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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 XVIII — The First Complete Traverse of Mount Cook

page 196

Chapter XVIII
The First Complete Traverse of Mount Cook

From depth to height, from height to loftier height
The climber sets his foot and sets his face;
Tracks lingering sunbeams to their resting-place,
And counts the last pulsations of the light.
Strenuous by day and unsurprised by night,
He runs a race with time, and wins the race;
Emptied and stripped of all save only Peace,
Will, Love, a threefold panoply of might.

On January 2nd, Peter Graham, David Thomson and I set out for the Hooker hut. A party of New Zealanders who had decided to climb Harper's Saddle accompanied us under the charge of C. Milne, and we all spent a pleasant evening together.

On January 3rd at 4 a.m. we all set out from the hut. The morning was still and cold, the start so like many another, that I found it hard to realize we were putting all our hopes to the test. The New Zealanders accompanied us as far as the Hooker Icefall and kindly helped to carry my guides' heavy swags.

When our ways parted, they to climb Harper's Saddle and we to seek a suitable bivouac, their hearty hand-clasps and wishes for good luck sped us on our way, over the glaring snow slopes and through the melting heat of a perfect summer morning. Eleven o'clock saw us at our destination, a patch of rocks at an altitude of 7,000 feet, page 197immediately beneath the western ridge leading to the third, or lowest, peak of Mount Cook. While I endeavoured to shade my head beneath a projecting boulder from the all-too-burning rays of the sun and the reflected glare of the surrounding snow slopes, the guides set to work to clear a space on which to pitch the tent. The only suitable place dropped steeply away on its north-west side to the glacier beneath; here they built a protecting wall of stones, and then with their ice-axes began a vigorous hoeing match on the flat shingle bed they had selected as the camping ground. Soon the place resembed a nicely dug garden plot, all the stones being removed and piled upon the wall. With a sigh of satisfaction they contemplated the result of an hour's work, and, deciding the ground was too wet to pitch the tent upon, left it to dry while they prepared the lunch.

Snow had meanwhile been melting into all our available vessels from a sun-warmed rock, so water was soon boiling merrily in a methylated spirit cooker, and the whole party were revived with unlimited tea and food. Then, lazily stretched out on the sun-warmed rocks, we watched our friends, mere moving dots of black, crawl slowly foot after foot up the steep slopes of Harper's Saddle, and felt a pharisaical satisfaction that we were not, even as they, doomed to hours of heat and toil. When the last dot disappeared over the saddle we turned with a grunt of approval from the glaring glacier, and sought what shade was available for a midday nap. I was invited to transfer myself to a nest of sleeping-bags under the shadow of an overhanging boulder. Here I experienced such extremes of heat and cold as have seldom fallen to my lot. My head in the shade against the ice-cold rock was somewhere near the South Pole; my feet in the burning sunshine were most emphatically in the tropics, and but little of my person in the happy temperate zone. Consequently I twisted and turned at frequent intervals till the scraping of my nailed boots on the stones roused Graham from his page 198attempts at slumber. He managed to rig the tent over a rock for me, and I soon fell asleep, only to be awakened apparently next moment by a hail from the glacier below. Our successful friends were returning, not by any means in silence. We shouted and waved good-byes to them until they were lost to sight round the corner of the Hooker Icefall, and with them vanished our last link to civilization.

At 4 p.m. the guides set off to tramp steps for to-morrow's route, while the snow was still soft, and I was left to my own devices for three hours. They passed quickly enough in observing a phenomenon I have met before in the great silent places. Every now and then a voice seemed to rise from nowhere in a faint cry. Again and again I have started up, sure that some one was calling me, to confront only the silent snow-clad mountains. Some stone falling from the heights, the gurgle of an underground stream, or the wind sweeping into a hidden cave and raising an echo from the distant ridges—clear and distinct it comes, this call of the mountains, sometimes friendly and of good cheer; but often eerie, wild, and full of melancholy warning, as if the spirit of the mountains bade you beware how you tread her virgin heights, except in a spirit of reverence and love.

