The noble mountain Aoraki
A razor-edged summit crest that slices across the heavens for almost two kilometres crowns New Zealand’s highest mountain. Aoraki/Mt Cook’s icy flanks (viewed here towards the south from Mt Haidinger) have enticed and challenged climbers since 1882, when Irish clergyman William Green and two Swiss companions dragged themselves to within metres of the summit.
“Go in peace…” The words of the blessing still echoed inside the tiny Carrigaline church as Reverend William Green stood at the door shaking hands with his parishioners. On this grim, South Irish morning, they bade him a warm farewell, and he assured them of his speedy return.
In the vestry, he folded away his green stock and exchanged his robe and cassock for a tweed jacket. A few days later, he boarded the Orient steamer Garonne and waved goodbye to Plymouth. Over the following weeks the 35-year-old Church of Ireland clergyman watched as the jutting Canary Islands slid past, then endured the monotony of the West African coast. He was embarking on a journey to a little-known antipodean country, to climb a mountain he knew only from photographs.
A thousand years earlier a storm-battered canoe led by the Polynesian explorer Maui drifted for weeks along the west coast of New Zealand’s South Island. The eastern horizon was a dazzling blur, like a string of distant white clouds. The crew named this phenomenon Tiritiri o to moana—the mirage of the ocean.
Closer to shore, Maui found a sheltered bay, the canoe’s first landing since leaving Hawaiki. By now the mirage had become an unbroken chain of snowcapped mountains rising above green hills and sombre grey river flats. One mountain rose above all others—so tall the clouds seemed to snag around its summit. For Pacific voyagers who had never seen snow, it must have been an inexplicable sight. They called it Aoraki (or Aorangi), variously translated as the cloud piercer or the big white cloud. This was the mountain William Green had set out to climb.
Green’s journey to New Zealand was an arduous one. There was an outbreak of smallpox as the Garonne rounded the Cape, and Green watched the promptly arranged sea burial of the first victim. Several times the ship was fumed with burning sulphur, its passengers confined aboard. After 70 days at sea and in a quarantine camp near Melbourne, William Green arrived at Port Chalmers, Otago.
Impatiently awaiting him were his companions-in-conquest: Ulrich Kaufmann and Emil Boss, staunch mountain men plucked from Grindelwald, a picturesque Swiss village under the north face of Eiger. Their restlessness was well-reasoned. It was already late January, and if they were to do any climbing at all they would have to start soon, before the summer melt made glaciers impassable.
But in the pioneer country travelling was slow. In true Wild West fashion, first by train, then by horse-drawn wagon and on foot, crossing swift glacial rivers and almost losing their provisions and equipment in the process, they took another five weeks to reach the beginning of their climb. Finally, on March 1, from a tiny camp near where the Haast Hut stands today, they forced their way across the Grand Plateau, up the broken Linda Glacier (named by Green for his wife) and along the summit ice-cap. In late afternoon, the sky darkened by approaching stormclouds, the top of Aoraki seemed within easy reach.
Then, by their estimate only 10 metres below the summit (but in reality probably 50 metres), they encountered a deep crevasse notching the ridge. Although not difficult to negotiate, it would have cost them another 15 minutes. It was now 6 P.M., and, with the prospect of a long descent in rapidly deteriorating weather, the climb had become a race against time. And so, a stone’s throw from the summit, their route barred by a crevasse which perhaps a month earlier wasn’t even there, they turned back. After having journeyed halfway around the globe, and having come so close to their goal, it was a heartbreaking decision, but one which probably saved their lives.
Storm and darkness found the trio well above their cache of food and camping equipment. Wrapped in yellow North Sea fishermen’s oilskins, they spent a cold and miserable night on a painfully narrow ledge. “It was less than two feet wide, and sloped outwards, so that we had to hold on with our hands, as for thousands of feet below there was nothing but steep and crevassed ice-slopes,” wrote Green.
“We stamped one foot at a time to keep life in it and forced ourselves to keep on talking; and although Boss regretted much that the tobacco was with the provisions, over a thousand feet below us, both he and Kaufmann congratulated themselves having their pipes, which they sucked diligently at intervals, and by sheer force of imagination enjoyed several good smokes.”
The party reached the tent 62 hours after having set out. The rigours of the climb had caused all their knuckles to fester; the hardy Swiss cauterised theirs with glowing embers.
