J OURNEYS: THE S P I R I T OF DIS­COV­ERY Great as­pi­ra­tions

Kieran Kelly tack­les one of New Zealand’s high­est moun­tains

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Adventure Holidays -

THE rope snaked up into the dark­ness. Through the pre-dawn shad­ows, An­ton climbed like a spi­der on the sheer wall of the ramp. You call out five me­tres’ when there’s about 5m of rope left. I’ll call safe, be­gin climb­ing’ when I’ve got the an­chor in, then you come up. Don’t come up un­til you hear me,’’ he’d said as he pre­pared to head up into the gloom. I’d nod­ded.

He prod­ded the nar­row ice bridge with his axe one last time and, de­cid­ing it was safe, stepped to­wards the gap­ing black­ness of the crevasse. His left foot landed solidly on the far lip of snow. He kicked a toe hole with the front points of his left cram­pon, lightly stepped over the gap and was gone.

I waited in the dark, my boots wedged into the stance he’d cut ear­lier. Fear, ex­cite­ment and a sense of an­tic­i­pa­tion surged through me, but my breath­ing was steady and reg­u­lar. Soon I’ll have to step over that gap, I thought. I could just see An­ton’s boot print on the other side of the bergschrund, the gap­ing frac­ture at my feet, and the start of his tracks up the ramp.

Some­where be­low me was the Bonar Glacier. There was no sound ex­cept the thud, thud of An­ton’s ice tools and the kick, kick of his boots grow­ing fainter as he made his way up the wall. I couldn’t see him now. Small show­ers of snow cas­caded on my face, then a small chunk of ice bounced off my hel­met and dis­ap­peared on to the glacier be­low. The rope flaked on the snow in front of me made a whizzing sound as it slowly un­folded and fol­lowed An­ton up into the gloom. I con­cen­trated, de­ter­mined to get my call ex­actly right. Five me­tres on a coil of rope is hard to judge for a first-time climber in semi-dark­ness.

The long han­dle of my ice axe was driven deep into the snow just be­low the crevasse lip. With my right hand, I gripped the heavy head of the axe where it pro­truded from the snow. The pick of the ice ham­mer in my left hand was embed­ded about 60cm to the left of the axe. The toes on my cram­pons dug deep into the ledge An­ton had cut. My boots and the two tools gave me four points of con­tact with the wall, a good stance.

Be­hind and be­low was black­ness, the Bonar Glacier, a sil­ver river in the moon­light; in front was the Mount As­pir­ing bergschrund. Above me rose the in­fa­mous ice ramp, the killer of at least a dozen moun­taineers in the past two decades, the most re­cent an ex­pert young Aus­tralian climber in the prime of his life. I waited, look­ing up, my hands grip­ping my tools. It was quiet and very still.

What a beau­ti­ful morn­ing, I thought. My watch was buried un­der my jacket and gloves and I’d lost all track of time. I guessed it was about 6am and fo­cused on the slowly un­coil­ing pile of rope. Five me­tres,’’ I yelled into the dark. The rope stopped mov­ing, and I waited. From far above, I heard a dull whack, whack, whack as An­ton cut him­self a stance. Next he would cut a box out of the snow-cov­ered wall and wind in an ice screw as an an­chor. Af­ter he screwed in the an­chor, he would se­cure him­self to its cable by con­nect­ing the rope to a kara­biner at­tached to his har­ness. He would then se­cure the rope that ran down to me, also us­ing a kara­biner at­tached to the screw.

I waited. The thud­ding stopped. There was a rat­tle as An­ton took the ice screw and kara­biner off his har­ness. I peered up­wards but could see noth­ing. The rope started to move again as An­ton wound in the slack. It stopped with a gen­tle tug on my har­ness. That’s me,’’ I called. Safe, be­gin climb­ing,’’ his voice drifted down. This is it, I thought. I checked my har­ness one last time and made sure the leashes on my wrists for the ice axe and ham­mer were cinched tight. Climb­ing,’’ I called back. With my heart in my mouth, I stepped up to the lip of the bergschrund. It was less than a me­tre wide but seemed a ter­ri­fy­ing moat of dark­ness. I looked at An­ton’s boot print on the far lip, then launched my­self across. The cram­pons on my left boot bit into the snow, and I im­me­di­ately hit the moun­tain with my axe and ham­mer and fol­lowed with my right foot. I was across. I paused to col­lect my­self, to try to con­trol my ner­vous heart­beat, and looked up. Still the dark clung to the slope. It was prob­a­bly for­tu­nate that I couldn’t see any­thing. I be­gan the process of lift­ing my­self up to where An­ton waited. My first pitch of climb­ing be­gan.