About 6.30 p.m. my guides returned, and while they prepared the evening meal I sat and watched the ever-changing colours the setting sun cast upon the scenes around me. Looking westward the jagged tooth-like range of the Sierras was outlined sharp against a green and primrose sky, while Mount Sefton and the Footstool stood out from a background of palest blue, which merged into green and orange behind the distant foothills. Close at hand the red rocks of Mount Nazomi towered up into the intense blue sky, lending a wonderful contrast to the white ice of Mount Cook, whose lower slopes merged into a glow of pink and lilac, broken here and there with deep narrow crevasses, which were filled with ever-changing colours—sea-green, yellow, and blue. They glowed with living fire. Beneath page break
Mount Dampier. Mount Nazomi.The Western Face Of Mount Cook.X marks the bivouac, and dots the line of ascent on the first traverse.

Mount Dampier. Mount Nazomi.
The Western Face Of Mount Cook.
X marks the bivouac, and dots the line of ascent on the first traverse.

page 199us the Hooker Glacier fell away in great circular waves, one after another, till all regularity was lost in the chaotic splendour of the steep icefall, which descends with a rush to the comparatively smooth ice beneath.

One o'clock on the morning of the 3rd saw us sleepily consuming breakfast, hunched up in our sleeping-bags in a vain attempt to keep out the chill morning breeze. By two o'clock we stood outside in the clear starlight, roped together and ready for the start. Turning to the left, we followed the previous night's steps (by candle-light) to the base of the western arête, and then up a narrow and very steep slope, leading directly to the saddle between the third and second peaks of Mount Cook. At 3.30 a.m. we came to the end of our steps, and as the dawn was breaking, we put out our useless candles. The slope was frozen hard, and soon the tuneful ring of ice-axes and the patter of falling crystals broke the morning stillness. Over the saddle a brilliant crescent moon sailed in a sky of velvet blue, while towards the west the sky flushed with the breaking dawn. The clear rounded headland of Bruce Bay rose from a silver sea, and the whole coast curved before us. The Cook River twisted and turned, stream intersecting stream in a waste of yellow tussock. Dominant on sea as well as land, Mount Cook threw its shadow over the shining waters, a phantom pyramid stretching up the horizon. The first rays of the rising sun caught the corniced east face of the highest peak, turning it to glittering gold in a wonderful contrast to the deep blue shadows of the still unlighted west.

After an hour's step-cutting we turned to the right, and gained the western arête. The rocks were heavily hung with icicles, and here and there coated with a thin film of green ice, which necessitated careful climbing. Slowly we crept up, the icy rocks chilling hands and feet. At last we emerged at the foot of the final snow-cap. Here we paused for a second breakfast, gratefully clasping our cold page 200fingers round the hot cups that held our Thermos tea. Much revived by our meal, we cut our way up the final snow slope, reaching the summit and the sunlight at seven o'clock. Strictly speaking, there is no summit, but only a narrow ridge falling away sheer to the Tasman Glacier. It was so narrow that the party preferred straddling it to standing upright. So with a leg on either side we contemplated the view. It was indeed our lucky day. Not a breath of wind stirred, the sun shone warmly from a cloudless sky. The whole of New Zealand lay spread beneath our feet, limited only by the vision of the human eye. We gazed in silence on rolling plains, deep green forests, and far-away seas. But longest and most earnestly our eyes dwelt on the cruel ridge on which we sat. It stretched away before us, onward and upward in zigzag curves. From the summit on which we rested it dropped sharply to a jagged saddle, then up again steeply to the mighty ice face of the second peak. Always to the east the ridge falls away sheer for thousands of feet, while on its west side it slopes steeply for a few yards to a big outward bulge, which overhangs the Hooker Glacier. After studying our perilous way for ten minutes, we started down the steep ridge to the saddle. The rocks were jagged and much covered with loose snow. We made our way with the utmost care, the guides considering this would probably be the worst part of the traverse. More than once my knees shook under me as I followed Graham round the saw-like teeth of the arête, or let my eyes follow the flight of a dislodged stone, falling, falling, falling into the abyss beneath. It did not require much imagination to feel oneself sinking into those horrible depths. One little slip or false step and then—the end. At last we reached the saddle and started up the ridge leading to the middle peak.

