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Thursday, 11 September 2014

An Attempt on the South Face of Mt Hutton

History is there to be made. Inspired by the climbers of past eras and of today who have pioneered new routes throughout the Southern Alps, I felt the urge to try and claim virgin territory. With the range of guide books available today, its hard not to know information on the approach and pitch by pitch information for any climbing route. Where are the guide books for those routes that are unclimbed?

I was also eager to trial a new technique for cutting down approach times up the long braided river valleys of the Canterbury Alps: by using mountain bikes. I scouted the map for a big hill at the end of a long valley with a fairly rideable 4WD track. Logic being that a long approach on foot would surely put most mountaineers off and increase our chances of finding an unclimbed route. For the weekend warrior, more than a day to approach the route is too much an investment. But on mountain bikes, with inventive techniques for loading the heavy climbing gear onto the frames, we should be able to increase our speed four of five times over. Of course there are 4WD trucks, but we had none. This was a man-powered mission from the road-end.

After a quick search, I traced the Cass Valley 25km upstream of the Glenmore Station near Tekapo to its head, until the contours turned blue: ice. Mt Hutton. A quick check of the guide book revealed a startling surprise. The South Face of this 2800m tall mountain was... unclimbed.

The unclimbed South Face of Mt Hutton
The excitement and suspense of attempting the unknown. We would have to rely solely on our judgement of current snow and ice conditions, previous photos if any, and climbing experience to judge whether a climbable route up the face might exist. One photo seemed to suggest that two long licks of ice could be connected at half height on the face and top out close to the summit. Our intuition maxed out, I gathered two friends with skills on both bike and ice, and sure enough, after just two hours on the bike, we were ploughing through winter snow up the Faraday glacier, our goal in sight...

Where to sleep for the night? The next unanswered question. We decided to maximise use of the daylight and continued up to the next tier of the glacier where we found a pleasantly flat patch of snow almost directly beneath the immense face. It was surreal to lie there staring at the towering southern face above us in the twilight, thick lashings of ice both our friend and foe. Lightweight as always, we had opted for a simple bivvy with just a light fly to keep the powder snow from invading our sleeping bags. We fired up the Jetboil for a warm stew; warm being a relative term for such an inhospitable environment.

To compound our tension during the long, cold and restless night, our bivvy site was placed precariously between the debris paths of two intimidating ice falls. Throughout the night, cracks of thunder erupted from high above, followed by the whoomph of a powder plume and chunks of ice skittling past, too close for comfort. We debated sleeping with helmets on. Unfortunately our options were limited, and we relied on statistics of unscathed snow around us to carry us safely through the night.

Ben approaching the schrund below the face

The next morning after a soothing dawn, our first obstacle came abruptly. A large schrund (crevasse between the rock and glacier) was visible from the valley, but my optimism hoped for an easy snow bridge to straddle the hollow abyss. At first there was no obvious snow-bridge, steep rock flanked either side, and overhanging powder snow curled above us across the divide. Some scouting later, a marginal snow-bridge was found, but sucked up valuable time as we pulled out the rope for safety. Snow cornices can be very deceiving. Onwards to the base of the face...

Now, what looked like a small gap between the glacier and the main ice line turned out to be an huge rocky overhang, with fangs of powder snow floating over the lip, hanging on by nothing, seemingly amused by our dilemma. Our direct start eliminated, we would have to find another way on. Elisha suggested we climb up a snow slope to the right to determine if we could traverse in from the side. A steep strip of ice glued to the rock traversed around the rock and out of view. Should we give it a go? "We're here, we gotta try..."

Delicate, airy, balancy... It was a real test of our ice skills. Pockets of good ice lay amongst pockets of sugary powder. The rock above or below was of little use for protection, and so the run-outs extended between the odd ice screw. I was well aware that traverse are as exposed for the leader as the seconders. I gripped my tools as my calves shook under the strain of front pointing while I tried in vain to protect the pitch for Elisha and Ben. Close to the main lick of ice we were aiming for, I set up a snow stake belay and brought the others across. Elisha shrieked with adrenaline as he pulled through this testing plunge into the deep end of technical mountaineering.

