We’ve all been there…. weather watching in the days and weeks before a big trip, somehow trying to predict just when and how that next front from the South is going to hit, and how hard. All the while hoping it will be either side of your perfectly planned weekend.
Add snow into the mix and you get the added stresses of avalanche warnings, snowpack conditions and on this occasion, the first time we’d have to consider crevasse and bergschrund size. For the uninitiated, crevasses are one of the many perils of a glacier. A glacier is a huge river of ice, which exists all year round and moves at a slow crawl. Crevasses are cracks/splits in glaciers which can appear at points of tension/stress either at convex slopes or corners where they weave down the valley. Bergschrunds are crevasses which usually appear at the bases of mountain faces/ridges, where the steepness of the slope means the weight of the ice can not hold itself to the side, creating often massive, impassible tears in the ground.
So whilst we were very happy to see a considerable period of good weather forecast for our imminent trip to Aoraki Mt Cook after Christmas, we were also cautious given the exceptionally hot summer we’ve had so far. And we were right to be cautious.
Elisabet and I arrived in Mt Cook village on Boxing Day afternoon, after having flown to Christchurch and renting a car for the ~4 hour drive cross country. There at Unwin Lodge we met Henry, Nick J and Lucy who had been out climbing over Christmas. All flights were grounded that day due to poor visibility, and so we spent the afternoon settling in and making plans.
Wednesday 27th and our flight wasn’t available until 2:30pm, so we took the chance to dash over to Sebastapol Bluffs and climb the famed Red Arete; a 100m+ multi pitch sport route with a very enjoyable grade of 13. The exposure from this bluff is quite exhilarating and certainly got me in the mood for what was to come!
Our helicopter flight left bang on time after we had weighed and paid, and Lucy was lucky enough to get to ride in the spare 5th seat, to see us dropped at Tasman Saddle hut, before heading back to Mt Cook Village. We dumped our stuff and after a quick snack, roped up for glacier travel and set about putting a route in over towards the Anna Glacier, for a closer look at the trio of Mt Green, Walter and Elie De Beaumont.
We went as far as the Eastern edge of the Anna Glacier before turning back for dinner. We didn’t need to go any further to discover that the standard route up towards Elie was a no-go. The South ridge up to Green and Walter looked more favourable but there were still at least 3 huge bergschrunds which would need navigating, making the proposition appear much more challenging that its advertised ALP2 grade.
Thursday 28th and we were up bright and early for what was a successful attempt on Hochstetter Dome. This mountain, whilst considered one of the ‘easier’ climbs in the area, is no doddle – we walked up to the saddle before turning left and taking on the SE Ridge where there are some rather sharp edges to tread. It made for superb climbing, if not a little loose underfoot. Standing on the summit of Hochstetter afforded amazing views North up towards the likes of Mt Mannering, and gave us a front row seat of the mighty Elie De Beaumont, which was also cut off from the SE Ridge (making 2 of the 3 routes from this side a no-go). 5.5 hours later we were back at Tasman Saddle eating lunch and having a rest, rueing the mistake of forgetting to bring (and apply) suncream to our now red noses.
Even though the chances were very unlikely indeed, I still had a desire to give Elie a shot, and our only option was to climb over the summit of Mt Walter. From the hut, this would have been an extraordinary effort in a day, and so Elisabet and I opted to increase our chances by heading out that afternoon towards the base of the Anna Glacier, and bivvying at 2258m below the South ridge of Mt Green. Henry and Nick joined us until we hit the Anna where they stopped to watch us carefully weave our way through the crevasse field. We eventually arrived at our tiny flat bivvy spot around 5:30pm (some 2 hours later) and spent the rest of the evening watching incredible avalanches going off behind us from the East face of Mt Coronet.
