Into The Mountains – Technical Mountaineering Course – Alpine Guides Mount Cook

Into The Mountains

Technical Mountaineering Course – Alpine Guides Mount Cook

The view from the hut balcony
The view from the hut balcony

A personal account – Feb 2017


Denali, Greenland, Big Ben on Heard Island, the Himalayas, Sierra Nevada, Bugaboos, the Matterhorn, South America. These were some of the mountains my friends and brothers had climbed on since doing their mountaineering courses to learn the ropes on snow and ice in New Zealand in the seventies. While they did several seasons in the Southern Alps honing skills and developing experience before venturing to other ranges I volunteered in Africa, got involved in family life and forged a career in outdoor education. My work took me away from home regularly – it would have been too hard to justify taking blocks of extra time out for New Zealand and longer expeditions – so I focussed on rockclimbing and extending my collection of books by Joe Simpson, Bonatti, Herzog, Dougal Haston, Jon Krakaur, Galen Rowel and a host of others. Then a chance hike around Grindelwald where I paid my respects at the bottom of the Eiger and saw the stunning Finsteraahorn in the distance surprised me with an intense emotional response and coincided with the opportunity to pursue the dream that had been shelved for so long.

Mt. Cook beckoned above cloud on the flight over. On the drive beside Lake Pukaki next day the sun shone on the green water but clouds foreboded further up the valley. By the time I reached Unwin Hut rain was sheeting down. Waterfalls thundered off the hills behind the hut. The following day the clouds lifted and Cook’s summit caught the sunlight. Rainbows appeared over Nuns Veil across the valley.

Day 1

The course kicked off at the AG base in Mt Cook Village – intros, gear checks, a little theory and roping up for glacier travel. The group seemed switched on and quite skilled in rope sports. Back at Unwin the picture windows showed off the Malte Brun Range and Mt Wakefield.

Day 2

We practiced how to prussik out of crevasses and had an early weather check. A quick dash over to the airstrip, pack the chopper and we were away up the Tasman – mountains everywhere, the glacier, moraine walls, lakes. 10 minutes later we landed at Tasman Saddle about 500m from Kelman Hut. We carried gear and food up to the hut. Crampon technique, self arresting on back, front, headfirst, fun. Fine weather. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABill, the chief instructor, a total legend in mountaineering, gave us a detailed intro to hut life and safety procedures. We practised essential knots as the team settled in together. Paul was from Alice Springs and was doing the course to skill up so he could climb with his wife who was an accomplished mountaineer, Pat was the super keen ice climber with funky ice tools that he had already been practising with dry tooling in the rain at Kangaroo Point with Josh who seemed up for any adventure. Alice was contrasting her PhD on seagrass with snow and ice training and Nick from the USA had already been steep water ice climbing back home. Six of us with Tai, who was quietly capable and exuded skill and confidence, and Bill.

A blasting wind arose in the late afternoon. The surrounding mountain landscape was wonderful – peaks of snow and rock, a plunging valley to the east, glaciers and ice falls. Mt DArchaic stood majestic on its own about 10 km away. Misty cloud flowed in from the sea to the west and covered the landscape. Two other climbers pitched up Mt Aylmer and descended through the afternoon.

Aylmer sunset
Aylmer sunset

Day 3

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERATerrible weather was forecast but conditions turned out OK. In the clear morning we did snow anchors on the upper flat of the glacier below the hut – top clip snow stakes, t slots with ice axe backups, mid clipped snow stakes buried in compacted snow, then snow bollards which tested under the weight of several “falling” climbers.

At lunch time Bill did a session on racking and carrying gear and provided everyone with harness clips and backpack strap circlips. I felt much more capable and confident after this as I didn’t get tangled up in extraneous gear and had everything in an organised fashion

In the afternoon it was misty and lightly snowing but the wind was light. We pitch climbed for six pitches up the snow slope and across a tricky schrund up to the rock buttresses of the peak above the hut. This was a great session of climbing and working together efficiently while practising anchor and belay setups. It felt terrific to be climbing in the atmospheric conditions.

Later we practised using the ATC Guide in multiple use modes.

