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January 2013 Issue
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Guided along the Hillary Ridge

Climbing the exposed, knife-edged Hillary Ridge. Photo: Marty Schmidt

Pat Deavoll knocks off a long held ambition to climb the Hillary Ridge and makes a sweet earner out of it to boot

In my 35 year climbing career I’d never climbed the Hillary (South) Ridge of Aoraki/Mt Cook. I had tried sporadically over the years to arrange a climbing partner and a spell off work for the climb, but plans always fell through.

When Rob, a friend from Canada on sabbatical from his university, asked if I would climb Mt Cook with him, I wondered in the back of my mind if he would be up for the Hillary Ridge. It is no pushover, with only a couple of ascents in the last 30 years and Rob was of the ever-growing breed of modern-day climbers with money to spare, a busy life and little time to commit to their climbing. They relied on professional guides to get them up. Rob regularly employed a guide; in fact he had recently been on a commercially guided trip to the Himalayas where he’d summited an 8000m peak…along with 200 other climbers. I didn’t think anyone had guided the Hillary Ridge since Ayres guided Sir Ed and I was no guide, but maybe I could pull it off?

“What do you think of trying the Hillary Ridge?” I asked cautiously. “I’d have to do all the leading, of course.”

Rob’s eyebrows rose in query. “You think I’m up for it?”

“Maybe.”

I paused. Was I about to commit to a route that was beyond both me as a guide and Rob as a climber? After all, I’d never climbed with Rob and didn’t really know where his skill levels lay. Our relationship was through skiing. He was a small neat man in his late 40’s, with a Canadian reserve and two children and a wife back in Ottawa. He’d been in the same university department for 22 years, liked to cycle and work out at the gym.

I sensed a growing excitement as Rob thought about the prospect. “I’ll pay you a proper guide’s fee,” he said. “I’ll pay all your costs. I’ll buy great food. We’ll have wine.”

“But what if the New Zealand Mountain Guides Association finds out I guided for money,” I said. “Or the Department of Conservation? I’ll be lynched.”

Without a guiding qualification or a National Park concession I’d be in serious trouble if I was caught. Twelve years earlier I’d taken part in the first of four exams towards becoming a mountain guide and failed. That was the end of my guiding career. So the NZMGA and I weren’t on great terms. A nasty little seed was sown – perhaps I could get one back at them?

“Oh come on,” Rob begged, clearly warming to the thought of adding the Hillary Ridge to his climbing resume. “I won’t pay you cash – I’ll buy your air fare to Afghanistan instead.”

I was off to climb in Afghanistan later in the year and the financial hurdle of the air fare loomed large.

Ok,” I finally said, with a modicum of conviction. “Let’s try it.”

Two days later we were tottering up the Hooker Glacier in the mid-afternoon heat of a peerless day. For an hour-and-a-half we’d tripped around the terminal lake, teal blue and bobbing with icebergs as serene as swans. Along a stony beach at best six inches wide, dodging rocks as they bounced down the moraine wall and plunked into the water. But Rob seemed happy enough following on my heels as we reminisced on our ski days.

Six hours later we used steel cables to haul our way off the ice to Gardiner Hut. Ten kilometers of tenuous, irritating glacial moraine was behind us, where each step risked a fall and a hard slam on the ice. Rob had gone quiet as we stumbled along – he was concentrating on his feet. The hut perched in a magnificent position atop a rock dome with views up glacier to the imperious Sheila face of Aoraki/Mt Cook, and down glacier towards the button buildings of the Mt Cook Village. The day had cooled, and Rob seemed dejected. But he perked up when he looked inside the hut.

“Splendid,” he said taking in the comfortable bunks on the back wall, the neat little bench, the water buckets and cooking pots arranged on the shelves under the sink and the hooks for jackets.

The sparse comfort of the hut was enticing, but I had to disappoint him.

