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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 XX — A Trial Climb

page 216

Chapter XX
A Trial Climb

"To die be given us, or attain
Fierce work it were to do again."
So pilgrims bound for Mecca, pray'd
At burning noon: so warriors said,
Scarf'd with the cross, who watched the miles
Of dust that wreathed their struggling files
Down Lydian mountains: so when snows
Round Alpine summits eddying rose
The Goth bound Rome-wards. So pray all
Whom labours self ordain'd enthrall.

By Wednesday the 22nd the Hermitage folk were once more leading a normal existence, and all the excitements of the flood a thing of the past. As the weather was fine we decided to make an attempt at Tuckett's Col, and from there gain a close view of the Sefton top rocks, to obtain some idea if it were possible to attack them in the near future. The Hermitage was now filling up with climbers, all anxious to secure guides, except those lucky individuals who had brought one with them, and I began to wonder how I was going to fare when I wanted a second guide for Sefton. I had been negotiating with Alex Graham ever since my arrival, but one obstacle after another had cropped up to prevent him joining me, and I began to feel rather hopeless about ever securing him. However, I determined to make one last appeal after we had been to Tuckett's Col and could definitely state when we expected to make the attempt.

page 217

We decided to climb from the Hermitage and dispense with the usual bivouac. The latter always seems a doubtful gain to me, when it only means saving a couple of hours. It is really better to spend four comfortable hours in a decent bed than eight on the hard ground, sleepless and generally uncomfortable. We decided to take Jock Richmond, a young guide who had not so far had much chance of high climbing, with us, and at 2.30 a.m. on the 22nd we left the Hermitage. The morning was warm and dark, and we plodded up the Hooker Valley by lantern-light. Crossing the river by the swing-bridge at the Bluffs, we made across the flats for the foot of the Stocking Glacier. We reached the bivouac rock at 5 a.m. Here we paused for a second breakfast, and then began the ascent. We had first to climb a steep snow slope and then across a patch of rock to the Huddleston Glacier. Here we spent some time finding our way through the broken ice and looking for bridges over the crevasses. After we gained the last rocks above the glacier, we found the snow slopes leading to the col appallingly steep. We made one bad traverse, which necessitated a considerable amount of step-cutting, and eventually gained the col at 10.15 a.m. We were no little delighted with our progress; we had only taken seven and a half hours from the Hermitage, while Fitzgerald and Zurbriggen had spent the same amount of time in gaining the col from a high bivouac above the Stocking. In our hearts all of us were cherishing a plan of going on to the summit of Sefton if it were possible; it seemed such a dreadful waste to be within 1,000 feet and then to turn back. We had only a little food and no extra clothes, but we decided if we could once make the summit we would descend into Westland and gain the camp of the men who were making the new track up the Copland Valley; they would gladly feed us, and we could sleep at Douglas Rock.

From Tuckett's Col the arête looked rather appalling, page 218but it was not as badly plastered with ice as we had expected it to be. We decided it was possible to attempt it. The col itself is an eerie spot, a narrow ridge which drops sheer into Westland on one side, and on the other is faced with a great schrund from which the snow slopes fall away steeply to the broken ice and the Muller Glacier beneath. Perched on a small patch of rocks with our feet dangling into Westland, we discussed our chances over some tea and chocolate. We had been so absorbed in our plans, we had simply not thought about the weather. We were startled by a puff of icy wind, and ten minutes afterwards we were enveloped in a great bank of clouds that had been drifting quietly up from the sea. There we sat, alone on a few square feet of rock, with a precipice on either side, while the mists blotted out the world. The sensation was extraordinary; we were the only solid objects in a world of wraiths. We sat very still, afraid to move; I was never so uncomfortable in my life. Sitting on the clouds may sound poetic, but it is apt in reality to be more awe-inspiring than comfortable. After waiting some time the mist thinned a little, and we were able to discern our upward tracks. We made all haste to reach them, reluctantly turning our backs on all plans for the conquering of Mount Sefton on this occasion. Descending the steep icy slope in the shifting fog was unpleasant; the snow was in bad condition, and here and there the steps had melted into one another and had to be most cautiously treated, to prevent a slip. Jock led down, I was in the middle, and Graham brought up the rear. We reached the broken ice at last, and threading our way through it gained the rocks above the bivouac. Here we had two glorious standing glissades which brought us down to the foot of the last snow slopes in less time than it takes to write; they considerably revived our spirits, which had been somewhat damped by the inopportune mists. We reached the Hermitage the same afternoon. We had gained considerable knowledge on our tour of inspection and had made a route page 219through the broken ice of the Huddleston Glacier, so on the whole we were satisfied with the results of our exertions.

