Aoraki Day 4: Undeterred

Not to be put off from yesterday’s attempt our attention quickly turned towards Mt Dixon on the northern end of the Grand Plateau. At 3,004 metres Mt Dixon is an easier grade climb than Aoraki but just as committing, particularly returning in the soft snow.

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We had a later start today but still up early and out the door by 4am to make use of the harder snow to reach the start of the climb in the light of day. As we exited the door small slow furries appeared so we donned shell layers but the weather quickly cleared and it would be another blue sky day.

Travel across the glacier was fast and we were soon warmed up. With the sun now rising it good quite warm already and we stopped briefly to strip off outer layers.

Reaching the bergschrund below the south east ridge we traded walking poles for ice axes and commenced our ascent, Ervin on lead and me belaying from below.

Getting across the schrund was easy enough but it did required crossing over the deep gap on a narrow snow bridge that looked like it had collapsed a little in yesterday’s intense sun. Once across the ground quickly rose from flattish, say 20 degrees, to about 40 degrees. We were aiming for a steep and narrow couloir that would lead up several hundreds metres up to access the top of the south east ridge, leading towards the summit.

Finding some fixed anchors below the couloir we clipped in and were ready for the first serious pitch. The couloir was in deep shade and very icy. Quickly rising close to 60 degrees it required using both ice tools and front pointing on crampons to ascend. A short vertical section of ice was encountered on the way up but nothing too serious. My main ice axe is a standard straight shaft tool for glacier travel that works ok on steep ice but is not purpose built like many of the modern bent shaft ice tools, so working my way up the ice my thinly gloved hand kept smashing into the ice as I drove the tool in. My second tool has a bent shaft and wasn’t so bad on the hand.

I climbed on, seconding Ervin and cleaning protection out of the wall that he had placed on lead. On reaching each belay I would tie in, kick in a small foot platform, and belay Ervin up the next pitch. Being so narrow the couloir we were in would funnel loose snow, ice and rock debris down from above as Ervin climbed on. I hate the ‘whoomp’ sound as debris screams past your head from up high. If you’re not looking up it hard t see it come barreling towards you and react by moving out the way and staying close to the side walls. But by looking up you’re also asking for this debris to able to hit you in the face and not your helmet. A couple of times I looked up to cop a flurry of snowy crystals in the eyes.

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I forget how many pitches were required to the top of the ridge, 4 maybe 5. Protection was mixed the whole way up, some ice screws, a bit of rock protection and snow stakes higher up in the softer snow.

On reaching the ridge line the sun was fully awake revealing the whole ridge line to the summit and 360 degrees right around.

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We would continue pitching our way up towards the summit along the knife blade ridge. While we were protected with secure anchors I still had no desire to take a slide or for Ervin to take a slide on lead. We had the rope run out to it’s full 60m length on multiple occasions and any major slip would see the faller penduluming for 60m, plus the stretch in the rope. Falling on the south side of the ridge would have meant swingly steeply across steep snow/ice fields and if you’re unlucky, potential to reach cravasses below. On the northern slope the terrain was steeper with the added danger of narrow rock chutes below. Best not to fall.

And so we continued along the ridge towards the summit, often pitching and belaying, other times short roping and walking simultaneously to save some time, encountering all kinds of conditions up high, a mix of hard ice, hard snow and sugar crystal like dry snow.

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With a loud holler we reached the summit at 1 pm in softening conditions, Aoraki and Mt Tasman standing proud in the back ground.

Stopping briefing briefly to refuel, rehydrate and snap the obligatory summit photos we didn’t linger. At only half way, it was going to be a long day.

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The snow had significantly softened by early afternoon and necessitated further pitching to ensure we remained safe. Slow going for sure. Heading down I tried lots of techniques, facing forward and walking on easier ground with soft snow, facing into the slope to front point down on steeper terrain and plugging steps and ice tools to traverse a few sections. Traversing the steepest section of the ridge was exhilarating. Looking down between my feet there was nothing but air for 700m straight down to the base of the ridge. You know it’s precarious when you’re told “No mistakes here!”.

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The avalanche danger was constantly with us on the descent with the top layer of fresh snow from previously days not yet fusing to the hard stuff underneath and softening in the heat of the day. At one point I took a steep and heard that sickening deep crunch of snow about to give way underfoot. Without panic there was nothing to do but move quickly further down, ice axe in hand to arrest any potential fall. But all was good. Phew!

Reaching the the top of the couloir again it was now just a matter of rappelling down to the glacier using double ropes to get the full 60 m length of rope for 4 pitches. Rappelling down we had to leave a deadman anchor on the ridgetop, abandoning a snow stake to be eaten by the mountain over time. Further down we made use of fixed anchors where they could be found in the snow and relied on building an anchor using slings around secure rocks.

Safely back down it was long hard slog back across the glacier to the hut. This was probably the worst part of the whole day. The snow was very, very soft and would swallow your feet with just about every step, often upto the knees and occasionally up to your thigh. Hard work indeed.

We would reach the hut at around 8pm after a 14 hour day but I was on a massive high.

 

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