Aoraki/Mt Cook (12,316ft) – Highest Mountain in New Zealand
Eric and Matthew Gilbertson
November 4-6, 2012
“NOOOO MOOOORE ROOOPE” Matthew yelled across the icy ridge to me as the lines tied to my harness went taught.
I cursed loudly, but the wind blew the words out of my mouth before they could reach Matthew.
“CAN I HAVE JUST 15 MORE FEET?” I yelled hopefully, louder this time. I was perched precariously, balancing on the four front-points of my crampons each poked a half-inch into the steep ice, with my two ice tools hooked over the top of the knife-edge ice ridge I was traversing. I looked down at the 5,000ft of mountain falling away beneath my feet. It was not the place to build an anchor and start belaying.
I twisted another screw into the ice and clipped it to the rope. The summit of Mount Cook was literally close enough to throw a snowball at, if not for the wind that would have blown the snowball away.
“NOOOO MOOOORE ROOOPE” Matthew yelled back again.
“Nobody’s been up Cook yet this season,” the ranger on the other end of the phone warned me. It was Saturday, November 3, and I had just called up the Mt Cook ranger station to check in before heading up to the mountains. “We’ve had a snowy winter, and the weather hasn’t been clear for the past 5 weeks. A crew just went up to Plateau Hut last weekend to check up on it after the winter. Do you know the avy conditions up there?”
“Yes,” I replied, “I saw today was forecasted to be considerable above 2000m.”
“Well, we’d really like to talk to you in person before you head up, but it’s not required.”
“I’ll try to make it to the station in person,” I replied, before giving him the details of my itinerary, planned return day, and emergency contact information. The ranger’s response was a little surprising to me. I thought November was the standard start of the climbing season for Mount Cook, and that there’d already be all kinds of climbers up there. Over the phone he had seemed concerned that we knew what we were getting ourselves into, and I hoped to dispel his concerns when we met in person.
I had found myself in New Zealand for a conference and decided to tag the highest mountain in the country, Mt Cook, before returning to the US. Mount Cook is not a trivial mountain. The altitude may be modest (12,316ft), but the easiest way up involves significant glacier travel, several pitches of rock and ice climbing, and a traverse of the famously corniced and icy knife-edge summit ridge. I’d read reports of the summit “day” taking from 15-30 hours round trip. On top of all this, the weather in the Mt Cook region is notoriously bad, and climbers have reported waiting out weather for a week or more before getting a summit window or giving up. Matthew and I had given ourselves a one-week summit window, and hoped that would be sufficient.
In Christchurch on Saturday I met up with Ian, a good friend from Kentucky now living in New Zealand, and we spent most of the day running errands to prepare for the climb. I bought 14 person-days of food, maps, a new headlamp (to replace the one I’d given to a kid in Fiji the previous weekend), and checked in with the rangers over the phone. Ian very generously offered to let us borrow his car for the drive, so I also practiced my left-side-of-road driving, and practiced navigating from Ian’s house to the airport to the road towards Mt Cook.
On Sunday morning I drove to the airport and met Matthew just as he landed at 9:10am, 37 hours after he had left Boston. We immediately jumped in the car and took off towards Mt Cook village. The prudent thing to do after 37 hours of travel to a new time zone 17 hours ahead of Eastern Time would probably have been to take a rest day to recover. However, a high pressure system was just starting to bring a good weather window to the Mt Cook region, and we didn’t want to risk the weather turning bad again before we had a chance to summit. We had also arranged a 2:30pm flight onto the glacier that day, and would have just enough time to make the 4.5-hour drive from Christchurch to Mt Cook village.
I navigated the roads of Christchurch as I’d practiced with Ian, and soon reached the open countryside on Route 1. We cruised past innumerable sheep farms, with huge snowy mountains always looming in the distance to the west. We passed through Ashburton, Geraldine, and Fairlie before turning up the Mt Cook road at Lake Pukaki.
Here we got the first view of our objective. Mount Cook was hard to miss – it was the only mountain with a lenticular cloud forming above it, and was obviously the tallest object around. Other than near Mt Cook, the sky was completely sunny, and we noticed patches of fresh snow on the ground in the shade. The snow Saturday must have reached all the way down to the valley floor, and Mt Cook had undoubtedly been hammered by yet another storm.