Paul, who pulled out of going in My Kitchen Rules at the last minute, and I cooked ginger chicken and ginger tofu with honey soy vegetables and rice for dinner. Typically the food included lots of fresh ingredients, the fridge being a convenient covered hole in the snow/ice outside the hut. We cooked in pairs and pitched in with all the chores.

The pattern of the hut days settled into a sort of routine which always started early and maximised every minute. This suited me, and seemingly all the others, as we had paid lots and were there to learn as much as possible.

Day 4

Overnight rain and snow continued in the morning. We did intensive skills inside. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe hut is really well set up as an instructional space with weight bearing anchors fitted into the ceiling and upstairs landing and other anchors around all the walls. Equalising anchors, lowering using the ATC Guide, abseiling with prussiks above and below, joining ropes, throwing and deploying ropes, abseiling on thin ropes. I had done a lot of rope work prior to the course but still learnt heaps. The afternoon cleared and the wind dropped so we “went outside” and did rock anchors. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe views between the clouds were spectacular. All of us were itching to go climbing.

Every evening at 7.00pm there was a radio sched to check who was in each of the huts and to give hut users a detailed weather forecast and avalanche analysis. We took it in turns to use the radio and record the weather details. Later this info was used to formulate a Plan A and Plan B for the following day. Being out in the mountains for so long (8 days in all) enabled us to witness several weather systems rolling through, to relate what we were seeing to the forecasts and to develop invaluable knowledge and experience of the conditions. We learned fast that any activity in the mountains was dictated by the weather. The predictions for the day following the next were ghastly – severe gale up to 110 kmph, 240mls of rain in one day, freezing level 3,600 m (Kelman Hut is at 2500m).

Day 5

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAt 4.30 am we started hiking down to the ice fall in the Darwin Glacier. Under headlights Alice, the lightest climber, fell through a snow bridge but held on with her legs dangling in space (she was safely roped up) in a crevasse. We spotted some other climbers high up on a beautiful snow and ice route on Mt Green. Ice climbing practice was done on the glacier ice, starting from low angle right through to vertical and gently overhanging. Pat’s super tools got a workout. The physicality of the steeper climbing felt great. We placed ice screws and made v threads for abseiling, and were astonished at the strength of the v threads.


A circuitous route took us through the icefall and then we plodded back uphill in hot, intense sunshine. Huge weather remained forecast for the next day.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Day 6

HUGE rain. 80kmph wind at least. The hut shook and leaked a little. I wondered about the welfare of two groups of friends who were supposed to be out in the mountains on this day. It cemented in my psyche that you would have to be really well equipped and dug in to survive such conditions without a hut.

The day was filled with interesting and useful rope skills and practice. Anchor systems, leading through efficiently. First aid kits.

Day 7

The storm cleared.

At a large crevasse we did practice rescues. In a safe instructional context with Bill and Tai providing backup belays for the rescuers we “fell” in the crevasse while our buddies threw themselves onto the snow, dug their feet in and held the “falls” on their harnesses. The rescuer then made a t slot anchor, transferred the climber’s weight then the climber either prussiked out or was hauled out using an assisted haul or 6:1 system. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAFor me it was powerful learning how quickly the rescuer can be dragged towards the crevasse while trying to arrest the fall. I would have this at the forefront of my mind when on the Bonar Glacier a week later.

The later afternoon was taken up with theory on navigation and route finding and skills – kiwi coils, alpine clutch, locking and hauling systems using tibloc, bachman, microtraxion and ATC Guide methods.

The weather forecast for the following day was good apart from a SE airflow. Sunset was a stunning display of pinks and orange against a black, jagged silhouette skyline. The evening star rose above the outline of Mt Cook and Tasman to the west. Grey, soft cloud edged up over the Tasman Glacier and enveloped Tasman Saddle hut further down the valley.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Over a coffee Bill passed on lots of detailed info on access and climbs on Malte Brun, a mountain that was high on my list of interests.

We prepped for a “summit day”. Lunch, clothes, backpack, ropes, gear. We would breakfast at 4.00 and depart by 5.00 am. A super excited feel enveloped the whole group.

Day 8

3.45am. Snowing, heavy snow cover, very low visibility, light wind. Learning – SE airflow often leads to cloud and often snow. Back to bed for a sleep in. Up at 6.00am.

