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  • iainthow


Updated: Nov 8, 2023

Suddenly the plane lurched and started shuddering. There was a gasp from the pair on the right hand side, and there was the summit of Mount Cook about thirty feet away, looking very small and precarious (we discovered later that our pilot had actually touched the skis of a plane down on the summit!). I tried to visualise myself standing on it but failed dismally. We bumped and bounced our way past it, then the plane slipped sideways and dived. Suddenly all we could see was ice; hanging glaciers and huge seracs loomed everywhere. Once you got used to the crazy angles and wild swoops it was exhilarating, and you could recognise bits of route from the guidebook description and realise that they weren't too bad. I remember thinking "that's just like Tower Ridge". For those who didn't know where the route went it produced the opposite impression, however, as the parts of the mountain that made the impact were the intimidating ones, and there was no shortage of those!

Aoraki, Mount Cook, New Zealand

Cook East Face. Zurbriggen's Ridge is just right of the main sweep of ice, and the rockfall is directly below the summit

In no time we were deposited on the glacier with huge sacks and 8 days food, and 20 minutes plod took us to Plateau Hut. I'm no fan of Alpine Huts (noisy, overcrowded, expensive & smelly), but I enjoyed this one. Perhaps it's because the routes generally take longer than their European equivalents, so most people take rest days between them, so that there are generally lots of keen mountaineers lazing about socialising, and consequently a very relaxed atmosphere. Certainly the view is superb, with Cook & Tasman one way and the Malte Brun Range the other. Cook does its best to psych you out by regularly throwing off house-sized boulders from the rockfall scar. In 1991 the top 50 feet fell away, taking a large slice of the East Face with it. Millions of tons of rock travelling at several hundred miles an hour crossed the plateau, just missing the hut, planing the nearby icefall flat and travelling three miles across the Tasman Glacier and 1000 feet up the other side. People left Cook alone for a while!

Plateau Hut, Mount Cook, New Zealand

Morning above Plateau Hut

12.30 came all too soon. No sleep, thanks to a booming-voiced clergyman next door regaling all and sundry with tales of his exploits and provoking some very unchristian comments from those climbing the next day. By 1.30 we were off. Crampons on, rope up, mind in neutral for the gentle downhill to the bottom of the route. There were 11 of us heading for Cook, 4 going up the technically easy Linda Glacier and 3 ropes up the harder but safer Zurbriggen's Ridge. My clumsiness left us last in line, as I knocked my headtorch off my helmet twice (make sure you replace perished elastic folks!). Three easy ice pitches and we joined the others in a cave for a longish wait as the rope of three in front dealt with a slightly harder pitch. By the time it was my turn it had good footholds in it, although it was still steep and it's a long time since I led a proper ice pitch in the dark.

We slipped up above it, carrying on up a couple of easy angled ice streaks, whereas if we'd gone rightwards we'd have been on easy snow. Daylight showed us the error of our ways (and how low down we still were) and we started moving together. 3000 feet of 60 degree snow later we arrived at the haven of the Linda Shelf. I enjoyed it, but then I'd had three weeks peak bagging to get fit, whereas Liz had come straight from the office, and was still a bit psyched from the plane flight. The shelf was positively crowded, with the four coming up the easy route, and the pair in front of us deciding to go down, as it was by now late morning - and as locals they would have plenty of chances at the summit (they got there a week later). As anything-but-locals we decided to continue, and romped gleefully over a rock pinnacle and up "Tower Ridge" thinking "rock at last". The four in front took an unbelievably slow 4 hours over this, only explicable by the fact that much New Zealand rock is lousy, so many kiwis become good ice climbers while still utterly hopeless on rock.

Above the buttress the snow became soft, and we plodded up a broad ridge, slowed by altitude and lack of sleep. The rope of three passed us on their way down and warned us that the summit was now guarded by a 20 foot overhanging ice wall, but gave us the comforting news that it wasn't far away and that they'd cut an ice bollard above it to abseil off - I wasn't sure that the last part was comforting!

