Sunday, May 8, 2011

'On The Edge' - Article In New Zealand Geographic

Rock fall in the mountains sounds like gunshot. There’s a whirring as each projectile flies by, and then a crack when it ricochets off the cliff I am clinging to. It’s easy to imagine that this is what coming under enemy fire must be like, a sickening feeling.
I hunch into as small a target as possible and listen to the barrage getting closer. Shutting my eyes, I try not to think about much while stones ping off my helmet. Something larger thuds close by. There’s nothing else to do other than swallow the sour taste in my mouth and mumble a few words to any deity that might be listening. Seconds drag like hours. Eventually – and thankfully – the impacts lessen. The noise recedes to faint echoes in the gully below.
Slowly, I unfurl and peer up towards the distant summit of Mount Walter, then back down the steep rock wall that Jamie and I have spent the day climbing. After a few moments, I give up trying to work out where the falling boulders came from. Thinking about ‘what if’ isn’t going to get me off the mountain any quicker. When close calls like this happen, usually I can shrug my shoulders or laugh it off. Occasionally I tell myself that enough is enough and it’s time to quit this climbing game altogether. But I never do. All climbers understand that risk is an inherent part of venturing into the mountains.
Whether threatened by rock fall or snow avalanches, crevasse-riddled glaciers or a sudden change in the weather, I manage the risk as best I can. The irony is that I also made the decision to be here in the first place. But how could I not? This is what I live for: a long unclimbed route on a remote mountain; a climbing partner stronger than the black coffee I gulped down in the tent this morning; and a weather forecast that lets me forget about the worries and banality of life back in the city. I can focus on the here and now, on this steep buttress of rock stretching up towards the sky and on what we need to do to climb it.
In sharp contrast to the recent bombardment, the air now holds an eerie silence. The snaking curve of the Stevenson Glacier which we started from at first light is nearly 400 metres beneath my feet, partially hidden by an abyss-like swirl of cloud. Jamie is the equivalent of four storeys further up the cliff, and has been belaying me up to him, pulling in the rope tied between us through a friction device as I climb. Out of sight, he probably doesn’t realise what just happened, figuring I’ve paused to take out a piece of protection he had placed while leading the pitch. Perhaps the dragging of the rope dislodged the rocks, or maybe it was just one of those random occurrences where luck could fall either way. It doesn’t matter anymore. The moment has passed. I begin climbing again.   
For me, desire is the most fundamental of emotions. It gets me out of bed each morning, motivates me to tempt fate with love, work and leisure. Sometimes it gets me into and then out of trouble, or to help when others are in trouble. Without it, life just wouldn’t be worth facing.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve had a strong desire for adventure. Maybe it was born out of reading too much Mark Twain as a youngster, or the home grown exploits of Ed Hillary and Graeme Dingle. Whatever the reason, it wasn’t long before my brother Glen grew to dread the words: ‘Let’s go back that way.’ I wasn’t particularly brave or tough, just needed to get off the beaten path and explore. In 30+ years not much has changed.
My desire to explore a forgotten corner of Westland National Park grew from staring at it too much. Every fine morning for two years I carried coffee outside of my rented cottage in the coastal settlement Okarito. I leant against the railing, did battle with the inevitable sand flies and took in the view. To the east, jagged peaks appeared to float over valley cloud, their summits silhouetted some three thousand metres above where I stood. Mountains Elie De Beaumont, Walter, Green and others crowned a rugged landscape, towering over the remote Spencer Glacier. The view became so imprinted on my psyche that I promised myself I would have to climb there. It only took another 10 years to fulfil that promise.                                                                              
In the past decade few if any climbers have managed to reach the Spencer. There hasn’t been a first ascent there since 1983. A no-fly zone, access has previously been forged from the top of the Franz Josef Glacier, down either the Cerberus or Styx Glaciers. But recent glacial recession means these options quickly become too broken in summer. And, in poor snow years, they aren’t accessible at all. This is yet another example of how global warming is slowly but certainly changing the face of mountain climbing in New Zealand. According to NIWA studies, the surface area of our glaciers has reduced by 35 per cent over the last 100 years. And by the end of this century, warming in the Southern Alps could be significantly greater than over the rest of the country. NIWA projects that there may be an average summer temperature increase in the Alps of around 6 degrees Celsius, raising the freezing level by 1000 metres. Given this scenario, it won’t be long before the Spencer, along with a number of other alpine environs favoured by climbers, is completely cut off.
Despite the potential access issues, Jamie Vinton-Boot and I were still drawn to the Spencer. According to trip reports gleaned from old New Zealand Alpine Club journals, the rock in this part of the Alps was of exceptional quality. And those who had ventured there mentioned large areas of unexplored terrain. After studying local guidebooks and maps, Jamie and I chose the unclimbed West Rib of an outlier peak to Mount Walter as a possible objective. Hoping to avoid the worst of the crevasses, we planned to cross into the Spencer from the east. First, we would need to climb the lower east ridge of Mount Green and then camp at Diver’s Col on the Main Divide. Just south of Mount Walter, we could then descend the narrow tongue of the Stevenson Glacier and, hopefully, reach the Spencer.    
‘How was that, Paul?’
Jamie grins like a Cheshire cat as I step across to his belay ledge. Actually, the ledge is more like two bookends put together, and slopes sharply off at one side. Jamie is anchored to the rock with various forms of metallic climbing paraphernalia linked together by a length of nylon cordelette, and he coils the rope at his feet as I approach.
