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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 XVI — Mount Dampier and Mount Lendenfeld

page 176

Chapter XVI
Mount Dampier and Mount Lendenfeld

O mellow air! O sunny light!
 O hope and youth that pass away!
Print thou in letters of delight
 Upon each heart one golden day—
   To be there set
   When we forget
There is a joy in living yet!

For three days after our return the weather was too bad to attempt anything further. However, emboldened by our success on Mount Tasman, we decided that as soon as it cleared up we would make an attempt on Mount Dampier. The term of Alex Graham's engagement with me was now over, and as he was needed in his home on the West Coast, and there were now Government guides to be had for high climbing, he left us with the best of good wishes for our success, but apparently thinking our chances were not very good, as the last storm had plastered the top rocks with snow and ice which would take some days to clear off.

Mount Dampier is the third highest peak in New Zealand, being 11,267 feet, only 200 feet lower than Mount Tasman. Owing to its position immediately beneath the high summit of Mount Cook, its height is considerably dwarfed, making it look but an insignificant rocky mountain with a sharp snow cone. Nevertheless, it is the highest virgin peak in New Zealand, and it is a marvel that so many seasons have come and gone without any attempt page 177being made to climb it. I believe in 1909 Mr. Earle, A.C., thought of attempting it from the Hooker side, and while camping at the Mount Cook bivouac went over to look at it, only to find he was cut off by the large schrund at the junction of rock and snow. This is, so far as I know, the only attempt ever made upon it, though most of the mountaineers who frequent the Hermitage season after season had thought they would climb it "sometime" when they had conquered Mount Cook, or the particular peak that was engrossing their thoughts and efforts at the moment. Like Mr. Earle, I would have much preferred to climb it from the Hooker side, where it offers some interesting rock-work, but owing to the rocks being heavily coated with snow and ice it was impossible to think of it. Knowing that two climbers at least had it in their minds as the first mountain to be climbed at the beginning of next season, spurred me on to make an attempt from the Tasman side, though I have always said that nothing would induce me to climb by the long, tedious route up the Linda Glacier, which was the only route possible at this season. Mr. Chambers had given me a good idea of how wearying it could be when describing his ascent of Mount Cook made by this route in February last. However, as there was no other way by which we could climb, we made up our minds to see it through, and did not indulge ourselves with hopes of too much enjoyment—merely determined to reach the summit if possible.

On the 29th of March, just as the days were drawing in and becoming fatally short from a climbing point of view, the bad weather broke, and in its stead reigned a succession of still, bright days, with a tinge of cold in the clear air that set the blood racing, and made mere living a matter of delight. On such a day Peter Graham, C. Milne, and I set off for the fourteen-mile ride to the Ball hut en route once more for the Haast bivouac.

As we rode in single file along the narrow track cut in page 178the mountain-side, we saw beneath us the great expanse of the Tasman river-bed, intersected here and there with silvery streams, which looked but a thread in the grey expanse of shingle; and rising from its right-hand bank, the Nun's Veil reared its beautiful snow-caps against the cloudless blue of the autumn sky.

