High Alpine Skills in Mt Cook
- Posted by Stoked for Saturday
We have spent the last two winters acquiring mountaineering skills with the New Zealand Alpine Club to enable us to get into the mountains and explore on our own on future expeditions. Earlier in the year we spent 2 weekends with the NZAC up on Mt Ruapehu learning the basics for snow anchor building and pitching with ropes – but we were left wanting more.
Looking to further solidify those skills, we decided to sign-up for the NZAC High Alpine Skills Course in Mt Cook National Park. A 6-day course in the heart of Mt Cook National Park designed for people with some alpine climbing experience who have familiarity with lead climbing on rock or indoors. Looking at the course itinerary, we were most excited to learn glacier travel and crevasse extraction skills that we could use over the Christmas break, so we booked ourselves in for the mid-November slot.
After work on Friday we flew into Christchurch and made our way towards Mt Cook the next morning. It was lupin season at Lake Tekapo so we couldn’t help but stop to snap some photos of the beautiful colors along the turquoise glacier lake.
We had intended to walk the Hooker Valley track but the weather wasn’t cooperating so we opted to just go straight to the NZAC club lodge – Unwin Lodge – and get our gear and food sorted for the week. With the luxury of flying into the hut we didn’t have to sacrifice quality food for weight, so we prepared some ‘good’ meals to cook and only brought a few dehydrated meals for emergencies.
Later that day we met the other guy on our course, Jack, who was originally from Poland but had been living in Australia for the last 30 years. He had been on a number of guided expeditions in the Himalayas and Mt Aspiring but wanted to further develop his skills to be more independent without the need of a guide. We were lucky to have such a small group – that would mean even more focused instruction which was what we were hoping for.
The next morning we met our instructor Paul Rogers. He is well known in the climbing community, making a number of first assents in Fiordland with a long list of climbing accomplishments on his record. He was a guide for Adventure Consultants for 14 years, becoming a lead guide in the Himalayas, and even trained the Kiwi actor, Jason Clarke who played Rob Hall in the 2015 Everest movie.
Unfortunately for us the weather still hadn’t cleared by morning so Paul broke the news that we wouldn’t be heading into the mountains that day. No pilots were flying at all due to the wind and rain so we planned for first thing the next day. While that was initially disappointing as we were eager to get on the mountain, it was probably the best thing for the course. We spent the day sorting through our gear (chucking half of it back in the car) and learning how to rope up for glacier travel and simulating self crevasse rescue. Light & fast was Paul’s philosophy! Now we were ready to go as soon as we got to the hut!
Up at 5:30am the next morning we were greeted with a beautiful sunrise and clear skies! We loaded up the helicopter with our gear and took off up the Tasman Glacier towards Tasman Saddle. The scenic flight was an added bonus as we had never flown over Mt Cook before. We could see icebergs floating in Tasman Lake and a clear view of the moraine wall of the glacier.
As we flew by Mt Cook we could see Plateau Hut just below it – base camp for those attempting New Zealand’s highest peak. Slipping through the valley between the snow-capped peaks the helicopter swooped in close as we passed Tasman Saddle Hut perched on a rocky outcrop – our home for the next few days!
The heli dropped us just a few hundred metres above the hut. Despite how close we were, we put on our crampons and had our ice axes in hand as we approached the hut as there was some significant exposure on either side. Paul told us of the tragedy that occurred there a few years ago when a man slipped and fell to his death in the gully on his way to the hut with his brother – an unsuspected danger but very real.
We quickly dropped our stuff and began to rope up for glacier travel to climb Mt Alymer (2,699m). We travelled in pairs with ~15m of rope between us and prussics in place should we end up falling in a crevasse. The route to the base of Mt Alymer was mostly snow-covered so it was a good introduction to glacier travel and getting used to traveling together roped up.
In the distance we could see another group pitching up the face of Mt Alymer. As we closed in on the point to start pitching, we began transitioning to ‘short roping’ as we soloed up the bottom section that was not quite steep enough but no longer glacier. We setup some nice top clip anchors as the snow underneath the top layer was quite hard.
This was the first time Jordan and I were pitching again since our summit of Girdlestone on Mt Ruapehu but we were feeling really comfortable and confident in our skills and snow conditions. There was just enough softness to the snow to get a solid footing as we made our way to the top. It took us 3 pitches to reach the summit and as I came up over the ridge I could see the sharp drop on the other side into The Divide connecting Mt Cook National Park to the West Coast.
A layer of low cloud covered the west coast, leaving only the tops of the mountains peeking out – it was a beautiful sight! As we stopped for a bite to eat, Paul was constantly evaluating conditions and teaching us how to read the changing conditions in the mountains.
On our way down we decided to practice down climbing and lowering our partner – two techniques that we may need to use in some more challenging climbs this week.