We continued up the valley and reached the Mt Cook Village airport at 1:30pm. With an hour to spare before our scheduled departure, we kept driving into the village, and pulled off at the visitor center to officially check in with the rangers.
“Hi, we’re planning to climb Mt Cook and wanted to check in,” I said to the ranger behind the desk.
“Oh yes, I know you two. Gilbertson, right?” the ranger asked, flipping through a registration book. “The weather actually looks good for the next few days, and there’s a group of three from Aspiring Guides already at Plateau Hut. Looks like I have all your information so you’re all set.”
We thanked him and headed back to the car.
“That’s reassuring,” Matthew said as we drove back to the airport. “If a guide is willing to take his clients up there, the conditions must not be that bad.”
We walked into the little airport at 2pm and talked to Trish at the counter. She had two items of good news: there were two other climbers that would split the ride up with us to lower the price, and we’d get to ride in a helicopter. We quickly paid and ran back to the car to pack our gear. Everything was thrown out on the gravel lot then crammed back into backpacks. We lifted the packs, decided they were too heavy, and threw out a couple pounds of food and some extra climbing cams back into the car. Satisfied, we brought our gear around to the loading dock and heaved it on an enormous trolley with the other climbers’ gear.
The helicopter started revving its engine and a group of hunters in orange camouflage began loading up gear. Five men climbed on board and the helicopter took off up into the mountains. They were apparently hunting Tahr, an invasive mountain goat from the Himalayas that produces tasty meat.
As the helicopter made several rounds ferrying gear up for the hunters, Matthew and I hung out in the airport lounge talking to the two other climbers, Geoff Wayatt and Philip Somerville, both from New Zealand. Geoff is a seasoned guide and local legend with many ascents of Mt Cook under his belt. As we learned over the next few days, Geoff was the first person to ski-descend from the summit of Mt Cook (1982) and has climbed Cook 24 times and Mt Aspiring 87 times. His friend Philip, a reporter for the Otago Daily Times (NZ), was aspiring for his first ascent. They had the luxury of being locals, and had decided to give Cook a go based on the good weather forecast. Matthew and I had decided over a month ago to fly up to Cook on this particular day, and had merely gotten lucky with the weather.
By 3:30pm it was our turn for a ride. We pushed the big metal trolley over to the helicopter and crammed the backpacks and duffle bags into a little box on the helicopter’s leg. We hopped inside, put on our earphones, and buckled up.
The next 15 minutes were spectacular. We took off high above the Tasman glacier, passing over Tasman Lake and all kinds of rugged mountains on the side. At the foot of the Boys Glacier we started climbing straight up, and then angled forward towards a big red building perched on a rock overlooking the Grand Plateau – Plateau Hut.
We slowly touched down on a flat mound of snow 100ft from the hut, and quickly got out to unload the gear. We threw all the packs onto the snow, held them down solidly, and then the chopper flew away.
Plateau Hut was much more luxurious than anything we had imagined. It had bunks for around 30 people, with soft cushions and blankets at each bunk. Bunks were partitioned into five rooms, so it almost felt like a luxurious hostel. There was a huge kitchen with picnic tables, pots, pans, bowls, spoons, and even gas-powered burners. Huge black bins outside were full of liquid water so we didn’t need to melt snow, and a nice two-seater outhouse was positioned just outside the hut. There were even solar-charged lights in the hut. We now realized we had brought much more gear than we needed. The two stoves and fuel bottles, pots, pads, zero-degree sleeping bags, and more were all unnecessary.
Matthew only had one thing on his mind, though – sleep. It was currently the middle of the night Boston Time, and since Matthew hadn’t had any time to adjust to New Zealand time he was exhausted. He immediately found a bunk, crawled into his sleeping bag, and tried to go to sleep.
I threw my gear on a bunk and started cooking a fresh pound of pasta. There were three other climbers there part of the Aspiring Guides group. They had flown in that morning and decided to hike up the route a ways to check out conditions. They hadn’t brought snowshoes, but managed to make it up to the Linda Shelf before turning back. Apparently the snow was quite soft and made for difficult walking without snowshoes. They decided to make Monday a rest day to recover and give a summit bid on Tuesday.
Luckily Matthew, I, Geoff, and Philip had all brought snowshoes so were prepared for these early-season conditions.
At 7pm the radio in the hut came to life with a ranger down in the village giving a weather update. The forecast for Monday was sunny in the morning with afternoon snow, winds 60kph on the summits, and considerable avalanche danger. Tuesday had a similar forecast.
