched on the great conditions of the Macpherson Cirque. Stirling Moss in red. Photo: Steve Fortune
With Reg amped for a quick ski-mountaineering mission over the Talbot-Macpherson traverse, a classic Darrans circuit, I teamed up with Lincoln for a trip into the Cirque Creek, the next valley east of Getrude.

Dawn in the Darrans - Mt Talbot (left) and Mt Crosscut (right). Photo: Lincoln Quilliam
 An early start saw us leaping across icy boulders in the Hollyford river to gain access to Cirque Creek, while admiring the shining summit pyramid of Mt Talbot, home to several quality lines on the triangular east face.

We clambered over avalanche debris low-down in the valley, en-route for Scratch & Tickle, a 300m ice line in the lower cirque. However, another line suddenly caught Lincoln's eye. An icy incision cut through hundreds of metres of frozen watercourse into a wide snow basin, followed by a stunning ice gulley higher up, topping out on the ice plateau below Mt Crosscut. As far as the guide-book let on, this would be a new route. Lincoln fizzed at the potential adventure of an un-climbed winter line in the Darrans. Sharing his enthusiasm, we ventured up into the unknown.

Approaching the base of the steep ice gulley. Photo: Lincoln Quilliam
After dispatching with the approach, which consisted of several ice steps up a vegetated stream, we forged on towards the main ice gully. We encountered 200 metres of enjoyable terrain, simul-climbing up the narrow gully placing ice-screws and rock protection as we climbed. A pumpy crux pitch at the top of the couloir was well protected with rock pro and slung icicles. Several more pitches took us onto an exposed steep ridgeline, weaving through rocky gendarmes until we were finally on the crest of the ice plateau.

Plastic ice and neve snow in the Freycinet gulley. Photo: Lincoln Quilliam

Lincoln and I at the top of our route 'Freycinet' 600m (3, IV) in Cirque Creek. Photo: Lincoln Quilliam
Ten interesting abseils were required to descend the route. Photo: Lincoln Quilliam

Mt Crosscut's summit was still high above and would require many more hours to reach. We called it a day and began the long descent back to the valley floor - ten abseils on chockstone threads, pitons, trees and a snow bollard took us down the mountain and into the darkness of night. We stumbled back out the valley reaching our car at 10pm, thoroughly exhausted after a 15-hour day on the route.

We burst into Homer hut to cheers from our fellow Darrans winter meet compadres, at first un-convinced that our route was un-climbed, but later confirmed by Al Walker as a new route. Lincoln named our line 'Freycinet', reminiscent of many pleasant summer days spent climbing on the sea-cliffs of Tasmania.

Freycinet (IV 3), our new line marked in red. Photo: Lincoln Quilliam

With all great things coming to an end, after three days of superb winter weather, the heavens at last broke, freezing levels climbed, saturating the snow pack, and returning water-ice to water-falls...
Wild weather in Fiordland - the golden spell finally breaks. Photo: Lincoln Quilliam

Waterfalls surge down steep granite faces into the Cleddau. Photo: Lincoln Quilliam
Two days later, the poor weather finally abated. I teamed up with Johan and Lincoln for an attempt on that beautiful east face of Mt Talbot, namely the airy 'JC Crack'. We set off well before dawn up the Getrude Valley, watching Steve & Reg's headlamps progress up the Barrier face on their approach to Marian, as we ascended above Black Lake towards Talbot. 

Johan and Lincoln hiking up towards Mt Talbot, above Getrude Saddle
Sadly, the snow conditions were still too soft, and we made the decision to turn back well before reaching Talbot. The recent rains had done too much damage, and the freezing levels had not dropped low enough to set a good freeze. Our efforts were futile, and we returned to Homer longing for the conditions of the previous days to return.

Deciding to turn back from Mt Talbot due to poor snow conditions. Photo: Lincoln Quilliam

Johan near Getrude Saddle

Johan and I decided to venture towards the Remarkables in search of better conditions. Following a chilly night in Johan's van, we headed to the West Face for an attempt on the classic Friday Fool, a four-pitch ice and mixed climb.

View from Queen's Drive, Remarkables

Johan on Friday's Fool, West Face of Remarkables (WI3, M4)
Despite Johan's best efforts, the ice here was also too rotten, and he could not commit to the crux bulge above, ice dinner plating away with no chance to place good protection. He carefully down-climbed and we moved on to the Clearances, which appeared to hold much better ice, with more rock for protection.

Johan on the Clearances (M5)
The Clearances was an intense route, with just enough ice to make progress, and tenuous dry tooling adding to the challenge.

Daunted by the final steep rock of the Clearances Direct Finish (M5)
On the third and final pitch, I slowly worked my way up the steepening rocky gully, bridging widely and hooking my tools blindly beneath the sugary snow. The protection was great, but on the final overhang, just 10 metres from the top, I was totally shut down by the sheer steepness of the climbing. Dejected and overcome, I abseiled off a piton to re-join Johan, and we descended to Queen's Drive after a second failure, but nevertheless, an exciting and memorable day out.