“Rob, I’m sorry,” I said gently, “I don’t think we should stay here. I think we need to go higher up the slope and bivouac in a crevasse so we can get a good start on the ridge in the morning.”

Rob looked crestfallen, but nodded solemnly. “I guess you’re right,” he sighed as he scuffed back outside.

By 8pm we were settled in a small flat-bottomed crevasse at the junction of the Noeline Glacier. As I sat in my sleeping bag, leaning against the blue ice wall and cooking up a packet of bacon, Rob said, “Hey this bivouacking isn’t so bad.” Earlier, he had looked at the crevasse with disbelief when I announced it would be our shelter for the night.

“We climb in this end here, see, and there are two walls that keep the wind off us, and that end has a roof,” I’d explained, pointing to where a snow bridge made a natural ceiling. “And look! The bottom is flat, so it will be comfortable.”

We hunkered down for the night as a million stars flared against the black. A slight breeze teased the edge of the crevasse. All was quiet but for an occasional phat phat of stones trickling down the slope and the clatter of ice in the glacier below.

“Hey, can you see that satellite up there?” Rob said before falling asleep.

I stared at the stars and fretted and fretted about the next day. In the dark of the earliest part of the morning I’d need to negotiate the crevasses and towering seracs of the Noeline Icefall by the threaded beam of my torch. The galloping icefall was our only access to Endeavour Col, the lowest point of the Hillary Ridge. Would Rob have the headspace to cope with the wild, mad exposure of the Caroline Face, or the stamina to stand on the front points of his crampons for many hours? We may get only so far, and for a myriad of reasons have to turn back. I may never get him down.

The statue of Ed Hillary at Mt Cook Village gazes towards the ridge on Aoraki named after him in 2011. Photo: Jane Morris

The statue of Ed Hillary at Mt Cook Village gazes towards the ridge on Aoraki named after him in 2011. Photo: Jane Morris

At 1am the stars still flared but with little effect – our way ahead was pitch black. I made Rob coffee, as a good guide would, and passed him granola, which he tipped in the snow. “I’ll eat later,” he grumbled, clearly out of sorts. While I packed away the gear, put my boots on, Rob continued to lie in his sleeping bag.

“Hey Rob, what’s wrong, man?”

Silence.

“Rob, are you sick?”

A pause, then: “I’m not sure I’m up for this.”

I sat silent for a minute, wondering what to say next. I decided to come clean.

“Look, Rob, I’m feeling exactly the same way but I know from experience that it’s the climb you are most scared of that you get the most satisfaction from if you manage to pull it off. I think we should give it a go. We can always turn back if things go wrong.”

He gave a couple of sighs, and began to shuffle out of his bag.

By 5am we’d made little headway up the Noeline. With Rob on the rope behind me, I hunted in the dark for a way through the frenzied maze of ice, all the while becoming increasingly embarrassed and distressed at my incompetence. Rob was silent, nothing but a foot-fall 10 meters behind. ‘What’s he thinking?’ I worried. ‘That he’s put his life in the hands of an idiot? Where the hell do I go?’

The further we zigzagged and floundered, the more lost we became and the more I imagined Rob’s growing resentment. He became a silent dark presence trailing me, always just outside the beam of my head torch. Then a cheerful voice called out of the dark, “Hey Pat, I reckon that’s the col, look, just up there. Bravo, well done with the route finding.”

By 10am we were well on our way up the Hillary Ridge. We’d made the top of Endeavour Col just as the sun inched over the horizon, turning the eastern foothills from dark blue to a tawny grey. The way forward was a ribbon of snow with the crunch and consistency of gravel, and our crampons and ice picks clawed and scrabbled. Several rocks ricocheted over our heads and scudded noisily down to the glacier below. “Oh hell, I’m not so sure about this,” Rob said with each unwanted passing visitor. I thought the best thing to do was to ignore him.