We found to our joy it was frozen snow, and we chipped rapidly up, our spirits rising with every yard as we began to realize that if the weather held we might really accomplish page 201this great traverse, which the most experienced mountaineers in New Zealand had declared impossible. Looking at the Mount Cook arête from below it seems one continuous ascent, with two well-defined drops between the third and second, and the second and high peak. In reality it is a series of ups and downs stretching away for a mile and a half, at an altitude varying, from 11,800 feet to 12,349 feet. So narrow and exposed is this ridge, that to attempt to follow it, except under perfect conditions, would be madness. A still day is absolutely essential. If a party were caught on the middle of the arête in the bitter winds that so often rage above 10,000 feet, retreat would be impossible. Frozen stiff and helpless, in half an hour they would be powerless to fight against it, and would either slip from the narrow ridge into the abyss beneath, or die of exposure and inaction.

Our progress up the middle peak was better than we had dared to hope for; but when we arrived at the foot of the final snow slope, we found it impossible to follow the arête, owing to a bad overhang at its steepest point. So we turned our attention to the south face, and there the guides spent two hours' hard work cutting steps at an angle of 60 degrees. The ice was of the hardest variety, and the sun blazed down upon it. The brilliant surface reflected the rays back again, till our eyes smarted and our heads swam. At last a shout of triumph announced that the summit was in sight, and at half-past nine we stood upon the second peak.

The view from here was our most perfect of the day. To the west blue sea surged into blue sky, till it was impossible to tell where the one ended and the other began. Clouds soft as down hung motionless above the Sierras, or drifted slowly over the rolling golden tussock of the MacKenzie plains, out of which shone here and there the turquoise blue of a snow-fed lake. Directly in front of us towered the high peak of Mount Cook, and between page 202it and Mount Tasman ran the curved coast line, till it lost itself behind the maze of northward mountains. Beside us the Tasman Glacier swept its fourteen miles in gracious curves, crowned on either hand with New Zealand's greatest peaks, their white summits shimmering in the sun, or contrasted boldly against some rocky giant, on whose precipitous side no snow might lodge. We spent half an hour on this summit drinking in beauty at every breath. Also, it must be confessed, since this is a practical world, we fed and took photographs. Then we were ready to start on the last and worst part of our long journey.

Ever since we had decided to attempt the traverse, the steep knife-edge ridge between the middle and high peak had been to me a haunting horror. From wherever you look upon it it appears impossible. Now, the moment I had dreaded had arrived, and the reality was all that imagination had pictured it. Steep, narrow, and horribly corniced, the ridge dropped sharply for a hundred feet. More than once as we descended it an icy shiver ran down my spine, as the ice-axe sank deeply into the overhanging cornice, and on withdrawal disclosed through the tiny hole the awful gap between us and the glacier thousands of feet beneath. Later, when we compared notes, we all confessed to wondering what would happen if a cornice broke away. Would the shock startle us into eternity? The mere noise and vibration of the falling mass would be enough to shake the strongest nerves, and we only stood about two feet from the junction of solid ice and cornice. At last we accomplished the many windings of the arête, and started up the highest peak. The relief of ascending with a wall in front to look at was tremendous, after the nerveracking, downward ridge of the last hour. Fate was kind again, and we only had an hour's step-cutting on the final slope.

At half-past one we stood on the highest summit of Mount Cook, conquerors indeed. We were filled with mingled page break
The Highest Peak of Mount Cook from the Middle Peak.

The Highest Peak of Mount Cook from the Middle Peak.

The Middle and Third Peaks of Mount Cook from the Highest Summit.

The Middle and Third Peaks of Mount Cook from the Highest Summit.

page 203pride and thankfulness, as our eyes roved backwards over the great ridge we had spent the last six and a half hours in vanquishing. Very heartily we wrung one another's hands, and marvelled at our phenomenal luck in obtaining weather conditions which had enabled us to accomplish the greatest climb in New Zealand at the first attempt. Very happily we lay at ease on the summit, and putting all thoughts of the descent out of our minds, concerned ourselves only with the joy and triumph of the present.

