Friday, May 18, 2012

'The Glaciers Are Retreating' - article in Alpinist

'Watch me,' Jamie Vinton'Boot calls out. He dinks at aquamarine-hard ice with his tools, his front points scratching above the obsidian depths of a sepulchral crevasse. 'All good mate. You're looking solid,' I shout back. The rope slivers over the narrow ramp of glacier beneath my feet. Jamie hasn't placed an ice screw yet. If he slips now, he'll pendulum right into the crevasse. There's water dripping somewhere. I feel a sudden, voyeuristic urge to peer into the darkness of the deep cleft below. My friend talks to himself, his muttered words lost across the chasm. Should I offer more encouragement? When I was younger, I realized one day that the more animated my belayer came as he extolled my leading virtues, the more dire the situation actually seemed to him. I try again: 'Just take your time, Jamie. No rush.' But this isn't right either. Early morning sunlight has already arched over the remote Stevenson Glacier. And forty kilometers to the west, a dark, thickening cloud oozes in from the edge of the Tasman Sea. The day is getting away from us, and we haven't even reached the start of our proposed route.
I doubt Jamie is paying attention to anything other than the ice and his front points. He's partly deaf and probably can't hear what I'm saying. I'm calling out reassurances to make myself feel better. But my good friend has the ability to bend the reality of climbing sequences, making them appear easier than they are. He'll deal with this. Jamie resets his axes, and the tinkering of falling ice echoes across the morning air. Another friend, Kester Brown, shares my belay stance. He's quietly munching on a muesli bar. 'That's a bomb site over there,' he observes. 'Jamie will be coming back.' 'You reckon? Christ, how are we going to get through this bloody maze?' it's still early in the summer alpine season, yet already cavernous gaps have opened in the glaciers. Kester says nothing. Not inclined to get worked up about anything other than burnt coffee, he turns to look across this rugged pocket of our Southern Alps. To the north, the Stevenson and other feeder glaciers plunge over weathered rock slabs on the western flanks of Mt Elie de Beaumont and Mt Walter. To the south, the ice fields warp back from the more shattered, blocky rifts of Mt Green. We are hoping to tackle the unclimbed West Rib of Walter, a chipped fin of coarse greywacke sandstone half a kilometer high. But even reaching it is proving difficult. I kick at the ice with my crampons. Two hundred meters below us, the Stevenson fingers into the broad palm of the Spencer Glacier. In turn, the Spencer sags between barren knuckles on the Drummond and Burton ridges, before disintegrating into the Callery River hundreds of meters further down the valley. Even from this distance, the unbraided river appears turbulent.
Aoraki Mt Cook, New Zealand's highest mountain, is a few kilometers father southwest, hidden behind the saw-toothed summits of the Main Divide. There hasn't been a first ascent recorded in this part of Westland Tai Poutini National Park since 1984. As far as we know, no one has even attempted a route from the Stevenson in the past decade. Looking at the terrain we still have to negotiate, it's easy to understand why not. At last, Jamie reaches the other side of the crevasse and clambers over a low fold of ice, disappearing from view. My wife, Shelley Hersey, is perched on a divot in the glacier a few meters behind Kester and me. She inches higher to try and glimpse what Jamie sees. Moments later, curses float over the void, and Jamie returns. He shakes his head. Kester shrugs his shoulders and looks away. He's probably already thinking about heading back to our tents to brew fresh coffee. Shelley smiles at me, and then starts cramponing back across the slope we traversed at first light. She skirts a short ice cliff and vanishes down a snowy ramp. I know she's searching for another way through the jungle of crevasses. My wife hates giving up. Perusing old guidebooks and alpine journals before the trip, I'd noticed that first ascents in the area tapered off in the early 1980s. Yet the few people who climbed there wrote about good quality rock, at least by New Zealand alpine standards. Brittle zones of greywacke or argillite (a type of crumbly dark horror) appear throughout our higher mountains. Most climbers stick to snow and ice. Or else they wait until winter when the fractured rock is frozen together. Occasionally, a solid, compact weathering rind forms on certain rock strata. Signs of pinkish, orange and red bands usually mean there's good climbing to be had. I'd first spied the auburn hues of the West Rib of Walter in 2000, while guiding on the Franz Josef Glacier. Every clear morning for two years, I carried coffee outside my cottage in the coastal settlement of Okarito. I leaned against the railing, swatted sandflies and faced the sunrise. The silhouettes of Elie, Walter and Green craned over thick, dark rain forests and the white splodge of the Spencer. Day after day, I stared at that same view. Sometimes a warbled morning sun made the mountains shimmer in the sky. Other times, in flat sepia-toned light, the summits seemed so close that I could almost reach out to them. I promised myself that I would, someday, climb them.
