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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 XIV — A Difficult Climb

page 158

Chapter XIV
A Difficult Climb

For Mankind springs
Salvation by each hindrance interposed.
They climb; life's view is not at once disclosed
To creatures caught up, on the summit left,
Heaven plain above them, yet of wings bereft;—
But lower laid, as at the mountain's foot.
So range on range, the girdling forests shoot
'Twixt your plain prospect, and the throngs who scale
Height after height, and pierce mists, veil by veil,
Heartened with each discovery; in their soul,
The whole they seek by Parts.—

Mr. Chambers left for Christchurch two days after our defeat, and I was once more left entirely to my own devices. That evening Graham, Milne (a new guide), and myself set out, and bivouacked in the Hooker Valley, intent on making an attempt on the Footstool the following morning. The weather, however, turned bad, and hastily packing up we returned to the Hermitage at daybreak.

The following day (Sunday) it cleared in the afternoon, and the Footstool being out of the question owing to the fresh fall of snow, we made all speed to the Hooker hut, and joined a party who were waiting to cross the Copland Pass.

The following morning we accompanied our friends to the top of the pass. The day was so beautiful that we all spent an hour there in the greatest contentment. We page 159watched Thomson lead his party down the farther side of the pass, and then set out ourselves for the virgin peak immediately north of us. The climb was absolutely uneventful, being up good and easy rock, and we reached the summit in an hour. The day was still and warm, so we spent four hours on the summit drinking in beauty and making the most of a splendid photographic opportunity. Our situation afforded us a fine view of the three peaks of Mount Cook, which was the chief reason of our being there. Long and earnestly we studied the great ridge leading from the lowest summit to the highest. We had conceived the daring plan of attempting a complete traverse and descending by the Linda route to the Haast bivouac. Graham shook his head over our prospects as far as this season was concerned; the lower rocks were already covered with ice and snow, and the great ridge itself gleamed blue with unmistakable patches of ice. Another pet project on the season's programme, namely the traverse of Mount Sefton from east to west, also looked as if it would not be feasible, so we were forced to consider what it was possible to attack to make up for these disappointments. Our work so far had all been on virgin peaks; therefore we decided that we could not do better than continue on the same lines. If we could conquer Mount Dampier, and our old enemy Mount Tasman, we could very well leave Mount Cook and Mount Sefton for the following season. After settling up these points we turned a last look at the beautiful west, where the setting sun was turning the sea to a sheet of rippled silver, and began the descent. We had tea at the Hooker hut, and returned to the Hermitage by moonlight, arriving at nine o'clock.

The next few days were persistently wet, and nothing could be attempted in them. We had word from Alex that he would be over on the 11th, so willingly left all plans in abeyance until he should arrive.

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Monday, March 11th, turned out a perfect day. Tired of a week's inaction I suggested to Graham that now was the time to put a long-talked-of scheme into practice: this was to make an attempt on Sebastopol by the eastern face; a climb that experts had declared impossible, and no one so far as we could find out had ever troubled to put the theory to the proof. It was an excellent way of occupying an off day that would not permit of us going far afield; so at n a.m. we left the Hermitage intent on seeing what we could accomplish. So much snow had fallen during the week that all the low peaks were white as I had never seen them before; it was a regular foretaste of winter, and looked as if all high climbing would soon be altogether out of the question.

We followed the motor road to the foot of Sebastopol, and then after studying the almost perpendicular and terribly smooth cliffs, Graham picked out what looked the only possible place for an attempt, and we set off. Struggling up the slippery grass slopes to the cliffs was a trying work in the noonday sun. We halted once or twice in the friendly shade of a sheltering bush until we somewhat cooled down. Hardly had we started up our chosen road than we spied three beautiful rata-bushes, making a crimson splotch on the cliff somewhat to our left. We turned aside to look at these. By the time we had gained them we had ascended a good distance and were loath to return again, so decided to go on where we were—this was a narrow cleft between two cliffs. We got into difficulties almost at once, the smooth, water-worn rocks being practically devoid of hand-or foot-hold. After several fruitless attempts Graham took off his boots, and leaving them, the rucksac, and ice-axes with me, managed to get enough hold with his stockinged feet to climb upward. When he reached a convenient place to anchor, I took off the rope and tied on boots, sack, and axes, and he hauled page 161them up, sending back the rope with strict injunctions to be sure I tied myself on properly. Having reassured him on this point I succeeded in scrambling up with considerable help from the rope. Three times we had to repeat these manœuvres, but finally we landed in a place where even they were of no avail. By this time the only reason we continued the attempt was the fact that it seemed possible that we might get up above, but to go down again was more than either of us cared to tackle. We decided that if the worst came we could sit on the cliff all night, till some one lowered us a 200-foot rope from the shoulder, and hauled us up. However, we had not got to the giving-up point yet. We took the only possible route left us, and succeeded in making an ugly traverse to the right beneath a steep grass slope. This we thought should be tolerably easy. It wasn't; it was so steep it overhung in places. The only way we could do anything with it was to dig in our ice-axes above us and crawl up inch by inch. It was a horrible place, and any kind of rock seemed preferable after we had battled with it for half an hour. At last we were able to cross back to the cliff and the worst of our woes were over; one more nasty traverse, and we crept into safety on the shoulder. We had climbed 1,600 feet and taken four hours in the doing of it; add to this the fact that we are reckoned the fastest climbers the Hermitage has ever known, and it may give some idea of the problem we had been up against. In those four hours we had never rested except while one waited for the other to move. I dare say it was rather a foolhardy affair (that certainly was the Hermitage opinion when they came down to view the route taken), but we managed the whole of it without one slip. Of course the main credit of it is Graham's; he did some most extraordinary feats absolutely unaided, feats that proved beyond doubting that he is capable of rock-climbing of the highest order.