We left the summit at three o'clock, and found, to our surprise, that we could kick down the first few hundred feet in soft snow. This proved a great saving in time and energy. The traverse leading to the eastern arête gave us two hours' step-cutting. This accomplished, we started carefully down the snow-covered rocks. All was going well when suddenly a great boulder leapt from the ridge above us, and, bounding harmlessly past Graham and myself, made straight for Thomson. Helpless and horrified, we watched its onslaught, powerless to do anything but give a warning shout, and brace ourselves for the coming strain. With a quick glance backwards Thomson grasped the situation, and with a wild leap evaded the danger by jumping on to a frozen snow slope on the left of the ridge. His feet shot from under him when he touched the slippery surface, and he sped down the steep slope. Fortunately I was ready and well placed, and was able to stop his wild career almost immediately, and bring him to a standstill with the rope. Soon we were all rather shakily congratulating ourselves on a tragedy averted. We proceeded onward with the utmost care, and soon reached the slopes leading to the Linda Glacier. We were all now beginning to feel thirsty, and looked about everywhere for some water, for we had no time to spare to melt snow and make tea. None was visible close at hand, but the guides said there was sure to be some dripping from the north-east face, where page 204it joined the Linda Glacier. We travelled rapidly in that direction, and were rewarded shortly by the sound of running water. The stream, however, proved to be in rather an unpleasant spot, exposed to a continual hail of small icicles from above. I was for giving up the idea of water at such a risk, but the guides thought otherwise. Eventually Graham untied himself from the rope, and started off with the empty water-bottle and Thermos flask. We watched rather anxiously as he cut his way along, and breathed a relieved sigh when he took shelter under a projecting rock, and proceeded to fill the bottles from a drip there instead of making a dash for the stream. In twenty minutes he was safely back to us, and after quenching our thirst we made all speed for the Linda Glacier, which we reached at 6.15 p.m. We quickly traversed its upper slopes, it being important that we should reach the much-crevassed lower portion before the fall of darkness made crossing it a difficult proceeding. The last gleams of daylight saw us emerging safely from the broken ice, and wearily toiling through the soft snow of the Great Plateau, and up the slopes to Glacier Dome. It was nine o'clock when we stood on the summit of the latter, so we had to face the descent of the 1,000 feet to the bivouac in the dark. We scrambled down the rocks as best we could; and finding the snow slopes below in good condition, we decided to glissade.

It was a strange sensation, sliding smoothly down into the darkness. A faint blur indicated the leader's back. Now and again would come the warning cry, "Crevasse." If it was little we shot over it. If large, we slowed down and sought a bridge. We would hardly have dared this glissade in the dark but for the fact that Thomson had been over the ground a week previously and knew the whereabouts of all the crevasses. Even so, had we examined our route in the cold light of day and common sense, we might have murmured of the valour of ignorance.

page break
North-East Face of Mount Cook.Dotted line shows the route of descent used on the traverse.

North-East Face of Mount Cook.
Dotted line shows the route of descent used on the traverse.

page 205

Presently the slope diminished and we glided to a standstill. Ahead of us a faint blur indicated the rocks near the bivouac. In ten minutes we were stumbling over them seeking the flat place on which the tent is always pitched. While the men lit lanterns and fixed up the tent I threw myself down on the stones and fell asleep. Presently a gentle voice suggested I would be much more comfortable in the tent; so sleepily I betook myself there and took off boots and putties, while the bubbling "cooker" gave forth grateful warmth and an appetizing hint of good things to come. It was ten o'clock, and we had been twenty hours on the tramp, with nothing to eat but fruit, biscuits, and tea. It was a happy, hungry, but distinctly sleepy party that rapidly disposed of a good meal and crept into their sleeping-bags at eleven o'clock.

I awoke before daylight feeling uncomfortable and at first unable to say why. Very soon, however, I located the sensation to my lips, so lit a match and had a look at them; they were a woeful spectacle, swollen, with the skin stretched tight, and protruding like a negro's. The rest of my face was immaculate, not a patch of sunburn anywhere, thanks to a thick coat of grease-paint I had put on before leaving the Hooker bivouac. Whether I licked the paint off my lips, or never put any on, I can't remember; at any rate, the sun's rays had concentrated on this one unprotected spot with most disastrous results, and I did not appreciate the idea of arriving at the Hermitage in this condition, for I knew we were in for a triumphal reception when we returned.

By eight o'clock we had breakfast, every one being rested and too excited with our victory to stay still. I found it impossible to do more than drink some lukewarm tea out of a spoon, my lips were so swollen and sensitive. I tied a handkerchief well anointed with face cream over them, and we began the descent to the Ball hut. On arriving there we found that three horses had page 206been sent up to meet us, so guessed that we must have been seen on the summit the day before. We were thankful to be spared a fourteen-mile walk, and rode home gaily enjoying the restful green of the lowlands after our two days mid nothing but snow and ice.

