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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 XXI — The First Traverse of Mount Sefton

page 224

Chapter XXI
The First Traverse of Mount Sefton

For the journey is done and the summit attained,
And the barriers fall;
Though a battle's to fight ere the guerdon be gained,
The reward of it all.
I was ever a fighter, so one fight more,
The best and the last!
I would hate that death bandaged my eyes, and forbore
And bade me creep past.
No, let me taste the whole of it, fare like my peers,
The heroes of old,
Bear the brunt, in a minute pay glad life's arrears
Of pain, darkness, and cold.
For sudden the worst turns the best to the brave,
The black minute's at end,
And the element's rage, the fiend voices that rave,
Shall dwindle, shall blend.

On Sunday the 9th we left the Hermitage at 11 a.m. for the Sefton bivouac. The Professor, Miss Westmacott, and Mr. Turner accompanied us up to the foot of the Stocking Glacier. The morning was perfect, hot and still, and we were all very excited at the prospect of really making our attempt after so many months of waiting. We set out on the distinct understanding that nothing should turn us back, short of accident: it was to be a do or die attempt. Our aim was to make the first traverse, ascending by Fitzgerald's route up the eastern face, which had never been attempted since he so nearly lost his life upon it in 1895, and descending to Douglas Rock by Mr. Earle's page break
The East Face of Mount Sefton, Showing Line of Ascent on The First Traverse.

The East Face of Mount Sefton, Showing Line of Ascent on The First Traverse.

page 225route down the western face. After leaving our friends, Graham, Thomson, and I made all speed for the bivouac, which is situated at the foot of the first snow slope on the ridge to the left of the Stocking Glacier. It is an easy climb of three hours from the Hermitage. After a meal and an hour's rest there, the guides set off to kick steps while the snow was soft, and to find a route through the crevasses of the Huddleston Glacier.

I watched till they were out of sight and then tried quite fruitlessly to go to sleep. Soon tiring of inaction I walked over to the great isolated boulder with a narrow cleft in its north face; this cleft widens to a tiny cave which was the scene of Zurbriggen's and Fitzgerald's many uncomfortable bivouacs. I looked carefully but in vain for any trace of them, and speculated as to how far our experiences would compare with theirs on the coming climb.

Suddenly a resounding roar broke in upon my meditations; starting up I saw a tremendous avalanche which had broken away above the Huddleston Glacier. It was rushing down sweeping everything before it. Sick at heart I watched it, knowing my guides were somewhere near the danger zone, and praying all was well with them. Too disturbed and anxious to keep still, I wandered about, scanning the snow slopes on which they should appear. After an interminable hour of waiting, I heard a distant shout, and saw them on the slopes above me. Greatly relieved, I watched them enjoy a splendid glissade, and in twenty minutes they were safely home again. On questioning them I found they had gone through the worst of the broken ice and were practically sure of to-morrow's route. The avalanche that had so disturbed me had passed well to the left of their route, so had not affected them.

After our evening meal was over and everything required in the morning put in a convenient spot, we crawled into page 226our sleeping-bags and endeavoured to forget the excitement of the coming day in sleep. As far as I can discover none but the most phlegmatic individuals ever do sleep in a bivouac the night before a big climb; the night after is another matter, and sleep comes unsought whether the bed is of rocks or down. Certainly no one lost consciousness for more than half an hour on this occasion, so when the alarum went off with a clatter at 2 a.m. there was no inducement to laziness. The morning was suspiciously warm, so our first thought was for the weather. On examining the aneroid we discovered it had fallen a point. It was still dark, but the stars were shining brightly, so we decided to disregard the warning and make a dash for our peak. By a quarter-past three we were plodding by candle-light up the steep snow slopes leading to the last rocks of the ridge. Time might mean everything to us, so we pushed on without pausing, determined to reach the end of the previous night's steps by daylight. Slowly the dawn began to break, and streaks of fiery crimson lit up a grey and sullen sky. It was beautiful, but the kind of morning no climber intent on a big expedition could view with satisfaction. We scrambled over the slippery debris of an old avalanche, and began threading our way through the crevasses of the Huddleston Glacier. In and out we clambered; great blocks and pinnacles of ice towered all around us, shutting out all view but of themselves.