It is often the failures where the most is learnt and the stronger friendships are made by forging through the struggle, searching for our limits, and returning safely for another day.

The highs and lows of winter climbing in the Darrans - a magical place - far from the crowds and full of potential for great adventures.

Sunset over Wakatipu after a challenging day of mixed & ice climbing

Friday, 8 January 2016

Mt Aspiring South Face - A Winter Attempt

Mount Aspiring in winter presents a daunting prospect. Deep snows and cold temperatures prevent light or fast style approaches to an ascent - one must come prepared for a formidable mountain in her harshest conditions.

In mid-August 2015, Michael Eatson and I shouldered hefty packs and hiked up the splendid Matukituki, ultimately bound for the South Face of Aspiring, a lofty and ambitious goal for the winter season. Before the Remarkables Ice & Mixed Festival, we were determined to ply ourselves from the more accessible 'mountain crags' and venture higher and further afield for a true alpine adventure.

After a frigid night in an empty Aspiring Hut, we began the icy hike through the Matukituki in darkness, thighs burning as we burled our way up the grunty French Ridge track. Icicles hung from branches and coated the rock trail making a straightforward tramp into something far more treacherous.

At the bush-line we were greeted by bounty loads of fluffy white powder. It seemed that our snow forecasting was not so accurate, and the Aspiring region had been hit just as hard as the Mount Cook region by hard by the recent snowfall. Fortunately we'd come prepared with snow-shoes, helping us to skim somewhat over the surface of the deep snow instead of plunging in thigh-deep.

Even so, it was exhausting work. Hauling full winter loads up the French Ridge was no easy feat, but we were duly rewarded by magnificent weather in our superb surroundings. French Ridge Hut finally appeared over a rise, but as the previous party had left the door ajar, snow piled up into the entrance way, and required a fairly technical manoeuvre just to enter into the hut.

Following lunch we continued up towards the Quarterdeck pass, which seemed an interminable distance away. Justifiably, it was a 2000m ascent from Aspiring hut, explaining our exhaustion as we battled through the soft snow, a Himalayan effort. Crevasse country below the Quarterdeck taught us to be cautious with winter season snow-bridges - prime time for hidden slots with weak coverings. Until the heavy, wetter snows of spring and summer come, the slots can be very devious and snowbridges often lack any structural integrity with temperatures too low to encourage snow to bond.

We finally crested the Quarterdeck as the winter sun descended to the west, throwing magical colours to our new horizon, one with the mighty Aspiring thrusting skywards.

A smooth descent into the frozen expanse of the Bonar Glacier soon provided a flat spot to pitch our tent, the South Face now in sight.

It was an incredibly cold night, with temperatures plummeting to below -15C, given a freezing level of a staggering 400m above sea-level. Condensation inside the tent froze on the inner fly, raining down a flurry of snow crystals on any movement inside the cramped two-person shelter.

During the night, Michael began to complain of a sore throat, which at the time I dismissed as minor, but soon his complaints made me realise he was seriously ill. Having recently recovered from a fever, his throat had now inflamed once more with a nasty bacterial infection. It was painful for him to speak, let alone drink or eat. The South Face was off. Disappointing as it was, there was nothing to be done. We waited till the sun had to risen to break out of the tent. Despite the dry snow, my boots had been thoroughly soaked through the course of the day, and were now frozen solid. I would have been at risk of serious frostbite had we attempted the shady south face, with its 600m of front-pointing a recipe for frozen toes. Despite the grandeur of that South Face, I was quietly grateful that we were heading down the sun-soaked French Ridge...

Michael's perserverance during the descent was admirable, plagued with a horrible condition in an unforgiving environment. We returned to Aspiring Hut that night, another tough ordeal, and Michael flew back to Christchurch that afternoon for treatment.

A self-supported ascent of Aspiring in the depths of winter is an achievement to which I would give high respect.

Aoraki/Mt Cook South Face - Grand Traverse

Driving away from Aoraki/Mt Cook one year ago in December 2014, I was happy to have stood on the summit of our country’s highest mountain. The Linda Glacier route provided some exciting climbing through the iced up summit rocks, and we enjoyed perfect conditions on top with the mountain to ourselves, and the surrounding peaks exuberant.

A year on, with stronger technical climbing skills on ice & rock, I felt it was time to meet Aoraki head on. Visible from the village, the glistening South Face of Aoraki/Mt Cook rises out of the Hooker Valley with the commanding strength you would expect from such a mountain. Climbing the South Face involves an approach via the Hooker Glacier and 600m of steep, 60-80 degree ice climbing before reaching a mellow ridgeline leading to the summit. The safest and most popular route, White Dream, had not been climbed in many years despite several attempts, which added to its appeal.

Aoraki/Mt Cook South Face White Dream ascent a  ramp to the left of the face

Michael Eatson and I willed the route into condition over the spring months, taking note of its whiteness each time we passed by Lake Pukaki. In early December, the stars were coming into alignment for attempt. Tawny Wagstaff joined as a late addition, and as a high moved towards the east, we set off for Mount Cook village.

