aoraki/mount cook - 12316' - Zurbriggen ridge - ai3 m3
After spending a few days in Wanaka a weather window finally began to present itself after weeks of stormy weather that dumped buckets of snow on the Southern Alps. Numerous back and forth messaging to my climbing partner Graeme as he continued to push his flight to Christchurch from Auckland until we could see good weather ahead. On Monday the 18th, we agreed I would pick him up the next day and drive to Mount Cook village. I organized with the helicopter company InFlite in Mount Cook Village and arranged for us to take a helicopter transfer to the Plateau Hut on Wednesday morning as it wasn't looking like we were going to have a long enough weather window to walk in (which takes at the very least a very long day, normally two).
Graeme was right on time as I waited at the Christchurch airport, and we were soon off on the drive back to Mount Cook. After a quick stop at the grocery store we began discussing ideas for how we would tackle Mount Cook, while also possibly trying to climb a secondary objective as well. We arrived at Lake Teakpo where I had arranged a hostel for us to stay the night. We had burgers next door and enjoyed a few beers, and came upon the idea that we could fly into the Plateau Hut (which is the newly built 33 bunk shelter at 2200 meters at the foot of Mounts Cook and Tasman), then climb Cook right away. We could then utilize a second weather window coming in the following Monday/Tuesday to walk down to the Tasman Glacier via Haast Ridge then try for Malte Brum, then hiking the whole way back to the village. This was very ambitious, and due to both weather and conditions we were only able to climb Cook, but the idea was fun nonetheless!
So when morning came on Wednesday the 20th, we had a buffet breakfast at the hotel in the village to celebrate our last real meal for at least a week. At 9:30 am we were loaded into the helicopter and our ride from the Cook airport at 700 meters elevation to the Plateau Hut at 2200 meters elevation began. The chopper ride only cost us $350 NZ dollars (about 200 USD) per person for the 15 minute ride up...cheap! Looking down on the Tasman Glacier, and the lake at its terminus was inspiring, but I knew how fast this long glacier is receding. At least 300 meters of the ice calves off into the ever growing lake each year. The recent storms had dumped literally meters of snowfall over the past couple weeks, and above about 1700 meters the mountains were completely decked in snow. An eerie ambiance filled the southern alps as the highest peaks were shrouded in clouds. The chopper made the final ascent up the Hochstetter icefall that descends from the Grand Plateau and we quickly honed in on the hut and landed.
Without turning the chopper off, ourselves and our gear were offloaded and the pilot made a sweeping right turn down the mountain and was out of sight, all within a minute from when we landed. We went from complete civilization with springtime greens and warm temperatures, to nearly alone on the slopes of the highest mountain in New Zealand in a landscape totally white and devoid of any life. The hut, only a couple minutes walk away would be our home for the time being, which proved invaluable due to the hurricane force winds that we would endure for the next week. Despite only being a 50 meter walk from where we landed to the hut, all the recent snow had us sinking past our knees as we hauled our stuff inside, and to our surprise we saw two others inside; Brad (who is from Colorado) and Andreas (from Norway). We would end up befriending these two climbers (also on the mountain independently) and get to know one another well over the next week.
It was clear now how much snow actually had fallen just in the previous week alone. Over 2 meters had fallen and this made me quite worried as to whether the routes on Cook would ever consolidate for the snow to ever provide enough support underfoot as to not wallow around which would take triple the time to climb. The four of us decided to make a recon mission onto the plateau to try and break a trail across towards the start of the Zurbriggen Ridge, which we were initially hoping to climb the next day. Brad and Andreas, initially hoping to climb the east ridge decided after seeing the conditions they would join us for Zurbriggen. So off we went, in a complete whiteout as the snow continued to come down trying to walk in a straight line towards Mount Cook across the 1 mile wide plateau. We however didn't get very far (perhaps 400 meters) before turning back. We were sinking to our knees on every step and we realized that no one could feasibly climb Mount Cook the following day as here was just too much snow. I was worried, but I did know this is maritime snow and once even just one warm sunny day comes around, it should consolidate quickly. By mid-afternoon, a few other guided parties arrived at the hut also via helicopter and we soon had a whole posse at the hut. Inside, we explored a little more and was happy to see the hut was outfitted with gas powered stoves, a rainwater collection system for fresh water, and the burliest construction I have ever seen for a mountain hut. Knowing winds can exceed 150 MPH here it made sense, but it was wild to see the nail spacing on the support walls be just 1 inch apart, and the entire structure framework was steel beams welded together. 68 1 inch bolts held the structure to concrete pillars bored into solid bedrock. All this was done with helicopters!!