We had perforce to ride at a foot's-pace, the track being rough and narrow. Infected by the perfect day, we planned expeditions enough to last a month, and scaled in imagination all the mountains hitherto undefined by the foot of man, much less by that of mere woman. To the tune of these joyous speculations the miles slipped by unheeded, and we found ourselves crossing the half-mile of tussock plain which leads to the entrance of a narrow valley, walled on one side by the terminal Tasman Moraine and on the other by the Mount Cook Range. The path follows beside a gay little mountain stream dashing itself in cascades of silver over brown boulders, and deep blue in the shallows, the grassy left-hand bank fringed with giant Spaniards, which lifted their spiky yellow heads high above great clumps of celmisias with their stiff, silver-backed green leaves and lovely aster-like white flowers. Beside our path the stony bank was gay with all kinds of Coprosma in full berry. The blue of glacier streams seems to have hidden itself in the transparent oval berries of the acerosa variety. They are more like beads than berries, and in some places turn the grey riverbeds into a sheet of misty blue of indescribable loveliness. Beside the blue are bushes of red and orange, and a little farther on a big crop of the palest pink, these latter being opaque. After about half a mile the path leaves the stream, but comes out again at its source, a tiny fan-shaped lake of a beautiful chalky blue, strangely streaked and mottled with reddish brown; the result of a water-weed growing several inches below the surface. This tarn is the haunt of a pair of paradise ducks, which never fail to greet the intruder with protesting squeaks. Leaving the lake, the page 179path rises over a saddle of moraine, and then descends again into a valley narrower than the last. Here the ribbon woods had put on their autumn dress, and stood out in patches of pale gold against the olive green and grey of the surrounding mountain scrub. Narrower and narrower grows the valley, and steeper and more rugged the track; the sun had set behind the mountains, and with a mind full of grand opera I compared the stately old white pack-horse, climbing the path before me, and the stalwart, brown-faced guides, swinging along beside him in the fast-gathering dusk, to the scene in "Carmen" where the smugglers seek shelter in the hills, and I longed for some gay Mexican blankets and toreador caps wherewith to drape them and so add the finishing touch of local colour. At length we came to the top of the last stony ridge, and looked down upon our destination, a little hut of galvanized iron built on the scene of Green's fourth camp. Opera vanished before anything so mundane as our hut and the preparations for our evening meal. After this was over we gathered round the open fire-place and discussed plans once more, until it was time to turn in and enjoy our sleep in comfortable bunks, for the last time in many days.

Daybreak saw us setting forth for our final bivouac, laden with all the necessities, but few luxuries, required for five or six days in a high camp. We made good time in the chill morning air over the hummocky ice of the Ball Glacier. All was absolutely silent at this early hour, and one missed the usual tinkle of glacier streams, or the dull boom as they leaped down into some deep moulin, to disappear underground and see the light no more until they plunge into the Tasman River. As we left the glacier, on the far side of the Hochstetter Icefall, and climbed the rough hill of moraine leading to the Haast Ridge, we saw creeping up the glacier a dense bank of south fog. As we stood on the ridge just above the fog level our shadows were thrown on the ice beneath. They were gigantic, and each head page 180was surrounded with a halo; move how we would the halo followed us, till at last the strengthening sun dispelled mist and halo alike, and we were left to tread our upward way beneath his all-too-burning rays.

We arrived at the Haast bivouac early on Saturday morning. After a few hours' rest the guides set out to tramp steps over the plateau, as this always means such a saving of time and effort next day. We could only count on thirteen hours' daylight; but fortunately the moon was at the full, and its light would help us considerably. The guides returned about 5 p.m., reporting the snow soft, but the route, as far as they had been able to see, quite feasible; so immediately after our evening meal, regardless of the temptation to linger out in the glorious moonlight, which bathed the surrounding mountains and turned the Tasman Glacier into a sheet of rippled silver, we turned in to get what rest we could before the wretched alarum, which was set for 1.30 a.m., should rouse us. We each had a sleeping-bag and blanket, and were quite warm and comfortable; but somehow sleep would not come, and every now and then some one would consult a watch in the moonlight streaming through the tent door, then heave a weary sigh and turn once more to try and sleep. We got up punctually, and by 3 a.m. we were roped together and ready for the start. The way up to Glacier Dome was by now all too familiar after our two trips to Mount Tasman the previous week, and the long, long snow slope, on which I had counted 1,400 steps, loomed before me like a nightmare. It is such a waste of energy to spend the first hour, when one's enthusiasm is at a low ebb, in climbing 1,000 feet and then immediately descend them again, which is the unfortunate fate of any one who climbs from the Haast bivouac, and has to gain the Hochstetter Plateau. On reaching the plateau we turned to the left and traversed the slopes at the base of Mount Silberhorn. We followed page break
Looking Down La Perouse Glacier.

