The Sun Sets Over The Mountain
Mount Cook has been the crown jewel in the New Zealand mountain chest since people first realised it was the biggest mountain in the country. It is where Sir Edmund Hillary learnt to climb before becoming the first person to scale Everest in 1953 (the same year the Mt Cook region was declared a national park).
I climbed it because it made me feel good.
I've read so many books, so many accounts that compare mountaineering to a religion. And the mountains certainly attract a lot of poets.
But I can never be so dramatic about it.
I climb mountains for the same reason that people drive fast, get drunk, take drugs, and smoke.
It's just a buzz.
The only difference is that when I come down from my trip, I remember it forever.
Kia Kaha, Aoraki. Kia Kaha. [more ]
The buildings of Mount Cook Village blend into the landscape, their green and brown roofs designed not to distract people's eyes from the mountains that tower around it. The only thing that distinguishes the village from a jumbled pile of rocks that has tumbled down from the summits is the occasional glint of glass in the morning sun.
There is only one road into Mount Cook Village. It's called the Mount Cook Road, funnily enough. It winds its way along the shore of Lake Pukaki, which lies impossibly blue under the southern sun. The road leads you closer and closer to the rugged mountains that are bunched up like an unmade bed.
There is no train that goes to Mount Cook (this is New Zealand, man - there are no trains going anywhere!). Buses go out there, I know Intercity runs a service from Christchurch.
But if you have a car, then you have freedom.
And if you have freedom, then you have a life. [more ]
Day 3 - More Walking
Day three was easy compared to day two. But the best thing was that we didn't have to get up until 7am... pure bliss.
It was a leisurely stroll down the Cinerama Col. The mountains we had towered over the previous day had reclaimed their rightful position of towering over us.
Even the snow changed. It was softer, but less pure. It lost the lustre it had at altitude.
It took us eight hours to walk down the dirty ice of Tasman Glacier, New Zealand's longest glacier. But the bottom beckoned us with sensual appeal.
The blue lakes at the bottom of the glacier were so inviting that Pubdy couldn't keep his clothes on. While I rumaged through the pack to find what was left of the biscuits and tea, Pubdy stripped off and dived headlong into the water, gulping for air as the icy lake gripped his lungs. He shook his hair and beard like a big shaggy dog.
But we were down. [more ]
There have been 70 people killed while climbing Mount Cook, and the fact that I am here writing this proves that I was not one of them. There is a memorial near Mount Cook Village that remembers these people, and you would think that, perhaps in the back of your mind, you would remember them when you are high on the Summit Ridge. But you don't, man. They're just names, and you are high and untouchable. It may sound callous, insensitive, even selfish. But that's climbing, man. It's just you and the snow and the ice and the chink chink chink of your ice axe and your crampons. It's just you and the tinkle of small stones as they go plink plink plink down the rock face, and the only thought you have is that you don't want to go plink plink plink down after them.
It's just you and the mountain, the big huge mountain.
Mount Cook is the highest mountain in New Zealand. It is situated in Mount Cook National Park, nestled in among 140 other peaks that scratch at the sky. The Moari name for the mountain is Aorangi. It means cloud piercer.
This is the story of when I straddled the piercer. [more ]
The descent was relatively straightforwards. We just followed the same line we had used to come up. Our crampon marks lay like a traintrack under the sun, and our steps were still well formed in the ice. We roped up for the descent. I never trust myself when going down. I was tired, my eyes felt swollen and sore, and my head was starting to swim through the spiderwebbed mists of exhaustion.
At times we reverted to abseiling, not a very technical way to get off a mountain, but effective nevertheless.
We reached the Grand Plateau at about 6pm, sometimes stumbling, sometimes running. The temperature was dropping with the sun, and the appearance of Plateau Hut was quite literally a sight for sore eyes.
It was heaven to finally snuggle into a sleeping bag after 18 hours of climbing. [more ]
Climaxing At The Summit
After lunch the climbing got a bit tougher. We had to ascend a vertical ridge, pulling ourselves ever higher with our ice axes.
We climbed unroped, each aware that the other could plummet at any moment, leaving the other alone at the top of the bottom of the world. It is a thought that doesn't leave you when you are up there, man. You try to hide it, bury it behind witty remarks and smiles. But it is just bravado. You're scared when you are up there.
But what is the point of doing it if you are not scared?
I could stay home and make sushi if I didn't want to be scared.
But what is the point of that? Sure, I'd have a good meal, but I'd forget it again by the next day.
I will never forget being spread-eagled on the ice face, inching my way up, with no one to blame for my mistakes except myself.
We got back on the Summit Ridge and plodded upwards again for another hour. It was just a matter of putting one foot in front of the other. Pubdy was in front, and suddenly I noticed he had stopped. He had run out of snow to climb.
We were at the summit.
It was just after 12pm as we shook hands and had a good look at the view. The little dome beneath our feet wasn't very big, and was more than a little uncomfortable. So after 10 minutes we headed down again.
When you reach the top, you are only halfway through. [more ]
Dreaming of Snow
The warm sun touched our necks as we pulled ourselves onto the West Ridge. Mt Tasman rose seemingly from just across the valley, its massive flanks fat and inviting. During a break I traced my finger up its glaciers and faces, planning my next trip, dreaming a dream of snow and ice while snow and ice lay around me. But then, they always say that the grass is greener on the other side. Perhaps the same is true for snow. But the snow on the other side is not just whiter - its cleaner, easier, more friendly, firm enough to hold an ice axe, but soft enough to sink into like a bed.