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We arrived at the Hermitage at dinner-time, to find that Alex was already over from Westland. He shook his head at us on hearing what we had been up to. We only laughed, and pointed out that in years to come many of our "great climbs" might be everyday affairs, but our route up the eastern face of Sebastopol would probably never be attempted again; as only under very special circumstances and to particular people would it appear worth attempting.

The Sebastopol climb, too, had another aspect; it proved effectually that I had absolutely recovered my physical fitness and need not be afraid of my nerves or muscles playing me tricks, and that I might once more attempt the highest peaks with safety. When I thought of my condition on arrival at the Hermitage just a month ago, and compared it with my now abounding energy and fitness, it seemed to me that the many detractors of mountaineering as a pursuit for women were amply answered.

An eminent professor of biology has often attempted to convince me that the mental and physical strain of sixteen hours' mountaineering is too great for a woman's constitution. I certainly do not agree with him. The strain on a woman who is physically fit is not so heavy as he thinks it is, and is not to be compared to the nervous and mental tension which has to be endured by a trained hospital nurse who tends a dangerous case for sixteen hours. I have tried both, and I know that the exercise, the invigorating air, and the healthy excitement of a big climb outweigh the nervous and physical strain. A few hours' sleep and the latter are forgotten, while the effects of the former are in evidence in a sense of physical fitness which I never experienced until I took up mountaineering.

With nursing, which I undertook for love of the profession, as I did mountaineering, the cases were page 163reversed. Unable to finish my training I came out of hospital a wreck, simply because the mental strain on a sensitive, highly strung nature had been too great. Many times since then I have nursed friends and relations, and I know nothing in mountaineering so trying as being solely responsible for a delirious patient, whose very life may depend on your ability to persuade him to do the thing he does not wish to; that kind of strain, unduly prolonged and attended by want of proper sleep, air, and exercise, ends in a breakdown. Mountaineering, on the contrary, daily increases one's strength and vigour.

Do what you will, modern life demands stress and strain; the biologist may regret it, but the time has passed when the great majority of women could, even if they would, lead the life of an animated jelly-fish. To live at all means to grow, and growth, mental, moral or physical, is not attained by floating with the current, but by fighting against it. The men and women who develop physically, mentally, and morally, are surely worth more to the race than those that attain maturity at twenty-one, and at that advanced age settle all life's problems, and then live in bovine placidity to a green old age.

My good friend the professor was once rash enough to admit, that for me mountaineering had been perhaps worth while. I do not know whether he referred to my physical condition, or the fact that I might count myself in the front rank of mountaineers, but to any woman interested in the subject, and doubtful of her right to indulge in the sport, I say neither lightly nor unthinkingly "Do." But "Do it sensibly." First be sure that you are sound of heart and lungs, and then work up from small beginnings to climbs of increasing difficulty, and you will gain health, strength, self-reliance, and poise which will be an advantage to you, no matter in what corner of life your lines are cast.

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March 12th was wet, but the following day it cleared up, so the Grahams and I set out for the Hooker hut intent on conquering the peak immediately south of Mount Cook, which had beaten me the previous week.

March 14th was not a very promising morning as a strong north-westerly wind was blowing, but fine days being so rare this season we decided to make an attempt in the hope that conditions would improve later in the day. We left the Hooker hut at 5.30 a.m. and followed the Hooker Glacier as far as the last rocks on the right, at the foot of the icefall. From there we climbed straight up the glacier, which leads round to the base of the last rocks of our peak. The Noeline is a particularly fine and impressive glacier, running back for about a mile and a half to the base of the Mount Cook arête. None of us had ever seen such wonderful crevasses as we encountered on our route. The widest must have been about 60 feet, with sheer walls on either side and a beautiful ice arch at one end leading down to unknown blue depths. Another, slightly narrower, seemed bottomless, but at last we saw away down one end a rippled snowy floor. I suggested to Alex we should let him down on our 100-foot rope to explore, but he concluded he might be frozen in the process, so it is still waiting for some more adventurous spirit to discover all its inward loveliness. The head of the glacier is an amphitheatre walled round on three sides; on the left the low peak of Mount Cook towered above us, great icicles hanging from the rock, and in one place what looked to be a frozen waterfall about 50 feet in height. In the middle stood our peak of rugged red rock, square at the summit, from the right of which a jagged red ridge leads down, broken by six fine aiguilles, then a perfectly straight ridge for perhaps 80 yards, and another series of aiguilles, leading down to the Hooker Glacier. I have never seen such glorious colouring before; the sky was intensely blue, and the red rocks towering against it, with the snowy page break
Mount Cook and Mount Nazomi.

