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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 VIII — Getting into Training

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Chapter VIII
Getting into Training

Sing thou of Hope!
Of Hope that lights the world to strong endeavour!
Height beyond height but loftier summits show,
Depth beneath depth reveals a depth below.
Choose thou the best.
There is no resting ever.
Sing thou of Hope!

On the principle that the early bird was likely to catch the mountaineering worm in the shape of Mount Cook, I left Sydney early in November 1910. For three months beforehand I had been training hard in the best physical culture school that Sydney possesses, "The Dupain Institute of Physical Education." I emerged from my quarter of strenuous work, under Miss Cadogan's capable hands, fit for anything, and with a reserve fund of endurance to draw upon which may mean all the difference between success and failure on a difficult and possibly dangerous climb. Graham looked me over with an approving eye when I arrived at the Hermitage, and admitted that I was trained to a hair and in better form than he had ever seen me. Nevertheless, he said it would be wise to spend a week or so in minor climbs, to put me thoroughly in touch with the mountains again, before we made our second attempt on Mount Cook. So Monday the 14th saw me setting forth for Mount Annette. The weather was astoundingly hot, worse than I had left behind me in Sydney, and as page 88we did not get away from the Hermitage till 10.30 a.m. we had the full benefit of the worst of it.

We had only gone a short way when I observed something dripping from the rucksac. On examination we discovered the Thermos had sprung a leak, so while Graham went back for a refill I sauntered on to Black Birch Creek. I found on arriving there that a paternal Government had bridged it since my last visit; so gone were the exciting days when to cross it one must leap lightly from one slippery boulder to another, with the chance of an icy bath if the leap was unsuccessful. The bridge gave me a regretful feeling that the mountains were fast becoming civilized, and I felt a pang such as no doubt assails the mountaineer in Switzerland when he sees a railway crawling up a beloved peak. Fortunately it will take a generation or two for New Zealand to arrive at such a state of barbarism. For a long while yet, I hope, the happy climber may still have his mountain all to himself, undefiled by railways, tourists, and beer bottles. Graham joined me just beyond the bridge, and we sweltered up the steep and slippery grass slopes to the left of Sebastopol, which lead up to the Mount Annette Ridge. We lunched at an enchanting view-point and watched Mount Cook play hide-and-seek with impudent soft white clouds from Westland, but at last his dignity was overcome and he hid his sulky head for the time being. Lying on the cool grass was very pleasant after our hot scramble, and, loath to leave so charming a spot, I demanded all the Hermitage news, and we were soon deep in tales of the past and plans for the future. At last the mounting sun warned us that if we meant to accomplish anything it was time to be going; so we set off up the ridge leading to Mount Annette. It was uneventful climbing, and an icy wind greeted us on the summit, so we spent no time there, but descended via the Sealy Range, reaching the Hermitage at 6.30 p.m.

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The next few days were wet, so we did nothing. Amongst the visitors at the Hermitage was a member of Scott's expedition, who had been sent up to gain some experience in glacier work and snow and ice conditions. Graham had instructions from the Government to put himself at the gentleman's disposal, so all hopes of climbing were off till this matter was disposed of. As anything was better than doing nothing, I joined in with the party, which consisted of Mr. T., his sister, and Mr. S., a Christchurch man. On Thursday, the 17th, we set out for the Ball hut. On the way Mr. T. decided he would like to explore the terminal face of the Tasman Glacier, so with his sister and Graham he set off for it. Mr. S. and I went on to the Ball hut and prepared dinner against their return.

Next morning was fine, so we started out to climb Mount Mabel and return to the Hermitage via the Ball Pass. The first hour is a wearisome business; we had to climb through scrub, waist and sometimes shoulders high. Even at that early hour of the morning the sun beat down upon us, and we sweltered and dripped with our exertions. Mr. T. and I defied all mountaineering rules and ate snow whenever we could get it; and I am bound to say suffered no ill-effects whatsoever. Eventually we reached the summit of Mount Mabel, 7, 150 feet, and then descended to the Ball Pass. We had some glorious glissades, one 2,000 feet long, which swept in a gracious curve to avoid some rocks, and required no little skill to manipulate. We shot down to the Hooker Valley in twenty minutes, rather a contrast to the six hours it had taken us to toil up. It was terribly hot, so we rested by a stream at the foot of the snow slopes for an hour. Then we had a seven-mile tramp down the Hooker Valley to the Hermitage. Saturday's car brought up a load of tourists, so the guides were busy taking them minor excursions. The weather was so hot that I was not sorry to stay indoors and develop photographs.

