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Climbing out of the comfort zone

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July 2020 Issue

With a guide calling the shots, longtime tramper Matthew Cattin finds his first mountain climb a scary and satisfying experience

I can’t remember the last time I put on a pack and felt challenged.

I don’t mean challenged in the way a steep incline will have me puffing, sweating, and stopping every few minutes to catch my breath and wipe my brow. With my fitness, that happens often.

I mean a challenge that grabs me by the shoulders and gives me a bone-rattling shake.

A climb of 2319m Single Cone – my first summit over 2000m – proved to be it.

The spring morning was beautiful over Lake Wakatipu, and I awoke feeling nervous.

From Queenstown, The Remarkables’ jagged peaks appear impossibly steep – almost 2D – and with zero climbing experience, I was about to climb the highest point on the range.

The opportunity was once in a lifetime – The North Face had invited me to test their new Futurelight gear, and Adventure Consultants had come on board to guide four guests on their first alpine summit.

In truth, I was feeling mightily unqualified. Three in the group were experienced rock climbers, and I had only limited experience climbing ladders and trees.

“I’m pretty fresh,” I admitted to guides Tony Donaldson and Mark Austin as we tried on boots, harnesses and helmets – me with significantly less confidence than others in the group.

Guide Tony Donaldson leads the climb up the couloir. Photo: Matthew Cattin

But it was too late for second thoughts, and 10 minutes later, we were piling into the van – nerves or not.

“How many times have you climbed Aspiring now?” Austin asked Donaldson on the dizzyingly windy road to The Remarkables.

“Thirty-three,” he replied.

You can’t argue with experience.

At the car park, we shouldered our packs and started trekking up the ski field towards Lake Alta, still frozen beneath winter layers.

We donned crampons here, and on the ridge above the lake, our group split in two – Donaldson leading me and climbing buddy Chuck on a gentler route.

Up we climbed, Single Cone never leaving sight or mind. The closer it loomed, the larger, steeper and more intimidating it became.

We eventually reached a slope so steep, it became necessary to tether ourselves together. A fall here would see us slide who knows how far, if unable to self-arrest.

I could tell Donaldson had sensed my nervousness by the increased frequency he asked how I was feeling.

My reply was always “fine”, or “good” – not because I felt either, but because I knew I could continue to function in spite of my shaking hands, and that was as fine and good as I was able to be under the circumstances.

We reached an intimidating couloir and kicked a ledge into the slope, securing ourselves to our ice axes buried to their heads in the snow.

Matt is all smiles on the summit of Single Cone.

As Donaldson prepared to climb on, I stood terrified.

Small ice chunks chinked off the exposed rock face above, slithering down in a serpentine hiss.

If this was a Hollywood movie, this foreshadowing would indicate to viewers a deadly avalanche was moments away – grab your popcorn.

I’m not afraid of heights per se, but falling to my death is always something of a worry, and no amount of reasoning or logic could extinguish the worst-case scenarios burning in my thoughts.

‘The guides are experienced, the gear is quality, you’ll be caught if you slip,’ Reason said.

‘You have no experience, no gear is infallible, and are you sure you’ll be caught?’ Fear replied.

Despite my discomfort, I was relishing this new challenge outside my comfort zone.

I had to keep pinching myself to prove I was indeed tethered to the side of a snowy mountain, watching my guide climb a ludicrous gradient two kilometres above Queenstown.

Was I feeling challenged? You bet.

After 10 minutes, the rope pulled tight, and Donaldson – now out of sight – called from above, indicating for us to follow.

Chuck set off first in his footsteps, and I followed a few metres below, desperate not to slip and put the rope to the test.

Though it seemed too thin to find traction in the snow, the ice axe did its job without a hitch, and my worries shifted to the strike, hold, heave rhythm of the climb.

Several foot holes were fretfully shallow, and trusting my crampons to stick was a test of faith, but with each step up, the rope was hoisted tight from above, and boy was it comforting.

Getting to my feet – albeit shakily – at the top of the couloir was hugely rewarding, but there was more yet to climb, so we pushed on to cross a short saddle to reach the summit.

With a whole lot of nothing either side of the knife-edge saddle, it wasn’t a comfortable walk, but thankfully the summit was adequately spacious for our party.

Double Cone and Lake Wakatipu, from the Single Cone summit. Photo: Matthew Cattin

The best part about steep pointed summits is that half of the view remains a mystery until you’re standing on the tippy top, overwhelmed by the full 360-degrees.

And overwhelmed I was.

Double Cone – capped in white – dominated the view east, and the lightning bolt corners of Lake Wakatipu were both visible.

Beyond stretched the Southern Alps, with Mt Aspiring standing proudest of all.

My feelings on the summit were a mixed bag – the perspective had me feeling infinite and minuscule, courageous yet anxious, proud but humbled.

I’d climbed a mountain, but one summit does not a climber make and it will be a long time before the mountaintops feel like home for me.

With the day marching on and the snow deteriorating, we started our return journey after 10 minutes on top of the world, and my fears were immediately confirmed – climbing down is harder than climbing up.

What had been a simple two-metre bump on the ascent was now a stressful ordeal of awkward stretching and floundering feet.

The thought of then downclimbing the near-vertical face was not a comforting one at all, but thankfully the plan was to abseil from an anchor point in the rock face.

I haven’t abseiled in 15 years, but my intermediate school camp apparently paid off as I felt quite confident lowering myself down the face – even finding the nerve to enjoy myself.

The descent from here was a blur of intense sun, blinding snow and slushy post holes, which frequently devoured my legs past the knee, soaking socks and sapping energy.

By the time we reached the van, I was a mess of exhaustion, hunger and sunburn, but nothing could shake the buzz of my accomplishment – I’d been well outside of my comfort zone, and fulfilled a lifelong dream of standing on a mountain peak.

I’m not sure I’ll make a habit of clinging to the sides of icy mountains. As with bungee jumping, I loved the experience but I think once might be enough.

I’m happy enough to keep looking up in wonder from the relative safety of New Zealand’s tramping tracks.