Geoff said the conditions sounded marginal but he’d give it a go, and Matthew and I decided to go for it as well. These might be the best conditions Mt Cook ever sees, we reasoned, so why wait? I think we all realized that a group of four was much safer than a group of two on this mountain, so we coordinated to all leave at the same time, 2am. This time was a bit of a compromise – I’d read many groups leave earlier, like midnight, to try to get back to the hut before the heat of the day when snow bridges start melting. But Matthew also needed all the sleep he could get to be at full strength, so we agreed to sleep in a little.
We all went to bed by 8pm with alarms set.
Monday morning 1am. It was game time. Matthew and I got out of our sleeping bags and quickly started some water boiling. We scarfed down some cereal, packed up our bags, and were out the door by 2am. I made the decision, based on Geoff’s advice, to pare down my rock rack even more in anticipation of a mostly icy climb. I left my set of nuts, bringing only 4 cams, 6 ice screws, and a bunch of slings. Extra weight would only make the climbing more difficult.
The sky was perfectly clear at 2am, with millions of stars and a half moon illuminating our path so as to almost not need headlamps. Geoff and Phillip started out first as Matthew and I sorted out our rope system, but we soon caught up and volunteered to take the lead breaking trail. We were mostly following the tracks of the Italians from the previous day, but they were often drifted over from blowing snow.
We started out descending onto the Grand Plateau, then climbed up onto the Linda Glacier. I headed towards an obvious snow gully on the left, but after consulting with Geoff I got back on the right track and continued up the Linda. I think our team of four worked well – Geoff and Philip kept us going in the right direction and Matthew and I broke trail.
I had seen pictures of this section of the Linda riddled with a labyrinth of crevasses, but this early in the season we hardly noticed we were even on a glacier. Most of the crevasses were covered with snow bridges, and we could be reasonably confident that, in snowshoes, we probably wouldn’t poke through. The biggest crevasses still remained open, though, and these required special caution to avoid. We soon passed the highpoint of the Italians and were blazing our own trail. It’s thrilling walking across a glacier where you’re not following anyone else’s tracks and aren’t sure whether you’re walking on solid snow or a thin snow bridge.
Matthew and I alternated leads as the glacier got steeper. Occasionally the leader would yell out “CREVASSE!” as he approached a particularly questionable gap, and the follower got ready to catch a fall. We even had to jump over a few small ones.
Around 5am we hooked left onto the Linda Shelf just as the alpenglow started forming on the horizon. By now we were well ahead of Geoff and Philip and were pretty confident we could find the route on our own. We ditched our snowshoes at a bergschrund just before the shelf, sticking them in the snow to retrieve on the way back. On top of the shelf we traversed a steep snowy slope, and climbed up to a bigger bergschrund at the top of the Linda Glacier.
This bergschrund marked the beginning of the fun part of the climb, where many parties start pitching out the route. Matthew struggled over the bergschrund first, then marched straight up a snow/ice gully above it. I soon squirmed over the bergschrund as well and started up the gully. The climbing was easy enough that we felt comfortable without placing gear or belaying for the next two rope-lengths.
Matthew soon reached the top of the gully, clipped an old sling, and belayed me up the rest of the way. We had reached the ridgeline at the base of the summit rocks. To our right was a short rock cliff, to our left the snow ridge continued down gently, and in front of us was a 2,000ft drop straight back down to the Grand Plateau. The sky was still clear in all directions as predicted, and the wind was hardly noticeable.
I took out my screws and cams, and Matthew started flaking out our second rope. We’d been using one of the double ropes on the glacier, and now needed both of them connecting us for the steeper climbing. As we prepared for the climb, both physically and mentally, Matthew queued up “Born to Be Wild” followed by “We Will Rock You” on his phone and set the volume to maximum. “This might drain the batteries, but it’ll be well worth it,” he said.
As Matthew hit Play, I soon started climbing up the rocks. It was probably only moderate 5th class climbing, but in crampons, with a big pack on, with snow-covered rocks and big gloves on it felt considerably more difficult. I struggled for a few minutes, stuck a cam in, clipped it, then downclimbed back to the snow to rest.
“We’ll never make it up at this rate,” Matthew lamented.
