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Friday, 15 January 2016

Mt Percy Smith - The West Ridge

Over the past few weeks, I'd enjoyed many of the different aspects of mountains and climbing. Alpine ice on Aoraki, a transalpine traverse of the Gardens, trad climbing on the Banks Peninsula, and sport climbing at Paynes Ford. Drawing later into the summer season, the high alpine peaks become bare of snow and present their final gift: Alpine Rock.

Glorious alpine rock high on a mountain peak, requiring full commitment

Utilising the skills developed from other forays up long Canterbury river valleys, Pete Harris and I fast-tracked our approach up the splendid Hopkins Valley on mountain bikes, with the heaviest items of climbing paraphernalia attached to the frame.

Following faint 4WD tracks across the stony river bed was tricky at first, but once we had crossed the murky, braided Hopkins river to Red Hut, riding up the valley was rapid. Wind in our hair, peaks fast approaching, we whooped with joy, so glad to be crushing miles that would otherwise be tedious on foot.

Setting off from Monument Hut, bikes loaded with iron

Eventually we were forced to de-mount from our expedient transport, the unpleasant bush-bash to the Dodger swing-bridge a no-go for a two-wheeled stallions. Truth be told, it was actually a relief to be on foot as the terrain was becoming progressively less ride-able, our shoulders ached from numerous bike carries. We basked in the summer sunshine crossing the grassy alluvial flats to Dodger Hut for lunch, before entering the narrow confines of the upper valley, boulder hopping alongside the raging glacial waters.

Erceg Hut is sited high on a spur with a handy view into the upper Hopkins, home of infamous peaks such as Black Tower, and the scene of legendary ascents such as Gormenghast on the South Face of Hopkins, completed solo in the winter of '93 by Bill McLeod.

We also gazed up to the next stage in our approach journey - a one thousand metre ascent through a daunting maze of bluffs and steep snowfields. We squinted at the face through the afternoon, trying to pick out the line of least resistance to the Williams - Percy Smith col. But the suffering could wait; we dragged mattresses into the sun and roasted in the afternoon warmth.

Head of the Hopkins Valley - McKerrow, Black Tower, Hopkins

Starting early the next morning, slowly but surely, Pete and I were able to pick away at the ascent, deciphering a route through the puzzle of rock and snow steeped above us. Cross the bergschrund high, traverse beneath the waterfall, strap on crampons here, plug up the snowfield, tip-toe the snow-bridge, scramble the rock steps, and up the last snow slope...

Reaching the crest of the main divide was an exciting moment. From that point on we really gained the impression that we were embarking on a wilderness ascent, far from civilisation, the feeling of isolation was real.

At the col. our first view into Baker Stream

Baker Lake and the Mt Dechen ice cap beyond the Landsborough
Icebergs floated atop the swollen Baker Lake several hundred metres below, draining the daunting 750 metre high south-west face, of which we were only allowed a glance. It was not until we reached the shores of the glacial lake that the total magnitude of the face could be fully appreciated.

We scoured the face for potential lines, trying to imagine what it would feel like to be on the warm rock, ascending one of the many majestic crack lines and clean rock slabs. Moments later, echoes resounded across the valley, our eyes darted to the source. A slurry of rock debris poured down one of the gulleys, emptying from the overhanging fortress onto the rotten snow slopes below. This was the real deal, danger now shrouded the glory we imagined, and we set up camp deliberating over our other options...

South-West Face of Mt Percy Smith at dusk
The West Ridge of Percy Smith had long been a progeny of sorts for Pete ever since he had read Rob Frost's article The Great Unclimbed in The Climber magazine. To complete a skyline traverse of the peak along the 3 kilometre long West Ridge, finishing with a descent of the South Ridge back to camp with a first ascent was indeed an alluring prospect. But the South-West Face... The route stared us in the face, yet still held so much mystery.

We retired to our marginally-sheltered rock bivouac for the night, and perhaps the thought of a repeat experience of Peter Dickson & Bill McLeod's terrible sitting bivvy on their SW face ascent in '93 was enough to put me at ease about the considerably easier West Ridge. Or so it seemed.

