Category Archives: Grand Traverse Aoraki Mt Cook
During April 8 – 9, 2005 I walked a section of the coastline along the Beagle Channel down into the town of Ushuaia, located in Tierra del Fuego in Southern Argentina. We were actually trying to cross the Beagle channel to Isla Navarino (belonging to Chile), and attempt a challenging walk called the Dientes circuit, however could not find a way over (there is no ferry service). So we settled on this trek instead which turned out to be a nice walk. We took a taxi for 90 peso for 1.5 hours from Ushuaia then walked back along the coastline for two days. A total straight line distance of over 48km, as measured by my GPS so a little longer as you follow the coastline. I am not aware that this trek even has a name. The beauty of the Beagle Channel on one side and the snowy mountains of Ushuaia on the other is pretty amazing.
Enjoy the photo’s below.
Happy 2013 to everyone!
The weather in the Southern Alps this week is very suitable for ducks. However if you are not a duck, then it really is quite miserable. Strong winds, heavy rains interspersed with huge bolts of lightning and booming claps of thunder.
From Monday to Thursday of this week, the forecast has been doom and gloom and it has proved to be accurate. One small glimmer of (sun) light appeared on Monday morning. A short break in the weather with some patches of sunshine was meant to appear, before the rain, wind and thunder storms came back with fury Monday evening and throughout Tuesday and Wednesday.
So we hatched a clever plan. To walk the 12km and 1000m vertical metres up the Hooker Glacier to Gardiner hut on the Monday morning. We would arrive before the bad weather came in Monday afternoon, then hunker down in the shelter and security of Gardiner hut for 2.5 days in the terrible weather waiting for the clearance on Thursday afternoon. By this stage we would have eaten a lot of our food, have lighter packs and be in great position to start the Grand Traverse.
After signing our intention form at DOC (Department of Conservation), we set-off at 10AM Monday morning. One of the DOC staff had told us NOT to use the traditional access route around Hooker lake, which follows the Ball pass route. Instead he suggested we should skirt around the true right hand side of Hooker lake, high up above the bluffs, then drop down onto the Hooker glacier above the ice cliffs at the head of the lake. This added a few more km to the route but the DOC staff assured us it was probably faster than trying to get down the steep moraine wall from the Ball Pass route to the Hooker Glacier.
We started up the Hooker lake track together with tourists wandering up to the Hooker Lake view-point.
The weather was overcast but was not raining at this stage. Once we reached Hooker Lake we veered off high up above the moraine bluffs. We plodded along slowly dodging the ‘Spaniard’ bushes with their sharp thorns which went straight through 3 layers of clothing and into our skins with painful pricks. We traversed higher and higher until we finally reached a huge exposed gut.
There did not seem to be a way higher up to get around this, so we started to head down towards the lake. Alan found a slightly shorter but still very steep gully to down climb. It was too steep and loose for my liking, so we traversed back down further until we found an easier scree slide descent down a gully to the lake shore. From here it is an easy plod around the shore to the Hooker Glacier.
It started to rain about the point we reached the huge Hooker glacier covered in moraine rubble. For over 3 hours we slowly plodded up the centre of the glacier. Glacial moraine is a pain in the ass to walk over, and it bought back memories of the plod up the Miracle highway on the East Rongbuk glacier on Mt Everest. With the strong gusts of headwind and the driving rain pelting and stinging the exposed skin on our faces, it was not a hugely enjoyable experience.
The moraine runs out at the bottom of the Hooker icefall. Here we put on crampons. We knew the Gardiner Hut was sitting atop a large rock called ‘Pudding Rock’, Alan had been to Gardiner Hut a few times, albeit many years ago when the conditions were different.
I was starting to get very cold and we were both wet through. Our boots squelched with every step, and the only thing that kept my body temperature comfortable was the warmth generated by movement. I was wearing one short sleeve thermal top underneath my shell jacket, and knew I should stop and put on another layer. But in the driving rain having to stop and take things off and put things on whilst getting wetter and colder was not a nice option. My fingers were also starting to get very cold, and I began to lose my dexterity. I could not clip or unclip my water bottle of my pack to have a drink; my fingers just would not work. I had to seek Alan’s assistance to perform this simple task. He seemed to handling the cold better than me.
Slowly we trudged with our crampons on up the ice fall. We anxiously looked for Pudding Rock over to the true left of the glacier and after a number of false hopes, we finally saw it. In the mist and driving rain we could also just make out the Gardiner Barrel hut perched atop the rock, around 100m above our head. The problem was – how do we get there?