The four of us (my climbing partner Graeme, Brad and Andreas) decided we would attempt Mount Dixon, a 3000 meter elevation peak off to the north end of the Grand Plateau the following morning, since the weather called for calm and stable skies, but the conditions on Cook would not yet be ready. As the clouds slowly parted later in the afternoon, we began to slowly see more and more of Mount Cook (and Tasman next door) as they came out of hiding, invoking excitement similar to a strip tease
We enjoyed a calm afternoon and evening taking photos of the sunset that surrounded us. This would be the last time we had calm winds for the next 4 days. When the weather forecast was radioed in at 7pm, we were in for some serious winds (normal for New Zealand!) however mostly decent skies until Saturday night, at which point a small amount of rain was forecasted. The best weather appeared to come in on Monday the 25th, so with our plan to attempt Dixon the following day, we abandoned our plans to also try for Malte Brun, which was very far away, and put all our bets in for Monday being the day we would climb. All we could do is hope that over the next 4 days all this snow would slide off the steep mountain faces, and consolidate. Friday-Sunday we would simply wait in the hut. While at times it did get boring, we had plenty of people to chat with, play games with and discuss ideas with so it wasn't so bad. We cooked ourselves dinner that consisted of instant mac and cheese, while the guided parties that had come in that afternoon made gourmet meals suitable for a 5 star hotel! Since we were originally planning to walk out, we didn't bring lots of heavy and fresh foods, which we would regret for the rest of the trip after seeing what some of the others had brought, since weight was a non-issue.
Alarms were off at 4am the following morning where Graeme and I decided we would attempt the far gully approach to the east ridge of Dixon rather than the ridge direct all the way from Glacier Dome. Exposed and difficult rock steps on the ridge between Glacier Dome and the base of the main east ridge on Dixon looked tedious, however Brad and Andreas decided to try it anyways. Graeme and I started walking north along the edge of the Grand Plateau traversing below Glacier Dome and the ridge while sinking to our knees almost constantly. It was slow going, however the sunrise was totally one for the ages that took my mind off the misery we were enduring. We eventually reached the base of the sloped apron at the base of the gully leading up to the ridge, however the wallowing got even worse here. I began quite literally tunneling my way through chest deep snow to make upward progress up the slope to the bergschrund. Graeme and I switched off, taking an hour to gain roughly 150 feet! When we reached the schrund, it was mostly covered with poorly consolidated snow and appeared about 2 meters wide, so I belayed Graeme across in a spot that looked the most stable. I followed, then took lead into the gully proper, which was much firmer than the slopes below it.
I was stoked to finally be on better snow, giving me hope that the steeper aspects of the peaks had firmer snow and ice since most of the loose stuff just rolled off during accumulation. Midway up the narrow gully however, the wind really began to pick up and we started to get bombarded by spin-drift coming off Dixon high above. With concerns of a larger slide coming down on us from somewhere, and winds increasing to hurricane force, we decided to bail and return to the hut, turning back a couple hundred feet from the ridgecrest. Shortly after we began downclimbing, we saw Brad and Andreas already walking down the slopes onto the plateau below us, having decided to bail as well due to the wicked winds that had come earlier than the forecast called for. We ended up just making a flying leap over the schrund on the way down and unfortunately the wind wiped out our tracks we made coming in, so we had to once again break trail back to the hut, even following closely behind the others, tracks in the snow would be filled within minutes from all the snow blowing around. I was hopeful that the wind would just blow it all into outer space! The final 15 minutes to the hut the winds got even stronger which made it difficult to even stand up...I couldn't imagine what it must be like on the tops of the ridges during these times.
By 9am we were back at the hut and we took a nap as heavy winds battered the hut the whole day. It was a good thing we didn't try for Cook this day as we wouldn't have even gotten close. As the day went on, we played some cards, and I even found a ghetto chess board hand made with a piece of plywood and some PVC pipe! At times it was difficult to avoid boredom, however I thought back to the entire 2019 year for me, where I was on the go 100% of the time very busy with travels, work, other climbing objectives, training, and more and was thankful for the time to just sit and relax, and reflect on where we were. I was very thankful, and even more so since Thanksgiving was approaching.
