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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 XI — A Great Ice Peak

page 121

Chapter XI
A Great Ice Peak

Back from the summit, every muscle aching
From the jarring, harsh descent;
The will alert, and eye and nerve yet waking;
Spirit and strength half spent.
Back from the summit, victory denied us,
Retreat alone before;
No more the gates of mountain hope to guide us;
Only the hostel door.

The next day the weather was worse than ever, and we whiled away the day with what patience we could muster. The chief entertainment was accorded by the Government photographer, who taught me a charming Maori song, and induced a Maori porter who was with him to dance a haka, Next day the weather cleared and we made joyous preparations for the start. In return for his entertainment of the previous day the Government photographer insisted on us posing for a cinematograph drama. It was great fun. He started with a pastoral of "The great lady climber plucking mountain lilies," and a second of that eminent personage happily clasping an armful of flowers, like any mere female. Then came an exit from the tent in climbing costume (the scene was supposed to have shifted to a high bivouac), another of the guides packing up the tent while I looked on and gave directions. Then the scene shifted to the glacier, and we were taken climbing up ice-walls and page 122crossing crevasses in a manner to thrill an excitement-loving public. At last the photographic instinct was appeased and we were allowed to take our belated way towards the Haast bivouac.

Instead of striking across for the Tasman Glacier, we followed along close beneath the Hochstetter icefall. Avalanche after avalanche shot over the scarred rock on its left-hand side, the only dark spot in all this wonderful hanging glacier, whose 3,000 feet of jagged white pinnacle, riven with crevasses and caverns of vivid colour, make a wonderful foreground for the smooth summit of Mount Tasman, which is outlined sharply against the skyline 5,000 ft. above them.

Crossing to the right-hand side of the Hochstetter, we began to scramble up the steep bank of moraine leading to the Haast ridge. This was no easy task; the soft shaly sides kept slipping away beneath our feet and tottering rocks came tumbling down, apparently desiring nothing better than to annihilate us on the spot. At last we reached the top of the moraine and scrambled on to the ridge above. Here we threw ourselves down on a great flat boulder to cool off before we attacked the 3,000 feet of rock ridge between us and the Haast bivouac. When thoroughly rested we set off again and climbed steadily up the steep arête for hour after hour. The sun beat down upon us and we found the ascent tedious, but nowhere particularly difficult, and at half-past three we arrived at our destination. The site is a tiny plateau sheltered by a great overhanging rock. Here, in 1882, the Rev. S. Green and his Swiss guides made their last bivouac for Mount Cook and began the good work of building up the little plateau, to which a succession of mountaineers have added year by year, till now it is large enough to pitch a tent upon with comfort. It is sheltered on its north side by a protecting wall about 2 feet high. Here, too, Fitzgerald and Zurbriggen spent many a cold, wet and uncomfortable night while they awaited their chance to page break
The Haast Bivouac. Mount De La Bèche. The Tasman Glacier.

The Haast Bivouac. Mount De La Bèche. The Tasman Glacier.

page 123attack Mount Tasman. In fact, we were on historic ground, which at present in the New Zealand Alps is rare. This seems to be the only place on the steep Haast ridge where it is safe to make a bivouac, the great overhanging rock affording protection from the falling stones which rake the ridge at frequent intervals and make many otherwise more attractive and comfortable spots too deadly to contemplate.

Our tent was soon pitched, and a trickle of melting snow from a sun-warmed rock supplied us with water for our tea. Then the cooker was lighted and we all gathered round it to enjoy a well-earned meal. After this was over the guides set out to climb to the top of the ridge to reconnoitre our route for the following day. They returned about six o'clock and reported that all seemed in excellent condition for our attempt; so with minds at ease we set about preparing our evening meal and getting what rest was possible. We decided that a start must be made by 1.30 a.m. It was about 8 p.m. by the time our meal was over and everything in readiness for the morning. Then we crawled into our sleepingbags and settled down for the night. We were all more or less excited at the prospect of the morrow's climb, and the knowledge that only four hours' rest was ahead of us seemed to effectually banish all possibilities of sleep.