At 5AM the following morning we headed off down valley for the base of the West Ridge, a slight caffeine overdose the wind at our backs. Gaining the ridge at dawn revealed the impressive East Face of Mt Hooker, a remote peak of the Landsborough with huge prominence. It was the mountaineering equivalent of being at a celebrity party, putting faces to names we had only dreamt about.

East Face of Mt Hooker at dawn

Cramponing up the lower West Ridge
The first few kilometres of ridge line passed quickly, rapid cramponing over meadows of frozen snow, and quick scrambling over increasingly rickety stacks. Upon reaching the top of a steep descent to a prominent notch, our progress was ground down as we navigated a maze of sharp gendarmes and horrendously loose rock. Perseverance was rewarded, and good route finding to the notch kept the rope in our packs. We now began the final 500 metre ascent to the peak on the true West Ridge.

Mt Williams across the Baker from the West Ridge
Climbing one of the fierce gendarmes that guard the summit headwall
The initial climbing was easy as expected, but topping out on a false summit in deteriorating weather revealed a frightening series of gendarmes and a ghastly summit headwall, now shrouded in swirling mist. We pulled out extra layers to combat the sweat-freezing wind chill. It was quite apparent that this unclimbed ridge would not go down without a fight.

We now recalled Peter Dickson's account of topping out on the SW face: "Upon reaching the summit ridge, Dickson and McLeod discovered it to be knife-edged and heavily guarded with gendarmes. Although the actual summit was only 200 metres away, it would have been another serious day’s climbing..."

The final two hundred metres of the West Ridge
Out came the iron: pitons, cams, wired nuts, carabiners, slings and quick-draws. Our weapons for the battle. We tied into either end of one rope, each coiling fifteen metres around our shoulders, leaving thirty between. We moved together along the ridge simultaneously, quickly placing protection before and after the difficulties, easing the mind to the exposure.

To the right was our Baker Lake camp, 800 metres directly below, and to the left was Percy stream, a similarly vertigo-inducing drop, heading out of sight, off the map, into absolute wilderness. After two necky pitches, perched atop a precipitous gendarme, we suddenly found ourselves at a point of ultimate despair.

Face to face with the summit headwall, our mental energy was dwindling, and the sight of this steep, final obstacle threatened to destroy our last reserves of fortitude. Could we muster the courage to surmount this one hundred metre high wall of rock, thrashed by wind, cloaked in uncertainty? To abseil off this crumbling precipice to the base of the headwall would call for total commitment. Valleys below too distant, and the way back too loose, there would be no chance for retreat. 

The summit headwall
We debated our options long and hard before committing to the summit attempt. As it turned out, the least difficult option was in fact forward. I abseiled off a backed up lost arrow piton to the base, careful to protect the rap lines from falling rocks.

To our surprise, from the base of the headwall, the angle of the face looked far more reasonable, and a line of continuous cracks and features seemed to provide a route up the smooth slabs. I shouted up to Pete that it might just go. He abseiled down to join me at the belay, passed me the rack, and changing into grippy rubber climbing shoes, I set off up the headwall, determined to save ourselves from a messy retreat.

The crux pitch up the summit headwall

The summit head wall of Mt Percy Smith with our line in red

High on the lead, five metres from a ledge, I needed one more piece to commit to the top-out. All that would fit was a knife-blade piton, but lacking the ice axe hammer I resorted to punching it into the rock with a carabiner covering my knuckles. It was all the psychological support I needed to mantle onto the shelf, Pete joining me soon after. The final chimney squeeze gifted us with a hand crack to ease the thrutch, and we ran up easy slabs to an emotional top-out. We had saved ourselves from our perch of ultimate despair, the relief was real.

Stoked to be on the summit. Now the descent...

The West Ridge finds its first ascent

Walking out the glorious Hopkins valley

Happy to be back at the car after an adventurous return journey

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