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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 XXII — Good-Bye to New Zealand

page 238

Chapter XXII
Good-Bye to New Zealand

If but the kindly years may grant us still
To track the lonely valley to its end,
And view, though from afar, the crag-bound hill
Lift its long greeting—as old friend meets friend
In life's brief rest from labour at the last,
When all that asks the clearer word is spoken,
When heart knows heart, and all the wistful past
Wakes in one glance—then shall this love, unbroken,
Ye mountains, by our striving and your strength,
Find its last pleasure only in the seeing,
And deep beyond all depths of words at length
Pulse with a life more lasting than mere being.

For the next few days I was the victim of my own success. Life was "flat, stale, and unprofitable." All the dreams and plans that had filled my days with speculations and excitement were over, the "glory and the dream" had passed into prosaic reality. It was useless now to stand and gaze at Sefton's daunting wall: there were no more thrilling moments to be spent scaling it in imagination—an accurate knowledge of its component parts seemed but poor compensation for the old heart-warming illusions, and I could but agree with Browning that, "A man's reach should exceed his grasp, or what's a heaven for?" Gradually, however, the haunting feeling of loss evaporated. Serene and aloof as ever, the great mountain dominated the valley, unaltered and unalterable, no matter how many defiling feet might touch its white snows.

page 239

As far as guides were concerned, too, I was at the end of my tether; everything had been more or less put aside that we might make our attempt and remove for ever the oft-repeated reproach, that no New Zealand guide had dared to tackle Mount Sefton from the east. Now it was done, and various climbers were clamouring for guides at any price. Consequently I had the unusual and quite unappreciated pleasure of sitting still and watching other people climb.

Two ascents of Mount Cook were made in the next two days. Mr. Gran, of Norway, a member of the Scott Expedition, having come up specially to tackle Mount Cook, was rewarded after a week's waiting for weather, and made a fine ascent in record time by the eastern face. Two days later Mr. and Mrs. Mannering also made an attempt, but were driven back from the Haast bivouac by bad weather. Mr. Mannering has certainly been dogged by the most persistent ill-luck in the matter of Mount Cook, and every one regretted that this last attempt should share the fate of so many others, especially as he was shortly leaving for England, and could not hope to be in the Alps again for many years.

By the beginning of March the Hermitage was empty of climbers once more, and having not very patiently cooled my heels for three weeks I hoped that we might at last be able to go back to the Cook bivouac (Hooker side), where we had left some of our possessions, including a rucksac of mine. I was still cherishing a hope of getting on to the arête once more and re-taking my spoilt photographs.

Meanwhile on March 6th we made the first ascent of a hitherto unnamed rock peak immediately north of the Footstool. We climbed it from the Hermitage, leaving at 4.45 a.m. The day was cold and sunless and encouraged rapid movement. We followed the east arête between the Eugénie and Stuart Glaciers. It is a long page 240but comparatively easy rock route which leads on to a steep snow slope seamed with a big crevasse. The crevasse once negotiated, we gained the rocks again and reached the summit at 10.15. The aneroid height was 8,472 feet. I took a first-climber's privilege and named the peak Mount Cadogan. My chief object in ascending it had been to take a photo of the back of Mount Sefton showing our route on the descent, but the day was so dull and cloudy that the results were a failure. While we were on the summit it began to snow, and as the wind was bitterly cold we scuttled down again with all haste. We had some splendid glissades on the descent which brought us to the valley in a most cheerful frame of mind. In the morning, walking along the Hooker path while it was still dark, we had been greatly puzzled by a continuous dull boom that rose from the river, so now we decided to investigate the matter. Leaving the path we climbed over the moraine in the direction of the sound, and soon stood on a bank 20 feet above the water. For a minute all was silence and then with a roar up shot a 10-foot shower of stones and water. The Muller River had found an exit from its prison beneath the glacier under a great ice wall some 50 feet in height, and every few moments it played at being a geyser. The whole spot was most picturesque: the recent floods had washed the dirty moraine to clear ice, and the force of the water had in one place undermined it, leaving a bridge, a perfect arch of white ice, spanning the foaming river, which framed a charming view of the distant mountains and was an immense asset to the scenery.

On reaching home we reported our discovery, and for days until the sun melted the arch the spot was a favourite afternoon walk for the inmates of the Hermitage. I spent one morning photographing there, and got the fright of my life when a huge pinnacle overhanging the river broke away and fell with a tremendous page break
The Footstool from the Hooker River.

The Footstool from the Hooker River.

Mount Du Faur and Mount Cadogan.

