By Alastair McDowell (January 14, 2020)
Spending time in Europe, I was fascinated by the speed records set on the classic peaks of Mont Blanc and the Matterhorn, both by Kilian Jornet in just under 5 hours and 3 hours each, blisteringly quick times. I also loved that the de-facto style was to start in the early hours from the church at the centre of town, race up to the summit, and run back to the church to finish. A nice symmetry made possible by the proximity of European towns to the high peaks.
I tried this myself: Mont Blanc via Gouter from the church in Les Houches, and Matterhorn via Hornli from the church in Zermatt. You witness rapid changes of eco-systems as you gain height: from urban to forest to rock to snow, and all again in reverse as you race back down from the summit to the valley in a matter of hours.
It was an exhilarating experience and returning to NZ, I dreamed of replicating this style on our own highest peak.
Aoraki – in a day.
In 2014 I climbed Aoraki/Mt Cook via the Linda with Elisha Nuttall, then in 2015 I climbed ‘White Dream’ on the South Face with Michael Eatson & Tawny Wagstaff. From a bivvy at the toe of the West Ridge it took us 20 hours to climb the south face and traverse from Low Peak to the infamous ‘Middle Peak Hotel’ – a deep crevasse in the mountain where we slept, at 3500m.
The following day it took 7 hours to traverse just 1 kilometre of icy ridgeline to the high peak. The ridge was hard ice and riddled with blobs of sastrugi – shards of ice – insecure enough to warrant using the rope. The rope made it marginally safer, but all the more time-consuming and exhausting spending extra time on the front points. I spent the following day in the hut peeling layers of burnt skin from my face. The whole trip from car to car took us 6 days.
For our one day trip, we had originally thought of climbing the Sheila Face from the head of the Hooker glacier, but recent snowfall meant the upper rock face might still have been icy so we opted for a pure snow-ice route.
The most aesthetic and logical route Rose and I could dream of was a full circuit, traversing the three peaks from the Hooker and returning via the Tasman. That’s up the Northwest Couloir to Low Peak, along the top, down the Linda, and out via Cinerama Col and Ball Road. To complete the loop was a final 9km of tarmac and gravel back round to the Hooker Valley carpark. A total distance of 53km and 4000m of vertical gain.
Although we could have stashed a bike we decided the purest style was to complete the whole trip on foot, carrying the pack start to finish and no pre-caching of gear.
Unlike running races, there’s no set date for a Mount Cook climb so you always have to be ready when the weather window arrives. But in the month or so beforehand we built up the fitness on progressively longer runs in the mountains with lots of vertical gain, things like the Manakau-Uwerau traverse, Three Passes in Arthurs Pass, and the Tararua SK traverse. These missions also helped work out the type of foods I could handle eating for 24 hours straight. Previous experience of 24-hour rogaines and Godzone adventure races also helped.
The Grand Traverse from Low to High peak was considered in its day one of the most impressive feats of world mountaineering, that is, in 1913. It was first done by cutting steps across its length and without crampons.
But the shape of the ridge has changed drastically over the last decades, including the 1991 collapse of the high peak, and even changes shape year to year as it is battered by storms from the west. There are many ways up to the Low Peak; the West Ridge, South Face, Caroline Face. These are all more technical routes. We chose the easiest and therefore fastest route up, the Northwest couloir.
What excited us most about this trip, like any true adventure, was the thrill of the unknown. We didn’t know whether we would by stymied by difficult glacial passage past Pudding Rock in the Hooker valley or slowed to a halt by blue ice on the summit ridge. The conditions are ever changing around each storm cycle and so hard to predict. Even the recent huge washout at Husky Flat on Ball Road provided a question mark. And could it all be done back to the Hooker in 24 hours?
There was no single ‘crux’ as it turned out, it was a challenge of endurance. As I’ve often experienced with other rapid single push ascents, sleep deprivation and altitude sickness can be a toxic combination. With only 2 hours sleep before our midnight start and rising from sea level to 3000m in about 15 hours, I started to feel quite dizzy as we made our way up to Low Peak. We had not factored any acclimatisation into the compact schedule. This dizziness was compounded by blazing sun and no wind on the summit ridge, glorious yet dehydrating conditions. I was glad to have plenty of electrolyte drink to gulp down as I traversed the ridge, accessible on the front pockets of my Macpac adventure racing vest-style pack.
