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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 V — The Mount Malte Brun and the Minarets

page 47

Chapter V
The Mount Malte Brun and the Minarets

And God's own profound
Was above me, and round me the mountains,
And under, the sea,
And within me my heart to bear witness
What was and shall be.
Oh, heaven and the terrible crystal!
No rampard excludes
Your eye from the life to be lived
In the blue solitudes.
Oh, those mountains, their infinite movement!
Still moving with you;
For, ever some new head and breast of them
Thrusts into view.

For a week after our return from the Tasman Glacier the weather was so changeable that it was impossible to attempt any climbing, so I settled down at the Hermitage, now filled to overflowing, and passed the time very pleasantly, when it was fine enough to go out, in picnics and afternoon excursions to the many charming spots that abound near the Hermitage. Several old acquaintances of mine had now arrived, including Professor Baldwin Spencer, with whose daughter I had had several pleasant excursions the previous year. The professor wished to go up the Tasman to take some photographs, and I easily persuaded him to try a little climbing as well; so we decided to join forces and go up to the Malte Brun hut, and from there climb anything that page 48most attracted us. No sooner was this plan settled than Mr. Earle, A.C., expressed a wish to join us. He had been in the mountains since October, and had done some high climbing with Jack Clark, who was acting as his private guide. Clark was for the time being laid up with a strained foot, and would probably be unfit for work for some weeks, so Mr. Earle was rather at a loose end, being unable to procure another guide, and was glad to join a party that offered some chance of mountaineering. We on our side were very glad to add an experienced climber to our party, as we were unable to secure two guides, owing to the crowded state of the Hermitage.

On January 6th the weather seemed to have definitely cleared, so we set out for the Ball hut, accompanied by Peter Graham. We reached the hut the same evening, just in time to climb up the wall of Moraine that shuts out the view, and see the last glories of the sunset. In the quivering air of the midsummer evening the strange black waves of moraine, tipped here and there with crests of white ice, seemed really to undulate like some uncanny sea. Beyond their black depths shimmered mile after mile of pure white ice, which rose in a grand curve at the ice-fall and swept round the base of Mount de la Beche and the Minarets and on to the head of the glacier; here they lost themselves in the rounded softness of the Hochstetter Dome. In contrast with the white of snow-clad peaks and curving glaciers, Mount Malte Brun reared its great rock ridge from the crevassed ice at its base, and towered up with crag after jagged crag outlined sharp against the ever-changing evening sky. As the sun disappeared into Westland its last rays dyed the black pyramid to a glowing mass of molten copper, till one could but believe that some volcanic fire was welling up from the unseen heart beneath. We watched till the last vestige of colour faded and the surrounding mountains turned grey and cold, and then scrambled down to the hut, and thoroughly enjoyed page 49the evening meal which Graham had been preparing while we absorbed the beauties of nature.

Next morning we were awakened before daylight by the screaming and chattering of many keas (mountain parrots), varied by the rattle of their claws as they gaily glissaded from the ridge-pole to the gutter of our tin-roofed hut. Sleep in such a din was impossible, so we turned out with the usual reluctance to exchange a warm bunk for a cold world. As soon as breakfast was over we set out for a twelve-mile tramp over the moraine and glacier to the Malte Brun hut, which we reached without incident at noon.

On the way up we came to a decision as to our first climb. Mr. Earle and I were both very anxious to ascend Mount Malte Brun, which is reckoned the finest rock climb in the Mount Cook district. On consulting the professor we discovered that he had no inclination towards difficult rock-climbing. He declared it held too many thrills to the square inch for his constitution. He was, however, quite willing to have a day's spell round about the hut taking photographs. He also nobly offered to keep house for us and have dinner ready on our return; this offer we gratefully accepted, and promised to climb a snow peak of his choice the following or first suitable day. I was much too excited to sleep the night before our climb, and just before retiring I had a small passage of arms with Mr. Earle on the subject of costume. He declared he would not climb with me if I wore a skirt. I replied with more vigour than politeness that in that case he would have to stay behind. The skirt in question was so brief, that on my showing it to Graham, and asking him if it were all right to climb in, he had grinned cheerfully and exclaimed, "Skirt! I should call it a frill," and at once passed it as harmless. I now appealed to him to support my costume, but with a wariness born of a long experience of tourists, he declined to side with either page 50of us, and I retired to the ladies' compartment with dignity and a determination that was worthy of a militant suffragette to stick to my rights.

