'The balance between the physical and the mental leads us to a true sense of self. This is not a judgement of intellect or fitness, rather an openness to challenging ourselves in both forms of endeavour'

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Mount Percy Smith

I first caught a glimpse of Percy Smith at dusk in the winter of 2004. Kynan Bazley and I had just topped out on nearby Ward, in the Hopkins Valley, after snaking up a dozen pitches of virgin ice on its south east face. Greeted by one of those glorious winter alpenglow sunsets that never fails to mesmerise, we were still driven by a need to lose considerable height before nightfall.
But I did take the time to look north, searching for a remote peak that I’d heard and read intriguing things about. Just over the shoulder of Williams’ west ridge, the southern flank of Percy Smith swept down into the gathering shadows of Baker Creek. Even from the distance of a few kilometres, I could make out a broad snow/ice gully just right of the summit, and steep runnels of ice beneath it. According to someone who tends to know about these things – Bill McLeod – a winter ascent of this face would likely be a ‘rather stiff’ challenge.
McLeod, along with Peter Dickson, ascended the 800-metre-high south face in February 1993 – a two-day, 23-pitch affair that Dickson described as harder than anything on the north face of Hicks. At around pitch 18, the pair searched for a suitable site to hunker down for the night. Dickson found that the ensuing sitting bivvy was ‘the worst I have experienced out of perhaps 50 in my career, and there was rockfall on us all night.’ The crux, a grade 17 overhang, came the next morning, two pitches before the top. Dickson recalled that, upon reaching the summit ridge, he and McLeod discovered it to be knife-edged and heavily guarded with gendarmes. ‘Although the actual summit was only 200 metres away, it would have been another serious day’s climbing,’ Dickson said. Instead, the two opted to descend the unclimbed west ridge, which took another day relying on Thar tracks to guide them through ‘the maze of gendarmes and steep scree’.


Even getting to the base of Percy Smith’s south face is a prolonged undertaking. McLeod and Dickson traversed north from Elcho Pass, across typically combative alpine shrubbery, to reach Baker Creek. McLeod later wrote that ‘every climber should have their first view of Mt Percy Smith from that corner above the Baker Creek. I remember Peter sitting there with his back to the mountain, and a big tussock gripped in each hand, claiming some disability’. Dickson recalled unavoidable Spaniards during the traverse and descent to the route as ‘the worst and biggest I have ever experienced’.
Alternately, Baker Creek can be reached by climbing directly out of the Landsborough Valley, avoiding at least one waterfall en route. Possibly there is also a way to drop down from the western side of Williams, once gaining height up Thomson Stream, and at least one party has crossed over the eastern saddle between Williams and Percy Smith from the Hopkins Valley. Reportedly, the team that crossed the saddle was so daunted by the prospect of climbing that it turned around and headed straight back to civilisation. Whichever route is taken, allow for a minimum two days to reach the south face. And, in the snowy depths of winter, this could take longer still and be threatened by various avalanche-prone slopes. Being part of the Landsborough catchment, the area is a no-fly zone.
Once reached, the Baker Creek valley is flat and user-friendly. Dickson remembered finding an impressive bivvy rock ‘big enough to stand up inside and room enough for at least a dozen people to sleep.’ With a little TLC, he figured the bivvy could be second only to the famous ‘Phil’s Biv’ in Fiordland in terms of commodious comfort.
Prior to McLeod and Dicksons’ climb, Percy Smith had only been ascended by its north ridge. The March 1936 climb by Lloyd Divers, Gordon Edwards, Russell Edwards and Ernie Smith has since been described as particularly ‘bold’, especially for that generation of climbers, involving ‘hand traverse chevals’ and large gendarmes. Dickson went so far to describe the 1936 climb as possibly ‘one of the greatest feats of mountaineering at the time that hasn’t been properly recognised’. The south ridge was reportedly descended in December 1966 by Dave Brown and George Edwards, after they too climbed the north ridge. Both the east face and northwest face have not been successfully ascended.
So, to the south face route itself. While McLeod was rather circumspect about the climb in winter – he never saw it in ‘condition’ – he described it as likely to be steep and sustained. He also cautioned about how and where to descend from the summit. And to be caught by bad weather would be a serious proposition.
Dickson was more forthcoming: ‘The face is to the south-southwest so would get hit directly by inland southerlies and more importantly would get the lee spindrift from northwest dumps of snow. The top section can hold a lot of snow so the avalanche danger could be very significant. The bottom two thirds of the face looks like 80-90 degree steep water ice with absolutely no rests or bivvy ledges. The face is at least 800 metres high, maybe more. I would describe it as 700 metres of steep water ice followed by steep avalanche-prone snow, with an unexpected surprise at the top.’
The evening I spotted Percy Smith from near the summit of Ward, I could see that it was in condition – at least for the top two thirds of the south face. The ice looked to be in as good a nick as the enjoyable runnels Bazley and I had discovered on Ward. The problem seemed to be, first, getting to the face, and then getting off it again.
I’ve since tried to reach the south face in summer to scope for possibilities. Both McLeod and Dickson told me of the potential for more summer routes there. But both times I was thwarted by the weather and, quite probably, nerves. I’ve also been round to eyeball its eastern aspect, but this too would need to be a winter climb. For a mountain that’s less than 2500 metres high, it certainly packs a hefty reputation.