“Yeah, there’s got to be an easier way up this,” I replied. I looked to the right, but was deterred by the smooth down-sloping snow-covered rocks. To the left, though, was a steep rock ramp covered in deeper snow. It looked like it would go.
I climbed back up to retrieve my cam, then wound around left. After mantling up a boulder I managed to angle right and get to the top of the original cliff. I clipped a cam and continued climbing.
“That’s how you do it!” I yelled down to Matthew.
Just for fun, we had decided to bring walkie-talkies to enhance our communication during the climb. They actually turned out to be invaluably helpful on the Summit Rocks – when I built an anchor I’d radio in to Matthew “take me off belay, Matthew” and then pretty soon I’d hear “ok, Eric, you’re off belay” crackle over the radio. Without them, it would have been next to impossible to hear each other with fifty meters of rope and rock in between us.
Geoff had told us the summit rocks are usually all iced over this time of year, but this must have been an unusual year. I was climbing on lightly snow-covered rock for the most part, with only the occasional icy bit I could sink an ice ax pick into. I clipped an old sling, then at the end of a rope length found a solid steel cable wrapped around a rock. I clipped this and belayed Matthew up the first pitch.
We continued inch-worming up this way with me in the lead for two or three more pitches of mixed rock, ice, and snow, until the ridge leveled out and the rocks disappeared. I built a solid ice-screw anchor this time and belayed Matthew up to meet me.
“That was the crux, right?” Matthew asked. “So it should be a cake walk from here.”
“Um, not exactly,” I replied, looking up at how much mountain we had left. I think I could see the summit, but we still had a thousand vertical feet to climb on narrow ice and snow ridges. The ridge we were standing on was, in fact, particularly sketchy. It was mostly firm snow, but fist-size solid-rime-ice feathers stuck out intermittently, and would break off if stepped on, acting like ball bearings propelling anything above them down the mountain. The slope wasn’t particularly steep near the top of the ridge, but it still felt better to have the protection of the rope here.
We decided to pitch out one more rope-length to be safe. I carefully traversed the ridge, placing an ice screw along the way, then cut around a rock outcrop and front-pointed using my ice axes up another ice gully. The snow conditions were better at the top of this gully, so I dug down with my adz to the ice underneath, built another anchor, and belayed Matthew up.
Now we decided to simul-climb to speed up the ascent. I climbed first up the snow ridge, and at the end of a rope length pounded a picket in. Matthew then unclipped from the anchor and we started walking in unison. This way we were making progress at twice the rate as before, and if someone fell there was always at least one piece of gear between us to catch the fall.
The snow soon turned very deep – first shin deep, then knee, then mid-thigh, until I reached another huge overhanging bergschrund. The left end was a 15-foot tall overhanging ice cliff, shrinking to the right to a more manageable five-foot gap. I wallowed over to the 5-foot gap, and started testing the snow on the edge. The top was firm snow, but the bottom was fluffy powder that I struggled to get a firm foothold in. I eventually jammed both ice axe shafts into the firm snow above the gap, leaned forward, and pulled my body over the gap. It wasn’t elegant, but it worked.
The slope steepened above this bergschrund and changed to ice, so I continued frontpointing up, placing ice screws more liberally. Matthew had no problem with the bergschrund, and we simul-climbed up the steep ice/snow slope.
I reached the top of the slope and was immediately blasted by a gust of wind. There was apparently no more mountain remaining to provide shelter. Did this mean I was at the top? I looked around, but it was apparent I had merely reached the edge of the summit ridge. I spied a local maximum about 200ft down the ridge that was definitely at least 20ft taller than the spot I was at. Come to think of it, this location did look awfully familiar from the pictures I’d seen. There was one picture taken right here of two climbers congratulating each other for reaching the summit, even though there was an obviously higher part of the mountain in the background.
I pounded in a picket and an ice screw and belayed Matthew up to my perch.
“Yep, that’s definitely the true summit out there,” Matthew agreed, his voice trailing off.
“Well, the summit rocks weren’t the crux of the route, then, that’s for sure,” I responded, still staring at the ridge. The elevation change wasn’t the problem – it was the sharpness and shininess of the ridge that made it intimidating. Here in front of us was the true definition of “knife-edge ridge.” I’m not talking like the Knife-Edge Ridge Trail on Katahdin in the US – this one was literally sharp enough to cut you. If you took the ridge, and shrunk it down to something that could fit in the palm your hand, you could shave with it. The middle section of the ridge was solid blue ice, almost completely vertical on the left side dropping 5000ft down to the Grand Plateau, and probably a 60-70 degree slope on the right dropping the same distance. There was no way to walk on top of it – the only hope was to traverse.
