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.