Hedgehog House

The unforgiving face

A chance discovery at the base of New Zealand’s most treacherous mountaineering ascent raised the prospect of a decades-old mystery finally being resolved.

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At first, all Mike Brown saw was a flash of orange. As he came closer, he noticed an axe, wooden and weather-beaten. Then there were some crampons. That flash of orange—it was a helmet, crushed and worn. Inside was a skull. It still had some hair on it.

Brown and his climbing companion, Kent Needham, leaned down. Brown knew from the appearance of the axe that whatever they were looking at was at least 20 years old.

It was a warm day in Mt Cook National Park. The peak of Aoraki loomed over them, with its 2000-metre face of bulging glacial ice. They were relatively new to climbing. For Brown, it had grown out of the love for tramping he had discovered during high school. As humans born into a certain age, he felt there was something within us—a primal instinct that was hard to satisfy in the modern world. Brown sought it in adventure.

The pair had set off early in the morning, trudging a slow path up the mountain. But early on, Brown told Needham that something didn’t seem right. Soon after, a piece of debris came whizzing down the slope, narrowly missing them.

“I’m not feeling it today,” Brown said to his climbing partner. He was sore and for some reason increasingly uneasy about continuing. So they turned around and started making their way back down the slope.

Then they saw it. That ice axe. Those crampons. That helmet. That skull.

A solo climber nears the top of the Caroline Face, approaching the summit ridge of Aoraki/Mt Cook. Four climbers lost their lives in the 1960s while attempting to scale the 2000-metre wall of ice.
A solo climber nears the top of the Caroline Face, approaching the summit ridge of Aoraki/Mt Cook. Four climbers lost their lives in the 1960s while attempting to scale the 2000-metre wall of ice.

They had stumbled upon two bodies, huddled together. From Brown’s limited knowledge of school geography he thought that the pair would not have died where they lay. Glaciers move quickly—always changing, progressing or retreating. Brown looked up to Aoraki. On the other side was the Caroline Face, the site of some of the most daring attempts to summit Mt Cook. Some had succeeded. But, in the years before its slopes and ridges had been conquered, there were failures, too.

Brown thought of the bodies that lay before him in the Hooker Glacier as morbid reminders of the consequences of screwing up.

He bent over and inspected the crushed helmet. Scratched into the plastic was a name: ‘Cousins’.

It was October 16, 1999. What Brown didn’t know was that he was looking at ghosts, lost in the mountain’s ice and rock for almost 40 years. When Alpine Search and Rescue finally recovered the bodies, they also found something else. It was an old German-made Braun camera, housed in a leather case. In it lay a roll of 35mm film, and preserved in its photographic negatives, a mystery that might finally be resolved: who were the first people to scale the Caroline Face, one of the hardest ascents in New Zealand mountaineering?

[Chapter Break]

Drive into the heart of the Southern Alps as the stone-grey waters of Lake Pukaki run at your side. Drive into the shadows of the mountain range made dun by cloud and rain. Walk along those first tracks into the Hooker Glacier and past the site of the first Hermitage Hotel, plagued by fire and flood until it was shifted farther down the valley. Trudge along the sodden grass and past rock patched with green and orange moss until you arrive at the stone cairn.

On it are names etched in metal. There is Peter Brandford of Christchurch who, in 1961, was engulfed in an avalanche while descending from Pioneer Pass to Haast Hut.

“At peace in his loved mountains.”

There is Dennis Jackson, who was lost on Nun’s Veil in 1996.

“Cold the icy wind and snow, warm the memories that never die.”

Behind it is Aoraki. Once, in Māori mythology, the site of a great void which searched for creation. Then moisture, Te Maku, emerged and a cloud that grew from the dawn, Mahoranuiatea, followed. From their union came Raki, the heavens that breathed life into the darkness. The first child in this chain of creation was Aoraki—the Cloud in the Sky and the supreme mountain of Ngāi Tahu.

The mountain is a link between the supernatural and natural worlds. Those of the tribe who are buried in the mountain become part of it. Aoraki is, for them, the source of the power of life over death. It inspires fear and awe and respect.

Steve Lassche drives his ice axe into the flank of the Caroline Face on the first winter ascent with mountaineering legend Rob Hall in 1981, beating another team that attempted the same climb just days earlier.