The way involved negotiating the huge crevasses which dominate higher up the ice fall. Gaping cracks you could fit a three-story building into. We zigged and zagged our way through the mess, as if playing a maze, trying in vain to unlock the pathway through to the base of pudding rock. We crossed small snow bridges where we could find them, in other places we walked along the crevasse until it narrowed enough that I could just reach over with a large step. Falling in was not an option. Not for the first time I cursed my short legs as I struggled with the large leaps of faith. I had soon split my knuckles open on the ice as I dug my axe in and blood dripped down the handle into the snow. I knew we were breaking every rule in the book by not roping up for glacial travel on this ground, however by this stage I was shaking uncontrollably and knew there was no way with my frozen fingers that I could coil the ropes, tie the knots in the rope and set up my system. We needed to reach the hut and get shelter from the wind and the rain.
Dead-end after dead-end dashed our spirits. The cold was draining us both and we got slower and slower. I did not know at the time but Alan was also feeling sick. Finally around 7:30PM, Alan stopped. “What do you wanna do Grant? We can’t seem to find a way through these crevasses”. “I think we should snow hole Al, I am seriously cold and need to get some shelter from the wind and the rain to get warm again, the only other option is to walk all the way out again”. Walking all the way out, another 6 – 7 hours in our tired state, in the dark, the wind and the rain was not an attractive option.
We started searching for a spot for a snow cave and came across a small depression in the glacier with a small crevasse, which was almost cave shaped. The only problem was the base of the tiny cave, had large hole which disappeared down how far I could not tell. It did not look very good so we started digging into the side of an ice bank higher up. After a few minutes of this, with my axe bouncing off the hard ice we gave this up and turned our attentions back to the cave. We took turns at hacking the ice until finally we created an opening big enough I could jump into the cave. I then spent a furious 15 minutes hacking and shattering the ice, scraping out a flat floor area as much as possible. I was glad of the workout as it warmed by body and hands back up to a comfortable temperature. This time it was Alan who suffered as he had to wait motionless outside while I worked inside. He got very cold and I heard him throw up in the snow outside as he waited. Finally I had the cave just big enough for him to get down into. He was very cold and shaking by the time he got in.
As quickly as I could, I stripped off my wet layers inside the cramped cave, and put on dry thermal top and down jacket. Alan has lost the dexterity in his fingers so I helped him out of his wet gear and into some dry clothes. He was not looking in a good way and I was not sure what was wrong. He leaned over and had another large vomit then dived into his sleeping bag, got in his bivvy bag and lay down while I got the stove going.
The snow cave was remarkably sheltered inside from the wind and the rain; it was in a bank to the lee side of the wind. The only problem’s was it was a little small and it was wet. Water dripped off the roof constantly and it was hard keeping anything dry at all. I got the MSR stove going and melted ice to make a brew each. “Brew’s ready Al” I called and a hand shot out of his bivvy sack, grabbed the brew and retreated. Some hot liquid did both of us the world of good. I then cooked some two-minute noodles which were awful and neither of us could eat them. Finally I filled up both our Nalgene bottles with hot water and then it was my turn to dive into my sleeping bag and bivvy bag. I tried briefly to get reception on the Satellite phone, but that meant hanging outside the cave in the wind and rain getting wet and cold and soon gave up. I knew Stephanie would be worried but there was not much I could do.
I took this small video inside the snow cave.
‘What a way to spend New Year’s Eve 2012’ I thought to myself with a grin as I lay in my bivvy sack. By now Alan perked up enough to tell me a few jokes. “I think I preferred you more when you were cold!” I told him.
We both dozed off and on throughout the night. “Ahh fuck” Alan exclaimed after a few hours. “Water is pouring into my bag”. It seems his bivvy bag was not sealed well and the water was leaking in, further wetting his sleeping bag. I rolled over on my side and managed to stay at least comfortably warm throughout the night. I could feel Alan shivering in an attempt to keep warm.
Around 7AM, the weather outside was still blowing and wet. There was only one option, and that was to head out. The cave was so wet that spending more time there would be very tough. We were both using down sleeping bags and jackets which need to be dry to keep you warm. Sitting in the cave with the water pouring off the roof made it impossible to keep dry for any length of time. Plus the fact we knew the weather for the next two days was terrible. Breakfast was also not an option.
Getting out of your sleeping bag in a wet snow cave and getting ready to leave into the pouring rain is quite a pleasure less experience. However the thought of being in back in shelter and warmth that evening was a powerful motivating force.
