I meet Lee in the Old Mountaineer’s Café. He has his back turned to me, sipping a cup of tea, flicking through a copy of Alpinist magazine. Issue #45. He looks strong, lean, fast. He wears a buff over nape-length hair, sports a wiry beard and wears all the right branded clothing. Nottingham accent. A look in his eye like he’s ready for anything.
I’d been down in Queenstown, ice and mixed climbing on the West Face of the Remarkables – cragging, hiking, traversing dodgy loaded gullies on the Queen’s Drive. Breaking trail through waist-deep snow. The usual, low-commitment stuff. The weather in Cook village was wanting and the right partner had been hard to find.
Three weeks in New Zealand had turned into a training trip. By the end of week two, four-pitch alpine cragging and dry-tooling on drilled, spray-painted holds just wasn’t cutting it. The big mountains were lonely and I was in the market for new company.
Lee was in Cook village looking for a partner. I had three days to burn before my flight home. A textbook high pressure system was coming in from the west. Objectives aplenty. Discuss.
We toss up a few options. The MacInnes Ridge of Nazomi. The Hilary Ridge of Mt Cook. Stunning lines lying six to eight hours up the Hooker Glacier. Lee tells me he’s climbed hard ice in Norway and I realise what we should be trying. Ridge climbs are fun, but it is winter and the ice on south-facing aspects is where the real fun is to be had.
My thoughts flit to a photo snapped by some heli-skiers near the head of the Tasman Glacier. Mount Darwin and its broad south face. Five hundred metres height gain. Technical climbing. In my mind, I see runnels and gullies of ice flowing from a summit. Unclimbed lines. Darwin in winter. It seems like the perfect choice. The natural selection.
We’ve decided on the mountain, the aspect. Walk-in, walk-out. Just like Fyfe and his mates. What did Marty Schmidt used to say about the Mt Cook gravy train flying in to start climbing at the Grand Plateau?… It’s cheating.
We go light, taking bivy equipment but leaving most of the food behind. Seventy-two hours in the hills…. At a stretch. A dehydrated main meal each, six sachets of energy gel and two muffin bars. If we are gone for three days we will go without food on one of them. Light. Fast, supposedly.
“Light and fast means cold and hungry”. Steve House speaking.
Hang up the phone, it’s better if you don’t answer.
Who needs food when you’ve packed a sleeping bag? Walter Bonatti and Amir Mahdi survived an open bivy at eight thousand six hundred metres on K2. I’m sure we’d survive a night or two without dinner.
We kit up and leave the carpark. Skipoles out, I let Lee set the pace. He’s fast, fit and he has the speed to prove the eighty kilometres he jogs per week. I match his pace, comfortable, and we are away into the fading light. We move like we’ve been training partners for years. Round the terminal moraine.
The Caroline Face of Mount Cook looming over us. Nice aspect. Pretty enough to make the New Zealand $5 dollar note. Alot of history on that face. The much-lauded first ascent by Gough and Glasgow. Bill Denz’s ridiculous solo. And the lesser known enchainment of a new route on the right hand side bya visiting Slovenian. Sveticic.
The snow hangs heavy on the slopes. The seracs make the Caroline look like a place you wouldn’t want to be. Big, white and dangerous. Not for me. What’s the point? It’s all been done before hasn’t it? Not worth dying on a repeat from the 70s, even if it was within my capabilities. It’s not.
I’ll tell you what. You keep the Caroline Face and your $5 dollar note and I’ll go find something new. Even if I have to moraine-bash for the next twelve hours.
Mount Darwin, situated near the head of the Tasman glacier is a long way upstream. Climate change-induced glacial recession means the moraine walls have risen higher. The easy-to-crampon white ice diminished to half size. A wake of regurgitated detritus left behind by geologic time. The moraine, the moraine. Those goddamn piles of loose rock, clumped together into mountains themselves. A barely-navigable hellscape. Mordor minus the flames.
Below the walking track, we pick our way down the death trap known as Garbage Gully.
From there, a mere eighteen thousand metres, fifteen hundred in elevation and it’s the base of the route. Thirty-six kilometre round trip. No heavy parcels of food weighing us down. I can’t see why we can’t do it in thirty-six hours. Even untrained, I can run forty ks in less than four.
Lee is an arborist and a die-hard climber. Strong on rock, strong on ice and he runs. Alot. Good. We’ll move fast. Speed is good in a weather window like this. Maybe as important as the experience I don’t have. What use is experience if it takes you twice as long to plod up the low-angle snow slope?