My climbing partner’s enthusiasm is infectious and, despite the recent rock fall, I can’t help but smile back. ‘Fantastic,’ I reply. ‘Some great moves to get over that bulge.’ I don’t see the point in telling Jamie about my near-miss. Instead, I congratulate him on a ‘good lead’.
Crowding onto the tiny ledge, I pause and take in the view: the steep peaks either side; the jumble of ice cliffs whompfing in collapse below; and the bush-choked west coast spreading out beneath our feet. Through the cloud, I can see the Stevenson and other glaciers feeding finger-like into the broad palm of the Spencer. In turn, the Spencer folds and twists north like a broken accordion, losing altitude between the narrow confines of the rugged Drummond and Burton Ridges. Eventually it melts into the Callery, an unbraided, tumultuous river that rushes onwards to the Tasman Sea.
I imagine that, in the distance, I can almost see the tiny bach where I lived in Okarito. For a few moments I recall my life there, a quieter more reflective time when compared to the hustle and bustle I currently experience in Christchurch. The remote and wild certainly has its attractions.
‘What a place,’ I murmur, feeling both humbled and blessed to be here.
Jamie – ever-practical – un-wraps a muesli bar and hands it to me. ‘We should have brought the stove, though. Imagine having a coffee now.’
I nod enthusiastically. ‘A macchiato would do nicely. One sugar please.’
‘Coming right up.’
It is my turn to lead. Jamie hands me the ‘rack’ – an assortment of nuts, ‘Camelots’ (mechanical camming devices) and pitons – all designed to be placed in cracks in the rock by the lead climber. Once secure, they are then clipped through a karabiner to the rope. This means that, if I slip while on lead, I can’t fall more than twice as far as my last piece of protection.
This technique relies on two assumptions: there are enough cracks in the rock to place the protection; and the lead climber is able to establish a ‘stance’ where they can hang off the rock by one hand long enough to place it. Soon after climbing above Jamie, I discover that the steep buttress in front of me offers neither.
The rope – our lifeline – slithers over greywacke blotched with lichen as I pull myself up metre by careful metre. Coarse rock scratches against my fingers, a reassuring feeling. And the rock is a shade of red that I treasure in the mountains. Normally greywacke – a metamorphosed sandstone found throughout the Southern Alps – is dull grey, brittle and a nightmare to climb. Mountaineers refer to it as having the consistency of weet-bix, opting instead for snow slopes and glaciers as safer options. But discovering a sustained band of pinkish, orange, or red rock like the buttress that Jamie and I are on, is our version of winning the lottery. All I now need is to find somewhere to place a nut or a ‘Cam’. A fall here doesn’t bear thinking about.  
One after the other, I quickly slip my hands into a chalk-bag knotted at my waist, coating them with a thin layer of the white powder which soaks up sweat and helps with friction. In my climbing routine, this has become an almost meditative act as I solve the sequence of moves ahead. The section of greywacke in front of me is almost sunset red, and near vertical. Fingertip cracks split its surface and a ramp the width of a mobile phone angles up and left.
Finally, I find a notch deep enough to push a ‘Cam’ into and then, slightly higher, a nut. I clip the rope through them and breathe a sigh of relief. Now I have the confidence to tiptoe up the ramp for eight metres, until it fades and the rock becomes almost devoid of edges and cracks. I pause, dipping my hands into the chalk again.
Climbing in situations like this is less a game of snakes and ladders and more about chess-like moves. Subtle changes in body position, sideways shuffles and a vague combination of pushing and tweaking with hands and feet allows progress to be made. With hundreds of metres of fall space beneath me – something I don’t wish to consider right now – the intense level of physical and mental commitment means my whole world is nothing more than figuring out how to reach the next hand or foot hold. Time passes without notice. Life becomes very, very simple.
A muffled cry comes from below, meaning I’ve almost reached the end of the rope. I scan for a ledge suitable to belay from, but the rock drops away sharply. An awkward corner I’m bridging across will have to do. At least I find two ‘bomber’ anchor placements, and tie myself into them. I call out ‘safe’ and start pulling in the extra rope.
Rope length followed by timeless rope length, Jamie and I measure off the climb. Sometimes we chat at belays, other times we exchange equipment and move on with only a word or two. Shadows lengthen around us as the sun sinks towards the western horizon. We don’t talk about how distant the summit may or may not be, but it is on both of our minds. A night out on the rock would be an unpleasant experience, to say the least. An old climber once told me not to count on how close the summit is – that way I can’t be disappointed if it doesn’t arrive when I expect. Just keep ticking off the pitches. Keep moving. Keep concentrating.
Then suddenly it’s here, a flat platform that comes as a shock. Broad ledges follow the Main Divide in both directions. Nearby, the glacier that leads back to our tents sparkles in evening sunlight. We’ve done it, succeeding on a quality new route on a remote mountain. All of the planning and weather watching and effort to get here is worth it. With tired satisfaction I gather the rope in. Jamie climbs the last few metres, joining me as a warm red glow draws across the mountains. Despite the risk, there is nowhere else I would rather be.
(Kester Brown and Shelley Hersey also climbed the route to take photos)


  1. Wicked stuff Paul - Congrats on the climb! Damn good writing too, it reads very well. Will be keeping a keen eye on the blog.

    I'll be tackling Kilimanjaro end of next year, with the goal of then Paragliding from the top...Do you have any tips for the African giant?

    All the best

  2. Cheers Brooke,

    Good luck with Kilimanjaro. My advice would be to take your time climbing it (meaning you should acclimatise better) and drink lots of fluids. I don't know anything about paragliding, but I guess sound advice would be don't land on a rogue elephant!