For 7 ½ hours we trudged back down towards Mt Cook Village. Down the ice fall, stumbling across the moraine in huge gusts of wind and driving rain until we reached the Hooker Lake. We were not keen on having to climb the steep scree slopes here to get around the bluffs above the lake. Alan led us around the shore of the lake instead. This was hard going, I had twisted my knee coming across the moraine and it was giving me hell scrambling around the rocks on the lake. But it was still much faster than trying to go up higher above the bluffs. We were being careful to watch for rock fall as the rain and wind was dislodging loose rocks higher up which came crashing down into the lake.
Finally we made it back to the Whitehorse campground. Not a moment too soon as we met a DOC worker who was closing the road access out of the campground as the river crossing was getting to high for vehicles. We managed to get through and 10 minutes later were back in the Unwin Lodge, warming up, drying out and looking forward to beer and some food.
So, in terms of our attempt on the GT, a complete washout! However apart from a lot of wet gear, numb fingers, bruised knuckles and a sore knee there is no adverse side effects. To be able to hold things together when things get bad, in those kinds of weather conditions is a huge confidence booster. Overall I have to say it was a fantastic adventure. Or as Alan would put it ‘character building’.
We are now hunkering down in Unwin Lodge in Mt Cook Village, waiting to see if there will be a weather clearance for one last attempt at a climb on Thursday or Friday. We have run out of time for the Grand Traverse now, but may be able to attempt a slightly shorter route. Maybe Mt Tasman – New Zealand’s second highest mountain is an option. We have tentatively booked a helicopter flight to Plateau Hut tomorrow if the weather has cleared to attempt the route early Friday morning if conditions allow.
I am currently sitting the Hermitage Hotel beside a roaring log fire writing this appreciating the basic things in life like being warm, dry and fed.
Once again I wish everyone a very happy New Year.
Over and out from Mt Cook village.
Good news! A weather clearance is coming for Thursday and Friday this week. Bad news, I need to leave by Saturday. At least we are finding opportunities to keep re-hydrated today.
We spent an interesting couple of hours visiting the DOC exhibit’s on climbing in the Aoraki National Park and Sir Edmund Hillary’s various feats around the world. I am now faced with a tough decision of whether to make a cup of tea or go to sleep. I hope you are enjoying your Sunday afternoon,
After a 10 hour flight to Christchurch overnight I landed this morning at 1030am, picked up the rental car then picked up climbing partner Big Al (Alan Silva) who flew over from Sydney. We then drove the 5 hours down to Mt Cook Village where we are currently staying tonight in Unwin Lodge (run by NZ alpine club).
That was the good news. The bad news is it is hosing down with rain, and the forecast for the next 4 days is solid rain, lots of snow at higher altitudes and gale force winds of 80 – 100km per hour. Getting out the door of the hut is a problem let alone onto a mountain.
Absolutely gutted. Will sleep tonight and re-assess situation tomorrow morning. Maybe pulling out is the best option. Or even heading to the Kaikoura ranges which is the only spot in the south island in the next three days with any sunshine. That’s the weather for you!
Within the last few days I saw some Facebook posts, that a Sherpa named Ngima had passed away in a motorcycle accident. As many Sherpa share the name ‘Ngima’ I did not pay much attention until I saw his full name listed again today ‘Ngima Grimen Sherpa’. I then looked more closely and recognised his face in a photograph. I double checked with our Everest expedition leader in 2011, Jamie McGuiness. Jamie confirmed this was the Ngima that had been with us on Everest in 2011.
I had the opportunity to get to know Ngima for a brief period only, in trying circumstances. Ngima was a climbing Sherpa on our team. I had little to do with early on in the expedition until one fateful day at the beginning of May. I contracted High Altitude Pulmonary Edema at Advanced Basecamp. It took a harrowing 11 hours that day to stagger the 19km down to basecamp, coughing up blood, gasping for breath and periodically collapsing through exhaustion. Ngima stayed with me the entire day and I wrote this about him at the time:
“All day long – over 11 hours, Nima was never more than one step behind me. Whenever I staggered or was about to fall I felt his hand on my shoulder supporting me. When I was too tired to move, he would quietly strap the oxygen mask over my face and sit beside for ten minutes until I regained enough strength to move. He fed me food and water. He never once complained or asked me to try and move faster. He was my guardian angel and the compassion of the man whom I hardly knew at all brings a tear to my eye.”
(you can read the full report here)
Three weeks later Ngima was assigned as my climbing partner on summit day. We left together from high camp at 8300m at midnight on the 29th May to attempt to climb to the roof of the world. I was still exhausted from H.A.P.E, half-frozen, and made the painful decision to turn back after only 30 minutes. Ngima once again was right behind me.