In the local visitors’ centre there is a room where three leather-bound books sit on a wooden shelf, surrounded by tales of conquest and loss. There are paintings and diaries of the first men and women who came to this part of New Zealand seeking to ascend that cloud in the sky. They were the pioneering mountain climbers. If you asked them why they risked their lives to scale these slopes, they would answer simply and elegantly. Freda Du Faur, an Australian climber, whose words also grace a wall in that room, wrote: “From the moment my eyes rested on the snow-clad alps I worshipped their beauty and was filled with a passionate longing to touch those shining snows, to climb to their heights of silence and solitude, and feel myself one with the mighty forces around me.”

There are hundreds of names in those books. They are a memorial stretching back more than 100 years to the first people who were lost to the mountain and its surrounding park. George Napier was the very first. He was in his twenties when he came to Aoraki and went missing, presumed drowned, in the Hooker River region on December 29, 1907.

Since then, the list has grown. Scan the index of the memorials and you’ll find more than 230 victims. There are incidents from within the park—those who have succumbed to rockfalls, heart attacks, avalanches and hypothermia. Almost 80 perished while climbing Aoraki. Some have no answer, no cause of death—forever lost to the mountain. But there are others whose fate is revealed years later—as if Aoraki is offering those seekers of silence and solitude one last breath of voice in this world. They are the ones Aoraki offers back.

Walk around that cairn in the shadow of Aoraki. Look to the back. There are two other names among the plaques. They sit together in thick protruding capital letters. There is no cause of death.

MICHAEL JOHN GOLDSMITH and ALAN JOHN COUSINS. Both died, it says, on November 3, 1963.

“THEY LOVED MT COOK,” the plaque reads.

[Chapter Break]

Until the 1960s, climbers traversed ridges to ascend the peaks of the country’s mountains. The last remaining ridge of Aoraki was finally climbed in 1948 by two guides and two clients. One of them was Sir Edmund Hillary.

After all the ridges were conquered, the next challenge was the faces—the slopes that lie between the ridges. They are harder to climb—steeper and often threatened by falling ice or rock. On the first ascent of the East Face of Mt Whitcombe, climber Mike Gill looked down to see his companion, Ian Cave, climbing on his knees. Gill rebuked him for climbing with such bad technique even if he was bone-weary.

“Climbing? Who’s climbing?” Cave replied. “I’m praying.”

Face-climbing was dangerous business. It began before the last ridges had been conquered. In 1960, two Europeans climbed the East Face of Mt Tasman. They were only just beaten to the East Face of Aoraki by a party of New Zealanders and Britons.

The Caroline Face of Mt Cook was known as the most fearsome of them all. There are 48 other ways to scale the mountain, ranging from the easier Linda Glacier route, which can take as much as 20 hours longer than more technical routes, such as the East Ridge, which separates the East Face of Mt Cook from the Caroline Face and joins Aoraki’s summit ridge.

The Caroline was known as “the last great problem” and viewed as the “glittering prize of New Zealand mountaineering”, according to John Palmer, writing in The Climber magazine.

At more than 2000 metres from floor to summit, the Caroline Face looms large in mountaineering lore. It is the highest, most continuously difficult and one of the most dangerous faces in the entire Southern Alps.

“If one had the gall to talk seriously about an ascent of the Caroline Face in 1968, all but the bravest would catch their breath or think you a lunatic,” wrote mountaineer Graham Dingle.

“Neither its great height nor its technical difficulties quite explain this fascinated horror,” wrote Jim Wilson, author of Aorangi. “To understand that, one must realise that the face is also potentially dangerous, with a danger beyond the climber’s direct skill.”

It was ice avalanche that gave the cold thrill that ran down climbers’ spines on seeing the face, Wilson wrote.

“Ice avalanche—tier upon tier of hanging ice cliffs, poised for a plunge at a man.”

It was that threat, that danger, that drew mountaineers to it. But it was also those same features that could see their names added to the cairn at the base of the mountain.