This was the first European attempt to scale Mount Cook. The year was 1882. At the time, a newspaper writer quipped, “Most cooks do greens, but this Green’s done Cook.” A neat conceit, but the mountain was still a trifle underdone. Not until the following decade could another journal proudly announce, “Mount Cook is cooked at last!”
Towering above its neighbouring peaks like a basketball star among his fans, Aoraki is a big mountain by any standards. In April 1860, after seeing it for the first time from a peak in Two Thumb Range, Samuel Butler wrote: “No one can mistake it. If a person says he thinks he has seen Mount Cook, you may be quite sure that he has not seen it. The moment it comes into sight the exclamation is ‘That is Mount Cook!’—not ‘That must be Mount Cook!’
If you travel into the heart of the Nepalese Himalayas, where mountains crowd the sky above the Khumbu Glacier, and imagine Mt Cook among them, it would make a fine companion to the Earth’s highest peaks. The summit of Everest, 3448 metres above the base moraine, would still dwarf Cook by some 500 metres, but Lhotse (world’s fourth highest) would be about the same size, and the nearby Cho Oyu (world’s sixth) 200 metres lower. The relative height of Aoraki, from its base of glacier outwash to the wind-scoured summit, approaches 3000 metres. It is no surprise that early attempts to climb it resembled full-scale Himalayan expeditions.
The trapezoidal massif of Mt Cook, branching off southward from the Main Divide, forms a wedge between the Tasman and the smaller, but spectacularly steep, Hooker glaciers. The triangular shape most commonly depicted in pictures and postcards is the mountain’s South Face, a stately pyramid of steep rock and broken ice cliffs, topped by the three-pronged summit, its two-kilometre-long crest shortened by a head-on perspective.
Mt Cook is so big that it creates its own weather, stopping and anchoring fast-moving clouds, and draining them of almost all the moisture they have gathered over the Tasman Sea. The mountains create a climate of extremes: of burning sunshine and Antarctic chill, of days so still you can hear the glacier moving and wind so forceful it can lift you off the ground. While the tussock highlands of the Mackenzie Basin are parched sepia-brown by almost continuous sunshine, curtains of torrential rain can veil the nearby mountains, and fierce nor’westerlies whip up dust-devils along the flats of the braided Tasman River. Even on clear and seemingly still days, hogsback clouds, like Napoleonic hats, often cap the summit of Aoraki, heralding another storm approaching.
The size of Mt Cook and the fickle nature of its weather have been the mountain’s most successful defence against climbers.
Mountaineering is as old as the history of humankind. “The earliest mountain ascent, of which any record has been preserved, is the ascent of Mount Ararat by the patriarch Noah,” wrote Francis Gribble in his chronicle of mountaineering. “It was accomplished in a combination of circumstances which are extremely unlikely to recur.” In 218 B.c., to surprise the Roman army, Hannibal crossed the Pyrenees and the Alps with a cavalcade of 30,000 foot soldiers and 37 elephants. In 1521, the thugs of the Spanish conquistador Cortes climbed the 5452-metre volcano Popocatepetl, on the outskirts of today’s Mexico City, and brought back a supply of sulphur to manufacture gunpowder, so they could continue their grisly pursuit of Aztec gold.
From about 1200, the Incas built altars for their deities atop high Andean peaks. (The highest ceremonial site was found at an altitude of 6723 metres, near the summit of volcano Llullaillaco, overlooking today’s Chilean-Argentinian border). For centuries before the Incas, caravans of woolly yaks, heavily laden with trading goods, wormed their way across the high passes of the Himalayas and the Karakorum.
In the traditions and legends of many cultures, inaccessible mountaintops were the habitations of gods and demons. Greeks had their Mt Olympus; Nepalese the fish-tailed Machapuchare. Those who did not have mountains noble enough imitated them in architecture. The Egyptians altered the monotony of their desert with ranges of pyramids, and the Mayas and Toltecs scattered artificial mountains across the Central American jungle.
Climbing mountains was often considered a way of drawing closer to the spiritual world. In the Taoist tradition, only shamans were permitted to scale the great peaks, and then only while in a trance. In the Judaic scriptures, Moses had his Sinai, Abraham his Moriah, Elijah his Carmel. Jesus was both transfigured and crucified on hilltops, and holy men following in his footsteps have sought the world’s high places for self-purification.