Looking Down La Perouse Glacier.

page 181the previous day's steps through deep, powdery snow, and had to cross the remains of a large avalanche1 which had evidently descended from the rocks just above us. I noticed that Graham considerably quickened the pace here, though at that early hour of the morning (4.30) there was little danger of another fall.

We soon came to the end of the steps, and Milne plodded stolidly on, breaking fresh ones and sinking to the knees at every step, we following in phlegmatic silence. Even the rising of the beautiful morning star shed but a passing beam of cheer as we struggled on. Just about daylight we found ourselves among the large crevasses, where Graham took the lead. The snow was, if possible, a little worse than before, and we wound wearily backwards and forwards and round about looking for bridges over their yawning depths. Once we thought we were cut off altogether, and would have to give up our attempt to reach Dampier: a tremendous crevasse loomed up straight in front of us, blocking all possibility of progress that way. We turned back on our tracks, till Graham at last found the only way open to us. It led us down into one of the widest crevasses. We descended a very steep snow wall to the bottom of the crevasse, and traversed along its left-hand side, the right side being a perpendicular wall of solid blue ice 100 feet high. From the bottom it sloped up gradually to the left, forming a wide basin, up which we ascended, and so out on to the glacier again, having made a detour round our first obstacle. We managed to cross several more crevasses on distinctly frail snow bridges, and at last emerged out of the region of broken ice and began toiling up the page 182steep snow slopes at the head of the Linda Glacier. The sun now began to beat down upon us with its full force, and as we waded desperately on in the soft snow Geoffrey Young's verse struck me as distinctly appropriate:

Choked with the grit, and dust of barren ranges,
 Parched with the pitiless snow,
Heavy with sleepless night, and strident changes
 From frost to furnace-glow.

All that is left, monotony of faring
 On sullen stumbling feet
Along the interminable glacier, glaring
 With white uneasy heat.

It about expressed all our feelings. We plodded on for an hour, with no one uttering a word. At last we climbed a particularly steep and sunny slope and reached the edge of the large crevasse which runs straight across the Linda about 600 feet from Green's Saddle. We crossed this without much difficulty, then traversed to the right and gained the rocks on the eastern face of Dampier. I thought it would be a great relief to do some rock-climbing after six hours' snow-plug, but found to my sorrow and surprise that, for the first time in my mountaineering experience, I was distinctly shaky. My knees seemed to give under me and my fingers fumbled for the grips. Fortunately the rocks were pretty good. Shortly we found a good snow-filled couloir, up which we climbed until we reached the ridge. Graham had a tin of Brand's essence in his pocket, which he had carried around all the season, but I had never needed it. Now, however, I was quite glad to drink it down, or rather half of it. It was so nasty I pressed the remainder on Graham, who took it without protest, while Milne had some lime-juice and an orange as his share of stimulant.

The ridge before us looked far from pleasant, being very steep and jagged and much covered with ice and page break
North-West Rocks of Mount Cook From Mount Dampier.

North-West Rocks of Mount Cook From Mount Dampier.

page 183snow. We looked at it with no enthusiasm, merely a grim determination that, having come so far, we were not going to be beaten at the last. Our progress was slow and careful, the glazed ice in places making every precaution necessary. The rocks, too, were very sharp, and we cut our hands in several places when clinging to their jagged edges. Fortunately most of the loose stones were frozen tight, or I can imagine this being a very unpleasantly exciting ridge. We climbed over and around sharp rocky teeth for something like two hours, and at last a shout from Graham, who was leading, announced that the summit was in sight. A steep and narrow snow ridge led up to it, one of the three arêtes of Mount Cook, La Perouse, and Mount Tasman, which have their culminating point in Mount Dampier. We found the summit most inhospitably sharp and narrow, so, only pausing there a few moments, passed on to a more sheltered and comfortable spot on the Tasman main arête, and there paused for a well-earned rest and meal.

