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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 IX — The Ascent of Mount Cook

page 99

Chapter IX
The Ascent of Mount Cook

The silence and the sunshine creep
With soft caress
O'er billowy plain and mountain steep
And wilderness—
A velvet touch, a subtle breath,
 As sweet as love, as calm as death,
On earth, on air, so soft, so fine,
 Till all the soul a spell divine

We set off on the evening of November 30th, accompanied by Miss Murray Aynsley, who wished to come with us as far as the Hooker hut. After crossing the river, we wandered through grassy meadows filled with spring flowers, mostly white, as nearly all the New Zealand mountain flowers are. The path rising gently upward brought us in about three miles to the terminal Hooker moraine, over which we had to clamber—pathless, of course; we then descended again and crossed a rushing mountain torrent, over slippery boulders. This often means wet feet and an involuntary bath for the timid or careless. On this occasion we arrived quite safely at the other side, and began to struggle up the steep and stony path, which rises about a thousand feet in the three miles between here and the hut. Graham and a pack-horse joined us about an hour later; and just as we were preparing our evening meal, a distant hail from the regions of the page 100Copland Pass announced that Alex was over from Westland. Soon we distinguished him scrambling down the rocks, and we were shortly all shaking hands and asking a dozen different questions that no one had time to answer. He had made a record trip, coming through in one day instead of two, being anxious not to lose any of the good weather. We were soon deep in plans and discussing our chances of a successful ascent with that rabid enthusiasm that distinguishes the sportsman of all varieties, and is usually so very boring and unintelligible to the outsider. Calming down a little, we had our supper outside on the grass; and after it was finished, wrapped ourselves in rugs, and sprawled in various graceful attitudes in the grass, watching the after-glow creep up peak after peak, till it lit the topmost crest of Mount Cook with one triumphant wave of scarlet, which overflowing, spilled down its flanks in runnels of fire, lingering longest in some rocky cavern, where it glowed orange, crimson, and red, till the very heart of the mountain seemed aglow. Shortly after sunset a bitter wind sprang up, and we were glad to retire to the shelter of our hut and very soon to bed, as we proposed an early start next morning. Alas for our hopes, by midnight the hut was creaking and groaning like a ship in a heavy sea, and straining at the wire cables that bind it to the ground, under the onslaught of a fierce westerly gale. Sleep was impossible; it seemed as if each moment we would be lifted bodily and blown over the edge of the moraine, on whose side the hut is perched, and deposited in the glacier 200 feet below. At dawn the gale showed no signs of moderating, so though the day was perfectly fine, we had to give up all idea of starting and spend the day in and about the hut. The enforced rest really did us more good than harm; but at the time, impatient as we were to get away, we did not look upon it in the light of a blessing. The following morning, page 101December 2nd, all was calm again, and we set off at 5.15 a.m. Both the Grahams were heavily laden with about 50-lb. swags. In vain I remonstrated; they were determined I should have every luxury as well as necessity, and they would not lighten them by so much as a pound. No woman ever had two more kind, considerate, and trusty companions. Words of mine can add but little to their reputation, for the Graham brothers are known and honoured from one end of New Zealand to the other; as guides, mountaineers, and men, their country is justly proud of them. But I would like to take this opportunity of publicly expressing my appreciation of all they so willingly and cheerfully have done for me; quite simply, and as a matter of course, in a spirit of pureminded chivalry that would not have shamed a member of King Arthur's "table round."

Everything went well with us this glorious summer morning. Fresh from our enforced rest, we made excellent time over the tedious miles of moraine, and soon descended on to the clear ice of the Hooker. At the icefall we had but little difficulty, as the crevasses were only just opening out; not having to leave the glacier for the rocks saved us hours of work. The whole expedition to the bivouac was child's play compared to our former journey, and we shortened the time by three hours, arriving at 11 a.m. As on the former occasion, it was unbearably hot, and by one o'clock we were enveloped in a thick south fog. As this is an excellent weather sign in New Zealand, no one was at all disturbed.

