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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 VI — Mount Cook

page 63

Chapter VI
Mount Cook

It seems too much like a fate indeed!
Though I do my best I shall scarce succeed.
But what if I fail in my purpose here?
It is but to keep the nerves at a strain,
To dry one's eyes and laugh at a fall,
And baffled get up and begin again.
So the chase takes up one's life, that's all.

Graham had left for the West Coast, taking two ladies across the Copland Pass, and I was waiting his return to make my attempt on Mount Cook, bitterly grudging the loss of these four perfect days, which would have meant every chance of success. Graham came back on the evening of the 10th, but now, in addition to a falling glass and cloudy weather, it was found that Murphy, my second guide, had poisoned his arm. A doctor staying at the Hermitage declared it impossible for him to think of climbing for a fortnight. Only one trained guide remained, and him we could not take, leaving a houseful of people stranded with no one to guide them anywhere. The only alternative to giving up the expedition was to take a porter, leave him at the last bivouac, and try what Graham and I could do alone. We discussed this plan from all points. I was willing to take the extra risk, and the chance of failure it involved, rather than not make an attempt at all, having perfect confidence in Graham's page 64ability to get me safely to the summit, if it were humanly possible. Graham on his side was equally confident of my ability to climb rocks, as compared to any man he had mountaineered with, and was willing to climb two, under the circumstances. So we made our plans accordingly.

The fact that I was going to attempt Mount Cook leaked out, and in consequence 1 had to face a storm of disapproval and criticism. Every one was against us: they came at us separately and together to say it was "madness" or "an unjustifiable risk."

Mr. Earle's guide, Jack Clark, who was a member of the first party to ascend Mount Cook, did his best to persuade me from attempting the climb with only Graham. He urged that climbing two was against all mountaineering rules. I pointed out this rule was mainly intended for snow and ice work, and that we were taking the Hooker route, specially because it was a rock climb, which made all the difference in any case, but especially in mine. I admitted it was no doubt hard for him to believe in my rock-climbing capacity as he had never been out with me, but he must acknowledge that a traverse of Mount Malte Brun such as we had made, not only by a new and difficult route, but in the fastest time on record, was a reliable test as to my powers of rock-climbing and endurance. It was even a test that none of the men who had already climbed Mount Cook had been put to. I concluded if he would simply ignore the fact that I was a woman, and judge me as an individual on my climbing merits, the case might appear to him in a less alarming light. The only person who knew anything about my climbing from experience was Mr. Earle, and he stood by me absolutely and encouraged the expedition. The opposition party, finding they were wasting their efforts upon me, turned their attention to Graham, only to be met with imperturbable unconcern, mixed with a page break
The Hooker River and Mount Cook.

The Hooker River and Mount Cook.

page 65polite surprise that any one should try to interfere with what were so obviously my private affairs. With hopes dashed at ail points the attacking party desisted, contenting themselves with Cassandra-like prophecies as to our probable end.

