A passion for ice
A snap cold spell transforms a waterfall on Wye Creek, near Queenstown, into an icicle cascade, and beckons a special breed of adventurer-the ice climber-to its cold clutches. New formations like this one are difficult and dangerous to climb: the ice, not yet matured by extended cooling, is brittle, and it is not uncommon for chunks weighing up to half a tonne to shear off and crash to the ground. Allan Uren, one of the country’s leading exponents of the sport, abseils down to look for a climbable route.
The drive into my home town takes me past the rampart of Mt Iron on one side of the road and the Maze on the other, with it’s “leaning tower of Wanaka.” I crest the hill and, as always, scan the mountains for signs of life. For a moment, before the east face of Black Peak disappears behind trees, I see what I consider life: ice. On this day, with the air stunned by winter, it slides in gleaming white lines down the bare slopes. Even though they are 30 kilometres distant, I know those lines to be frozen waterfalls. A mixture of fear and the desire to climb the petrified cataracts permeates the car for the rest of the drive.
My friend Dave Vass shares my feeling for ice. After a gentlemen’s breakfast at a lakefront café, he and I board a helicopter and fly straight to the flows I saw when driving into town. As we approach, they grow to fill our view through the perspex bubble. The pilot lands, one skid on a rock, with the delicate touch of a dragonfly. Vass and I tumble out and crouch in the snow as our taxi departs. We are at the foot of a 200 m stream of ice sloping at an average of 80 degrees. In places it is vertical.
Vass takes the “sharp end” of the rope—the lead position—and ties it to his harness. The rest of the 60 metres of braided nylon is fed through a belay device on my harness, which will act as a brake in the event of a fall, clamping the rope tight and preventing it from running out. During the climb we will be joined by this umbilical cord, in which we both have absolute faith. Vass will be like an astronaut on a space walk, venturing into the unknown. I will be his mother ship, his anchor.
Vass starts climbing the ice, which is a glacial blue colour. His boots, inches above my head, are close enough for me to study the pattern on the rubber soles. Strapped to his boots are knife-sharp crampons which would instantly dice my face and arms if he fell.
Projecting from the toe of each boot are the crampons’ two front spikes. With a lazy swing from the knee, he stabs the ice with these vampire fangs to gain a foothold. In his hands he wields two 55 cm ice axes. He holds the handles with the steel grip of someone hanging from the window ledge of a 20-storey building. He throws the axes alternately, embedding them with a flick of his wrist at the end of the swing. They bite with a satisfying thunk. Now and again he uses rock-climbing techniques to take the weight off his arms. He hooks the heel of his boot over a small nubbin of ice and rests.
He pauses beneath a section of unconsolidated snow that lies between us and the more solid water-ice beyond. The snow hasn’t had time to metamorphose into something that will support a 75 kg human. Metamorphosis in this context is the process whereby snow crystals are compressed, and the air between them expelled, to form a dense, compacted material called snow-ice. To sink ice-climbing tools into snow-ice is to sample perfection.
Vass’s pause threatens to turn into an unscheduled holiday. Unable to go up or down, he is more than just physically immobilised; he is temporarily frozen with fear. There is nothing I can do for him, so I focus on managing the rope.
Finally shaking off his inertia, he inserts an ice screw into the crystalline wall at his waist. The sounds of his breathing and his occasional curses seem magnified by the cold. I watch as the hollow titanium screw, with a sharp thread on the outside and a crown of teeth on the tip, eats into the ice. With cold fingers wrapped in thick gloves, Vass struggles to clip the rope through the karabiner connected to the screw. He succeeds and we both breathe more easily. Now he can only fall as far as the screw, not to the ground or onto me.
Not that he intends to fall, but ice in the form of frozen waterfalls is one of the least secure surfaces you can climb, and falling sometimes happens without warning. Whole waterfalls have been known to break away from the mountainside—with climbers attached. Vass and I are confident this won’t happen to us, as it usually occurs under the glare of the sun, and we are deep in shadow.
