This article was published in the New Zealand Alpine Journal 2018
Our mountain is hidden behind closer, lower peaks of the range. On the left is the Tasman Glacier, the great hulk of Mount Wakefield, then further left in the view is the Hooker Valley and the Peaks of Footstool and Sefton and high hanging glaciers. Through the large picture window of the NZAC’s homely Unwin Lodge to the right is another rage of giant hills. Hidden as well is Mt Cook, whose presence is felt everywhere.
Malte Brun. Copious research. Maps. Training runs. Guidebook. Internet. Training hikes up hills with a weighted backpack. YouTube videos, blog sites. Lightweight gear purchases piled up at home. Aesthetic and solid red rock perched high on top of the range across the valley from Cook. An expedition certainly. From the ground up. Just hard yakka that might lead us to the prized summit. Charlie and I were to go lightweight.
A weather window of 5 reasonable days. First steps on the dirt road to Ball shelter the pack felt heavy. I adjusted the waist strap and the chest strap and the shoulder straps for the first of a hundred times. Boots felt clunky and heavy and hot. Not certain whether the car was locked Charlie walked back to check. Everything was hot. Blue sky. Hard work. Rest. Drink. Sunscreen. Trudge. I questioned whether we needed all the stuff loaded up. Charlie’s pack looked too big. Mine just felt heavy. Hot. We took a wrong track into steep moraine then backtracked and struggled steeply uphill to a higher level. Tripped over and landed a bruised cheek. 3 hours to the shelter, 9 km. Water, shade, lunch. The first beginnings of blisters. Should we have called it early and bailed out? Together we decided to push on.
We needed to descend 100 m down the steep moraine wall. Looking out it was entirely evident that we had embarked on a big adventure, a Big Adventure! Everywhere were off vertical cliffs of dirt and stones. This is an active geological country and erosively alive. Global warming had awakened a monster. Along the length of the wall everything was falling down. Glacial retreat has been up valley and the level of ice had gone down vertically as well. Tall cones of loose stones, dirt and boulders towered in triangles up from the base, at the ready to slide or accept a top up from above. The top edge was scalloped with collapsed sections that appeared as bites out of the earth. Our first challenge was to locate the safest recommended route down to the floor of the glacier.
Careful perusal of the copied out text from the new guidebook kept at the Lodge. We located the recommended bite and rocky line down. Steep. Loose stones. Gravel slid ahead. Step on the rocks that seemed to be more firmly bedded into the dirt. Down. Steep. Don’t slide out. Zig zag a little. Link up through a bouldery, more stable section. To an intermediate shelf then along a remaining morsel of the old foot trail that was yet to tumble into the gulf below. On this level we gazed out with growing dread at the 5 km of rocky moraine floor that stretched seemingly forever before meeting the white ice way off up valley. It was a moonscape out there, hilled and valleyed. It conjured a scene from the approach to Mordor at the ends of the living earth guarding the fires of Mt Doom. We spied out a route through the first part with a series of go-to points – a dirty white ice cliff, a heart shaped rock then a large shadowed boulder. Down the second section. More dirt and less rocks here. Finally safely to the base.
The first steps would be just like the last across the fierce moraine. Boulders and rocks of all sizes lay in a mess of small hills and valleys interspersed with occasional steep, slippery stone covered ice slopes. Gruelling work. Many of the rocks wobbled or tipped when weighted. Our walking poles skittered and held weight in varied, random degrees. Hot. Sweat. We sat together in the vile, lifeless wilderness on the odd hot flat perch. Drink. Battle through another section. Pick an objective 50 m away and work slowly towards it. Don’t focus on the whole mountain just break it down into small achievable sections. Grinding heat. Still. Progress was very slow. Painfully slow. Literally. For hours under a baking sun. A heat wave. Dry. Parched. Hot rocks above the ice hidden far below the surface. We rationed our water. Precious sips. Sweaty sunscreen. Across the ferocious desert. After several hours of torture every ridge beckoned ahead to be the last only to disappoint like another false summit. Thinking of Frodo struggling with the weight of Middle Earth on his ring into Mordor we pushed on with packs way too heavy. Hot. Dry. Almost out of water we stopped above a large depression. The loads on our backs removed, ice slopes led us down to flowing water. Blessed relief for our thirst, iced water, relief from the heat under an overhang of hard blue ice and, most wonderfully, a large cave of ice caverned and tunnelled away, carved in sinuous flowing runnels of deep blue cold ice, which could have been inside the glacier for millenia. Like veins in the living ice. Now melting before our eyes. We were seeing into its heart, into its within, face to face with the meeting of heat and ice – it shouldn’t have been like this. Out of the brief respite we trudged on with aching feet. A small mountain of rocks promised a finish in the distance only to again deceive. Hot. Finally a narrow ridge provided a key line between crevasses in the transition zone between the bare rock plain and the retreating white ice of the glacier. 5 1/2 hours of torrid torture. This is what it had come to now. Apparently only decades ago the same journey could have been done in quick time across wide tongues of exposed ice through the rocks – relatively easy hiking. A steady stream of helicopters now carried tourists and other climbers unwilling to undergo the effort of the crossing. It is no subtle irony that the same helicopters contribute to the climate problem. We had elected to pay our dues and learn the terrain as it is now.