At last the footsteps ended abruptly beneath a terrible sheer wall of ice, which towered above us for 20 feet. Daylight had come, so we put out our useless candles and considered how we were to get up the wall. We were standing on a good snow bridge in a huge schrund, which, as often happens on a steep slope, had one wall considerably higher than the other. Beneath us the schrund dropped away into darkness. It was not a pleasant place at all in which to risk an accident. If we could climb the wall we would be on the upper snow slopes above the worst of the page 227broken ice, and our way fairly clear. If we couldn't climb the wall we might spend hours in the maze of broken ice by which we were surrounded, looking for an exit, and jeopardizing our chances of a successful ascent. Unquestionably we must attempt the wall. Graham started cutting huge steps in the slippery ice. Balancing himself in them, he hacked away at another above him. Thomson twisted the connecting rope between them round an ice-axe wedged deep in the snow, and waited ready for a slip. I stood on the bridge and shivered. The wall, not content with being sheer, bulged outwards somewhere near the middle. Quietly, steadily, without a slip, all obstacles were overcome, and in half an hour Graham stood safe upon the brink above us. My turn came next. I put my foot in the first step and began to climb upwards. The cold slippery ice-wall offered no support, and the steps were so steep it was an effort to draw oneself up from one to another. At the bulge I paused breathless, and asked for a moment's spell. I rashly looked down into the abyss beneath, and hastily looked away again. Graham said, "Rely on the rope; if you slip I have you"; but one has some pride. I have never been hauled up difficulties like a sack of potatoes, and I did not propose to begin now. The steps were big, enabling me to lean outward with safety; the rope tightened, I made an effort, and landed safely on the farther side of the bulge, and was shortly beside Graham on the snow slope. Thomson followed, and we started off again well pleased with our success. We progressed rapidly, the slopes were steep but in good condition; now and again we had a crevasse to negotiate, but they were not difficult after our recent experience. At half-past six we gained the east ridge and paused for a few moments. Then on again up the last snow slopes leading to Tuckett's Col; these were very steep, and required careful handling. The weather was rapidly getting worse, and by the time we reached the col a bitter north-page 228westerly gale was blowing, and a great bank of white clouds was rolling up from Westland at an alarming rate. About Mount Cook torpedo-shaped grey clouds were gathering. Altogether it was as unpleasant a morning for a dangerous climb as one could well imagine. We hastily swallowed some tea and biscuits, and at eight o'clock started on the worst part of the climb.

As we traversed the narrow rotten ridge leading from Tuckett's Col to the north-east arête, we were exposed to the full force of the gale; it swept up in fierce gusts from the Copland Valley, blowing out the rope between us as if it were a thread. Fortunately the rope was 100 feet long, and so gave the leader a chance to pick out a good spot before he told the next in order to move. The ridge drops a sheer 6,000 feet into the Copland Valley on one side, and on the other falls away into a deep crevasse. In most places it is not more than two feet wide, and in some not that; so to follow it in a wind against which you could just hold your own, with the help of the rope, was no easy matter. Fortunately there was only about 300 feet of it. We could have stood but little more, for by the time we reached the Sefton rocks and cowered down behind them, we were stiff and numb with cold. They afforded us a few moments' shelter, time to collect our wits and undergo the agony of returning circulation. Then slowly and carefully Graham led up the north-east arête. It was almost inconceivably rotten, lumps of shale like rock piled one above the other ready to fall at a touch. The wind caught pieces like the slates of a house, and whirled them away as if they were bits of paper. We kicked what we could out of the way, and put but the slightest possible weight on anything we touched. Never more than one of us moved at a time, or stood directly in the line of fire if it were possible to avoid doing so. After the first 100 feet the rocks improved slightly and we were able to keep a little on the east side instead of on the crest of page break
Mount Sefton Hooker Glacier Mount CookTasman Glacier Murchison GlacierPanorama of The Southern Alps From Mount Kinsey.

Mount Sefton Hooker Glacier Mount Cook
Tasman Glacier Murchison Glacier
Panorama of The Southern Alps From Mount Kinsey.

Mount Cook From Mount Sefton.

Mount Cook From Mount Sefton.

page 229the arête, and to gain some protection from the wind. After another 100 feet we came to a precipitous wall that appeared almost impossible, and which may have been the scene of Mr. Fitzgerald's accident. Not liking the look of it, we left the ridge and skirted round to the east face. Here we progressed well for a time, but eventually landed in a very nasty corner; fortunately we were absolutely protected from the wind. The rocks were solid, but steep, great vertical blocks affording little hand-or foot-hold, being covered with snow and sometimes a dangerous glaze of thin ice. We had to traverse across a precipitous face, and then climb a steep wall to get back to the arête.

