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.