Walking on the smooth ice was highway like. At times we wove a path along raised lines between furrows and hollows. Small streams of melt water drained the surface and joined to form larger flows that disappeared into holes small and large. Some were filled with water and others were rushing waterfalls. We could feel it melting around us. Intense bright light. Everywhere a drink. A little further for the day.
A flat spot in amongst some boulders on the ice in the middle of the glacier made for an “expedition” style camp. A tent area was levelled with ice axes, a big table rock the kitchen bench. Right beside the tent was a small moulin which was round and a perfect size for billy dipping to collect water. Like a narrow mine shaft it disappeared into the mysterious depths of the ice. Mount Cook and the Minarets towered above. Small avalanches from perched glaciers way above broke the stillness with waterfalls a constant background. Cool katabatic breezes and strange wafts of warm air alternated from up valley. The light slowly dimmed and the full moon rose. We cooked and ate then lay down in warm bliss cocooned in down. In the darkest hours of the night doubts drifted through a period of half sleep – we were cut off by the desperate moraine from a straightforward escape, was it all too hard, were we carrying too heavy loads, would our (mine anyway) oldening body cope, had we bitten off more than we could chew, should we call it in the morning before we got ourselves even deeper in???? Some moisture seeped through the tent floor in the night and wetted part of Charlie’s sleeping bag.
Early morning clear. The weather conditions were even better than predicted from my hundred pre-trip checks. We had a window of maybe 3 1/2 more good days. All being equal this should be enough. It was why we had reorganised the trip so we could be just where we were. Muesli, tea. Charlie seemed keen to go.
Up the ice. Smooth and hard and slippery from overnight cool. Crampons. Along the floor of the valley our way was shaded and cool until the sun crested the mountains to the east. A valley opened way above the moraine wall which revealed our objective silhouetted in early morning light, still 2000m above. We made a good pace, slowed only at a bend or where the angle increased causing the ice flow to shear and crack into crevasses and compress into hillocks. Zig zag. More surface streams and creeks flowed into holes in the ice almost beckoning us to slip and slide in. The whole range felt alive with erosion and flow and occasional falls of rock and ice. Sound, movement of the breeze. Tasman seemed to have a living presence, cold and hard and aloof, strong but fragile, watching, sensing our passing maybe. Holding us to account.
Helicopters started early ferrying the tourists up from the village to walk and explore the ice, and climbers, unwilling to effort themselves, to huts and mountains that in times past had only been accessed on foot up this massive river of ice and rock. Below the Beetham valley a stream rushed steeply downslope besided by more steep moraine walls of dirt and stones. In those past times a safe route up the more stable slopes had enabled access to a high hut which was used as a base to climb the mountain or access another hut near the now disappearing Malte Brun Glacier. Now further up past the outlet stream of the Malte Brun and Turnbull Glaciers was our recommended route. From out on the ice all the possible options looked desperate, the sort of things I sometimes had nightmares about – cliffs of dirt and stone that would crumble down faster than you could climb up. Perception was foreshortened and when we actually made our way to beneath the most likely looking bouldery stream line disappearing skywards its angle was slightly less than the critical steepness between definitely unclimbable and possible. Sometimes it’s hard to judge something until you actually step onto it and engage with the parameters. Our key line up consisted of larger rocks piled together between the finer and smaller steeper walls. The rocks were mostly settled on each other in reasonable solidity enabling upward progress. Occasionally one would dislodge and tumble down a few meters to come to rest again. Many had to be gingerly weighted. Helmets on. It felt good to be scrambling, without poles in hand. The responsibility of the person higher up was to be extremely careful not to send rocks that could take out the person below, and that of the person below was to try to climb to the side of the fall line of stones from above, and to trust. In an unspoken pact of connection with one another we slowly ascended. At the first steepening the boulder line changed to dirt and loose stones. We angled across and up to another line of larger rocks. 100m. Slow. False lines led into other steepenings. 200m. Rest. Apart. Easier more secure sections then others less so. Hot. Hard work. Exhausting. Another drink. Rest again. A false top. Eventually a saddle came into view over to the right. It took an age to reach. 300m.