The Hooker Valley approach was long and arduous, but with several redeeming features. That view of the South Face never left our periphery and motivated us onwards through the loose moraine. No aircraft are allowed in the Hooker valley, so the only way is by foot.

Negotiating the Hooker icefall

Nearing the base of the notorious Pudding Rock, we met Ben Dare & Danny Murphy, who were on their way to Empress Hut at the head of the glacier for an attempt on a new route on the Sheila Face of Aoraki/Mt Cook. We followed their line through a labrynth of gaping crevasses through the Hooker icefall, lured by a deceptively easy route...

Ben Dare on the Hooker glacier

Many creaking snow-bridges and heart-in-mouth leaps across the voids we reached the top of the icefall, in time for lunch near the old Gardiner Hut site. Wind rushed up the valley with a bite, chilling us with waves of sleety showers, and the prospect of a bivvy higher up on the mountain below the South Face left us grimacing.

Traversing a narrow snow-bridge in the Hooker icefall

We perservered up the snow slopes of the lower mountain towards in the base of the West Ridge, and to our delight, discovered a sheltered snow platform inside a 5m deep crevasse between the rock face on the edge of the glacier.

Enjoying a hot brew in our bivvy spot at the base of the West Ridge of Mt Cook

Michael abseiled in first to test the stability of the snow, before we all climbed down to arrange our home for the night. Perched in relative comfort at 2200m, out of the wind, we enjoyed the warmth of the sunshine filtering into our icy abode as we boiled up hot drinks and a warm meal through the evening.

At 4.00am we peeled ourselves from the warmth of bivvy bags with a mixture of apprehension and excitement that accompanies the alpine start of every big climb. By first light we were approaching the base of the South Face as Mt Sefton's eastern flanks caught the morning glow.

Mt Sefton at dawn

Conditions were superb, a perfect freeze and little wind. Tawny took the first lead. Racking up with a set of ten ice screws, he set off up a steep first pitch of ice, enduring a painful bout of the screaming barfies early on before pushing into easier terrain, and bringing Michael and I up to the first anchor.

Tawny charging up the ice on the sharp end

Pitch two brought us to the base of a mixed traverse, where both rock and ice were thrown into the mix. I took over the lead for the following four pitches, which traversed beneath a prominent rock band before heading straight up several steeper ice steps.

Michael following the spicy mixed traverse

The relentless front-pointing tired the calves; chipping out resting platforms to place ice protection was essential. The ice was in superb condition, blobby ice features provided exciting climbing. After eight pitches, the final crux of the route came into view – an ice-cliff just left of one of the major seracs on the face. Michael traversed into position and sent the pitch of consistent WI3 in good style. The angle of the upper face relented, but required focus as the icy conditions persisted.

Michael and Tawny following up the upper South Face

Tawny approaching the crest of the West Ridge

Michael cramponing up icy slopes towards the South Summit at dusk

Michael nearing the South Summit

It was surreal to finally top out on the Low Peak of Aoraki/Mt Cook as the sun set over the cloud-filled valleys of the West Coast, the Caroline face plunged 2000m below, and our next objective – the Grand Traverse – stared us down in the fading light.

Michael on the South Summit at sunset, with the bulk of Middle & High Peaks behind, our objective for the following day

Wary of our fatigue and the onset of night, we simul-climbed the engaging snow & rock ridgeline to Porter Col, un-roping for the final climb to our accommodation for the night, NZ’s highest backpackers – Middle Peak Hotel.

Traversing the rock & snow ridgeline between the South Summit and Porter Col

This was the scene of Mark Inglis & Philip Doole’s 14-day survival epic. We set to work melting snow with our Jet-boil, and flattening out a sleeping platform, before collapsing inside bivvy bags, exhausted from the day’s effort. Before passing out for the night, we each agreed that this was our most intense day of alpine climbing to date.

Middle Peak Hotel

The third day dawned blue-bird as we emerged from our ice-cave into our world viewed from 3600 metres. Simply spectacular.

The Grand Traverse

From atop Middle Peak, the sweeping summit ridge towards the High Peak entered into view. Conditions across the 1-kilometre traverse varied from easy snow to hard sastrugi ice, mostly the latter, requiring calves of steel and considerable concentration.

On the Grand Traverse, crab-crawling across the most exposed kilometre of ridgeline in New Zealand

We simul-climbed as a three for security due to the firm conditions. Ice protection was adequate, but use of the rope did involve much frustration, often catching on shards of sastrugi or slicing through the snow cornice.

Mt Tasman from the summit of Mt Cook

On the summit of High Peak, we were joined by Reg Measures and Timothy Elson, who had followed our scent from the Hooker Valley, repeating our exact route in blisteringly quick time, showing how efficiently the route can be climbed. David Chen and Gemma Wilson were by this time descending the summit rocks after climbing the Zurbriggen Ridge. A busy day on New Zealand’s highest, and an excellent start to a summer in the Southern Alps. 

Walking out across the Grand Plateau with red peaks afire in the dawn

White Dreams, Grand Memories

The South Face - Grand Traverse