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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 X — The Ascent of Mount De La Bèche

page 112

Chapter X
The Ascent of Mount De La Bèche

Only a hill: yes, looked at from below;
  Facing the usual sea, the frequent west.
Tighten the muscles, feel the strong blood flow,
  And set your foot upon the utmost crest!
There where the realms of thought and effort cease,
Wakes on your heart a world of dreams and peace.

On December 8th we left for the Ball hut en route once more for the Malte Brun. Peter Graham was in charge of my Australian friends, and Alex and I were intent on travelling with them to the Malte Brun hut, and there taking up our abode and climbing whatever took our fancy and was practicable for a party of two. We found another party at the Ball hut, and as the ladies' quarters there are rather cramped, I offered to rid them of one superfluous female by sleeping outside. A tiny tent, known as the "dog-box," was rigged up for me. It was just large enough to contain one person, and looked more like an ambulance stretcher with the hood up than anything else I can think of. After dinner I betook myself and a sleeping-bag to these somewhat cramped quarters and prepared for a blissful night. Unfortunately for me, the pack-horses were of a curious disposition and spent the best part of the night sniffing round my abode. Momentarily I expected to feel a hoof descending with a crash through the canvas, and soon began to wish that I page 113had camped in the open, where I could at least have seen what my equine friends were about, and probably would not have attracted their attention at all. I welcomed the first signs of dawn after passing anything but a restful night.

We made an early start to avoid toiling up the glacier in the worst of the midday heat, which is apt to prove a discouraging experience. Traversed in the cool hours of the early morning, it is easy to appreciate some of the wonderful beauty with which the route is strewn.

We left the hut at dawn, when all the glacier was still and silent. No rocks clattered down the great wave-like banks of moraine. Even in the troughs all was frozen; no murmur of trickling water or dull boom of underground streams disturbed the silence. Our restless ant-like procession, struggling along from wave to wave, was the only moving thing in a desolate world of piled-up stones and blackened ice. From the top of the last moraine there opens out a view of mile after mile of hummocky ice, rising steadily and crowned on either side with magnificent peaks. As we proceeded the sun rose from behind the shoulder of Malte Brun, and in a twinkling the dead ice woke to a shimmer of crystal and silver. Little streams began to trickle with a faint metallic tinkle, and underground waters murmured and gurgled in far-away caverns, while the widening cracks and fissures veined the white ice with translucent blue.

Once more the frozen world was awake in all its beauty of blues and greens, whose perfect tones serve but to heighten the dazzling silver whiteness of the ice. Not far away a glacier stream, the receptacle of many tinkling tributaries, has hollowed out a steep and narrow valley, a cañon walled with precipitous ice-cliffs, here smooth and shining as satin, there carved and moulded into a hundred fantastic shapes. At their feet the deep blue water swirls along in its satin-smooth bed, hurrying towards a distant page 114spot from which reverberates a dull incessant boom. Here, with a last frolic in the sunshine, the blue water vanishes, leaping down a great moulin to the unplumbed depths of its prison beneath the ice, to emerge again far away at the terminal face of the moraine as the Tasman River.

Crossing this stream, we made our way out of the cañon and up to the hummocky ice, along which our route lay for the next few hours. Ahead of us the glacier sweeps on, mile after mile of glistening ice, which rises in a grand curve between the foot of Mount De la Bêche and Malte Brun point. As we proceeded the sun beat down upon us from a cloudless sky, and its rays were reflected back from the glistening glacier until we were enveloped in a world of heat and light. As we neared De la Bêche, the crevasses became wider and more frequent, until we found ourselves in the thick of the icefall, and wandered in and out amongst the gaping chasms, threading our way along the narrow ridges until at last we emerged on the névé above. Here the sun had done its work, and we floundered along in soft snow up to our knees. One last struggle took us over the lateral moraine and up the steep path to the Malte Brun hut. This last 300 feet is apt to prove a discouraging ending to the weary traveller, depriving him of what little energy he has left; after rest and refreshment, however, he is usually willing to concede that his labours have not been in vain. It would indeed be hard to find a more beautiful and picturesque situation than that on which this little alpine hut is perched. From the platform in front of it you look away over slopes of waving snow-grass, the bronze green of which frames the white mountains with wonderful softness. Beneath winds the Tasman Glacier, rising in gracious curves for mile after mile, at its head smoothly soft and shining, but lower down seamed and broken with crevasses, its whiteness marred by the long black streaks of the lateral moraines. On either side tower the greatest peaks page break
Head of the Tasman Glacier.

