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Friday, 21 December 2012

Ten Thousand Feet on Malte Brun

High camp above the Tasman Glacier. The single-skin tent strained and flapped in the strong winds as we struggled to find a sleeping position that didn’t involve sharp rocks. I had no idea of the time but knew the predawn alarm wouldn’t be far off. 

First rays

Owen Lee is no stranger to hard rock climbing. There was a time where you’d be lucky to see him without a rope hanging from his harness. But alpine rock is a different game altogether, and from the guidebooks it can appear deceptively easy. The crux of the route may be at least five rock grades lower than I’d be comfortable climbing in the comfort of the Port Hills crags. But throw in a huge dose of exposure, loose rock, sparse protection, an eight kilo pack, chunky boots, more loose rock, and you get the idea. Team Lee-McDowell was ready for a great adventure. 

Owen rehydrates on some pristine glacier water

After the horrendous twelve hour approach up the Tasman Glacier moraines and crevasse fields I struggled to imagine how we’d still wake up at dawn ready to climb our massive objective. A good bag of muesli and the sight of golden peaks from the door of the tent was enough to rouse my energy levels… De La Beche, Minarets, Elie de Beaumont, all stunning. But today we didn’t have time for any of that. I turned my face to the east and traced my eyes up steep glacier to the rocky giant’s west ridge – Malte Brun.

Eyes on the prize
We ascended the crisp Malte Brun glacier in the early morning hours, crunching into a fantastic freeze. The exhausting snow plugging mission I’d endured with Adrian up The Footstool a few days earlier made us fully appreciate such great snow conditions. From the head of the glacier, a beautiful rock rib was described leading up to join the West Ridge. Finally on the route.

Steep soloing at the top of Malte Brun glacier

Feel the exposure
 Once at the base, the jagged angled rock looked quite daunting, so we followed the snow fields as high as possible before committing to the chossy slabs. Even Owen was sketching out on this high icy section, we didn’t consider roping up and pitching it, but the consequences of a slip were huge. I gripped the edge of the ice where it had melted from the rock, and plunged my axe and crampons in solid. The mental game had already begun. Sometimes soloing is safer than roped climbing. Its faster, and allows you to focus on the job at hand. Safety in speed. Slowly, I was beginning to see into the minds of legendary climbers such as Ueli Steck and their huge, solo feats. But for now I was just itching to tie in to safety…

Following the steep snow fields along the beautiful rib
We pitched a loose slab up to join the true west ridge, a taste of what was to come. I scrambled to the crest and laughed – we’d seen nothing on our Tasman approach, but now, it seemed, the mountains had decided that we’d earned their view – absolutely spectacular. It was the first time I’d seen the East face of Aoraki and that famous mile, the Mount Cook Grand-Traverse. All on full display.

Ridge climbing was a new experience for me – quite different to short face climbing, the norm at local crags. Many lay back moves gripping the knife-edge of the ridge while searching for small footholds below. We carried grippy rock shoes just in case our mountaineering boots weren’t up for it, but the Vibram rubber never let us down. It wasn’t difficult climbing, just hugely exposed. Soon I was desensitised to the apparent dangers, and my mind honed in on rational thoughts each step of the way. We simul-climbed most of the way, with thirty metres of rope draped along the jagged ridge between Owen and I. With each move, I whipped the rope onto the opposite side of the ridge, so should I slip the amount of friction on the line would bring to me to a reasonably quick halt. This put my mind at ease, and soon I was enjoying the thrill of the height and exposure.

I began to indulge in thoughts of reaching the summit of this, the sixth highest mountain in New Zealand. Owen, meanwhile, was preparing for La Cheval; he knew it was coming. We’d heard stories, we’d seen photos. Some said it was easy, some said it was hard. Described as ‘unique’, ‘narrow’ and ‘spectacular’, I tried not to imagine and waited to see it with my own eyes. Of course – ‘The Horse’. No footholds, just blank greywacke, converging to a remarkably sharp edge. The only way across was to ride the ridge, straddle the stallion, and let the legs hang loose in the stirrups either side of the abyss! I’m not sure if Owen was even belaying me, judging from the number of photos of my awkward gallop. The first ascentionist Jack Clarke was right when he called this a classic climb. A century later and it’s no less true.

La Cheval
We topped out on what we thought was the summit, but achingly, the true summit was another seventy metres higher. It was 4 o’clock and we still faced an unknown descent. With only a thirty metre rope and camp a vertical kilometer below, we feared, and expected, that it could be a long and gnarly descent. Our desire to reach the very top was hot, but dread of a dark descent, even a potential forced bivvy - that was enough to quell our egos. We knew from the wise words of Kilian, ‘Un sommet se gagne quand nous avons reussi a en redescendre.’ A summit is only won when we have succeeded to descend. We claimed the Low Peak of Malte Brun, 3120 metres. Ten thousand feet in the sky – how can you be disappointed? Life could be worse!

We respected the Tapu nature of Malte Brun by not standing on the true summit

Fyfe's Couloir

Taking in one last magical panorama, we slung a rock and abseiled into the rotten Fyfe’s couloir. The sun had been rampant all day, and the mountain was soon dripping rock. The couloir happened to be a natural funnel – chunks of ice and rock ricocheted past, narrowly missing our helmets. Further down the couloir dropped over a bluff – a frozen waterfall. Just before donating a snow stake to the mountain, Owen spotted a bomber double t-slot already set up. An expensive abseil for another party, and we took full advantage.

Rapping off the frozen waterfall


The sun dipped over the Main Divide as we jumped the last of the couloir’s crevasses. Soft snow made an ideal landing pad, but my coordination lacked as I took a tumble and punctured my leg with three sharp crampon points. I was almost too tired to care.

Crevasse Jumping 101

Sixteen hours after setting off that morning, we stumbled off the glacier back to our campsite. But it was dark and took us another half hour to finally find where we’d stashed our packs. Dinner didn’t arrive to our mouths until midnight, but so good was that couscous and beef stew that we felt a second wind and stayed up till the early hours pondering the mountains and all that is good. The long trudge back down the Tasman could wait a few hours. For now we laid back on our ropes, closed our eyes, and took ourselves back to La Cheval. 

The morning after the climb. Waking up to the gorgeous upper Tasman Glacier

Another Day 

Today you climb to find
no perfect arete
nor summit cairn, damn it,
only horizontal wind and rope, no hope. 

Another day, you may return
to ride the ridge, that bridge
between the fears of mountaineers
and the casting out of doubt.

Barry Smith

All photos taken and perfected by Owen Lee 


  1. Awesome work guys!!! I loved reading this!!! I've love to have a go at the cheval ridge one day! :-)

  2. After reading some nice stuff in your article I really feel speechlesschild care rouse hill

  3. Hi Alistair, we are planning on climbing this route in january this year. I have heard varying reports about the terrain above the chevel. Some people say that there is a snow plod to the summit and others say that they left there crampons and axes at the base of the route. Whats your take on this? Any advice on the route welcome.