This year at basecamp I enquired if Ngima was present with any teams, but learnt he was on the South Side of Everest. Ngima was very handsome, with a warm smile which revealed his glistening white teeth. He was blessed with a gentle, caring disposition. He was very humble, patient and well-respected. A wonderful companion on a mountain. The way he looked after me when I was exhausted, sick and scared shitless is something I will never forget.
This short post, is a way for me to try to offer some form of tribute and remembrance to a wonderful man, a father, a husband, a friend, a climbing companion and a strong and brave high altitude Sherpa.
Thank you for all you did for me Ngima Grimen Sherpa. I am sorry you left us too early.
“Ho, ho, ho”, or should it be “groan, groan, groan” as our bodies struggle to digest that enormous amount of food that is traditional to consume at this time of year.
I have been training hard for the past few weeks, however with the parties, dinners, lunches, drinks etc, my self-discipline has slipped with what I have been eating. I am justifying this indulgence by mentally preparing for how LITTLE I will be eating over New Year as we attempt the Grand Traverse on Aoraki Mt Cook, New Zealand’s highest mountain.
The Grand Traverse (GT) is one of those routes which is committing. Once you get high up on that ridge, it is difficult to get off it. In fact the easiest way to get off if things turn bad, can be to complete the route and descend down the other side. Most routes on mountains involve ascending from one point and descending back to that same point. Hence you can set-up your ‘basecamp’ and leave a good deal of your equipment not needed for the climb at the basecamp. For example, sleeping bags, spare food, spare fuel, tent or bivvy sack.
The Grand Traverse (GT) involves a whopping 3000m of ascent up one side of the Aoraki Mt Cook, then 3000m of descent down the other side. Hence we will not be returning to our starting point and will need to carry all our equipment with us. This is a very important factor when it comes to gear planning and preparation for this route. The ridge is very exposed so if the weather turns when we are up high, things will be serious. For the GT route, I feel speed is the key to safety. Carry too much gear and too much food, we may be warmer and eat more comfortably. But we will also move more slowly and become more tired, increasing our chances of hitting rough weather. Carry too little gear, we run the risk of getting too cold or too hungry if things go wrong.
A recent example of a group who carried too much gear, moved too slowly and consequently got stuck in bad weather on the ridge is seen in the YOUTUBE video below. This was a Japanese pair of climbers in 2008. The footage is from the rescue helicopter who tried to get in and rescue them. Unfortunately after a number of days being stuck in bad weather, when it was finally calm enough to allow them to fly high up on the ridge, one of the climbers had succumbed to the conditions and passed away. The temperatures on the summit ridge in bad weather even now in the middle of our summer can reach -20 or -25 degrees Celsius. That’s similar conditions to 8000m peaks in the Himalaya. On a nice day (which I hope we get) the temperature could be in the +20’s to even 30 degrees Celsius. So trying to bring the right equipment to deal with these extremes, all squeezed into a small backpack is a challenge.
So what’s the right amount of gear and food to carry? Tough question. Over the last few weeks I have putting a good deal of thought into this. Below is the (almost complete) final selection laid out on the floor in my apartment. I have broken out my credit card and bought some new lighter weight, higher performance items for this climb including ice axe, ice hammer, sleeping bag and bivvy bag. ‘Light is Right’ is my motto.
1 = Iridium Satellite phone with spare battery and 75 mins prepaid talk time SIMCARD
2 = Panasonic Lumix DMC ruggedized and waterproof camera with spare battery
3 = Climbing harness, prussik cords, slings, belay plate
4 = 4 x ice screws
5 = Black Diamond Sabretooth crampons
6 = Scarpa Omega plastic mountaineering boots
7 = OR Gaitors
8 = 3 x thick thermal socks
9 = Mammut 50l backpack with 1 x snowstake
10 = Black Diamond Venom Ice Axe and Hammer
11 = Waterproof pants
12 = 2 x light weight thermal bottoms (for rest)
13 = 1 x heavy weight thermal bottom (for climbing)
14 = 3 x thermal tops (1 x short sleeve, 1 x medium weight long sleeve, 1 x heavy weight long sleeve)
15 = Windproof polar fleece jacket
16 = Outer shell jacket (wind and water proof)
17 = Down jacket
18 = 700 gm down sleeping bag
19 = 3 x pair gloves (1 x lightweight merino wool and possum fur blend, 1 x fleece wind stopper glove, 1 x heavy insulated glove)
20 = 1 x Wind stopper balaclava, 1 x buff, 1 x sunhat, 1 x category 3 SWORKE sunglasses
21 = Helmet
22 = OR Alpine Bivvy Bag, plus 1m closed cell foam mattress
23 = 1 x 1l Nalgene bottle for drink and pee, 1 x 0.5l Nalgene for hot drinks, plastic spoon
24 = Dehydrated meals, 3 in 1 milo drinks (need to add some more food)
25 = Energy Gels, Isotonic GU tablets to ass to drinking water
26 = Head torch and Lithium batteries
27 = Waterproof toiletries bag – toothpaste and toothbrush, compeed, notebook and pen, matches sunscreen
One good way to limit the amount you carry is to use a smaller backpack. Thus I am using my 50 litre Mammut backpack which I used on Everest this year, as opposed to my larger 70 – 80 litre MACPAC. This way I don’t have any option – I have to take less as I just don’t have the room.
