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The conquest of Mount Cook and other climbs : an account of four seasons’ mountaineering on the Southern Alps of New Zealand

Chapter XV — The Ascent of Mount Tasman

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Chapter XV
The Ascent of Mount Tasman

Who shall hear, O Nature, messages thou wouldst send
 In thy desolate places, far from the moving throng?
Ah, but the soul that loveth thee best may comprehend,
 The voice of the silence speaketh louder than song!

The day after our return from Mount Ruareka we decided that the time had come for another attempt at Mount Tasman. Other climbers and guides at the Hermitage laughed the idea to scorn. As the season was a doubtful one and already far advanced, they were inclined to consider the attempt rather ridiculous. Even we looked upon it somewhat in the light of a forlorn hope. A season which so far had rarely afforded two consecutive fine days, with only thirteen hours' daylight in each, was not, we admitted to one another (but to no one else), the most promising time to attack the greatest snow climb in the New Zealand Alps. Bivouacking at 6,600 feet was hardly likely to be pleasing, however invigorating to our systems the cold might be; we thoughtfully considered these objections, and admitted the chances were ten to one against our success; but the fact that there was one slender chance for us was quite sufficient. Gaily we set about packing rucksacs and overhauling our camping outfit. As a concession to the cold, we added a piece of felt to line the floor of the tent and a blanket apiece, as well as a sleeping-bag; then we set out on March 21st for the Ball hut.

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The following day we made the Haast bivouac at an early hour. After a rest the men went off to tramp steps across the plateau as on our first attempt. As soon as they came back we had our evening meal and turned in, intent on all the rest we could gain. We planned to leave the bivouac at 3 a.m., but when the alarum went off at 1.30 a.m. we found the whole ridge was enveloped in a dense south fog, and it had also been snowing lightly during the night. There was no question of starting, so we turned in again to await events.

About 3 a.m. it began to clear rapidly, and we decided to set out, late though it was, and see what we could do. It was 4.30 by the time all was ready, and we set forth by lantern-light, following the steps the guides had tramped the evening before. Up and up we went, our course over a seemingly endless white slope, with nothing but the bright stars twinkling in the sky above us. I counted 900 steps, and at every hundred looked up, thinking surely now we must be near the top. But there was still only the white slope and the twinkling stars staring down upon me. In desperation I called out, "Peter, are we going up to heaven? I don't feel quite prepared." I heard a chuckle from Alex, and Peter turned round to say mildly, "It is rather a long slope; we will have a spell in a moment when it is less steep." And on he went again, the lantern casting its flickering light at my feet, and strange shadows lurking in the half-light. At last we reached the top, rested, and began the descent into the great snow plateau, three miles long, that forms the basin at the feet of Tasman, Lendenfeld, and Haast, and empties itself out on to the Hochstetter Icefall. Down we went into a seemingly bottomless abyss, but gradually the daylight crept upon us, and the glorious morning star shone out above the Malte Brun ridge to light us on our way. As we crept up the opposite slopes the wind began to rise, and drift snow showered down upon us from the

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Silberhorn ridge. We climbed to the lip of a great crevasse, and saw our shadows reflected deep blue on the white ice of the other side. As we followed along the side of the crevasse, "the sun looked over the mountain's rim," and we welcomed his warmth on chilly hands and feet. Above us spiral whirlwinds of drift and snow were circling on the arête, and these were turned to a golden mist by the rising sun, making a new beauty to store away in my mind among all my mountain treasures. But beautiful though the effect was, it was not encouraging, and our prospects of climbing looked rather dim. We went on for another half-hour, and sought what looked like a sheltered spot in which to revive ourselves with Thermos tea and biscuits. The shelter proved non est. Drift snow poured down upon us, melting at once and trickling down our necks. We promptly cut our breakfast short, and, after one look at the windy ridge above us, turned tail and made for home. Once back at the bivouac all was warm and still again, but up above we could see that the wind was raging, so settled ourselves down for a lazy day with no regrets.

