Aoraki/Mt Cook

After all that preparation, and after years of climbing in this area I finally felt ready to tackle Mt Cook. Some people will climb it in their first season, but I was never that brave! I also wanted to do it myself, not blindly follow a guide or more a experienced friend up.

On Saturday crowds of people flew in - the weekend kiwi climbers. While most set out around midnight a few decided conditions weren't right and slept on. Two guides and their clients had waited for four days only to leave on the Saturday, not satisfied that everything was right. In the end almost twenty people must have summitted which just goes to show that everyone has a different idea of "good" conditions and you've just got to make your own decision in the end. Rely on your own judgement, go your own way and do your own thing....

Dave was keen on Zurbriggens Ridge, but the only way to do that is to solo it and I wasn't sure my calves were up to it! So in the end we decided to follow the crowds and plod the Linda. While this is considered the easiest routes up Cook it is one of the more dangerous. Its intimidating reputation is due to the significant objective dangers. Funny phrase that: it means any certain-death event that you can do nothing to avoid, short of not going there in the first place. Rock fall, avalanches and ice fall are all likely. The Gunbarrels, in particular, are feared. They are an ice cliff at the head of the glacier (just before you reach the summit rocks) that you have to cross underneath twice while never really moving out of the danger zone completely. You just have to scope out a route, and power through as fast as you can safely go. All the while hoping no ice falls off above you!

A few days prior to our ascent a massive ice fall had occured in the warm conditions, sending an avalanche half way down the upper Linda. The question was: Would that make it safer for a few days, or did it just go to prove how silly this whole sport is?

We had an uneasy afternoon, greeting people returning from their ascents or retreats, pestering them for as much information as possible. Some would argue that isn't good style: you ought to just turn up and climb. But I was pretty aprehensive about this climb and wanted as little uncertainty as I could get. We finally lay down for some rest but I never quite slept.

We got up for some breakfast at 11:30pm. Fruitcake and a Mars bar was all I could manage. Away at midnight. We raced across the Plateau and stormed up the glacier - at one point I looked at my altimeter and noticed we were ascending at nine metres per minute! Dave called for me to slow down. Since Dave is heavier than me and doesn't like crevasses I lead out, finding the path through, past and around all the slots. However here route-finding was trivial because we were following the massive trail of postholes left behind by this mornings summiteers. There was a good freeze so we made fast progress, crossing outrageous snow bridges over massive slots - some big enough to fit a house in, jumping over the smaller ones, veering around others. We walked alongside the debris from the Gunbarrels avo, which had fortunately filled a few slots in and paused to scope out the route ahead.

It was still dark and a light breeze had come up, too cold to stay still for long (I only had thermals and a windbloc vest on: gear which seems to suit a huge temperature range). With a last glance up at the ice looming overhead I put my head down and moved on...finally reaching the top of the Linda shelf and relative safety by 03:30. The wind was freezing, I got into more layers as quick as possible, which was very slow with stiff fingers and a harness and crampons. They had to come off so I could get my gortex and down on! In the end we ended up hacking a seat out of the ice and sitting it out till dawn.

Dave led up the first pitch of the Summit Rocks, then we swapped leads to the top. I'd been expecting serious, steep ice pitches. But it was really nice mixed climbing, manouver up to a rock step, plant a tool in the ice above, grab a bucket to the left, two crampon points on a tiny edge, stem out to the right to smear on rock, pull up and gingerly plant the left points in the ice on the lip, plant the left tool, stand up & move the right foot in and off we go: beautiful and one of the highlights of my trip. Clear blue skies, bright sunshine, awesome exposure and steady progress with some neat gymnastic moves. Can't be beaten!

The rocks gave out and we were faced with the summit ice-field. Steps led away and up...

But the ridge was pretty narrow just here, sheer drop on the left for 1500m and on the right curving away and down steeply. It's here you realise there is no such thing as "fear of heights" - I can stand all day looking up at a cliff. But depths, well! I stood around waiting for Dave to lead out and considering whether to wimp out and pitch it. Silly idea, that would have taken all day! But I couldn't move off, firmly planted on the spot clipped into a sling. Waiting for my head to make a decision...Finally Dave gave up encouraging me to move and went. I wasn't going to summit now unless I just moved. So I gathered up some courage and stepped off, carefully planting each set of crampon points and the axe: step, step, axe. Balance. Step, step, axe. And so on all the way up; past the ice cave; over the top schrund; watching a block of rock the size of a Combi van fall gracefully off the summit ridge and tumble down the East face; passing two descending parties. "Congratulations!" I called to the first, and "Namaste!" to the Sherpa in the second, thinking they'd put in a great effort to summit so fast. And on to the summit chandileer.

It was a stunning place: way higher than anything else, a view for hundreds of kilometres over range after range of snowy peaks, the ocean four km below us, waves breaking on the west coast beaches, the Tasman three km below, warm sunshine, no wind and a large flat spot to sit down and enjoy the scenery and satisfaction of summiting at last. The highest point for over 3000 kilometres in any direction.

"Did you see Guy Cotter and Ang Dorje?" Dave asked. Huh?! What? I'd just congratulated multiple Everest summiteers on their doddle up Cook. Duh!

We pitched quickly up to the summit ridge and stood about congratulating each other and peering down into the Hooker, admiring the view south, Mt Tasman to the north and proclaiming "I am a mountaineer" [private joke;)]. 09:45, Monday, 18th Dec 2001. Todd and Rob had climbed with us and Didier and Sharon, the French couple on their honeymoon, and a German couple. Eight of us had left the hut that morning and eight of us summitted.

Now we just had to get down.

I waited till last to enjoy the serenity and ask the mountain to let us down safely. I followed Todd down the summit ice-field from where we could look down the Linda, our route home. I imagined the heat and slush that awaited us there.

I stopped in the cool sanctuary of the ice-cave , watching the world through the scollaped blue ice, half wishing I could stay all day. I took a breath and walked on down, being more careful then ever taking each step one at a time, aware of the drop below me and my increasingly weary state. We rapped the rocks, taking forever to sort tangled ropes and a rope jam. Shit! I just wanna get back to the hut! I remember a butterfly, flapping gently about and bobbing away carefree in a world of its own. I was begining to occupy a world of my own - only half aware of my surroundings and concentrating carefully on all I did. No sleep, thirteen hours climbing and only a couple of muesli bars and a ryvita sandwich. By the time I reached the shelf I was feeling distant, outside myself, watching from somewhere above my right shoulder...some guy removing his harness to take his goretex off, stuffing down jacket in a pack, slowly - where are we? Oh yeah! Better eat something and get moving. I scoffed a snickers, roped up with Dave, cleared my head, and we ran off down the hill.

Postholing to our knees, leaping slots and glissading we got home to the hut in time for tea.


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