The conquest of Mount Cook and other climbs : an account of four seasons’ mountaineering on the Southern Alps of New Zealand
Chapter XIII — Two Virgin Peaks
Two Virgin Peaks
So try man's foot, if it will creep or climb,
'Mid obstacles in seeming, points that prove
Advantage, for who vaults from low to high
Makes of the stumbling-block a stepping-stone.
The 1912 season opened most inauspiciously for me. I was booked to reach the Hermitage early in January, but the night before my boat sailed from Sydney my father met with a serious accident. For some time I was unable to procure the services of a trained nurse, and by the time I eventually did so and my father was convalescent I was on the edge of a nervous breakdown. The doctor packed me off at once for my delayed holiday, with strict instructions to leave serious climbing alone until I was thoroughly fit once more.
Mount Cook Mount Tasman Mount De la Bêche
The Tasman Glacier from the Matle Brun Hut
We were late in leaving the Hooker hut on the morning of February 25th, so made all haste down the couple of miles of track that lay between us and our proposed climb. The peak we were bound for is a beautiful snow cone, the next peak but one north of the Footstool. We did not anticipate any difficulty in the ascent. We scrambled up the scree and grass slopes to the rock ridge leading on to the Stuart (?) Glacier. We crossed over some rather bad broken ice, until we gained the first of three rock buttresses that lead directly to the summit of the peak. These rocks seemed good, so we started up them without taking the precaution to put on the rope. As we progressed upward, the rocks, though good and solid, increased considerably in difficulty. Still we did not bother to pause and get the rope out of the rucksac, but went straight ahead. Soon Graham seemed to be getting into difficulties above me; I followed on till suddenly I found myself in a very unpleasant position, with one passable foothold, one knee against the rocks and both my hands stuck in snow-filled cracks high above me. I was reluctant to move either up or down. Graham was balancing himself a few feet above me in an exceedingly precarious position. I called out to him for directions. Seeing my predicament, he told me to hang on and he would get the rope round me. To this day it remains a mystery to me how he succeeded in getting the rucksac off his back, and where he put it while he hastily uncurled the rope, for which feat he must have used one hand and his teeth, I imagine. I could not see what he was doing and was mainly concerned in hanging page 151on. My fingers in the snow-filled crack got more and more numb, till I began to wonder if I could possibly hold out much longer. I took a fleeting glance at the consequences of a fall; 30 feet below me was a snow arête, on which I might land, but the possibilities were against my stopping there, in which case I would end on some rocks 300 feet lower. Tentatively I removed one hand from the numbing snow, and rubbed it backwards and forwards on my serge skirt to restore the circulation, thrusting it back in the crack just as the other hand threatened to strike at doing double duty. Out of a jumble of thoughts one clear fact emerged: if I fell, Graham would be held responsible because he had not put on the rope. That he had not done so was at my own expressed wish, but no one would take any account of that even if they believed it. So I set my teeth and hung on. After what seemed an age I heard my guide moving down, and soon felt the rope passed round me and safely knotted. "Can you hang on while I get to a safe place?" he asked. "It's my fingers; they are frozen," I answered. "All right; stick them in my coat for a while, I can hold you." There we hung for perhaps ten minutes; the pain was sickening as the circulation slowly returned, but at last I told him to move and I hung back again in the old spot, while he hastily scrambled above me to a safe place; then I was more or less rather ingloriously hauled into the same position, and we sat down to recover. Graham was distinctly white about the face, and my fingers were stinging as if some one was pulling the nails off with hot pincers. We stayed where we were for perhaps half an hour, and drank hot tea and ate biscuits. Then, quite recovered, we set out again. I was surprised to find I was muchsteadier instead of more shaky after this unpleasant incident, and we proceeded without trouble for some time. Graham supplied the next excitement. I was waiting page 152while he looked for a route above me. I was quite safe, but had no place where I could wedge in my ice-axe or secure the rope in case of accidents. Suddenly a queerly quiet voice called to me: "Get out of that, quick to the right; out of the way!" I shifted with haste to the only available place, looking wildly about for something to twist the rope round; there was nothing, so I held it in both hands and waited with a sickening dread, expecting to see my guide fall from above. Instead there was a scrape of nails on smooth rock, a rattle of stones, and with a bound a huge boulder rolled from above; missing me by a couple of feet, it crashed down the slope to the glacier beneath. "You will have to let me haul you up the last bit," came a voice from above; "it's beastly smooth, and you can't reach the hand-hold. I jumped for it." So for the second time that day the rope proved a good friend in time of need. You might have thought the rest of those rock buttresses were made of gold, from the cautious and respectful way in which we treated them. However, we had no more difficulty, and shortly stood upon the snow arête leading to the summit. It was a teaser; it rose at an angle of 65 degrees straight to the sky. Fortunately the snow was in perfect condition, and we just kicked up it to the summit, which we reached in twenty minutes amidst no little excitement. There a cold wind was blowing from the west, and everything was shrouded in mist. The disappointment of having no view was somewhat alleviated by the joy of achieving such an exciting peak. We only stayed a few moments on the actual summit as it was so cold, and then found a sheltered spot on the east side wherein to eat our lunch. After burying a tin with our names scratched upon it on the summit, we began the descent at 2 p.m. We decided to give the rocks a wide berth, and descended wholly on snow to the Eugénie Glacier, and then made a traverse across it, and beneath page 153the buttress, and so on to the Stuart Glacier and down to the ridge we had ascended by in the morning. We found the Hooker hut in the possession of some members of the Medical Congress, which had lately been held at Timaru. That night the wind howled round the hut, and next morning, after a fruitless attempt to gain the Copland Pass, and see if there were any signs of our friends on Mount Cook, we returned to the Hermitage, very much pleased with our first climb for 1912.