Thursday, August 7, 2014

Above The Snowline - A reminder about winter climbing

The forecast was solid. The temperature had dipped well below freezing. Kynan and I were in search of ice, fat runnels of the stuff that flowed tantalisingly down steep narrow gullies. Winter is the time to go forth, with ice crampons sharpened and ice axes held to attention.
We picked a valley of promise, wading waist deep through snow drifts that had somehow predicted which way we wanted to travel. Doing this for hours on end should be promoted as the next big Jenny Craig’s weight loss phenomena. By the time we had found a place to bivvy I was (a) completely poked, (b) frozen at my extremities yet overheating at my core, and (c) over it. I threw my pack down, kicked half-heartedly at a patch of snow before unfurling my sleeping mat, bivvy bag and sleeping bag. Later on came the hours of snow melting to rehydrate, and then a poor attempt at sleeping. My water bottle froze inside my sleeping bag, as did I. Spindrift blew in the small opening in my bivvy bag, thawing, dripping and then refreezing. I lay in the dark and imagined warm tropical beaches with palm trees and bikinis and pina coladas. Are we having fun yet?
Whether tramping, climbing, skiing or snowboarding, heading backcountry in winter is a serious proposition. It’s not so much a matter of trying to get above the snowline, but more about dealing with the snow coming down to meet you.
Serious yes, but this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t go. Despite the fact that the phrase ‘it doesn’t have to be fun to be fun’ was likely coined in the frigid depths of winter, I treasure making the most of the wee daylight hours. And through experience, luck, advice from others and some well-timed courses, I’ve slowly accumulated a self-safety checklist to use each time I conveniently forget about the ‘pleasant’ tingle that accompanies thawing fingers and toes. This is not an exhaustive list, but more a process that lets me assess the likely risk and how I can mitigate it where possible.
First off the pep talk: Mountains in winter are absolutely stunning! Plastered in snow and ice, they somehow appear grander, more majestic. All that cruddy, crumbly greywacke that adorns our Southern Alps is nicely hidden or frozen together. River levels are lower (although considerably colder). Sand-flies have gone on holiday somewhere near the equator. And huts – apart from those on the popular ski-touring routes – are empty.
So to the checklist:
  1. Wait For A Good Forecast: Tramping or climbing in winter is not like in summer only colder. While getting caught out in poor weather in summer can be, at worst, unpleasant, the same experience in winter is life-threatening. Cold kills, a fact reflected in a number of recent backcountry tragedies. Pushing on through poor weather – something often done in summer – greatly increases the risk. At the very least have knowledge of nearby huts to shelter in or, if none are in the area, carry a tent. This is not meant as a scare tactic or an over-dramatisation. While in summer I often cut corners in terms of how much kit I carry, in winter I’ve learnt to carry enough warm stuff to cope with the coming of the Second Ice Age. This is an extra safety buffer, especially in case someone twists an ankle and has to stay put in the open for a cold night or two. Check Metservice and Metview for short and long-term forecasts before you leave home. And while June can be predominantly changeable and stormy, July or August often provide prolonged windows of settled weather.