It took us two hours to get out of this exceedingly unpleasant spot, and in the doing of it Graham displayed rock-craft that was little short of marvellous. With the very scantiest foot-hold he had to cling with one hand to the rocks, and with the other clear away the snow and ice from every foot-or hand-hold he proposed to make use of. Neither Thomson nor I was well placed enough to help him with the rope, so he had the additional knowledge that if he fell he would drag us all with him. Twice we nearly turned back in favour of the ridge, but the howling of the wind always turned the scale in favour of the present situation. When it came to my turn to climb the wall, I marvelled more than ever how our leader had got up it unassisted and with but one hand. It hung out sheer over the Muller Glacier, so that a falling stone dropped clear touched nothing for 6,000 feet. More than once I had to force myself to move, with every nerve on edge, for fear of a slip that might drag either of the guides from their precarious positions. More by a miracle than anything else we all arrived safely on the arête. We felt rather shaky from the long strain, so found a safe place and had something to eat and drink to put heart into us again.

Thick clouds were rolling over Tuckett's Col, and to page 230the north only the summits of the mountains were visible. Below us lay the Hermitage, still clearly to be seen. We waved a towel hoping they would see us, and know that so far we were safe. We had about another 50 feet of difficult climbing, and then reached comparatively easy rocks, which brought us to about 150 feet below the summit. Here we traversed round to the West Coast side, meaning to follow Zurbriggen's route up the rocks overhanging the Copland. We found these rocks impossible; they were hung thick with great icicles. So large were they that one breaking away and falling upon the climber would knock him backwards into the valley thousands of feet beneath. They hung in an unbroken fringe exposed to the full force of the gale. Only one course was left open to us: we must traverse the snow slope beneath them and trust to luck, or return to the north-west arête, the last 100 feet of which were probably impossible.

We decided for the snow slope, and there we played an exciting game of hide-and-seek, with our lives for the forfeit. Thomson, being a notably quick step-cutter, was put in the lead. He cut steps to the full length of his rope, we taking shelter meanwhile beneath a projecting rock. Then when the rope was all played out, Graham said to me, "Run for it," and off I went, picking up the slack of the rope as I ran, and glancing apprehensively above me at the great icicles swaying in the gale, ready to dodge if I saw one coming. Reaching Thomson's place of shelter, or exposure as the case might be, I would remain there while he went on, and Graham ran the gauntlet in his turn. We played this game of catch-as-catch-can on a steeply sloping frozen snow slope on which a slip might have had very disastrous consequences. How I raged at the long, snow-stiffened rope that evaded my half-frozen fingers, and was so hard to coil up as I ran, and equally dangerous to leave slack to trip my flying page break
The Hooker River and Mount Sefton.

The Hooker River and Mount Sefton.

The Second Summit of Mount Sefton.

The Second Summit of Mount Sefton.

page 231feet To an onlooker it must have seemed a mad performance. It certainly was not an easy one; so that when after half an hour we were clear of the rocks and their overhanging icicles, we congratulated ourselves on being safely out of an exceedingly nasty place. We climbed a snow slope leading to the saddle between two peaks, and turning to the left followed the steep arête leading to the higher one. In the process we received a severe buffeting with the wind, which threatened to blow us over the other side. There were times when I could not stand upright against the force of it, being the lightest of the party, so crouched forward and crawled. The gale had excavated a hollow on the west side of the summit, and into this we crept, trying to evade the worst of the icy blast.

We just walked on to the actual summit and off again—it was too bitterly exposed for human beings. Mists were driving round us, being blown apart now and again, and disclosing great banks of white cloud racing before the gale over the low passes, and hurling themselves against the defying walls of the high peaks. The cloud-level was at about 8,000 feet, and out of it towered the summit of Mount Cook like a giant rising from a sea of foam. We managed to take four photographs, and then hastily descended. It caused us a great regret not to follow the ridge from the saddle to the lower peak, which is still virgin; but the weather was so bad we dared not spare the time, knowing the long descent ahead of us. As things turned out we were wise; if we had persisted and been an hour later, we would probably never have returned. From the saddle we followed our footsteps back for half an hour, then turned sharply to the left, and descended a steep snow slope to the brink of the large crevasse that cuts across the western face. The mists rose and fell, giving us an opportunity of discovering a route. Thomson led, as he had been up this face of the page 232peak the previous year. Graham had never been on it before. The crevasse was broad, and we had great difficulty in finding a crossing-place, but at last managed to jump it, and followed the lower lip for some distance. It was a wonderful sight. The crevasse shelved backward, forming an overhanging cave. From its roof hung great icicles of every conceivable size and form. Some joined the floor and formed beautiful pillars, which, catching stray gleams of sunshine through the fog, sparkled like diamonds and flashed with rainbow tints.

