After years of tramping, Dan Slater decided to learn the ropes – in every sense of the word – by getting above the snowline
Groove up, or groove down? I can’t quite remember which side of the belay device gives it higher friction. It doesn’t help that I’m hanging from an ice anchor halfway up the face of Hochstetter Dome in the Southern Alps and that my life may depend on me getting this right.
My body is festooned with loops of rope knotted in a myriad of confusing ways and as I reach up to pull a bight through the ATC, an ice screw inexplicably unclips itself from my shoulder strap and bounces down the slope with a ‘tink, tink’ noise before disappearing into a crevasse. I had never considered how expensive the damn things were until then.
In an effort to upgrade my mountain skills I’d embarked on a 10-day alpine climbing course with Wanaka-based Adventure Consultants. As an avid tramper for the last 20 years, I was reasonably happy with my wilderness proficiency but recently felt the desire to extend my repertoire. Although my hiking to-do list is in no danger of ever being completed, I don’t want to limit my horizons to the purely horizontal.
I’m not the only person to have wanted to improve their skills on an alpine course. Though numbers are difficult to come by, the Mountain Safety Council estimates around 200 people a year take a commercial alpine instruction course in New Zealand. They are usually attended by non-climbers, often trampers like myself who have done the odd trekking peak and who want to give mountaineering a go. By contrast, the MSC says dedicated climbers are more likely to approach mountaineering through different channels such as alpine clubs and with experienced friends. Only about 30 per cent of those on commercial courses go on to climb independently, though. The majority tend to use guides on future trips.
My guide on this journey of discovery was Andy Cole, a NZMGA and IFMGA registered guide who has spent 27 years in the armed forces and has worked in Antarctica four times.
The week before I found myself in a confused jumble of rope and ice tools hanging precariously from Hochstetter, we had choppered to Tasman Saddle Hut, perched on a narrow rock buttress overlooking the long sweep of the Tasman Glacier and surrounded by summits of ice and rock. With Cole’s help and a bit of co-operation from the weather, I would soon be capable of roping up, fixing anchors and front-pointing up a face.
There was no mucking about, Cole started the course straight away and we were soon laying snow anchors, learning basic crampon technique and performing self-arrest exercises. It may sound like we were thrown in at the deep end, and in a way we were, but Cole always ensured the run-out was safe. Far more dangerous was the 10m walk to the hut toilet over hard-packed snow with just a slack hand-line for protection. A few months earlier, a skier had slipped to his death here while carrying a box of supplies from the landing pad.
It was a rare accident but one which weighed heavily on the mind of Ben, a Queenslander and the only other client on the course. I was pleasantly surprised at the low client to leader ratio, but was even more surprised when the next morning Ben, a regular rock climber, announced his decision to pull the pin and go home. His wife had recently given birth and confronted with the perceived danger of our situation he had reassessed his priorities overnight. Despite Cole’s protests that the most dangerous part of the course was the drive from Wanaka, Ben felt he would only be a hindrance.
There was just time to organise the most expensive taxi ride of Ben’s life before the notoriously fickle weather closed in, leaving us hut-bound and me appreciating something Adventure Consultant’s owner, Guy Cotter, told me prior to our departure: “The mountains are an ever-changing environment and that’s where mountaineering can catch people out,” he said. “The slope you navigate safely one day might not be safe the next, and so understanding the dynamic nature of the mountains really helps.”
I am less pleased with this new one-to-one ratio. Not only was there no longer an opportunity to observe the efforts of a third person, a valuable learning aid, but I’d be spending a week in a small hut with a virtual stranger for company. I shouldn’t have worried: Cole entertained me with tales of Antarctica, his work as a geologist fortifying Christchurch after the earthquakes and his adventures in the mountains.
Hut-bound doesn’t mean lying around on bunks reading books, though. One of the first things Cole went through before we left for the mountains was the week’s weather forecast and it made for grim viewing. Low pressure fronts were queuing up across the Tasman for their chance to shed their loads all over us. Severe weather is one thing that differentiates New Zealand from continental climbing destinations like Europe, and it is the Southern Alps’ proximity to the ocean that encourages heavy precipitation; the Tasman Saddle can easily get two-metres of snow in a single storm. It’s not too dissimilar to the Himalayas, which is why many climbers with high-altitude goals hone their skills here before heading to their main objectives in Nepal.
