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|
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|
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|
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|
|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|
|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|