Two and a half years ago Elisabet and I signed up to a High Alpine Skills course in Temple Basin, Arthur’s Pass. On day one our American instructor Pete sat us down and asked each of us what our motivations were for the training. Why did we want to take on the risks the mountain environment offers? Neither I nor Elisabet had a particularly convincing explanation, but still the intrigue was there. In lieu of anything else I blurted out that I would like to become good enough to climb Mt Cook. I mean why not? The roof of New Zealand, the “Cloud Piercer”. Not to mention the fact that mountaineers come from all over the world to attempt this technical peak.
It wasn’t until earlier this year when we made the call to have a crack; getting sound advice and the nod from more experienced members in the club was the incentive we needed. Our plan was for a week on the plateau, along with Mike Phethean and Katie Glenie who were also keen to have another attempt after being turned back due to soft snow last time. Regretfully, just a few weeks before the trip Katie had to withdraw due to injury, which left the two of us. Undaunted, our planning continued – poring over maps, studying each section of the route, with its distance, altitude gain and skills required. We watched every video available and come the flight to Christchurch could more or less recite every part of the Linda Glacier route.
After a quick stop in Christchurch to pick up food and other supplies we made the 4 hour drive across the country to Mt Cook Village and Unwin Lodge where we spent the first night. Luckily for us, we were on the first helicopter out that next morning, and in just 15 minutes were being dropped outside the hut with a breathtaking view of all the major peaks in the area. We wasted no time in getting settled in and repacking our kit for a wander across the Grand Plateau. We walked to the base of the Linda Glacier, but quite happily turned around and strolled back given the regular rumblings of major loose wet avalanches on the faces beyond. Most of the guides were frowning on any attempt to climb that night – to put it quite simply, the Linda is not a place to be unless there has been a freeze.
There was a group of ambitious South Koreans there gunning for Cook and they wasted no time hitting the route at 2200 that night, even though when they left it was raining! Another guided group of 2 decided to have a go too and we made a decision to get up and take a look even though deep down we knew we weren’t going to go the distance. To be honest I think it was more of a dry run for us, to get used to the idea of getting up before midnight and setting out into the dark. We set off just before 0100 and once again made it just to the base of the Linda Glacier before we quickly turned around and headed back (imagine the sound of avalanches going off ahead and all you’ve got is your tiny headlight!)
That Monday we went for a climb on the East Face of Mt Dixon; picking a difficult route up through the rock face and onto the ridge heading to the summit. The climbing was stressful, because of the terrible quality of rock. At one stage Elisabet had to cower under a boulder at the anchor as I rained loose rock down from above trying to make a way through. I relished the challenging mixed climbing but I absolutely would not recommend it to anyone! As the weather began closing in and the snow started disintegrating beneath us we made the hasty decision to retreat down the bolted abseil line and back to the safety of the hut.
Upon returning there had been a huge influx of new arrivals – Plateau hut sleeps 30 and by this point we were at 36. Still we made room for everyone as you do, and sure enough enjoyed watching the storm roll in right on time Monday night. The bad weather continued right through until Wednesday, with a few hours respite Wednesday morning in which all of the training groups dashed out to do some crevasse rescue practise and ice climbing. We instead opted to save energy and spent the whole time racking up hours of Rummikub and drinking tea. We made the schoolboy error of opting mostly for dehydrated dinners for the week, instead of bringing fresh food like everyone else (it must have been sheer laziness on our part not to find some recipes!)
Thursday morning and the storm was gone, but it had left over 40cm of new snow in some places. All the tracks previously laid by the Koreans through the Linda were gone, meaning someone had to get back up there and find a new way through the crevasse field in daylight. There had not been a freeze for days, until now, and it was forecast to come lower before it went up again. We were somewhat cautious about this, knowing that new unconsolidated snow can be very unstable and dangerous post-storm. Still, if there were to be any serious summit bids in this new 48 hour weather window, someone had to do it. Whilst the other groups went to take on the smaller peaks of Glacier Dome and Anzac Peaks, we carved a new route through the lower Linda which took us 4 hours return to Teichelmann corner. We made sure to keep the line in the centre of the glacier so as to avoid the huge avalanche risks from the Bowie ridge on the left, and Mt Silberhorn on the right. The crevasses here are monstrous – one was most definitely larger than a rugby field, and probably as deep (there’s no telling how deep some of these are, they disappear into darkness!) I can understand now why this route is famous for getting cut off later in the season.
Upon returning to the hut, we relaxed, ate and drank as much as we could, snoozing on and off where possible. Our gear was fully prepared – sharpened axes, crampons, rope knots all tied and measured and all necessary gear already racked onto our harnesses. We literally had to crawl out of bed at 2300 when our alarms went off and put it all on. We wasted no time sitting down for food, but instead stuffed our pockets with snack bars and bagels and chipped away as we moved. We were out the door at 2345 and with the overnight freeze beginning, made a beeline to the Linda in just 20 minutes. After just over 3 hours of travel, we found ourselves at 3000m altitude and scrambling over huge pieces of avalanche debris right where the infamous ‘Gunbarrels’ run out. The Gunbarrels are a huge icefall from the summit of Aoraki which descend all the way to the head of the Linda Glacier. For the best part of 20 minutes (and much more if you consider how far avalanches from here can run) you are a sitting duck underneath these. Your most effective method of safety is to move fast. And the terrain is not easy – it’s steep and icy. So much so that as we arrived at the first of many bergschrunds we had to pitch our way up with rope, snow stakes and the odd ice screw. This took us up onto what is known as the Linda Shelf, a steep face of snow with significant exposure of another icefall beneath it. There were some rock buttresses in between the two run outs of the gunbarrels which offered fantastic rock and solid anchors for a quick breather.
