Malte Brun West Ridge – trip report
Together with Alan Silva we travelled to New Zealand in February 2012 to climb Malte Brun, New Zealand’s 6th highest peak at 3196m. Malte Brun is located directly east of Mt Cook (New Zealand’s highest peak), separated by the mighty Tasman glacier.
Alan and I attempted a route known as the Full West Ridge in 2011. This route is graded as a 3+ using the New Zealand rating system and is widely regarded as one of the finer ridge traverses in the Southern Alps. Boasting tremendous exposure and the infamous knife edge ‘cheval section’ this ridge is one of the most photographed and recognizable in New Zealand mountaineering. We turned around in February 2011 at 2950m, after an 8 day epic trip. The Full West Ridge route proved to be long, awkward and we simply ran out of time. Read more from the 2011 trip report here.
On our return in February 2012, we chose a slightly shorter variation of the previous route known simply as the “West Ridge”. This route is graded as a 3. We flew into the Tasman Glacier by helicopter and were dropped at an elevation of 1600m, slightly south of the Darwin corner. We flew with Mt Cook Ski Planes from Mt Cook Airport.
My pack weighed exactly 25kg. We had opted to travel light for this trip. We carried a MACPAC Minaret 2 man tent. I had one ice tool only, and our rock rack consisted of 3 – 4 various size nuts and 3 cams each. Alan carried a 50m x 8.5mm full rope, I carried a 50m x 6mm cordelette which we joined to Alan’s rope for the abseils.
We managed to share the helicopter flight with a guided group from Alpine guides who were flying into Kelman hut. Sharing flights saves a lot of money. The one way flight in cost us NZ$180 each. This saves a one day walk up the Ball road and over the loose moraines of the lower Tasman Glacier.
Our first task was to choose a line up the steep scree walls of the Tasman Glacier to gain access to the base of the Malt Brun Glacier where we intended to set-up base camp. Due to glacial recession this is becoming harder and steeper over the years. The walls are very loose and care must be taken not to knock down rocks on your climbing partner. Out route can be seen below. It took 4 hours of scrambling and stumbling to finally reach the foot of the MB glacier. It’s a great camping area, an abundance of fresh running water and we pitched our tent on a flattish snow patch.
We arrived around 5PM. I felt a little tired and was happy to take off the pack, set-up the tent and cook a nice meal of pasta with tomato and tuna. Looking up at the Malte Brun Glacier we scoped a route for the next morning’s early start and prepared our gear.
The next morning we left camp at 3:30AM. We did not eat breakfast but opted to carry the stove and brew up along the way as we knew it would be a long day. This proved a very wise decision. To gain access to the Malte Brun Glacier we needed to rock scramble up the true left side, close under the West Ridge. There was a number of alternating rocky and snow/ice sections which saw us taking on and off our crampons multiple times for the first 200 metres. Once we accessed the Malte Brun Glacier we worked our way up by the light of our torches until a point marked by the red O in the photo below. Here we had a quick clothing swap as we were overheating. We were also introduced to the first rock fall of the day. There are two types of rock fall to get used to when climbing Malte Brun. One is the climber initiated rock fall when a rock gets dislodged and starts bouncing down. It slowly picks up speed and you can hear it crashing and banging as it bounces down towards you. If it’s dark you can just see the sparks. You can try and anticipate what way it will bounce and move left or right as it nears you. We both got hit by these types a number of times during the day and they make a helmet a wise choice to protect your brains.
The other type is the free falling rock. These have been falling for some time and have reached or close to, terminal velocity. It makes a terrifying high pitched whine and subsequent whizzing noise as it screams past your head. I call them ‘screamers’. If a good size screamer hits you it will kill you, helmet or no helmet. Screamers scare me a great deal. You can’t see them coming and can only cower down and pray they don’t hit you.
As we swapped our clothing, 3 or 4 of these screamers came down high off the west ridge and smacked into the icy darkness very close to us. I immediately cowered down on the ice then freaked out and said to Alan “let’s get the hell out of here”. Alan calmly said “no worries lets just get in closer to the rock”. I was still very uncomfortable and very happy to leave a couple of minutes later where we could get out into the middle of the glacier where the rock coming off the west ridge could not reach us.
We continued up and up, weaving our way through some large crevasses, which involved the usual searches for suitable snow bridges. In the event of not finding suitable bridges, we reverted to downclimbing into the slot and up the other side. I was a little concerned that I only had bought one ice tool with me. However we managed it ok with one tool each.
After 3 hours we had climbed 400m to the head of the Malt Brun Glacier. We melted some snow on the MSR, cooked porridge and had a brew while day break appeared. We needed a little daylight to pick a line up the 400m of rock to access the west ridge. This is made up of a series of ledges, gullies and broken slabs.
