I meet Lee in the Old Mountaineer’s Café. He has his back turned to me, sipping a cup of tea, flicking through a copy of Alpinist magazine. Issue #45. He looks strong, lean, fast. He wears a buff over nape-length hair, sports a wiry beard and wears all the right branded clothing. Nottingham accent. A look in his eye like he’s ready for anything.
I’d been down in Queenstown, ice and mixed climbing on the West Face of the Remarkables – cragging, hiking, traversing dodgy loaded gullies on the Queen’s Drive, breaking trail through waist-deep snow to access waterfall ice at Lake Alta… the usual. Getting some low-commitment mountain mileage under my legs. The weather and conditions in the Cook area had been terrible lately and the right partner had been hard to find so this three week stint in New Zealand had turned into a training trip. I was fine with that, but by the end of week two, four-pitch alpine cragging or dry-tooling on drilled, spray-painted holds in a chossy cave just wasn’t doing it for me anymore. I wanted to test myself, to measure myself again in the mountains. I wanted to get better… to get to know them. To move through them efficiently and with an able, like-minded partner. If the mountains came out bigger, as they always did, then turning back was always fine but if a window presented itself then I wanted to see just how far I could push my limits.
Lee was in Cook village looking for a partner. I was in Queenstown, with three days left before my flight home. A textbook high pressure system was coming through from the west. I was looking for an objective.
We toss up a few options. The MacInnes Ridge of Nazomi. The Hilary Ridge of Mt Cook. Stunning lines lying six to eight hours up the Hooker Glacier. Lee tells me he’s climbed hard ice in Norway and I realise what we should be trying. Ridge climbs are fun, but it is winter and the ice on south-facing aspects where the real fun is to be had right now. My thoughts turn to a peak I had seen in a picture snapped by some heli-skiers near the head of the Tasman Glacier. Mount Darwin and its broad south face. Five hundred metres height gain – who knows how many pitches of technical climbing. In my mind, I see runnels and gullies of ice flowing from its summit. Unclimbed lines. Darwin in winter. It seems like the perfect choice. The natural selection.
We’ve decided on the mountain, the aspect. Now all we have to do is get there. This will be an alpine style effort, self-supported, walk-in, walk-out just like of old – just like Tom Fyfe and his mates. What did Marty Schmidt used to say about the Mt Cook gravy train flying in halfway up the mountain to start climbing?… It’s cheating.
We go light, taking bivy equipment but leaving most of the food behind. We plan for seventy-two hours in the hills…. At a stretch. We take a dehydrated main meal each, six sachets of energy gel and two muffin bars. If we are gone for three days we will go without food on one of them. Yeah sure, we are light. But as House reminds us: “light and fast means cold and hungry”. At least I have my sleeping bag. We’re not that light. I’d actually almost forgotten it. But even if I had, so what? Walter Bonatti and Amir Mahdi survived an open bivy at eight thousand six hundred metres on K2. I’m sure we would have been okay.
We kit up and within an hour we leave the carpark. Skipoles out, I let him set the pace. He’s fast, fit and he has the speed to prove the fifty kilometres he jogs per week. I match his pace, comfortable, and we are away into the fading afternoon light. We move like we’ve been training partners for years. We round the terminal moraine with the Caroline Face of Mount Cook looming before us. It’s a nice aspect, pretty enough to be on the New Zealand $5 dollar note. There’s a lot of history on that face. The much-lauded first ascent by Gough and Glasgow. Bill Denz’s ridiculous solo. And the less known enchainment of a new route on the right hand side by Sveticic Miroslav, a visiting Slovenian. The snow hangs heavy on the slopes of the Caroline. The seracs make her look like a place you wouldn’t want to be. Big, white and dangerous. I wouldn’t want to be there right now. And why would you? It’s all been done before hasn’t it? Not worth dying on a repeat from the 1970s. I’ll tell you what. You can keep the Caroline Face and your $5 dollar note and I’ll go find something new. Even if I do have to moraine-bash for the next twelve hours.
Mount Darwin, situated near the head of the Tasman glacier lies a long way upstream. Climate change-induced glacial recession means the moraine walls have grown higher, the easy-to-crampon white ice has diminished to half of its initial size leaving in its wake only the regurgitated detritus of geologic time – moraine. Piles of loose rock, clumped together into mountains of barely-navigable choss, a veritable hellscape reminiscent of Mordor minus the flames. To even access this moraine and the glacier below the walking track we must descend the moraine wall, picking our way down the loose scree that comprises a natural death trap known as Garbage Gully.
From there it is a mere eighteen kilometres and fifteen hundred metres elevation gain and we will be at the base of the route. Thirty-six kilometre round trip. No heavy parcels of food weighing us down. I can’t see why we can’t do it in thirty-six hours. Even untrained, I can run forty in less than four.
Lee is an arborist and a die-hard climber. Strong on rock, strong on ice and he runs alot. Good. We will move fast. Speed is of paramount importance for this trip. Maybe as important as experience. What use is experience if it takes you twice as long to plod up a low-angle snow slope when you only have a two day weather window?