The following morning was beautifully fine, and we set off in great spirits at three o'clock. We gained an hour on our previous time by having our steps to follow to the Silberhorn arête. Two hours we climbed by lantern-light, and just as day began to break reached our breakfast-place of the previous morning. The sunrise was glorious. Every rocky ridge and peak of the Malte Brun Range was outlined sharp against a green and primrose sky, rapidly deepening to orange and red. As we climbed we found ourselves enveloped in the alpine glow that coloured Mounts Cook and Tasman with its rosy light. Except for several schrunds to cross and one steep ice slope to traverse, we had no difficulty upon the Silberhorn. We reached the summit at 8.30 a.m., and looked once more round the western ridge at Tasman, and again we were page 171appalled at its steepness. We thought we knew this time what to expect, but it merely struck us after a year's absence as a little more wicked-looking than before. An icy wind swept up La Perouse Glacier, so we fled back for shelter beneath the cone of Silberhorn, and sat in a little patch of sun, while we had something more to eat to fortify us for the coming struggle. Alex braved the wind and took a photograph of the Tasman arête, and returned shivering and none too pleased with the prospect ahead of us. Our meal finished, reluctantly we faced the wind, of which we received the full force as we skirted to the west of Silberhorn and joined the Tasman arête. It was so cold that in five minutes one of my gloves was frozen to a solid ball of ice at the finger-tips and I lost all feeling on the left, or west, side of my nose. I mentioned my state to Alex as we scurried along in Peter's wake, and, after feeling my icy glove, he called to Peter, "Come back; we can't stand this." But not far off I saw sun on the east side of the ridge, and hoped for shelter from the wind. It was nearer also than to turn back to the Silberhorn, so I called out, "Go on; I can stand it if we can get shelter soon." So on we went in the teeth of the wind and across the ridge. The snow slope was steep, so they cut out a hole for me to sit in and another wherein to rest my feet, and then took places on either side of me and helped to thaw out my frozen fingers. The process was not pleasant—rather like having one's nails touched with red-hot pincers. But fortunately it did not last long. We were soon beautifully warm, and began to consider what we were to do next. It was quite evident that we must give up all idea of ascending by the arête, under the present conditions. The only alternative left us was to make an attempt to gain the summit from the north-east face. When we were thoroughly warm and rested, we decided to do so. Alex reconnoitred as far as the rope would allow him, and called page 172to us to follow, as he thought the route feasible. After traversing across a steep snow slope, we found ourselves beneath the lower lip of the great schrund that runs across the north-east face. We followed this along until we came to a large ice cave where the upper lip shelved backwards. It was a wonderful place, about 50 feet long by 20 feet broad, with gleaming icicles hanging from the roof, and rounded pillars like marble columns. Stray gleams of sunshine lit the ice to rainbow colours, while the deep blue of the shadowed depths made a wonderful contrast to the silvery-white stalactites and columns. The lower lip of the schrund sloped gently downward, making the floor of this fairy cavern, and down it we cautiously felt our way and were soon buried in the cool blue depths, which proved a wonderful contrast to the blinding glare and heat of the outside world.

We paused in the cavern for a meal, and then leaving one rucksac there, we set off again carrying the other, into which we had packed all that was essential to us. We followed the lower lip for some time looking for a crossing-place, but could find no sign of a bridge anywhere. Retracing our steps, we halted at a spot where the upper lip was only about 8 feet above the lower, and considered it carefully. "Climb up on my shoulders," said Alex, "and see if you can do it that way." So Peter cheerfully availed himself of Alex's 6 feet 1 in. While he balanced upon his brother's broad shoulders I handed him up the two ice-axes. These he drove into the snow slope above the schrund, and by their aid pulled himself over the intervening gap. My turn came next. I felt some compunction at walking over Alex in large nailed boots; when I asked if it hurt he laughed, and declared I was only a featherweight after Peter, which was no doubt true. The latter had kicked some steps for me, and when I safely crossed the schrund I stood in them and out of the way. Alex made a spring, and catching the head of the half-buried ice-axe page break
North-East Face of Mount Tasman, Showing Last Part of the Ascent.

