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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 XII — Three Ascents

page 133

Chapter XII
Three Ascents

Faster and more fast;
O'er night's brim, day boils at last:
Boils pure gold o'er the cloud-cup's brim,
Where spurting and suppressed it lay,
For not a froth-flake touched the rim
Of yonder gap in the solid grey
Of the eastern cloud, an hour away:
But forth one wavelet, then another, curled,
Till the whole sunrise, not to be suppressed,
Rose reddened, and its seething breast
Flickered in bounds, grew gold, then overflowed the world.

For two days after our return from the Haast bivouac the rain came down in torrents, and we had reason to congratulate ourselves on not waiting in the bivouac to make a second attempt. The chief items on my climbing programme for the season had now been attempted, and I was in the cheerful state of not particularly minding how I put in the next ten days. Under these circumstances the suggestion that I should join a pleasant party who wished to cross to the West Coast, by Graham's Saddle, and return via the Copland Pass, met with my entire approval. At the end of the ten days I was expecting my greatest friend to arrive from Sydney; we then proposed to spend a fortnight more in the mountains and return home together.

On Wednesday, December 21st, the weather cleared, page 134and our party, which consisted of the two Grahams, Miss Murray Aynsley, Mr. Hugh Chambers, and myself, set out for the Ball hut, at which we arrived without incident. We were rather late getting away the next morning, and so did not arrive at the Malte Brun hut till 4 p.m. We had decided to start for Graham's Saddle at two o'clock next morning, so spent the remainder of the afternoon and evening in gaining as much rest as possible. The trip over Graham's Saddle to the accommodation house at the foot of the Franz Josef Glacier is a long and trying one. It may be expected to occupy anything from fifteen to twenty hours, according to the state of the glacier, and the capabilities of the party, so to journey across with only a few hours' rest after the tiring ascent to the Malte Brun hut was something of an undertaking.

After a scrappy breakfast at 1.20 on the morning of the 23rd, we set out at 2 a.m. There was no moon, and we stumbled painfully over the lateral moraine by the light of a lantern, and then across the Tasman Glacier until we reached the point at the base of Mount De la Bêche. Here we scrambled up some scree and snow slopes for a few hundred feet, and then made a traverse across to the opposite side, facing the Rudolf Glacier.

The dawn was now beginning to break in a riot of colour. Mount Cook blazed blood-red as the first rays of the sun caught his gleaming summit, then peak after peak caught the glow and ran the gauntlet of colours— red, pink, golden, primrose, they gleamed in a revel of beautiful shades. Far away in the south a thunderous bank of black and evil clouds darkened the sky, and by the time the sun had finished his morning pageant a bitter, icy wind was upon us. We toiled steadily up the Rudolf Glacier for two hours, fighting our way against the wind, and casting anxious glances above us. Soon our unspoken fears were realized and Graham's Saddle was blotted out by a great bank of clouds from Westland. page 135At about 6 a.m. we paused at the foot of the saddle and sought shelter beneath a projecting ice block. After a long consultation and some argument, the guides decided it was impossible to proceed in such weather. The pass was thick with a raging blizzard, and on the Westland side it would be impossible to see a couple of yards ahead, and to descend the dizzy icy ridge known as the Goat Path, or to find a way through the labyrinth of broken ice and crevasses of the steeply descending Franz Josef Glacier, would be a foolhardy proceeding indeed. Very reluctantly we turned our backs on the nearly gained pass and made all possible speed to the hut, which we reached at 8 a.m. By the time we had comforted ourselves with a hot meal, and were ready to turn into our blankets again, the rain was coming down in torrents, and the temperature dropping steadily.

About five o'clock, as we were all gathered round the kerosine stove, making the best of the warmth it afforded while cooking our dinner, we were startled by a knock upon the door. Opening it, we were confronted by a dripping, shivering, snow-covered party of five. Looking abjectly apologetic they trailed in. Hut ethics demand that when a hut is known to be occupied almost to its full limit, another party shall not proceed to it. The holding capacity of the Malte Brun is eight; with our visitors we now numbered eleven. After they had exchanged their dripping clothes for blanket costumes à la Maori and we were all gathered round the dinner-table, they explained. Wishing to climb some peaks at the head of the Tasman Glacier they had pushed on, hoping that we had managed to sneak across Graham's Saddle before the storm broke.