We reached the summit at twelve noon, after just nine hours' hard going. I was suffering from want of sleep and the alternate cold and heat of the glacier, all of which combined to make me feel that Mount Dampier was the most tiring climb I had attempted in the Southern Alps. I have no doubt the rocks would have been most enjoyable and interesting if we had not had such a weary plug before reaching them. However, we were all very pleased at having gained our peak. It was Milne's first high climb, he only being in his second season at the Hermitage, so he was naturally very pleased at having conquered the third highest mountain in New Zealand, and that also a virgin peak, for his first attempt.

We rested for an hour, taking photographs and admiring the view. The west was, as usual, under white billowy clouds; Mount Cook towered above us, shutting out most of the view to the south-east; while Tasman occupied the foreground. page 184At 1.30 we began the descent. It took us the best part of three hours to reach the schrund on the Linda, as we had to return even more carefully than we had come. We attempted to follow the ridge down to Green's Saddle, thinking it might be quicker to descend the snow slope there, but we found the ridge so jagged and icy that we concluded it would be wiser to follow our old route down the couloir, which we did without any mishap, arriving at the schrund on the Linda at 4.30 p.m. As soon as we had crossed it and travelled down past all danger of avalanches, which were now coming down pretty frequently after the hot midday sun, we settled down for a rest and some tea, having taken thought on the summit to boil some water in the small "cooker" and refill our Thermos. Of this we were now exceedingly glad, as we needed something to stimulate us to our three hours' plug home. The only incident that beguiled the tedium of the way was the glimpse of a glorious afterglow. We were too shut in, the Linda being quite a narrow glacier, walled on either side by Mounts Cook and Tasman, to see the best of it, but directly in front of us the summit of Mount Malte Brun glowed like a burning coal above the snow ridge leading to Glacier Dome, making the most vivid spot of colour imaginable amongst the surrounding snow-clad peaks. The glow soon faded and the mountains changed to their usual cold blue-white in the evening dusk. About 6.30 the full moon rose grandly in front of us, lighting our weary footsteps over the great plateau and up the toilsome slope to Glacier Dome, only forsaking us for a few moments just as we neared the bivouac and traversed round the last snow slope under the shadow of the Haast Ridge. We arrived at 7.30 p.m., and crawled into our little tent, weary but well satisfied, and after a cheery meal forgot all our strenuous labour in sound and dreamless sleep.

Next morning the weather was still fine, so we decided page 185on a day's rest at the bivouac. The following day, weather permitting, we would make an attempt on Mount Lendenfeld, a fine snow peak immediately north of Mount Tasman. It is 10,551 feet in height and ranks next to Mount Dampier, being the fourth highest mountain in New Zealand. Mount Lendenfeld was first ascended by the Rev. H. E. Newton and Alex Graham, in February 1907, and had not been attempted since then. They climbed from a high bivouac situated at about 8,000 feet at the head of the Fox Glacier. On reaching the saddle between Lendenfeld and Haast, they first ascended Mount Haast, and then descending to the saddle again, followed the north-east arête to the summit of Mount Lendenfeld. Ours would thus be the first attempt made from the eastern side; if we could once make our way through the maze of broken ice and gain the saddle, we could follow their route up the north-east arête.

In the afternoon Graham and Milne set out to cross the Great Pláteau and take a look at the morrow's route. On their return they reported that it seemed practicable as far as they had gone. Well satisfied with our prospects, we made all possible preparations to ensure an early start, and crept into our sleeping-bags at 8 p.m. After sundry twistings and turnings in search of the softest and least stony spot, we relapsed into silence which unfortunately was not always that of sleep.

On April 2nd, at 4 a.m., we stood in the chill starlight outside the tent, putting on the rope and enumerating the contents of the rucksac, to be sure nothing was forgotten. Then we set off, stumbling in the dim light over the boulders that surround the camp. An hour's work brought us to the Great Plateau. The snow was crusty in places, and I reaped the advantage of being about four stone lighter in weight than my guides. They were continually breaking through where I just managed to skim over the surface.