We got back to the hut around 2pm and enjoyed a few snacks and a siesta. After cooking up a delicious couscous, chorizo and veggie dinner we headed back out for some glacier travel and crevasse extraction. After a long day in the sun the snow had turned quite soft so I was happy Paul had suggested we rent some snowshoes for the week.
In search for a good spot for us to drop in, Paul found a great little practice area just after a cool snow bridge! Paul setup the anchor and one by one we were lowered into the crevasse while our partner was instructed on how to set up an anchor, escape the system and create a pulley system for an assisted rescue. It was pretty neat chilling down inside the crevasse. If was amazing how these vast cracks in the ice formed and just how far they went down!
Just before sunset we walked back to the hut as the sky lit up with a rainbow of colors. Some lenticular clouds formed just above Mt Cook – it looked like a flying saucer was hovering! Once back at the hut we crashed in our bunk beds after an eventful first day on the mountain!
With the weather looking sunny, but predicting some high winds in the morning, Paul planned for us to have a bit of a lay in. This was initially a bit hard for Jordan and I as we’re so used to getting up and going, but we soon relaxed and spent the morning practicing our pitching transition techniques Paul had taught us the day before.
The plan was for us to attempt to summit Mt Green (2,837m) with Mt Walter (2,905m) as the alternative after the initial pitches. Paul was really impressed with our skills and felt confident in our abilities – this would actually be the first time students on a NZAC High Alpine Course he taught had ever attempted a climb like that so we were stoked!
After a late lunch we put on our snowshoes and headed out to put in a ‘boot track’ to Mt Green. With plans for an alpine start (3am) we wanted to ensure we had a safe path through the network of crevasses in the dark for safety and to save time.
As we started to enter true glacier country I could see several cracks indicating the beginning of a crevasse. Sure enough just as I was carefully stepping through one of the first ‘sketchy’ areas I fell into one up to my waist! I was surprised but remained calm, crawling my way out before I really realised what happened. Paul joked I was no longer a crevasse virgin now!
We continued on a low traverse, loosing about 400m in altitude but following a safer route. At the base of Mt Green we dropped our snowshoes and put on our crampon to start zigzagging our way up about 150m to a plateau. By the time we get there in the morning it should be light enough to see so we retraced our footsteps to further solidify the boot track and headed back towards camp.
On the way back we practiced some more glacier travel techniques including walking parallel to some giant crevasses. Paul found another deep crevasse for us to practice more extraction and self rescue but this time we had to truly simulate a fall (with a saftey on of course). We took turns literally walking off the edge of the crevasse, testing our partners ability to catch us and build a solid anchor for self rescue. When it was my turn, it was a bit unnerving standing on the edge and all of a sudden dropping about 5m into the icy slot. It was amazing how well the butterfly knots we had tied in the rope had caught in the snow, holding a lot of our weight. That was the first time Paul had actually testing that technique and even he was surprised at its effectiveness (Note to self: ALWAYS tie butterfly knots in the rope!)
As I hung there with my feet dangling in the air I couldn’t help but think of that scene from Touching the Void. I shuttered at the thought of actually being trapped inside a crevasse and was just thankful to be learning these important skills in a safe environment. Looking around I couldn’t even see all the way down to the bottom of the crevasse. It looked like it went on forever! Once each of us had had a turn, we headed back to the hut to prepare ourselves for an early morning and mentally prepare for the adventure ahead!
A combination of nerves and excitement had me up before our 2:30am wake up call. As I laid there waiting for the others to wake, I was visualizing the challenge ahead and psyching myself up. Paul made us all a batch of his famous oatmeal and I have to say it was the best oatmeal I’ve ever had. And I don’t even really like oatmeal!
Deciding to get off the mountain that day due to an incoming weather system, we packed everything up and were off around 3:45am roped up for glacier travel with all our gear with just our torch lights guiding us. We reached the drop point within 45 minutes and proceeded to unload any unnecessary gear into Paul’s duffel bag that we would leave behind and retrieve after the climb. He stuck a pole through the handle to keep it from slipping down the glacier and we were soon off up the mountain following the rest of our boot track.
At this point it was still dark but some early morning fog/precipitation came through making the visibility really poor. Once we reached the end of our pre-laid path, Paul began leading us between the crevasses and up towards the ridge before we stopped to set up our first pitch. It was cold and the wind was blowing a lot harder than we expected but I hammered in a top-clip anchor and began belaying Jordan up. Once he was up with Paul at a safe point, he build the next anchor and belayed me up to meet him. From here I continued on, this time leading though the crevasses that were surrounding us as we approached the first ridgeline.
Just as I came up over the top I could see the sun beginning to rise over the mountain as the sky turned a beautiful light pink. Paul and Jack continued on ahead of us, soloing up but closely roped together. I belayed Jordan up through the crevasse mine field before shortening up the rope and moving together up to the base on the large face.
