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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 IV — Mount Sealy and the Nun's Veil

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Chapter IV
Mount Sealy and the Nun's Veil

Eastward in the skies of morning
Rosy tinges streak the grey,
Bars of crimson change to golden—
Glittering heralds of the day;
Like a blood-red shield uprising
Swims the sun in palest blue,
Crowns the hills with crests of splendour,
Flashes in the trembling dew;
Far to eastward, far to northward,
Stretch the hills in purple chains;
Far to southward, far to westward,
Waves the grass on yellow plains.

Saturday, December 18th, proved fine, so I joyfully packed my rucksac and handed it over to the "chaperon" porter to swag up to the bivouac. He and Graham left at 4.30 p.m., while I remained behind to wait for the mail, as I expected my weekly Australian letters. I left about 5.30 and rapidly made my way up the steep track that leads to the mountain tarn on the Sealy Range. Just above the tarn where the track ceased I found the men waiting for me; it was a warm evening and they were weighted with heavy swags, so had been taking things easily. We set off again and climbed the steep grass slopes for another 500 feet or so, till we came to a fair-sized patch of level grass with big boulders strewn around it. Here the tents were pitched and a fire lighted, and in an hour's time we were enjoying our evening meal.

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This was finished about 8.30 p.m., and shortly afterwards I crawled into my sleeping-bag and tried to go to sleep. I was very comfortable, the grass being as good as a spring mattress, but I was much too excited at the prospect of my first real mountain to sleep. About midnight it began to drizzle with rain, and in the depths of despair I lost consciousness. About 2.30 a.m. I was awakened by the crackling of a fire, and put my head out to find Graham already busy with preparations for breakfast. Dressing hastily, or rather undressing, as in a bivouac one puts on all spare clothes to keep out the cold, I came out to view the morning. To my relief it was quite fine, so I scrambled on to a convenient boulder to await the dawn. It proved a beautiful one. Immediately beneath us lay the Hooker Valley, all filled with soft white morning mist, which hid the base of the mountains while their summits stood out clear against the deep blue sky, in which innumerable bright stars twinkled and flashed. As I watched, the stars faded one by one and the first streaks of dawn lighted the eastern skies. Brighter and brighter grew the colours, and soon a patch of rose lit up the dead-white snows of Mount Sefton; onward and upward it crept until the whole summit flushed to glowing crimson. One after another the light caught the surrounding peaks, edging their cold snows with glittering gold. Up came the sun from his hiding-place hehind Mount Cook, scattering the mists before him, till the perfect colours of dawn faded before his triumphant majesty as he heralded in a glorious summer day.

Breakfast disposed of, we struck camp and climbed rapidly to the top of the range. We descended a little and traversed along its Muller side until we came to a huge snowfield. It being still early, the surface was quite hard. The crunch, crunch of the frozen snow and the tingling morning air set my blood racing, till I wanted to run and frisk like a sporting lamb from pure joy of life page 40and exercise. The chaperon, weighted with a rucksac, was depressingly slow and stolid, and eventually got left far behind. We waited for him later on where a few crevasses were beginning to open out. We reached the base of our climb at 6.30 a.m., and rested there for a quarter of an hour, refreshing ourselves with tea from a Thermos flask, figs, and chocolate. Then we put on the rope and started up a steep snow-face. It was still frozen, so Graham had to chip up. Standing in my steps waiting for him to cut more, I looked straight down over pure snow to the Muller Glacier, 6,000 feet beneath. It was my first experience of step-cutting on a steep slope with a long drop beneath. Graham turned now and again to ask if I felt "all right," and seemed amply satisfied with my cheerful grin of response. At the end of the snow slope we gained some rocks, which led direct to the summit. These rocks were steep and in places by no means overburdened with hand and foot holds. The want of these did not worry me half as much as the rope, to which I was quite unused, so naturally found it considerably in the way. At first Graham, who led, turned round every minute or so to show me a hand or foot hold, or to give me a pull with the rope on what he considered a difficult bit. He evinced considerable surprise when he usually discovered me already at his heels without the proffered assistance. Once I caught a gentle murmur that sounded like "Did not know I was taking out a blessed cat"; and I enjoyed a quiet laugh to myself all unheard. By the time we neared the summit I was left severely alone to do as I pleased, and all the attention was directed to the porter, who was a novice on rock, and consequently rather unhappy. He was short in the limbs (and breath), and had visibly not been intended by nature for a mountaineer. As I watched his struggles it was borne upon me that I was not the only victim being offered up on the sacred altar of the conventions. We safely reached the summit page 41at 8.15 a.m., and threw ourselves down on the sun-warmed rocks for a well-earned rest. While Graham investigated the contents of the rucksac preparatory to our second breakfast, I basked in the sun and examined my surroundings. The day was perfect, and a wonderful panorama unrolled itself to my delighted eyes. Mount Sefton's great white wall and the whole length of the Morehouse Range stretched away to our left; over a low saddle we could see a thick bank of clouds in Westland, which shut out our hoped-for view of the ocean. Everywhere else was clear—Mount Cook's three white peaks towered up across the valley in serene aloofness, in spite of the conquering foot of man on their pure snows. Through the Ball Pass loomed a sea of mountains at the head of the Tasman Glacier, while at our feet the Hooker River wound its way to join the Tasman, and both merged into a streak of silver, which flowed through yellow plains and was lost in the blue of Lake Pukaki.