[Chapter Break]

John Cousins and Michael Goldsmith arrived at the Hermitage Hotel on October 31, 1963. They had been climbing partners and friends at the University of Canterbury. Cousins was regarded as one of New Zealand’s promising young climbers. He was a member of the Canterbury Mountaineering Club and the New Zealand Alpine Club. He had already climbed extensively through the alps, including a number of first ascents, and was in the final year of a mechanical engineering degree. Cousins would often turn up to class wearing his boots and climbing clothes. He was also a keen photographer who had led a revival in black-and-white mountain photography. His appreciation of the mountains was acute, according to an article in the 1963 edition of The Canterbury Mountaineer.

“He would stand at the hut door and stare fascinated at some ridge or face, but at the same time he held an honest respect for the mountains.”

Goldsmith was also a strong climber. He once climbed five peaks in three winter days around the Inland Kaikoura ranges. He had just finished his degree in electrical engineering and was hoping to gain a travel grant overseas to climb in the Andes the following year. Goldsmith was a capable cook and, according to another entry in the same issue of The Canterbury Mountaineer, also sported an old camera “of uncertain mechanism” which he used to illustrate his trips. Above all he was enthusiastic.

“When he met an obstacle on a leading ridge he would often go over the top,” the entry states. “The climbing was the thing.”

When the pair arrived at the Hermitage Hotel, their climb was to be no more than a prelude to the main activities of the season. Cousins, in particular, planned to traverse from Mt Tasman to Mt Cook—more than three kilometres as the crow flies, but taking in some of the country’s most challenging terrain. They did not check their intentions personally with the ranger, but slipped a note under the park headquarters’ door late at night, before leaving for Ball Hut—a three-hour journey from the Hermitage. They were “going to have a look at the Caroline Face”. Had the rangers been notified, they would have endeavoured to discourage them from going into this area, according to a Mt Cook National Park Board memo from 1964.

“There is a strong possibility that they avoided contact with the rangers in view of [this] fact,” the board wrote. “The area is a known danger area for its frequent avalanches.” It was presumed the pair knew of these risks but ventured on regardless.

During the next day, a spell of fine weather ended. Cousins and Goldsmith were due back at the Hermitage on November 3. They never arrived. Two days later, the Timaru Herald reported concerns for their safety, as falling snow hampered search efforts.

“We cannot do much in the way of a search until the weather clears,” said Lawrence Dennis, manager of the Hermitage.

A party of rangers had gone to Ball Hut the previous day, but found no sign of them. All they discovered were the pair’s sleeping bags. Visibility and snow kept aircraft grounded. Experienced mountaineers waited at the Hermitage for a break in the weather. As time went on, they hoped that the pair had achieved their goal. It was their only chance at survival—that they conquered the Caroline before crossing over into the Hooker Valley. They could have been waiting at the Empress or Gardiner Huts, but neither was equipped with a radio. A party building a new hut on the Grand Plateau reported that at their altitude of 2300 metres, snow was still falling heavily and was by then three feet deep. The chief ranger, Merv Burke, said unless an aerial search revealed signs of Cousins and Goldsmith, the rangers could not get onto the Caroline Face itself.

“That would be suicidal in view of the extreme danger from avalanches,” he said.

The following day, with the weather still holding firm, the Hermitage manager faced reality.

“I don’t think we have much chance of finding them alive,” Dennis told the Timaru Herald. “Or even finding them.”

[Chapter Break]

Mike Shearer stood in the dark holding the camera in his hands. In his Auckland studio, he unclipped its leather case and carefully slid it out. It was in great condition, he thought. What had it been? Thirty years? It was 1999. The German-made Braun was known at the time as one of the best cameras of its era. There was very little corrosion. The back of it opened well. Shearer looked at the film still housed within the camera body.

His company, Imagepac, had the national contract for the New Zealand police’s processing work. The majority of his time was spent developing crime scene stills—but this was something different. He had been sent the camera by officers hoping to find an answer to a question. The camera had been transported off Aoraki/Mt Cook, taken with two bodies that were found after decades in the ice.

Alongside the skeletal remains were two coiled ropes, one thick and one thin, five screws, an ice piton, three crampons that had been separated from their boots, and a guidebook. The Timaru pathologist Doug Lamont had to count the tibias to make sure he was looking at two bodies. Also with them was an aluminium foot ladder, equipment carried by only a few serious climbers in the Mt Cook region.