After fixing up the bivouac and having an hour's rest, the guides set off to kick steps for the morning, so that we could start before dawn; returning about 5.30 p.m., they reported everything in a most satisfactory state. They had walked over the schrund at the junction of rock and snow which had blocked us the year before, and followed up a snow couloir for about 1,000 feet. These steps would page 102save us some stiff rock-work in the morning and about an hour in point of time. Cheered by such news as this, dinner was a jubilant meal; and after it was over we crawled into our sleeping-bags as a protection against the evening chill and waited for the sunset. The fog was rapidly clearing, and as the setting sun's rays pierced through the thin mist there began a series of the most wonderful colour effects it is possible to imagine. They were beautifully soft and yet extraordinarily vivid. We saw the distant mountains through a luminous curtain of softest transparency. Away on the horizon outlined against pale green evening sky rose peak after peak vivid with an edge of purest gold; the nearer cones were touched with violet and rose, while over Baker's Saddle drifted soft little clouds of crimson and gold, which shattered themselves into rainbow mists and vanished as they touched the rugged, sun-warmed rocks that impeded their westward flight. The changes of colour were so quick it was impossible to follow them—they were here and gone in a breath. No voice was raised above a whisper; we seemed to be watching some scene in fairyland that at a sound would vanish and leave us dazed and desolated. Slowly the colours faded and the mountains were blotted out by the shadowy twilight, and innumerable stars glinted from the deep blue sky. The pageant was over, the day was done, and we who had witnessed it crept quietly to sleep, awed by a beauty such as one sees but once in a lifetime.

The evening turned exceedingly cold, and I decided that having already walked over most of the conventions since I began mountaineering, one more would matter nothing; so I suggested to the guides that they abandon their tent and save me from shivering in icy aloofness till morning. The plan worked well, and I really got some sleep, especially in the early morning when Alex lit the two "cookers" inside the tent, and a delicious sense of warmth and luxury, pervaded by a smell of methylated page 103spirit, stole over me. The next thing I knew was a polite request to wake up and eat breakfast at 1 a.m. By 2.45 we were off; it was bright starlight, perfectly calm, and very cold. We put on the rope, lit two lanterns, and started away, Peter leading, I in the middle, and Alex bringing up the rear. The lanterns cast just enough light to show the previous night's steps. The snow was frozen very hard, and in the dim light seemed to slope away to fathomless depths. We walked along in silence for about ten minutes, then suddenly something shot past me down the slope, and an expression of annoyance followed it. Peter's candle had escaped; luckily it brought up on the edge of a crevasse, and Alex was able to rescue it, while we waited and shivered. The air was so keen that every breath I drew cut me like a knife; but after about half an hour I warmed up and ceased to feel it. We crossed over the schrund and started up a steep couloir. About half-way up we were able to put out the lanterns, and by the time we gained the rocks at 4 a.m. it was dawn. Our climb was up the western buttress directly under the high peak, where not a ray of sunlight could reach us. There was no temptation to linger: movement was the only chance of warmth. The rocks were good, and I began to enjoy myself immensely. Alex, who had never climbed with me before, smiled approval as I shinned my way up, disdaining his proffered assistance. So Peter told him a little story between breaths, and advised him to leave me alone unless I asked for help or he, too, might "catch it hot." At 5.30 a.m. we stopped and had hot tea from a Thermos and some biscuits. It was too cold to be still long, and we soon set off again. The rocks we were now on were shaly and rotten, so we had to be exceedingly careful to prevent danger from falling stones. We were very thankful when we rose above them and found something solid once more. We found we were making record time and were much elated, but the last 1,000 feet page 104gave us great trouble—the rocks were coated here and there with a thin film of green ice, like glass, making hand-and foot-holds dangerous and every care necessary. We were at about 11,000 feet, and the ice was so cold that my fingers stuck when they touched it; the feeling gave me quite a shock and was most unpleasant. The same thing happened if we touched ice with the steel of our axes. At last we saw the dead-white summit gleaming above us, while the first ray of sunshine we had seen that day glinted near by. We went for it with a will, accomplishing a particularly nasty traverse over an icy couloir. When we reached the ice-cap we found it all wind-blown into projecting wavelets of ice, under which the rope caught on every possible occasion. Peter cut steps for 200 feet straight up the summit; then we turned slightly to the left, and reached some soft snow up which we could kick our way. We were within a few feet of the top. They sent me on alone the length of the rope. I gained the summit and waited for them, feeling very little, very lonely, and much inclined to cry. They caught my hands and shook them, their eyes glowing with pleasure and pride, and with an effort I swallowed the lump in my throat and laughed instead. Then we all began talking at once; it was only 8.40 a.m., and we had beaten any previous record by two hours, and I am'ere woman! I felt bewildered, and could not realize that the goal I had dreamed of and striven for for years was beneath my feet. I turned to them with a flash and asked if it were "really, truly the summit of Mount Cook," whereat they laughed very much and bade me look. Truly we were on top of the world, our little island world. Nothing impeded the eye—east, west, north, and south the country unrolled itself at our feet; range after range stretched away to the foothills in the north-east. Westward the sea gleamed in the sunshine, the waves breaking on mile after mile of silvery sand. Southward and east rolled the plains of page break
Mount Tasman from the Summit of Mount Cook. Westland in The Clouds.