The most difficult route finding is on the descent, navigating the scree and moraine between the Buoys glacier and Ball hut. We were bluffed out numerous times before we finally found the access onto the huge scree slope down to the Tasman moraines. We lost an hour here. Climbing up the loose lateral moraine to Ball Road is also tricky. You’re 20 hours in and have to rack your tired brain to remember the correct route up the sea of choss.
20L running vest style packs.
Running shoes (LS Bushido II) for the approach + running socks
¾ shank boots (LS Trango Tech) for the snow + mountaineering socks
BD sabretooth 12-point steel crampons
One Petzl Gully axe and one BD viper
Leki trail stick poles with snow baskets
A ski mountaineering harness (BD Couloir)
60cm dyneema sling each (tether)
40m of 8mm Beal Ice Line
4 aluminium ice screws with one Camp nano snap biner for each
Belay device + prussic + carabiners
Petzl Meteor helmet
A one-piece thermal vest suit
Macpac transition rain jacket
Macpac dash gloves
Spring energy gels
A bag of cereal and protein powder
Tailwind electrolyte & energy powder for water
Two 500ml soft flask bottles for pure water and electrolytes
Two 750ml water bladders for refills to make 2.5L total
PLB (personal locator beacon)
First aid kit
SOL emergency bivvy bag
GoPro for filming
I love my ‘onesie’ thermal suit: integrated fleece leggings and vest. My version of racing lycra. This is my default base layer for winter climbing, but in summer it’s the perfect warmth on its own without softshell pants. Having no extra baggy layers on the legs makes you feel like you can move twice as fast.
The Petzl Gully ice axe is an amazing lightweight tool. It feels weightless (280g) yet still penetrates ice and has a moveable hand-rest to adjust depending on the steepness. Next time I would climb with just two of these.
Light & Fast style
It’s about moving quickly but more so efficiently. Compressing a huge adventure into a short time frame increases the intensity. A shot of whisky rather than a pint of beer. It’s also about progression, improving on your previous style of ascent.
Going light enough allows you to go fast enough to enter the realm of a single push, and suddenly you can forego all overnight gear, clothing, extra food. Suddenly you can move really fast. That opens up so many options and allows you to take fuller advantage of short weather windows. It’s a useful tactic in harsh places like Patagonia.
But since this style has a lower safety margin in terms of being caught out in a storm, we make sure to only travel this way in perfect weather. The climbing itself actually becomes safer because you are less encumbered by a heavy pack and feel fresher. We still carry just enough gear to pitch out an icy section – a 40m rope and 4 ice screws in this case.
The style can be limiting though; there are many interesting routes further afield that require a heavier approach. Technical routes need more gear and more time. Both have their place.
A small team makes logistics so much easier. If you’re trying to seize a short weather window mid-week around your job, efficiency of logistics is everything. Wasting an hour driving around could mean an hour’s less sleep. You’re operating on tight time frames.
Having a partner with similar goals and fitness on a trip like this is important. Rose and I have done a lot of previous climbing trips together, so we know how the other works and what we’re comfortable on.
In classical mountaineering you’re often simul-soloing most, if not all, of the route, so it’s important to have equal skill levels. If one person is much more confident than the other, they might be inclined to solo a more difficult section rather than bother getting the rope out, which will pressure the more inexperienced person to also follow without the rope. That can be a dangerous situation if not managed properly.
Aoraki is still a very special peak and the experiences I’ve had on this mountain rank alongside anything else I’ve found overseas. It’s inaccessibility and fickle, difficult-to-predict conditions ensure it’s never an easy tick. That makes it all the more satisfying.
This article originally appeared on Alastair’s ‘Mountain Adventure Blog’ on 14 January 2020 and is reproduced here with permission.