It is hardly surprising that when in 1857 the world’s first Alpine Club was formed in London, a quarter of its members were priests and reverends.
Be their interest spiritual, trade or military, all these early mountaineers had pressing reasons to venture into the mountains, but towards the end of the 18th century climbers began to scale the peaks for no reason other than just “because they were there.” This apparent pointlessness marks the beginning of modern mountaineering.
On August 8, 1786, Michel Paccard, nursing a badly frostbitten hand, returned to Chamonix with his guide Jacques Balmat after reaching the summit of Mont Blanc, at 4807 metres the highest peak in Europe. A century-long golden era of mountaineering followed, and unclimbed Alpine peaks dwindled in number like soap bubbles. European climbers began to look overseas for new challenges, and they looked to New Zealand, for here the still untouched peaks of the Southern Alps stood tall like a silent provocation.
Green had very nearly snatched the main prize, and his climb sparked an interest in mountaineering among the locals. In 1891, New Zealand’s version of the Alpine Club was formed, and scores of self-taught enthusiasts, with makeshift gear and pipes (de rigueur for climbers), rushed into the Southern Alps, trophy-hunting for the first ascents of the more prominent peaks.
Among the most active were Marmaduke Dixon and George Mannering. Dixon was a farmer at West Eyreton, Mannering a Christchurch bank clerk dabbling in photography. Once schoolmates, now in their early 30s, they became close climbing buddies, and their enthusiasm and endurance took New Zealand mountaineering to its first heights.
These were true pioneering days. In 1862, Norwegian miners had brought skis into the Otago highlands, and in 1888 their countryman Fridtjof Nansen made the first East-West crossing of Greenland on skis. Long approaches in deep snow were then, as they are today, the sweaty side of mountaineering, and to ease this strenuous and time-consuming task Dixon and Mannering began experimenting with skis in Mt Cook. Their first skis were reaper blades bent up at the ends.
Much fun as they were, the skis proved unwieldy on all but easy slopes, and often had to be left at the bottom of a climb. The adventurous trailblazers could hardly have imagined that less than a century later daredevils would ski down the flanks of the mountain they so wistfully tried to climb.
Between 1886 and 1894, the siege of Aoraki continued. Mannering and Dixon, climbing without guides, made a number of attempts via the Linda Glacier route pioneered by Green. In December 1890, in a remarkable 23-hour climb, they reached a point 60 metres below the summit, returning by candle light. They left the mountains that time by canoe, paddling down the Tasman and Waitaki Rivers to Waitaki.
In late 1893 they were back again, and to their astonishment, discovered unexpected competition. “We found the trail of a rabbit on the ice plateau . . . at 7000 feet . . . if that rabbit gets to the top of Mount Cook it is greatly to his credit, though I am afraid he will not get the honour due to him.”
More serious competition was afoot. News that an English climber, Edward Fitzgerald, accompanied by the famous Swiss guide Mattias Zurbriggen, was on his way to New Zealand to attempt Aoraki provided a fresh boost of motivation. Climbing Mt Cook was no longer about frolicking in the snow with makeshift skis, but a matter of national pride.
November 1894 saw Dixon, with new partners Tom Fyfe and the Ross brothers, defeated yet again by a ferocious storm. Halfway up the mountain, they collapsed their tent around them to avoid having it blown away. Malcolm Ross accompanied the storm on the bagpipes, while five feet of snow accumulated on the wet canvas resting on their heads.
Over the next couple of weeks, Dixon, with assorted partners, made two further attempts, getting about as high as Green had on one of them before being turned back by darkness. But still the very summit of Aoraki remained elusive, and Fitzgerald was in the country.
Only two days after Dixon’s final attempt, Fyfe returned, this time investigating a new route. All climbs until then had followed Green’s path from the Grand Plateau along the east side of the mountain to gain the Summit Ridge from the Linda Glacier. Fyfe disliked this route, so now contemplated the Hooker Glacier along Cook’s western flank as a possible approach. It looked feasible, and on December 16 he and George Graham left the Mount Cook hotel—The Hermitage—with six days’ of supplies and firewood, and plodded their way across the glacier, marking the route through broken ice-falls with twigs and branches of scrub.