Although our route was now within touching distance, an abrupt drop off and vertical corner of rock separated us from further progress. Ben and Elisha, fresh from the nerves of the previous pitch didn't enjoy the signals my body language sent as I peered over the edge. "If you think it looks ridiculous, it probably is!" they shouted as I tentatively lowered myself down to a ledge below, my crampon front points finding ever so small foothold ledges to support my weight. I found a small crack to jam in a cam and my heart rate reduced...

The ice was incredibly close now, but the wall below was sheer. Reaching across, feeling incredible exposure, I managed to torque one pick into a crack. At full stretch, I swung my left tool blindly for purchase into the ice, a few false pings until thunk. Centering my weight onto the tools, I dynamically launched my crampon points into the ice, weight on the arms, loosened one pick from the crack and swung it higher into the ice. Solid. I scrambled desperately up onto the slope, entirely focussed on the job at hand... I continued up the ice, through a steepening chute, until the full sixty metres was out. Sweating, and exhausted, I put in a good belay and kicked a ledge to release my calves from the burn.

Ben and Elisha found this crux extremely challenging as well. Ben tried first and literally hit a brick wall. With inventive belaying techniques, Elisha belayed him from his position as I belayed from high above. Just as he landed the crucial placement and pulled up, the ice broke free, and he fell backwards, caught by his two lifelines...

After multiple unsuccessful attempts at the exposed move, a switch flicked in my head - a pulley. I could haul him over the lip. Quickly, I attached a short prussic to his live strand, and linked with a pulley I could apply a three to one advantage, with the belay device capturing all progress. The system was instantly effective! Ben, and shortly after Elisha were soon on their way up the ice to my belay.

Past what we believed to be the crux, we set up for the next stage. However, ten metres higher I hit steep powdery snow, leading onto an immense wall of ice. Suddenly I felt my strength sapped, the mental effects of the challenges below accumulated and sunk my spirits. The time was now 2pm. I couldn't believe so much time had passed. I tried to mentally search out a route onto and up this sweep of golden ice, the stuff that dreams are made of. But I knew that time was running out. Continue at this rate and we would surely be benighted on a high and difficult face with limited options for retreat. In the emotional rollercoaster ride of our fates swaying in the balance of success and failure, I now decided our attempt was over... It was too much.

I down climbed to the previous belay, where we sacrificed one snowstake to the mountain for our first sixty metre abseil. Near the end of the line I found a good looking patch of ice for a v-thread anchor. This second abseil sent us over the overhanging snow that had denied us that morning. Free hanging over the lip, gaping at the steepness, and slowly rotating about the rope, our mountainous scene was swept out spectacularly...

Climbing above the gaping schrund

Walking away from Mt Hutton

Our incomplete line on the face
Although we were unsuccessful on our attempt, it is this failure that has given us a more wholesome respect to the mountain, and to the past pioneers of our Kiwi mountaineering history. The guys that just went out and did it, never knowing how hard, how high, or how long it might take them. True adventure.

Our mission was an authentic 'first ascent' experience; a complete roller-coaster ride of doubts and surges of excitement as each obstacle was met and surmounted. The line we attempted was surely the most aesthetic on the south face, and really deserves another attempt. If not this year, then next. What a prize that awaits. I just hope that no one else beats us to it!

Elisha enjoying the moonlit ride back along the Cass Valley

A Tribute to the Humble Ice Screw

Ice screw, O, ice screw
How my pumped arms long for you
I twist your teeth deep in the freeze
Strain relieved from my trembling knees
That shiny shaft of crafted steel
My saviour of silver hue

Ice screw, ohh, ice screw
You protect my nerves, big falls bad news
Thin ice, fat ice, with all sizes I choose
The screw that suits the ice I use

Ice screw, Oh, ice screw
So far below, power now reduced
The rope is run, the pitch is done
I screw one screw
But in view of my partner's safety due
I screw two

Ice screw, O, ice screw!
Redundancy full, an anchor so brute,
Now my partner approaches the crux of the route
Ice cracks, he plunges, but the ice screws hold true.

Ice screw, oh, ice screw
Your trust is proven, I believe in you
I haul my second over steep icy lip
Solely reliant your threads do not rip

Ice screw, o, ice screw
Your value is worth the price I paid for you
Our lives hang through you
A silver tube in ice so blue
That cam nor hex nor nut nor snarg nor piton hold strong like you do

Ice screw, Oooh, ice screw
Though I bail this route I must not lose you
With longest screw I insert two tubes
That join as one, for a v-thread costs few 


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