Peak to Peak is complete!
What an incredible feeling of relief and satisfaction it is to sit here in the safety of Mt Cook village and write this update over the final 5 days of Peak to Peak 2013.
We departed the small town of Twizel on day 18, loaded with food for 7 days in a big bag on the back of my bike. After the Cook Strait crossing, I had called Mum who informed me very wisely to drink lots of water and have a nice meal with some vege’s to help recover. Instead of listening to her, I ate 6 oysters and 3 pints of beer, then proceeded to vomit it all back-up 2 hrs later. Once again it was a good lesson that we should always listen to our Mums. Learning from this incident and not wanting to incite her wrath this close the Christmas, (it could affect the quality of my xmas gift) we bought a carrot with us in our food supplies.
From Twizel it is a 60km ride to Mt Cook village. The first 45km was beautiful. Riding around Lake Pukaki, with very little vehicle traffic and lovely weather. Mt Cook appeared in a shy mood however and covered herself in a cloak of cloud. The last 15km into Mt Cook village turned into the hardest 15km of the entire cycling trip. A brutal headwind saw us battling away in low-low gear. Averaging 7km per hour all the way to Unwin Lodge where we finally stopped for the night. I very gratefully flopped down in the shelter of Unwin lodge, grateful to be out of the wind. I sat there in a daze as if someone had been repeatedly slapping me in the face with a wet fish. A good cup of tea later, I was all refreshed and we set about packing our climbing gear for the final phase of the journey, the climb of Mt Cook. During the evening the cloud lifted and New Zealand’s highest peak finally revealed herself, towering mightily 3000m+ above our heads. I was seriously daunted about the prospect of climbing Cook, my legs felt tired from the bike ride, and considering we were going to do the brutal walk-in all they up to Plateau Hut (most people fly this 1300m vertical section as it is dangerous and very tough work), I knew I was going to need to push very hard and have some luck with the weather to pull this one-off.
We set-off at 9am after some early morning rain showers. Our bikes were fully laden with packs, food for 5 days and climbing gear. We peddled slowly up the Tasman valley road for 10km, then off onto the old Ball Road. The old Ball Road is no longer a road, it is very rough and follows the moraine walls of the mighty Tasman glacier. It was hard work cycling up this, very bumpy and we alternate between riding where we could and doing a lot of walking and pushing. Eventually we could ride or push no further after about 7km. We disassembled the bikes and stashed them under a large rock, wrapped up in a small tarpaulin to stop the Keas (NZ mountain parrot) eating them. We then set-off on foot for a one hour slow plod to the tiny hut called Ball Shelter. My backpack felt heavy, my legs sore and I was hot and bothered as I wandered along in a bad mood. How was I going to carry all this gear up to Plateau Hut tomorrow feeling like this I thought to myself dejectedly? We soon arrived at Ball Shelter and I had a sleep and plenty of water, followed by a huge meal of pasta, tuna (and the carrot!).
The overnight rest and pasta meal seemed to work wonders and I felt refreshed when our alarms wake us at 3am. We cook porridge and tea in the hut, and set off at 4:10am, fully laden with climbing gear, sleeping and bivvy bags and food for 5 days. The night is beautiful and clear with great moonlight. By the light of our headtorches we make the steep scree scramble down to the Tasman Glacier, then the clumsy stumble on loose rock across to the moraine wall where we begin our climb up to Plateau Hut. We are choosing to climb to Plateau Hut via a route called Cinerama Col. Very few people these days climb up this route. Although it is the shortest way to Plateau hut, it has a steep and nasty scree slope at the bottom half (getting worse over the years as the glacier recedes), then a trudge up the Boys and Ball glacier under some seriously dangerous rock fall and avalanche prone territory. I was pretty nervous about the day ahead and adrenalin was pumping as we set-off up the steep scree slopes. We slowly worked our way up the scree, keeping a good horizontal distance between us as to not knock down rock on each other. We made good time and in a few hours had reached the snow at the foot of the Boys Glacier.
Here we stopped for a drink and a rest, then donned crampons and set-off on a slow plod all the way up the glacier. At the top of the Boys Glacier, we had to turn down the other side and cross under the Anzac peaks, which hover menacingly over the Ball Glacier. This is very dodgy, with lots of rock fall and avalanche debris everywhere. I nervously tried to move as fast as possible along under here, Alan being slightly heavier than me was punching through the snow up to his knees and making slower time.
We were in crevasse territory now, so roped up then had a hard grunt up the final snow slopes to Cinerama Col. We finally popped over the top to be treated with glorious views of the Grand Plateau after 10 hours. We sat and had lunch then continued for a 2 hour plod across the grand plateau to Plateau Hut. We arrived at Plateau Hut, rather and hot and sweaty, 11 hours after leaving Ball shelter. I felt strong with plenty of energy – so it was a good positive sign I was in good shape for Cook.