The next few days the weather was worse than ever, and I really began to wonder if I might not as well pack up my belongings and start for home. I think only the knowledge that this was the last time that I would be in New Zealand for many years prevented me from doing so. I had always wanted to climb Mount Sefton, and it must be now or never, so I stayed on, hoping, as usual, for better things in the future. The rain finished up with a heavy fall of snow, which came quite low down, leaving Sebastopol white below the level of the red lake. This put Mount Sefton out of the question for the next ten days, so I decided to join a party of girls who were going over to the West Coast, just to get some exercise.

We left the Hooker hut on the morning of the 30th in charge of Peter Graham; there were three other women besides myself. We spent several strenuous hours toiling up the Copland Ridge. On reaching the snow slope leading to the summit, we found that the usual small crevasse had opened out into a big schrund running straight across the face, and there was not a vestige of a bridge to be found. I had been at the end of the rope all the morning, but on reaching this impasse Graham called me up, and asked me if I would lead. My Mount Tasman experience now came in very useful, as the only course open to us was a repetition of our tactics then. I climbed on Graham's shoulders and grasped an ice-axe dug into the upper lip of the schrund and by its aid pulled myself into safety on the slope above. Then I cut a big step to stand in and another beside it, and pulled up the other women one by one, cutting a step for each as they arrived. They were all awfully good, and, if nervous, did not show it; I soon had them ranged out in a neat row beside me. Then Graham tied on the swag and we hauled that up. Lastly Graham was ignominiously dragged up, and a very heavy load he proved. He page 220arrived with a pleased grin and a gleam in his eye that meant entire satisfaction with the whole proceedings; he gave me a word of thanks as he passed, which left me feeling I had been just decorated with a D.S.O. There was a bitter wind blowing, so we scuttled across the pass and down the other side as quickly as possible. We were soon in the balmy air of the West Coast, with ten miles to walk before we could reach our bivouac. I had not been over the Copland since my first visit in 1910. Since then things have been made considerably easier for the tourist. The track now comes right up to the snow-grass, and the old battle through the scrub which was such a waste of time and temper is consequently done away with. It is only a tiny track at present; when finished, however, it is to be good enough for a pack-horse, and there is to be a hut on the Westland side of the Copland Pass—luxury indeed for the climber of the future.

The opening up of the bush by this track not only gives a charming peep of the Copland River and snowy summits, but also allows a little more air to penetrate into the dank forest, taking off some of the feeling of being in an overheated glass-house, which is so distressing to people not accustomed to a warm, moist air. In spite of these improvements, we were rather a limp party by the time we reached Douglas Rock. Here we had to gather up some sleeping-bags and blankets, as the new hut at Welcome Flat where we expected to pass the night was not yet finished or in any way stocked. Each laden with something, we proceeded on our way, and at last emerged out of the forest on to the grass flats. The river was full from bank to bank owing to the late rains, and flowed like a streak of silver through the forests. On the right-hand bank the ribbon woods overhung the water and showered their sweet-scented white blossoms into the swift current. On the left they were interspaced with the dark green of rata-trees, whose glossy foliage was crowned with page break
The Footstool.

The Footstool.

The Copland Valley.