We descend Garbage Gully in the early hours of the evening. I slip and slide down it, Lee practically glissades. I never get better at moraine walls.
“How far do you reckon we’ll get tonight?” Lee asks as we look over the hellscape before us.
“The white ice,” I state, categorically. That’s where we’ll be going.
We trudge and moraine-bash. Nothing eventful. Just walking, thinking about the climbing, calculating timings, taking in the hulking shape of De La Beche ridge dominating the skyline in the twilight. We bivy just before the white ice begins. We don’t feel like navigating the minefield in the dark. Sleeping bag out. Shuteye. I remember not two years ago having a restless bivy on the Sebastopol Ridge in winter because I was worried about the easy climbing up Annette and Sealy to come. Tonight I sleep like a hibernating polar bear… happy. I’m beginning to feel comfortable in this environment. Not safe. It’s the mountains isn’t it? Just comfortable. Confident.
We wake. We boil snow. Same old routine. Camping’s fun isn’t it? We share half a muffin bar for breakfast. Caramel flavoured filling. Still better than a sachet of energy gel I reckon. Save those for later. For when we need to get up Garbage Gully. We move. Good cramponing for a time, turning to a plod in the mid-morning melt. We stop on the hour for a sip or two of water. We’ll get there. We pass the foot of De La Beche ridge, the unlikely bivy rock perched precariously on the edge of a moraine wall. We pass the Ranfurly glacier, grinding and groaning on our left, teetering off the side of the Western Minaret. Darwin and Darwin’s corner is in view now. It feels like we’ve been specially-invited, like we’ve been selected. Exactly what Darwin himself was talking about. Not that we’re elite or anything. It wasn’t Darwin who coined the phrase “survival of the fittest”… that was Herbert Spencer. And he was wrong. The process of evolution is more subtle than that. The ecology in which animals thrive sifts and sorts rather than culls and cuts. Evolutionary changes in gene forms do not mean the production of “better” forms. We are no better than anyone else. We have the same DNA as any mountaineer, there’s just been a slight mutation. While some are content to walk up low-angled, heavily-crevassed glaciers with massive objective danger on Mount Cook, others look elsewhere for inspiration. Others look to transform themselves through the pursuit of unclimbed, aesthetic lines, thinking outside the box, or in this context, thinking beyond the summit. Biologists call this an ecological niche. We’ve selected this route, and I know already that it has selected us too. Natural selection.
We plod on. I break trail. Lee follows. We switch. I plod along behind. Then it’s my turn again. Our workload is pretty equal. The angle of the slope steepens as we start up the face. We begin daggering. Lee is breaking trail at a quicker pace than me but I am still doing my share and distance. Every fifty metres or so we turn to the other: “want a go at breaking?”
“Sure,” says the other. “Fuck no,” we’re actually thinking.
We solo up through a snowpack that a skier would call “perfect” and what a climber would call “perfectly fucked”. Plod. Plod. It’s all hard work. It’s all good fun. You play the game, you trash your body. The angle steepens, then it turns to hard snow, than snice – a snow-ice composite… and now we are climbing properly. Suddenly our energy has returned. Now we’re going up, not just at the mountain face.
Lee strikes real ice with one tool and whacks his other into a fresh blue sheet. It’s real ice now, but still not gnarly enough to warrant a rope. Particularly since the run-off beneath us seems a beginner’s hill compared with some of the shrund-filled nightmares strewn around the park. Ever the good partner, Lee looks down as he climbs away: “are you happy to do this bit unroped?”
It looks okay. “Yeah I guess so,” I reply. “We’ll find out soon enough won’t we?” I grin.
He climbs twenty more metres to a stance. Time to rope up now. Lee places some screws and I flake the rope. The first pitch is eighty metres of solid ice climbing. Steep with some vertical steps. Lee, guns away again. Crunch, crunch, crack, crack. Methodical. It’s nice to watch. Not a mis-swung tool. I follow, and with a gloved hand as I reach the ramp start of the vertical section I touch the ice. The ice is old, blue, perfectly plastic – as if someone had wrapped a sapphire in melted cling wrap. I snap a picture of my feet to gauge and appreciate the steepness of it all later. Then I climb. Every tool strike sinks deep, my tools darting in and out of the ice like a pair of herons snatching at a fish. My footwork is good, my arms are fine. My body is at balance. Good good.
Right tool high. Move feet. Left tool high. Move feet. Keep those heels low. Ha! Ice climbing is easy.
Ice. The ephemeral medium. Where climbing rock is a collection of sequences waiting to be unlocked, ice is a blank canvas waiting to be painted on, a mass of hardened watery nothing, in want of an artist. But the art of climbing ice is no ballet or portrait class. Leave the ballet for the sport climbers. This is the Dance of the Neanderthals.