That I was on one of New Zealand’s pre­mier alpine climbs, two days af­ter my 54th birth­day, with no climb­ing ex­pe­ri­ence what­so­ever, should have crossed my mind. It didn’t. I was too scared, and had too many other things to think about.

The stars had be­gun to fade; it’ll be light soon, I thought. Gen­tle spin­drifts of snow fell on my face from above. No wind, not as cold as I thought it’d be. I no­ticed that the first faint stir­rings of dawn were dust­ing the slopes of Mount As­pir­ing. But I looked in vain up the slope where I knew An­ton would be squat­ting next to his be­lay point, slowly wind­ing in the rope as I tried to match his rhyth­mic climb­ing cadence.

From the mo­ment I crossed the bergschrund, I tried to es­tab­lish a rhythm. One, two with the hand tools, breathe; three, four with cram­pons, breathe. I punched the spiked toes of my boots into the in­dents made by An­ton. Breathe. I had gone less than 20m on the first pitch, only half­way up to An­ton’s stance, when I hit my first snag. An­ton had used a dag­ger’’ tech­nique. Hold­ing the head of each of his tools near its han­dle, he’d rammed the spikes of the axe and ham­mer straight into the ice at about chest height. This gave him a se­cure hold, with two tools embed­ded in the wall sup­ported by front cram­pon points also punched in.

This tech­nique proved dif­fi­cult for me. I’m par­tially paral­ysed in my left hand and I never felt that I had the ham­mer all the way into the ice. My hand just wasn’t strong enough. I felt ex­posed and un­bal­anced, con­vinced I would top­ple back­wards into the dark.

Im­pro­vise, I said to my­self. My left hand might not have been strong enough, but my left arm was. I shifted my grip on both tools to the bot­tom of their han­dles, right at the ex­trem­ity of the wrist leashes, and pounded the points into the snow above my head. It was a bit like stand­ing on top of a lad­der and driv­ing a nail into a wall as high up as you could get. One, two, pound the tools; breathe, three, four, thud, thud with the boots, fol­low­ing An­ton’s holes all the way.

It was get­ting lighter by the minute, the long slope emerg­ing grey from the dark­ness. An­ton’s hunched fig­ure was now only 20m above, then 15, then 10. I dared not look down as I painstak­ingly edged up­wards. Whack, whack. I drove my tools into the snow and ice, sink­ing their heads as deep as I could.

With 5m to go, I could see An­ton peer­ing in­tently down at me, wind­ing in the rope as I climbed. The rope that had run down all the way to me at the bergschrund was now flaked neatly at his feet. As I’d ex­pected, the rope hooked him se­curely on to the ice screw, but he’d set up a much more com­pli­cated be­lay­ing de­vice than a sim­ple Ital­ian hitch. He was us­ing a kara­biner as an ex­tra brak­ing de­vice on the an­chor. This bloke knows his stuff, I thought. Two me­tres and sud­denly a vol­ley of in­struc­tions came down to me.

When you get here, step into this space and clip on.’’ His axe han­dle pointed to a broad step he had cut into the snow. He watched with in­tense con­cen­tra­tion as I stepped on to the ledge and whacked my long-han­dled ice axe into the snow. I ex­tracted a kara­biner and sling from one of the gear loops of my har­ness. The sling was al­ready tied on to the front part of my har­ness. It would en­sure that I didn’t tum­ble back­wards down the slope while I stood wait­ing for the next pitch.

Good,’’ he said as I clipped on. Now this is what’s go­ing to hap­pen. I’m go­ing to un­clip and climb up the next rope length. When there’s 5m of rope left, you sing out again. I’ll set up and then call out safe’.

Clean out the gear here be­fore you come up, un­wind the screw and clip it on here,’’ he said, point­ing to a spare gear loop on the har­ness. Bring it all up with you and I’ll take it at the next pitch. Got that?’’ I nod­ded. My mouth was dry.

Don’t un­clip un­til I sing out safe’,’’ An­ton re­minded me. With that he was gone. If I’d hoped for some en­cour­age­ment, maybe a well done’’, or how’d you en­joy your first pitch?’’, I wasn’t get­ting any. I was learn­ing that this Kiwi guide was a deadly se­ri­ous climber en­gaged in a deadly se­ri­ous busi­ness. He had a client with no climb­ing ex­pe­ri­ence to look af­ter. He wasn’t in the com­pli­ments busi­ness.

I waited for the ris­ing sun to chase away my fears of the night, waited for the rope to stop run­ning out, waited to start on the sec­ond pitch. I can do this, I told my­self over and over. This is an edited ex­tract from As­pir­ing by Kieran Kelly (Macmil­lan Aus­tralia, $34.99). Susan Kuro­sawa’s Depar­tureLounge col­umn re­turns next week.

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Il­lus­tra­tion: Tom Jel­lett

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