From their spartan camp they reached the middle summit of Mt Cook, but beyond this point the corniced Summit Ridge and steep, hard ice requiring lengthy step-cutting forced yet another retreat.
Six days later, accompanied by 19-year-old Jack Clarke, the pair were back on the upper Hooker Glacier. In the lee of a large serac (block of ice) they chiselled out a crude platform, and out of ice-axes, rope and blankets, with chunks of ice for pegs, improvised a makeshift tent. As the crisp night set in, they lay down for a few hours of fragmented sleep.
At 2 A.M., using up the last of the firewood, Graham whipped up a quick breakfast, then the trio fought their way into leather boots frozen so hard they seemed made of cast iron. Shortly after 3 A.M. they began climbing the snow slopes leading towards Green Saddle, a V-shaped dent in the skyline where the Mt Cook Range forks away from the Main Divide.
At first the going was easy, following the stitchwork of steps made the day before, but soon they reached a bergschrund—a particularly deep, semicircular crevasse where the glacier and the mountain meet. At first glance, it seemed to thwart any hopes of further progress. However, in a piece of cautious acrobatics Fyfe cut steps beneath the overhanging lip of the crevasse, and they managed to traverse it. Above the obstacle, they followed a rock ridge which led them all the way to Green Saddle.
From here, along the North Ridge of Mt Cook, they gained height rapidly until the rock eventually ran out into the summit ice-cap. Cutting steps in hard blue ice, Fyfe led past the last of the difficulties and then, in a fit of childlike joy, the three ran recklessly to the summit.
The world lay at their feet. To the west, lines of white breakers outlined Gillespies Beach, and beyond, the Tasman Sea stretched towards the curving horizon. Dollops of fog marked the coastal lakes hidden in dark green rainforest, and the vast glaciers below were thin white ribbons, flattened by distance.
A sharp wind discouraged the climbers from dallying. Following the ascent route, they started down, dodging small rock avalanches and even dropping, then recovering, one of their ice-axes. The trio reached the ominous bergschrund just as daylight faded.
“Too dark to see either hand or foot-holds, our sense of touch was all we had to rely on,” Tom Fyfe related. “One at a time we moved on, the others endeavouring to anchor; but, judging from the holds I myself could obtain, a slip by one would have ‘done for’ us all.”
At 9.45 P.M. they were back in camp, and unroped for the first time in 18 hours. Far below, the Hermitage waiter was perhaps clearing away the remains of a sumptuous meal of “colonial goose,” apple pies and tartlets, and pouring out the last rounds of whisky and cider. On the icy mountain, three cold, hungry climbers were re-rigging their collapsed tent. It was Christmas Day, and they had beaten Fitzgerald.
Piqued by his loss, Fitzgerald, whose craving for public attention was as high as the mountains he set out to climb, now pronounced Cook too easy, and turned his attention to other peaks. Zurbriggen was less petty, and after Fitzgerald’s departure seized his chance to attack the mountain. Setting out from the Haast bivvy at 1.20 A.M. on March 14, 1895, Zurbriggen and the Hermitage manager Adamson crossed the Grand Plateau and the base of the Linda Glacier in deep, fresh snow.
Zurbriggen was a rock man, and soon took to the ridge south of the glacier. He always carried a bottle of wine with him—an empty bottle on the summit with his card inside was his mark—and as the contents had to be removed somehow, they hit upon the idea of breakfasting on some of it at about 10 A.M. Adamson was slowing the fitter Zurbriggen, so the Swiss continued alone from midday, and reached the summit at 3.40 P.M. Despite gale force winds, he took the first photographs ever shot from the top, and emptied and left his bottle with card nearby. He descended to Adamson in only an hour and a half, convinced that his route was the safest, easiest and quickest.
A decade was to elapse before boots trampled Cook’s frosty crown again.
In 1906, to place itself on the world’s map, Christchurch organised the biggest International Exhibition then seen in New Zealand—a combination of science fair and circus. In hastily-erected pavilions in Hagley Park, a replica of a Maori pa stood next to mock geysers, and saddled camels mingled with sea lions and penguins.
Among the onlookers was an Australian woman in her early twenties. She watched the Fijian firewalkers and the Battle of Gettysburg on a 100metre-long “cyclorama,” but it was the dazzling white Southern Alps on the skyline far to the west that made the most lasting impression. In the following years Freda Du Faur was to dominate the Mount Cook climbing scene.