The next morning, the 8th of January, was beautifully fine, so we set off in the best of spirits at 5.30 a.m. I wore the despised skirt, and Mr. Earle wisely refrained from objection. While we were coming up the glacier the day before, Graham had taken the opportunity afforded by the splendid view of Mount Malte Brun, to pick out a new route; we had therefore all the excitement of the unknown ahead of us. We skirted to the left of the rocks that rise just behind the hut, and climbed up the tussock grass and scree slopes until we came to the snow slopes leading to the west arête. We did not immediately gain the arête, but kept somewhat to the left. The rocks were good and we climbed at a fair pace. On reaching the top of a buttress which we thought connected with the main arête, we found we were cut off by an aiguille. We wasted about half an hour before we found a serviceable way over this obstacle, but at last successfully gained the west arête. We now paused for a second breakfast. From where we sat we could follow the windings of the Tasman Glacier far below us, till the white ice vanished into the terminal moraine; out of this crept the silver thread of the Tasman River, shining through shingle beds and yellow plains, until it emptied itself into the blue of Lake Pukaki 50 miles away. A south fog was drifting softly up the valley, and the bases of the surrounding mountains were soon enveloped in it, while their summits rose above, clear against the intense blue of the Alpine sky.

We followed the arête for about half an hour without any particular difficulty, the rocks being firm and good; but suddenly on turning a corner we found ourselves confronted by quite a fine bit of rock-work. The ridge dipped suddenly, a fall of about 10 feet, and then stretched out page break
Mount Malte Brun. Aiguille Rouge.

Mount Malte Brun. Aiguille Rouge.

page 51in a narrow straight line for about 70 feet. It was very sharp and narrow, and on either side the steep, smooth faces dropped sheer for hundreds of feet, a true specimen of the knife-edge variety often talked about and seldom found. We all stood and looked at it for a few moments. Then Graham lowered himself down to it, and putting a leg on either side, worked along till he came to the end of his rope. I surveyed this procedure with somewhat mixed feelings—certainly not all pleasurable; while I was considering it and wondering how it felt and if I could do it, Graham's quiet voice broke in upon my meditations: "I think you had better come now, Miss Du Faur." He was sitting apparently quite happy astride the ridge, holding the connecting rope between us and waiting for me to come on, seemingly not at all concerned lest I should object. Probably if he had asked me if I could do it I should have refused. His taking my courage for granted, and not giving me time for too much consideration, saved the situation. Too proud to say I did not much like the look of it, I gingerly let myself down, and proceeded as he had done. I soon worked myself along to Graham. He then set off again and reached the other side, leaving me perched in the middle, a prey to conflicting emotions. One of them very shortly took the form of wishing I possessed a cushion. I thought by the time that Mr. Earle reached me and so gave me length enough of rope to go on, that I was in some slight danger of being halved. When we all arrived safely at the other side we turned and looked at the place, and I for one was filled with pride and vainglory; also a deep regret that I did not have a camera, in order to possess a photograph of one of us astride so sensational a ridge.