Mr. Chambers came back in the evening with his Mount Cook honours thick upon him. His attitude to the climb amused me somewhat; it seemed to be mainly thankfulness that it was over. So far as I could discover the doing of it, instead of being a pleasure, had been merely a monotonous grind. Mr. Wright, who had also made the ascent for the first time, had suffered considerably from mountain sickness, so it was hardly to be wondered at if his enthusiasm was slightly dimmed. For the hundredth time I was up against the problem as to why men who were not merely seeking notoriety should climb at all, when they apparently enjoyed the doing of it so little. If one is nervous, or bored, or tired to death by mountaineering, why do it? And if one isn't any or all three of these things, why not enjoy it? I have still to meet the enthusiastic New Zealand mountaineer who counts all discomforts but a minor part of a very joyous game. I may have been unlucky, but I have never met any one, apart from my own guides, who has been as keen and enthusiastic as myself.
As Mr. Wright had to leave the Hermitage shortly, and was now finished with Murphy, who had been acting as his private guide (he left the Government service at the end of the 1911 season), I engaged him for a few days until Alex Graham came over from the coast.
Mr. Chambers asked me to join him and Clark for a last climb, as he was leaving at the end of the week.page 154
We made all arrangements to attack a virgin peak up the Muller. On the morning we were to set out they suddenly changed plans and insisted on trying for a virgin peak immediately south of Mount Cook. This right-about-face did not suit me at all, as the two Grahams and I had decided at the end of last season to attack this peak as soon as we got together again. However, as it was going to be attempted, I thought I might as well be in it, and did not withdraw from the expedition, as I felt half inclined to do; so on the morning of the 27th the four of us set off for the Hooker hut.
We left the hut next morning at 4.30, my first early start that season, and very depressing I found it. The morning was hot and muggy, even at that early hour, and crossing over the Hooker moraine and glacier was far from exhilarating work. After some discussion between Clark and Murphy as to the best route, they decided to follow up the Mona Glacier to the broken ice, and from there gain the rocks on its left-hand side, making a traverse till we could reach the main west arête leading direct to the summit. The Mona is a small but most precipitous glacier, and we had a tedious time toiling up it until we gained the rocks. We had some difficulty in getting on to these, as the ice of the glacier was much broken at the junction between it and the rocks. When we did at length achieve it, the guides had another discussion as to the best route. This time they could not agree, so as we were climbing on different ropes we each took our own line. The work was pretty stiff, but Murphy and I found no insupportable obstacles in our way, and proceeded upward. After about half an hour Clark hailed us for assistance. He was not far away, as we had been climbing parallel to one another, but they were hidden from us by a projecting buttress. Finding a safe ledge for me to rest upon, Murphy took the rope page 155off me, and hurried towards the sound of their voices. Clark said that the rocks they were on were too difficult to climb with a rucksac. So Murphy threw them one end of our rope, and presently hauled up the swag and ice-axes. He then sent the rope back to them, and with its assistance they landed safely. We resumed our upward way together, but still on separate ropes. Clark led and we progressed well for a time, Soon, however, we had to make a long traverse over a smooth face, where the hand-and foot-holds all sloped the wrong way. This traverse was by no means easy, and when in the middle of it Clark stopped and announced that he could not continue with a rucksac on his back, it complicated matters considerably. Mr. Chambers and I both happened to be badly placed at the moment; Murphy was slightly better off.
We were on icy cold rocks as yet untouched by the morning sun, and soon became most unpleasantly cold and numb with inaction. It took Clark twenty minutes to secure his rucksac to a thin cord he carried for the purpose, then he left it behind him and climbed round his obstacle. Meanwhile we hung between sky and glacier, I at any rate exceedingly uncomfortable and impatient. Murphy called out sharply once or twice to Clark, "Hurry up; we are all freezing." At last Clark hauled up the rucksac and we were free to proceed. Mr. Chambers went first, then Murphy, who made no bones about carrying his rucksac round the difficult corner, and I followed last.
I had a word of consultation with Murphy while Mr. Chambers was joining Clark. We decided that this kind of climbing was no use to us. When we reached the others we announced we meant to take the lead, and they could follow us or take a separate route, as they pleased. We had taken two hours to ascend as many hundred feet, and though the rocks were undoubtedly difficult, they were not such as to warrant taking up so much time. We page 156halted at the first sunlit spot and had something to eat, as it was now 9.30 a.m. and we had tasted nothing since leaving the hut at 3.30. The rocks we now ascended were steep and difficult, but nowhere impossible, and at 12.20 we at last gained the western arête.
We were disgusted to find that we were only at an altitude of 7,100 feet, which meant we had only accomplished 3,000 feet in eight hours, leaving the summit still 2,100 feet above us. We progressed up the arête a little, until we came to an impassable rock tower, which we could neither climb over nor round. The only alternatives were to descend a considerable distance, and climb back to the arête at a point beyond the aiguille, or to give up the ascent. Sitting on the arête, we discussed the matter; we had wasted so much time that our chances of reaching the summit that day were practically nil; the arête was regularly riddled with aiguilles, any of which might prove as impossible as the one we sat beneath.