We set off up the rock around 7AM. The first pitch looked intimidating to me wearing plastic boots. It involved a crack and some foot jams. ‘Shit – this is way harder than I expected’ I thought as I grunted and struggled up the first pitch. It was around a grade 14, and turned out to be the hardest pitch of the day. After this we alternated between simul-climbing and pitched climbing on the steeper and more exposed sections until we gained the ridge. The climbing was generally straight forward however generally loose so care needed to be taken to avoid rockfall. It is quite exposed especially as you get higher up. Alan led all the difficult pitches. I was interested in economy and speed of travel, and him being the far better rock jock, was happy to let him take the sharp end so we could make good time.
Once on the West ridge, we traversed along for 50m to a point where we realized (at around 2950m) we had turned back last year. This is just before the Cheval sections. There are actually two cheval type sections. We thought we had reached the true cheval at one point and took some photos crossing it. We then come across another section shortly after which looked more recognizable from other climber’s photos. It has some really nice exposure as you cross, and can be traversed on ledges on the Northern side. I did try the classic sit on your ass technique for a metre until I realized how uncomfortable and painful it was. It almost severed my important pieces, so I reverted to climbing around the ledges on the side.
After this section I thought the summit was quite close. Well it isn’t. You still have a long way to go. More awkward climbing, not as tricky as the cheval but still broken and exposed in places. We traversed under one rocky gendarme. This had a sling set up at the top, which some parties would rappel down. We managed to down climb down and around underneath this. We then had the final summit slopes. These are a little exposed and were caked in 2 inches of soft snow, overlying loose slabs of rock. It proved to be really awkward and slow to climb. Wearing crampons, the snow was too soft for any purchase and hid the rocks underneath so you never knew what was a secure handhold or not. We reached the summit after 11.5 hours, at 3:00PM.
It was a lovely day on top. I answered a rather large call of nature; we took the obligatory photos. I could not find my sponsor John Foord’s banner in my pack so swore out loud. (20 hours later it mysteriously turned up in the bottom of my pack). We had a quick brew, I made a voice update by Satellite phone to my blog (you can listen to that here). At 4PM we set off down again.
Going down is always the bit I don’t enjoy so much. Especially off Malte Brun where there is no real easy descent route. “What do you think we should do on the descent big Al?” I asked. We had checked out Fyfe’s couloir on the way up. It looked covered in loose soft snow, and albeit a fast descent, did not look particularly safe. “I think we should go back the way we come up” replied Alan. I resigned myself to a very slow descent. The ground we had come up was quite awkward and exposed. So it is hard to make fast progress down climbing.
We began re-tracing our steps. I blocked all thoughts out of my head except 100% focus on where I was putting my feet and hands. “You seem a bit tense?” Alan enquired as we started to descend. “Yeah – I am just trying to focus on the descent and not make any mistakes” I replied.
We slowly worked our way down the loose snow covered section, across and up the gendarme, then all the way back down to the Cheval section. Alan scampered over the Cheval like a cat and I took my favorite photo of the day of him crossing it.
Around 6pm we had safely re-crossed the Cheval and were ready to start rappelling off the ridge and back down the steep line we had climbed up from the head of the Malte Brun Glacier. Here is where the fun really started. Only 2 hours of daylight left, each rappel would take about 30 minutes according to my calculations, 400m of vertical to get down. We had an 8.5mm, full 50m climbing rope and a 50m x 6mm cordelette which we tied together to make 50m rappels. That would mean at least 8 probably more like 9 or 10 abseils I calculated, 5 hours of descent. By which time it would be well and truly dark. My calculations also turned out to be a little optimistic.
Rappelling the loose rock was very slow. The rope was forever getting caught up on the sharp edged rocks and stones. Extreme care needed to be taken not to knock anything down on your partner below or the rope below incase the rock cut through the rope as it had done to us the year before. To top that off when we got to the bottom of each abseil, pulling the ropes down proved very troublesome and they often got tangled and caught. Around 11pm it was well and truly dark. We were slowly getting lower however still along way off the glacier. It was too dark to see exactly what way to rappel down through the systems of gullies and rock bands. One particular abseil ended a few metres above the closest rock ledge. On a vertical slab with very few hand or footholds. As I slithered down to the end of the ropes to join Alan, I saw how uncomfortable and exposed the belay spot was. He pointed out a small foothold where I could just fit one foot on at a time. As I clung there standing on one toe, and started to pull down the ropes from above me, I thought to myself – shit this is one position we definitely cannot afford the ropes to get stuck on the way down. Murphy’s Law came into play. They jammed fast.
In a situation like this, standing on one foot on that small ledge in the pitch dark, hundreds of metres off the glacier below, on the move for 20 hours straight, I can’t think of a better person to be with than Alan. He very calmly, with only one brief expletive, said “no worries, I guess I will just climb up and retrieve it”. Off he went back up the vertical world in darkness, climbing until he reached the end of the jammed rope where he managed to wrap a prussic around both ropes for some basic form of protection and continued all the way back to the anchor. Here he calmly sorted out the entanglement then abseiled back down to join me. This of course took some time, during which I clung to the belay stance, alternating my weight from one foot to the other, cursing myself for not being careful enough with the ropes as I descended. To add to my enjoyment, a ‘screamer’ came whistling past my head, far to close for comfort. I pressed myself in against the cold rock in the darkness in a pathetic effort for protection.