With renewed self-assurance, Vass works his feet up in front of his body, a position called a monkey hang. Poised, he frees one of his axes and in a fast, fluid motion stands up and plants it above the rotten patch of snow.
While he has been leading the way, I’ve been studying my surroundings. To either side, glittering tubes of clear ice hang like ballroom chandeliers. In front of my face, a solid straw of ice slowly drips. The perfect sphere of a water droplet trembles on the end to the rhythm of my breathing. Viscous, neither water nor ice, it gathers head, then drops. Another takes its place, quivering. With my hand, I shield it from my breath and it solidifies with the speed of Superglue setting. It seems a process of such infinite mystery that the scientific explanation is almost disappointing, like learning that the North Island isn’t the big fish of Maori legend but the result of tectonic plates colliding.
Pieces of ice perfect for cooling a drink clatter against my helmet and break my contemplation. It is time for me to climb up to join Vass, but before I can I need to warm my hands. In the shadows, with the temperature below what would be acceptable for storing frozen meat carcasses, they have become numb. With vigorous shoulder shrugs—a technique taught to me by a school rugby coach—I force blood back into my fingers. The pain associated with blood refilling capillaries is excruciating. The “screaming barfies,” as the experience is nicknamed, make you feel like crying. But you don’t, because concentrating on anything other than the pain isn’t possible. Circulation slowly returns and the pain recedes; frostbite has been beaten.
Vass has anchored himself at the top of the route, and the rope pulls tight as I climb, removing the ice screws as I go. Around us, the views have expanded to embrace jagged peaks and blinding snowfields.
With an easy descent back down to the valley floor, we relax and savour success on a climb that had everything: hard climbing, ice conditions that kept us guessing and the ultimate: a new route. We agree on a name for the route—”Huge!”—and turn for home.
The earliest that people are known to have climbed ice is 1574. Alpine shepherds used primitive crampons—horseshoeshaped, triple-spiked affairs—and alpine sticks—long poles tipped with iron—to scale the steep slopes of their mountainous homelands.
In 1936 one of the most famous mountain faces was climbed: the North Face of the Eiger. A photograph shows Anderl Heckmair using a short ice axe with a pronounced downward curve to the pick. This simple feature gave him a tenfold security advantage over users of the usual straight pick, which would pop out unless an outward pull on the shaft was maintained.
The curve then became lost, until American mountaineer Yvon Chouinard rediscovered it in 1966. He modified the straight pick into a curve compatible with the arc of the axe’s swing, and is credited with revolutionising climbing on steep ice.
In 1971, Bill Denz and Brian Pooley used this curved pick to climb the steep Balfour Face of Mt Tasman, ushering the technology into New Zealand. Since then, the curve has been tweaked to become a reverse curve, making it even more efficient. All this effort has meant Vass and I have had more fun today than is strictly legal.
We celebrate our adventure in the pub with a beer. I watch as it is poured. The liquid is kept cold as it comes out of the bowsers by a thick coating of opaque frost. When no one is looking I reach over the bar to stroke the blob of ice on the pipe. I am fascinated that it survives in a 20°C room. It is wet and smooth, almost sensual.
The ice crystals under my hand have the same orderly atomic arrangement as crystals of salt or any other mineral. Being a solid, inorganic substance with a definite atomic structure, ice is, in fact, a mineral, and I am struck by the resemblance of the lump in front of me to a piece of quartz that might be used by a crystal healer.
I am also reminded of a story, which, in the smoky pub, I proceed to relate to Vass. It seems there were some riggers in Australia who had a problem: how to manoeuvre a megatonne piece of machinery into a casing with a zero-tolerance gap. The men stood around scratching their helmets and searching for a solution. Straps wouldn’t fit between the machine and sides of the casing, and because the machine had to be supported sideways, a single attachment point couldn’t be used to lower it. The helmets came off and the scratching continued, until a Maori rigger spoke up and suggested they use ice.