Inside – rope skills. Block leading, monster munter, knots with one hand.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe limited vis was perfect for navigation exercises. We trekked through thick mist to Tasman Saddle Hut using various methods to maintain course and estimate distance. On the return we trekked up to the start of our proposed climb for the following day on Mt Aylmer, setting a nice set of steps in the process. This process was invaluable on Aspiring for me a week later.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAEvening cloud engulfed the hut again. Oh dear. Maybe we wouldn’t get to summit anything on the course!

Tai shared important background and gave a small group of us tips on climbing Mt Aspiring, topos, routes, access, descent etc over maps in the afternoon.


Day 9

3.30am. Bill had already been up for a while and had the copious water boiling. His personal generosity with his time for the group throughout each day, I thought, had been instrumental in setting a philosophy for the whole course. He was forever doing myriad tasks to help individuals and the group progress. It seemed no wonder he had been a part of so many expeditions to the Himalayas- Everest, K2, Gasherbrum – he would be a key team player in these situations.

It was snowing lightly and there was limited visibility but in parts of the sky the moon and some stars shone through. We left at 4.45am and followed the previous day’s footsteps through the murk to the base of the south face of Aylmer. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIn 3 pairs we did 4 pitches up the steepening ice on front points with axe and hammer. The ice was covered in powder snow. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAStakes, ice screws and rock protection were used as runners and anchors. The atmosphere and aesthetics were stunning – we were snowed on, the mist swirled and slowly the sky lightened. Openings appeared in the cloud revealed a huge drop off the ridge. Sun struck Mt Cook. Peaks were islands in a sea of valley cloud. Pat led the pitches placing ice screw runners. Climbing the upper pitches was exhilarating – I played with the minimum amount of effort necessary to swing the axe and crampons into the ice for adequate grip. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWith multiple groups climbing and anchored the feel was of a mini expedition. On the small summit the sun warmed us while below the 800m north face dropped off into the cloud. We simulclimbed and down pitched along a narrow ridge back to a col and then down to the base. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThrough all the bad weather and training of the week this was a wonderful culminating experience. Back at the hut at 10.30.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAA chopper took us back out to civilisation. Shower, clean clothes, dinner at the pub.

Day 10

Rain again so instead of rockclimbing on the Sebastopol Crag we made rescue stretchers. Tai gave us detailed input on mountains and routes that would be the most suitable next steps for us all. Bill responded in detail to Alice’s request for tips on high altitude climbing.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

I had loved living in the mountains for the 8 days. I had tuned in to the weather and begun to understand its ebbs and flows. I had learned much about mountaineering, been exposed to the wealth of knowledge and experience of the two fabulous guides. I felt confident and supremely motivated to undertake my own forays into these mountains, to Europe, America and maybe beyond. I had a list of 100+ peaks to climb in New Zealand with a growing log of info. Perhaps if I tried to do about 4 per year I could have enough for the next 25 years. If I could scramble up Kitchener from Mueller hut then meet up with a mate in a few days time and be lucky enough to score some clear weather to climb Aspiring that would make 4 so far, 40 years later than my mates and brothers, but what matters that! It’s the here and now that counts.

Thanks to Bill Atkinson and Taichiro Naka (see interview “The Climber” Issue 98 Summer 2916/17) and Alpine Guides


References to check out

Win Hoff – Cold Water Survival

Mark Twight

Steve Hause – mountain athlete, uphill athlete



MyHike NZ maps


Accu weather

NZ met service – videos on shelters etc – med supplies

Map toaster NZ – articles on gear, clothing, attitudes, techniques


Commercial radio mountain weather forecasts – 4.00am and 4.00pm



“Amateurs train till they get it right. Professional train till they can’t get it wrong”


Avalanche risks

Recent snowfall

Strong wind(transport of snow)