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Mr. T. was leaving on Monday, after which Graham would be at my disposal and we might plan our attack on Mount Cook. The Hermitage was so full, and guides so few to cope with the demand made upon them, that I had decided not to chance being hung up again for want of a second guide; so I had written and engaged Alex Graham to be my private guide for a month. He was to come over from Westland as soon as we wired him that Mount Cook was in fit condition to climb. The top rocks were still icy, and we were waiting for them to clear before we made the attempt.

Mr. T. did not wish to climb on Sunday, so I promptly snared Graham, and we decided to make an expedition to the head of the Muller Glacier and climb Barron's Saddle. On Sunday we had an early breakfast in the kitchen, and were off before the Hermitage awoke.

I wanted to skip for joy, and felt like a truant evading school, bent on enjoying myself to the full. However, we soon settled down to an easy, steady pace.

Though it was only 6.30 a.m. the morning was intensely hot, and we knew it would take all our energy to tramp over the ten miles of moraine and glacier that lead to the saddle. I had not been up the Muller since the eventful day of my first climb. Looking back on it, it seemed a very long while ago, and when I thought of the scared little novice who hated stepping over a 2-foot crevasse I found I had unconsciously come to look at things from a very different angle since then.

We reached the clear ice at last, and plodded along silently in the heat. The sky was filled with soft white clouds, which made a splendid background for Mount Cook, so we called a halt, and I took some photographs, trying experiments with a yellow screen that had just been sent to me from Sydney. Then while we ate a second breakfast we took counsel together. The day was hot, the way to Barron's Saddle long and devoid of any hope of excitement; page break
The Muller Glacier and Mount Sealy.

The Muller Glacier and Mount Sealy.

page 91just a snow plug with an easy rise at the end. We both felt it was not good enough; we needed something requiring more effort and a spice of danger to make us forget the heat and thoroughly enjoy ourselves. Near the head of the Muller Glacier on the left-hand side stood two virgin peaks —one rose like a pyramid with a rock ridge leading to the summit, promising some good rock-work, which we both appreciate. Pointing to this peak, I suggested we should give up Barron's Saddle and make an attempt for the virgin peak. After a few moments' consideration Graham agreed, and off we went. We still had a mile or so of glacier to traverse, but it sped past in no time, to the tune of our joyous speculations as to what was in store for us and the hopes of conquering a virgin peak. We left the Muller Glacier at 11.15 a.m., keeping on the right-hand side of a small glacier—the Williams, I think. The snow was soft, but no sign of crevasses. However, Graham put his foot through one while he was intently gazing skyward, picking out a route, and went in up to his waist. In the middle of making a remark that he had better look where he was going, I fell into one myself, and found my toes dangling in space, and was only supported by clinging to my ice-axe, which was fortunately wedged firmly above me. Graham turned at my exclamation, to see only a head bobbing above the snow. I made several futile attempts to get out unaided, but the lip simply broke away with me, so at last Graham had to take me underneath the arms and ingloriously haul me to the surface. Too late we remembered what a thrilling photograph we could have taken. We took this episode as a warning to put on the rope, Graham remarking it would be "awkward for him if he lost me altogether." Shortly after this we gained the rocks, which were in splendid condition, not a loose stone anywhere. We spent a joyous ten minutes, but it was short-lived, for we soon came to an impossible bit, and had to give up the rocks in favour of a snow couloir. The slope we had to traverse page 92was steep, and a week of burning sun had left it in a most treacherous condition; it was ready to avalanche at any moment. I rolled a stone on to it, and with a hiss a great piece of the slope slid away, gathering fresh snow every minute. We spent rather an uncomfortable time traversing this couloir, and would have gladly left it alone had any other way been practicable. Every time Graham took a step I waited with my heart in my mouth for the slope to slip away with us. Twice we heard the warning hiss, and small avalanches swept down on either side of us, leaving a deep groove in the snow from top to bottom, but fortunately nothing happened to us. I had no faintest desire to be rolled in a gigantic snowball for a thousand feet, and probably smothered in the process. We breathed a distinct sigh of relief when our feet touched solid rock on the other side. We pressed steadily up, and only encountered one more nasty place. This was a rounded projecting buttress of rock, very smooth and scant of hand-and foot-hold, and our rope was not long enough for Graham to reach a thoroughly safe position. I was none too secure myself, and quite helpless to stop him if he slipped. I clung with my face turned to the rock, my feet on a ledge, and my hands stuck in a crack above my head, for what seemed an eternity and was really about seven minutes, while he tried hold after hold, and at last let go with his feet and swung himself round, his whole weight resting on his arms, and worked himself along with his hands in a crack until he was round the obstacle and lost to view. In a moment he called to me to come on, and not put more trust in the rope than I could help, as he could not get into a good position until I moved and gave him a little more length. I made several attempts, but the thought of swinging in space over a snow slope that would avalanche if a pebble hit it was too much for me. I managed to give him the extra rope he needed, and then announced I was coming over the buttress instead page 93of round, if he could help me a bit with the rope. He agreed, and somehow I managed to haul myself up and arrived, breathless but safe, and we sat down in the first convenient spot, and concluded that we had had enough excitements for one day, and that this was the worst (or best, which ever way one looks at it) piece of rock-work I had done, and more difficult than anything we had met with on Mount Malte Brun last year. Another half-hour up an easy rock ridge and the summit was in sight. We reached it without difficulty at 2.15 p.m., and concluded we must have climbed 4,000 feet, having left the glacier three and a half hours before. We had no aneroid, so could not get the exact height of our peak, but it must be over 8,000 feet, as it was considerably above Barron's Saddle, and that is 7,654 feet. The day was perfect, with not a breath of wind. We stood and gazed around us trying to take in all the wondrous scene. Mount Sealy towered up quite close to us, looking strange and unexpectedly large from this side. The Dobson Valley stretched away beneath our feet; it is very narrow, with a silver thread of river winding through, and in the afternoon shadows looked like the hollow between two dark white-crested waves. I took a photograph of it, and it turned out for all the world like one of Doré's pictures in "Paradise Lost." The West Coast stretched away in front of us, ridge after ridge, peak after peak, to the horizon. The Muller Glacier wound like a white snake at our feet, Sefton's great white wall towering into the blue sky at its base. Farther north we could see La Perouse and St. David's Dome, and the whole length of the Hooker Glacier crowned by Mount Cook. Away eastward the Tasman and Murchison Glaciers and their respective peaks leading down to the Tasman River, whose course we could follow through yellow plains till it emptied itself into the blue of Lake Pukaki, fifty miles away.