The next 3 days I didn't take too many photos as the days were spent staying in the hut, with the only exception being another recon mission across the plateau on Friday. With the temperatures warming considerably, and the sun out all day Friday, a lot of melting occurred. Despite the winds still stronger than ever, there wasn't any spin-drift on the plateau anymore. Therefore we decided to walk all the way across right to the base of the Zurbriggen Route and make a good path in the snow for us to follow on the night of our climb to reduce routefinding issues. We made out way to the left leaning ramp below a huge serac before turning back as the heat of the day was getting critical for huge avalanches and icefalls. Just as we turned back, a gigantic slide came off the east face and stopped just a couple hundred feet of where we were. We were happy to see so much snow slide off the route, as we knew that would only make the climb safer. I was amazed at how much improvement just the one warm day was making on the intense recent snowpack, and my hopes for a successful summit were growing. Back at the hut Graeme and I played a 6 hour game of chess to pass the rest of the day. Another awesome thing that happened, was that out of the blue, Alastair, an old friend I had ice climbed with in the Canadian Rockies back in 2017 happened to show up at the hut with intentions to climb Simberhorn. He is on the NZ alpine team and a very strong climber, but he remembered me right away. We chatted for a bit which was good to catch up.
Saturday and Sunday we really didn't leave the hut at all. More and more guided parties arrived though, including a team with two badass women guides from Christchurch and their clients. They spoke highly of how the East Ridge would be an excellent climb and in great condition right now, which was enough to convince Brad and Andreas to change their objective back to the East Ridge, leaving Graeme and I alone on Zurbriggen. We also befriended two guys who came in over the weekend who were living in Brisbane, Australia, one of which had grown up in Sequim, WA! We traded stories of the Olympic Peninsula which was fun. As Sunday evening approached, there were about 20 people in the hut by this point, with everyone going for the summit leaving about midnight Monday morning. As far as I know, no one, including myself got any sleep that night, and at midnight, there was a mass exodus of the hut and onto the mountain. All the guided parties, and the two from Australia (the only other independent parties on the mountain other than us and Brad/Andreas) went for the standard Linda Glacier route. We started up the Zurbriggen, and Brad/Andreas started up the east ridge. To everyones thrill, the snow had firmed up very nicely at night and travel across the plateau was very quick and efficient. We didn't sink at all walking over!
As we reached the start of the ramp, we started heading uphill, still on firm snow. We roped up and put on our crampons right at the base of the ramp. Since it was dark however, we did have some trouble routefinding a couple times, but using a photo of the face I took from the hut the previous day we were always able to re-orient ourselves and get back on track. our ascent was mainly on the right edge of the large east face of the mountain, not really climbing any of the rock on the Zurbriggen ridge at all. We rounded the corner to the right and was easily able to cross the huge bergschrund since it was largely filled with snow from the large slide. We passed by a big ice serac and started up the steepening neve ice, which was in perfect condition. Graeme and I switched off leads, simul-solo climbing the entire face which averaged about 50-55 degrees in steepness. This was definitely steeper than I had anticipated, but made the climbing more fun. Since the snow firmed up so much, it was relentless front-pointing with our crampons the entire way up the 2500 feet to the ridge where we would meet up with the standard Linda Glacier route at the summit rock pitches. Midway up the face, we entered the part with many rock outcrops poking through the snow, which proved difficult to routefind through in the dark. We ended up starting what felt like a never-ending leftward traverse, since heading straight up the ice face kept bringing us closer to the rocky ridge crest, which we didn't want to climb. We could constantly see the headlight from Brad and Andreas on the other side of the east face on the east ridge route, which they were neck and neck with us making upward progress until we lost them when twilight came.
2/3 the way up the face we hit the long rock cliff that jutted way left into the face that we traversed around. A ways above this major obstacle twilight began to illuminate the mountain and we could begin to see the rest of the route up, more or less following the edge of the rocky buttresses, keeping them just to our right. The steepness was unrelenting 55 degrees bullet hard neve, and as we neared the top of the face turned into even harder alpine ice. I was out in front on this finishing section, and at the worst possible time as I am soloing up this now 60 degree ice, Graeme needed to stop to make an anchor and feed me more rope since there wasn't enough rope between us for us to both safely simul-solo this section at the top. I had to stay in position, crampons and tools in the ice with my calves burning until he could feed me more rope to pull over the last 15 feet to the ridge. Luckily the ice was bomber and great for climbing and I made it up to the top, at which point I was able to see the mass of guided parties already starting up the summit rocks. I belayed Graeme up and we took a much needed rest here before starting the next segment of the route.