Mount Tasman from Mount Cook, New Zealand

Liz on Zurbriggen's Ridge

Although the ice wall overhung (it would have been a real shock without the warning) it had big flakes jutting out which you could bridge, rather scarily. I traversed right to avoid the steepest bit and put in a screw. It fell out. I put in another nearby, which stayed in but wasn't gripping properly. Liz's belay was a snow stake in soggy snow. I looked down the 6000 feet of the Empress Face and decided not to fall off. Some thwacking and teetering later I arrived at the ice bollard, where things were much more solid, got a good belay and brought Liz up. Halfway up there was a most unladylike comment, as one of the bolts in the pick of her (brand new) ice hammer had come loose as she was pulling up on it. A few minutes later it fell out completely, making the hammer useless. We discovered later that this was the fourth hammer of this make to fail in the Cook area in the previous ten days - the same bolt had gone in all of them. Luckily she was above the pitch when it went. The comic part (only funny in retrospect, of course) was that it wasn't Liz's hammer - she had borrowed her husband's flashy new gear when he had been unable to climb due to a ski-ing accident. Her own basic but well-tested hammer would have done much better.

Mount Cook from Mount Tasman, New Zealand

Cook from Tasman. The ice cliff is where the ridge narrows just before the summit, and the Linda Shelf runs down left to right below the Gunbarrels Icefall

The summit was a scary place. A thin ridge of skittery ice, vertical on one side and perhaps 70 degrees on the other, made far worse by hearing blocks dropping off the face underneath you. I glanced over the edge, but only briefly, and neither of us hung around for a summit photo. A hundred insecure feet down to the ice cliff. The bollard made a cracking noise as I abseiled off it and a bit fell off, but it stayed intact. We remembered to check that the rope ran freely before Liz came down, and were quite ridiculously proud of the fact. Below the ice cliff things immediately felt less serious, and grins of relief appeared - I felt light-headed and almost giggly. Our pace picked up as we headed downhill. Amazingly we met the four Kiwis still going up - they took 24 hours on the route and still only reached the bottom of the ice cliff. I noticed later that they still signed their names in the ascents book, which was definitely cheating!

Linda Glacier, Mount Cook, New Zealand

Linda Glacier, with the Gunbarrels central and the Linda Shelf going left below them

A few quick abseils took us to the Linda Shelf, and the infamous "Gunbarrels". This icefall has caused many of the deaths on Cook over the years (1200 parties have reached the top, perhaps 2500 people, and 40 have died - not an enviable record, most deaths taking place on the "easy" Linda route). The recommended technique is to run like hell for ten minutes until you are out of range - running roped up in crampons was certainly a new experience! Neither of us fell over, so more grinning ensued, then more snow plod, and an obvious trail to follow down the glacier. A bit of jinking about round crevasses, a couple of jumps and a teeter along the upturned edge of a huge wedged ice block. It was fun, as we knew we were home free, and it was only a matter of time before we were back at the hut. The last slope seemed endless though; flat in the morning, it was undoubtedly uphill now. We missed the daily radio call by 20 minutes, but nobody was worried as they could see that we weren't far away. After 18 hours out we staggered in for brews, food and bed. Nothing could have woken me the next morning.

Mount Haidinger, New Zealand

Mt Haidinger from Mt Dixon

We spent most of the next two days sunbathing, with a minor foray out of the hut at one in the morning to decide that the snow was too soft for a big peak. I had a rush of blood to the head on the second day and soloed the 10,000 foot Mt Dixon via a loose but easy rock ridge and a pleasant snow arete, but this only took four hours, leaving plenty of time for lounging around. Leaving a hut in daylight and being back for a late breakfast was sheer luxury!

Mount Tasman, New Zealand

Tasman from Zurbriggen's Ridge. Silberhorn Ridge comes up from the bottom right

We headed off for Mt Tasman the next morning, The same grade as Cook, but by comparison it was a sunday stroll. Another early start, but some sleep beforehand, and an amble across to the foot of the face, where we discovered that the nice neat trail of a day or two before had been wiped out by an avalanche and acquired a few large holes. A little casting about found an alternative, then a short pitch across a bergschrund took us onto the Silberhorn Ridge. The so-called Couloir turned out to be a couple of pitches of steepish snow and boulders, where two other pairs caught us up. By now we knew everyone in the area, so the rest of the trip was a social occasion.

