Words & images: Alastair McDowell
Participants: David Chen, Elisha Nutall, Alastair McDowell
There are only a few days each year when the many suns, stars and moons that govern perfect mountaineering conditions at Mt Cook line up. To be there ready, with a climbing partner, feeling fit and primed to pounce at this very moment – the chances seem impossibly slim. But on one such day in mid-December, the impossible happened.
Good weather was moving in for the weekend, so we made our move to advanced base-camp – Plateau Hut – on a miserably wet Wednesday. Although my climbing partners Elisha and David were quite keen, as most are, to fly from Mt Cook village up to the Grand Plateau, I was determined to make a clean ascent from the road-end, and eventually convinced them to join me.
The walk-in via Haast Ridge has a feral reputation as being long, loose and painfully exhausting. With exceedingly heavy packs loaded with full alpine gear and six days of food, I can confirm it was all of those things. Navigating the moraine and white ice of the Tasman Glacier in white-out, followed by climbing 1800 metres of choss and wet snow certainly drained us and forced us to ask deep questions, like “Why are we doing this to ourselves?” For the glory, we try to answer, but the reply is drowned out by the roar of another rock avalanche and serac-collapse in the chaotic Hochstetter ice-fall far below. But oh how satisfying it was to walk into Plateau hut after a tough thirteen hours; drenched cold and tired, plaguing guilt upon the many lazy climbers who had taken the easy option. This was tramping at its finest! We now had two days to rest before conditions would come right to climb. The clouds of the storm slowly parted over the following days, revealing the country’s highest peaks – Aoraki, Tasman…
Midnight, December 14th, I poked my head out the door of Plateau hut to a clear starry sky. The chill of frozen snow. Conditions were perfect. After a quick breakfast, we set off roped together for glacier travel, marching over the freeze in unison. The darkness of the Linda enveloped us, a the half-moon barely glinting at the edges of the labrynth of crevasses that tumbled into a hollow abyss. The scale and potential power of those overhanging seracs wasn’t worth considering.
A sense of urgency through the upper Linda saw us move quickly across the icy Linda shelf, aware of the tumultuous icefalls above us, hiding beneath the darkness of the early hours. After a long traverse across the particularly firm ice, we continued upwards, finding a good snowbridge across the major bergschrund, allowing us to crampon up a gulley to meet the crest of the Zurbriggen Ridge. I yearned to find somewhere flat to sit or stand, to rest, to wear off the nerves of the past four hours, but nothing was flat up here. “She’s pretty steep, the Linda”, the Aussies would say. We had made good time to the Summit Rocks, not stopping even once, and now we were rewarded with a classical Mt Cook view… jagged summits cast against a golden glow on the horizon.
As we pitched our way through the steeper, well iced-up Summit Rocks, alpen glow threw majestic light over the neighbouring Silberhorn and Tasman. We were quickly drawing level height with those ice-carved summits, a feeling was rising. With sun came warmth, and the climbing become truly enjoyable as we picked through many short vertical ice and rock steps for three rope-lengths. The summit was now in view, and not far away. Once the final ice cap was surmounted, we stood on the top of New Zealand, proud to be Kiwis, proud to live in such a beautiful country.