Yet after a number of forays from the Franz, I realized the difficulties involved. In the summer, glacial thaw cut off the western access. With no icy bridges to clamber down, all that remained were steep, impassable walls of rocky detritus. The most reliable approach seemed to be from the east, traversing the country's longest glacier - the Tasman - and then climbing over the Main Divide. A reasonably straightforward trip of around twenty-five kilometers, it took more than a decade for me to carry out that plan. Each season, the ice fields of the Southern Alps seem more broken, and moving through them grows tougher. What used to be easy snow shelves have morphed into unreachable hanging glaciers. Whether it's because of of glacial recession, climate change or a temperature anomaly, I've watched entire ice fields slowly vanish. Despite the relatively small size and low altitude of New Zealand (Aoraki Mt Cook is 3747 meters high), more than 3000 glaciers spread over its mountains. Yet according to studies by the National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research, over the past 100 years, the surface area of those glaciers has reduced by almost half. And by the end of this century, NIWA claims that warming in the Southern Alps could mean an average summer increase of up to three degrees. Freezing levels could rise by another 500 meters. As the ice melts, and the glaciers break and collapse away, the dirty, unstable bedrock becomes a nightmare to climb. It's as if our alpine world - or the way we appreciate it - is being torn apart. How long will it be before we're doomed only to imagine the lines still waiting around the next ridge line , or beyond the next glacier, to wonder whether we will ever be able to get there to find out? Shelley reappears on the snow slope below us, breathing heavily from the exertion but grinning. 'There might be a way over here,' she calls out, pointing with her axe. 'We can't get much further down the glacier, but I think we can get off the ice on to the ridge.' The rest of us shuffle over to where Shelley indicates. There's a wide gap between glacier and rock, but a fragile-looking tongue of ice juts out over a rumbling ice cliff. Access across the tongue looks tenuous - it might just go. Ice collapses nearby with a loud whompf, making us all twitch. The glacier gives a gentle shudder and settles again.
I quickly establish an anchor - and myself - in a nearby crevasse. That way, I won't have to test the ice tongue first. When no one else makes any moves towards the edge, Kester sighs. Since he's the tallest, it seems appropriate that he should go first. Kester gives his ice axe a good thunk into the undercut slip in the glacier. He peers over. 'Don't like this much,' he mumbles. He shuffles his crampons before re-hooking his axe on a last, thin, icy protuberance. Extending his long legs, Kester reaches for the rock. He snares a narrow ledge with his crampon, lets out a small 'yoo-hoo' and scrambles up the blocky ground to set a belay. Shelley, the shortest in our group, has to swing one leg repeatedly, building up momentum before she can stab across the gap. Her front points scrape against the rock as she searches for purchase. Once stable, she leans out, drapes her axe over a rock flake on the other side and then lunges the rest of her body over. Jamie climbs down to the edge, says 'bugger that' and clips his ice axe to his harness. 'Give me some slack,' he calls up to me, before jumping like a stuntman. Somehow, he manages to stick to the small ledge on the other side. 'Sometimes I just do stuff without thinking too much about it, he says in a nonchalant tone, as if he's making a valid excuse. 'Go for it,' the others shout when it's my turn, but the prospect of repeating Jamie's aerial feat makes my aging knees quiver. I sink the pick of my axe as deep as it will go into the ice, clasp it with two hands, and push one leg out behind me until it clatters against the rock. Once stemmed between glacier and rock, I breathe a sigh of relief. At the belay, I pause to take in this broken rib of red greywacke that we're about to climb. The rock curves upwards in a graceful arc, a totem that will entice us onwards for hundreds of meters. I can't help laughing: we've made it across, into the kind of place that climbers, perhaps, treasure most.