Mount Du Faur and Mount Cadogan.

page 241crash. It raised a wave that spread far past the water-mark and up to the very spot on which I had been standing. The photographs were some of the best I have ever taken and were well worth the fright. They should some day prove interesting, as the Muller Glacier is so continually changing where it is undermined by the river.

During the next fortnight there was not a day in which it was possible to climb anything; wind, rain, and snow followed one another with monotonous regularity, and more than once I came to the conclusion it was waste of time and money to wait any longer on the chance of doing something. Then the first fitful gleam of sunshine would revive all my hopes and I would give it just a few more days to clear, and so Easter found me still waiting.

I had been at the Hermitage three months and not yet been up the Tasman Glacier, so when the weather really did clear up for a few days, about the 19th of March, I decided to pay a farewell visit to the Malte Brun hut.

Graham and I left on the 20th for the Ball hut, and on Good Friday walked through to Malte Brun. The day was fine, and we decided to make an attempt on Aiguille Rouge next day. This is a fine rock peak, first ascended by Mr. L. M. Earle in 1910 and not since attempted; it is situated immediately south of Mount Malte Brun.

On waking with the alarum on the morning of the 22nd, I was disgusted to find everything enveloped in dense fog; it was no use starting, so I returned disconsolate to my bunk. About 8.30 a.m. the fog began to lift, so packing a rucksac with all speed we set out, late though it was. We climbed up the slopes of Mount Malte Brun until we reached a low gap in the western arête through which it was possible to traverse on to the Beathem Glacier, above the névé of which Aiguille Rouge rises abruptly. The snow slopes leading from the west arête were very steep and icy, and it took us some time to negotiate them, especially as we had to keep a sharp page 242look-out for falling stones which kept rattling down from a couloir near by. As we proceeded, the mists rose and fell, giving most lovely glimpses of the Tasman Glacier and the surrounding mountains. We had a long, toilsome march up the glacier to the head névé, where we rested for a time before beginning the ascent. We followed Mr. Earle's route up the north-east buttress; the rocks are good, solid red blocks, with plenty of hand-and foot-hold, and afforded a splendid climb. Near the summit I nearly came to grief. I was tired, and it was taking me all my time to keep up with Graham, being some-what out of training. I was so used to the rock being good—we had not met a bit of rotten stuff all the way— that I suppose I was careless. While Graham was above me I took what seemed a short cut, and the next moment a great block I was using for a hand-hold came away with me. As it fell it caught me just above the knee, fortunately missing the knee-cap, and knocked me backwards. As I felt it slipping I gave a shout of warning to Graham, and before I fell the full length of the slack between us he had me, and I was able to grab another hand-hold. Feeling considerably shaken, I hung where I was for a bit, and then climbed gingerly up to my guide. We were within a few yards of the summit, so went on almost immediately, Graham eyeing every hand-and foot-hold wrathfully. My knee was stiff and sore, and I was exceedingly glad to arrive at the summit.

There I examined it, and finding it was rather deeply cut, we hauled out the ambulance outfit and patched it up. We had only been on the summit a few moments when to our disgust it began to snow, and everything around us was blotted out. We hastily ate some biscuits and took a drink from the Thermos. Then as I was decidedly stiff Graham suggested that we try a descent by the snow slopes of the north face and so avoid the jarring descent which a return by the buttress would entail. We followed page break
Aiguille Rouge.

Aiguille Rouge.

page 243along a narrow arête for some distance and then began the descent. The first of it was steep and icy, and we began to wonder if we were any better off than on the rocks; it was very cold and the snow fell around us in thick flakes. When we had descended somewhat we found a good snow-filled couloir down which we were able to kick steps; then we traversed across to the middle of the north face, and were able to descend the rest of the way in a series of fine glissades which brought us back to the head névé of the Beathem in no time. The weather became thicker and thicker as we hurried on, just able to discern our foot-marks of the morning for two steps ahead. The descent of the glacier is steep; and enveloped in fog as we were, I felt as if I was walking on the clouds. If I took my eyes off the only distinct object, Graham's boots a step ahead of me, I felt I was floating in space and somewhat giddy. Now and again a falling stone passed with a swish from above, or the ice gave an ominous crack from the depths of the fog, all of which added considerably to the uncanny feeling. Without our morning's footsteps to follow, we would have been in a bad way, as there was a good deal of broken ice to avoid. As it was, the marks were very faint, and sometimes we missed them and had to hunt about before we could recover the trail. Once we arrived at the icy slope leading to Make Brun arête we were right, as our steps had been cut large and were easy to discern. We followed them up with all speed and reached the hut in safety at 5.30 p.m., quite pleased to have snatched a climb from such a doubtful day. The following day it snowed steadily, and there was nothing to do but wrap oneself up in blankets and wait events. The next morning it had cleared, and we set out at 6 a.m. for Elie de Beaumont. It was horribly cold, and I was not long in coming to the decision that winter climbing was of no use to me. About half-way up Elie de Beaumont we met an icy south-west wind which was blowing from the summit with considerable force. We were page 244engaged in negotiating some very bad broken ice, which entailed considerable time and step-cutting. The cold was so bitter we all but froze. As there was no prospect of it being better on the summit I counselled a retreat; and after some discussion we began the descent.