Freda was a natural climber—”born, not made,” as she described herself. She had a good sense of balance, exceptional stamina and, most of all, an irrepressible enthusiasm for the mountains. “I have still to meet the enthusiastic New Zealand mountaineer who counts all discomforts but a minor part of this joyous game,” she commented. Freda wondered at the sight of men who, coming out of the mountains, were glad it was all over. “I may have been unlucky, but I have never met any one, apart from my own guides, who has been as keen and enthusiastic as myself.”
For four summer seasons Freda made the journey from Sydney to Mount Cook, each time enduring five days of seasickness. She developed a unique climbing partnership with Peter Graham, the most accomplished mountain guide at the time. Under his careful eye Freda undertook a thorough mountaineering apprenticeship. Aoraki, until then climbed only five times, lured her irresistibly, but her guide knew better. “Climb Mount Cook at once,” he cautioned her, “and you will have done the biggest climb in New Zealand. You will have nothing left to look forward to. You probably won’t enjoy it or be fit enough to appreciate your success.”
Every summer she climbed harder routes and bigger mountains. But at times it seemed the mountains were not the highest barriers she had to surmount.
“I soon learnt to my sorrow that I had to reckon with the other people in the house,” she confessed in her diary. “As I was a girl, travelling alone, the women in the house apparently considered themselves more or less responsible for my actions. One old lady implored me with tears in her eyes not to `spoil my life for so small a thing as climbing a mountain.’ She assured me in all seriousness that if I went out alone with a guide I would lose my reputation.
“I was tempted to reply that if my reputation was so fragile that it would not bear such a test, then I would be very well to rid myself of this useless article,” Freda fumed, adding: “I wished I possessed that useful appendage of a woman climber, a husband.” For a while she took to hiring an extra porter as a sulky witness to her enduring reputation.
In 1910, after a remarkably fast six-hour ascent guided by Peter Graham and his brother Alec, Freda Du Faur became the first woman to climb Aoraki. Three years later, with Peter Graham and Darby Thomson, she snatched her grandest climb ever: the traverse of all three peaks of Mt Cook, New Zealand’s “highest mile.” It was Freda’s last climbing season. A year later, Darby Thomson was buried in an avalanche on the treacherous Linda Glacier, the first fatality on Mt Cook (see New Zealand Geographic, Issue 19).
By 1914, all major peaks in the area had been climbed. The 1920s saw the introduction of crampons and the first winter ascent of Aoraki by Frank Milne. Slowly, the focus of climbers’ attention shifted from just reaching a summit to climbing a mountain by a particular route, the more difficult and challenging the better. Thus evolved the idea of “the last great problem”: a route sieged by fiercely competitive teams of climbers until one of them finally succeeded, sending the rest of the climbing community in search of another goal, another “last problem.”
At first, the “problems” were the mountains’ most prominent features and natural lines: the ridges. In 1938, Dan Bryant and Lud Mahan, both school teachers, climbed Aoraki’s East Ridge, separating the East and Caroline Faces—a beautiful and now classic route. Ten years later, Edmund Hillary and Ruth Adams, guided by Mick Sullivan and Harry Ayres, reached the summit via the jagged South Ridge. The four had to carry heavy loads of climbing gear, so little food was taken. Sullivan reported that breakfast consisted mainly of “a breath of fresh air and a good look around.”
With all the ridges conquered, attention during the 1950s focused on the 1600-metre East Face, a 60-degree wall of ice prone to frequent rockfalls and avalanches. (Climbers’ initial trepidation about the route proved thoroughly justifiable when, in 1991, the biggest avalanche in recent history swept down the East Face, altering the shape of the mountain and shortening it by 10 metres.)
In 1961, Peter Farrell, Don Cowie, Vic Walsh and Lynn Crawford, taking advantage of a full moon and good snow conditions, but bruised by an almost continuous shower of small rocks and shards of ice, inched their way to the summit. For most of their 18-hour climb they used the newly developed technique of front-pointing, in which ice-axe, ice-hammer and cramponed feet are jabbed into the ice, one at a time, as if climbing an imaginary ladder in staccato 4/4 rhythm.
