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Heels 1969

Christmas At Malte Brun

Christmas At Malte Brun

The four of us plodded up to Malte Brun hut, from the Tasman Valley on Christmas Eve, aware that we were dealing with real mountains on this trip.

The alarm yells rudely at midnight. A minute's silence, then a rustling of clothing, a snap of a match; and the room is awake. The hiss of tilleys and primi, the mutter of voices, the jangle of ironmongery and the muted dabs of boots on wood, bespeak of the rising tension behind you; as you look out of the hut door over the glacier at the huge vista of peaks, ranging from the distant dome of Elie de Beaumont, to the massive bulk of Cook - a 180 degree sculpture in rock and cracked ice cream; all of it miles away, yet some-how so close.

Breakfast is eaten automatically, religiously, quickly, as your mind flicks through a mental checklist of gear - rope, food, loops, crampons, cream, pitons, camera, storm gear, lamp. A distant avalanche roars for a few seconds and your spine tingles.

And we're away. It might be 1 a.m. or 3.30. The predawn hours pass in threading our way through crevasses, onto the vast luminous Tasman and a patient monotony of plodding in the steps of your vagely discernible companions; usually page 36in a stifling cloud of what reminds you that you are living on de-hy. The occasional hideous gill of a crevasse looms out of the dark, and is carefully avoided. This is no fun, but it's time well spent. First light, then all the colour nuances of the pre-dawn unfold as we cross the snowbridges under the oppressive bulk of Green, The shambles of the dark hours is forgotten in the haste to climb, as with crampons and axe smashing the crust in the early day, we rise to a fantastic dawn among the clean, warm colours of the snow.

The silent golden bugle of the dawn announces the start of an ever-increasing fusillade of icicles and rock debris, falling with a tinkle or clattering splash far above you; giving you a small warning before they hurtle past with a sickening, exhilarating Whizzz.

The rope zips efficiently through the shaft belays, as we buy our altitude with nylon and steps, chopped out with the clean high ring of the Grivel; all metred out -to the syncopated rhythm of laboured breathing and crunching crampons.

Seven a.m. and the first movement finishes as we stand in the doorway of the col. The West Coast is filled with cloud, but we are above it. A photo or two; and some chocolate.

And onto the rock. Cold slabs. Rotten pinnacles. Warm hunks of it, all passing under your hands and feet. God bless Viking rope. You sit tight in a snug, cold belay, alert to your partner's moves, but your thoughts are singing with the grandeur of the countryside around you, Puny skiplanes snarl around like sandflies in the valley below.

Hour after hour, with delightful variations on the theme of ascending a ridge knifing into the sky, broken only by terse facts and orders shouted into the sterile air.

The final slab, a couple of pitches on snow, and we are standing on the summit: two orange-tipped candles on a giant conical Christmas cake in the sky. A heartfelt handshake and a savage grin under the carnal eye of the sun. We nibble our chocolate quietly, and survey the scene from D'Archiac to Aspiring. The snow is very bright, even through the polaroids.

After a while, we edge off down the North ridge, in the tracks of others. Moving together now, we are a little over-relaxed after the tension of the morning. Across the snow bridge over the 'schrund, and away through the slush down to the glacier. Mash mash mash mash, hour after hour, never getting nearer, (it seems), to the tiny green speck page 37 on that weeny five-hundred-foot-high lateral morraine. We wave to the tourists, zooming past in their ski-planes 100 feet away.

The final struggle up to the hut, the eager questions and friendly faces; and the day fades.