The first ascent of Caroline Face was credited to John Glasgow and Peter Gough in 1970. In the hype that followed their climb, Glasgow would describe it as a “victory for hippies”.

The bodies emerged from the Hooker Glacier, near Hooker Hut on the opposite side of the mountain from the Caroline Face. This indicates that the pair ascended by the face, or another route to Porter Col, and perished while descending the Hooker. The Department of Conservation’s glacial flow rates suggest that the bodies entered the flow of the glacier about eight kilometres above where they were found. Climber Ray Bellringer told the Timaru Herald that if Cousins and Goldsmith had not climbed the Caroline Face or the East Face, there would be no reason for their remains to be where they were, on the western side of the mountain.

“We believe that puts them on Porters Col on the Upper Empress Glacier somewhere, maybe descending.”

Peter Gough and John Glasgow are credited with climbing the Caroline Face in 1970. Photographs from the time show the pair triumphant, with long hair, overgrown beards and sunglasses—newspapers hailed their efforts as a victory for “hippies”.

But with the discovery of the bodies on the Hooker, it now seems possible that Gough and Glasgow were beaten to the top.

When the news came through to Glasgow, who was working as a mountain guide, he was philosophical about handing on that mantle.

“At this range it’s a fitting memorial for them,” he said.

But proof was needed. That camera, that film, may hold the key. Photos may show which of the three routes Cousins and Goldsmith took to the top—up the South Ridge, the East Ridge or the Caroline Face.

Mike Shearer had spent long enough in the industry—through the heyday of black-and-white film to the advent of colour processing—to be aware of the problems that could come with developing such negatives. The film had been frozen, and presumably thawed and refrozen dozens of times, for 36 years. It had travelled through a glacier to where it was found by chance by two climbers on a descent.

“We were well aware of the importance of recovering anything at all from it,” he says.

Shearer carefully extracted the film from its spool in the darkroom, and found it was made by the British company called Ilford. It appeared that about 17 exposures had been made, with seven still remaining unexposed. All in all, it was intact, which was a relatively good start.

Shearer decided he would do a “clip test”, developing only a small portion of negative from the roll—standard practice when unsure of the quality of an exposure or the film. He was hoping for the emergence of an exposure number, or the brand of the film. But the celluloid coating on the film—the emulsion—turned to mush. His hopes for a resolution faded.

Rather than accept defeat, however, Shearer called Ilford in Britain. He explained the situation and the potential importance of this film to New Zealand’s mountaineering history. Ilford told him to mail it over.

[Chapter Break]

John Glasgow sits in the house that he built out the back of Riwaka, near Nelson, and reflects on his time as the man who climbed the most dangerous face of them all.

“It’s the highest grading,” he says, “but it’s not that difficult.”

What was difficult was its length. The Caroline Face is the highest vertical ‘lift’ of any climb in New Zealand. It is also full of “objective danger”—ice falls and avalanches.

“If you get a powder avalanche, it wipes the whole face clean,” he says.

Glasgow and Gough arrived at the Hermitage on November 7, 1970. Like Cousins and Goldsmith, the pair were also in their 20s, buoyant with youthful confidence. They looked up to the range—the weather was good, so they went.

After climbing up the Caroline Glacier, the safest route was up an arête, or sharp, rocky ridge. That night, the pair set up a bivouac there. They would wait until the morning before making the “crux pitch” onto the Caroline’s ice cliffs.

That night was a meal of tins of stew, chocolate, biscuits and hot drinks. As they were settling in for the evening, a small river of an avalanche rolled by. The snow was wet and it flowed smoothly.

“We could put our hand out and touch it,” says Glasgow. They just hoped another, larger one wasn’t behind it.

The following day would be the most challenging part of the ascent—a sheer ice climb. The pair climbed with straight ice picks—climbing in balance the whole way, creeping up cracks in the ice cliffs. Below them was a sheer drop.

“It just goes on and on,” says Glasgow.

The pair nicked the front points of their crampons into cracks in the face and carefully threaded their way across the hard ice. They made their way through a chimney—a cleft of rock and ice that had, on a previous attempt by the pair, taken several hours. The elements were kinder this time and the ascent went smoothly.