I can manage to squeeze all that gear laid on the floor into my backpack as per the picture below. I still need some more food items and will have to add the group equipment (either a 50m x 9mm climbing rope or the MSR stove and fuel), however I am confident it will just fit.
The question now becomes – will this be the right amount of gear and food do this climb safely? I guess time will answer that. Weather permitting, we plan to start climbing this coming Sunday(30th January). I will try to post voice update’s by Iridium satellite phone during the climb. Of course if the conditions do not favor us, then we may have to change plans. The mountain will always be there.
I am also very much looking forward to some post climb fun with Stephanie as we enjoy three days sea kayaking in the Abel Tasman National Park at the top of the South Island.
I wish you all a happy, adventure filled, safe and wonderful New Year and 2013 ahead. When you see all that food in front of you during the festive period remember ‘Light is Right’!
In three weeks time the route that I hope to attempt in New Zealand is the ‘Grand Traverse’ (GT), together with Alan Silva. The GT crosses from the West coast of New Zealand to the East coast, via the summit and summit ridge of Aoraki Mt Cook, New Zealand’s highest mountain.
The Climb New Zealand database describes the route as:
“A ‘GT’ involves traversing Low, Middle and High Peaks (or vice versa) of Aoraki/Mt Cook. The section from Low Peak to Porter Col involves some rock, whereas the rest of the traverse is ice (and this can be hard, especially in winter). The ridge line from Low to High Peak is New Zealand’s highest and most exposed mile providing the most spectacular and famous traverse in the Southern Alps. In its day it was regarded as one of the most impressive achievements in world mountaineering.”
The GT is a HUGE route with 44km of horizontal distance, 3000m of ascent and 3000m of descent. We will need a very good three-day (at least) weather window. Hopefully we can make it with two overnight bivvies (Bivvy = Bivouac – sleeping in the open on the side of the mountain).
The GT has seen some interesting ‘events’ in its climbing history. One of the highest profile being the ordeal of the climbing party consisting of Mark Inglis and Philip Doole who got stuck high on the summit ridge in a snow cave 1982 for 13 days in a blizzard. Inglis lost both his legs to frostbite. He went onto become the 1st double amputee to summit Mt Everest in 2006.
Attached below is a 4 minute, 3D fly through of this beautiful route.
Greetings from Sunny Singapore!
Today is a special day as my father turns 70 years old. Happy birthday Jack! What a celebration of a life lived fully and happily. At the age of 70, Jack is still running over 12oo acres of steep hill country sheep and beef farm in Matau, Taranaki, New Zealand. He is one of the lucky few who has found something in life he truly loves doing. With four children, 10 grand children, 5000 sheep, 500 cattle, 10 chickens, 6 dogs, a few hundred goats to look after, he celebrated today in the place he knows and loves, on his farm. What a privilege it has been to have him as a father.
On a much lesser note, today also marks the date of 30 days before I return to the hills. In one month I head to New Zealand to attempt a route in the Southern Alps which I have dreamed about for a long time. It’s very high, very steep and very icy and as any serious climb has me crapping my pants at the thought of it. The build up is always hard, and I try to channel my fear in a positive direction and use it as motivation to train and prepare. When the alarm goes off early in the morning, the thought of being on that huge exposed ridge with hundreds of meters of air underneath my feet, is fantastic motivation to get me out of bed and hit the gym or pound pavements.
It’s also a busy week also for ‘Axe On Everest’ presentations, with a talk to 200+ audience on Tuesday night from the ICAEW (Institute of Chartered Accountants England and Wales) for their annual ‘Celebrating Excellence” dinner, a talk in Phuket on Saturday for a corporate retreat arranged by UFIT and Monday morning will see me sharing my climbing experiences with 90 school children.
Wishing you all a joyous and wonderful weekend ahead,