From this cheval ridge on, the only difficulties we encountered were loose rocks; the final ridge that leads to the summit was certainly not in good repair. The rocks were loose and crumbly, a slate-like formation quite page 52different from the solid red rock of the lower slopes. We climbed them with the utmost care, only one of us moving at a time, and keeping a sharp look-out for falling stones. Though some whizzed past us uncomfortably near, no one was hit, and at twelve o'clock we arrived quite safely on the summit. Thereupon followed no little jubilation and excitement. We shook hands all round, and Mr. Earle's hearty "Well done, young one" wiped out all old scores, and left me with the feeling that at last I might count myself amongst the elect It was intensely hot, the sun beating down on us from a cloudless sky, with not a breath of wind to stir the air. We settled down in what patches of shade the boulders afforded, and while Graham prepared the lunch we had time to take in our surroundings. To the east we had a splendid view of the Murchison Glacier; behind it away to the north and east stretched range after range of snow-capped peaks, all practically unknown, a wide field for some future explorer. To the north-west across the shoulder of the Hochstetter Dome we could see the silvery line of breakers on the West Coast. The whole length of the Tasman Glacier lay spread at our feet, culminating in Mount Cook, whose three white summits reared themselves high above the surrounding mountains. Naturally we began to talk of the different ascents, and I asked Mr. Earle to give me some idea of his new route up the western face, as Graham had promised that if I made good on Mount Malte Brun he would take me up Mount Cook by this route. Mr. Earle assured me that there was nothing to worry about. He said his ascent contained nothing so bad as the knife-edge ridge we had just conquered. It was only a question of climbing 2,000 feet more, and that, given such a day as we were now enjoying, I would "go up like a bird." It was comforting to find some one besides Graham with faith in my mountaineering powers, especially a man of wide experience. All the same I tried not to build too page 53much upon my chances; I had read too frequently the struggles of the pioneers, calling often for great courage and endurance, to think lightly of any ascent of Mount Cook.

We now turned our attention to lunch, and that finished, duly built a cairn and placed in it our whitebait tin, on which we had previously inscribed our names and the date with the point of my hatpin. This little ceremony seemed to bring home to me the fact that I had really accomplished a first-class climb, and I felt inclined to whoop for joy at the thought that I was the first woman to stand on the summit of Mount Malte Brun; especially as it had only been thrice climbed before, each time by experienced men, and Graham declared ours was the most difficult route of all. We made the first traverse going from south to north, and began the descent, following Mr. Sillem's route down the northern arête. Mr. Earle took the lead, I was in the middle, and Graham safe-guarded the rear. The descent proved considerably more nerve-racking than the ascent, although the rocks were not really so difficult. Descents are, I think, to most climbers harder than ascents; so many elements combine to rob one of that first joyous freshness which makes the surmounting of difficulties a matter of pleasure and encouragement when the summit is still to be attained. On the descent your triumphs are all behind you, and the major part of your forces are the worse for wear. You begin to descend, and the strain of past difficulties begins to tell in aching muscles and over-active nerves. You have a choice of two methods, either of which are harder than ascending the same rocks would be. You may climb downwards with your back to the rocks and consequently facing the abyss beneath you, and getting a tolerable view of the difficulties ahead of you, and a notion where to place your hands and feet; or you may turn your face to the rocks and your back to the abyss, and let yourself down gingerly with your foot-holds out of sight. An exploring glance, or the man page 54below you has assured you that footholds exist and these the feet have to seek, feel for, and find before the strain on upward-reaching arms can be lessened. You have also to keep your feet clear of the rope below you and retain some slack of the rope above you in one hand; and last, but not least, you must avoid catching the ice-axe that is thrust through the rope at your waist, to give freedom to your hands, and trails out at awkward angles in the most inconvenient places. To be truthful, I know no greater annoyance on difficult rocks than an ice-axe; the point is always catching on something below you and jabbing the blade into your back, or if pushed out sideways it catches on the rocks and threatens to upset your equilibrium, and undoubtedly upsets your temper.