Mount Tasman from the Summit of Mount Cook. Westland in The Clouds.

page 105Canterbury and Otago. Directly beneath our feet lay the Hermitage Valley filled with morning mists to the level of about 3,000 feet, out of which rose the countless spurs of the Benohau Range, like promontories from a sea of foam. Never was such a glorious day—not a breath of wind stirred, warm sunshine lit up the shining snows of countless peaks and sparkled on rushing rivers, green valleys, and far-away blue lakes. Human nature has but a limited capacity—this wide world was limitless. My eyes strayed from point to point: everything was different; old landmarks were swept away, or unrecognizable from a new angle. With a sigh almost of relief I turned my eyes to the little patch of snow on which we stood.

Westward, where we had ascended, it sloped gently down, and on the east, as I craned my neck to look over the brink, it fell in one sheer precipice for 4,000 feet, and with a gasp I sat back again; on the south we looked down upon a snow ridge sharp as a razor, leading to the middle peak; and beyond that again showed the rocks of the third peak. We speculated on the possibilities of a complete traverse of the three peaks from north to south, and decided it looked very ugly and would only be possible from south to north, taking the razor-like ridge beneath us on the upward grade. For the time my ambitions were satisfied, and I disclaimed any desire to attempt it, and turned my eyes northward. Here again the slope was not bad, and led down to Green's Saddle, from which a wickedly jagged rock ridge led up to New Zealand's highest virgin peak and third highest mountain, Mount Dampier; and on again in varied curves to the second highest peak, Mount Tasman. We spent two hours on the summit and took many photographs. Bitterly did I regret the fact that I was the merest amateur and knew nothing, only having owned a camera two months. No one had ever taken any successful pictures from the top of Mount Cook, and none had had page 106such a chance as this. The guides said the gods themselves must have been on my side; they had never known such a day on Mount Cook. For the first time I could look at last year's failure with equanimity—even rejoice in the defeat, since it had given us such a perfect day for our second attempt. At 11 a.m. we began the descent, Alex leading; the thought of descending the icy rocks was rather a nightmare, but we overcame them without harm by care and patience. I was congratulating myself that all was well, quite forgetting the rotten rocks lower down. They did not let us forget them for long; even now, after two years and much experience, the thought of the four hours we spent upon them makes me feel sick and shaky. We moved one at a time, and took every possible care, but now and again some one would dislodge a stone, and it would clatter down behind, or, if small, ping past like a rifle bullet. One fairly large one caught me in the middle of the back; fortunately it had not come far or fast, but it doubled me up for the time being. We had then only been on rotten rock for two hours, and had at least another two before us. I was afraid to put one foot before the other, my knees were shaky, and my bruised back one dull ache. Half an hour later, just as I was traversing an overhanging point, the whole thing gave way beneath my feet. Instinctively I jumped back, and heard an exclamation from Peter behind me, and felt the jerk of the rope as he tightened it. I stood with my face to a cliff, and a foot of rock to spare, while the stones rattled and fell in showers down to the glacier beneath; then I crawled on to Alex, who was round the corner, and Peter followed. Probably my face was white under its sunburn—I know the guides' were; without a word we all sat down in a safe place. I saw the Grahams looking furtively at me, and knew as well as if they had spoken that they were wondering how much more I could stand. As I did not know myself, I page 107pretended not to see their glances, and drank down some hot tea and ate a little with thankfulness. After half an hour's rest we went on again; we had passed the worst and had no further adventures, and