Mount Cook and Mount Nazomi.

page 165glacier floor beneath, formed a most lovely contrast. We found the rocks very steep at the beginning, but in good repair, and they improved as we progressed. The chief drawback was the wind; we could hear it howling on the heights above us, and every now and again a fierce gust would sweep up the narrow couloir on which we were climbing. Fortunately, it was at our backs, or we could hardly have fought against it.

We reached the summit at 12.30, but were not able to enjoy the glorious view for long on account of the icy wind. The aneroid registered 9,850 feet, which makes this about the third highest hitherto-unclimbed peak in New Zealand. We had a particularly fine view of the low peak of Cook, of which we took several photographs. Mount Sefton also was very fine, towering high above everything else. The sea on the West Coast was hidden by a wonderful bank of yellow clouds like a tremendous breaking wave. The Grahams considered this a very bad weather sign, saying that on the only occasion on which they had seen it before two days' rain and snow followed upon it. We had also an extensive view north, from the head of the Tasman Glacier to far beyond Lake Pukaki in the south. We found the summit too cold for a prolonged stay, so retired to a sheltered spot lower down to eat our lunch. Peter Graham was rather anxious to traverse the peak and join the previous route on the Mona Glacier, so he went off to have a look at the south arête. On his return he reported it excellent as far as he could see. However, we decided to return as we had come, mainly because on the ascent Peter's ice-axe had been smashed close to the head by a falling stone—axe, stone, and all ending on the glacier 1,000 feet below and we wished to secure the axe. It had to be remembered, also, that if we came to any difficulties, two axes among three were too little for comfort, and, possibly, safety; so rather reluctantly we returned as we had come. We reached the Hooker hut at 7 p.m., having been out just 13½ hours, page 166which was only half an hour longer than the previous unsuccessful attempt had taken us.

The Grahams proved only too excellent weather prophets, and for two days after our ascent of Nazomi, as I christened the newly conquered peak, the weather was about as bad as it could be. Though it was still wet, Alex, Miss Murray Aynsley, and I set out for the Hooker hut on the evening of the 17th, in the hope that it would clear the following day. Peter had taken a party up the Tasman Glacier. We wished to climb a fine virgin rock peak south of La Perouse called Mount Ruareka. Next day it alternately rained and snowed, so there was no question of leaving the hut. The following morning we got away early, leaving Miss Murray Aynsley to a day's painting and botanizing. We had a weary tramp for the first hour over scree slopes and moraine leading down to the Hooker Glacier. Just before the icefall, we turned off and began climbing up a rock ridge leading to the saddle south of our peak. We found the recent snowstorm had come very low, and the rocks, up which we must climb, were thickly powdered with snow. The sun had not yet risen, and it was intensely cold; our fingers soon got numb with clutching the snowy rocks. More than once we had to stop and rub our hands to restore the circulation; the sickening pain which resulted considerably damped our spirits. However, we persisted, and as soon as the sun got to work the snow melted away as if by magic and gave us no further difficulty on the rocks. We crossed on to a steep snow slope which led us, after an hour's hard work, to the saddle before mentioned. From here we obtained the first near view of our peak. It is a wonderful aiguille rising sheer from the Straughn Glacier to a most inhospitable point. The rocks were all covered with freshly fallen snow. Considering what we had already suffered, the prospect of a second edition did not please us. We traversed round to the page break
South-West Face of Mount Ruareka.

South-West Face of Mount Ruareka.

page 167north-east side of our peak, by steep snow slopes, and then followed a snow arête to within about 800 feet of the summit. From here it was no longer possible to avoid the snow-covered rocks. We soon discovered there was not only snow, but often a thin glaze of green ice upon them. In addition the rocks were difficult, great oblong slabs with little hand-or foot-hold. We progressed about 50 feet on the north face; then we got blocked by a precipice, and had to return and try again on the south-east. Here it was in the shade and the rocks more icy than the side we had left. A hard battle with an ice couloir saw us again turned back, this time for good. We descended to the arête again, and climbed till we were immediately above Baker's Saddle. Here, deeply disgusted with our defeat, we rested for an hour, and had lunch. We got some splendid photographs; Alex taking a special one of the great rock slabs of La Perouse for Dr. Teichelmann. I also got a beauty of the ridge between the three peaks of Mount Cook, our situation being the best possible view-point from which to study it. Then deciding that we would have to leave Mount Ruareka for another day, until it had put off its mantle of snow and ice, we made all speed for home. We managed some splendid standing glissades, the tracks of which were seen by Peter and his party, who crossed over the Ball Pass a few hours later. They concluded we had succeeded in gaining our peak. After tea at the hut we strolled back to the Hermitage in the evening, thankful to have had a climb at all and not particularly damped by its failure.