Signs of recent avalanches

Cracks and whoomping

Rapid warming


Bill’s Euro Advice on High Altitude Climbing

  1. Drink 6 litres of water per day above base camp using 1 litre bottle, pee bottle at night
  2. Carry as little weight as possible
  3. Spend as little time as possible at high altitude
  4. Climb quickly up and down – solo easy terrain
  5. Have a plan that includes “timing marks”. If you don’t meet a mark descend immediately
  6. Eat big at Base Camp, noodles and soup above Base Camp
  7. Do bigger, higher, harder routes elsewhere as training to arrive already acclimatised to the target peak eg climb Cho Oyu for Everest in 24 hr attempt
  8. If partners acclimatise at different rates arrive at Base Camp at different times
  9. If you are dealt a poor hand (weather, snowpack, sickness, visibility) give up early
Peter’s New Zealand
100 + Great PeaksList from NZAC, friends, AGL guides (**) etc
2 Arrowsmiths
3 North Peak 2659m
4 Jagged 2720m
5 Arrowsmith 2795m ♦♦♦ East Ridge
6 Arthurs Pass Good access by foot, smaller mtns
7 Avalanche 1754m


8 Phipps Pk 1984m


9 Franklin 2088m
10 Rolleston 2271m


♦♦♦ Otira Face, High Peak Route, snow, ice, rock
  Temple 7-9 pitches of alpine rock
11 Murchison 2399m


Glacier routes
12 Aspiring Region
13 Dragonfly 2165m


14 Ionia 2249m
15 Stargazer 2341m


From Colin Todd Hut
16 Alba 2355m


From bivvy at Lake Crucible
17 Maori 2507m


From Cascade Saddle
18 Pollux 2542m


From Top Forks Hut long day, bivvy near base?
19 Aspiring 3027m


III 2+

♦♦♦ South West Ridge

North West Ridge (climbed with Tom Walker Feb 2017)

  Bevan, Rolling Pin, French
20 Branch River
21 Scotts Knob 2185m
22 Brewster Region
23 Brewster 2423m


♦♦ South West Face, 1 day walk in (3 day trip), 3 hrs to Brewster Hut. To Armstrong then along ridge or via Brewster Glacier
24 Barth 2431m


25 Darrans
26 Talbot 2110m ♦♦ Talbot – MacPherson Traverse
27 Sabre 2167m


♦♦♦ North Buttress

(climbed with Ian Brown – rock route from Phil’s Bivvy)

28 Christina 2502m
29 Tutoko 2746m ♦♦♦ South East Ridge
30 Fiordland
31 Mitre Peak 1692m
32 Irene 1879m
33 Pembroke 2000m
34 Flattop 2292m
35 Erye Mountains
36 Eyre Peak 1968m
37 Forbes Range
38 Clarke 2274m
39 Sir William 2612m
40 Earnslaw 2819m ♦♦♦ North West Ridge / West Peak – East Peak Traverse
41 Fox
42 Barnicoat 2821


43 Douglas 3087m


44 Torres 31603+
45 Lendenfeld 3200m


Nice, straightforward
46 Frans Josef Centenial Hut
47 Rudolf 2730m
48 Spencer 2796m
  Jervis 2
  Minarets 2+? ** 2km to base, 45 degree snow slope, 3 pitches
49 Godley
50 The Thumbs 2547m
51 Loughnan 2576m
52 Brodrick 2637m
53 Sibbald 2804m
54 D’Archiac 2865m ♦♦♦ East Ridge
55 La Perouse
56 Drake 2974m
57 Magellan 3065m
58 Vancouver 3309m
59 Hooker
60 Lean Peak 2364m
61 Unicon 2560m
62 La Perouse 3081m
63 Liebig Range
64 Tamaki 2444m
65 Nun’s Veil 2737m Gorilla Stream route – access over Tasman Lake by boat, ascend stream, bivvy and climb next day, large crevasses
66 Upper Tasman From Tasman Saddle/Kelman Hut
67 Hochstetter Dome 2823m


straightforward, 6 hrs, plus traverse of Mt Aylmer grade 1+ to 2-
68 Green 2838m


Route up south ridge looks stunning, climb from Tasman Saddle hut with bivvy on route so top section done at night and descent when still frozen. Beware avalanche risk after storm loading
69 Chudleigh 2954m


70 Minerets 3056m


standard route from Delabash Hut easy, from Centennial 2+
71 Haidinger 3068m


72 Elie de Beamont 3111m


check accessibility regarding crevasses later in the season
  Aylmer 3? South face – ice route 4 pitches (climbed as part of ABL TMC course Feb 2017)
73 Lower Tasman From Plateau Hut (fly in or long walk) – walking access – up to Ball Shelter onto Tasman, up creek to Boys Glacier then Cinerama Col across Grand Plateau – 10 hrs