at last arrived at the snow couloir. Once down it, Alex let out a whoop; I followed his example, and the three of us raced down the soft snow towards the bivouac, laughing and excited like so many schoolchildren. Arriving, just as I turned to go into my tent, Peter caught my hand and Alex stood beside me smiling. "Now we will congratulate you, now we are safe down and have beaten all previous records. Look!" and drawing out his watch he pointed to the time, 5.30 p.m. "By Jove! six hours up, two hours there, six and a half down; that time will take some beating, little lady," and Alex shook my other hand vigorously. "Thanks to the two finest guides in the mountains, it will," I answered, and I slipped past them into my tent, and throwing myself down, proceeded to rid myself of putties and boots, preparatory to a well-earned rest. We decided that we were all too tired to do justice to a large meal, so merely indulged in unlimited tea and a tin of frozen peaches, which latter will always have a kindly place in my memory as the most luscious dish ever offered to a hot and thirsty mountaineer.

After the meal was over I threw myself on my sleeping-bag and was shortly lost in oblivion. Waking a couple of hours later, I found that the preparations for a feast befitting the occasion were in full swing. When all was ready we gathered round a bubbling cooker and did justice to savoury tomato soup, cold meat, tinned fruit and bread and butter, the whole washed down with freshly brewed tea. The guides' capacity for the last-mentioned item was somewhat astounding; it vanished by the quart with astonishing ease and rapidity. The remnants of the feast cleared away, we crawled into our sleeping-bags and sought our well-earned rest. I awoke once or twice with cramped page 108limbs, or a sharp stone digging into my anatomy, but soon dropped off to sleep again.

Next morning no one attempted to move until about 7 a.m. In the enthusiasm of our successful return the evening before, some one had suggested that we might climb Mount Dampier, the then highest virgin peak in New Zealand, which lay close at hand. Now, though the enthusiasm was still there, the required energy was somewhat lacking. Instead, after breakfast we lay on the rocks, basking in the sun and discussing our previous day's experiences with that intense joy in the retrospective details which means so much to the enthusiastic sportsman, and especially the mountaineer, who at the moment of accomplishment has no time to spare for anything but the work at hand. Stretched at our ease in the peaceful sheltered warmth, we could enjoy the contrasts to the full. Foot by foot and hour by hour we lingered lovingly over the details of our latest achievement. We experienced once again the eerie start in the flickering candlelight, and thrilled to the crunch of the frozen snow beneath our nailed boots or the tuneful ring of axes on some icy slope. Our numbed fingers clung once more to the death-cold rocks, as we shiveringly awaited the word of our leader seeking the way above us, we watching meanwhile the glory of the sunrise which wakens the cold-blue ice world, till summit after summit is flashed into glowing life, and our own numbed bodies are warmed once more to that dauntless energy which makes life and motion a crowning joy. We know again the pride of the steady head, the long reach, and the sure foot, muscle and brain pitting themselves against the mightiest forces of nature as when life flows wild and free in the beginning of the world. All the primitive emotions are ours—hunger and thirst, heat and cold, triumph and fear—as yard by yard we win our way to stand as conquerors and survey our realm. And then the page 109primitive sinks back into obscurity and all those unplumbed depths within stir at the call. Spirit, imagination, name it what you will, it steals into the heart on the lonely silent summits and will not be denied. Even as the Great Master of old, who in time of tribulation "went up alone on to a high mountain," we hear the still small voice. Haply sometimes we may heed, and carry back to the dust and turmoil of the valley a glimpse of the vision that never was on land or sea.