We reached the first rock buttress after traversing five wild and airy pitches out over the Caroline Face, two tiny checks above an 1830m void. Far below, the Ball Glacier stayed in shadow – as distant and dusky as an ocean. I wondered if anyone was watching us from Mt Cook Village. Maybe someone down there had put down their latte and was making a fleeting connection with two tiring climbers far above them.

By the time we reached the second rock buttress two hours later, a tiny whisper of optimism was skipping up the slope to meet me. Maybe we were actually going to do this. Rob was climbing well, front pointing after me with care and method and persistency. He didn’t say much, just accepted my commands with a small nod each time we met at the belay. And I was climbing well. The air was still and sweet; the ice kind and forgiving. Time was generous – the day was passing but not that quickly. And all around the other mountains smiled under a perfect blue sky.

Toiling up the summit ice cap I could tell Rob was starting to flag. He was sunburned, stumbled a little every few feet and seemed slightly desperate, glancing up often to where he hoped the summit would be. He said nothing as I short-roped him.

“Summit soon,” I grunted, hoping I was right. The ridge wound on, but intuition told me it was not far now. Rob gave a soft little whine and faltered to a stop. “Hey man, I gotta eat,” he said. I tied him to an ice screw, kicked a small flat spot into the slope and we sat down and pulled out the food.

After a bit Rob said: “We’re going to make it aren’t we.” It was a statement, not a question. “Yes we are,” I replied. We smiled at each other and went back to gazing unspeaking over the Mackenzie Country stretching away orange misty to the south, over the rivers and sparkling lakes of the West Coast, the small farming towns, twisting roads and darting fence-lines of the Canterbury Plains, to the rim of waves lining the coast. Te Waka-o-Aoraki. The South Island of New Zealand.

When we got to the summit we didn’t stay – I was too concerned about the descent. I took photos of Rob against a variety of backdrops but I knew my worry was infectious and that he too was wondering about getting down.

“Which way,” he said, uncertainty tainting his words.

“Here,” and I bent to build an anchor in the ice. I lowered Rob down two nervous rope lengths to the top of the nor’west couloir. Before global warming, the couloir could be relied on to be chocked with snow. Now it was only a ragged channel of rotten and broken rock darting off right and down to where it broadened into a wide gully. The rock was optimistically glued together with small skats of ice.

“I can’t down climb this,” I admitted to Rob. “Too hard for me.”

I saw a fleet of panic cross his face. “But we’ll abseil?”

“Yes, no problem, we’ll abseil.”

Shadows were leap-frogging the glacier below by the time we reached the mid-point of the couloir. I was lowering Rob again: building an anchor, taking his weight for a rope length, then climbing down to join him. I could tell the process frightened him; but he said nothing, and I offered no words of comfort. As the hours passed we both became increasingly tired. As we neared the bottom, the sun began to set and Rob asked for another photo.

“Of me and the sunset,” he said, passing his camera in my direction. I reached out, fumbled, and watched the camera leap away, taking wilder and wilder bounds until it disappeared into the gloom.

“Oh, I’m sorry Rob, I’m so sorry,” I said, and burst into tears.

“Hey, it’s no problem, it’s only a camera. And what does it matter compared to today. You’ve got me up the mountain, and now we’re nearly down. I think you are amazing. What does a camera matter?”

I felt better than I had all day.

The Hillary Ridge route to the summit of Mt cook has seen just a handful of ascents in the last 30 years. Photo: Mark Watson

The Hillary Ridge route to the summit of Mt cook has seen just a handful of ascents in the last 30 years. Photo: Mark Watson

The bergschrund fringing the base of the couloir has a reputation for being a problem. Its upper rim overhangs the bottom and it runs out on both sides into hostile walls of tottering rock and glacial garbage. There was no ice for me to build an anchor, no hospitable boulder to place a sling around. I began to dig a snow bollard with my axe, the effort bringing home just how fatigued I was.

“Hey what’s up?” Rob said watching me with alarm.

“It’s a snow bollard, for us to rappel off.”