By 8:30am, we were on the Summit Ridge. The metres fell away below us. To one side was a 2000 metre drop down the Caroline Face, to the other was a 1000 metre drop down to the Hooker Valley. Never before had I felt such a determination to walk in a straight line.
We stopped for lunch on Porter Col, brewing up and mixing biscuits with peaches. [more ]
Day 2 - Where's Wally And Nuts
I awoke just before midnight to an unusual sound. I lay in the darkness, my eyes closed, trying to place it. It wasn't rain or snow. It wasn't an avalanch. It wasn't the sound of breakfast.
It was Pubdy eating nuts.
He was studying a picture he had ripped out of a Where's Wally book.
"You could've at least started to get us breakfast," I said as I unzipped my sleeping bag and felt the icy air clutch at my private bits.
"I wasn't hungry," said Pubdy, spraying nuts through the gap in his teeth.
Breakfast (which Pubdy decided to eat "just to keep you happy") consisted of peaches and tea. I reckon you can do anything on peaches. I think I remember a teacher of mine telling me once that Rome was built on peaches. Although I could be wrong. I didn't exactly spend much time at school.
Gardiner Hut is perched on a rocky outcrop called Pudding Rock, and it faces westwards over the Hooker Valley. But when we left at 1am, everything was shrouded in darkness.
There was a gentle breeze blowing, and I hoped it would not become a gale. Routefinding was easy, sometimes with me leading, sometimes with Pubdy out in front. The snow was firm, our crampons were sharp, and the ascent was quick. By 4am we were high on the North West Coulier, and the first golden hue of dawn started to cascade over the summits like a waterfall.
Everything was silent. No cars. No sirens. No nagging wife. Just laboured breathing, crunching snow, and tinkling stones. Warm sounds in the cold air. [more ]
Day 1 - Bring It on, Ya Big Brute Of A Mountain
I was up at 5am, as the morning chorus of creaks, groans, and farts echoed from the slumbering hostel. I brewed up and munched on muslie and condensed milk. Pubdy joined me a few minutes later, scratching his bum and moaning about mountains and mornings.
There was a faint glow behind the mountains and a cool chill in the air as we set off. My breath fogged like cigarette smoke, and I tried to blow rings as we headed up the Hooker Valley towards the white ice. We made good time scrambling over the scree, and the sun rose above us like a scene from Dune.
Lunch consisted of biscuits and tea. Maybe that's why I climb mountains - to satisfy my hunger for tea and biscuits.
Our goal was to reach Gardiner Hut, and we arrived soon after lunch. We thought that maybe we should scout ahead a bit, and secretly I harboured a desire to reach Empress Hut. But Pubdy was dragging his feet, and we descended back to Gardiner about an hour later.
Sleep came easily to me at 7pm.
I didn't even hear Pubdy snoring. [more ]
Peaches And Biscuits
I almost forgot to take gas cylinders. How was I going to get a brew going up on the mountain without gas? Luckily, I met an American guy in the hostel the night before my climb who had a couple of spares. He was unwashed and kinda stupid, and he had an accent that would make paint curl, but he saved my life. I swear my life would be over without tea.
It would be even worse without tinned peaches and biscuits, and I made sure my supply of these commodities were plentiful.
I went over my gear carefully.
Ice axes... check.
Suitable shoes... check.
I guess you have never heard of a Pubdy before. A Pubdy is a big guy who is your climbing partner and best mate, the only person you want with you when you are in a jam. A Pubdy is the person who you are close to, who you talk to, who comforts you. The only thing that stops you from marrying your Pubdy is that he is the same gender as you. And the fact he stinks.
With all of these things safely stowed in my backpack (except for my Pubdy, who was safely tucked up in bed, dreaming of fluffy white bunny rabbits), I lay in bed and thought about the next few days.
I got no sleep.
Pubdy was snoring. [more ]
Day 13 - A Walk With Giants
The mountains were still there when the sun came up, so I decided to go for a walk.
The Hooker Valley walk is mostly flat - well, more kind of flatish - and took about 4 hours return. Greyness was everywhere. The rocks, the water, the sky, the ice - everything had a grey look about it. On either side of the track the mountains rose steeply, their lofty peaks doing their best to wipe the clouds away.
The walk terminates at a lake filled with floating icebergs, their colossal shapes spinning in infinity, rippling the clear water with rose petal patterns.
I continued my drive south to Omarama, where I again headed back to the east coast. The township of Oamaru welcomed me with open arms and hot tea - as well as a scone or two - and further down the road I found a campsite that claimed to be organic. Quite what was organic about it, I don't know. Maybe it was the fact they had no lights in the toilets. And I think they may have been recycling the water in the showers... [more ]
Day 12 - Gloriously Wet
It was another early morning, and steam rose from the cows in the field as I thumped warmth into my body. And I was wearing another wetsuit.
This time I was white water rafting, and my hosts from the previous night were doing their best to tip me out of the inflatable craft.
Now, I have been rafting in several places in the world, but for excitement, danger, terror, and extreme cold, nothing will ever top Rangitata Rafts. The rapids were grade 5 (which means really unbelievably mindboggingly big), and the water was fed by glaciers.
After a hot shower, it was back into the car and through the small township of Geraldine (where inexplicably, although I was freezing, I bought an ice cream. And a camping mat. At the same shop).
The road led me into the McKenzie Basin, another flat and barrin area, surrounded by a ring of snow capped mountains.
Lake Tekapo glistened moistly in the lazy sun, the Church of the Good Shepherd standing sentry with a century of prayer.
Then it was on to Mt Cook, where I had a view of the country's highest mountain from my tent as the sun went down. [more ]