I was indeed lucky in climbing my first virgin peak on such a day. Other peaks were ahead of me of greater page 94name and fame, but I wondered if any of them would inspire me with the utter happiness, satisfaction, and peace of this little unknown peak, climbed on the spur of the moment and conquered only by strenuous effort. We lay in the sun on the summit for about an hour talking, taking photographs, and sometimes dozing. We decided to return via Mount Annette and Sebastopol. The snow was soft from the midday sun and we floundered knee-deep at every step. We crossed at the base of Mount Sealy rocks, a place of pleasant memories to me as the scene of my first good climb; from there through a pass that led to the slopes of Mount Annette. We traversed along towards Sebastopol, glissading whenever we could, and frequently bringing down small avalanches with us. Graham would not let me take off the rope, so I was nearly cut in two by it when brought up suddenly in mid-career. I though I was tired of snow slopes and was thankful to see the last of them, but they were nothing to the never-ending grass slopes of Sebastopol: every step jarred me from head to foot and they were slippery as glass. Down one would go frequently into a Spaniard, which besides being picturesque are prickly. I should not have been surprised to have come to an inglorious end at any moment. At last we reached Black Birch Creek just as the setting sun dyed the surrounding mountains a fiery crimson. The time being half-past seven, it was no use hurrying, as we could not arrive in time for dinner, so we sauntered home in the most perfect hour of the day, the air still and warm, and the long tussock grass looking like a field of golden grain in the yellow evening light. Nature was in one of her softest and loveliest moods, and after our strenuous exercise we fully appreciated the parting beauties she so lavishly displayed, adding the final touch to a glorious day.

Since our climb I have some reason to believe that this was not a virgin peak, but was climbed by Mr. Malcolm Ross, of Wellington, in mistake for Mount Sealy. I have page 95not had the opportunity of clearing the matter up, but virgin or not the climb will always have a very pleasant place among my memories.

The next day we took a well-earned rest, but once restored to my usual vigour I began to feel impatient to be off and try Mount Cook. Graham acknowledged that our recent experiences had proved that no further training was necessary—the only doubt that remained was whether the top rocks were free enough of ice and snow for us to make the attempt. To decide this point we made up our minds to take a trip to the head of the Hooker Glacier and obtain a close view of them and also ascertain the state of the glacier.

I invited Mr. S. to join the expedition, as I knew he was anxious to see as much of the mountains as possible. Miss Murray Aynsley also decided to come with us as far as the new hut which was being built up the Hooker Valley, at the foot of the Copland Pass. We left the Hermitage for the hut on the afternoon of November 23. On arriving there we had somewhat of a picnic, it being even less finished than we had imagined. Murphy, who was doing the carpentry work, knocked up a couple of bunks for Miss Murray Aynsley and myself, and the men slept on the floor. There were no tables, chairs, etc., so we had our supper outside on the grass, and were all very merry and contented. It became bitterly cold after sundown, and we were glad to retire to our shelter and very shortly to bed.