On Friday, January 21st, the sun came out once more after four days of pouring rain; at 4.30 p.m. Tom, the porter, Graham, and I left the Hermitage. The men were both heavily laden, as we had to take an equipment sufficient for four days. This included two tents, sleeping-bags, extra clothes, and provisions. In spite of swags that must have weighed 50 lb. each, the men's spirits were in nowise damped, and mine were at bubbling-point, since we were really off at last, in spite of all obstacles. After leaving the Hermitage we crossed the Hooker River, and followed along its right-hand bank on a track cut in the cliff. Fifty feet below us the torrent roared along in its narrow bed, flashing foam-white over the boulders that impede its course. The evening was perfect, and leaving the river we sauntered the seven miles to our first bivouac. The track winds through a grassy meadow, studded here and there with great patches of white mountain lilies and bushes of veronica. To the left Mount Sefton's white wall towered above us, and straight ahead, blocking the whole valley and looking as if you had but to put out a hand and touch it, stood the centre of all our hopes, Mount Cook. We bivouacked under its shadow in a grassy valley. The tents were soon pitched, and our meal prepared over a cheery fire by which we sat and talked till 11 p.m. It was a perfect moonlight night, its stillness only disturbed now and then by the boom of an avalanche off Mount Sefton and the splash of a distant waterfall; it seemed wasteful to bury one's self in a tent on such a night, but at last I crept into mine, and putting my boots under my rucksac for a pillow, wriggled into my sleeping-bag and endeavoured quite fruitlessly to go to sleep. About 2 a.m. I dozed page 66off. At 4 a.m. sounds of the fire being lighted drifted in, and shortly after I was provided with the luxury of a cup of morning tea. It was a beautiful morning, and at five o'clock we set out with light hearts for our long tramp to the head of the Hooker Glacier. We had to climb down a great wall of moraine to reach the glacier, up which we travelled without difficulty until we arrived at the icefall. Here the crevasses were so bad that it was impossible to force a route through them, so putting on the rope we decided to leave the glacier and climb the rocks on the right. These presented no difficulties to me with only an ice-axe to look after, but to the men, weighted with heavy and ungainly swags, they meant hard work. After about an hour we reached Captain Head's old bivouac, and found some stores he had left behind. As it was half-past nine we had some breakfast, and rested for a while before descending to the glacier again. Once on the glacier our troubles began. Usually above the icefall one may be sure of comparatively smooth going till about the end of March, when the crevasses open out. Unfortunately for us, we found the ice already badly broken up, and it gave us endless trouble looking for bridges over the crevasses. Graham said the glacier was in infinitely worse condition than when he travelled up it with Mr. Earle in March 1909. Once we thought we were cut off altogether and would have to give up the attempt to reach Mount Cook. A great crevasse yawned at our feet, crossing the glacier from side to side; it was too wide to jump, and a bridge was nowhere to be seen. Freeing himself from the rope, Graham followed it along in both directions, while Tom and I waited to hear our fate. In about twenty minutes Graham returned saying there was only one crossing-place, and he would like me to come and look at it; after he had tied himself on the rope again we proceeded to the place. Here the crevasse was about 20 feet wide, with sheer sides of blue-green ice, and apparently bottomless; over this chasm was page 67flung a fragile snow bridge, so narrow it would be impossible to walk across it. My heart sank as I looked. "Is there really no way across but that?" I asked. "None; but I think we can straddle it, if you are not afraid. It is our only chance, and if we succeed I think we will be at the end of our troubles," Graham answered. When I agreed, he asked me to take off the rope, so as to give him more length. It was still tied round Tom's waist, and he was directed to play it round his ice-axe, which was firmly wedged in the snow. Getting on to the bridge at all was a ticklish performance. It was about 3 feet below the surface-level, and looked very fragile where it joined the crevasse wall. I watched with a sickening feeling, expecting every second to see the bridge give way as Graham's full weight was put upon it. He is a very big man and weighs something over twelve stone, and it did not seem possible that this fragile-looking snow bridge could stand the strain. With infinite care and lightly as a cat he lowered himself on to it, and cautiously putting a leg on either side of the narrow ridge worked himself along with the aid of his ice-axe. At last he reached the other side and crawled up on to the solid glacier. "Come on, it is quite safe," he called to me cheerfully; so tying myself on to the rope again, I obeyed. I don't know how I got on to the bridge, it seemed to take ages; I was so frightened of not distributing the weight properly and breaking through, and the black abyss below me was not an encouraging thing to fall into. Once safely settled I cautiously worked my way along as my leader had done; I was not consciously afraid and certainly had no desire to fall off, but when I crawled on to the glacier beside Graham my heart was beating so hard I only just nodded in answer to his question as to whether I felt all right. Next the swags were tied on to the rope and hauled over, and lastly Tom safely negotiated the bridge, and we all stood together once more and gazed triumphantly at the conquered foe. We experienced no page 68further difficulty, but the sun was cruelly hot, and burnt down upon us from a cloudless sky, until the reflected glare from the ice was almost unbearable, in spite of dark glasses. We plodded steadily on up the steeply rising head of the glacier, and about 2 p.m. reached the bivouac, the situation of which is on a small patch of rocks at an altitude of 8,000 feet. The place was just large enough to pitch two tents; the last party had kindly removed the larger stones, and what was left was a nice assortment of small sharp stones like road metal. I suppose my expression betrayed me as I surveyed this, for Graham at once hastily assured me that it would be quite comfortable once he had picked it over a bit and made a few convenient holes. Meanwhile snow was melting off a sun-warmed rock, and running into all our available vessels. While we waited for the water the men pitched the tents, using our ice-axes for posts and the Alpine rope for a ridge pole. When pitched these tents are just about high enough to sit up straight in, and big enough to accommodate three persons comfortably. As soon as the water was ready it was put on to boil in a methylated spirit cooker, which boils two quarts in about ten minutes. After lunch we all crawled into our tents and tried to sleep. It was intensely hot; any one who had not experienced it would find it hard to believe that at an altitude of 8,000 feet, surrounded by snow and ice, one could be in a tent with the flaps open and swelter as in an oven. Sleep was impossible, so I lay with my head out of the door and looked at my surroundings. Straight in front of me was a gap like a half-circle in the Dividing Range, known as Baker's Saddle; through this I could see soft billowy clouds on the Westland side, and rising out of them the tops of the mountains. The most noticeable was Mount Sefton, a snow-crowned pyramid towering high above all else.