We slept at Plateau Hut overnight and the wind blew in huge gusts upto 110km per hour. I was worried at some points the hut may blow away. Lucky they build them strong, however day 21 saw the wind and rain driving in all day long. We were confined to the hut for a compulsory day of rest which was not a bad thing as our bodies were in need of some recuperation. We listened anxiously to the weather forecast over the mountain radio schedule at 7PM that evening. The forecast for the next day was for mainly fine, 40km per hour winds, a freezing level of 2200m with cloud and rain coming in for the next day. It looked like tomorrow was our opportunity, and if we did not take it then we would be stuck here for days waiting for the next clearance. We did not have enough food to wait up for too many days. We were both concerned with the amount of snow that had fallen during the day and did not feel the conditions were necessarily as good as we would have liked but knew we had to push this one if we were going to pull it off. We prepared our gear that evening, ready for a very early departure and went to try to sleep at 9PM.
We set our alarms for 12:00AM, however I did not need my alarm. I was far to wired up to sleep at all and the adrenalin was flowing through me as I lay in my sleeping bag and went over and over my preparation plans to lave the hut. At 11:45 I got up and did the first important task of the day – a visit to the toilet. As I walked outside the hut I was very happy to note the wind had dropped right down, and the sky was completely clear. I was treated to an amazing view of the milky way galaxy looking glorious above me, as the stars glistened and speckled. It is truly magical and a special place to stand on the grand plateau by yourself in the middle of the night and just look and watch.
We cooked breakfast quickly and packed our gear. We were both taking 1l of water each, and the stove incase we needed to melt more. We took a few bars and some jet planes also to eat, then were off and roped up, ready to go by 1AM. With crampons on we set-off down across the Grand Plateau and were immediately delighted to note the snow was in great condition, a nice solid freeze and we made excellent time. 18 minutes later we had almost crossed the Grand Plateau. ‘Man this is awesome!’ I thought. Maybe a record time for the summit? We had chosen to climb the most commonly climbed route on Cook, the Linda Glacier route. This is a serious route which is unfortunately seriously prone to avalanche danger. It is a huge 1500m ascent required for the summit day, followed by the descent, which makes the whole climb a huge physical and mental effort.
Our jubilation at the snow conditions soon wore out, as we started to move up the Lower Linda Glacier and encountered some huge crevasses. We were the only ones on the mountain that day, and previous climbers tracks had been wiped out by the storms so we were having to navigate our way by the light of our head torches in the pitch darkness around and through the maze of crevasses. Alan was leading and did a fine job, however it slowed us down. Alan had to stop for a call of nature (the serious type) after about one hour. As we got higher the snow also started to get softer, which meant the lead climber had to resort to kicking steps, a very tiring and slow process. As the morning wore on, it got colder and colder, I soon had to stop and put on two pair of gloves and I was wearing 2 x thermals, a polar fleece and a shell jacket, my buff and a balaclava. I noticed Alan was getting slower and slower and I started to get too cold at the back and was shivering. I shouted out to Alan that I would come to the front to kick some steps to warm up. This is when he first informed he that we has feeling sick, with stomach problems and could not go any faster. It came as a real shock to me and I was immediately concerned. With such a huge day in front of us, we needed all our strength. I took the lead and kicked steps slowly up and up until we passed through an area called the Gun Barrels. This is dangerous area which you have no choice to cross a natural avalanche path. It was littered with the debris of a fresh avalanche sometime a few hours before. We plodded up it as fast as we could, and arrived at the large crevasse which marks the start of the Linda Shelf.
The Linda Shelf is sloping ice shelf which you have to do a large traverse across heading to your left hand side to access the summit rocks. It is very exposed at the bottom with cliffs which mean you need to be careful that you don’t slip. In 2009 when I climbed Mt Cook, the snow was so soft we could easily and safely kick large steps across the shelf. However now it was a different situation and we spent much of the time on the front points of our crampons, and some smaller sections kicking steps when the snow was softer. At the top of the shelf is large schrund (crevasse) which leads into a steep snow gully upto the summit rocks. When we got here I was concerned that our pace was to slow. I was also already worried about downclimbing the hard snow on the Linda Shelf later on in the day on the descent. It was really cold here, even though the sun was just starting to come up. Alan took his gloves off to apply some sunscreen and immediately froze his fingers. He had a painful 5 minute wait while he warmed them up again under his arms.
Here we changed over to pitched climbing, where we belayed each other. I lead the first pitch up the steep snow fully, and as I set up the belay, Alan called out he was feeling sick again and needed to go to the toilet. I felt really sorry for him and could literally see how the energy was being sucked from his body. After he had finished his business he climbed slowly up to me. I was really worried now we were going to slowly. When he reached the belay point I asked him if he wanted to turn back? I have met some tough characters in my time and in testament to how tough this quietly spoken Australian is, he did not even hesitate in his reply. “Lets keep going Grant, I have topped out at 120clock before, you will have to lead though as I am not feeling so strong”. I am pretty sure I would have turned back if I was feeling like him. I lead on, and was secretly concerned about the need for me to lead the entire route from here up. When Alan came up to me, he seemed a little better and managed to push on past me. After this we managed to climb up through a number of shorter pitches (maybe 8 or 9 from memory), alternating leads.