Blankets and bunks were short that night; two apiece were all we could muster of the former. This, with the snow falling steadily outside and piling itself up in drifts against the walls of the hut, was but a cold page 136allowance. Even apart from the temperature, there was no possibility of sleep, so wild was the night. Fierce gusts shook the hut as a terrier shakes a rat, the rafters creaked and groaned and the wire cables binding it to the rocks shivered taut with the strain. To make oneself heard it was necessary to shout or one's voice was drowned in the gale. The snow gathering on the roof melted, and little trickles found their way in here and there and dripped steadily upon the luckless individual who occupied the spot beneath. For two days the gale blew unabated and the snow piled itself around us. We slept, ate, talked, and played cards, and the cold hours wore away quite pleasantly, and at last, at about 4 p.m. on Christmas Day, the storm was over. We all rushed out and started hilariously snow-balling one another, and generally spending a thoroughly picture-postcard time of it.

We had been so long delayed by the storm that it was no longer possible for me to go over to the West Coast and return in time to meet my friend, Muriel Cadogan, on her arrival at the Hermitage. I therefore decided to drop out of the West Coast party. Mr. Chambers also gave up the expedition and decided to return to the Hermitage with me and, if we could get a guide, try our luck upon the Footstool. At 1.30 a.m. on the 26th we said good-bye to Miss Murray Aynsley and the two Grahams. Not very long afterwards Mr. Chambers and I set out unguided for the Ball hut. The morning was intensely cold and the new snow still frozen, so we made a record journey of it, in spite of getting rather mixed when threading our way through the crevasses of the icefall. We reached the Ball hut in two and three-quarter hours, and after a hastily prepared meal pushed on to the Hermitage, which we reached at 1 p.m.

Next day we had a wire from the coast telling of the safe arrival of our party. No guides were available at the Hermitage, so the Footstool plan had to be given up. That page 137night a cousin of Mr. Chambers arrived, and next morning the three of us set out at 6.30 to tramp right through to the Make Brun hut again and see if we could commandeer the services of guide Murphy when he had finished with his party, whom we had met on the upward journey as we descended.

Poor Mr. McLean, who so blindly trusted himself to a pair of amateur guides, both enthusiastic and in good training, had rather a strenuous trip for a first time up the glacier. Fortunately he did not know when we occasionally lost our landmarks and took him considerably out of his way. Now and again he did mournfully request a few moments' breathing space in which to roll boulders down the fascinating moulins or contemplate the view. Mr. Chambers, however, was stern, owing to the fact that a storm seemed to be brewing from the south, and would grant but little time to play. We safely reached the hut in the afternoon. We found that Murphy's party had been turned back from their climb the day before. Two of them decided to return to the Hermitage in charge of the second guide next day. The third joined in with us and stayed on.