The Copland Valley.

page 221a wealth of crimson blossom. Soft puffs of white cloud hung half-way up the mountain sides, and the distant hills in the west were deeply blue. Such a soul-satisfying colour scheme I have seldom seen, and tired though we were with our long tramp, we all appreciated its restful beauty, so different from the ice-world from which we had just come, or the yellows and blues which make the dominant note of colour on the east of the mountains.

We had each to be carried across the river, and then a few moments' walk brought us to a clearing in the forest on which the new hut is situated. We found that several of the men engaged on the Copland track were camping there. As the hut is intended solely for the use of tourists, we had no compunction in asking them to clean up and remove themselves to the main camp. The hut was only partially finished, the dividing partitions being but half erected, and no bunks or fittings of any kind yet begun. Consequently we slept on the floor, and exceedingly hard we found it. The whole night rain came down in torrents, and next morning being no better, we had to await the clearing of the weather and the guide who was to come up from Waiho to take charge of the rest of the party, while Graham and I returned to the Hermitage.

The hut is only a few yards away from the Copland Hot Springs, so we were all able to enjoy the luxury of a hot bath; if a kindly Government some day provides a cold pool next door, into which one may take a refreshing plunge after being par-boiled, and endeavours to remove the sandflies which are all too active for comfort, these springs should prove a most popular resort. The view from them is superb, and the forest by which they are surrounded a veritable fairyland, in which one may wander for hours. I have no doubt that some day a large hotel will occupy the site of the present hut, and prove a very popular tourist resort, for many charming excursions can be made from this spot. For those intent on mountaineer-page 222ing it will also be a good base, as there are many fine peaks in the vicinity and much unexplored country.

The bad weather kept us imprisoned for two days and nights. On the third day a guide came through from Waiho, and the party for the Franz Josef set off, though the weather was still anything but settled. Graham and I accompanied them for about four miles, to the bridge over Architect Creek, where pack-horses were awaiting them. Here we said good-bye, and tramped back to our hut. The Copland River was so swollen with the recent rain that it was impossible for us to cross it, so we had to spend another night in the hut waiting for the river to fall. We were bankrupt of provisions, as we had not bargained on being held up for three days. However, the road men lent us some flour and we made some most successful dampers, cooking them in a big pot upon the lid of which we piled red-hot ashes. After a long course of stale bread we found our own fresh loaves delicious, and lived on them for three meals quite contentedly. Next morning we got away early and managed after some difficulty to ford the still swollen river. A generous road man at Douglas Rock presented us with a billy of freshly boiled and most excellent potatoes and a tin of meat; with these we made a good meal and then set off for the Copland Pass. We reached its summit at 6 p.m. and arrived at the Hooker hut at 7.45. I was rather done up, owing to the fact that I had been unable to sleep the last few nights, so decided on having a good nap in a comfortable bunk, instead of walking on the seven miles to the Hermitage that night. Unfortunately for my proposed rest, a party turned up at the hut at 10 p.m. and made so much noise it was impossible to sleep. As they got up again at 2 a.m. and took two hours to get away, all the sleep I got was harmless.

We reached the Hermitage in time for breakfast, and I was overjoyed to find that Professor Spencer had arrived during my absence. We found that though Mount Sefton page break
Bush Road in South Westland.

Bush Road in South Westland.

page 223had cleared somewhat, it was still too icy to attempt. As the weather was fine Graham and Thomson set off with Mr. S. Turner to climb Mount Tasman, and if possible traverse on to Mount Lendenfeld. I spent the days of their absence in excursions with the Westmacotts and Professor Spencer. Every morning I anxiously scanned the Sefton arête through the telescope and rejoiced to see it slowly clearing. On Saturday the 8th the guides and Mr. Turner returned after successfully ascending Mount Tasman; the traverse they had unfortunately been unable to accomplish. We decided to start next day for the Sefton bivouac, so I spent a busy time writing letters and fixing up my affairs, just in case the arête might live up to its reputation and the party come to grief.