We crested a rise just below the Silberhorn when the sun came up, and got our first view of the summit ridge of Tasman. It was awe-inspiring. The sharpest ice ridge I'd ever seen curved up into a graceful spire and dropped away into 4000 feet of nothing on either side. The whole lot was a glowing orange colour and I was so stunned by it that I forgot to take the camera out!

Silberhorn Ridge, Mount Tasman, New Zealand

Summit ridge, Tasman

Both Liz & I were thinking "are we out of our league here?", but neither of us said anything so we climbed it anyway. One side was perfect snow ice and we cramponned along happily until a steepening forced us out onto the North Face. Here the snow was softer and 5 of us huddled together as Alistair carefully excavated a row of huge buckets along beneath the cornice. Returning to the ridge brought more airy tiptoeing until we reached the surprisingly large summit, wide enough for us all to sprawl in comfort - another contrast to Cook.

On Silberhorn Ridge, Mount Tasman, New Zealand

Liz and I on the detour onto the North Face, Tasman. Photo Ben Winubst

The descent went easily, with the abseil over the bergschrund providing some minor slapstick, as nearly everyone collapsed the now soft lower lip, thus ending up dangling in the slushy hole. Dean deserved an award for the best "stranded whale manoeuvre" I've seen in years. We found a more direct route down the glacier than before, with a couple of minor jumps and one heart-in-mouth snow bridge. Even the slope up to the hut seemed less uphill than three days before.

We had a late start the next day as we were moving down to Beetham Hut on the other side of the Tasman Glacier in search of growing things and real rock.

We had been told that this was a four hour trip, but it took us nine, partly due to our inability to find a route across a crevassed hanging glacier in thick mist, which forced us to descend thousands of feet of loose rubble, and partly due to "four hours" being complete bullshit. We learned later that our informant was taking bets on whether we'd make it before nightfall. We did (just), which cost him four pints of beer.

Malte Brun, Mount Cook National Park, New Zealand

Malte Brun and the Aiguilles Rouges. Beetham Hut (now destroyed) was by the stream directly below the summit of Malte Brun, and our bivvy was in the next valley left.

After the obligatory sunbathe we had a leisurely afternoon stroll up to a three star bivvy (flat, walled, near to running water and a wonderful view). In the morning a long scramble gave us two peaks for the price of one; Rum Doodle (mainly for the name) and the excellent Malte Brun. We followed the Original Route and were on top for 10 o'clock, then the lovely knife edged rock arete of the West Ridge and a few abseils down a grotty gully took us back to the bivvy. We were brewing up back in the hut before a late afternoon storm came in. Two friends on the nearby North Rib weren't so lucky. Their route was harder so the storm caught them on the summit. Descending in a white out they lost the route, had their ropes chopped by stonefall (while Marc was abseiling down them!), got caught by darkness, had both headtorches fail and had to bivvy on a small ledge in disgusting weather. I passed within yards of them the next morning but the mist was so thick that I didn't see them.

Malte Brun, Mount Cook National Park, New Zealand

Malte Brun from Beetham Hut, West Ridge on the left

Liz had walked out with the offer of a lift from the road end to the campsite, but I couldn't resist the lure of another hill. I climbed the Aiguilles Rouges up gorgeous chunky slabs at about severe. For once the rock was solid, the sun shone and playing was the order of the day. An easy snow gully provided a rapid descent, then back to the hut for lunch and an endless slog out. I picked a poor route across the Tasman Glacier, had a boulder move under me, hit my head and was briefly knocked out. When I finally scrabbled up the moraines to the track I had to walk five miles down it before a passing landrover managed to squeeze me in among the seven others he was already taking out. I got back to the campsite about 10 o'clock to find that the keas (alpine parrots) had eaten large holes in my tent. By then I was too tired to care. Well, I only had a jungle and a couple of volcanoes left to cope with, and I needed a new tent anyway!

Aoraki, Mount Cook, New Zealand

Aoraki (Mt Cook) from below Mueller Hut

This article first appeared in Climber Magazine in 1994

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