Friday 29th and our alarm went off at 3:45am. By the time we were up and finishing up breakfast, we could see the two head torches of Nick and Henry already making great progress across the glacier in our direction. Our collective plans were to target Mt Walter, with us in the lead. We hit an iced up slope almost immediately after leaving our tent and so had to get the rope out which slowed us down. It was around this time I realised my first rookie mistake – I had not scouted a route through the bergschrund from afar the day before, and so after 3 attempts at different points we still had no way of passing what was a 3 metre wide hole in the slope. By the time we eventually found a small snow bridge to get through, Nick and Henry had dissolved our carefully planned lead, and the sun was already up. Elisabet and I climbed on from here, but Nick and Henry made the decision not to continue.
We had a long 150m climb diagonally up to a bunch of rocks which we had to go straight through as the other side was cut off by another crevasse. By the time we got through these and anchored ourselves, we’d been climbing for almost 2 hours and we were barely 150m vertical from our bivvy site. From here the slope just shoots directly up a long snow ramp, for over 400m distance. With hindsight, we probably could have free climbed all the way up, but instead we chose to rope up which is probably a reflection of our relative inexperience on these bigger mountains.
We finally hit the knife ridge (the hardest part of the route) at 8:30am. This part is not long, but incredibly exposed. It narrows from about half a metre to barely the width of your boot, and one side was complete mush whereas the other was icy. I made it some 100m along this ridge, with another ~80m to go, before I heard Elisabet behind me shouting that she was losing confidence. We said from the beginning that we don’t want to climb anything we genuinely won’t enjoy, and Elisabet was not enjoying this. I firmly believe we are capable of climbing at this level, however on this day, in these conditions, we immediately made the decision to turn back, knowing that in a few hours this snow would be crumbling beneath our feet. The descent would have been nasty.
Elisabet belayed me back to her point where I spent a few minutes reassuring her and helping her compose herself. Now up until this point (and for quite some months), I had romanticised on an idea. Given this had been our first attempt at a 3000m+ peak, it was a very important day for us as it was the culmination of months of practise, hard work and thousands of dollars of gear and training. I had hoped I could do it at the summit of Walter or even Elie, but in that moment, seeing that we’d both given it our all, I knew the time was right. Some might argue that it was a little irresponsible of me given Elisabet’s state of mind, but she’s damn tough, so I knew it would be OK. I couldn’t get on one knee given our location (I was already on 2!) but I chose there and then to propose to her. After she realised I wasn’t joking and was in fact holding a real engagement ring, she got the swearing out of her system then accepted, and we needed a further few minutes to ground ourselves and prepare to descend!
We arrived back to our bivvy site at 2258m just after noon, where we collapsed into our tent to get out of the insane midday heat. We steeled ourselves for the long slog back to the hut with our heavy packs, and made slow progress back down off the ridge and under the gut-wrenching seracs of Mt Walter. A few minutes after we passed near them, we witnessed a huge chunk explode off it as if by dynamite, and got to see it hit the glacier 200m below from just a few hundred metres away. It’s probably the only kind of beauty I know which at the same time evokes a feeling of absolute sickness!
We trudged back into Tasman Saddle Hut to some very happy and relieved folks who had spent much of the day watching our progress from across the glacier. They were indeed pleased we had made the call to turn back. Turns out no-one had been going very far with the snow so soft, so we didn’t feel too hard done by. That afternoon was a very relaxed one.
Saturday 30th and the forecast was for another brilliant day deteriorating later on, with tomorrow looking nasty with winds of up to 110kph. We had really wanted to go and climb Mt Aylmer but after much consideration we knew that if we did we’d be giving up Sunday with no guarantee we could fly out on the Monday. So reluctantly we sacrificed this climb and called in a back flight which picked us up at 10am and flew us out to the scorching heat of Mt Cook Village. After getting back to Unwin and unpacking all our gear, we kitted up again and went back to Sebastapol bluffs where Nick and Henry climbed Red Arete and Elisabet and I messed around on pitch 1 of an awkward slab climb nearby.