At about 8.30 a wonderful orange moon rose over the Hochstetter Dome. A thin fog enveloped everything, and through it the moon loomed gigantically. As the fog thickened we could trace its upward way in a haze of golden mist, until it was obscured altogether.

I fell asleep about 11.30, to be awakened at once, it seemed, by the wild clatter of the alarum at 12.30. Alex got up and set the two cookers going just inside the tent flap. This produced such a pleasing sense of warmth that I dropped off to sleep again and had to be awakened for breakfast. Never shall I forget the strange meals I have partaken of, at unusual hours, since I took to page 124mountaineering. Shivering and but half awake, one swallows a weird sequence of food, made bearable only by the hot tea with which it is washed down. Only the entreaties of my guides ever make me attempt to eat in the early morning hours.

After breakfast comes the deadly struggle into frozen boots and the endless winding of putties. A soft hat well tied down on my head completes this somewhat sketchy toilet, and leaves me free to crawl out into the cold morning breeze and wait while the guides roll up the tent and portion out the alpine rope which has served for its ridge-pole. By 1.30 all was finished, and we started off. Our golden moon was shining bravely, but threatened soon to disappear behind Mount Haast; we therefore lit a candle to assist us when the moonlight failed, and began groping our way through the loose boulders which surround the bivouac, over which we must pass to reach the ridge and the steep snow slopes beyond.

The night had been exceptionally warm, and the snow was still quite soft. Up and up we climbed, following the steps the guides had tramped the previous night. Steeper and steeper grew the slope, which loomed dimly above us for a thousand feet. At 2.30 a.m. we reached the summit of the ridge. After a short rest we began the descent into the great snow plateau, three miles long by a mile or so broad, which forms the basin at the feet of Mounts Tasman, Lendenfeld, and Haast. At its left-hand side this basin is joined by the Linda Glacier, which flows between Mount Cook, Mount Dampier, and Mount Tasman. All the accumulated drainage of these great peaks empties itself out of the narrow opening between the Haast ridge and the east arête of Mount Cook, and forms the wonderful hanging glacier known as the Hochstetter Icefall, whose chaotic splendour beggars description.

The moon had sunk behind Mount Haast, and with page 125no light save that cast at our feet by the flickering lanterns we seemed to be descending into a bottomless pit. It was impossible in the dim light to see where the snows ended and the mists began. All around us loomed vague shadow-mountains, whose great height but increased the awesome depths that fell away to nothingness beneath them. Fortunately the guides had tramped their steps right down into and across the plateau, to the foot of the Silberhorn, so we were able to follow the footmarks. Otherwise it might have been both difficult and dangerous to find our way with only the flickering candlelight to guide us. By 3.30 we had reached the foot of the Silberhorn. As we paused for a moment's rest, before beginning the steep ascent to the arête, the first faint streaks of dawn began to lighten the sky behind the dark mass to Mount Malte Brun. By the time we reached the arête (Silberhorn) the surrounding mountains were lit, one by one, with flashes of crimson fire. The snowy summit of the Hochstetter Dome stood out from a sky of pale sea-green, merging almost imperceptibly to blue, which deepened and deepened, until at last it reached the intense tone of the summer alpine sky.

These lovely pea-green skies, so I have been told by English people, are a peculiarity of New Zealand, and are rarely seen by them at home. Over and over again they appear at sunrise and sunset in New South Wales as well as in New Zealand. Seen at sunset they are supposed to proclaim bad weather within forty-eight hours. I have tested this theory often, and rarely found it incorrect. For sheer loveliness and purity of colour I have never seen anything to surpass snow-capped mountains outlined against a cool green sky, and when added to that you have the merest edging of a golden sunrise, the effect is superb. As we sat in the arête and fortified ourselves with a second breakfast of hot tea, biscuits and cheese, the sun streamed down upon us from a cloudless sky.