Meeting up with Paul and Jack I setup another top clip anchor in preparation of Jordan taking the first lead. As we prepared for one of the toughest parts of the climb, we put away our headlamps and unfortunately in doing so Jordan ended up dropping his as he watched it slide down the mountain and out of sight.
Once we were ready to go, Jordan headed up the mountain, following Paul’s footsteps making 50m assents at a time. For the next hour and a half Jordan and I alternated leading as we pitched 6 more times to the top of the face. Luckily the snow conditions were favorable as we were able to make good foot placements and plunge our axes deep into the snow. I was surprisingly comfortable at this stage as at no point did I feel in danger despite the exposure we had still faced along the way. The only time I had a minor melt down was on the second last pitch when I was belaying Jordan up. I was getting tired after already doing 7 pitches that day and had made the silly mistake of setting up too close to the anchor. That meant I had little room to work the rope and ended up getting it all tangled up while at the same time my feet began to literally freeze as I began to lose feeling in them. As usual, Jordan was patient and supportive as he waited for me to get the rope sorted before proceeding any further. The sun was beginning to strengthen so by the time he joined me my feet had began to have feeling again. Boy I wished for that wind to subside!
As he continued on ahead of me, Jordan setup a t-slot anchor this time as the snow changed to more powdery fluff. As I came up over what I thought was the last pitch, I could see it continued on further but Paul and Jack were no where in sight. After reaching Jordan, I continued on leading up the slope before finally getting a glimpse of what was ahead. As I stared at the knife-edge ridgeline ahead of me with huge several hundred metre drops on either side I stood there frozen – unsure of what to do.
“Do I continue along the ridge? Do I stop and make an anchor and bring Jordan up incase the rope doesn’t reach the entire way? Do I retreat and we go this route solo?”
I stood there for a few minutes considering all the options as the wind beat against me on the side of the mountain just as I saw Paul come up over the ridge. He came back for us! I was never so happy to see him and was immediately relieved. He signaled for me to down climb on the steep sunny face and setup an anchor to bring Jordan up. With his support I setup the top-clip anchor as my toes barely clung to the side of the mountain. As Jordan joined us Paul told us to shorten the rope as we would be soloing this section roped up together.
Walking in single file, I concentrated on each foot placement as I straddled the knife-edge ridgeline. I looked on either side of me for just a moment – instantly I felt that my stomach lurch so I focused on my feet and the rope between Jordan and I. As the ridge began to climb, Paul instructed us to each climb onto either side of the ridge and begin front pointing. This provided a counter weight so if either one of us slipped, we could more easily catch each other as the rope was running up along the ridge between us. The next 5 minutes would be the longest of the day thus far as my legs began to shake from exhaustion and fear. As the exposure began to subside we were able to then climb back onto the top of the ridge and walk together towards the rest point.
WOW that was a relief!
Jordan and I had taken longer than Paul and Jack so we only got about 5 minutes rest to grab a quick bite and a drink before we were off across the glacier heading towards Mt Walter. We had originally hoped to climb Mt Green but had always had a backup of tackling Mt Walter. Both mountains had the same approach but at the rest point split from a 4 pitch steep ascent up Mt Green or a glacier walk towards the ridgeline of Mt Walter that required no pitching. After the grueling 8 pitches we had already put in today we were happy when Paul decided Mt Walter would be a better objective today.
As we walked across the glacier, the steepness of Mt Green became even more pronounced as we watched another guide taking up a client to the top. It wasn’t long before we were ascending the slopes of Mt Walter as Paul carefully chose the path that minimized the exposure. Zig-zagging up the wind continued to beat against us and just after 11am we reached the 2,905m summit of Mt Walter! We didn’t stay long as the summit was extremely exposed with a steep drop on the front and a long slide into The Divide behind us.
At this point we had a huge feeling of accomplishment and relief as we knew the worst was over (or so we thought). Re-tracing our steps back towards the rest point we were finally able to relax just enough to enjoy the views around us during the walk back.
With midday approaching Paul was hesitant for us to head back down the face we had pitched that morning as the sun had been baking it all day. By now the snow would be even softer, making the decent long and dangerous through the exposed slope. Our only way back though was to cross that knife-edge ridge so we went single file before beginning to front point again on the icy side of the ridge.
From here Paul decided our best escape route was to solo (no rope) down climb the bergschrunds (the point where the glacier separates from the permanent stationary ice) into a gully on the other side. I was too scared to look down to see where he was taking us so I just trusted his judgement and followed his steps as I continued using the ‘Northwall technique’ down the slope.