The morning of the 29th was none too promising, so we spent the day, which later cleared considerably, in ski-ing up the Darwin Glacier. All of us were novices, consequently we went where and how the skis chose, not where we desired. This led to much hilarity and a most enjoyable day. Friday, the 30th, the weather was perfect, and Mr. Fisher, Mr. Chambers, Murphy, and I set out in the best of spirits to climb Mount Green. This mountain is a fine, tent-shaped peak of 9,325 feet at the head of the Tasman Glacier, situated between the Minarets and Mount Elie de Beaumont. It had only been climbed once before, in 1909, when it was ascended by Dr. Teichelmann, Dr. Volmann, and the two Grahams. A steady hour's tramp brought us to the base of our peak at daybreak. After page 138putting on the rope we started up the snow slopes leading to the west arête. We climbed in the following order —Murphy in the lead, then myself, Mr. Fisher and Mr. Chambers last. The going was good, up steep, frozen snow slopes that only required a chip with the ice-axe now and again. As we progressed the sun beat down upon upon us from a cloudless sky, and not a breath of wind stirred the air. We reached the col at the foot of the main west arête after a couple of hours' hard work. Up this we climbed for some time, and then traversed off to the left. We had two hours' step-cutting on solid ice at an angle of 60 degrees on the final slopes. Murphy was in fine form, and hacked his way in zigzag traverses. The traverses were not very long, so we spent much of our time turning at the corners. Once, not so long ago, I used to be unhappy when the critical moment arrived for changing feet and manipulating the rope to the other side; now I was glad to find it came like second nature, and I was able to inspire the man behind me with confidence and keep his rope taut while Murphy went ahead with his steps. At last we triumphantly reached the summit and stood looking over into Westland. It was the loveliest view in my mountaineering experience. With the exception of the panorama from the summit of Mount Cook, I had never obtained a perfect view of Westland. Glorious as is that view, one is really too high up to take in its full beauty; the mere fact that there is nothing but the blue of the skies above you tends to flatten everything somewhat, although you realize its loneliness and grandeur; while from Mount Green you are struck by its soft and friendly beauty. White peaks nestle around you, some higher, some lower; domes, spires and minarets pierce the blue sky in ever-changing loveliness, while at their feet the white glaciers curve, mile after mile of white and silver and blue, blue, silver, and white, till the eye turns from the dazzling sheen to the wonderful contrast of the west.

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Mount Cook Mount Tasman The MinaretsPanorama from the Summit of Mount Green.

Mount Cook Mount Tasman The Minarets
Panorama from the Summit of Mount Green.

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Here many coloured rocks lead down to deep, dark-green valleys and away to yellow tussock, intersected with twisting rivers which flow down to a sparkling sea, reflecting tone for tone the intense blue of the summer sky. For an hour we sat on our summit warm, happy, and contented as we gazed around us, finding every moment some new beauty to marvel at. Then we began the descent. We had to go carefully down the steep ice slope and along the narrow ridge. The sun was at its height, and surrounded as we were on every side with dazzling snow, we seemed penned in a world of heat and light. A tangible wave of warmth radiated from the ice slopes as we descended with our faces close to them. When at last we arrived at the col, we skirted round to the left, until we reached the shadow of a dripping ice-wall. Here we rested, closing our eyes to shut out the eternal gleaming whiteness. When we were cooled down and refreshed we started off again, and soon reached the slopes at the base of the mountain where we had left our skis in the morning. Then followed a joyous whiz down the slopes to the glacier. We were able to ski nearly to the hut, an infinite saving of labour in the now soft snow. A weary scramble over the moraine with our skis on our shoulders, another steep pull up the grass slopes, and we were home once more and soon happily discussing our day over unlimited tea.

Next morning we all left for the Hermitage, arriving about four o'clock. After a bath and two hours' rest I was happily awaiting the arrival of the motor-car and my friend, very well pleased with the last week's exertions in spite of the telegrams that kept dropping in from the West Coast, telling us of all the fun the remnant of our party was having over there.

In spite of the fact that New Year's Day was abominably wet, Muriel and I sallied out, clad in oilskins, with our lunch in a rucksac, and spent a happy day under an overhanging rock up the Hooker Valley. Here we were page 140at least sure of peace and quiet, which the crowded state of the Hermitage made impossible except in our bedroom. Even in the rain my friend was able to grasp some of the beauties of the Hooker River and Valley. We came home at four o'clock, soaked, of course, but very much the better for a few miles tramp in the fresh air, instead of being cooped up in a crowded sitting-room, where that precious commodity was exceedingly scarce.

The next was also wet, but January 3rd dawned gloriously fine, and I dragged Muriel out at some unearthly hour to show her the first glimpses of Mount Sefton and Mount Cook. Her sympathetic understanding was all I expected it to be, and I felt infinitely the richer by a thoroughly sympathetic companion, the first in all my seasons in the mountains.