They placed a large block of ice under the metal monster, and, without a jolt, as if the hands of God were at work, the machine slid slowly down into its final resting place. Even as the last millimetre of ice melted, the weight was supported by the frozen water.
My story over, the room suddenly grows quiet. All eyes are raised to the television screen, where that legend of weather forecasting, Jim Hickey, has just made his nightly appearance. In a ski town in winter, the practice of watching the weather forecast is religiously adhered to.
“You’d better break out your winter woollies,” Hickey intones. “And if you don’t have any, best start knitting.”
The isobars on the weather map are tight together. Low-pressure systems are an advancing army, and a shark-toothed front looks set to devour New Zealand. I don’t need to watch the remainder of the bulletin, the body language of the people in the bar says it all: powder snow—metres of it—is on the way.
This new dump will cover the man-made stuff on the trails, which has turned to ice. Artificial snow is made by forcing water through a ring of jets and adding a substance called Snowmax to form crystals. Snowmax is based on a bacterium found on fruit trees. Orchardists found that frost didn’t form as readily on trees carrying the bacterium, and starting using it to keep their fruit free of frost blemishes. The bacterium was soon being commercially grown in the laboratory and sold to ski areas as Snowmax, and now keeps the frozen water coming out of the guns as snow.
These artificial crystals are still inferior to those found in nature, and it takes an almost fanatical dedication on the part of the snow-makers if they are to be good to ski on. All too often they degenerate into patches of unskiable ice. One of my duties as a ski patroller is to mark these hazards. When placing the warning signs, I sometimes wish the angle of the slope I’m on is 80 or 90 degrees—then the ice would be of some use to me.
The forecast makes me feel pleased for the ski areas and the shrinking glaciers, but even more excited that the waterfalls in the dark valleys of the Southern Alps may be freezing. I bid Vass good night and leave the warm bar to walk home. The cold is a shock, like jumping into a plunge pool after a sauna. Frost glitters on the grass as if the stars have fallen to earth. As I stand admiring the night sky, my feet soon cool and a slight ache starts up in the end of my big toes—a reminder of the damage frostbite inflicts.
The night Phil Penney and I walked up Tasman Glacier to climb Mahe Brun, the darkness was cave-like, sliced through by lightning. We walked through the storm with a fatalistic attitude, expecting at any moment to become human lightning rods. Blinding forks zapped the glacier in a primal demonstration of nature’s forces—fire vs. ice. When it started to rain and we became wet, our potential to conduct electricity became even greater, but there was no shelter until we reached Beetham Hut.
During the night a southerly chased away the thunder and lightning, and the morning dawned clear and freezing. Penney and I went climbing, in gear still wet from the storm. On top of Malte Brun, at 3000 m, with the hunting southerly still blowing, my feet felt cold. Penney’s stomach served as a heater for them, and we sat there on the summit joined in a strange embrace.
By the time I reached the but my toes were hurting so much I suspected ingrown toenails. When I took off my boots, the damage was obvious, but it wasn’t the nails. On the end of each big toe was a hard, white area where the flesh had frozen and was now thawing out. I had frostbite.
Frostbite works insidiously, especially when it is difficult to monitor an affected digit, such as a toe. It is like a burn, except the damage is caused by cold, not heat, and pain only comes with thawing. My frostbite was only second-degree, and after large, balloon-like blisters had burst, my toes began to heal, with great slabs of dead skin peeling away. Underneath, a gossamer layer of red skin remained, and in a few weeks the toes healed completely. My lasting impression of the incident was of being invaded—invaded by ice crystals which expanded in my living flesh and destroyed live cells by freezing them.
Ultimately, my passion for climbing ice outweighs my fear of frostbite, and on a day off from ski patrolling I head for the hills and a frozen waterfall.