  2. Plan Your Trip: This is linked to the point above in terms of huts but also, and more importantly, relates to snow conditions. Avalanches are scary beasts! Some of this country’s top avalanche experts have been killed by avalanches, and some even while giving instruction on avalanches. So far I’ve been fortunate (touch wood), but I’ve certainly had my share of near misses. And while avalanches can occur any time of the year, winter and spring are recognised as the most risky seasons. I don’t have room in this article to explain the dos and don’ts, other than to say ‘do’ an avalanche awareness course (through the Mountain Safety Council or another suitable organisation) and ‘don’t’ cross a snow slope that you think is risky. Pick an alternative route, even if it is more difficult or prolonged. Be prepared to turn around. Transceivers, probes and shovels certainly help, but only in the 50% of accident victims that survive the initial force of an avalanche. Yet the more you practise with these tools, the more efficient you will be if/when you have to use them. Also, Avalanche.net.nz provides an updated assessment of conditions in different areas.
  3. Gear Up: Ice axes? Crampons? Snowshoes? Down jackets? Tent? Mittens? Snow goggles? Boots? The list is endless. And, as everyone knows, if you take everything you won’t leave the car park. As mentioned above, I don’t cut too many corners in my winter kit. If sleeping on snow, I carry a tent. A single skin will usually suffice, and helps to minimise weight. An inflatable sleeping mat is much warmer than closed-cell foam. Blow it up firm, so you are as insulated from the snow as possible. Take as much down as you need. I will sometimes use a Primaloft bag instead of down because it’s not completely hopeless if it gets wet. I definitely use a Primaloft jacket instead of down because it is likely to get wet! If you are considering taking crampons and ice axes then take both, not one or the other. Consider using a walking-pole with a snow basket. This means you can stand up tall while walking and your weight stays directly over your crampons. Also, your ice axe can be much shorter. The New Zealand Alpine Club, along with various other tramping clubs, offers basic snow-craft courses that teach proper crampon and ice axe technique. Steer clear of instep crampons – they are designed for flat ground and have high-risk potential, especially descending. Leave your water bladder at home – the tube will freeze. Be prepared for water sources being frozen, so carry extra gas to melt snow or ice. I often wear running shoes during the low valley approach, especially if there are river crossings. This keeps my boots dry for higher up. Finally, carry a good head torch and spare batteries. Some of my climbing mates believe the best winter bivvy kit is a head torch. If you keep moving, your body generates enough heat to stave off the cold.
  4. Pay Attention: As someone who has suffered from frostbite, I am now rather attentive to my fingers and toes. The frostbite itself isn’t that painful, but the following months spent dealing with layers of dead flesh are rather debilitating. Now I sleep with my boots to ensure they don’t freeze the next morning, along with wet clothes that need drying out. I often use Windstopper gloves to help combat wind-chill, as well as a beefier pair when playing in snow. Along with paying attention to your own needs, keep an eye on your tramping or climbing partners. Hypothermia can sneak up on everyone. Familiarise yourself with the symptoms and take appropriate courses of action before the situation becomes too serious. Be prepared to suffer from the cold, but recognise the difference between suffering and deteriorating.
  5. Make The Big Calls: Don’t commit yourself to crossing a pass or following a route at all costs. Unfavourable snow conditions can change a trip from being enjoyable to a nightmare. I remember one time making an unpopular decision to turn around when the hut we were aiming for was in sight and only a few hundred metres above us. Dusk was not far away, and the relative warmth of the hut beckoned. But we were already wading through thigh deep snow, and it would likely get worse as we gained altitude. Despite the hours of dark travel required to return to the hut we had just come from, I knew we could reach it.