After breakfast we made up a party and spent a lovely day on Sebastopol, which gave me some opportunity of finding how much mountaineering my friend was fit for after strenuous work in Sydney and a week's travelling.

As the next day was also gloriously fine, Mr. Chambers and I undertook to guide the same party to the top of the Sealy Range. They showed a blind faith in our powers which was touching, and were happily ignorant of our occasional lapses from the most direct route. The view from the summit was glorious, but our contentment was slightly marred by a cold wind. Coming down we initiated the novices into the joy of glissading. I lived my own first mountaineering hours over again as I watched my friend gallantly struggling to retain her equilibrium as she shot down the steep slope. Arriving snow-covered but joyous, she quite willingly tramped back again for a second glissade, and this time we shot down together most successfully while I demonstrated how to break with the ice-axe and generally put my hard-won experience at her disposal. We boiled the billy at the lovely little lake, whose waving, grassy banks make such a beautiful frame page 141for the picture of Mount Sefton reflected therein, while away across the valley Mount Cook's white cap pierced the sky. The evening was so lovely that Muriel and I considered it a sin to waste it rushing down to be in time for dinner. The others being of a different opinion, we sent them off without us. Then we threw ourselves down in the soft grass at the margin of the lake and drank in all the beauty of the ever-changing evening sky. Two happy hours slipped away, until at last, warned by the increasing darkness, we woke up to the fact that it was 8 p.m., and if we did not start for home some overanxious individual might think it necessary to come and look for us. So reluctantly we gathered up our belongings, and turning our backs on the still, star-lit lake began struggling down the steep, stony track to Kea Point. We reached the Hermitage quite safely at 9 p.m. with the happy consciousness of a dinner well lost.

Next morning Muriel found that she had ricked her knee a little, so we lazed all day, only taking a tea-party down to Governor's Bush, having convinced several others that the missing of a five-course dinner was not a matter of life and death on a perfect summer night.

The next few days were wet, so we only took enough exercise to keep us in training, as Muriel was anxious to go up to the Malte Brun hut and see all there was to be seen in the week left of our holiday. I had not intended to do any more climbing, having specially kept these two weeks free, so as to show my friend all the best we could crowd into the long summer days. However, when an opportunity presented itself for just one more climb, and that a virgin peak, it was too tempting to be resisted, and I fell from grace, with Muriel's hearty approval. The climb only involved one day's absence from the rest of the party, as it was on the way to Malte Brun. On January 10th Murphy, Mr. Chambers, Muriel, and I left for the Ball hut at midday. We took the page 142fourteen-mile walk in a leisurely manner, halting at the Blue Lake for afternoon tea, and resting there beneath the shade of the ribbonwoods until the sun had set, and so minimizing the discomfort of the usually long, hot walk up the narrow valley to the Ball hut. Next morning we all started out together: Mr. Chambers, Murphy, and I bound for a bivouac on the slopes of Mount Chudleigh, while Muriel went on with a party to Malte Brun hut, where we proposed to join her the following evening. Our ways lay together until we got well on to the hummocky ice of the Tasman Glacier; then we struck across for the grass slopes at the foot of Mount Chudleigh, while the others proceeded up the glacier towards the Malte Brun hut. As we neared the east bank of the glacier, we became involved in a maze of giant crevasses, whose long, sharp ridges, with sometimes a 20-or 30-foot drop on either side, were no easy matter to negotiate. We were all laden with pretty heavy swags; Murphy had, of course, the lion's share, but my modest possessions I found sufficiently heavy and annoying when it came to balancing on narrow, slippery ice ridges. However, we succeeded in gaining the grass slopes without accident. Then began a hot and weary toil up the slippery slopes until we gained a fine situation for a bivouac at 5,700 feet. It was a beautiful position on a small flat of thick snow-grass. Near by a mountain torrent rushed along between high walls of rock which hid the water from our view. While the men were fixing the bivouac I strolled off to explore this stream in search of a possible bathing-place. I was lucky in finding a large, fairly deep pool at the foot of a cliff. The icy water took my breath away as I plunged into it, and with a splutter I came to the surface and into the sunshine. Wonderfully invigorated, I returned to the camp and described the delights to be had at the price of a bracing shock. The men declined to be convinced that the game was worth the candle and page 143consequently missed a joyous rejuvenation which would have swept away all traces of their hot and tiring march.