We left the hut at 4.30 a.m. next day and proceeded without excitement to the head of the glacier. When we arrived there we decided to climb Harper's Saddle, as we had come so far and the view from there would be much more satisfactory. The slopes leading to the saddle are very steep, and about half-way up they were seamed with a large schrund from side to side. Mr. S. had no ice-axe, only a walking-stick, which put him at rather a disadvantage, the slope in some places being hard ice and lying at an angle page 96of 60 degrees. However, we gained the summit, 8,580 feet, safely at 10 a.m. and sat down to study Mount Cook at our leisure. Shortly I was made joyful by Graham's verdict that another week of hot sun would free the top rocks of ice and leave everything in perfect condition for climbing.

An icy wind was blowing, which we tried in vain to dodge by descending a little on the western side and sheltering behind some rocks. We had something to eat there, and then climbed to the saddle again to take some photographs. This accomplished, we began the descent. I lent Mr. S. my ice-axe, as the steep icy steps were difficult to descend for a novice, especially when not properly equipped. I was not particularly happy myself during the descent: the wind smote us in fierce blasts, making it by no means easy to balance in the slippery ice steps. At last we arrived at the schrund, which we were able to jump, and after that our troubles were over. When we reached the hut we found that Miss Murray Aynsley had not forgotten to prepare for the thirsty mountaineers, and had the kettle boiling and tea made five minutes after our return, for which thought-fulness we were exceedingly grateful. We all returned to the Hermitage the same evening very well satisfied with the results of our expedition.

The next three days were wet and cold, with a sprinkling of snow on the mountain summits, but not enough to cause us any anxiety.

On the 28th I had a wire from Alex to say he was leaving next day and would reach the Copland hut on the evening of the 30th. Of course my spirits went up with a bound, and as it was a lovely day and nobody else seemed inclined to do anything but laze, I begged for a rock scramble to keep me in condition. It was late in the forenoon, so we had no time to go far afield; but Graham said he knew of a difficult ridge on Mount Wakefield that would be good training, so we set off for it.

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On our way we paused beside the Hooker River where it left the old channel in the autumn floods last year and burrowed a new course through the Muller moraine; it runs underground for about 100 yards and comes out to freedom once more with a leap and a dash. We waited about half an hour for a tottering ice pinnacle to crash down into the river, but waited in vain; however, as soon as we were a few yards away there was a resounding roar, and down it came, splitting into great blocks, which were swirled down the river, churning and grinding against the boulders with which the stream is strewn: finally it piled itself at the subterranean entrance until sufficiently melted or broken to pass through. In flood-time I have seen huge blocks large enough to hold a horse and cart come sailing smoothly down, to be checked by some unseen obstacle and turn clumsily over like a porpoise and disappear from sight, to emerge again yards away but little the worse for wear.

The Hooker in flood is an awe-inspiring sight; it tears down a roaring yellow stream with ice boulders crunching and grinding so as to make it impassable for days. I never see it without thinking of Macaulay's description of the Tiber:—

And like a horse unbroken When first he feels the reign, The furious river struggled hard And tossed his tawny mane; And burst the curb and bounded, Rejoicing to be free; And whirling down in fierce career, Battlement and plank and pier, Rushed headlong to the sea.

At last we tore ourselves away from this fascinating spot and began scrambling up a scrubby spur of the Wakefield; hot it was, and unpleasant, but no doubt good for reducing fat. 1.30 found us on a grassy plateau with a few stunted bushes, under one of which I promptly buried my head with some faint hope of cooling down, page 98while Graham got the lunch. We were very lazy, and did not move for a couple of hours, but I at last heard the call of duty and we set off for our rock scramble. We had gone a very little way when we were startled by a stone falling from above; then I heard an excited whisper from Graham: "Chamois! Look! Over there, to the right." Two of them were feeding on a little bit of grass about one hundred yards away. We stalked them breathlessly as close as we dared; one lifted its head and listened, and then went on feeding calmly. We watched them for a long time, and I could have wept for disappointment at leaving the camera behind—this day of all days we had expected to encounter nothing worth photographing. These chamois were sent out from Austria three years ago, and no one has ever had more than a glimpse of them since they were liberated. They are red-brown, about the size of an ordinary goat, and have curly horns. We saw two more later on in the afternoon; they were on the ridge above us, and bounded out of sight immediately. We did some good rock-work without a rope and arrived on the summit about 4.30 p.m. We had a few glissades and came home via the big shingle slide, which I have mentioned elsewhere.

Next day, to my joy, some Australian friends arrived quite unexpectedly, and we had long talks over home news and made plans for excursions together round the Hermitage. It being all new to them, I looked forward to showing the loveliest spots to sympathetic souls. However, my plans came to nothing, for in the morning a wire arrived from Alex to say he would reach the Copland hut that night, so all my time was taken up with preparation for the great climb.