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Monday, 24 December 2012

The Edgar-Sealy Traverse

Bruised and blistered feet. The Tasman Glacier marathon had wrecked havoc on our feet on the return trip from Malte Brun. While we dreamed of zipping down the road to climb Aspiring, Owen and I realised our feet would not handle another mammoth walk in up the Matukituki Valley, French Ridge, and to the base of the SW ridge.

Owen climbing from the gorgeous saddle on the start of the East Ridge. Aoraki/Mt Cook absorbs the backdrop.

Gleaming our eyes over the Mt Cook map and guidebooks, we decided on a challenge with a short walk in, a few summits to bag, and more precipitous ridge to traverse. Just down the road from the Hermitage stood the stately Mount Edgar-Thompson, first climbed via the East Ridge, our intended route, by Mrs Jane Thompson in 1915. Her son Edgar died as a result of an injury sustained while playing football. Sad. 

The guide book mentioned that the connecting ridge to Mt Sealy provides excellent alpine rockclimbing. Perfect. We'd finish with an easy walk along the Annette Plateau and the Sealy Range to our favourite Mueller hut and whip down to the Herm for a beer. The Edgar-Sealy Traverse was set. 

Scrambling up a side stream of the Hoophorn to the saddle
We aimed to make our camp on the ridge between Edgar and Sealy in the evening, allowing us a leisurely afternoon start up the Hoophorn Stream. A refreshing boulder hop along the stream invited us into the valley, and our blistered feet were not complaining. The simple sound of a rushing river was incredibly relaxing. The streambed turned dry as we turned towards the saddle, but so warm was the little water we had, that upon reaching the snowline of the east ridge, an entire bottle of snow was absorbed. Chilled water on an evening climb, and in hearty abundance on the south-facing slopes.

Steeper snow slopes wind between rocky sections
The snowfield steepened as we climbed higher, hacking into the thousand metre climb. But never did the gradient require roping up, this was a relative stroll compared to the higher challenge of Malte Brun several days earlier. It was good to taste a solid grade 2 climb to get a feel for the difficulty scales of other mountains in NZ. A lot of factors are incorporated into the grading system; access, exposure, technical difficulty, protection, gradient. Other factors like weather and snow conditions only add to the apparent difficulty.

But today at about 6PM we stood comfortably on the summit of Mount Edgar-Thompson, happy and satisfied to finally have a true alpine summit under our belts. My experiences on The Footstool and Malte Brun were fantastic, but a mountaineer's ego is never fully satisfied until at the ultimate high point. We down climbed from the summit fifty metres to find a handy square spot of snow - more than sufficient for the night's camp - high altitude camping with all of Mount Cook spread out before us - a delectable alpine experience!

On the summit of Mt Edgar Thompson, 2379 metres

Soaking up the evening over dinner
The sharp teeth of Mount Sealy at the end of the ridge looked intimidating from camp. The ridge rose abruptly to the summit at the very end, and from our far-off perspective it was difficult to see an easy route up as we melted snow for dinner. 

The evening was cooling off, but I was still in shorts and t-shirt. One lesson I learned - don't leave skin exposed in the mountains. I slipped in some soft snow and gashed my shin on a sharp rock. Right to the bone, 3cm wide. We tried to close the wound with our limited first aid supplies, but without stitches it would surely be a lasting scar. A souvenir to take home from Mount Edgar-T.

Panorama from the superb campsite at sunset
Preparing for a cold night... 

In the interest of minimising weight at all costs for the climb, I left behind my synthetic-down jacket, Owen didn't carry a sleeping bag. Owen's single skin tent weighs just 1kg. I was keen to experiment in the ways of lightweight alpinism and develop a tolerance to the cold. I thoroughly suffered during the night as the temperatures plummeted. I woke at 3AM at the night's coldest, huddled deep inside my thin, 7degC bag, and struggled to find sleep again for the remainder of the night... This was what mountaineering is all about.  It's the sort of suffering I'd better get used to, this was, after all, summer! 

Owen soloing a steep and loose section. Typical of the day

In exchange for the lesser load, I was dealt the card of sleep deprivation, which lingered with me throughout the climb. This made the gnarly ridge traverse all the more tricky. I fought a tough battle to stay awake, my mind numbed to the exposure. I forced myself to not be complacent with every bouldering move. My coordination was lacking at times but we couldn't afford any mistakes. It was exciting and terrifying at the same time.

Abseil or down climb? Expensive slings make the decision
  It  began from the first step away from our frozen campsite. The ridge was assembled of a mixture of splintered argillite rock and sparse sections of solid greywacke. Sprinkled here and there with powdered scree, turned muddy by the rapidly melting snow. We hauled ropes through the climb, but never had a chance to use them, loose rock making any reliable protection hard to come by. The ridgeline was frequently covered in a soft snow arete, keeping our fingers warm as we repeatedly strapped on and off the crampons. 

Owen rests on the snow arete, staying well away from the corniced edge

Plugging back up to the ridge through soft snow

After five hours labouring on the crumbling ridge we finally reached the base of the first steep rock steps leading to the Sealy Range. Owen took one look at the climb, sampled yet more rotten rock, and spat at the guidebook promising excellent rock climbing. It would have been possible to down climb and plug up snow to bypass the climb. Nearing midday, soft wet snow was inevitable, ain't nobody got time for that. The climb was at that point aborted. At once my body received the message, it gave in to the call of fatigue, and I quickly fell asleep on our resting ledge. Owen woke me half an hour later, fearing that my twitching might be dangerous on the slope. I was roasted by the sun, and feeling sick from eating too much snow. I felt dehydrated with an unquenchable thirst. Such are the sufferings of the mountain - I have many lessons to learn.

The Dark Ridge of Rotten Rock
We descended a fortunately bluffless snow couloir into the Hoophorn stream, four thousand feet to drop to the Mount Cook road. It was a slog, and there were many silent tantrums as I slipped in the rock-riddled snow. An adventure of mixed emotions - the ease and joy of reaching Mount Edgar met by deep cold in the night, and a frustrating climb on poor rock, lacking the beautiful fluidity that we'd tasted on Malte Brun. The overall mountain experience was genuine and views second to none. A Sir Ed burger and glass of Speights at Old Mountaineers Cafe healed the wounds, of which there were many. Farewell Mount Cook!      

Descending down the Hoophorn's endless snow gut

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