On my wall at home there is a photo of a ring of steep mountains: Mts Belle, MacPherson and Talbot. Collectively they form the MacPherson Cirque, a crescent-shaped basin fashioned by a glacier long gone. Cascading down the head of the cirque are two 100 m waterfalls, which freeze in winter.
Today I am climbing alone, responsible only for myself. I drive along the Milford Road, which takes the line of least resistance along the U-shaped Hollyford Valley. If it weren’t for the Homer Tunnel, built during the 1930s, the road would have to stop at the MacPherson Cirque. It is here, where the mountains rise most steeply above the road and where winter freezes the waterfalls at the head of the cirque, that I climb.
Beneath my feet, I watch the footprints I made getting to the base of my chosen waterfall fading from view. Fifty, then 100, then 150 metres of ice separate me from the ground. There is no one to moan to when the cold invades the marrow of my fingers, and no one to hold the end of the rope should I fall. To fall would mean a body-sized dimple in the snow, the life knocked out of me.
Risk is a balance. Too little, and life stagnates; too much and life expires. Alone on the waterfall, with the secret forces of nature for company, life for me takes on a taste: sweet. I climb with the focused mind and body of someone in a state of deep meditation. It is the same state of concentration in which a golfer strikes a ball, with the ringing crack of a perfectly timed stroke, and sends it on its graceful flight. The same simple sense of heightened awareness is there when you go for a walk, feel the pliant earth beneath your feet and inhale the first fragrant whiff of spring.
The ice I am climbing is a plastic medium, despite its crystalline structure. Unlike rock, which stays constant for thousands of years, ice changes its state from hour to hour, even minute to minute.
This ice accepts my climbing tools without argument, although to make things easier I aim my axes at small air bubbles and hairline fractures, and sometimes I don’t swing but simply place the thin metal pick into a slot between icicles. The worst ice to deal with is brittle ice, made up of layers that tend to “dinner-plate.” Dinner-plating is what happens when a slab breaks off when struck by an ice axe. Invariably it crashes onto your feet, threatening to dislodge them. If you’ve ever been unlucky enough to have your windscreen disintegrate while driving at 100 km/h, you’ll know the kind of fright a solo ice-climber gets when ice shears 200 metres above the ground.
After 300 metres of being haunted by the spectre of falling, I arrive at the top on a steep snowfield. I climb down this easy slope back to where I started. I am sometimes asked, “Why didn’t you just go up the easy way in the first place?” My answer is: “The difficult way makes life fantastic.”
New Zealand has a temperate, and in places almost subtropical, climate, which isn’t usually conducive to halting the flow of water through freezing. But when a harsh winter muscles in with the smell of Antarctica lacing the winds, magic can happen. Take the winter of 1992, one of the harshest in recent memory. Plumbers were the most overworked people around, labouring overtime to fix pipes that had exploded in temperatures as low as –15°C.
It wasn’t a great time for farmers, but there were a few mad souls who were happy, among them Dave Vass, Ros Goulding and myself. As winter deepened, rumours filtered our way that the famous Shotover River near Queenstown was freezing over—the first time this had happened in the 20th century. Rafting and jetboat companies had to cancel their activities because of the accumulating ice. Bungy-jumping operators, however, continued to make forays into the upper Skippers Canyon to throw people off the swingbridge there, and through them we heard of frozen cascades in the area.
Getting to the canyon in winter isn’t easy. Goldminers constructed the road in the 1880s, but in their eagerness to reach the rich veins of gold they only made it two horses wide. In a couple of places, during construction, workers had to shimmy down ropes to blast a hole through schist tors. Today, venturing along the road encourages those in the passenger seat to sit with one hand on the door handle and a foot pumping an imaginary brake.
We made the trip in a 1963 Holden fitted with chains. A tourist operator squeezed by us on his way out, his winterized 4WD with ice-crunching tyres threatening to tip us into a gully without an exit. As our two vehicles passed he gave us a stern warning.