The ascent of the East Face was the climb of the decade. The only bigger wall in the New Zealand Alps—and the subsequent “last problem”—was the neighbouring Caroline Face. This distinctly hostile 2000-metre stack of broken ice cliffs and hanging seracs, somehow bound together by the whims of sun and frost, looks so unstable it makes you want to hold your breath and tiptoe around it. Although the most accessible of all Aoraki’s flanks, the Caroline Face is also the most dangerous.
A year after their success on the East Face, Peter Farrell and Don Cowie were almost wiped out by an ice avalanche while descending from a failed attempt. The following year Michael Goldsmith and John Cousins went off “to have a look at the Caroline” and were never seen again. In another attempt, Lynn Crawford’s spine was almost snapped by a football-size chunk of ice, and he had to be dog-walked to safety in a painful 12-hour descent.
To climb the Caroline Face a new generation of climbers was needed, younger in spirit, uninhibited by previous failures and near-tragedies, and with a touch of arrogance and disrespect.
So came the era of the hippies, of Bob Dylan and Jefferson Airplane. Bowler hats and explorers’ pipes had long since disappeared; Apache haircuts and dope rollies took their place. Life was here and now, and climbing new routes the only thing that mattered.
On November 7, 1970, Peter Gough and John Glasgow cleanly disposed of the Caroline Face and, after a monotonously long but rather uneventful climb, reached the High Peak. When asked many years later to describe the route he and Glasgow took up the Caroline, Gough replied, “Just follow the silver thread on the back of the $5 note.”
Although this ascent was likened to breaking the four-minute mile, in Mount Cook at the time there was someone for whom the freshly-trimmed four minutes seemed painfully slow. A compact man with short, curly hair, Bill Denz, although not a technical virtuoso, had an exceptional mountain sense, tremendous willpower and a forceful personality. From the early days, his feats around Mount Cook had grown into something of a legend. In 1972, he soloed a new route on the South Face of Cook, equipped only with a jar of water and two ice screws. In similar fashion, he blitzkrieged his way up the Caroline Face in nine hours, part of the climb being in a raging nor’westerly storm. This was a style even the hippies found discomforting, and Denz encountered increasing difficulty in finding a climbing partner.
Two who shared his high risk/high achievement approach were the Dunedin climbers Murray Judge and Phil Herron. Judge was a superb rock climber, while Herron, perhaps the least experienced of the team, had enough enthusiasm for all three. Together they ventured into winter-bound Mt Cook and the steep faces of Fiordland’s Darran Mountains.
“When Denz and Judge ran out of steam, and going ahead was particularly hard, they would offer Phil the doubtful privilege of the leadership,” guide Bill Atkinson remembered. “In blissful ignorance he would lead through scarcely protected rock slabs and ice runnels only to find out afterwards that this was some of the hardest climbing ever done in New Zealand. Some of their routes are yet to be repeated. Sometimes they’d come back with their eyes still as wide as grindstones.”
Of the trio, only Judge still climbs today. In 1975, Herron was killed on Torre Egger in Patagonia, and in 1983, after several close calls, Denz’s luck ran out when he was caught in an avalanche on Makalu in the Himalayas.
The Pattern is all too common when you read the biographies of leading climbers. Those who strive to go steeper, faster and higher tend to lead short lives. A sudden storm, equipment failure, a hidden crevasse, an avalanche or rockfallthere are plenty of ways to die in the mountains. Climbers know the risks, and that the odds are increasingly against them; that one day they will push it too far. Why do they persist?
Look back for a moment. The original mountaineer was a Victorian explorer with a string of porters; a wealthy gentleman in pursuit of noble things to do. He was so serious about the business of climbing that he referred to it as “work.” He drew maps and wrote voluminous books, and sometimes, with a bit of luck, earned some recognition from a frowning society.
Modern climbers take a decidedly different approach. For Tom Patey, a brilliant Scottish mountaineer, the question “Why climb?” has a simple answer. “For descendants of apes, climbing is only a natural thing to do, an activity where we intellectually retreat a couple of millennia, but physically thrive . . . Since most climbable trees have disappeared under the chainsaws of progress, mountains offer the only real alternative, a place where, as a genuine primordial humanoid, you would beat your chest with pride if you had two hands to spare.”
Satire aside, mountains provide a chance to test oneself against self-imposed challenges, to undergo a repetitive baptism of fire among Earth’s natural cathedrals. Although, as French guide Gaston Rebuffat wrote, climbers look for difficulties, not for danger, the danger is nearly always present, intensifying the experience and presenting a means of, literally, living on the edge.