The rockfall sounds like gunshot. Each projectile whirs by and cracks against the cliff. I cling to the wall, hunching into as small a target as possible and listening as the barrage gets closer. Stones ping off my helmet. I shut my eyes and try not to think about much. Something larger thuds close by. I utter a few words of hope to a deity I don't believe in. More cracks resound against the rock. Some ricochet, and others explode on impact, spitting debris over me. Is this it? Is this the final moment? Eventually, the noise recedes to faint echoes in the gully below. I take a deep breath and slowly unfurl. The others are out of sight above me and, seemingly, out of earshot too. They probably don't realize what just happened. They'll be thinking that I've paused to take out a piece of gear. Perhaps the rope dislodged the rocks. Maybe climate change played a part in loosening the stones, or it was just one of those random occurrences. It doesn't matter why. The moment has passed. I begin climbing again. 'How was that, Paul?' Jamie asks a few minutes later as I approach the belay. I can tell he's enjoying himself, and can't help but smiling back. 'Pretty good. Some solid moves to get over that bulge eh?' I don't see the point in letting him know about the rock fall. I'd rather congratulate him on the lead. Kester and Shelley are already heading off on the next pitch, a steep slab with desk-sized chunks missing. I suggest to Jamie that we follow a short buttress to the left to stay out from underneath them.
Jamie hands me the rack. The weight feels reassuring in my grasp. The call of a kea - sounding like an elongated cry of the vowels in its own name - echoes from somewhere above. I look up. Red and green wings flash across the air. A foot tall, with a powerful beak and claws, these native mountain parrots are known for getting into mischief and wrecking gear. I hope that if the kea spots our tents, it chooses Jamie's over mine. The coarseness of the rock rasps my fingers - a comforting feeling, like a memory trace of past experiences. For me, climbing is about the the rock's shape, color and texture, and then how to move with it. The patina of the sandstone in front of me is almost sunset-red. Fingertip cracks split its near vertical surface and a thin ramp angles like a tree-branch across the buttress, up and left. I slink along the ramp, ferreting at dead-end cracks. Finally finding a notch deep enough, I slip a cam into it and, slightly higher, a nut. Now, I have the confidence to tiptoe up for another few meters. But then the edges and cracks begin to vanish as I reach a bookend in the rock. The air is still. Another kea calls in the distance. This is when everything fades and sharpens. This is the time. Breathe. Keep breathing. I slip one hand after the other into my chalk bag, more a meditative preparation, and continue. Time seems to reverberate in the distance, or in some other place entirely. A muffled shout rises from Jamie. I scan for somewhere to belay. This awkward corner I'm bridging will have to do. Two small nuts drop key-like into a thin crack, and I shout back down the rope. Shifting weight from one leg to the other, I look up, trying to judge how much farther we've got to go. A mossy rootlet hides the terrain above. The climb gives nothing away.
Hours later, the summit ridge comes almost as a shock. I stagger for a moment, trying to readjust to the sudden change in geography. Broad ledges create a bench along the east side of the Main Divide in both directions. A few meters behind me, the glacier that winds back down to our tents seems to float in the evening light. The sun's final warmth fills me with renewed energy. As Jamie seconds the last few meters, a crimson glow draws across the mountaintops and tinges the glaciers pink. Jamie's not into hugs, but I grab him anyway. Kester shies away, muttering something about being all smelly. Tiny wisps of hair stick out from under Shelley's helmet, catching in the light. She has that ebullience in her eyes that I recognize and love. The others start cramping down the gentle snow slope, but I take a few minutes to look back over the Spencer. Through the low clouds that choke most of the valley, I try to eke out other faces worth investigating. A long, rippling slab runs up the western flank of Elie. Could we reach it? The last of the evening light merges the high, bright peaks around me with the cloud, the distant cobalt of the sky with the ocean. The view softens and hazes, fading slowly to the night until everything feels as one thing. I want - I need - our summits like this, with their glaciated flanks and their ice-cut ridges. Without these snowy surrounds, much of the mystery, the character, will fade away. We're only just becoming aware of what we're losing. The inevitability of transformation and loss is disheartening. Yet I can't help but hope, rather naively, that what I'm looking at will stay like this forever.