From Pioneer Hut – fly in, can be full – choppers cheaper from from west coast

No radio weather

Shorter climbs on Pioneer Ridge routes

74 Pibrac 2516m


75 Anzac Peaks 2532m


76 Nazomi 2931m


77 Haast 3138m Staircase Route
78 Tasman (the climbers peak) 3498m ♦♦♦ Lendenfeld – Tasman – Torres Traverse

North shoulder from Marcel Col – big snow ridge (4-5 snow stakes)

79 Aoraki/Mt. Cook 3766m ♦♦♦




West Ridge and Grand Traverse


Zurbriggen Ridge

  Wakefield 2058m Scramble, panoramic views, up Guides Route and down SE spur, hiking route up SE spur
  Ball Pass Route From Mt Cook Village, over Pass to Ball Hut, 8-10hrs,then down to Blue Lakes.
  Dixon 2/3 *** East Ridge, 1 ½ km to route, 4 pitches then walking to summit
  Glacier Dome
  Mallory/Allack 1+/2- snow clad non technical peak on flanks of Mt Cook – 2-3 hrs
  Haidinger ** South Ridge
  Lendenfield *** Cross glacier, Marcel Col, 5 pitches
  Drake and Magellan ** Best alpine rock in Mt Cook
80 Malte Brun Range Not climbed very much due to tricky access due to high, unstable moraine wall
81 Hamilton 2997m


82 Malte Brun 3159m


♦♦♦ West Ridge variant

Long day, rockfall? bivvy?

Access from Bonney,Turnbull or Malte Brun glaciers – bivvy on Bonney Glacier, moraine wall can ? be climbed onto Darwin Glacier, Bonney might be cut off at steep part,

From Tasman Hut or Kelman

Good camping/bivvy snowgrass BX16 785743

FC – Fifes Couloir – steep snow gully or rock to right of FC

  Aiguilles Rouges 2950m


North Ridge
83 Mt. Cook
84 Sefton 3157m


♦♦♦ North Ridge

From Douglas Flat Hut, high bivvy, descent?

85 Hicks 3216m


♦♦♦ North Face, Central Buttress (rock route)
86 Mueller Walking access to Mueller Hut – large, 3 hrs walk
87 Annette 2442m


From Mt Cook Village or Mueller Hut

solo from village via Sebastapol?

  Kitchener 2042m


Hike and scramble – from Mt Cook Village or Mueller Hut (soloed Feb 2017)
88 Sealey 2639m


long way, short climb, 2 days from Mueller, bivvy
89 Burns 2740m


90 Footstool 2767m


From Sefton Bivvy, check access through crevasses, up snowfield, round corner to ridge
  Edgar Thompson Long day
91 Landsborough
92 Fettes 2454m
93 Dechen 2630m
94 Hooker 2652m ♦♦♦ Hooker Glacier Approach
95 Ohau
96 Rabitters Peak 2289m
97 Dasler Pinnacles 2303m ♦♦ North Ridge
98 Percy Smith 2469m
99 Williams 2538m
100 Ward 2644m
101 Hopkins 2682m
102 Seaward Kaikouras
103 Te ao Whekere 2595m
104 Manakau 2609m
105 Inland Kaikouras
106 Alarm 2877m
107 Tapuae o Uenuku 2885m ♦♦♦ Hodder Valley, South Ridge
108 Olivines
109 Somnus 2281m
110 Climax 2432m
111 Rakaia Headwaters
112 Malcolm Peak 2514m
113 Evans 2637m ♦♦♦ North East Ridge
114 Whitcombe 2644m ♦♦♦ North Ridge – Menace Gap Traverse
115 Rangitata Headwaters
116 Tyndall 2524m
117 Warrior 2591m
118 Remarkables
119 Double Cone 2340m
  Grand Traverse
120 Ruakumara
121 Hikurangi 1752m
122 Taranaki
123 Taranaki 2518m ♦♦♦ East Ridge
124 Tararuas
125 Hector 1529m
126 Tongariro
127 Ngauruhoe 2291m
128 Tahurangi/Mt. Ruapehu 2797m
129 Travers Range
130 Paske 2232m
131 Faerie Queene 2237m
132 Hopeless 2278m
133 Travers 2338m
134 Franklin 2340m

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