J OURNEYS: THE S P I R I T OF DISCOVERY Great aspirations
Kieran Kelly tackles one of New Zealand’s highest mountains
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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