On the descent of Malte Brun we experienced all these things. Hour after hour we crept down precipitous cliffs, clambered along sharp arêtes, or traversed across repellently smooth faces. Down the worst places we had to move only one at a time. On one of these I dislodged a tiny pebble which, as ill-luck would have it, shattered one glass of Mr. Earle's pince-nez; fortunately his eye was untouched by the broken glass. To his credit I must record that I heard no winged words, his justly tried feelings never reached the surface. The accident was singularly unfortunate, as without his glasses Mr. Earle could see but little, so our progress was slower and more careful than ever. Just as I was beginning to wonder if we were ever going to reach the bottom, we manipulated a particularly nasty overhanging corner and crossed into a snow couloir, which led down to a basin at the foot of the rocks. Mr. Earle in the lead warned me of a patch of glazed ice, which he had managed to cross safely; but on touching it my feet shot from under me, and on being pulled up by the rope held by Graham who was still above me, I swung inward and cut my hands against the rocks. The damage done was fortunately slight. When page 55we reached the bottom of the couloir we threw ourselves down to rest in the snow-field beneath, keeping well out of reach of the falling stones with which the basin was strewn. Turning our attention to the rucksac, we emptied it and consumed all the food we could find. After twelve hours on the rope, most of the time at a considerable strain, it was refreshing to be at ease on the snow, and contemplate the line of our descent with now and then a comment on its dangers and difficulties. As it was already six o'clock we had to cut short our self-congratulation and make tracks for home and the professor's promised dinner, which latter began to loom largely on our imagination. Unfortunately a snow slope down which we had hoped to glissade had frozen hard, and so involved half an hour's step cutting; this accomplished, we found some of the lower slopes in excellent condition and managed a few short glissades. Considerably revived by our whizz through the keen air, we tramped our last mile over scree and snow grass and arrived at the hut at seven o'clock. The excellence of the professor's cooking and of our appetites was testified by the fact that "when we had finished the platter was bare." Then came that luxurious after-dinner hour when the men smoked in beatific contentment, and I curled up on the locker and slowly reviewed the joys and trials of an eventful day. Contentment reigned supreme; with weary muscles relaxed, and tired nerves soothed, my mind wandered undisturbed, touching lovingly on beauties but half perceived at the moment, but now photographed safely in my memory. Dreamily I wove together the hopes, fears, doubts, despairs, and joys that make up the rainbow tale of a day in the mountains. Waking up from my dreams as the men finished their pipes, I asked what were our plans for the next day. The professor's choice had fallen upon the Minarets, two beautiful snow-clad peaks immediately opposite to the hut. After some discussion it was page 56decided to rest to-morrow and climb the following day. Well pleased at the prospect of unlimited sleep I retired to my bunk, where I slept dreamlessly till eleven next morning. Finding it was a beautiful day I proceeded to get up, and on appearing was pleased to be able to answer the volley of questions as to how I felt by "Fine, and not at all stiff, thank you." Considering the contortions that rock-climbing demands of the human form divine, the fact that I really was not stiff pleased me mightily and surprised me considerably. Though I was none the worse for wear the same could not be said of my costume, so I sat down on a stone and proceeded to repair damages. The professor, seeing me so usefully employed, presently appeared dangling a pair of knicker-bockers, which he surveyed ruefully, and then observed with obvious truth that he was afraid they were hardly fitted to stand the strain of glissading down the Minarets. Considering his noble efforts in feeding the hungry the night before, and in wasting this lovely day that we might all have a day's rest, I concluded it was up to me to patch the breeches; but with what was a question that puzzled me considerably. Knowing from past experience that the New Zealand guide is usually to be depended upon to produce anything from hairpins to a change of costume, I asked Graham to solve my difficulty. After much rooting round he appeared with some ancient tweed which, of course, could not compare in dignity to the professorial garment. The resulting patch was the cause of combined regret and mirth to me. Merely to contemplate it from behind, even in the most serious climbing crises, put new heart into me. About three o'clock Graham set off to reconnoitre, as the Minarets were unknown to him, only having been climbed once before somewhere in the dim, distant past by T. C. Fyfe and Malcolm Ross. Mr. Earle and I undertook to cook the dinner in his absence. The process was conducive to much laughter; with the excep-page break
The Tasman Glacier and Mount De La Bèche.

The Tasman Glacier and Mount De La Bèche.

page 57tion
of a blancmange of tempting appearance but unfortunate solidity, the result was thoroughly up to the somewhat ambitious standard set by the previous chef. On his return Graham reported all well, so very shortly after dinner we turned in, intent on a good sleep before the alarum should arouse us at the shivery hour before dawn.

I was awakened while it was still dark by the wind howling round the hut; it quivered and shook beneath the fierce blasts, and was only saved from being carried away by the wire cable which bound it securely to a great rock on the south side. There was no question of starting in such a gale, so I cuddled down into the blankets with a guilty joy at postponing those hateful moments of chilling misery to which even the most enthusiastic mountaineer is liable on being aroused at 2 a.m.