A little higher again we crested a ridge into the most sublime scene. A snow covered remnant of the lower Turnbull Glacier nestled under an unnamed peak of vertical red rock. A large section of ice had broken from this and floated in a small magically blue lake. The higher glacier fed a stream that rushed and tumbled noisily over large blocks of stone into the lake. Another stream flowed out of the lake and down onto lower slopes. On the higher white slopes of snow a party of two tiny climbers inched slowly upwards, 3 hours ahead of us. Other red peaks towered around the cirque and the buttresses of the summit block of Malte stood above these.
We pressed onwards in the mid-afternoon towards the upper glacier. A little higher we sat exhausted, filling water bottles. We still had two separate glacier sections, a rock step and 600m more of elevation between us and our intended bivvy spot. We weren’t going to make it in time. We had either been too slow or hadn’t allocated enough time for the approach. Our anticipated weather window didn’t have any leeway in it to allow for contingencies like this. Take any more time and we would expose ourselves to a possible huge lashing storm in a tent for several days. We had both experienced such storms in the huts nearby and vowed never to be caught out in the 100+mph winds and seeming oceans of rain and snow that fall from the sky. Together in a matter of a few minutes we called it in, made the decision and decided not to push on. Rested for a little. The year of planning and prep and training would come to nought. The dreamed of summit would not be ours to savour. Elusive. Disappointment.
Down. Descent back beside the narrow torrent to the lake shore. A single flat tent site right beside the lake. Packs off. Sat. Rested. Ate. Drank. Removed the big boots that encased tired, aching feet and a couple of blisters. Hot late afternoon sun. Snooze. Put the stove on for a brew. The tent up. Like a man cleansing his soul Charlie immersed himself completely in the ice water three times. I walked around the lake shore to the snow slope. The ice flow was close to the edge, the tent in the distance on the gravel beach, the peaks up on the left, the Tasman valley off the edge below right, and Mount Cook sitting steadfast across the void. For decades I’ve had these sorts of images in my mind’s eye and carried them close to my heart. Exhaustion melted away slowly as the beautiful reality of where we were slowly seeped in. Coffee, dinner, photos. The sun set with light blazing rays through Cook. The moon rose close to the lakeside peak. The now deeper blue of the lake reflected moon and tent light. To think of this as a consolation prize would have been a gross ingratitude. Sometimes in the natural world events conspire to deliver treasures unexpected. Like any true adventures the outcomes are often unknown. It wasn’t till later that we would consider more deeply the value of our decision making involved in turning round. Too tired to resist the call of the horizontal we were unaware of the glittering river of stars that blanketed and kept watch over our high mountain camp through the night.
Early morning, early start, a long day ahead, make the most of the cool shade. A last wistful look back at the lake. our high point and the beckoning Bonney Rib. Sometimes big undertakings take several attempts. Each experience leads to learnings that eventually build towards success. Motivation can deepen over time. Familiarity brings appreciation of the critical aspects – the effort involved, the most appropriate equipment, the lie of the land, the stages of the approach and exit, the team’s capability, the amount of time that is required and a host of other things.
Slowly, carefully we began our return down the boulder and scree line. The larger rocks felt more secure. Scrambling, down climbing. The finer stones and gravel slid out, each footstep became a dynamic movement so much easier than on the ascent. Heavy packs took muscle and balance to finesse through the more hostile steeps. Stop. Drink. Rest. We worked together with one above and below, a few smaller rocks and runs of scree tumbled down, safely. Eventually I reached the base, dumped my pack and rested. Looking up I noticed Charlie take an awkward tumble sideways. He took a long time to recover himself, straighten his load, angle legs downhill, stand and get moving again. Gingerly he continued down to rest at the glacier ice edge. I had to help him remove his pack from his right shoulder. In his fall his pack had forced his shoulder forward sharply into a rock. A torn rotator cuff was well known to him, having recovered completely from one many years prior. He was pretty sore and sure that this was another. A long rest, took stock, ate, rehydrated with cool glacial meltwater. We considered our options – using the sat phone to call in a rescue chopper, walking down the glacier to try to pick up a return chopper from the regular glacier hike tourist trips, or continue to hike out. He made the call to continue and see how it developed. We had 1 1/2 days before the forecast foul weather would envelop us.