Head of the Tasman Glacier.

Mount De La Bèche and The Tasman Glacier.

Mount De La Bèche and The Tasman Glacier.

page 115of the Southern Alps; one after another they cut the blue sky, Mount Cook's great eastern face crowning them all. Beside it Mount Tasman's beautiful arête sweeps up in spotless purity, rivalling the monarch in beauty of line. Then sturdy, square-topped Hardinger, so distinctive in shape as to be prominent at any angle, even among the surrounding giants; one after another they make up an endless chain. Sharp rock peaks like the jagged teeth of some sleeping monster, or rounded snow cones of indescribable softness and beauty, their slopes shining in the sunlight or inky blue in the shadows, they march onward to lose themselves in a jumble of peaks at the head of the glacier. Ever and anon the silence is broken by the roar of an avalanche, and a spurt of silvery spray shoots over some rocky ledge and flings itself down to the valley, to pile up another heap of chaotic debris at the mountain's scarred base.

Glacier after glacier streams down the mountain sides, to add its portion to the mighty crawling river beneath, which is one of the finest glaciers in the world. Eighteen miles long by two broad at its widest point, it moves at the rate of eighteen inches a day. Switzerland has nothing to compare with it; for that you must go to the Himalayas or the mighty wastes of the Arctic regions. Small wonder, then, that we of the great mountainless continent gaze with awe and reverence on these wonders of our little island neighbour; and not we alone. From near and far come restless tourists, whose admiration is expressed in tongues as diverse as those spoken in the Tower of Babel. Slowly the New Zealanders are waking to the knowledge of their beautiful inheritance; too slowly in many cases, for year by year tourist and climber alike are turned away from the mountains because there is not sufficient accommodation. To the enthusiast, selfish in his love of the peace and beauty of the place, this is only another attraction; he looks forward with horror to the day when a snorting page 116railway will penetrate into the heart of the alps and deposit its thousands and tens of thousands where now only the privileged few may roam. Happy indeed are we who have known this great playground in all its unspoiled grandeur. While we speculate on the folly of official red-tape that blocks the entrance to our Paradise for all but the favoured few, in our hearts we pray that not in our time may come the change. Some day, no doubt, instead of our primitive two-roomed hut, moored to its great boulder against the fury of the alpine gales, a great hotel will look down upon the glacier, that same glacier up which weary pioneers have toiled, hour after hour, weighted with all the necessary provisions. The very timbers of our hut were so carried foot by foot, despite all obstacles. Day after day and week after week, patient men staggered under the awkward and heavy loads—slipping on the narrow ridges, sinking waist-deep into the soft snow, battling with rain and wind—until at last they reared the little hut that has since sheltered so many weary, happy, hopeful people, who never pause to think what their comfort cost. But we who have lived in the lonely hutless heights, we know, and gratefully give our admiration and thanks to the weary toilers of those far-away years.

After the party had rested and the sun's rays were beginning to decline, it was suggested that any one who felt energetic would find some good glissading on the heights at the back of the hut. Nothing loath, some of us were soon toiling up a narrow snow-filled couloir, the cold walls of which were brightened here and there with giant golden buttercups, whose shining painted faces pushed up through the snow with a dauntless persistence that altogether puts their lowland namesake to shame. When we had all struggled to the top of the couloir, we paused for a few moments to regain our breath, and then one by one shot down the steep incline. Who ever forgets the thrill of those swift descents?—the icy breath of the page 117powdery snow thrown back in the face as one's heels dig wildly into the surface, trying to put on the brake at a sharp corner, where a swerve from the confined and narrow way, far from leading to the "primrose path of dalliance," precipitates one head over heels to land at the bottom like a snow-covered hedgehog, amidst a chorus of friendly chaff and laughter. Many a joyous never-to-be-forgotten hour has passed in whizzing down those tempting slopes, hours only rivalled by those wild scrambles round the smooth faces of Malte Brun rock. Here one of the pioneers, in a moment of genius and wet-weather desperation, mapped out a series of routes, each of increasing difficulty. To the rock-climbing enthusiast anxious to win his spurs, the old rock provides many a breathless and exciting moment. The day he can proudly demonstrate the climbs from A to Z, even to the last muscle-breaking stretch and squirming traverse, admits him to the brotherhood of first-class rock climbers.

Next morning my friends and Peter Graham started back to the Hermitage at 6.30, leaving Alex and me to our own devices. The day was dull and doubtful-looking, so we spent the morning fixing up skis, meaning to have a little practice on them later. By the time they were ready snow was falling fast, so we had to abandon our programme and content ourselves with a lazy day in the hut.

