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Tuesday, 8 December 2015

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

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