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At 6 a.m. we came to the end of our steps, but it was not yet daylight. We crossed the plateau, keeping to the right of the south-west arête of the Silberhorn, and made for the broken ice through which we had to pass to gain the saddle between Mount Lendenfeld and Mount Haast.

We arrived at the first séracs just at the most trying time, between dark and dawn. The lantern was not of much use, so we put it out and groped along as best we could, following up a snow valley that looked promising in the half-light. We soon found ourselves in a regular well, the only exit being up an almost vertical snow wall. The place was most eerie, so dim and shadowed it seemed bottomless. We decided to climb the wall rather than turn back. The slope was so steep and soft that one's knees bumped one's chin; but we arrived at the top without adventure, and, once there, gained the benefit of the dawn. We were now in the midst of the sérac ice. Great rocks and pinnacles towered around us, intersected with huge crevasses. Peter spent about twenty minutes looking for a way out of this labyrinth, and at last found one possible, but by no means pleasing. It led us down into a crevasse and across a snow bridge, then round a steep overhanging wall of ice. To traverse round the wall of ice was our problem. It bulged out in a most annoying manner, making it almost impossible to keep one's balance in the narrow steps, and below was a nice little drop to the bottom of a crevasse. After a lot of manœuvring, Peter managed to get round and cut his way to the top of the wall. The rope was a little short and unpleasantly tight on me by the time he reached a place of safety. I made several attempts before I got round the corner; then Milne came after me, and we all reached the top in safety; we were rather inclined to be proud of ourselves when Peter acknowledged it to be one of the most ticklish pieces of page 187ice-work he had encountered. We spent about half an hour more among the broken ice, which gave Graham an opportunity of displaying his splendid ice-craft, for which he is well noted. At last we emerged in the snow at the head of the glacier, and climbed slowly but steadily up till we reached the foot of the saddle. Here we called a halt, and indulged in a second breakfast while picking out a route. The wall of the saddle rises at an angle of 70 degrees, and is only comparable with Harper's Saddle at the head of the Hooker Glacier. Like the latter, it is seamed across with a great crevasse. We found it impossible to continue straight up for the lowest point of the saddle, the crevasse being uncrossable except at the extreme left. Even if we could find a bridge there we must then traverse back the whole length of the slope. We looked in vain for any other route, so decided to attempt it there. We quickly climbed the soft slopes to the bottom lip of the crevasse; then followed this along till at last we found a nasty but possible crossing-place. The edge of the crevasse dipped sharply down, making a bridge that ended in a pillar of snow about 2 feet broad and 5 feet high. From the top of this it was possible to reach the upper lip of the crevasse. Peter cut his way up it, and with my ice-axe well driven into the snow I played the rope round it. Suddenly I heard a sharp crack. Peter heard it too, and he stood very still on top of the pinnacle. Nothing more happened, so with a laugh he looked down to me and said, "False alarm," and proceeded to cross the crevasse. It was a long stretch, but with the aid of his axe dug in the wall above he managed it, then kicked his way up a snow slope for about 20 feet, and anchored himself safely until Milne and I arrived successfully.

About 50 feet higher up we had another crevasse to cross, and at last found ourselves clinging like flies to a window-pane, on a wall of ice, at an angle of 70 degrees.

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This wall had to be traversed for about half a mile before we could reach the saddle. The great drawback to the proceeding was that the step-cutting must fall on Graham alone. Milne, being unused to ice-work, was quite unable to cut steps on such a traverse. I pointed this out to Graham, and asked him if he thought it wise to go on under the circumstances. He said he was willing if I was; also, he hoped that farther on the ice would turn to snow, so it might not be step-cutting all the way. We agreed to start and see how we got on, and if necessary give it up later. Graham cut very large steps and I picked out hand-holes with the point of my axe in the wall above, more for something to do than for the assistance they gave us. Waiting for steps to be cut becomes trying if unduly prolonged, and I found it took me about as long to cut hand-holes as it did Graham to cut the steps. The ice was very hard, necessitating the use of the pick end of the axe always. About the middle of the traverse we came to snow, but not the kind we had hoped for. There was about eight inches to a foot of soft snow lying on hard ice—a thing that every mountaineer abominates, and one of the worst dangers to be met with in climbing. At first Graham tried clearing it away, and then cutting steps in the ice beneath; but the snow soon became too deep to make this possible, so he had simply to tread it down to a hard step and trust to luck it would hold us.