The next morning, Sunday, was brilliantly fine, so at 4.45 we joyfully set out to climb Mount De la Bêche, a sharp snow-and-rock cone immediately south of the Minarets. We followed our route of last year to the saddle between the Minarets and De la Bêche. I spent some rather unhappy moments in the mazes of the broken ice as I watched Alex crawl across wobbly snow bridges and knew myself responsible for his safety if anything happened. Otherwise the climbing was uneventful, and we reached the saddle at 9.30 a.m. very well pleased with our progress. So elated were we, in fact, that we thought that all our hard work was page 118done, and all we had to do was to romp on to the summit that gleamed above us. We soon found out our mistake. The steep slopes leading to the final arête proved icy; so instead of kicking our way cheerfully up them we spent an hour step-cutting in the blazing sun. The arête, when we at length reached it, was most uninvitingly sharp and steep. Half way up it I noticed that Alex seemed to be lagging, and shortly, with a stifled groan, he stopped and knelt upon the ridge. My heart went into my throat as I saw his face twisting with pain as spasms of cramp caught him. With sickening dread I looked at the precipices sloping down on either side of us. The ridge was so icy that I could not even drive in my ice-axe and twist the rope round it. There was simply nothing to do but stand holding the rope and wait for the attack to pass off. In about ten minutes, which seemed as many hours to both of us, the worst was over. I was for giving up the remainder of the ascent and turning back; it hardly seemed fair or wise to let Alex go on cutting steps for another hundred feet at the risk of a second attack. However, he assured me he was quite fit again, and would stop if he felt the slightest indication of the trouble returning, so rather reluctantly I gave my consent and we set off again. Fortunately, the last 50 feet of the arête proved to be only frozen snow, so Alex's labours were considerably lightened. It was with a very thankful heart that I finally gained the summit without further mishap.

De la Bêche seems to be an unlucky mountain; ours was only the second ascent, though several attempts had been made on it in the early days. Two of these attempts were frustrated near the summit by the illness of some member of the party. It was a curious coincidence that Alex also should be attacked with cramp on this mountain; it was the first and only time in all his climbs with me that he was ever in anything but the best of form.

The early attempts on De la Bêche were all made from page 119the Rudolf Glacier, it being almost entirely a rock climb from that side. It was finally successfully conquered by Messrs. T. C. Fyfe and George Graham.

On the descent I had the, to me, unpleasing honour of leading. It was my first experience of descending an icy arête, and at this point I should have been considerably happier as middle-man of a party of three, as is usually my fate. However, in spite of many qualms, I accomplished it, quite respectably I believe. The snow slopes leading to the broken ice gave us some good glissades. It also fell to my lot to crawl first over doubtful bridges which had been exposed to the full glare of the midday sun. Fortunately a more intimate acquaintance with ice and snow conditions was rapidly robbing them of their terrors, and I think I managed to make a fairly creditable performance of the descent. We reached the hut happy and triumphant at 4 p.m. Shortly after our arrival a porter came through from the Hermitage, bringing stores and the mail. Mine was quite exciting—still telegrams and letters of congratulation; one ill-advised admirer even ran to verse, the merits of which will not, I am afraid, bear inspection, but the sentiments were excellent.

In the evening we had a consultation as to what our next move should be. For some time we had had a plan of laying siege to Mount Tasman, the greatest snow climb in the Alps, which had never been attempted since the first ascent made by Messrs. Fitzgerald, Zurbriggen and Clark in 1895. Now that we had successfully conquered Mount Cook, we were keen to put this cherished plan into action. It was of course an expedition that could not be attempted without a second guide, and might mean being away three or four days. In the present crowded state of the Hermitage it was difficult for Peter to be away for long intervals, leaving all the work to his subordinates. This was one reason why Alex and I were up at Malte Brun. We thought it better to put in a few page 120days climbing on our own and give the tourists a chance of the head guide's services.

Our visit to De la Bêche had made us restless; after careful survey of Mount Tasman it looked as if the present was the time for our attempt. Finally we decided to return to the Ball hut next day and send word to Peter to join us there as soon as possible. Accordingly, we set off early in the morning. The weather had changed for the worse, so instead of staying at the Ball hut we decided it would be better to push on to the Hermitage, where wet days are more supportable. Our forebodings proved correct; all day Tuesday the rain came down in a steady pour. This had one advantage: several disgusted tourists left promptly by Wednesday's motor. In the afternoon it began to clear, so with all haste we packed up our belongings and made for the Ball hut once more.