“You’ll be lucky to get in with that thing. Well, you might get in, but you won’t get out. Do you even know where you’re going?”
“Isn’t this the way to the Coronet Peak ski area?” one of us replied with exaggerated sarcasm. The operator got the message and moved off.
Vass became increasingly animated as each corner revealed a new ice-gem. His driving became worse with every hand wave and rubberneck contortion. More than once, Goulding had to place a gentle, correcting hand on the steering wheel.
We slid to a halt near the Skippers expansion bridge and looked out at a waterfall held in suspended animation, like a giant frozen tear. Larch trees lined the edge of the cliff, and the river surged through a constriction between ice banks. We were three taut guitar strings, ready to play a nervous tune.
Walking across the bridge, clanking with climbing gear, we drew the attention of the bungy-jumping guys. One of them turned from pushing people into the void.
“You’re not going to climb that, are you?” he asked, gesturing towards our tear.
“Yep,” we sang in unison.
“You can’t. We’ve been eyeing that up all winter.” “Too bad. We’re still going to climb it.”
Being sarcastic and cheeky probably wasn’t endearing us to the people who could help if our car got stuck.
The client on the end of the bungy cord made like a swan and arced out into space. A scream pinballed across the canyon. The operator turned back to his other ashen-faced client. We clanked on, grateful that we were tied neither to work nor to a giant rubber band.
The ice we climbed that day was a time capsule. Leaves, twigs and small stones, entombed in its translucent matrix, hung in space, deep-frozen until spring. Golden streaks of forest compost stained the ice, as if food colouring had been spilt down the inside. It was incredible to think that when winter lost its grip, the waterfall would become liquid and our route would not exist.
A mature larch tree with yellow needles gave us a solid anchor for our ropes, and the river rattled below. This was a friendly place for us to climb; we were more used to the greater Southern Alps, with stark mountains and glaciers as a backdrop.
Somehow, I ended up behind the wheel on the drive out. With rising temperatures the icy road had become slush. Chains were redundant, spinning in the mire. The heavy station wagon fish-tailed round every switchback corner, the rear swinging out over car-eating drops. While Vass and Goulding yelled encouragement, I drove on instinct, wishing the steering wheel could be detached and handed to anyone but me. Eventually, we crested the Skippers saddle and, released from the canyon, shook our way down to the Coronet Peak road.
Climbing that waterfall was like unearthing a precious Ming vase, using it once to display flowers, then seeing it smashed to pieces. It, and the others like it we saw, may never form again in my lifetime. We were immensely fortunate to experience them. Such scarcity is one of the reasons there are so few who climb ice in New Zealand. The pursuit has been described as obscure, the medium fickle.
Canada and North America, even France, are where you have to go to find reliable ice. There they have ice walls beside the highways. In some places you can belay off the bumper of your car, and thousands of climbers play for months on big, thick flows. The lack of ice in New Zealand is precisely its attraction. Few climb it, few have even contemplated it, and the best of it is close to home and friends.
On a journey to Fiordland, Dave Vass, with his trademark erratic driving style, suddenly stopped, grabbed a pair of binoculars and focused them on the north side of the Remarkables range.
With a secret-agent arching of his eyebrow he handed them to me, and a vivid white streak nearly hit me in the face: a frozen waterfall, another object of fierce desire. For four hours we battled uphill to reach it. A late winter sun shone, pleasantly warm, and sweat soaked our clothes. When only one gully and 10 minutes of scrub-bashing separated us from our goal, we rested.
“Ok,” said Vass after a short break, standing up to move on, “let’s go and have a closer . . . ”
His words were drowned by an ice climber’s most feared sound. In an instant, sun and gravity destroyed our objective. Heaped at the base of the cliff was a pile of melting ice, as if a tower of children’s building blocks had been toppled. Where crystals had sparkled and gargoyles had hung was a damp, dark wall of slime.
Without a word we turned and retraced our steps down to the road.