Down in the Hermitage, a crowd had gathered with binoculars, checking their movements as the small figures picked their way onto a sheer icefield.

Crossing the field was “like a roof”, says Glasgow. Sheets of ice dropped away on either side. He could not see the mountain below him. There was only void.

Eventually they got to the ridge, bypassing the nearby summit, as that had already been conquered long ago. They then dropped down the West Face, an easier descent.

Glasgow looked up and saw the sky had turned grey and purple… huge curtains of it.

“I’m thinking, ‘I must be really tired,’” says Glasgow.

But Gough was seeing it, too. It was the Aurora Australis. “I had never seen it there before. It was shimmering.”

When the pair returned to the Hermitage Hotel, an excited crowd was there to greet them. The story was splashed across the front pages of newspapers around New Zealand. The climb would be hailed as the greatest of the millennium by the New Zealand Alpine Club. It also changed Glasgow’s life. Before the summit, he was likely heading to a geology position in Western Australia. Instead, he was offered a job alpine guiding in the national park.

Glasgow ended up summiting Mt Cook 11 times, though never again did he climb the Caroline Face. However, throughout his climbing career he became increasingly aware of his vulnerability.

“I was more alert to the fact that when you are on your own you can make a mistake, but when professionally guiding you can’t. And your client can make one any old time.”

He doesn’t know whether John Cousins and Michael Goldsmith conquered the Caroline Face before he and Gough did. All Glasgow knows is that if it were him, he would have preferred his body to stay on the mountain.

“If you go down a crevasse, that’s the burial. Ask any climber—that’s what they would want. They don’t want people to risk their lives. It doesn’t take much to go wrong. You only make one mistake and it’s your last.”

[Chapter Break]

Customs made sure not to x-ray the film as it passed onto British soil. In Mike Shearer’s 30 years in the photography business, he had never gone to such lengths to save a roll.

Ilford spent weeks coming up with a developing “brew” gentle enough for the film. It confirmed that the adhesion of the light-sensitive emulsion was very weak. It had hardened, and proved difficult to develop. Soon it became apparent that a chemical reaction had occurred within the camera and effectively developed the images—the iron in the camera body had reduced the silver bromide in the emulsion to silver metal, encasing the images as if in a vault. The film would never divulge its secrets.

“Everything has been done,” said Dave Gaskin of Timaru police. “It will be a mystery which will probably remain forever… we all have our suspicions.”

[Chapter Break]

At the base of the mountain, beside a cairn, is a memorial that records in stone the only part of the mystery that the families can be certain of. “They loved Mt Cook.”

Before his own death, Goldsmith’s father told a newspaper reporter that whenever the family looked at the mountain, they knew he was there. “That is the place where he is.”

Liz Cousins still remembers the day that she was told her brother John was missing. She heard something on the radio about two people in the “suicidal” area of Mt Cook.

“I was numbed,” she says. “I didn’t know what to do.”

A plaque commemorates Alan Cousins and Michael Goldsmith on the climbers' memorial at Mt Cook.
A plaque commemorates Alan Cousins and Michael Goldsmith on the climbers’ memorial at Mt Cook.

Liz, who was six years younger than her brother, went to her classes for nursing school in Wellington, while the family waited for news of the search party’s progress. She remembers the weather and how they could not get onto the mountain to try to find her brother and Goldsmith.

“My father took it pretty hard,” she says.

Her father, uncle and surviving brother went down to the national park. “There is always a little bit of hope.”

But as time went on, hope faded. They had a memorial service for John in Karori. She thought something might turn up.

Liz, now 71, still remembers the day that she was told her brother’s remains had been found. It was eerie. Her mother died the following day. The minister who had presided over her brother’s memorial service also officiated at her mother’s funeral. “It all seemed a bit funny,” she says.

But there was finality to it. There were now some answers, even if the families may never know if their sons had reached the peak of Aoraki via its most famous face.

Both the Cousins and Goldsmiths decided to return their sons to that place of silence and solitude. Back to the cloud in the sky that they loved. They released their ashes into the air, watching them drift onto the same mountain within whose icy embrace their bodies had lingered for so many years. They were part of the mountain again.

This story first appeared in Barker’s magazine, 1972.