We paused in the shelter of the cave to drink tea and eat wine biscuits, at the same time anxiously scanning our surroundings through the shifting fog. The slopes were terribly broken with crevasses, and did not present an alluring prospect for the descent. We wished to reach the western rock arête which overhangs the Copland Valley, and follow the ridge along until we came to a pass leading down into a large snow basin. This snow basin leads to a rock ridge and steep grass slopes, by which it is possible to descend into the valley. Everywhere else are precipitous cliffs down which it is impossible to climb. We could see one very bad break in the ridge. Fearing it might be impossible to negotiate, the guides decided to skirt away to the left and try to join the ridge beyond the break. We set off and spent an exciting hour circumventing crevasses and broken ice. The weather was getting worse, and the gaps in the fog less frequent. We turned to the right and sought a way on to the ridge. We could only see a few yards ahead; in vain we waited for the fog to lift and give us a chance of finding out where we were. It settled down like a blanket, obscuring everything. We toiled on and on till suddenly a peak reared itself up in front of us. It loomed dimly through the fog, and seemed to pierce the heavens, its ridge uninvitingly sharp and narrow. We paused for a consultation. Thomson was hopelessly puzzled, saying there was no page 233peak like this on the ridge. Should we climb it or retrace our steps? They decided we must climb it, as we could not be far enough on the ridge for the pass we were seeking. We climbed up it; the ridge was so narrow we walked with a foot on either side. Fortunately the snow was good and soft. Never have I known anything so eerie as that phantom peak looming above us, and below us nothing but a void of shifting mists. Quite suddenly we came to the summit; its height had been deceiving owing to the fog. We descended to a flat bit of ridge, then up again gradually, the ridge vanishing ahead of us in the fog. With every yard the guides grew more puzzled, less certain where we could be, or what to do. Suddenly another peak loomed up in front of us worse-looking than the first. We stopped and decided to descend to the left and follow round it. The mist turned to snow, falling in big flakes. Desperately we wandered on till we were brought up short on the edge of an uncrossable crevasse. We all looked at one another helplessly and sat down on the snow to think it over. I suggested tea and food, and we all ate a little.

The men's faces were grave, and I could see they were beginning to be greatly disturbed. It was 4.30 p.m., and we had been wandering about not knowing where we were for the last two hours. Unless we could shortly find the pass we must make up our minds to a night out in the snow. We were wet through, and there was not a protecting rock or ice cave anywhere. Under such conditions our chances of surviving the night were small, and even if we survived one night there was no reason to believe the following day would be fine; and if it were not we were worse off than ever. We retraced our steps to the flat bit of ridge near the first peak. It sloped away gradually into the mists on the Copland side. They were sure it was not the pass, but it seemed our best hope; so we descended there, keeping always to the left in the hope page 234of finding the right pass. The descent was easy. It led us under the rocks of the arête and followed along beside them. Suddenly we heard far away beyond us the roaring of a torrent. We paused to listen, and the guides declared it must be Scott's Creek. If so, we were not so very far out of our way. Broken ice loomed up ahead of us. There was no way of getting round it, so into it we went. It had been a day of adventures and surprises, and this broken ice was the finishing touch. We really performed some strange feats in our passage through it. The snow turned to rain as we began to get lower, and at last through the drizzle we distinguished a big snow-field to the left of us. Thomson let out a shout of joy on recognizing it as the one we were looking for, and, immensely relieved, we hurried towards it. Crossing it we kept along the ridge, almost running in our excitement and relief. Another shout announced the site of last year's high bivouac. We were safe as far as knowing where we were, but it was 6 p.m. on a wet evening, and we had thousands of feet to descend to the valley through very rough country. This was no easy task in daylight, and in the dark we might easily come to grief. On we raced along the ridge, but when we came to the steep grass slopes, soaked and slippery with snow and rain, we had to slow down and descend them with the utmost care. More than once the rope saved one of us from a nasty fall; it took us an hour to descend them. Then Thomson made a traverse into some scrub, through which we had a desperate battle; the bushes closed over our heads, and creepers and roots tripped up our feet. We emerged into a steep stony creek-bed scratched and breathless. We followed the creek-bed down, climbing over wet rocks and slipping into pools and waterfalls; we were soon soaked through, and plastered with mud. The last 100 feet of the creek were very bad, and we congratulated ourselves that we got down them in the last gleams of daylight. Darkness overtook us at the junction of our page 235creek and another that flowed on to the Copland River. It was 8 p.m., and we paused to light our lanterns. We stood beside a raging mountain torrent, swollen with rain and melting snow, flashing white in fierce rapids over great boulders, or green in deep pools.