We descend Garbage Gully. I slip and slide down it, Lee practically glissades. I never get better at moraine walls.
“How far do you reckon we’ll get tonight?” Lee, while we look across at Mordor in the evening’s dimming light.
“The white ice,” I state, categorically. That’s where we’ll be tonight.
We trudge and moraine-bash. Nothing eventful. Just walking, thinking about the climbing, calculating timings, taking in the hulking shape of De La Beche ridge dominating the skyline. We bivy before the white ice begins. Safe to say we don’t feel like navigating the minefield in the dark. Sleeping bags out. Shuteye. I’m beginning to feel comfortable in this environment. Not safe. It’s the mountains isn’t it? Just comfortable. Confident.
We wake. Boil snow. Same old routine. Camping’s fun isn’t it? We share half a muffin bar for breakfast. Caramel flavoured filling. Still better than a sachet of energy gel. Save the mush for later.
We move. Good cramponing for a time, turning to a plod in the mid-morning melt. We stop on the hour for a sip or two of water. We’ll get there. Pass the foot of De La Beche, the unlikely bivy rock perched precariously on the edge of a moraine wall. Pass the Ranfurly glacier, grinding and groaning on our left, teetering off the side of the Western Minaret.
Darwin and Darwin’s corner in view now. Feels like we’ve been specially-invited. Selected. A kind of fatalistic Darwinism. Not that we’re elite or anything. The old chestnut, “survival of the fittest” wasn’t Darwin’s anyway. That was Spencer and he was wrong.
Evolution is more subtle than that. The ecology in which animals thrive sifts and sorts rather than culls and cuts. “Better”, fitter forms have never lived. Only animals trying to survive. There’s no match for Tom Fyfe in Lee and I. Just the DNA of men, of mountaineers. We, the latest mutation.
The environment today? An unclimbed face. Biologists would call it our ecological niche. We’ve selected it and it, us. Natural selection.
We plod on. I break trail. Lee follows. We switch. I plod along behind. Then, my turn again. Our workload is pretty equal. The angle of the slope steepens as we start up the face. We begin daggering. Lee is breaking trail at a quicker pace than me. But we’re switching still. Fair’s fair. Every fifty metres or so, one of us to the other: “want a go at breaking?”
“Sure,” says that other. “Fuck no,” he’s thinking.
We solo up through a snowpack that a skier would call “perfect”. Waist-deep. Fucked. Plod. Plod. Hard work. All good fun. You play the game, you trash your body. The angle steepens. Turns to hard snow. Then snice. Now we’re climbing. The energy returns. At last we’re going up. Not just at the mountain face.
Lee strikes real ice now. A fresh blue sheet. Both tools. Never touched by Man. Still not gnarly enough to warrant a rope. A fall here wouldn’t be fatal anyway. A bunny hill beneath us. No schrunds. Ever the good partner, Lee looks down at me as he climbs away: “are you happy to do this bit unroped?”
It looks okay. “Yeah I guess so,” I reply. “We’ll find out soon enough won’t we?” I grin.
He climbs twenty more metres to a stance. Time to rope up now. Lee places some screws and I flake the rope. The first pitch is eighty metres of solid ice climbing. Steep with some vertical steps. Lee, guns away, moving like the talented ice climber he is.
Crunch, crunch, crack, crack. Methodical. It’s nice to watch. Not a mis-swung tool. I follow. Touch the ice with a gloved hand. Old ice. Blue, plastic. The tools sink deep. In and out, in and out. Like herons snatching for fish. My footwork is good, my arms feel fine. Body is at balance. Good good.
Right tool high. Move feet. Left tool high. Move feet. Keep those heels low. Swing swing kick kick. Swing swing kick kick. Ha! Ice climbing is easy.
Ice. The ephemeral medium. Rock climbing’s a collection of sequences. A series of movies fixed in place. A granite crack, the lock. A hand jam, the key. Ice though, it’s a blank canvas. A stage awaiting a dancer. Leave the ballet for the sport climbers, though. This is the Dance of the Neanderthals.
With the vertical crux of the route below us, I take the lead on a pitch of seventy-five degree ice. I feel good. Comfortable. I belong here. The mountain has done its sifting and it hasn’t tossed me off. I’ve been selected. I climb away, one tool at a time, my head in the game. Exactly where I want to be right now – halfway up a new route on a remote mountain at the heart of the Mount Cook National Park. Place some screws in some less-than-great ice and back the anchor up with my hunkered-in tools. I pull Lee up. It’s a pretty crap anchor but I don’t feel scared. We’re solid. No one is going to fall.