This was by far the most mind-crushing part of the entire climb. Not only do I not really enjoy down climbing, but this side of the mountain was extremely hard ice. Some might say it was ‘perfect cramponing’ but for me I enjoy a bit more softness to the snow to allow me to get a really strong foot hold. That was not the case today and as I made the decent I just kept saying to myself, “Right foot, left foot, right axe, left axe. Ok. Do it again”
I was maybe only a third of the way down before my legs began to shake from exhaustion. Northwall technique is grueling on the calves and mine were just not able to continue without a break. Paul could see I needed a break and kicked me out a step on the face for me to pause. I stood there for a few moments taking in a number of deep breaths as my legs enjoyed the relief. I started down again, feeling a bit stronger this time as my technique was becoming more routine and my confidence in the ice increased.
I made the mistake though of choosing to skip the next step Paul had carved for me and continued on only to really begin to shake halfway to the next spot. I just barely made it to the next step but by now I was pretty worked up as it had taken all my mental and physical strength to get to that point without falling. Jordan could tell I was a bit worked up and quickly down-climbed to my side, kicking me out an even bigger step so I could truly relax and take a breath.
I stood there clinging to the side the mountain as I concentrated on slowing my heart rate back to normal. It wasn’t that I was scared of the down-climb, it was just that my legs had failed me and the exhaustion they felt meant I didn’t have the confidence to down-climb as quickly as the others. With Jordan by my side I was back in a focused mental state and was ready to continue. I traversed over to where Paul had set up a belay station as there was a large bergschrunds at the bottom of the hill we had to get through. As he lowered me down, I carefully walked over the edge, taking a few metre drop into the bergschrunds before climbing out to safety.
From here all four of us roped together as the next hour we would be carefully navigating through glacier country yet again. With four on a rope it offers some good benefits of more support should someone take a fall, but it does mean more concentration to ensure we move together as a team. At one point when we had to zig zag across a very narrow bridge between two crevasses, I tried to position myself to support Jordan ahead of me (as I was at the end of the rope) but I managed to fall through a hole up to my waist!
That was definitely a shock as I wasn’t expecting that at all!
I was able to easily get myself out though and we continued through the mine field back to where our belongings were left early that morning. It was nearly 2pm when we reached our bags and on the glacier the temperatures really began to rise. We changed into some lighter layers and packed up the gear to retreat down the glacier to our pick up spot for the heli.
Paul had been in contact with the heli company the last few hours, giving them an update on our progress and trying to confirm a pick-up time. They were flat-out on scenic flights so we continued to get bumped from their priority list. It was beginning to be a bit concerning as it went from a 3pm pick-up to 5:30pm to potentially after 7pm. Once we reached the pick-up spot Paul made a final call and was then told they wouldn’t be able to get us!
Let’s just say Paul was pissed! How could they leave us stranded here on the glacier? And we had walked past the snow plane landing strip as we had been assured the heli would get us at some point. Paul called in a huge favor with the guys at Mt Cook Ski Planes and they thankfully sent in a plane to retrieve us, even landing further down the glacier that they ever have to minimize our walk back up.
I have never been so happy to see a plane as he landed just before 4pm on the glacier. We slogged our gear up to meet him and had a beautiful scenic flight back to town in the Cessna 180.
The next day the weather wasn’t meant to be great but we got lucky and the morning was looking good. We slept in and took our time getting ready before heading over to the Hooker Bridge for some more simulated crevasse self rescue. Paul setup the ropes at the top of the bridge and lowered each one of us over the edge as he instructed some more techniques. We even had a race from the bottom to the top, using one of the 3 ways he showed us – which of course Jordan won each one with his competitive edge.
After a quick lunch at the hotel in town we headed off to a popular multi-pitch crag near the lodge. A short walk from the road we reached the crag just as another group were getting off the rock – perfect timing! While the wind was beginning to pick up we decided to continue on as Paul and Jordan took the first lead up the rock. Our route was only a grade 12 but went on for nearly 35m before Jordan reached an anchor station. As he setup the anchor and began to belay me I was impressed with how well he lead it as I passed the crux of the climb.
Meeting Jack and Paul on their second pitch, despite our hesitations due to the wind, Paul was supportive and assured us we could do this. As I lead up this next section, Paul was right there with me encouraging me along the way. I was really proud of myself when I reached the next anchor station that was nearly 70m up off the ground!
As Jordan came up behind me the wind continued to get stronger and affected our confidence even further. Paul was again there to help push us just to our comfort zone as Jordan pushed through the next lead to our final anchor. From here we all setup for our last two abseils and descended down the rock in lighting speed.
It was a perfect way to end our week in Mt Cook and while we would have liked to stay longer, the weather system coming through was looking pretty bad. Both Jordan and I felt like we learned a ton on this course and even successfully climbed our highest and most challenging climb yet! With these new skills in our ‘tool box’ we couldn’t wait to plan our next adventure to put these to the test!
Huge thanks to Paul for being an awesome instructor and for taking some incredible photos of us along the way!