Aoraki (Mt Cook 3754m) The Cloud Piercer
Never climbed a mountain before...no problems!!!
Recently some of our Mountain Designs' staff successfully ascended New Zealand's famed Mt Cook. But like all great summits, they were tested along the way and faced incredible challenges both physically and mentally. As they say, the journey is ultimately just as important as the destination, and for this team, that's what makes this such a worthy tale to tell…
For many aspiring alpinists & mountaineers, Aoraki (Mt Cook) is regarded as the pinnacle (ha!) of their climbing career as it is regarded as a very dangerous mountain, even by its easiest routes to the summit. First climbed in 1895 by Swiss guide Mattias Zurbriggen via the harder Zurbriggen's Ridge route, he was also the first person to summit Mt Aconcagua (6,960 metres) which is the highest peak in South America and the southern hemisphere.
Our team was not that exciting and had a climbing resume you could write on the back of a parking ticket! Bobby Hale (Mountain Designs' Edward St casual who sometimes does some work) had lots of experience guiding on Mt Kilimanjaro and the Kokoda Track in PNG, as well as local rock climbing experience, but had never donned ice axes and crampons for a real mountain. Don't let age and youthful looks fool you, he has the knees of an 80-year-old rugby player. His friend Max had even less alpine experience (read none!) and was asking the guides in the hut if they would help him tie a prussic knot... he is not to be trusted with anything electronic or of value as he will promptly drop it down a crevasse. Luke had an alpine training course under his belt from the previous year so had the most experience in the group and his fitness level was high. He was prone to swearing like a sailor and like Max, had caught the dropsy disease and also enjoyed throwing stuff off the mountain. I have done Mt Cook four times previously, as well as 13 ascents of Mt Aspiring over the course of about 25 trips to New Zealand alpine climbing...usually in driving wind and rain...
New Zealand's usual weather must have been on holiday as well as we had five days of perfect weather in the hills and sunburn was more of an issue than the cold. On our arrival by ski plane, we roped up and hiked the 2kms across the Grand Plateau, a vast glacier covered in hidden crevasses, some up to 50 metres deep. The chopper we chartered landed next to the hut with our bulkier climbing gear and a weeks' worth of food as well as the two lightest members of our team. Initially we had the hut to ourselves but a few days later this would change dramatically.
Basic training was in order. We cramponed up, and headed up the nearest peak called Glacier Dome for some self-arrest practice and cramponing technique, as well as bagging our first easy summit. The next day we roped up into two teams and headed across to climb a more technical 2,500-metre peak called the Anzac Peaks. This involved both steeper snow and mixed rock climbing on the usual NZ choss. After a safe return to the hut – which was now full – we had a better idea of who was both fit enough and experienced enough for a crack at either Mt Dixon or Mt Cook. The next day was crevasse rescue training and involved everyone abseiling into and then climbing out of a yawning 20-metre deep crevasse. Anchor building, prussiking and how not to drop a GoPro 6 into a crevasse training (failed) was undertaken by all. On return to the hut we had made our decision to attempt Mt Cook via the Linda Glacier route, as the easier Mt Dixon climb was now not possible as the snow bridge over the berschrund had collapsed and blocked the route up. Based on the performances of the previous three days, we had settled on a team of six (2 x 3 on a rope). The others left at the hut would be there in support and as a safety back-up as we had left them with a five-watt UHF radio to communicate with us.
Summit day started at midnight and we made good time across the Grand Plateau to the steeper Lower Linda Glacier and the first of the big crevasses. After an hour the pace we were setting was a bit too much and two of our team had to turn back to the hut, which in the end, was a wise decision not only for them but the whole group, as our six-member team was way too big for an objective like Mt Cook. As it was, our newer 2 x 2 rope teams worked well on the snow and ice but by sunrise, we would be slowed down dramatically due to the more technical mixed rock and ice climbing and the need to use ropes and belay/prussic up each pitch. From this point, the sun was our enemy as much as the clock. From 3,200 metres to 3,500 metres you are in the section called The Summit Rocks with 1,000 metre drops on either side of the ridge. Anything dropped from here is gone... as we would soon find out with both of our nice, new shiny five-watt UHF radios! Once we reached the top of the Summit Rocks, we had uninterrupted views of the actual summit as well as the west coast of New Zealand and the Tasman Sea nearly 3,500 metres below us. The final steeper snow and ice ridge to the summit, though technically easy in the great weather conditions we had, has no room for error as a slip or a trip here, if not caught early with your ice axe, would involve a fatal fall over steep vertical rock and ice cliffs below. Gravity is always the winner for those that are inattentive or cocky. For this reason we used a fixed line for added safety to catch a falling climber if needed. The final 100 vertical metres to the summit involved crossing a two-metre wide crevasse and ascending on soft, slushy snow over an icy base, requiring great care (as unroped for the final section).
On arrival at the summit, after nearly 14 hours, the team were ecstatic and respectful of the Maori tradition of not standing with your head higher than the actual summit of Aoraki. This is also regarded as a means of ensuring safe passage on the descent, which is actually the more dangerous part of the climb, due to fatigue, dehydration, softer snow conditions, and the need to do numerous abseils down the Summit Rocks section. This exact spot would involve a helicopter rescue of two NZ climbers who were struck by falling rock on their descent, a week after we summited.On arrival at the base of the steep snow gully above the Linda Shelf, we had finished with all the abseiling, just in time to watch the sunset. A long and tiring four-hour roped walk back down the Upper Linda Glacier and its huge crevasses made the final part of the climb the hardest, both physically and mentally. We were all severely dehydrated, we had the sounds of falling rock and ice all around us, in the dark, but we still had to be cautious as performing a crevasse rescue in our state would have been problematic. As we exited the Linda Glacier, to the relative safety of The Grand Plateau, we passed two NZ climbers starting up Mt Cook, as we were finishing. Around 1.00am (or 25 hours after we started), we arrived to the cheers of our fellow team members, bearing bottles of water, hot chicken soup, chocolate and pasta.
Thanks to everyone who took part in the trip. It was an absolute blast, we showed the New Zealanders that Aussies (even bumblies!!!) can get up and down Mt Cook in one piece and live to talk about it. To Lani and Peter for having the guts to turn back when needed. To our angels in the hut that catered to our every need once we arrived back at the hut. And to Max, Bobby and Luke for a fantastic first ascent of a Aoraki by them, done in good style and most importantly, safely! To the GoPro 6, a heap of slings, carabiners, snow stakes and an ice screw AND the UHF radios.... R.I.P!!!
About the Author
Steve is an avid and experienced adventurer. When he's not out summiting mountains, you'll find him managing our Fortitude Valley Store.