Be prepared for slower travel, bigger packs and scarily short daylight hours. Spooning is an acceptable way of keeping warm – for all but the most macho of outdoor types – and don’t forget to take lots of photos to impress your friends.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

The Time Between Tides - article in White Horses

Light lifts night's veil from the sea like a parting of the fog. There's a decent north swell still rolling in, the remnants of Cyclone Lucy which gave the country a good slapping earlier in the week. Waves radiate towards land – the ocean's pulse, which is also my lifeblood on many a glass-sculpted, windless dawn such as this.
Today I've risen early, not just for the promise of surf, but because this is a time between times, a catching of my breath as I transition from something I've helped choose towards something with huge potential consequences that I have little or no control over. Back home, down the narrow lick of wet sand that my footprints will soon fade from, there lies a pile of bags that have been packed with particular necessity. Each item within them has been scrutinised, like it alone holds the key to my safety and that of my wife and climbing partner. The high summits of the Himalaya call to us, but it's with an edgy ear that I hear that call; to undertake an expedition like this without due consideration is an idiot's journey. We're not idiots. We leave in less than two weeks.
Like so often before, the beach and the ocean and the waves – of course the waves – become the source of my unbridling, my shucking off of mind-shackles, my confidant, my shrink. Clumps of seaweed form jumbled islands along the sand, but I barely register their random, sometimes hulking presence. My mind is fuddled with carabiners and ropes and tents and altitude sickness pills. It needs a thorough saltwater cleansing. Shelley likes to jump on the tiny teardrops attached to the kelp, which make popping noises as she stomps down. It always takes us ages to walk along the beach whenever a storm has dumped another load of un-popped seaweed.
This morning Shelley is still in bed, curled up with our two cats Tommy and George, and no doubt dreaming of ice-crusted summits. She's much tougher than I am; was born with a stubborn streak that drags her to the top of most things more often than not. I'm happy to draft along in the wake of her single-minded drive, and to make sure we have the best chance of getting down again – I'm good at the descent. Home is that way.


One of the largest clumps of seaweed nearby grunts and sighs. In the half-light, I almost crap myself. Bloody things's alive! Christ, and it's a leopard seal, a monster of a mammal that looks like its been zapped straight from Dinosaur Land. Usually they hang out in the Antarctic, sleek killers plundering cute little penguins for dinner, and harassing anything that pisses them off. This guy is a long way from home.
After a sudden wide berth of my new acquaintance, I pause. Clearly it's not threatened by my presence, and neither should it be. Built like a small tank, and with jaws and teeth set to tear and pulverise, I don't imagine it getting flustered by much at all. Who would win in a fight with a great white – even bet, I reckon. Is it a boy or a girl? Maybe a girl as it seems pretty streamlined, not that I know much about leopard seals, other than that over the years they've killed a few people – I think the last time was the drowning of a female scientist who was scuba diving under the ice. Presumably being over-friendly, the leopard seal held her down until she eventually ran out of air while being a mammal's play toy.
Obviously, death waits for us along a myriad of paths, some chosen, some as random as a twist of unluckiness. The choosing is not a death wish, rather a conscious decision about action and consequence, and even more fundamentally about the essential worth of risk in our lives. I could so easily have lost Shelley during the terrifying earthquakes that devastated Christchurch, or one of my best mates Graham under what seemed like a skip-load of falling ice a few months later. I wondered how much fight – and breath – I had left when my leg rope recently snapped in heavy surf off the coast of Otago. And our upcoming flight to Nepal is with Malaysia Airlines, a company with a solid safety record yet which somehow has managed to lose one of its planes with 239 people on board. It's funny what your mind fleetingly registers when you almost trip over an unexpected predator lurking on your home beach.
The mountain we are attempting to climb is called Anidesha Chuli by the locals, and was given the nickname White Wave by visiting westerners. From the approaching valley it looms like the last in a huge set on an outer reef bombie. The summit snow piles up in windblown flutings, with giant, blocky ice seracs guarding the approach. I've spent hours pouring over photos from the unsuccessful attempts of a previous expedition, trying to consider every 'what if'. Some times I struggle to accept that fate plays its hand and I'm better off just trying to suck it up.
The leopard seal opens one eye, sniffs the air and shuffles its sleek, powerful body further into the sand. Slowly the gloom lifts. I can see white water folding around the point further down the beach. Sweet! The swell has hung around. Here comes that warm feeling inside that I've been looking for, a wee spark of 'go get it' that helps to drag me out of bed each morning. To rise before dawn. To face the light of the coming day like it's your first and last.