We turned in as soon as it was dark and enjoyed quite a luxurious rest on the soft and spongy snow-grass. The alarum went off at about 3 a.m. and reluctantly I performed a sketchy toilet. I found that the unaccustomed swagging had left my shoulders horribly stiff, and I had not by any means gained my usual buoyancy when we started up the scree slopes for our peak. Mount Chudleigh had two great attractions for us—it was virgin, and promised a good rock climb, and rock climbs that season had been scarce owing to the unusual frequency of snow-storms and the early setting-in of the autumn. After the scree came snow slopes leading to the east arête. We progressed steadily; the morning was dull and heavy, and my usual feeling of elation was conspicuous only by its absence. I had never felt off colour on a climb before and the sensation was as unpleasing as new.

At 8,750 feet we paused for a second breakfast at the foot of the long snow arête. So far we had had nothing but a steady grind up scree and soft snow. Now, however, we had much more interesting work, following along the sharp curved arête; it zigzagged and turned in the most extraordinary manner, till I wondered sometimes if we might not find ourselves in the position of the famed American train, in which the engine driver can lean out and shake hands with the man in the guard's van. All our visions of a rocky climb were rapidly vanishing; it soon became evident that all the rock-work would be a few hundred feet at the summit. At one point the ridge became so precipitous and icy that we made a long traverse to the right and then doubled back till we gained the arête again, almost at the foot of the last rocks. This traverse entailed about an hour's step-cuttting, and it was with joy we hailed the prospect of solid rock. Solid rock! Never was such a delusion. From below it had looked like the beautiful red slabs of Aiguille Rouge and the lower strata of Mount Malte Brun.

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But in mountaineering, as elsewhere, things are not always what they seem! Chudleigh rocks are in about as rotten a state as rocks can be and still stand upright. Mr. Chambers is frankly unhappy on rotten rock, and following below me as we worked cautiously up the crumbling mass he ever and anon cautioned me anxiously not to drop things on him. Considering the Grahams have always given me the reputation of "as clean a climber on bad rock as they have ever taken out," his warning was superfluous, and now and again Murphy gave me an understanding grin as he caught the injunctions. Nothing short of a caterpillar could have crawled up those rocks without dislodging stones occasionally; we all did it in turn, but fortunately none of them disabled any of the party, and at 10.30 we stood intact upon the summit. Our enthusiasm was considerably wilted by this time, and we made remarks the reverse of complimentary as we sat and shivered in a cold south wind. Divided from us by perhaps fifty yards of rotten serrated ridge stood the second peak. To reach it involved a sharp descent. After some discussion we came to the conclusion that the one we were on was undoubtedly the higher of the two, and that as far as we were concerned the second was not worth the risk entailed in reaching it. Murphy, who knows considerably more of photography than I do, manipulated my camera, and after half an hour's rest we began the descent. We one and all dreaded it, but the actual performance, while quite sufficiently nerve racking and unpleasing, was not as bad as imagination had painted. Anyhow, we arrived without accident and were soon seated happily on a comfortable zigzag of the ridge. I seized the opportunity to try a couple of photographs of it, both forward and back, hoping so to be able to give some idea of its unique qualities. Once off the arête we shot down in a series of the most glorious glissades. They were the saving feature of a disappointing day and enabled us to reach our bivouac at one o'clock in quite a cheerful mood. After a page 145good meal, and for me another dip in the snow-fed pool, we shouldered our belongings and started on the long tramp to Malte Brun. We had to descend by steep grass slopes to the Beatham Glacier. Here we encountered considerable difficulty in crossing the glacier stream, which was rushing very deep and strong. Once over we had a weary plug up the steep slopes on the other side and a long traverse on the eastern base of Malte Brun. Here we unfortunately kept too low and got into some very nasty rock-work. I narrowly escaped being crushed under some hundred tons of boulder which broke away and came tearing down the slope. We reached the hut at 6.20 p.m., thankful to be alive to tell the tale of a very strenuous day.

