I Tied with the Mountain
“The Linda Glacier: While this is the most climbed route on
Mount Cook, N.Z., it is also one of the most dangerous, being menaced by ice
cliffs, the lower glacier is often heavily crevassed and there is considerable danger from
ice avalanches”. Excerpt from; Mount Cook GuideBook, by Hugh Logan.
It is a beautiful morning, the weather broke around 3:00 am. Guy Cotter, my
guide and I got up at 6:45 am. It’s a quick breakfast and off to the Mount Cook
landing strip. We are flying standby to the “Plateau Hut”, at the base of the
Linda Glacier. The pilot flies us through the glaciated peaks and valleys of Mount
Cook, only to circle back under Mount Cook itself, gliding the ski plane to a halt at its
Guy and I walk the short distance to the Plateau Hut. The hut seems like an
“away locker room” for climbers. There we find the different teams, sorting
gear, and discussing their strategy for the routes. A certain amount of bravado mixes
with the mental preparation. We join in, sort our gear, and decide on a strategy. We
are going to bivi on the mountain tonight.
It takes the body some time to get in the groove. The weight of the pack seems to
lighten with each turn as the Plateau Hut drops away from sight. We are moving
through the crevasses and large steps of the descending glacier. The day is very warm.
I am dressed in shorts, a tee shirt, and rented mountaineering boots.
As if the beauty of the surroundings is not enough, nature provides us with both
entertainment and anxiety – she releases two avalanches. One pours down on us,
I am over whelmed by the speed and size of the monster, only to see it disappear into
jaws of a hungry crevasse. We push on, my right ankle is sore from the boots, which are
far from a perfect fit. We work our way up into the Linda Glacier. Below Zubriggens
Ridge we find a bivi sight, and with a short drop down into a filled crevasse, we stomp
out a platform for the night.
Guy is different than other alpine guides that I have experienced. I find he gives
me more responsibility. He tests my experience and implements it into the game plan.
His objective is not to merely drag the client up the mountain. The goal is not only to
summit, but to understand the limits and boundaries of the mountain.
With the platform complete, the task at hand is to refuel, mid air, so to speak.
Warmth, rehydration, food, and rest, in that order. While cooking up the meal of beef
stroganoff it becomes apparent that the weather is on the move. There are clouds
building out to the northwest, rolling in from the Pacific Ocean, the high may not last
through tomorrow morning,…”Being here now, is worth the climb up”. Turning in for the
short night, warm and relatively comfortable in our mountain tent, I anticipate tomorrow.
We will wake up at 1:30 a.m., 3:00 a.m. start, hopefully achieve the summit.
We start out this morning at 2:45 a.m., working our way towards the summit, we
are engulfed by the night sky. A party from the Plateau Hut, two Australians, Mark and
Andy, informs us that the deteriorating conditions below drove back three other parties.
From our bivi we had been well sheltered from the increasing winds. These conditions
had built up during night, surrounding us with gale force winds. We work our way
through the Upper Linda Glacier, staying in the lee of the summit ridge. This route
enables us to climb the steep ice below the Gun Barrels without the exposure to the 90-
100 MPH gusts that tear at the mountain. The night air remains cold, temperatures dip
further into minus territory due to the increased wind chill. Exposure to the wind
increases, clouds continue to threaten as if playing a game of “chicken” only to slide off
to the south. ” The Gun Barrels are above, keep moving,” Guy pushes his words through
the wind. With a quick look up and I am reminded that The Gun Barrels are avalanche
shoots, extremely unpredictable because of the icefalls at their top.
I feel suspended in air, buffeted by the ever increasing winds as they rollover the
Linda Shelf. WHOMPH! … An avalanche on the Divide slope of Mount Dampier.
My harness pulls me hard to the left , Guy has been blown down and the rope is taut
between us. He self-arrests himself in that moment, just as he pulls me off my feet.
Gaining the Linda Shelf. Rest.
Huddled against the wall, we assess the deteriorating conditions. The constant
drop in the wind chill and the continually increasing wind, causes us to retreat.
Hypothermia is becoming a consideration. We turned our backs on the summit
rocks and begin our descent. The trip down is less eventful. The route is familiar and
gravity takes over. One has to be alert, gravity which seems to be your friend can
easily hurl you down the pitch. The wind ebbs as we drop deeper into the lee of the
ridges. Arriving at the bivi to pick up the rest of our gear, we take time to brew up hot
tea and put on more warm layers of pile. Packed up, we press on, in the back of my mind
I wondered if we could have summitted, the shelter of the lower glacier has given me a
false sense of security.
At the edge of the plateau, there are only a few short miles across
to the “oasis”, the Plateau Hut. It is here that the mountain reminds us that our retreat
is wise. Forcing us to our knees, crampons and ice axes dig firmly into the ice, the
wind grapples with us. I have never felt such intensity even while sailboat racing in
ocean storms. These few short miles become long, cold, desperate. The door swings
open, we hurry into the warm familiar smells of the locker room- the Plateau Hut.
Lexington Ave. IRT, that is what it feels like! The Plateau Hut is shaking and the
roar is nothing less than that from a subway platform. I’m awake now, with no
disappointment but an understanding. Even though we did not summit, we have come
down safely. We have tied with the mountain.