As the morning was still young, we decided as we were half-way there we might as well have a try for the Hochstetter Dome. We skirted round the slopes of Elie de Beaumont on to the Lendenfeld Saddle. Here we were caught in a regular blizzard against which there was no standing. Hastily we looked around us, and spying a half snow-filled crevasse we bolted for it. A bridge below the surface-level was solid, and one lip overhung, forming a tiny cave. Jamming our ice-axes into the slope above, we twisted the rope round them and crawled into the cave—it was only a hole, and sheltered our heads and bodies well enough, but our feet stuck out. Beside me I could see through a tiny hole way down into the blue depths of the crevasse. Outside the wind raged like thunder, and the drift snow flew past and fell in showers like a silver curtain, through which we caught glimpses of the blue hills of the coast. We waited about half an hour, and then as the wind moderated a little we crawled out and made a dash for the lower slopes. Once more the dome (ascended by dozens of tourists every season) had beaten me—this was the second time it had treated me to a blizzard, and certainly the last time I shall waste any more energy over it. Lower down we evaded the wind, and spent three wildly exciting hours ski-ing on the steep slopes—too steep for novices, I imagine, as I was rarely right side up at the end of the run and quite incapable of guiding myself. If there was a crevasse within fifty yards those blessed skis made straight for it, and I had to throw myself down to avoid a worse fate. We reached the hut in the evening, wind-burnt and hungry, and next morning descended to the Hermitage, fully convinced that the season for climbing was over.

page break
Ice Cliffs and The Hooker River.

Ice Cliffs and The Hooker River.

The Hermitage After The Flood.

The Hermitage After The Flood.

page 245

From the day of our return to the end of March it rained solidly—in fact, just to prove what it could do in that line, it rained twenty-four inches in twenty hours, and we had a second flood. Fortunately the Easter crowd had departed, and there were only about twenty people in the hotel. The Muller River came down in full force, and instead of dividing as on the first occasion came straight for the hotel. In no time we were inundated. The annexe was awash, the drawing-room, hall, front bedrooms, and dining-room were ankle-deep in water, and everybody had to decamp to the back hall bedrooms and smoking-room. During the night the annexe broke away from the main building and settled down into the stream that had undermined it. In the morning by way of variety it snowed; the water receded and the house was inches deep in silt. Several of the bridges between Fairlie and the Hermitage were washed away, and cars could get neither up nor down. I was booked to leave by the first car, but the manager asked me to give way to some people who were in a hurry, to which I cheerfully agreed, as some pleasant people were remaining who would keep me company.

The poor old Hermitage was a wreck, damaged beyond all hope of mending. It was evident, too, that whenever there was unusually heavy rain or melting snow it would be inundated, thanks to the breakaway in the moraine. Another flood would probably carry away the main building or damage it so much that it would not be fit to live in. A mile away down the valley a big new hotel was commenced a year ago and will soon be finished. A fashionable place with tennis courts, golf links, etc., where you will have to dress for dinner and play about in pretty clothes —in fact, a fashionable tourist resort. The old happy, carefree, home-like days spent in the ugly rambling cottage building were over. Many a time the climbers and beauty lovers had suggested that they should form a syndicate and purchase the old place for themselves, and so keep the page 246old home-like ways and let fashion rule in the valley. Now this hope was doomed, the old place must go. Very sad it made me to look back for the last time at the dear old building under whose roof I had spent some of the happiest days of my life, and know that I would never see it again. As the car rushed away across the plains a mist for a moment blotted out the towering mountains, the blue sky, and the brown faces of my comrade-guides; with a lump in my throat I waved a last farewell. Life is opening out. I may see many lands and make many friends, but as long as it shall last I will carry with me an imperishable memory of that happy home among the mountains, memories of good friends and true, of brave deeds quietly done—days of exultation and triumph, days of sorrow and failure. Love, freedom, and peace, with beauty unutterable brooding on the star-lit heights and the winding valleys; dear home of hopes and dreams, may fate some day bring me back again to wander in well-remembered ways, but now—

I leave the brown lands; crying, "Sorry to go," "Sorry to go"
"Good-bye!" and "God-speed!" and … "Sorry to go!"