I don't think I ever spent a more uncomfortable half-hour than in crossing this snow. Nothing could have saved us if the slope had slipped away. We must have gone with it, there being no possibility of hand-or axe-hold anywhere. We would have shot straight down that terrific slope, landed in the crevasse, and ended our alpine experiences for ever. Fortunately we took that slide only in my imagination.

Soon we came to hard ice again, and at last, after two page 189hours' strenuous work, we arrived at the saddle. We all drew a breath of relief when we climbed into safety on the Westland side, and Graham acknowledged it was the longest and worst traverse he had ever made. A bitterly cold westerly wind was blowing up the Fox Glacier, so we only paused on the saddle long enough for a drink of hot tea from the Thermos and some bread and jam. We were looking straight on to the Haast Ridge. The approach from the saddle was bad, the rocks being heavily iced, and the ridge itself broken into sharp, tooth-like projections, and, according to Fitzgerald's account, fearfully rotten. So we concluded we had made a wise choice in deciding for Lendenfeld, which is an easy snow climb from the saddle, and has the advantage of being 700 feet higher.

In the enthusiasm of the early morning we had thought of attempting both, but gaining the saddle had taken us so much longer than we expected and the Haast rocks looked so icy, that we gave up all idea of it. We soon made our way to the summit of Lendenfeld, and experienced a pleasing glow of triumph as we surveyed the scene outspread before us. We had a splendid view of the eastern face of Mount Tasman, and I was able to take a photograph illustrating our climb of the previous week. The west coast was under low-lying clouds, only the tops of the mountains showing above them. Peter took a photograph of Milne and me standing on the summit, or as near as we dared, it being very much corniced, and then we began the descent, as it was much too cold for any prolonged stay. We were soon back at the saddle, and accomplished our return traverse without accident, Milne leading and doing exceedingly well. When we reached the foot of the glacier, and had had a good meal in a sunny spot protected from the wind, we really began to enjoy our triumph to the full, and plodded home quite cheerfully through the now soft snow. On reaching page 190the broken ice and our overhanging buttress, we decided the easiest way was simply to lower one another over it to the length of the rope, and then drop the remaining few feet. This was soon done, and we went merrily over the Great Plateau and up the slopes of Glacier Dome, arriving at the bivouac at 4.30 p.m., just twelve hours after we had left it.

Next day we made an early start from the bivouac, which will always be associated in my mind with so many pleasant memories of happy days, and is in itself one of the loveliest view-points in the Tasman Valley.

This was the longest sojourn I had so far made in a high bivouac. Four days amongst the eternal glitter of snow and ice makes one thoroughly appreciate a return to the valley.

The soft greens, browns, and yellows of the well-known track from the Ball hut took on a special beauty and restfulness in contrast to the white world amongst which we had been living. We reached the Hermitage the same day, and not all the luxuries of life as there enjoyed could compensate me for the knowledge that I had had my last climb for the season, and that I must now pack up my belongings, turn my back upon the mountains, and go my way, the better, happier, and stronger for my days and nights spent among them, but a prey to that longing which all the excitement, gaiety, and turmoil of city life cannot deaden, for just one glimpse of snow-clad heights, and the peace of the vast silent places, that draws the mountain lover back year after year with a force undreamed of by those who have never felt the lure and magic of the hills.

1 Somewhere near this spot there occurred, in February 1914, a fatal accident which involved the loss of three lives. A party, consisting of Mr. S. L. King and guides David Thomson and Jock Richmond, were overwhelmed by an avalanche from between Mount Dampier and Mount Tasman.