North-East Face of Mount Tasman, Showing Last Part of the Ascent.

page 173was assisted into safety with the rope. No little elated we began to climb.

The slope became steeper and steeper, and it was necessary to make very large "soup-plate" steps to ensure safety in the descent. The Grahams took turn about, and then Alex got the worst of the bargain, as his turn came at a very nasty traverse beneath an overhanging wall and round a steep corner. It was solid ice, which came away in great flakes, like shale, and made steps very difficult to cut. He also had to cut finger-grips, as the grade was so steep. We were about half an hour negotiating this corner, and it tried our patience badly, as, once round it, we hoped for a view of the summit and a good knowledge of what lay ahead of us. At last there was a sigh of relief from Alex, and a murmur that sounded like "Tasman, I've got you," and he disappeared out of sight. When, in our turn, we got round we saw we were only about 100 feet from the ridge leading to the summit, and the icy conditions were changing for the better at every step. Above us we could hear our old friend the west wind whistling on his way, and we knew we were in for one more fight before we gained the summit. Fortunately for us, the ridge sloped gradually at the last, and we crossed it and made our way quickly up the western side; but, quick as we were, we were frozen once more when we gained the top, which was a small triangular plateau sloping gently downward, and afforded us some shelter from the worst of the wind. It was 1.30 p.m., so it had taken us just five hours to climb 600 feet—as long as the whole ascent of the Silberhorn, when we accomplished 4,196 feet in five and a half hours. Our aneroid gave the height of Mount Tasman as 11,880 feet, but the Government maps make it only 11,475 feet, so the aneriod is probably high. As we were seeking shelter on the top, I slipped on a bit of glazed ice and measured my length, falling on my right arm and giving it a nasty jar. This was the page 174only accident during the day, which speaks well for all of us, considering what we went through. We were all wildly excited to gain the summit at last, and let forth a joyous "Hurrah!" while shaking hands warmly all round. The view was magnificent, though unfortunately the whole of Westland and away to the north beyond the Hochstetter Dome was a mass of floating clouds. Mount Make Brun for once looked insignificant, but Mount Cook towered serenely above us as imposing as ever. On everything else we could look down, so we all agreed that if Mount Cook were King of the Southern Alps Tasman made him a very worthy and beautiful Queen. We took several photographs, including one of Peter and me on the top, where it was so cold and windy we could hardly stand. Just as we finished and started down, an extra strong gust whirled my hat from my head. It hovered round for a few moments uncertainly, then fluttered gracefully off to Pioneer Pass. Fortunately I still had my motor veil, which I tied over my head, and we began the descent. Thanks to the excellence of our steps and finger-grips, we descended without the slightest slip by any one. We jumped the big schrund and landed safely on the soft snow beneath, and were soon back to our blue cavern, where we had left one rucksac with most of the provisions; here we finished up our tea and biscuits and started for home.

The descent of the Silberhorn seemed endless, though our steps were as good as when cut in the morning. At last we came to the last steep snow slope, crossed the last schrund, and hurried down to the Great Plateau. The snow was very soft, and we sank waist-deep in places. It was now 6 p.m., so we pushed on as fast as we could so as to reach the bivouac before dark. The last quarter of an hour was cruel, hard work. We floundered in soft snow to our thighs at every step, and it seemed as if we would never reach our destination; but at last we sighted page 175the bivouac rock and arrived at 7 p.m. We had been out just sixteen hours, exactly the time of our previous attempt, but oh! the difference in our feelings. The glad knowledge of rest well earned, and a fine foe well conquered, after strenuous and unceasing effort, left us with that "peace which passeth all understanding," which surely is the reward of those who come close to the heart of the mountains.

The following morning we set off for the Ball hut in the best of spirits, and after an hour's rest there proceeded on to the Hermitage, happily conscious that once again we had succeeded despite the prophecies of the multitude.