After we had breakfasted, there being no hurry, we settled down on the rocks again. Soon a gentle snore announced that the chaperon was sleeping off his morning exertions. I lay with my hat tilted over my eyes, studying Mount Cook and weaving a fabric of dream and desire about the silvery summits. Presently I mildly suggested that Sealy had been a most enjoyable climb, but not as difficult as I had expected. Graham rose to the bait promptly and said it was considered difficult by most people, and added that I had done very well. By way of answer I pointed across the valley at Mount Cook, "Well enough to attempt that some day?" Breathlessly I awaited the answer. I thought I detected a smile in the voice that came from beneath the sheltering hat. "So that is the plan you have been hatching while I thought you asleep." "Oh, the plan was hatched long ago; it was merely the right moment for mentioning it I was looking for," I confessed. Quietly and earnestly we talked page 42the possibility over from all points of view. The final result was a promise that if I went on as well as I had begun, and would patiently train and not want to rush things, I should have my chance on the first suitable opportunity. Graham has a theory on the best way to train a novice into full-fledged mountaineer; I may as well give it here, as it was tested for the first time on me, with results of which both pupil and teacher are proud. Briefly stated, it amounts to this: he considers that it gives the minimum of risk and the maximum of pleasure to be led from climb to climb, each of increasing difficulty, until one is fit physically and mentally for the most difficult and dangerous work. He did not deny, for instance, that he might be able to take me up Mount Cook at once, but he did deny that I would get the highest benefit and pleasure out of the experience. "Climb Mount Cook at once," he argued, "and you will have done what is considered the biggest climb in New Zealand, therefore you will have nothing left to look forward to here. You probably won't enjoy the doing of it, or be fit to appreciate your success when you have gained it. Except the mere notoriety of being the first woman on the summit, you will gain nothing, and stand to lose the best of a wonderful experience, because you have tried to grasp it before you are ready to appreciate it in all its fullness. Furthermore, you will lose all the pleasure of looking forward to it and thoroughly enjoying the climbs that bring you each week a step nearer your ideal." Looking back on the many things for which I have to thank Peter Graham, I feel there are none for which I owe him more heartfelt thanks than his wise training at the beginning of my mountaineering career. I think any mountaineer who reads this book and knows anything of climbing in New Zealand will agree with me.

To return to Mount Sealy, after our discussion was over we woke up the porter and began the descent. I page break
The Hooker Valley and Mount Cook.

The Hooker Valley and Mount Cook.

page 43found the rocks considerably more difficult to go down than to ascend, and began to appreciate the moral and material support of the rope. Just as we arrived at the last rocks joining a snow slope, the porter, who was nervous, slipped, lost his footing, and slid away down the slope. In less time than it takes to tell my axe was jambed in a crack with the rope round it, and the porter brought to a standstill before Graham had time to reach me. He exclaimed, "Where did you learn that?" "I didn't learn it; I knew it—by instinct, I suppose," I answered, quite as surprised as he was; I had not had time to think, I had simply done it unconsciously. Meanwhile the porter, dangling on the rope, looked reproachful that we should discuss such a detail while he was so uncomfortable. Apologetically we pulled him up, and I was put in the lead. We descended without further incident and began our long tramp back to the bivouac. The snowfield we had skimmed over so gaily in the morning let us through up to our knees at every step; we were very glad to see the last of it, and follow along the top of the range till it was time to descend the other side. We shot down in a series of glissades and reached the bivouac at 1.45 p.m. After a leisurely lunch we lay on the grass in the shade for an hour and then descended to the Hermitage in time for dinner.