Mountaineer-painter John Ruskin offered this explanation: “If you come to a dangerous place and turn back from it, though it may have been perfectly right and wise to do so, your character has suffered some slight deterioration; you are to that extent weaker, more lifeless . . . But if you go through it, wrong and foolish as it may be, you come out a stronger and better person, fitter for every sort of work and trial, and nothing but danger produces this effect.”
To an outsider, climbing often appears as a struggle against menacing mountains—as one climber put it, “balancing on a fine line between life and death on sloping holds against the unforgiving force of gravity.” Mountaineer Graeme Dingle sees forces other than gravity at work—and on the climber’s psyche as well as on his body. “Humans need adventure—projects with an uncertain outcome,” he says. “We have a drive to examine, explore, push the limits of whatever we find ourselves involved in, be it music, physics, art, sport, mathematics or mountaineering. It’s probably an evolutionary necessity, something to keep us on our toes, fit to deal with unforeseen challenges to our survival as a species.
“Before there were climbers, explorers like Cook risked death by voyaging to the ends of the earth, and many people considered them mad, too. In our society there is a tension between those who take risks and those who try to surround themselves with nothing but safety and comfort. The philosopher Alfred Whitehead wrote, ‘A civilised society exhibits five crucial characteristics: art, peace, truth, beauty, adventure. Without adventure, civilisation is in full decay.’
“From my experience, mountaineers are generally exceptionally well-rounded people. Many are artists or writers, they have a good understanding of human nature, can think laterally, and are able to stare death in the face. It is no coincidence that Ed Hillary is our national icon. Long may it remain so.”
The dangers of mountains and mountaineering cannot be ignored, but should not be exaggerated either. Those who revel in descriptions of Mt Cook as a “gigantic graveyard” or a “killer mountain” are typically media bloodhounds who have only seen the mountain from a helicopter.
It is a fact, though, that over the past hundred years New Zealand’s mountains have seen their share of tragedies, and over 160 people have died in Mount Cook National Park alone. The notorious Caroline Face has claimed at least seven fatalities, and climbers have been known to disappear even on the way to a but toilet. Huts themselves have been blown off their foundations or narrowly missed by avalanches.
But between and behind headline-making fatalities there are remarkable stories of survival in this simplified world of do or die, where, as Paul Theroux wrote (in another context) “money has no value arid possessions are a deadweight.”
One of the most extraordinary happened in November 1982. Two members of the Mount Cook Search and Rescue team, taking advantage of fine weather and a few days off work, left the Plateau Hut and began climbing the East Ridge of Aoraki. Reaching Porter Col, between Low and Middle Peaks, Phil Doole and Mark Inglis were paralysed by a jetstream wind so strong and cold that within minutes they were both on the verge of hypothermia. In desperation, they made for the only shelter around, a shallow schrund christened the Middle Peak Hotel. They were forced to stay there for 14 days.
The weather steadily worsened, and down below the Ball Hut Road was closed due to avalanche danger. Rapidly advancing fronts and exceptionally strong winds rendered helicopter rescue impossible.
In the Park Headquarters, each day brought a new pre-dawn readiness, followed by weather-enforced inactivity. In the words of Bob Munro, one of the rescuers, the entire team was in the state of a sprinter called again and again to his blocks, but never getting the clearance of the starter gun.
Meanwhile, in the schrund, Phil and Mark, without a stove or sleeping bags, surviving on two biscuits and a couple of spoonfuls of drink concentrate a day, and melting snow in a spare drink bottle tucked under their clothing, lapsed into a state of mental and physical hibernation.
On Day 8 the clouds lifted just enough for a “recce” flight during which the helicopter crew spotted a small figure waving from the schrund. They tried to lower a supply bag, but the wind threatened to blow the rope into the tail rotor. So they bombed the schrund with drop-bags containing food, fuel and a VHF radio. That night Phil and Mark had their first hot drink in over a week. Just before 9 P.kl. the radio receiver at Park HQ crackled into life: “This is Hotel Middle Peak. Mark lost feeling all toes. No food since Wednesday. Phil, two big toes frozen, next contact in thirty minutes.”