“But how does it work?”

I explained the procedure: “We put the rope in the  bottom of  the trench like this and put  the ends over the edge and -”.

“No way,” Rob shouted. “No way! We can’t abseil off that!”

“Rob we have to, there’s no other way to do it.”

I attached myself to the rope as Rob looked on and lowered myself into space. I spun in a slow circle, and landed softly on the snow below.

“Come on down,” I shouted into the evening.

After a bit the rope twitched and Rob’s feet appeared at the lip of the crevasse. Nothing happened, then his knees came into view and I realised he was sliding over the edge on his stomach. Then his face appeared – it was a mask of horror. He left the lip with a soft yelp and a lurch which flipped his anorak up around his waist, then I watched as he glided down through the dusk to land by my side.

“Never. Again.”

We were nearly there, just a few hundred meters from our bivouac – sleeping bags, cooker, food, sleep. Roping up, I marched off in the lead, only to be brought up short a few minutes later by a crevasse. Flat on either side, neat vertical walls and a three-metre gap between them.

“Hey, we can jump this one,” Rob exclaimed.

“No. Way.”

“We have to, Pat.”

“There is no way I am going to jump across that crevasse,” I said, more forcibly this time. I envisaged the frantic leap, the near miss, the plummet and then my long agonising demise as I lay wedged headfirst, asphyxiating and hypothermic between the narrow walls of my icy tomb, Rob an ineffectual presence 20m above.

I towed Rob off to the side, where the crevasse junctioned against a rock wall. It was dark now and not even my head torch allowed a glimpse into the bottom. “We are going to abseil down here,” I announced, “and climb back out the other side.” Rob looked at me as if I was mad, but said nothing.

‘He’s lost all confidence in me again,’ I thought. ‘I just hope this is going to work.’

I lowered myself into the depths, the beam of my torch a zigzag across the grey inhospitable walls of ice that loomed above me. Rob’s head was a small orb silhouetted against the deep grey gash of the night sky.

“How does it look,” he called.

My beam scouted nervously for an exit. “Ok I think. Come on down.” The orb disappeared and then a larger shape appeared and a shaft of light.

“Holy s***! This is one helluva place,” he said, landing beside me. All around us lay the remains of broken blocks of ice, metallic grey and studded ugly with gravel and splinters of rock as black as pitch.

By the time I’d climbed back out, I was at the end of my tether. To tackle the dripping, overhanging exit – nothing more than a stack of large loose ice blocks soldered with grit – had taken the last of my strength. Rob swore as he clawed his way after me. “We should have jumped,” he yelled at me as drips and grit fell down the back of his neck.

“Why can’t you understand that there was no way I could have jumped that distance,” I yelled back. I shed tears of exhaustion…and exasperation. For a moment I wished I was a man who would have had the physical ability to jump. We’d be back at the bivouac by now, lying in our bags in anticipation of dinner with the cooker humming benignly beside us.

“Half an hour and I reckon we’ll be at the bivy,” I added as Rob entered the halo of my torch.

“Sorry,” he said.

We finally reached the bivouac at 1am, 24 hours after leaving for the climb. By now we were both stumbling and weaving on our feet and Rob had a bad headache. I made instant soup and we ate a handful of dried fruit, then I fell into my sleeping bag and slept like the dead. Rob could do what he liked.

I didn’t wake until the sun fell on my face, by which time Rob had the cooker going and was singing softly to himself. I stirred and he handed me a cup of tea and my sunglasses.

“Well, we did it,” he said with a grin.

Yes we’d done it. Rob had his mountain and via a route few climbed. And I’d got us up and down in one piece; guided the Hillary Ridge.

A few days after I put Rob on the plane back to Wellington, he rang me.

“You know something,” he said. “I have an overwhelming sense of satisfaction. I might go so far as to say, that was the best day of my life!”

“What did I tell you,” I replied. “It’s the climbs you are most afraid of that give the most back.”

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