To our dismay, somehow all the guided parties beat us to the start of the summit rocks going up the Linda Glacier, so we were forced to wait a bunch going up each short pitch. We initially traversed left to the base of the rocks and started up another snow gully, however less steep than what we had climbed so we continued simul-soloing until we reached the base of the first of two crux pitches. After a 15-20 minute wait for parites to clear above, I led a 25 meter long M3 pitch on rock that looked horrendous, however was quite solid due to everything being frozen in place. Since I had to remove my gloves to climb some rock, my hands got quite cold when I reached the anchor. I was amazed to see bolted anchors on these pitches! Graeme then followed as one of the guides led the next pitch, then he took off leading a full 60 meter pitch to the top of the summit rocks at which point we unroped and completed the final 400 feet or so on the lower angle summit ice cap solo. I took off ahead and passed a few of the guided parties who were still pitching out the remaining climb on the 35 degree ice cap, and reached the summit exactly at 10am. I was elated and despite the cold wind I was so happy to be standing on top of New Zealand, after thinking about this mountain for years! Graeme rolled on top about 10 minutes later and we enjoyed some summit photos, and admired the view for a full 15 minutes before starting the trek down.
We retraced our steps down the summit ice cap back to the top of the summit rocks, thankfully passing all the guided parties in the process. We then made a series of quick single rope rappels down the numerous bolted anchors (9 total I believe) all the way down to the base of the initial gully where we met up with the Linda Glacier Route. We even used a picket just sitting at the base of the gully left by one of the guides to rappel over an obvious bergschrund just below us for extra safety. Once here, we roped back together and began traversing skiers left down the Linda shelf, which was certainly tedious due to the softening snow. There was one more party of two below us that we passed just as we completed the Linda Traverse and started down the main part of the glacier, exposing ourselves to the Gunbarrel; a massive serac zone with ice towers as big as skyscrapers on the north face of the mountain above the Linda Glacier. We tried to descend this area quickly, but by this point the snow had softened considerable, and we were sinking to our knees fairly often. I led us through the glacier safety, avoiding areas I suspected there would be hidden crevasses, since any snowbridges in this warm sun would likely not support our weight. We made slow but steady progress down the glacier, curving right and finding some fresh post-hole tracks coming down from the left from the obvious low saddle. I wondered if these were Alastair's tracks coming off from Simberhorm...we eventually reached the Grand Plateau once again at about 3pm. The final slog back across to the hut was indeed taxing but by 4pm we made it back to the hut, tired but happy. We were greeted by a large mountain rescue team who had come up for some training on the nice day.
We took a nap for a few hours, then waited up to ensure everyone made it back to the hut safely. At about 8:30pm, Brad and Andreas made it back from their successful climb of the east ridge, which they had some sick stories of the summit traverse! At 11pm the final two people (two guys from Brisbane) made it back. They had one hell of a day at 23 hours out! So stoked everyone made it up and around midnight, we went back to bed, just as another couple parties were waking up to attempt it on Tuesday. Unfortunately, they would not get so lucky with weather and they were already back at the hut when I woke back up at 7:30am, having turned back by increased winds and cloudier skies as the high pressure system was rapidly ending over New Zealand. With the help of one of the guides who had radio communication with the airport, everyone who had climbed the previous day was able to get on one of 4 heli shuttles back to the Mount Cook airport (16 people leaving). I was amazed at how efficient they were at flying back and forth 4 times to get everyone, and all the gear off the mountain. With the gusty winds exceeding 50 MPH I was worried they wouldn't be able to fly that day but even though the ride was bumpy, they had everyone down within a couple hours. Splitting the cost of the ride down, Graeme and I each paid NZD $240 for the ride out (about USD $150). That made our total cost round trip for both heli transfers USD $350 each. New Zealand helicopters really are the cheapest in the world! Once we were all back, the 6 of us (all who were independent on the mountain) met up for burgers and beers in the village before parting ways. I drove Graeme to Queenstown where he caught a flight back to Auckland and I crashed with a friend in Wanaka for a much needed feast, shower, and a nice rest.
Reflecting back on this trip, and thinking of my last trip to New Zealand back in January of 2017, I never even got a chance to leave Mount Cook Village due to an entire month of bad weather that trip. So far on this trip to New Zealand, I have been granted 3 awesome weather windows, so I am very thankful of that, and I have already made some awesome new friends. This so far has been one of the most successful climbing trips of my life, and it isn't over yet! In just a few days time I will get another weather window to attempt Mount Aspiring.