After some discussion we made up our minds to return that day to the Hermitage, the alternative being another night at the bivouac, in order to make an attempt on Mount Dampier the following day. As we were short of food and the weather looked threatening, we decided to postpone the latter expedition for a more suitable occasion. Shortly we set about packing our rucksacs and striking camp. By 11 a.m. all was finished and we started off for our long tramp to the Hermitage. We reached the Hooker hut at a quarter past one. Here we rested for two hours and made such changes in our toilets as circumstances permitted and a return to civilization called for. In my case a billy of hot water and a brush worked wonders, and I was ready to face the critical glances of the tourist with equanimity. We met no one on the track, but on reaching the Hermitage I found my old friend Mr. McDonald in the backyard. He read our beaming faces aright, and gripping me enthusiastically by the hands he cried, "You did it, lassie—you did it sure enough!" Up went his hat in the air and a cheer followed it, which brought some more inhabitants to the spot to see what was in the wind. Laughing, I thanked him and made good my escape. The news soon went round and my friends came to my room, from which haven I declined to budge till dinner-time.

Superstitions die hard, and being perfectly well aware that the average person's idea of a woman capable of real page 110mountaineering or any sport demanding physical fitness and good staying power, is a masculine-looking female with short hair, a loud voice and large feet, it always gives me particular pleasure to upset this preconceived picture. In the year of grace 1910 a love of fresh air and exercise is not a purely masculine prerogative, fortunately, and should be quite easily associated with a love of beauty and personal daintiness, which the last generation deemed impossible except to the type of woman to whom personal adornment is the one serious pursuit in life.

The mere force of contrast always makes it a pleasure, after days of roughing it in suitable garments, to return to civilization and clothes which combine beauty with utility. Consequently, I strolled out to dinner immaculate in my prettiest frock, and so supported was able to face the hotel full of curious strangers and the toasts and congratulations that were the order of the evening. It was eleven o'clock before I got off to my room, where a real bed proved so alluring after two nights of solid rock that I stayed there until eleven next morning and made up my arrears of sleep.

I don't know who sent the news of our ascent to the papers, only that it was not myself or the Grahams; anyhow, they got it, and after that the deluge. From the moment the post-office opened on Tuesday, telegrams and cables came pouring in. To say I was astounded is to put it mildly. I expected and was gratified by some interest in our achievement amongst mountaineers and people who knew me personally, but there I had thought it would end. Instead, from members of the Government and the Admiral of the Fleet to unknown and unheard-of admirers in out-of-the-way towns came congratulations in every shape and form. In fact, for the first time in my existence I was famous. Needless to say I enjoyed it; as for Peter and Alex, with every fresh page break
Mount Tasman.The Tasman Glacier and The Malte Brun Range from the Summit of Mount Cook.

Mount Tasman.
The Tasman Glacier and The Malte Brun Range from the Summit of Mount Cook.

Mount Cook from the Tasman River.

Mount Cook from the Tasman River.

page 111wire of congratulation, which, of course, I duly shared with them, their smiles grew broader. Vainly they tried to keep a countenance of everyday solemnity, but a word dissolved them into the proud trainers of a prize pupil. For myself, I strove for a decent pretence of unconsciousness when pointed out to every fresh arrival as the heroine of the hour. When this began to pall, I took the first opportunity of going up the Tasman Glacier with my Australian friends, knowing that the nine days' wonder would be over on my return.