I soon found myself dangling from a roof beam performing hanging belays, self-rescue and ‘escaping from the system’ techniques (removing yourself from the belay setup in order to help an injured partner).
We also covered improvised pulleys, anchor equalisation and, with the help of a plateful of rice and a couple of biscuits, avalanche awareness. Soon the hut’s floor resembled the deck of the HMS Endeavour after a messy broadside – rope, slings and cord were strewn about like collapsed rigging.
As the only hut occupants we had the run of the well-appointed kitchen – pretty lucky considering the depth of recipes Cole could throw together using only battered old pans and a couple of MSR stoves. A mountaineer at altitude burns an average of 6000 calories a day, twice the normal, and though I feebly protested that I’m not a big eater my portions were always huge – and delicious. Fresh vegetables, pasta and pesto, ratatouille, Thai curry – these are the benefits of being airlifted into the mountains. Even our breakfast muesli was a super-concatenation of oats, fresh fruit, freshly toasted almonds, brown sugar and boysenberry yoghurt.
When the clouds dispersed and we could once again emerge from the hut, the difference between hiking and mountaineering became clear. It is not just high-altitude tramping; it’s carrying the equivalent of a Himalayan tahr on your back. The sheer weight of the ironmongery hanging off my body was more than I’d take on a week-long tramp. The inflexible full-shank boots and crampons translate to a hefty extra load; in one hand I held an axe, in the other a walking pole; my harness jingled with ice screws and cord; strapped to my pack was another axe, snow shoes, snow stakes; inside was my avalanche probe and shovel and wrapped around my torso was 25m of 10mm dynamic rope.
Fully laden I could barely initiate forward movement but we managed to pick our way across the glacier to a likely-looking crack. Crevasse rescue was on the agenda – a terrifying confusion of axes, T-slots, prusiks, slings, auto blocks and hitches. Andy’s pack, doubling as my careless partner, was tossed into the abyss to await my heroic salvage. It all seemed terribly complicated so I’m heartened when Andy, under close questioning, admitted that he’s never actually had to use this technique in the field. It’s far easier to learn to avoid the crevasses in the first place, and that’s one of the main principles to grasp here: the value of foresight and preparedness as well as rope and tool skills.
Over the next few days we ticked off more modules. The most fun part of the course is ice climbing: there’s nothing like hacking your way up a towering serac using just a couple of ice axes. Eventually I have learnt enough to attempt an actual objective – a traverse between the summits of Mt Aylmer, 2699m, and Hochstetter Dome, 2822m. That’s how I found myself hanging from the ice anchor halfway up the dome.
Fortunately Cole comes to my aid, admonishing my fumbling attempts to right myself. “No, the other way around,” he chides, literally showing me the ropes. “The live end runs through the groove to reduce the friction.” His manner is blunt but forces me to focus and I manage to thread the device properly before we continue. “Good,” he says, “now belay me up the next pitch.”
The hard part over, we walk the ridge to Aylmer. The views to the west are stupendous and give me a sense of standing on the edge of the world. Taking in the view – and with a sense of accomplishment – I finally grasp why climbers go through days of hardship just to stand on a summit for a few minutes.
Back at the hut news comes in of a second low front due to hit the saddle and we decide to get out while we can, spending the last couple of days of the course rock climbing around Wanaka.
Although the course syllabus is comprehensive, Cotter points out that clients are unlikely to finish it ready to summit 8000ers. “We really want to see people consolidate their skills after the course before thinking they can go off and do extreme routes,” he says. “The natural next step would be a guided ascent, where you would see how all those skills come together in a climbing partnership.”
I’m already looking forward to that adventure. Where shall I go? Mt Aspiring? Maybe a trip to Mera Peak in Nepal? Or Aconcagua? A whole new world of verticality has opened up to me; my to-do list just doubled.