In surprising good spirits Charlie pushed slowly down the ice. At the reduced pace and with more rest breaks than on the journey in we had time to savour more of the sculpted moulins, melt holes, stream runnels and waterfalls in the surface of the glacier.
We rethreaded our way through the maze of mini ridges and mostly shallow crevasses. We inched our way past huge waterfall outlets to high glaciers. As his internal conditions became harder and we slowed more we started counting off talus piles at the base of mountains beside the valley to gauge our progress. Each became a mini objective to attain in the overall task. Choppers dispensed tourists nearby at the bottom of the ice. Still Charlie was firm about making his way out under his own steam. His blisters were becoming an issue as well by this stage. We drank deep and filled water bottles over lunch.
Midday. The moraine had taken us 5 1/2 hours on the way in. 1/2 an hour to climb up the moraine wall to the hut – I guessed we’d reach Ball Shelter and the safety of a straightforward hiking trail by 7pm, Charlie guessed 6.30. We made good time back through the big parallel crevasses and then stayed left following slightly easier terrain with smaller stones the average rather than the larger, more difficult balanced rocks. We almost walked at a normal pace for several short sections. Then it was back to Mordor, endless piles, up and down. Rest. Drink. Long ridges that ended in depressions, sidled along crumbling slopes, tottered from boulder to boulder, knees and feet. Heat. We sat on flat rocks together in what seemed like a lava field. The rocks had absorbed the sun and radiated heat. Hot. Dry. We later learned that in the heatwave week of 30+ degrees C days this day had been the hottest ever day recorded in nearby Queenstown (35.2 C). The valley side walled by the moraine and mountains each side created a huge oven for us to cook ourselves in. 4.30pm the hottest part of the day. I picked out an objective, a particular rock about 50m ahead, to aim for.
Then again, rest. And again through the afternoon. From the start we could see our shangri la, our objective, the grassy flat where the difficulties ended, in the distance. Charlie was struggling, pain levels at 7 – 8 out of 10, serious painkillers. Resting on a baking rock he reminded me of the story of Joe Simpson’s survival crawl, dragging his smashed leg across terrain like this in Peru. Later each ridge falsely promised to be the last before the valley side. Finally the sun went down below the mountains and we were bathed in cool. The oven door had opened. At 7.30 pm we struggled to the end of the valley floor section.
I offered to do two laps of the climb up through the moraine wall to carry mine and Charlie’s packs to the top. Charlie “Joe Simpson” Freer declined. Tired legs and sore feet. We slowly inched upward on balanced rocks and sliding gravel to the half way shelf. Then again to the top. Flat, grassy ground never seemed so sweet. 8.30 pm. Completely spent. We collapsed onto soft grass. Boots were cast off to release swollen feet. Charlie removed his socks and strapping tape. Ugly raw skinless flesh on the inside of his heels. His feat of endurance and self possession gained legendary status. Eventually we resurfaced, tented, cooked and recouperated enough to appreciate the stunning scenery from our balcony position.
Step by painful step Charlie walked out down the rocky track which became a gravel road. Sometimes we walked together and at others alone in our own worlds. Lots of rests. Relief and a hug at the Carpark. Thoughts turned to next year. Could we justify the chopper ride in and out because it is much harder now? Or is it just a different mountain now? One that maybe we are just not fast, strong or fit enough to climb unassisted?
Next day as we returned from the doctor the weather window slammed firmly shut. Wind blasted straight down the Tasman Valley. Cloud whipped across Cook and the other mountain tops. The bottom of the glacier was a maelstrom of dust and flying gravel. It felt apocalyptic. Like the mountains in a vengeful rage were showing us the end of the world.
Overnight the cyclonic storm front (Fehe) delivered massive rains across the whole country. Damage was extensive on the west coast. Many roads were cut off. A large number of vehicles were stranded overnight by flooding rivers and needed to be helicopter rescued the following day. Blizzards dumped snow higher up. A church was knocked flat by the wind.