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For ten minutes we luxuriated in its warmth, while we picked out a route up the sharp arête of the Silberhorn. From our position we could also take careful note of the Linda route up the north-east face of Mount Cook. This looked in such excellent condition that we were almost tempted to abandon Mount Tasman and see if it was not possible to complete the Rev. S. Green's route to the summit of Mount Cook. It is a curious fact that in spite of his statement that he believed he had found the best and most practicable route to the summit, his is the one route by which Mount Cook has never been successfully ascended. Time and again Messrs. Mannering and Dixson have attempted it, only to be driven back the extra step-cutting involved by trying to take the short cut up the couloir, between the last rocks leading to the eastern arête. The couloir ought to be soft snow, but somehow it invariably turns out to be hard ice, and is much more troublesome than the longer traverse, from the base of the rocks across the steep snow slope and directly up the east arête. Finally we decided we had had enough of Mount Cook for one season, and turned our attention once more to the Silberhorn. Perhaps it would be as well to explain here that the Silberhorn and Mount Tasman, which are always spoken of as one mountain, are really two distinct peaks. The easiest route up Mount Tasman, or rather the only one so far attempted, is to ascend the eastern arête of the Silberhorn to its summit and from there descend a couple of hundred feet to the saddle between the two mountains and continue the ascent up the eastern arête of Mount Tasman.

Our only predecessors on Mount Tasman and the Silberhorn were Messrs. Fitzgerald, Zurbriggen, and Clark, who after several attempts at last succeeded in standing upon the summit in February 1895. No one had since attempted the ascent, so it was their route we were bent on following.

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The western arête was steep, and in places very icy, which involved the cutting of many steps. Contemplating these steps from the point of view of the descent did not increase our cheerfulness, as they were in rather rotten ice and would be exposed to the full glare of the midday sun. Beyond making them as deep and safe as possible, there was nothing to be done, so we proceeded upward and left the descent to take care of itself. Two nasty schrunds caused us some difficulty, but at last we conquered all obstacles and at 7.15 a.m. stood triumphantly on the summit of the Silberhorn (10,500 feet). Naturally our first thought was for the Tasman arête, which had been hidden from our view as we climbed. With one accord our glances swept it searchingly. The silence that followed was ominous—personally I felt cold shivers running up and down my spine as I viewed the last 1,000 feet of our proposed climb from close quarters. From the Tasman Glacier the ridge seems to rise out of the Silberhorn in a gentle softly inviting slope. From our newly gained summit it rears a knife-like edge for 1,000 feet, at the most appalling angle I had ever beheld or imagined. On its south side the ridge drops sheer to the Linda Glacier beneath; on its north it falls away sharply to a great schrund which runs the whole length of the north-east face. This schrund makes a great gap in the arête about 200 feet from the saddle, a gap that we must somehow overcome if we were to gain the longed-for summit. Here and there on the steep and narrow ridge shone unmistakable patches of ice, leaving us no illusions as to the kind of ascent we were up against. Silently I took in the whole appalling ridge, which could be compared with nothing in my experience but the razor-like arête leading from the summit of Mount Cook to the middle peak—and this arête we had hastily disclaimed any desire to set foot upon, except on the upward grade. If we succeeded in ascending to the summit of Mount Tasman, we had to face the infinitely worse page 128problem of descending by the same route, a route on which a slip meant annihilation for all of us. All these things raced through my brain before I turned a questioning look on my silent guides. Their faces were grave, they knew by many years' experience what I could only guess at. At last Peter shook his head dubiously and turned from the icy ridge. "Looks bad, Alex?" he questioned. "Bad as it can be," his brother agreed, and we all sat down in the snow to think it over. A few moments' consideration ended in the decision to obtain a closer view of the arête and see if the schrund were an impossible chasm or no. Rapidly we skirted round the west side of the Silberhorn and descended to the Tasman Saddle and began the ascent towards the break in the arête. When we reached this, we paused to take some food and let out the rope to its full length, which gave us about 30 feet apiece. We also decided to leave the rucksac behind us, taking nothing but a bottle of brandy in case of emergencies, and a few dried fruits and biscuits which would be slipped into our coat-pockets. We managed to cross the schrund by descending a few feet of the icy precipitous south face and coming up again on the upper lip. This upper lip consisted of a 20-foot perpendicular wall, up which Peter cut steps while Alex and I hung on the steep face below as best we could. At last our leader safely reached the arête above the schrund and called to me to follow on. I crawled cautiously up the icy wall, very thankful for the support of the rope held taut above me, safely gained the arête, and waited while Alex repeated the performance. One difficulty at any rate was surmounted, and we were disposed to be somewhat elated. Our elation died a speedy death, when we discovered the arête stretching away above us was solid ice from base to summit. Breathing a curse on our luck, Peter started cutting steps where our predecessors had cheerfully kicked their way on snow. To Alex and page break
Mount Tasman Arète. X was the point reached on the first attempt. Final ascent was made on the right of the arête.