Next day, December 20th, it was still fine, so Graham said the chance was too good to lose, and suggested a start for the Nun's Veil bivouac. I was still sleepy, in spite of twelve hours' rest, but not at all stiff from my Sealy climb, so announced myself willing to try anything. At 3 p.m. Graham, Murphy, and I rode off for Griller Creek. It was intensely hot in the sun, and we could not go very fast as our way lay mostly over rough river-beds. We forded the Hooker River just below the cage. The river was swollen with melting snow, and we had some difficulty in riding through. Once across, we struck over page 44to the Tasman, fording it and the Murchison in several places; fortunately none of these rivers were as high as the Hooker, so we had not much trouble in getting through them. The horses were left in the yard of the Shepherd's hut, beneath Rotten Tommy, and we started up the steep and slippery grass slopes of Griller Creek. I was stiff from riding, so found it hot and tiring work. After about a mile and a half we struck down to the creek bed and followed it as far as the last grass slope. Here the tents were pitched. It was a most picturesque bivouac. The mountain creek rushed along at our feet, and at its head the Nun's Veil stood out in the moonlight, pure snow from base to summit. Looking down stream, Rotten Tommy rose brown and rugged at our left, while beyond it we caught a glimpse of Mount Sealy.

Supper was a meal to remember; seated on a rucksac, with my back to a rock, I enjoyed every moment of it. The red flames lit up the brown faces and gleaming eyes and teeth of the guides as they plied me with one good thing after another, and the whole made a picture worthy of Rembrandt.

After supper we gathered round the fire, and the guides told me stories of the mountains until it was time to turn in. After several fruitless attempts at slumber I crept out of my tent and down to the creek for a drink. Everything was so lovely, bathed in the moonlight, that I stayed there for quite a long while; at last, infinitely refreshed, I crept back to my tent and fell asleep. Waking at 2 a.m. and being unable to sleep again, I roused the guides at 2.30 a.m., and by 4 a.m. we had breakfasted and were toiling up the last mile of creek bed. Once we reached the snow it was all straight-ahead work. We climbed steadily up slope after slope, only to find still another above us, till it became rather monotonous, and I longed for some rock-climbing by way of diversion. At last we came to a schrund, the top lip of which was all page 45hung with icicles. We paused a moment, and each broke off a long crystal. The cool, smooth feeling was lovely and quenched my thirst for the time being. Our only excitement during the ascent was negotiating the schrund just near the summit ridge; it was rather wide, and we had some difficulty in hauling ourselves to the upper lip. This accomplished, we followed a narrow ridge for a few yards, and at 8 a.m. stood upon the summit. Unfortunately, the day had turned cloudy and cold, making the surrounding mountains look barren and colourless. Murphy had swagged up a heavy camera, wishing to take a panorama, so after breakfast he and Graham looked about for a good view-point, and I curled myself up on the rocks and went to sleep. After about an hour on the summit we began the descent. We indulged in the series of glissades, which were great fun but rather wetting. The time was well spent in my case in learning to keep right side up. We reached our camp at 1.30, and after our meal started on the long tramp down Griller Creek to the horses. The creek justified its name, and seemed endless as well as hot. Graham stalked ahead at four miles an hour, and I followed in the rear with protests in my heart that I never got near enough, or breath enough, to utter. At last we reached the horses and rode home as fast as we could. I was half asleep by the time we reached the Hermitage, and Graham lifted me from my horse with a commiserating smile at 4.30 p.m. That night I asked the maid not to wake me if I did not come to breakfast next morning, and I slept the clock round till noon. When I appeared at lunch the women looked me over and demanded, "Is it worth it?" I was sunburned from brow to chin, and was already beginning to peel. I admitted that it was a pity that mountaineering had such a devastating influence on the complexion, but pointed out it was only a temporary evil and as nothing to the joys I had acquired at the same time. Naturally they page 46remained unconvinced, as these joys were a closed book to them.

A large party arrived by the motor in the morning, and all the guides' services were required in taking out various parties for glacier and other expeditions. I joined a party going up to the Malte Brun hut, as it was impossible to get any guides for high climbing. We spent four very pleasant days there, and returned to the Hermitage just as the spell of fine weather broke.