About five o'clock the wind moderated considerably, so getting up in all haste we dispatched breakfast, and left the hut at 6.30 a.m. By the time we reached the glacier the wind had dropped altogether. We crossed it rapidly, and started up a snow slope, keeping to the left of the two rock-faces that stand out a few hundred feet from the base of the mountain. Soon we came upon Graham's footsteps of the day before, and followed them to a maze of crevasses. This was my first experience of real ice work, and I am bound to admit that for a few hours I was distinctly unhappy. Once in among the broken ice we wound in and out, sometimes walking along the narrow space between two yawning crevasses, until we could find some frail snow bridge thrown across the gaping chasm, over which we must step, with fleeting, fascinated glances into the cold, blue depths beneath. Backwards and forwards we dodged amongst great blocks and pinnacles of ice which sagged and leaned at drunken angles as if they meant to fall and bury us for evermore. To me the whole place was an icy nightmare, recalling to memory page 58horrid pictures by Doré in Dante's "Inferno," where poor tormented souls shivered in awful depths of eternal ice. They always fascinated me; now they had my heartfelt sympathy. Nothing was what it seemed to my untrained eye in this strange frozen world. Just when I was congratulating myself that we were really in for some safe, smooth going, Graham must needs go poking about with his ice-axe, and disclose a treacherous snow-hidden crevasse, and helplessly I began to wonder if there was a solid yard on this horrible mountain strong enough to bear my modest weight. My mind was chaos, my nerves on edge, but fortunately neither of these are exposed to an unsympa-thetic world; and my face, thanks to the long training of two brothers who jeered at me for a girl baby if I dared funk anything, was no doubt smiling and bland as that of the "heathen Chinee." Anyway no one seemed to observe anything wrong with it. Possibly the professor, who was also somewhat of an ice novice, was too concerned with the feelings in his own solar plexus to worry about me; if so, he is also able to bluff some.

Before we saw the last of the broken ice and began climbing the final snow slopes there was a steep ice wall to negotiate. This wall dropped away into the icy depths of a schrund. It was an evil-looking place, and I watched Graham cut his way up it with some anxiety. When my turn came to follow in his steps I thought of the oft-read description as applied to climbers in a like situation, "a fly on the wall." The description struck me as inadequate, the advantage being undoubtedly all with the fly; four legs in such a crisis and a horizontal position seem so much more supporting than two and an ice-axe. Then when you consider the fly can wing his way heavenwards, if he is stupid enough to fall off, while the wretched climber can only dangle in space and claw the air, or equally unsympathetic, but harder, ice, the comparison breaks down altogether. Not being of the winged tribe I was page 59exceedingly pleased to stand safely on the slope above without testing the efficiency of the rope. By this time the day was very hot, and the ensuing toil up the steep snow slopes, minus the enlivening element of broken ice, though certainly peaceful, tended towards monotony. Within about an hour's distance of the summit mists began to gather about us, and shortly everything but a few yards ahead of us was blotted out by the fog. Still we toiled on, and eventually reached the summit at twelve o'clock. At least Graham said it was the summit, and I presume he knew; it might have been anywhere. We were surrounded in swirling mists which obscured everything. Once for a second they blew apart, and disclosed a dark chasm on the West Coast side, and far away below we could hear the sound of rushing water. I believe some climbers consider the view from the summit but a small element when counting up the joys and rewards of a climb, consequently its absence owing to bad weather does not affect them. Personally, whenever I have conquered a mountain and seen nothing from its summit, I have experienced only a bitter sense of failure and disappointment. I don't consciously start out to climb for the view, and I do consciously enjoy overcoming difficulties, and have often mountaineered on a wet day for the joy of climbing and nothing else. Nevertheless, in an ordinary way the culminating moments of a climb are the last few, when you are nearing the summit and eagerly strain forward for the first glimpse of what lies beyond. It is then you know the thrill of victory and achievement in its fullness, a feeling so subtle and soul-satisfying as to defy analysis, and which is absent, no matter how great is your achievement, when you conquer and see nothing.