“We could always respect the Moari beliefs to not hold our heads above the summit and turn around here, or we could do what we’ve already climbed 5,000ft to do, and stand on the roof of New Zealand,” Matthew said.
“Let’s do it!” I replied.
The wind had been blowing relentlessly and I was anxious to get moving. Matthew handed back all the gear he’d accumulated, put me on belay, and I was off.
I carefully walked along the top of the ridge at the beginning, tiptoeing along the 1-foot wide snow section between solid ice on the right and cornices on the left. As the gap narrowed I started crawling on all fours, and then put an ice screw in. At least the ice was solid enough for bomber ice screw placements, even if that made the climbing harder.
Now the gap was narrow enough that I could no longer crawl – I had to traverse. I planted my ice tools in the snow and carefully kicked my crampons into the ice beneath the screw. The ice was very hard, and I could only get my points in maybe half an inch, but that was sufficient. I started traversing sideways – kick right foot in far to the right, plant right ice tool in, kick left foot in farther right, move left ice tool right, repeat. The snow on the top of the ridge got thinner until my ice tool poked through to clear sky on the other side. There was a 1-foot cornice now on top of the sharp ice ridge.
I tried a few times to swing my tool into the ice, but then discovered it was much easier to merely hook the top of the ridge with the pick, since the top was so sharp anyways. I continued delicately traversing across this way, putting a few more screws in until I was just about off the icy section.
“NO MOOORE ROOOOPE!” I heard Matthew yell. But the summit was so close! There was no way I was building an anchor and hanging out in such a precarious position. By now the walkie-talkie batteries had succumbed to the cold and communication would have to be self-powered from here on out.
“SIMULCLIMB!” I yelled back.
Matthew quickly broke down the anchor and started climbing. On a traverse like this it was actually almost equally safe to simul-climb or pitch out the climb, since there was no real vertical component. It was thus an easy decision to switch into simul mode.
I continued off the icy section onto a more snowy knife-edge, marched up the next local maximum, and found myself the highest person in New Zealand.
“WHOOOOOOOOO” I yelled, waving my ice ax in the air. I could just see Geoff and Philip making the final push up the ridge, and they probably saw me on the top too. I pounded an ice ax into the snow, clipped in, and belayed Matthew over.
But it wasn’t quite that simple. The wind had been relentlessly blowing our climbing rope over the ridge, and now a large section was looped over a cornice. Matthew passed the last ice screw, stepped onto the snow section, but was then stopped when the ropes plummeted onto the other side of the ridge. We tried in vain to swing them back over, but it was no use. The wind was too strong. Matthew was a mere snowball’s throw from the summit, but couldn’t make it there because of the dang cornice!
“Let’s just saw the dang cornice off!” I suggested as a last resort.
We pulled back and forth on the ropes and it actually started to work. The ropes gradually worked their way through the snow until – plop – the cornice fell off and the ropes were free. I belayed Matthew up the final few feet and we both basked in the glory of the summit of Mt Cook.
We both snapped a few pictures, and ate a little snow from the summit, but it wasn’t actually very pleasant there. I was starting to shiver from the cold – it was 5F that morning down on the Linda, and probably similar now but very windy. Also, some pesky clouds were rolling in from the East straight into the summit, obscuring half our view. Matthew claimed he could see the Tasman Sea off to the other side, and indeed there were amazing mountains in all directions, but we couldn’t really afford to enjoy the view for long.
“I’m cold – let’s get outta here,” I suggested after about 90 seconds on the summit.
“Yes sir,” Matthew replied.
I started back across the ridge, placing a few extra snow pickets this time to try to save the ropes from getting blown over the cornices. The icy traverse was as sketchy as before, but this time I knew what to expect and made it across with ease. We started simul-climbing shortly after I left the ice, and were soon both reunited on the flatter side of the ridge.
Now the entire route below us was enshrouded in clouds. I looked at my watch – 1:30pm. The rangers had predicted afternoon snow, and it looked like we would indeed be getting afternoon snow.
We downclimbed the ice/snow slope, placing protection between us just in case as before. The bergschrund was much easier jumping down, especially into the soft fluffy snow.