With the steep crux of the route below us, I take the lead on a pitch of seventy-five degree ice. I feel good. Comfortable. Like I belong here. The mountain has done its sifting and sorting and it hasn’t tossed me off. I’ve been selected. I climb away, one tool at a time, my head in the game. I am exactly where I want to be right now – halfway up a new route on a remote mountain at the heart of the Mount Cook National Park. I place some screws in some less-than-great ice and back the anchor up with my hunkered-in tools. I pull Lee up. It’s a pretty crap anchor but I don’t feel scared. We’re solid. No one is going to fall.
We simul-climb a snicy couloir leading to a snowy ridge, moving faster now as the light starts to go. It would be nice to get off before dark. Tools sunk into hard neve I dig deep, starting to feel the burn in my calves. A twelve hour walk in and a two hour bash up snow slopes will do that to you operating on two muffin bars and half a dehydrated meal. Well, I did have a packet of chips in the car before we left. Lee, on the sharp end again, crests the ridge, buries a useless snow stake in powder for a belay and brings me up. I drop a screw… damn… and down-climb to retrieve it, angry at the ten metres and five minutes we have lost. I want perfection. That electrical energy flowing through the rope that Twight and House spoke about as they flowed up the Slovak Direct on Denali in sixty or so hours.
But we are flowing. One piece of gear doesn’t stop the flow. It’s just an obstruction around which the water eddies… a boulder over which the glacier folds. We’re moving quickly now, chewing up terrain… happy. We’re both having fun, even if the sky is going a little pink. I meet him at the snowstake and we size up the eighty or so metres remaining. The headwall beyond the ridge yawns before us. Sixty degree ice. Perfectly formed. Blue, plastic, the lot. We simul-climb. Partly because we know we can and partly out of necessity. Who wants to get benighted when there’s an option to… not be benighted?
My crampons crunch happily against the ice. I have trouble getting one of the ice screws out. Its thread doesn’t seem to catch. It’s old and obviously well used. Lee doesn’t seem to mind. He bashes out a stance and takes in the view. A panorama of all the great peaks of the Tasman. Aoraki and his ilk in the distance, Malte Brun at our backs. The generously-icinged slice of wedding cake that comprises De La Beche and the Minarets. My calves are really burning now, and the angle isn’t easing. We are simul-climbing on sixty degree ice. Great ice. Hard to fall really. But I’m starting to get a bit scared. Lee is over the summit cornice now, disappearing from view. No doubt, there’ll be a body belay awaiting me at the top. My legs are pumping now. My arms though – they’re feeling fine. That’s a good thing right? Flashpump in the wrist would be bad news in a position like this. Come on stay with it. I pause for a moment – stab myself a stance with a side-turned boot and rest for a moment. You’re not on the West Face of the Remarkables anymore Chris. This is the mountains, in August. I suddenly feel exposed, a small pang of fear fills me. There you are Terror, my old nemesis.
But I’m in control. That’s what I want from climbing. It’s not that I’m not afraid, it’s just that I like the feeling of controlling one’s fear, mastering one’s self. I top out. Lee is there to greet me, a grin on his face. We shake hands. Fuck yeah, first ascent. We head down to the glacier with the orange sky split by the flames of a dying sun, branching off to our left. We’re back at the rock where we cached some gear in an hour and at the edge of the white ice in three. Another bivy and then another horrid moraine bash the next morning.
I complain about repacking a tiny pack with all the gear we’ve taken, about not being able to fit in the static line even though I was able to when we walked in forty hours ago. Lee calls me out for being a whiner. He has a point. Sometimes, the desire to return to Civilisation after time in Nature can be as strong as the yearning which causes us to leave it in the first place. As I kicked steps into snow-glued scree up Garbage Gully, I think about what lies beyond the precipitous moraine wall. Food, shelter, a bed, Ellie. All the comforts.
And then, as we crest the moraine wall and take the first steps toward Ball Shelter I turn my back and gaze back up the Tasman Glacier to see De La Beche ridge gleaming in the mid-morning sun. Thinking about it now, you don’t have to be Ueli Steck to head into the mountains and put up a great, untrodden climb. You just need imagination, passion and determination. The mountains have always been a place for normal people. People that are just seeking something aesthetic, something pure, something worthwhile and free in nature. It’s not about how hard or how easy, how dangerous, how bold or what anybody else thinks of the climb you did. It’s just about you and a piece of rock and ice and snow. Nothing else matters. For me, climbing is about exploration – exploring new terrain in the big wide world, exploring new terrain within yourself. Beta, maps and topos are for those wanting to do repeats but for me there is no better feeling than cranking your way up virgin ground.
With the Caroline Face now at our backs, I think about all the other proud lines that remain in the Mount Cook National Park. Come to think of it, why would anyone go up the Caroline Face when Bill Denz soloed it forty years ago with nothing but a jam jar full of water? Trail blaze elsewhere… there’s still so much left to do in the park. A repeat on the Caroline isn’t worth the $5 it’s printed on if you ask me. But I’d pay $5 dollars for the route we just climbed. It was, after all, the right choice. The natural selection.
First Ascent of “Natural Selection” (IV), Mt Darwin, Upper Tasman Glacier. 19 August, Lee Mackintosh, Chris Elliott