This new side of an old friend was disconcerting; from the Hermitage, Mount Sefton is a tremendous wall running north and south for about a quarter of a mile. From my page break
Mount SeftonThe Mount Cook Bivouac on the Hooker Side.

Mount Sefton
The Mount Cook Bivouac on the Hooker Side.

page 69new view-point a jagged rock ridge in the south-west led to a sharp peak which rose at one bound to a thousand feet above it—evidently two sides of a mountain may differ as much as the proverbial two sides of a question.

About 5 p.m. Graham turned out and announced he was going to reconnoitre our route for next day, and kick steps while the snow was yet soft. While he was gone Tom appeared with a troubled countenance, the source of which I soon discovered was the fact that he was to be left in the bivouac while we made the final attack. He begged me to put a word in with Graham to allow him to accompany us. I pointed out as considerately as possible that he knew nothing of climbing, and that our expedition was already considered a rash one, so to add an untried and untrained member to it would be the height of folly. I felt inclined to remind him of his feelings on Mount Sealy, but refrained. Graham came back in the middle of the discussion, and squashed poor Tom's hopes at once. He was looking weary and dispirited, and I soon learned from him that everything was as bad as it well could be, consequently he had not much hope of success for the morrow. By 9 p.m. we were all settled for the night. I expected to be bitterly cold, but fortunately it was very still, and after putting on all my spare clothes and crawling into my sleeping-bag, I managed to keep passably warm. Sleep I could not; between excitement at the thought of the coming climb, my rocky bed, and the continuous boom of avalanches that thundered from La Perouse opposite, rest was impossible. Before morning a wind arose and the sides of the tent began to flap angrily. At 2.30 a.m. I heard Graham inquiring if I were awake. On my answering he came to my tent with the news that the glass was going down and the wind rising; these facts did not add to our cheerfulness. Still we determined to start if possible, so packed our rucksac in readiness, and breakfasted with what cheerfulness we could muster while waiting for day-page 70light. The wind seemed to be dying down, and at 4.45 a.m. we set out, leaving Tom still sound asleep. The snow was frozen hard, but we easily followed in Graham's footsteps of the previous night. We traversed along a steep snow slope until we reached the head of the basin formed by the west buttress of Mount Cook, Green's Saddle, and Mount Dampier. From side to side at the junction of rock and snow this basin is seamed with a huge burgschrund. Climbing to the lower lip of this we sought a possible crossing-place. Where Mr. Earle's party had crossed it the previous March was impossible. We kept away to the right as our only chance of finding a bridge. At least we found a place that looked possible, but dangerous, the rocks above it being heavily coated with snow and ice, and up these we must find our way. I anchored with the rope round my ice-axe, while Graham crossed the schrund and began attacking the icicles and loose snow on the rocks above him, to clear a few possible hand-and foot-holds. His position was most precarious, and the task looked hopeless. As I watched and waited every warning that I had received before starting on this expedition came back to me. For the first time I realized how helpless we would be if Graham came to grief and had no one but a girl to depend upon. After a while it was evident that there was only one possible point of attack, and this was out of reach unless he had some one's shoulders to stand upon. Bitterly we regretted the absence of Murphy at this moment. It was no use offering myself as a step ladder, as my modest eight stone would hardly bear the weight of a six-foot man; and my climbing on Graham's shoulders and trying my luck as leader he would not hear of, the foot-hold above being so slight that when I got there it was doubtful if I could keep my balance while giving him some assistance with the rope. If either of us lost our balance the inevitable consequence was a fall into the schrund. We were beaten, and I knew it; so quietly I suggested page 71that he should come down, and after one more hopeless look he complied, and was soon standing beside me on the brink of the schrund. Neither of us had much to say; it was one of the bitterest moments I ever experienced, and mere words were useless. We must have stood there half an hour, knowing it was hopeless, yet hating to leave, thinking of all the plans we had made and the obstacles we had overcome to be landed in such a cul-de-sac. One thing did console me a trifle, and that was the knowledge that no man or woman would climb Mount Cook by this route for another year; and by that time I would be in the field again. For the time being I was beaten, but only till it was possible to try again. At last with a sigh we agreed it was no use standing there and freezing any longer, so reluctantly I led down, following our footsteps back to the bivouac, at which we arrived at 8.30 a.m. to find Tom still peacefully sleeping. We indulged in a second breakfast, about the most cheerless meal I ever partook of, and packing up, started on our long homeward tramp. The day turned grey and cold, and another consolation was offered to us in the fact that even if we had succeeded, we would have been half frozen and had no view—that wonderful view which I had pictured in my imagination so often. Well, I could wait another year, and so I began building plans again as we toiled homeward.