At the top of the summit rocks we caught back up to Geoff and Philip, just as they were getting ready to rappel.
“You guys could just rappel on our ropes if you want,” I offered. We had two 60m ropes for full-length rappels, while they had only single 50m rope. They gladly agreed, so we set up the first rappel at a big steel cable wrapped around a rock. I descended first, with the undesirable job of untangling the ropes as I went. At near 60m down I found another steel cable rappel station and clipped in. By now it was starting to snow and the visibility dropped considerably.
Philip, Geoff, and Matthew all came down to my station, and then we repeated the process. The second rappel brought back to the base of the summit rocks, and now the situation got a little bit trickier. We didn’t really trust the ratty old slings at the base of the summit rocks to rappel off, but didn’t want to downclimb the steep gully.
Geoff said there were some better slings at another gully along the ridge, so we all climbed down there. I found a set of slings that looked a little bit better, so added a caribbeaner to the anchor and rappelled down. I was fully expecting to need to leave gear and build my own anchor for the next rappel, but somehow I stumbled across another steel cable around a rock about 50m down. It was in a terrible position – there were no foot placements below it so I just had to clip in and hang from it – but it seemed solid and meant I wouldn’t have to leave gear.
Matthew followed down to the anchor, while Geoff and Philip decided to take a different route down. We pulled the rope, set up one final rappel, and were finally back onto the snow slope of the Linda Shelf.
By now the conditions were basically whiteout, and we could only barely make out our tracks from the morning. The snow had stopped but dense fog had rolled in. Matthew and I roped back up for glacier-travel mode and continued over the bergschrund and across the shelf. The snow definitely seemed deeper now. It was probably a combination of afternoon softening in the hotter part of the day, wind loading, and new snow.
I struggled to follow the tracks and eventually gave up. As I was traversing up high I luckily spotted a black object down below – the snowshoes! I diverted back to the right course and reunited us with our snowshoes.
The terrain was still too steep to allow snowshoes on the descent, so we strapped them to our packs and hiked down in crampons. The snow momentarily abated and a gap in the clouds rolled over us. We felt confident now that Geoff and Philip would have no trouble following our tracks down if our groups got separated, so we quickened our pace down the glacier.
Our tracks from the morning were almost completely wiped out, but we managed to follow a similar course through the crevasses. However, the navigation soon got much more difficult as the gap in the clouds disappeared and it started snowing again.
It was 7:15pm now and starting to get dark, and we were only just approaching the Grand Plateau. There was no way we’d find our way back to the hut in this whiteout with no tracks to follow. I could barely even see Matthew on the end of the rope. However, we had brought a secret weapon: a GPS with satellite photos of the area loaded and a waypoint marked for Plateau Hut.
I whipped out the GPS, handed it to Matthew in the lead, and we continued on.
“1.25 miles to the Hut, as the crow flies,” Matthew yelled out.
“Awesome!” I replied, “but I think that you mean ‘1.25 miles as the kea flies.’ We are in New Zealand after all.” We had picked up this phrase from Geoff, a reference to the beloved New Zealand parrot. Anyhow, we should be there in less than an hour, I thought.
But that 1.25 miles didn’t include navigating around crevasses. Matthew initially tried to avoid several huge crevasses that showed up on our satellite image, but we instead ran into even more crevasses. We eventually agreed that the crevasses must have moved since that image was taken, and instead made a direct bee-line for the hut.
Our progress felt agonizingly slow. We were just walking in one direction, with nothing to see in any direction, blindly following our GPS. After an hour we stumbled across some ski tracks which were heading in relatively the same direction, and we decided to follow them. In all likelihood they would lead to the hut, and they provided a solid backup for our GPS navigation.
At 8:45pm we finally saw a dark shape in the distance, and had reached Plateau Hut. It had been an 18+ hour day and we were exhausted. We were also extremely dehydrated and famished. Somehow I had managed to drink only one liter of water all day, and had eaten half a bagel. Matthew was similar. I guess the technical terrain had made it inconvenient for us to eat and thus we just didn’t eat, though we definitely should have.
After heaving our gear off into a big pile we started some water boiling and some pasta cooking. We could finally take a well-earned rest.
Geoff and Philip made it back an hour later, after following our tracks across the plateau, and short-cutting around some of our glacier wandering. By 10:30pm we were all sound asleep.