We arrived at the Hermitage at 4.30 p.m., and were greeted with cheers from the assembled household. I still had a handkerchief over the lower portion of my face, which apparently caused some consternation. One imaginative tourist set the theory going that I had all my teeth knocked out by a falling stone. I managed to mumble a decided denial to this theory, and escaped to try what hot water foments would do for me. By dinner-time I was not normal but quite presentable, and was glad to appear in public and enjoy the congratulations on our successful ascent. The whole thing had been done so quickly and simply that sometimes I found myself wondering how it had all come about— Providence certainly does seem to favour my Cook climbs —to walk out of the Hermitage without any fuss and conquer the greatest climb in New Zealand at the first attempt, and return in the best of health and spirits two days afterwards, was undoubtedly rather an extraordinary feat. My guides were so proud and pleased, the Hermitage would hardly hold them, and they had the pleasure of saying, "I told you so" (which is not a purely female prerogative), to their doubting and now envious brethren, who had professed nothing but disaster could come of such a risky expedition. Luck had indeed been with us, but the perfect day would have been no use without the enterprise and energy to use it. I wonder if this great traverse will ever be done again? Time alone can prove, it requires such a combination of favourable circumstances, and must always be undertaken at so great a risk, that few climbers will care to attempt it, or have the time and patience to await the opportunity. Thomson page break
Mount Cook and The Hochstetter Ice-Fall.X marks the Haast Bivouac, dots the line of descent to the Ball Hut.

Mount Cook and The Hochstetter Ice-Fall.
X marks the Haast Bivouac, dots the line of descent to the Ball Hut.

page 207prophesied that it would not be done again for twenty years, if ever. From the other side of the world I shall eagerly watch and wait in the years to come to see who will be the next party to thread their way over that long icy ridge, which may well prove a terrifying pathway not to be undertaken lightly by even the most dauntless mountaineer. Graham has always declared that I do not realize what a great climb we have accomplished; that I took it all so lightly and easily. If this is so it is simply because I have no standard with which to compare it; I know nothing of mountains except the New Zealand Alps, and until I climb elsewhere how can I realize that successes which have come to me easily are perhaps phenomenal? A letter of congratulation from a member of the English A.C. the other day made me realize this as perhaps I have never done before. The writer is an experienced climber who knows pretty well all the great mountain ranges in the world—I quote his letter because it is a comparison which my own so far limited experience leaves me unable to make: "That ridge of Mount Cook would be shuddersome at the best of times. I have walked underneath it on both sides, and looked along it from the top, and I can confidently say that there is not such a ridge in Switzerland; mixed rock and ice perhaps, such as the Teufelsgrat of the Taschhorn and maybe others, but nowhere that endless stretch of knife-edge snow perched far above everything else in the world as it must seem. It was daring to tackle that long descent by the Linda Glacier too, instead of the west face—the precipice on the Tasman side must be appalling, though of course one never thinks very much of that when one is actually climbing."

This is the opinion of a fine climber of wide experience, and I would like to record beneath it my gratitude and appreciation to my guides, Peter Graham and David Thomson, who staked their lives and reputations on the page 208expedition. Theirs is the real triumph: they planned and thought out and led the expedition to a triumphant finish; their knowledge and hard-won experience, their courage and endurance made it possible. I have been accused of being hard on the New Zealand climber in an earlier chapter of this book; if I have been, it is because my admiration and belief in the New Zealand guides is so great that I fail to understand how, with such men ready and waiting to lead them, the average climber remains so unenthusiastic and unenterprising. If my friend's comparison of Mount Cook holds good, I think it may be carried farther, and extend to the small but splendid body of New Zealanders who have from sheer love of the life become professional guides. I doubt if anywhere in the world finer men will be found. They are pioneers, these daring colonials, exploring their own country, learning by hard experience what generations of teaching has made comparatively simple for the European guide. Twenty years ago a few English mountaineers gave them a lead, taught them the use of ice-axe and rope, and to-day there is hardly a mountain in New Zealand up which they have not found a route. Some day, if my dreams come true, I hope to tackle some of the giants of the Himalayas, and I ask no better fate than to be led up them by one of my New Zealand guides. I am sure they would serve me as splendidly there as in their own land, having all the resource and adaptability of the best type of the colonial man.