When we finally reached the top of the summit rocks, I knew it was still 1.5 – 2 hours maybe to the summit at our slow pace. I was praying the summit ridge would be in good condition but was immediately heart broken to see hard icy sastrugi (icy shapes formed by the wind). The summit ridge is steep at first and very exposed, when its icy it can be slow and hard work to do it safely. We ended up pitch climbing with the rope and snow stakes up the steeper sections before we were comfortable to take the rope off.
We reached the false summit after sometime and our progress seemed painfully slow. I took out my drink bottle, and had my first swig of water for the day. We had been on the go for 10 hours. I also had a jet plane sweet. I was also getting seriously concerned about having to downclimb this hard ice safely. I knew it would be very tough. “We are going to make it Grant” Alan yelled out as we stood and looked up at the final summit slopes, still 150m or so to the summit above us. On we plodded and I lead slowly, front pointing and kicking the occasional steps, until finally, with huge relief I reached the top. It was 1AM, it had taken 12 hours for us to get there. I filmed Alan as he made the last few steps to the top and gratefully sat down beside me.
We spent only 5 minutes on the summit. The actual true summit was around 10m away, maybe 1 – 2 m above us. Maori ask that climbers do not stand on the real summit out of respect. I was secretly glad as the true summit looked horribly corniced as you can see from the photo above, so would have been very scared climbing out there. We took some photos and some video and then Alan asked “what do you want to so Grant?”. “Lets get out of here and make a really careful and safe descent Al” I replied, more to make myself feel better. In all truth I was really uncomfortable, and very scared about down climbing the icy summit ridge, and crossing the Linda Shelf again in these conditions. I knew from our climb on Mt Dixon earlier in the year how quickly a slip can happen. Just before I left the summit, I made a promise to Stephanie on my video, that if I got down safely from this climb, I would never com back to climb Mt Cook again. I was done with this mountain. All the way up she seemed to be testing us, and now at the top we were faced with two tired, (and one of them sick) climbers who had to try to get all the way down again.
Off we set- Alan first, carefully front pointing down the icy slopes.
It seemed to take forever but eventually we made it back to the top of the summit rocks, and found some fixed protection in the form of old slings and wire ropes which we could begin our abseils. I had my second swig of water and a second jet plane sweet. Time since departure was not over 14 hours. For the first time the whole day, I began to relax slightly as we started abseil after abseil down the summit rocks. Alan lead each abseil and did a great job of find each anchor point. We only had a 50m rope so doubled up for each abseil meant we could only drop down 25m each time. So we had a number of abseils before we finally made it back to the top of the Linda Shelf.
At the Linda Shelf we had a slow and tiring descent. carefully tip tapping our way down on our front points. As we got lower I thought I could hear water, and thought this is strange, where would water be coming from. I then realised it was not water, but literally raining ice, falling down from the ice cliffs directly above the Linda Shelf. I looked up and saw the stones and ice falling down, and realized that we had to cross underneath this section. I was absolutely petrified that something huge was going to fall down any minute. “Lets get across here as soon as possible Al – it feels like something big is about to unload” I shouted. Eventually we made it over to the large crevasse which marks the start of the shelf. Here we were still not finished with the danger. We still had to cross the avalanche debris of the gun barrels. “Do you know how many people have been killed here by the gunbarrels Grant?” Alan asked me. “19” he said, answering his own question. For fucks sake I thought. This is definitely my last climb on this mountain, it is literally an accident waiting to happen I thought. Four attempts on Mt Cook and 2 successful summits will do me.
We soon got past the gun barrel danger and gratefully sat down for a quick rest. We had been on the go now for 16 hours and I had my 3rd swig if water and another jetplane. Now we had the long plod back to the Plateau Hut, down the crevasse filled Linda. Slowly for 2 – 3hours – I cannot remember how long we plodded down, like two drunk men, stumbling and weaving our way through the maze of huge 5 story building size crevasses until we finally arrived at Plateau Hut at 10:30PM in the dark. A 21.5 hour day, and we had done it! We had completed Peak to Peak 2013, in 22 days, from the summit of the North Island of New Zealand to the Summit of the South Island completely by human power.
A guide called Froggy in the Plateau Hut, had left a small gift for us. 3 tomato’s and an avocado and some salami. I could have kissed him. Which he would not have liked I am sure. I sat there in silence in Plateau Hut together with Alan and enjoyed the nicest sandwich with tomato, avocado and salami I have ever eaten. I appreciated that one simple sandwich more than any food I have eaten at any expensive restaurant anywhere. I looked at Alan, he was exhausted, wiped out from the day and from the sickness. I could not help but think what a great partner he had been through this entire 22 day period. Never moaning, never complaining, just getting on with things in his quiet, humble, down to earth fashion. I could not have asked or hoped for a better climbing partner.
Finally a special thank you to all those people, family, friends and strangers along the way who have supported us and followed us. Peak to Peak was a dream, that we turned into a reality and is now just fond memories. Between the two of us we have no special skills, just the desire to keep putting one foot in front of another, take some risks and see where it takes us. In this case it took us on the trip of a lifetime.
Happy adventuring, its time for beer, relaxation and to spend time with my wife and family. To them also, thank you so much for your support.