Mount Tasman Arète.
X was the point reached on the first attempt. Final ascent was made on the right of the arête.

page 129me fell the doubtful pleasure of waiting in freezing inaction, while Peter steadily cut his way up to the length of his rope. While we waited we were severely pelted with the sharp pieces of ice sent flying by the stepcutter directly above us. Alex sustained a nasty gash in his hand from a particularly vicious piece.

My thick coat protected my arms from cuts, but at a later date I discovered some very creditable bruises as my share of the performance. With heads low bent to the icy wall in front, we heard the chunks of ice rattle over our heads, and sustained only a blow now and then. It was a wonder to me how many bits did manage to miss us, directly in the line of fire as we were, and fly harmlessly past. After about half an hour Peter paused in his work to anxiously inquire if I felt quite safe. On my replying, most untruthfully, that I did not mind a bit, he attacked the arête again. For another hour he worked without ceasing, and we progressed about 200 feet. The weather now began to look doubtful; clouds had been creeping steadily and softly up from the west, and everything but the summit of Mount Cook was lost in swirling mists, while gusts of icy wind moaned eerily past us. We paused to face the situation; as nearly as we could calculate we were still 400 feet from the summit, and that at our present rate of progress meant at least two hours more step-cutting. As we discussed the situation the mists suddenly enveloped us and the wind increased in violence. The arête ahead of us vanished in the fog, and looking backward we could see but few yards. Very reluctantly we decided that it would be folly to continue under such conditions. We had no doubt of our ability to reach the summit, but to descend this sharp and icy arête, in the teeth of a westerly gale, with our steps but faintly visible in the fog, was a very serious matter, so sadly we faced about and began to descend. It was a most nerve-racking proceeding. I, as the weakest and least skilled member of the party, felt the responsibility heavy page 130upon me. I knew beyond doubting that if my nerve failed me and I made a false step, and slipped badly enough to put a sudden strain upon the rope, there would be no possible hope for any of us. The ridge was so hard that it was impossible to dig the point of the ice-axe into it; it was simply a question of lowering one's self down from one slippery step to another with nothing but the moral support of the rope to rely upon. Alex led down and I followed. Only one of us moved at a time. We all assured one another that we were capable of stopping a slip, and stood holding the rope taut while the man we were responsible for moved; but I do not think this cheerful pretence deceived any one. The minutes dragged like hours as slowly and carefully we descended step by step. The wind blew clouds of drift snow about us, and often it was necessary for each of us in turn to stoop down and clear the snow from the half-filled ice steps before we dare set foot on them. The wet rope, rigid and stiff like iron, was also difficult to manage. On one particularly bad portion my nerve deserted me somewhat, and I found I could not manage the descent with my face to the abyss below me. After several tentative attempts I turned my face to the arête and let myself down backwards, practically straddling the ridge from step to step. Above me Peter waited with the rope taut, a worried line between his eyes. Below me stood Alex, his face a mixture of horror and amusement at such an unorthodox proceeding. Arriving safely, I paused to point out that to get down intact was the most important thing to be considered, and though my methods might look peculiar they had served me well. The Grahams were splendid in the faith they always showed in my mountaineering powers. After the season's teaching, trying, and testing, they always took my ability for granted, no matter what difficulties we encountered. Perhaps one of them would give me a quiet suggestion if they thought it would be useful, but I was never worried or teased with minute directions. Their unvarying confidence in me has been page 131one of the great elements in my many successes. It has often spurred me on to bigger efforts, where a want of confidence would simply have crumpled me up and made me lose faith in myself. Some idea of the difficulties of our descent may be gained by the knowledge that it took us just as long to descend as it had to ascend, in spite of the fact that on the ascent the steps had to be cut, while on the descent we had simply to walk down them. After an hour we at last arrived on the other side of the schrund, all very thankful that we had not attained the summit, if the descent could only be safely managed at such a strain. We retrieved our rucksac from the mound in which we had buried it and consumed a good meal. As the day was still young we decided to cross over to the north-east face and see if there was any possibility of an ascent from there. We followed along the lower lip of the schrund for some way, looking for a crossing-place to the slope above. A very little acquaintance with this face proved it to be quite as icy and steep as the arête we had just left, though slightly more protected from the wind. As the summit was now shrouded in thick fog and the weather around us anything but promising, we definitely gave up the attempt and started for the Silberhorn with all speed. I was desperately disappointed, when on reaching it I was unable to take a photograph of the Tasman arête with our steps showing how far we had ascended. I had left this particular photograph in the morning when taking several others, thinking it would be much more interesting taken after our ascent. A little acquaintance with alpine photography soon teaches that "a bird in the hand is worth two in a bush." I thought I had learnt this lesson, and was thoroughly annoyed with myself for having backslided so badly.

