Other formats

    TEI XML file   ePub eBook file  


    mail icontwitter iconBlogspot iconrss icon

The conquest of Mount Cook and other climbs : an account of four seasons’ mountaineering on the Southern Alps of New Zealand

Chapter XVII — On the Mount Cook Range

page 191

Chapter XVII
On the Mount Cook Range

Hark! fast by the window
The rushing winds go,
To the ice-cumber'd gorges,
The vast seas of snow.
There the torrents drive upward
Their rock-strangled hum,
There the avalanche thunders
The hoarse torrent dumb.
—I come, O ye mountains!
Ye torrents, I come.

I Returned to the Hermitage the first week in December 1912 intent on making two long-deferred ascents: the complete traverse of Mount Cook and the traverse of Mount Sefton from east to west. Both these ascents had been the cherished plans of years, and as this was to be my last season in New Zealand, it was more than ever important to at least make an attempt on them.

Unfortunately I had been ill the previous winter, and arrived at the Hermitage not by any means in the best of form. For a week after my arrival the weather was warm and fine, but the westerly winds were so strong as to make all climbing impossible, and the days were spent in expeditions around the Hermitage.

I had tried to secure Alex Graham as my second guide, but learnt on arrival that owing to sickness in his home it was impossible for him to come over. This page 192was a bitter blow, as the Grahams and I had always planned to make these two big expeditions together—they were to be the crowning-point of their ambitious pupil's career and the triumphant proof that their faith in her powers and years of training had not been wasted.

After blowing steadily for a week, the westerly gales moderated, and on the evening of December 10th Peter Graham and I set out for the Hooker hut, intent on conquering the virgin peak immediately south of Nazomi. If we were successful, I should then have climbed every peak on the Mount Cook Range except one. This range is not, as is generally supposed, a portion of the main divide, but a spur branching off from it at Mount Dampier and extending to Mount Wakefield.

We left the Hooker hut at 3.30 a.m. on the 11th, and crossing over the moraine of the Hooker Glacier reached the base of our peak at 4.45 a.m. A strenuous struggle ensued before we gained the main western arête. I soon became painfully conscious of my lack of wind, and sighed regretfully for the form of 1910, when I could romp gaily up the western ridge of Mount Cook with no effort worth mentioning, where now I had to drag a seemingly dead weight up rocks that were no more difficult, though the ridge was considerably longer. We had a clear 5,000 feet of good rock-climbing such as I can confidently recommend to any one in search of training and hard work. For the first four hours I was mainly conscious of my many deficiencies. I had not done a big rock-climb since Malte Brun in 1909, as the seasons had all forced me, much against the grain, to learn the art of snow-and ice-work.

Now I looked back regretfully to the easy hours on some icy slope, where I could contemplate the view at my leisure for ten minutes at a time, while the guides did all the hard work of step-cutting. This continuous work of climbing obstacle after obstacle at a steady pace was page break
Mount Sefton.

Mount Sefton.

page 193a very different matter, and it took every ounce of energy I possessed to keep up with Graham and not altogether disgrace my earlier reputation. Then quite suddenly I woke up, gained my second wind, and climbed happily for the last two hours. It was good rock-work; nothing sensational, but neither was it particularly easy. It was fairly cold, as the sun had not yet risen high enough to reach us. We gained the summit at 9.50, after six and a half hours' hard work, during which time we had only had half an hour's rest for a second breakfast. Our old enemy the westerly wind had meanwhile got to work, and was now driving up great banks of soft white clouds from the west, which obscured the head of the peaks at the Hooker Glacier. We had some wonderful cloud effects as Mount Sefton kept hovering in and out of the mists, which lent a truly imperial splendour to its frowning heights. Mount Cook managed to keep its head above the threatening mass, and we had a splendid but by no means encouraging view of the east face of the arête between the third and second peaks. This is a most appalling place, the slopes falling away sheer from the edge for thousands of feet. From the third peak to where we stood, the range descended in a series of seven snow-covered aiguilles like the jagged teeth of a saw. On its north side our peak sloped steeply down to the broken ice of the Mona Glacier, and on the east we had a magnificent view of the head of the Tasman Glacier and the Malte Brun Range. The day was still and sunshiny, and avalanches thundered into the valleys at frequent intervals. We spent two hours on the summit, and then descended by the north face to the head névé of the Mona Glacier. Below this we had some fine ice-work, threading our way through the séracs and crevasses. I was not at all sorry to leave the former, as a big thaw was in progress and some of the séracs seemed already tottering on the brink of ruin. We reached the hut at four o'clock, and page 194after a pot of tea and a rest walked on to the Hermitage very well pleased with our day's experiences. I was tired, but not at all done up, and as we had been out 14½ hours it was not such a bad performance as my feelings of the early morning had led me to expect, and I could feel reasonably sure of soon being in condition to attack the big climbs.

The next week was wet and windy, so all training had to be renounced until the weather could be relied upon once more. I was the only climber at the hotel, so there was no danger of being short of guides when the time for mountaineering arrived. I engaged David Thomson to take Alex's place as second guide for the Cook Traverse. I had never climbed with him, but knew him by reputation as a splendid guide with a record-breaking knack of cutting ice-steps that would make him a valuable asset for Mount Cook.

By Christmas week we were inundated with tourists, and as the weather was hot and fine the guiding staff was kept busy taking them up and down the Tasman Glacier and the usual side trips. On the 22nd Graham snatched a day off, and we climbed up to the Ruareka Saddle to take a last look at the Mount Cook arête, and decide if the rocks of the third peak were free enough from ice for us to make our attack. The summit of Ruareka was still plastered with snow and ice as when Alex and I had first viewed it the previous season. In addition pieces of ice kept flying down our intended route, so we had to give up any hopes of reaching the summit and content ourselves with the view from the saddle. Graham decided that in another week we could make our attempt if the weather kept warm, and we descended to the Hermitage much elated with our prospects.

Between Christmas and New Year the Hermitage guides were kept very busy, so I tried my hand as leader and made up several little parties for Sebastopol and Sealy page 195Range. An old acquaintance from Timaru turned up with two Dunedin friends, who rapidly became enthusiastic about the mountains. These three men, Miss Westmacott and myself did all the small climbs round the Hermitage. The men then decided on a trip to Glacier Dome, so we accompanied them to the Ball hut and on the following morning set out with them in the dark across the Tasman Glacier. It was Miss Westmacott's first experience of moraine and glacier, and as making one's way over the slippery ice ridges in the half-light is no easy or pleasant task, she had rather a trying initiation; she got on so splendidly, however, that we soon forgot she was a novice. We only accompanied our friends as far as the Hochstetter Icefall. Here we had the full benefit of a glorious sunrise and a guideless journey home. We took advantage of the latter to play about the glacier looking for ice caves and rolling stones down the deepest moulins, spending altogether a very happy morning; we returned to the Hermitage the same evening.

I was now only waiting for the rush of Christmas tourists to slacken before starting out for either Mount Sefton or Mount Cook, whichever seemed in the most favourable condition. On January 1st we decided to start for the Sefton bivouac next day, but that night a fall of snow left the top rocks untouchable. We therefore promptly changed our minds and decided to try the Mount Cook Traverse instead.