I found Muriel quite recovered from her trip up the glacier and desperately disappointed that she had been turned back from an ascent of the Hochstetter Dome, by the fact that the rest of the party were unequal to the ascent and were unwilling to wait in a perfectly safe spot while the guide continued with her to the summit. In fact, I saw every sign of her catching the mountaineering fever badly and was thereat greatly rejoiced.

Quarters were rather cramped, and we finished up our experiences by trying to sleep together in a top bunk three feet wide. It was an exciting experiment but hardly restful. In the morning we looked out of the window to find six inches of snow around the hut. It continued snowing steadily all day. Saturday, January 14th, we said good-bye to beautiful Malte Brun and made all speed for the Hermitage, where we arrived at three o'clock, not sorry for another taste of civilization after the primitive life of the last few days.

We spent our last three days round about the Hermitage. The hotel was terribly overcrowded and we were very little in it. We bivouacked the night of the 16th at the lake on Sealy Range. It was full moon and the scene indescribably beautiful, too much so to spend in the tent, and we decided page 146to lie outside on the grass covered with our sleeping-bags till midnight. The only drawback to our happiness was the keas. About half a dozen of the birds were apparently consumed with curiosity as to why two young women should invade their solitude. Their interest soon became altogether too personal for comfort; one would gravely sit down opposite us and stare steadily for a few minutes with his head on one side and an air of incredible wisdom. Then he would advance with ridiculous sideling hops and make a dig at the nails in our boots, whose brightness no doubt attracted him. Not content with our boots, he would hop right on to us if we lay still and pluck at anything with his strong, sharp beak. It soon ceased to be a joke; we found it impossible to do more than scare the birds a couple of yards away, and then they always returned as soon as we lay quiet. To open your eyes suddenly and stare into the inscrutable face of a parrot who is sitting only about a foot from you, and apparently wondering which is the softest spot to dig in his falcon-like beak, is most uncanny. At last it got to a point when we were scared to go to sleep both at once, so took it in turn to keep an eye on Mr. Kea. It sounds ridiculous, but any one knowing the strength and impudence of the birds, especially young ones that have hardly ever seen a human being, will sympathize as well as grin. At last they routed us completely and we crawled into our little tent and reluctantly tied over the flaps, shutting out fresh air, moonlight, and our tormentors.

When we awoke in the morning we went off to a not far distant tarn for a bath. I being dressed first went back to the tent, and taking our billy walked over to the lake to fill it for breakfast. As I stooped a black soggy mass, half in, half out of the water, caught my eye. I could hardly believe my senses, but the truth was beyond dispute: the mischievous birds, determined to get some fun out of our presence, had dragged my camera from under the rock where I had placed it. This was a hole where a few tinned page 147stores, a billy and some mugs are always left for the convenience of parties coming across Sealy Range. The camera, a good 3A Kodak in a thick leather case, weighed something over three pounds, and they must have had a regular tug-o'-war over it before they succeeded in dragging it into the lake. The top of the case was gnawed through and the camera half pulled out, and its leather cover had soaked off, leaving the tin underneath exposed. As I took in the full extent of the damage and extracted the water-soaked film my language was unparliamentary in the extreme, and any stray kea would have had short shrift at my hands, in spite of the fact that I loathe hurting things. This incident so damped our spirits that we partook of a frugal breakfast almost in silence, and after rolling up the tent and sleeping-bags ready for the porter who was to come up for them later in the day, we made all speed for the Hermitage. Various people who examined my camera said they thought it was not ruined beyond repair, so slightly cheered I packed it up with my other belongings and next morning we reluctantly said good-bye to the mountains and set off for Christchurch.