From here it’s another dash underneath the second gun barrel (note that until now this is all in darkness with just a head torch, which is actually quite a good thing!) and then a steep climb up the shelf to the second bergschrund which was just frozen enough to take our weight. We opted for a direct couloir from here of about 120m in length, with a gradient of roughly 40 degrees. More great rock made me feel much safer on lead until I finally topped out at what is known as ‘Spaghetti Junction’ (named after the mass of old slings and tape placed here before anchor bolts were installed). I’d expected some respite from the exposure here but no, it was simply a thin ridge – the couloir and Linda Shelf to my right, and the entire East Face and Zurbriggan Ridge to my left. It was at the point that the sun rise came and Mt Tasman and surrounding peaks were bathed in a beautiful red glow.
At this stage a Czech climber caught us up as he was attempting to free solo (climb without a rope) the whole route. I let him pass me out onto the crux – the first pitch of the Summit Rocks. The pitch is roughly a grade 8 in rock climbing terms, but with close to a kilometre of free air beneath your crampons, and firm ice to climb on, it’s exhilarating. He wasn’t sure looking up so waited there for me to lead the section (hint – it’s a heck of a lot easier with a rope!) There are fantastic anchor bolts now fitted all the way up the Summit Rocks, and with our 60m rope I managed to climb the whole thing in 2 pitches from the junction. Elisabet followed me brilliantly – her ice climbing has come on leaps and bounds so she actually looked like she was really enjoying herself through this, the most technical part of the climb.
There is a small flat spot to catch your breath at the top of the rocks. I put an ice screw in here and brought Elisabet up for a well deserved muesli bar. From here we were on the summit ridge, but it was far from over. There is one slightly exposed ice step which we pitched on the way up but free soloed on the way back down. After that we switched to short roping as pitching was unnecessary and we didn’t want the hassle of untying and putting the rope away knowing that we might need it again at any point. By now we were at roughly ~3500m so the altitude starting kicking in. Every 10 or so steps we had to stop to catch our breath. It’s a strange sensation – like suddenly feeling completely unfit. After the false summit comes the final obstacle – the summit ice cap. I had read that there had been more than one fatality on this section in the past, and I now understand why. We were mentally prepared for this section, but it still didn’t make it any easier. It’s a good 100m of sustained cramponing up very firm snow. At times you are lucky if your front points only go in a centimetre. It took a whole heap of determination and concentration to keep moving safely on this section but we finally broke the back where the slope eases off to softer snow just 20m from the climber’s summit.
We topped out on Aoraki at 0945 Friday 7 December. Words cannot describe the moment I stepped up and realised there was no more mountain to climb – NZ opened up around us. A complete 360 panorama of the country as far as the eye can see. Elisabet joined me just 10 seconds later and we embraced and spent an emotional few moments letting it sink in. Soon after our friends JB and Annie from Adventure Consultants joined us, and the South Koreans about 15 minutes later.
Then came the descent. Arguably the hardest part of the whole down climb was again the summit ice cap. We took a slightly indirect route down, still roped together and carefully switching between French and front point technique as the snow condition continually changed beneath us. After 15 rather stressful minutes we reached gentler ground on the summit ridge and carefully heel plunged back to the summit rocks (with the only other obstacle being the small ice step which required further down climbing), arriving there at just after 1100. We opted to down climb the first abseil of the Summit Rocks, back to the first of the bolted anchors. It was there, just as I was about to attach myself to the abseil rope, that I dropped my ATC (the friction device used for abseiling and belaying). Darn. It rolled off down the forbidden couloir which more than one climber has apparently mistaken for the abseil line in the past. I had to use a double Italian hitch for this section which whilst simple, puts a huge amount of twist in the rope, causing Elisabet all sorts of fun on her abseils!
It took us two stretched 30m abseils to get back to spaghetti junction where we put the rope away and opted to free solo our way back down the ~120m couloir leading to the bergschrund at the top of the Linda Shelf. This whole section went very fast and we were back down to the relative safety of the ledge beneath the ‘schrund at 1200 noon. This section of the shelf is steep and so given the snow was beginning to fall from underneath our feet we had to negotiate our heel plunges quite softly. One gunbarrel out of the way, and the big one shortly after, but not before roping up again for glacier travel. The next 30 minutes was nothing short of a sweaty ‘jog’ as we wanted out of there asap. We pressed on past Bowie corner where JB and Annie opted for an extended rest, and methodically worked our way back down through the crevasses of the Lower Linda in the heat of the day – it felt like an oven up there. We stopped for 30 minutes at the bottom of the Linda and then began the final torturous uphill towards the hut. One of the Korean support team met us at the bottom of the hill and offered to carry Elisabet’s pack for her as we were really starting to fade. We arrived back at the hut at 1515, which totalled 15.5 hours all up. The welcome we received from all the other parties was amazing and we are eternally grateful for their fantastic support throughout the week.
That night was just pure harmony for us both; a couple of glasses of wine to celebrate the ascent and an early night watching TV shows, knowing we had a sleep in the next day. What made it even better was hearing all the other summit parties getting up at 2200 that night, knowing we could stay in our warm sleeping bags! The next morning I sat on the balcony with my coffee and watched the small dots of these parties ascend the ice cap and onto the summit, as early as 0730 (they had the steps and a better freeze I say!) All in all, 21 out of 22 summited in that 48 hour weather window, a superb result. We managed to jump into an earlier helicopter flight with one of the Aspiring Guides groups, and were back at Unwin Lodge enjoying a hot shower by lunch time. We treated ourselves to a huge lunch at the Old Mountaineer’s cafe, and after signing out with DOC, spent our last evening relaxing and re-packing; an incredible to end to an incredible week in the Southern Alps (and a massive tick off the bucket list!)