Our descent down the Silberhorn arête proved a minor edition of our experiences on Mount Tasman. We had several very nasty patches of rotten ice where the steps had melted and broken away, involving the cutting of new page 132ones and a deviation from the route. At last, however, all our difficulties were safely conquered, and we found ourselves plodding wearily through the soft snow of the plateau, and up the steep slopes to Glacier Dome. From here we were able to descend quickly in a series of glissades to the bivouac, which we reached at 5.30 p.m., having been out just sixteen hours. We were all tired and somewhat disappointed at the failure of our efforts to climb Mount Tasman, so dinner was not as cheerful a meal as usual. As soon as it was disposed of we tumbled into our sleeping-bags, and forgot all our woes.

We set the alarum for 4 a.m., at which hour it remorselessly awoke us. A light rain was falling, and the barometer going down. As it was no use attempting Tasman again under such conditions, we packed up and left for the Ball hut at about 6.30 a.m. Some snow had fallen during the night, so we took advantage of it, and leaving the ridge descended by snow-filled couloirs, which deviation saved us considerable time and energy, The weather cleared as we reached the glacier, and we paused at the Hochstetter Icefall to gaze at Tasman's icy ridge with a reverence born of intimate knowledge.

We had all quite recovered our good spirits, and in spite of its failure were by no means despondent over our attempt. In fact, if truth be told, we were inclined to consider our failure on Mount Tasman as a more interesting and finer piece of work than our successful ascent of Mount Cook. I particularly was the gainer by a pretty severe test of snow-and ice-work, in which I had not been found wanting, and could look forward to the time when such climbing would appeal to me perhaps as much as the rockcraft, which hitherto had been the goal of my ambitions. We reached the hut at 8 a.m., and were soon cheerfully discussing our adventures over a civilized breakfast. After three hours' rest we set out for our fourteen-mile tramp to the Hermitage, where we arrived at 3.30 p.m.