At 12am I got a tap on the foot, the signal to get up, get ready and get going. A typical alpine start, leaving so early makes best use of the harder snow/ice conditions frozen overnight, making travel a bit faster and given how long a climbing day we expected would allow for a descent at a reasonable hour in the afternoon to avoid (as best as possible) the potential for afternoon avalanche conditions.
A standard climbing day on Aoraki is around 15-20 hours long.
As you move through the upper Linda Glacier you reach one of the main danger points on the mountain, The Gun Barrels, several very steep and narrow couloirs (gullies) that collect heavy snow and ice very high above. The couloirs are position in a way that and avalanche debris are aimed straight down onto the route. A particularly nasty section to negotiate in the afternoon with sun softened material.
Our intended route would see us through the Linda Glacier, Upper Linda Glacier, under the Gun Barrels, onto the Linda Shelf, on the summit rocks and then onto the summit ice cap to the top. We wouldn’t get that far this day.
We were roped up and were out the door by 1am, the last of four 2 person teams attempting to climb Aoraki today.
Hitting the glacier in the dark of early morning, I wasn’t feeling at 100% with a stomach ache keeping me awake for a good part of the night – not the best start to a climbing attempt. I didn’t have the shits just an annoying ache and I wasn’t going to let it stop me in my tracks just yet.
The narrow beam of light from my head torch on helmet illuminated the path ahead. Not much to see really and it was a matter of following the rope and Ervin’s headtorch infront, paying attention to maintain a taut rope and not release too much slack into the system. Tiny dots of the head torches of the other climbers could be seen further along the glacier. They were a fair way in front having left earlier than us.
For four hours we would continue to push through the dark, following our path from yesterday and on reaching our ‘high point’ continue to pick up the new route pioneered by those in front. This was easily followed in soft snow but more difficult on the frozen ground that where crampon marks are not left so readily.
The ground quickly rose up steeply as the path picked its way through large crevasses. At one point we were on very steep ground and hit the edge of a major crevasse, its dark inky interior disappearing below, escaping the meagre penetration of light from my head torch. Obviously the wrong way, we retreated a little, down climbing and finding a path around the edge on to a narrow snow bridge to cross.
As we continued, I wasn’t feeling that great. My energy levels were low and I was rapidly fatiguing, my belly ache not going anywhere. Now I knew that this climb was going to be a big day indeed and was certainly used to hard work, particularly with some of the massive efforts put on Te Araroa earlier in the year. I was no stranger to hard work but my level of fatigue was not just normal tiredness from a bit of extra grunt. As we continued on the upper Linda Glacier towards the gun barrels I was feeling particularly weak.
Looking ahead I could see the beams of light from other teams in front as they moved underneath the Gun Barrels onto the Linda Shelf beginning their traverse across to the Summit Rocks. They were moving really slowly and we were a long way back, with our pace slowing. I reasoned that if the other teams were moving slow and with our slow progress, if we were to continue we were going to be very late in getting back below the Gun Barrels in the afternoon, during the peak avalanche danger period. While I had the energy to continue moving up very slowly towards the summit I didn’t think I was going to have enough in the tank to give the 100% level of concentration required to negotiate back down safely in another 10 hours. I did not want to be a burden and safety concern for Ervin. The snow and ice above the Gun Barrels looked particularly nasty and there were signs of previous slab avalanches on the terrain ahead.
And so it was with a heavy heart that I made the very difficult call to turn around near the Gun Barrels. I was shattered.
But deep down I knew it to be the right decision. Aoraki is not going anywhere and while my dream of climbing this particular peak would not be realised at this point in time, there would be other opportunities in the future. Better to be safe than sorry and make this difficult ascent when I’m at 100%.
Devastated, we hung around for a little bit as the sun was just starting to rise and spread it’s soft light onto the tops of the surrounding peaks. Dark orange touched the higher peaks, transitioning to pink and yellow pastels as the sun rose. It’s that magical time of day when all is peaceful and serene.
Decision made, we turned around to retrace our steps back towards Plateau Hut.
As it turned out it was a major day for all the teams who did continue to climb to the summit. While they would all make it up and back safely, it would be a mammoth 18 to 20 hour day for all – very slow for strong climbing teams and cementing in my head I made the right decision to turn back when we did. In my estimate it would have been a 20-22 hour day for us had we continued.