We simul-climb a snicy couloir leading to a snowy ridge, moving faster now as the light starts to go. It would be nice to get off before dark. Tools sunk into hard névé I dig deep. Burning calves. A twelve hour walk-in and a two hour bash up snow slopes will do that.
Lee, on the sharp end again, crests the ridge, buries a useless snow stake in powder for a belay and brings me up. I drop a screw… damn… and down-climb to retrieve it. Annoyed at the lost momentum. I want perfection. The electrical energy flowing through the rope. The stuff that Twight was on about as as he flowed with House and Backes up the Slovak Direct in sixty or so hours.
We’re flowing though. One piece of dropped gear doesn’t stop a stream of climbing consciousness like this. Just an obstruction. A boulder over which the glacier folds. Moving quickly now, chewing up terrain. Happy. Having fun, even if the sky is going a little pink. I meet Lee at the snowstake and we size up the eighty or so metres remaining. The headwall beyond the ridge yawning before us. Sixty degree ice. Cruiser. Perfectly formed. Blue, plastic, the lot. We simul-climb. Partly because we know we can and partly out of necessity. Who wants to get benighted when there’s an option to not be?
My crampons crunch happily. I have trouble getting one of the ice screws out. Its thread doesn’t seem to catch. It’s old. Obviously well used. Lee doesn’t seem to mind. The Englishman bashes out a stance. Takes in the view. A panorama of all the great peaks of the Tasman. Aoraki and his ilk in the distance, Malte Brun at our backs. The generously-icinged slice of wedding cake that comprises De La Beche and the Minarets. The burn is real now, and the angle isn’t easing.
Simul-climbing on sixty degree ice. Great ice. Really, it’s hard to fall when your frontpoints are sunk that deep. If I’m being honest. But I’m starting to get a bit scared. I’m kind of beat. Worked. Lee is over the summit cornice now, disappeared from view. No doubt, there’ll be a body belay awaiting me at the top. My legs are shot. Lots of vert beneath my heels. My arms though – they’re fine. A good thing. Flashpump in the wrist would be bad news here. Come on stay with it. I pause for a moment – stab myself a stance with a side-turned boot and rest for a moment. You’re not on the West Face of the Remarkables anymore. This is the mountains, in August. Suddenly, the biting fear. There you are Terror, my old friend.
I top out. Lee is there to greet me, a grin on his face. We shake hands. Fuck yeah, first ascent. Sort of. No summit but a new path, anyway.
We head down the glacier with the orange sky split by the flames of a dying sun, branching off to our left. In an hour, we’re back at the rock where we cached some gear. At the edge of the white ice in three. Another bivy and then another horrid moraine bash the next morning.
I complain about repacking. My pack is undersized when stuffed with all the gear we’ve taken. Lee calls me a whiner. Fair comment. Sometimes, the desire to return to Civilisation after time in Nature can be as strong as the yearning that drives us to leave. Kicking steps in snow-glued scree up Garbage Gully, I think about the end. Food, shelter, a bed, Ellie. All the comforts.
And then, as we crest the moraine wall and take the first steps toward Ball Shelter I turn back up towards the Tasman Glacier. De La Beche ridge gleaming in the mid-morning sun. Thinking about it now, you don’t have to be Ueli Steck to head into the mountains and put up a great, untrodden climb.
Just “vision, commitment, trust”. Jack Tackle, that. The mountains have always been a place for normal people. Seekers of an aesthetic. A purity. Freedom. Just you and a piece of rock. Some ice. And snow. Exploration.
The Caroline Face now at our backs, I think about the other proud lines in Mount Cook National Park. Come to think of it, why would anyone go up the Caroline Face at all anymore? Bill Denz soloed it forty years ago with straight-shafted tools and a jam jar full of water. Move on! Trail blaze elsewhere. There’s still potential in the park. A repeat on the Caroline isn’t worth the $5 it’s printed on. But I’d pay $5 dollars for the route we just climbed. It was the right choice for Lee and I. The natural selection.
First Ascent of “Natural Selection” (IV), Mt Darwin, Upper Tasman Glacier. 19 August, Lee Mackintosh, Chris Elliott
Great write up!
A good read, Chris. And congrats on the climb.
I really enjoyed this article. Well done. A lot of old ground there.