By 7:30am the next morning we were all up and Matthew radioed down to the airport.
“Hi, we’re two hikers at Plateau Hut looking for a ride back down – are there any rides available?” he asked into the speaker. There was no response. Matthew tried again twice at 10 minute intervals but still there was no response.
“Here, let me try,” Geoff suggested after the last one. “Plateau Hut to base, over” he said in his New Zealand accent.
“Base to Plateau, good morning,” the radio replied.
“You see, sometimes they respond better to a local accent,” Geoff said with a grin. Perhaps Matthew’s American accent had been too intimidating to the Kiwi on the other end.
They said they had a helicopter coming up at 9:30am with a group of sightseers and we could split the cost for the ride down. We agreed and quickly threw our gear in our backpacks and put them outside next to the landing area.
We waited around inside but then heard another message over the radio. The sightseers had never shown up, and the flight was canceled. The next available ride would be at 5pm.
“That’s too late,” Matthew said. “Let’s just hike down.”
“I’m down for hiking out,” I agreed. The hike out would involve descending the Boys Glacier, then climbing down a big scree slope, traversing the moraine at the base of the Tasman glacier, and hiking 6 miles of trails down to a road, where we could potentially hitch-hike back to the airport. Geoff and Philip graciously offered to take some of our extra gear back with them when they flew out the next morning, and we gladly took them up on the offer.
We removed all unnecessary items from our packs – including, as we’d later regret, our sleeping bags – and headed out the door at 11am moving fast and light. The clouds had crept back up to the hut level and we were yet again walking in a white-out. A pair of skiers had hiked into the hut the previous day, though, and we at least had their tracks to follow. We soon found the ski tracks and descended onto the Grand Plateau, then traversed across the glacier to Cinerama Col.
By the time we reached the col the clouds had burned off, and we could again see where we were going. We dropped down the opposite side of the col, traversed over to the top of the Boys glacier, and started a steep descent. The terrain soon became too steep for snowshoes, so we switched to crampons and plunge-stepped our way down. We tried to walk quickly through several recent avalanches, still following the ski tracks from the previous day.
By 3pm we stepped off the last bit of snow onto the large scree slope. Finally, we could take of the glacier rope and crampons and go back to normal hiking. Not that we didn’t like the security of the rope on the glacier. It just constrained us to hike at exactly the same speed the whole time, which got a little old.
We dropped down the scree slope to the moraine of the Tasman Glacier below, and then started hiking down the valley. Matthew found enough time to take a quick swim in a little glacial meltwater pool that was probably 32F, but I chickened out. I’d had enough of being cold for today. The talus and scree covering the glacier were extremely unstable, and forced us to continue the hike in our heavy mountaineering boots.
Following Geoff’s directions, we soon climbed back up a boulder slope to a big terrace on the edge of the moraine, and met up with the remnants of an old trail. Apparently the Tasman glacier used to extend much farther down the valley, but in recent years it has melted considerably, and this melting caused the terrace holding the trail to slide several hundred feet down the side of the mountain. There used to be a hut in this area, but it was destroyed by the slide.
We followed the old trail for about a mile, hiking through several rough areas, until we passed the last of the slide zone. Now the trail changed to a rough 4wd road, which we cruised down. Six miles later, at 6pm, we reached a parking lot with several cars in it. Luckily two Swiss hikers were just returning from the mountains and offered to give me a ride back to the airport. I’d have to come back for Matthew and the packs since they only had a little bit of room, but that was no problem.
I rode down to the airport, and then drove back up to meet Matthew at 6:30pm. We threw the gear into the car and made it back to Mt Cook village in time to have a celebratory pizza dinner at the Old Mountaineer Café.
After a chilly night camping out with no sleeping bags we met Geoff and Philip the next morning at the airport to pick up our extra gear. It was certainly nice of them to fly that down for us!
We all four checked in at the ranger station that we had made it down safely. The rangers confirmed that we were indeed the first ones to summit this season, and they anxiously asked about conditions higher up on the mountain. Apparently the icy traverse we climbed on the summit ridge is usually an easier snow traverse, and the rangers guessed it may have been exceptionally windy over the winter to blow all the snow off.
Matthew and I still had six days left in New Zealand, so we called up Ian to coordinate the next leg of our adventure – a backpacking trip in Fiordland National Park.