On Day 13, in a last ditch attempt, an RNZAF Iroquois helicopter was called in to land a rescue party on the Empress Shelf, a broad snow ramp curving across the Hooker Face. As the machine attempted to land, it was suddenly engulfed by swirling snow which cut the visibility to zero. A rotor blade caught the slope and the chopper flipped on its back and was left half hanging over the ice-fall as the rescuers and crew dived out through the side. While another helicopter touched down on the Hooker Glacier and a support party was clambering out, the chopper’s speedo was showing 80 knots as it struggled to maintain position against the wind.
On Day 14, heavy snow-clouds still clogged the Hooker Valley, but the Tasman Sea was clear and the wind seemed to have diminished. At 7.30 am., in low visibility, two Squirrel helicopters headed for Middle Peak. Minutes later, above the Tasman moraine, they broke through the clouds and into a clear view of the summits. The temperature outside was minus 20°C.
Dangling on a rope, Don Bogie was lowered into the schrund. While the helicopter hovered 15 metres above, he dragged Mark Inglis out of the snow cave and, with the help of Phil Doole hobbling on his frozen feet, strapped him into a Bauman rescue bag. They flew off into the relative shelter of the Empress Shelf, and while the survivors of the Iroquois crash and the doctor took care of Inglis, the chopper returned to the schrund and carried Doole to safety.
“I never knew just how beautiful Bogie’s face could be,” Mark Inglis said at the time. Someone replied: “Matey, you’ve been up there for a long time.”
After extensive amputations and much convalescing (they lost a quarter of their body weight), Inglis returned to work at Mount Cook National Park, and Doole joined a climbing expedition to the Peruvian Andes.
Incidents such as this one reinforce the notion that climbing is an act of trespass rather than of conquest and, if ill-timed, can end up in grief, no matter how experienced and well-equipped the climber. Modern mountaineering relies more on speed than on any other factor, further stressing the transitory nature of the achievement.
Perhaps it is really the mountains of the mind that climbers are constantly setting out to conquer. Goals are dreamed, set and achieved, and the emotional vacuum of the aftermath quickly filled with another challenge. The search is for inner experiences which, as Henri Matisse noted, are enriched by the forms of the outer world
Samuel butler wrote in 1861 that he doubted if any human would ever reach the top of Aoraki. Little more than a century later, its flanks have been covered with a web of routes and variants. The mountain has been skied, snowboarded, paraglided—once a mountain bike was taken to the summit by an eccentric climber who made his living as a cycle courier. Still, though, the route pioneered by Fyfe, Graham and Clarke earns a respectable 4 on the 1-6+ scale of alpine difficulty, and Freda Du Faur’s Grand Traverse remains one of the grandest climbs in the Southern Alps.
Although the mountains, save for the retreat of glaciers, have changed little, mountaineering has come a long way. It is no longer the sport of wealthy eccentrics. The climbing community has become something of a social melting pot, where overworked surgeons on short annual holidays are at ease with layabouts allergic to work, and where university lecturers mingle with educational dropouts.
Rope, the token of mountaineering and mountain friendship, the umbilical cord of climbing buddies tied together for better or worse (and once described as “a link with tradition and a reasonable assurance against the leader falling alone”) has also lost its symbolic power. With confidence derived from fitness and high-tech equipment, extreme climbers often choose to climb without rope, sacrificing safety for speed so critical in the changeable mountain weather.
Climbing mountains evokes a roller coaster of emotions and images, which burn lasting imprints into the memory. Anxiety at early departures and relief at safe returns; fear and elation, utmost misery and unfettered happiness, all intermingled, fluctuating with every rope length. Rush of adrenalin, a throat-knotting view and tang of zinc on sunburnt lips. Squeak of midnight snow underfoot, hiss of rope slithering against the neve and the telltale stench of thermal clothes soaked with sweat and dried by the wind many times over. Fresh taste of water, reassuring warmth of sun and an occasional stream of profanities after the leader’s fall into a hidden crevasse.
For many, the mountains represent freedom, an escape from Thoreau’s “life of quiet desperation,” where, in the words of Tom Patey, “we get a little older in wisdom, a little younger in spirit.”
But if there is one single reason why we climb mountains, it is perhaps to get a new, different look at the world; a fresh perspective, a clear view, unhindered by the burden of things small and unimportant. For those seeking this new perspective—a way to explore both the inner and outer landscapes—Aoraki has been a noble viewpoint.