This is the reason, I suppose, that the Minarets have always been counted in amongst my failures; the only sensation I experienced on their summit was one of over-whelming disappointment. We did not stay very long, page 60but turned homeward, and lower down took advantage of a sheltered spot to cheer our drooping spirits with a meal. In spite of the fog it was very hot, and every now and then the boom of an avalanche resounded eerily from the misty abyss below us. It was quite evident that a heavy thaw was in progress, so we raced down at top speed, intent on reaching some crevasses that had been but frailly bridged in the early morning, and now might easily collapse before we could reach them. We managed to cross all but the last one safely; this one we paused to consider for a moment, and Graham went up to Mr. Earle, who was leading, for a nearer view of it. Stretching out his ice-axe he felt it cautiously; as he withdrew the axe the bridge split in the middle and fell with a resounding crash into the depths beneath. The crevasse was both wide and deep, with smooth icy walls, and the fate of any one who had set foot upon the bridge would have been exceedingly unpleasant. We followed up and down the crevasse for a considerable distance, but not a vestige of a bridge could we find. As to cross it was impossible, we retraced our steps for a long way and then turned to the right and made for the two rock-faces we had kept to the left of in the morning. Graham had been over these the day before, and decided to avoid them if possible. Now they were our only way of descent, so we had to make the best of them. I was so pleased to be on rock again; I did not care how bad they were, but felt sorry for the professor, who had declined Malte Brun to be landed on something just as bad.

A steep, overhanging corner was the main difficulty. The only way to manipulate this was for each of us to be lowered over separately the full length of the rope. Mr. Earle went first, and I heard "curses not loud but deep" as he descended, so presumed it was pretty bad. However, he arrived safely, and the rope was pulled up, and the professor tied on and sent on his page break
Mount Cook from the Red Lake on Mount Sebastopol.

Mount Cook from the Red Lake on Mount Sebastopol.

page 61adventurous career. Mr. Earle shouted directions as to hand-and foot-holds from below, and at last the professor also arrived safely. I went next—dangling on a rope looking for hand-and foot-holds is not exactly pleasant, but as long as you keep your head and have a good man at the end of the rope, neither is it dangerous—and in due time I arrived at the bottom. Graham's progress down, unassisted, left me with my heart in my mouth for ten minutes. I think I must have been as pleased to see him land on a safe spot as he was to get there. Once off the rocks, we shot down the remaining snow slope in a standing glissade, and very soon stood upon the Tasman Glacier. Crossing this, we reached the hut at 6.30 p.m., our climb having occupied just twelve hours. We found that in our absence Guide Thomson had arrived with a large party from the Ball hut, so the Malte Brun was full to overflowing. Under these conditions we decided to leave the following morning for the Hermitage. We left next morning in pouring rain and a head-wind that made our three and a half hours' tramp to the Ball hut anything but a pleasing expedition. We arrived there drenched to the skin, to find it also in the possession of a large party. Merely pausing for something to eat we pushed on to the Hermitage. It gradually cleared up as we neared the Hooker River, and the hot sun had nearly dried us by the time we reached the Hermitage at 5.30 p.m.

We spent the next four days, which were beautifully fine, in picnics and scrambles near the Hermitage. Our favourite spot was a small tarn half-way up the Sebas-topol, known as the Red Lake. Here we returned time and again, never tiring of the glorious view of Sefton and Mount Cook which it affords. The lake is almost covered with a coppery red water weed. I never saw such lovely lights—golden, purple, and bronze—as play upon this tarn, while on a still evening the reflections of the page 62mountains add the finishing touch to its beauty. Some-times we would laze here the whole afternoon watching the clouds chase one another over the Copland Pass, telling stories, or dreaming in perfect contentment, Any one disposed to be energetic would climb to the top of Sebastopol (4,819 feet) and indulge in the never-failing joy of rolling down huge boulders, watching them bound from rock to rock, hurling themselves over a precipice, and shatter into a hundred pieces below.