We safely straddled over our crevasse, and by 3 p.m. we were back at our first bivouac. By this time the only thing I cared about was sleep, not having had any for two nights. Graham was not in much better case, so we threw ourselves down in the long grass, and left Tom, who had had his full share, to do all the work. I most deeply resented being awakened to eat, food being as nothing compared to sleep; at 4 p.m. it took some moral persuasion to rouse me for our seven-mile tramp to the Hermitage. Once started, the walking soon became merely mechanical, and we plodded steadily along and reached page 72the Hooker Bridge in about an hour and a half. Here we paused for a few moments' rest. I was just trying to make myself look respectable, in case I was not able to sneak in the back way unobserved, when Professor Spencer and a party of friends hove in sight. I had to submit to introductions, questions, and sympathy, knowing the while that my appearance was hardly calculated to inspire any one with a sympathy for mountaineering. A badly sunburnt face, wind-whipped hair, and an exceedingly abbreviated climbing costume none the better for having been slept in for two nights, were a sum total no doubt appalling to the visitor fresh from civilization. I escaped as soon as possible, and reached the Hermitage with an hour to spare before dinner. At that meal I was able to present myself in a somewhat less appalling condition and take up the cudgels for mountaineering against the assaults of the uninitiated. Next day I took a well-earned rest and did not appear till lunch-time, and then spent a lazy afternoon writing and reading. The two following days were wet, but on the 27th it seemed inclined to clear. Seizing the opportunity, the professor and I, accompanied by Graham, set off for the Ball hut. We wished to make a trip across the Dividing Range to the West Coast via Graham's Saddle, and back by the Copland Pass to the Hermitage. Fate ruled otherwise, and we spent four days of pouring rain at the hut, and then, despairing of fine weather and distinctly tired of our cramped quarters, returned on the fifth wet day to the Hermitage. The professor's time was getting short, so he decided to give up the West Coast journey and spend a few days at his favourite Lake Wanaka instead.

Meanwhile a young Canadian had expressed a wish to go to Westland via the Copland Pass and back by Graham's Saddle; this fell in with my plans, so we joined forces and decided to start on the first opportunity.