I think the next two hours were the most extraordinary in our eventful day. We followed that creek by the fitful light of two candle-lanterns, sometimes jumping from one slippery boulder to another, sometimes wading waist-deep in the icy water. When the rapids were too strong, or the water too deep, we struggled along the bank, pushing our way through the dense scrub. We slid down rocks into unknown depths of bushes, falling over decayed trunks and creepers, and crawling through the dense undergrowth. Now and again the swish of a wet bush would put out our lights, and we would grope in the dark for ten minutes before we could re-light them. I found if I did not get my weight on the bent shrubs before the leader removed his, they sprang back in my face and leader and lantern were lost to view. It was a weird and wonderful progress. I was worked up to such a pitch I did not feel tired or know the meaning of fear. I seemed to be standing aside and calmly watching some one else do extraordinary things as a matter of course. Once when we took to what we thought was the bank to avoid a rapid, the lantern went out at the critical moment; when it was re-lighted we found ourselves standing on the tough out-growing branches of a tree overhanging the river, with nothing but space between us and the rapids we were so anxious to avoid. We took it quite calmly, and scrambled back on to the bank. We were all past surprise, and concluded Fate would see us through unharmed. At last we came to the junction of the creek with the Copland River, and groped about in the bush until we found the track. In ten minutes we were at the road men's camp. It was a disreputable looking trio that walked in upon the astounded men. It was page 23610 p.m., and they were sitting on their bunks smoking a last pipe. Hastily they kicked the fire together and put on more logs. Then, while the fire crackled cheerily, and we waited for the billy to boil, we related our adventures. When we came to our clamber down "roaring creek" in the dark, they were astounded, and one man owned that he had tried to follow it up in the daytime, and had given it up as "too tough a job." We made a good meal of bread, meat, and tea, our first substantial one after nineteen hours' strenuous work and excitement. Then amid a chorus of "Good-nights" we tramped away into the darkness to the Douglas Rock bivouac, a quarter of a mile farther on.

On reaching the rock the guides undid the swags they had been burdened with all day and produced a change of dry clothes for ail of us. After unrolling the sleeping-bags and blankets kept at the cave, and lighting a lantern swung from the roof, they set off back to the men's camp to change their soaked garments, leaving me to do likewise at my leisure. Before their return I was once more warm and dry and happily buried in the depths of a sleeping-bag, which represented the height of luxury and comfort after the strenuous exertions of the last few hours.

Next morning we woke to wind and rain, and knowing it was impossible to cross the Copland Pass under such conditions, we thankfully snuggled into our bags and slept far into the day. Awaking at last thoroughly refreshed and not a bit the worse for our previous day's experiences, we set about making a roaring fire. This served the double purpose of cooking our meals and drying our soaked garments.

Thoroughly happy and contented, we sat by the fire and discussed our achievements from all points of view. Considering the difficulties of the climb, even under good conditions, we were more than satisfied with our success. One thing worried us considerably, and that was the page break
North-West Ridge of Mount Sefton.

North-West Ridge of Mount Sefton.

page 237fact that we could not let either our friends at the Hermitage or Alex Graham on the West Coast know that we were safe. From the Hermitage they must have seen that we were caught in the storm near the summit, and if we did not return up to time, half the country would be out looking for us, and the pessimists who had all along prophesied disaster to such a rash undertaking would think that their worst fears were justified. However, there was no help for it, we were very sorry to cause any needless anxiety, but till the storm abated it was impossible to cross the pass or send word to the Franz Josef Hotel. In the afternoon it cleared up for a little and the sun came out fitfully, but by evening it was raining once more. Next morning was as wet as ever, but about 1 p.m. it showed some signs of clearing. We therefore decided to try for the pass and turn back if it proved impassable. We made it in four hours, fighting our way over with some difficulty against a bitter wind and falling snow. Once we reached the rock ridge on the Hooker side the weather abated, and we soon clambered down to the hut. After a pause there for a meal, we walked on to the Hermitage about 8 p.m. I collided with the professor near the smoking-room, and he did a war dance at the sight of me safe and sound and the news of our success. We were just in the nick of time to countermand various telegrams as to our probable fate.

The news of the loss of Captain Scott had just reached the Hermitage, and we were all overwhelmed by the terrible disaster, so much so that we had no heart to celebrate our own good fortune, so spent the evening talking quietly and gleaning all the news of the ill-fated expedition that the papers could give us.