Finally Alan got back down to the stance. We pulled the ropes down and with a sigh of relief they came. We continued down. BY 12pm we had been going for 21.5 hours straight, were still quite a way off the glacier (we could not tell how far in the darkness), and had reached a small rock ledge where there was enough room for us both to just sit side by side. “How about sitting here and waiting for the sun to come up?” We seemed to both suggest at the same time.
We laid our packs and ropes on the ledge and sat down on top of them. I had travelled light and had very little warm clothing to put on. Two thermal tops, a polar fleece, a Gore-Tex jacket, thermal pants, shell pants, balaclava. Everything went on. While we were moving I felt comfortably warm. After stopping for 30 minutes I began to get cold. The cold increased throughout the night all the way to the morning. For the first hour or two we talked and joked and laughed, until tiredness overtook us. I was too cold to sleep though and had to keep standing up on the tiny ledge and do exercises to warm up. If there had been enough room to do star jumps without falling off I would have. Instead I reverted to shadow boxing, press-ups and waving my arms in windmills for as long as I had the energy. After 10 minutes of this every hour or so, I would warm up enough to sit down again. I really got uncomfortably cold even though it was a mild night. We estimate the temperature to be have been around -3 to – 5 degrees.
The night passed very slowly. By 6:00AM we set the MSR up and had a brew. Never has a cup of tea tasted so fine and each mouthful seemed to warm my core. We quickly finished 4 more abseils making it 11 in total to reach the glacier.
Back on the glacier we had 400m of hard ice to descend to our tent site. This was quite tough on our feet and Alan had a sore knee. By them time we made it down to the campsite it was around 10AM and we had been going for 30 hours. We had a very welcome meal of pasta with tuna and tomato (again) then had a well deserved sleep.
I called Mt Cook Ski planes that afternoon using the Iridium Sat phone to see if we could get a flight out. It was clear day and ideal flight conditions. Unfortunately the chopper was not working for some reason so we booked in for the next day. We had a relaxing day sleeping and eating. The next morning we woke to the whole valley socked in cloud. We could have been picked up from the site of the old Malte Brun hut, but as it was cloudy we decided to descend back down to the Tasman glacier. Once down the steep loose moraine walls we wandered around the glacier looking for a flat spot to land. Alan finally spotted one on the far side of the glacier – as we wandered over we saw a strange object though the cloud. It turned out to be a snow plow. This was a great reference point to explain our location to the Mt Cook Ski Planes. Some more calls on the sat phone and as soon as the cloud lifted we were in the chopper and whizzing back to Mt Cook Village. Once again we were lucky to share the flight out with a party from Alpine guides so it only cost us NZ$180/each for the flight out (As opposed to over NZ$700 if we had called the flight in all for ourselves).
Overall it was a very satisfying climb, especially after our defeat on the full west ridge in 2011. We climbed in a safe and responsible style for the nature of the route and together we made solid, sensible decisions along the way.
To see a short video slide-show of this climb on YouTube click here.
Lessons and tips for Malte Brun.
Satellite phone – I used an Iridium Satellite Phone. This was very useful and I was very pleased to have it. Not only for peace of mind in event of an emergency, but I also used it to update my blog with voice posts, to call my wife and of course to contact Mt Cook Ski Planes to arrange the flights out. I will make this a feature of subsequent trips in, especially where I am not staying in huts which have the radio communications.
Abseils: We carried the 50m of 6mm Cordelette for abseiling on. This worked very well and saved a lot of weight. We had to be very careful with rock fall damaging the rope however.
Fitness: On this route I was glad I was very fit. It would have been a miserable experience and quite dangerous trying this without a high level of fitness and getting overly tired where mistakes happen easily. Be prepared for a LONG day on this route.
Bivvies: I was lucky it was a mild night on the bivvy and in hind sight for a route like this where we knew we would have a very long day I should have taken my down jacket. I did get uncomfortably cold.
Carrying a stove on the climb: This was Alan’s idea and it was a very good one. To be able to stop and brew up anywhere is a real bonus, especially on very long push. It kept us well hydrated and after 30 hours on the go we were still in good shape, which had a lot to do with being able to keep hydrated.
Choose your partner well! Alan is a great partner for me. Technically strong, fit, experienced and calm under pressure. We get on very well together, and I trust him completely. He is also a great mentor, patient and willing to teach.
Rockfall is a real issue on this route. I think a party of two is safer than larger parties where the possibility of climber initiated rockfall is much higher
Be careful of Fyfe’s couloirs. It may be a fast way down but looked very dodgy, with loose snow and a natural funnel for rock falls.