Sunday 31st and sure enough, we awoke to heavy cloud, rain and wind in the valley. We took a leisurely drive to Lake Tekapo and hung out for a few hours in the hot springs before picking up some beers and other supplies for New Year. We spent the afternoon planning one more mission for New Years Day and a very quiet evening in the lodge, heading to bed just before 10pm.
Monday 1st – what a way to start the new year! We were up at 6am and at the trail head and walking by 7:30am. The four of us took the well marked trail up to the Red Tarns and on to the summit of Mt Sebastapol, with Nick leaving us and heading back down shortly before. From there myself, Elisabet and Henry set out on what was supposedly a “grade ALP1 scramble” up the Sebastapol Ridge to a height of 2235m where it tops out on the summit of Mt Annette.
The mist and cloud hung low for much of the morning making it very hard to see what we were in for. But it didn’t take long for us to realise what the route would be like, as the back of Mt Sebastapol offers up some rather challenging rock moves on very exposed crumbly ledges. Henry would go on to claim that a couple of spots were probably around the grade 12 climbing level, and I wouldn’t disagree. Doing it without a rope made the proposition all the more exciting/scary. At around 1700m we finally broke through the clouds to a perfect day. We were floating on a blanket of white with the summits of Sefton, Footstool, Cook, Malte Brun and Nun’s Veil in a perfect panorama.
From here the ridge gradually lost it’s beautiful green grass and flowers, and turned into something resembling the summit ring of Ngaurahoe in the Summer. That would have been fine, except that higher still, the gradient ramped up to 60 degrees in places, with big slab climbing moves required and small ledges to negotiate. A couple of times we must have taken the route less travelled because we had to back track to find another way, until at roughly 2000m we hit the snow. We put on crampons and with two axes carefully traversed the snow slope up to the very base of the head wall of Mt Annette. We reached a small col just below 2100m where we stopped for lunch before attempting to climb the last ~100m to the summit directly up the rocky ridge. By this point we were free climbing on 70-75 degree rock, and regularly dislodging huge blocks making things extremely dangerous for those of us below. We back-tracked from this plan and attempted to skirt the hideously steep couloir to the North, but after Elisabet got an arm and a leg trapped under a chunk of dislodged rock, we knew the writing was on the wall and this would be a stupid gamble to continue.
There was a much more favourable route up over the scree and snow to the South of the peak, but by the time we had backtracked to the col to scout it out, it was already past 2:30pm and we had been climbing for 7 hours. Further, to get to that side would have put us in the firing line of the Annette headwall which was ejecting rocks on a regular basis. Elisabet had lost her head torch into the crevasses on the Walter climb and we were fast running out of water and food. It was mentally very difficult for me to accept to turn back here, not because of missing the summit, but because I knew that just 100m from our position there was wonderfully flat ground which spelled safety, even if only temporarily. I think I was also utterly emotionally drained from a long and demanding week.
And so we began the tricky down climb. We had to reverse all those difficult moves we had made coming up, but luckily managed to avoid a few of them given we could now see the easier paths in the much clearer weather. The descent took 4 hours, and I only started breathing calmly again when we finally scooted our way down the huge scree slopes of Mt Sebastapol and back to the safety of the public walking track at the Red Tarns. In reflection, again the hot weather made for a much more challenging climb. Simon told us later on at the lodge that in colder times, the loose rock is mostly well bonded by ice and covered in much more snow in which case I could actually believe the grading of ALP1. The fact we got as far as we did in these conditions was a worthy effort, in my opinion.
Nick J was kindly waiting for us at the road end with a car full of extra water. He drove us straight to the pub where we arrived stinking and sweaty, and garnering many questions from the curious tourists asking where we’d been. After 11 straight hours of stressful and demanding climbing, I knocked back 4 beers faster than I have ever done before, and slept that night like a baby.
I came into this trip naively hoping to bag a lot of prestigious summits, but instead I left with something far more valuable – buckets of new experience, lessons learned and a more humble attitude to the serious NZ mountains. Oh, and a fiancé of course!
Hochstetter Dome & Mount Walter:
Mt Annette via Sebastapol ridge: