Prelude: A few days in Fiordland again, this time with Sophie; a few nice pitchs of immaculate granite slab enjoyed (and on sophies’ part a few nice ski turns with a killer view); before the rain well and truly sets in.
Little did we know this storm, which snowed to low levels throughout the country (and gave Fiordland 600mm of rain, followed by 150cm of snow); was doing two things;
1. It was slowly killing Hiroki Ogawa and partner Nicole Sutton on Taranaki. This tragic event had all of us who had met Hiroki pretty upset, he was one of those super positive people who uplifted all around him. This was mentioned in my earlier post ”home again/remarks”. We wish all the best to their families; this was a real tragedy for everyone.
2. Mt cook was coming into great condition, with snow sticking to the icy crux of the East face, and after a terrible winter too(although I think early springs warm precip events may have been key for initial bonding to the ice at the highest elevations…they were windy, but the East face seems considerably less wind affected than most adjacent faces).
This is not a common occurrence. I’m barely back at work when Nick Begg calls, he’s deduced such an occurrence and is flying in the next day. Wish as I might, I can’t bring myself to quit work at immediate notice (they know I’m finishing within a few days anyhow, but we haven’t confirmed just which day); get home at 9pm, pack for ten days and drive overnight to Cook to fly in at 8am. Instead, I put my trust in the slightly unstable but reasonable weather indicated by the forecast, sustained Southwest flow, and Soph drops me at Blue Lakes two days later. I’m meant to be heading to Arapiles with her, but I’d put this mountain off too long. Especially for someone for someone who , for a time, grew up in it’s shadow.
I have to admit I still haven’t found the boot that is suitable for all of these: approach hikes, sustained frontpointing/technical ice, and snowboarding steep firm lines. So, in the event I take two pairs of boots, and two pairs of crampons! Less than ideal. Along with 9 days food, this ensures a jolly old time stumbling up to Ball Shelter in the rain at night; lurching up the Tasman moraine the next morning, and slowly sliding my skins up the Freshfield glacier that afternoon.
It is a tired young man who arrives at Plateau hut that evening to smiling faces, good times and a confirmation; Nick, with similarly accomplished partner Tyrone Low and visiting Swede super-skiiers Magnus Kastengren and Andreas Fransson, has scored the first ‘complete’ descent of the East Face two days prior, from the summit without taking skis off. In a quick overview of the face’s (now-burgeoning) ski history, my work mates John Mletschnig and Alwin Hieler had climbed and skiied/snowboarded the face from the top of the true open face in 2008; (Aoraki on Edges, NZAJ 2009); the gully leading out the top, 100m was “just under 60 degrees” and “dominated by… grey ice”.
I recall John predicting to me, at Mt Olympus in 2009, that he thought it would be a rare occasion the East face of Cook would be formed to ski. In NZAJ he wrote ; “The slope was uniform however, and I thought that it could be in condition to ski from time to time,with the right storm cycle and exact timing”. The thing about New Zealands‘ high East faces is they are extremely heavily and actively glaciated; like few places on the globe for their altitude and latitude. They change week by week, and year by year…for example , 10m sheared off the top of Mt Cook (NZ’s highest peak at 3754m, perched close above the shining blue Tasman Sea) just days after American Jim Zeller gained the first and only snowboard descent from the summit, via the standard Linda Glacier route, or a combo of Greens gully and Zurbriggans… there is not much info out there on it. He accompanied kiwi mountaineer and skiier extraordinaire Bruce Grant on that occasion. Michael Brown of serac films; “They rode Zurbergins Ridge right from the top – so scary. As I recall they made it nearly out to Plateau Hut after a hop of the bergschrund. It was deep snow all around. You’d have to ask Jim about below the hut as I don’t recall – Heli I think(?).. . They used a heli to at least the Linda Shelf. It was all about the ride down from the summit as amazing as it was” ;
There is video online by Serac Films of Bruce Grant skiing parts of the line, which I woulds assume on the same occassion… but perhaps not, if so it would appear they descended one at a time. He is absolutely ripping Greens Gully with speed and no ice axe in sight! It looks like they were able to ride from shortly below the summit, from around about where the summit is today.
This is just one of a number of storied ski descents Cook has achieved over the years; Geoff Wyatt and John Blennerhasset skiied the first descent of the mountain; Mark Whetu claimed the first free descent. The linda has remained the primary route skiied from time to time, although the Low Peak’s North West couloir has has action from at least two teams; a sponsored group including kiwi Todd Windle, and a quieter descent by Jane Morris and Mark Evans. Zurbriggens, on the far climbers right of the East Face, has also had edges on it at least twice. The central, true, and most beautiful line on the
East Face (and the mountain if you ask almost anyone, including Fransson, who leads this game internationally), appears to have been unattempted until the Mletschnig/Heiler combo seized the bull by the horns. In fact, before the challenge of climbing the Caroline Face was even raised, Cook’s East face was the ‘last great problem’ of Mountaineering on Cook. The fear it inspired was referred to in Mike Gill’s excellent book from the 1950’s ; ‘Mountain Midsummer’.
Then Italian guide Freddie Varengo stepped things up, skiing Cook from on or near to the summit, then down the East Face with a 10m downclimb near the top. (the very next day he skiied Mt Tasman from the summit, via the East face, on the spur of a moment; a burlier, greater and more dangerous accomplishment than Cook’s East Face, if less appealing). A few more attempts in 2012, by the likes of kiwi troopers Stevie E and Tai?, Tubs and Gordy, and Alwin, were all thwarted by poor conditions. Then November 2013 happened.
I’ll leave it to faceless, trashy internet forums to argue the relative worthiness of Freddies East Face descent, versus Mletschnig and Heiler’s ; versus Fransson, Begg, Kasytengren and Low; it is splitting hairs; they all had a superb run, they are all worthy of a large doses of respect; and although each was more thorough than the last, they all built psychologically on eachothers’ success’s. Each group descended the utmost that conditions allowed on their visit, which was progressively more each time. Maybe this trend will continue? is the crux evolving, perhaps leaning back somewhat? A trade off for Green Gully’s deteriation from a beautiful ski crux to a hammered slab of ice. I assume the East Face of Cook is about to become rather a common ski descent, if still a great run. I am fairly sure it is not as dangerous a route to climb as the Linda(though I say this without the qualification of ever having climbed Cook before), and in good snow conditions very easy technically. The ski is a little demanding at the top in good conditions, but not too dramatic if the ice is decently covered; and eases back into an easy ski run, if you ski large faces regularly.
I’d enjoy my second full day on the plateau on the open portions of the Jones route. I arrive back at the hut early afternoon to find Andreas and Magnus, to my astonishment. They had skiied out only 24 hours earlier, but the grim forecasts are continually amending themselves the closer each day gets, weather windows popping up all over the place. Today, day Nick and Tyrone also left; as I’ve just gotten here, and also know the Sou-West flow will only need variations of a few degrees to provide ample opportunitys to climb; I’ve stayed on. It’s great to have them back; the evening I arrived at the hut had been exceedingly pleasant, enjoying laughter, food, drink and cards together. This time was no different. Here were two people who lived, who were real, wholesome, generous and electric company. They were also heading up the East Ridge next day, as Carl and Kieran had done that very morning. I worried a little for my friends who did not reply to the radio sched, with increased winds in the late afternoon I’d been thinking about them all day. Later it turns out soft snow conditions and weather had forced them around and back to the village.
I am tired, with 3 days on the go already, but the Swedes assure me that tomorrow is THE day. “I think it is your day tomorrow. You will have a beautiful run from the summit”. The boys are kind enough to wake me 1 30 the next morning, with a high five. “It is cold and clear”. Good energy is running through their veins, rubbing off on me, as they swish out the door and down the glacier into the inky black. The stars pierce the frigid atmosphere, transcribing their interminable spin around the south pole. The silence is profound, the cold is a thing of beauty . Once again, as I strap my snowboard to my pack, I have the psychological benefit of seeing compatriots on The East Ridge. As I too step toward Cook.
Above; Very happy to stand atop my country, atop a glistening citadel of ice rising from the ocean, snowboard or no. One minute later, I spy a helicopter buzzing around the upper empress shelf… landing under Hicks…god, Keiran and Carl plan to be on there today. No, it’s just letting two climbers out…must be heading to Empress Hut. Ok. it’s off again…wait, here it comes over the empress shelf…landing… there is one ski track leading out to this knoll. One. Instantly I reach the shattering truth. I feel myself reeling inside, hollowed out. Maybe nauseous. Thinking back now, I only remember the feeling that everything was so horribly, chokingly wrong. Surreal on this perfect day not a breath of air whispering anything. Who? Why? I need to get off this mountain.
The snow in the steep Entrance Tongue has some North to it’s East. It hasn’t warmed to the point it might sluff…or, should I say, to the point it will sluff as I’d feared, but it balls up on the top and base of my board like nothing ever encountered before, making extremely violent jump turns both necessary; and fraught with peril. This goop weighs heavy atop my board, though not as heavily as the fresh weight on my heart. To a degree, I think I am insulated by not knowing who is dead. I struggle to focus 100% on the moment, on the snow beneath my feet. I need to.
Similar to Andreas, Magnus, Tyrone and Nick several days before, although I keep my board on, I use my ice axe on a short section, downward traversing into the top of the entrance tongue, doing some choppy little hops facing inward, before the snow gets deep enough to trust somewhat over the grey ice.
above photo… In a heap of sweat and with churning stomach, I momentarily face the face after the deed. (I have a classic portrait of the whole face and tracks from a distance, but being RAW format it won’t go on wordpress) The morning’s route cut through the seracs left to right, then doubled back under the maw of a big one to the safety of the gully on left, to avoid further crevasse crossings. For the descent, I should have cut out to the base of zurbriggans, but instead opted fall line to the icefall, then back out to photo left, following the mornings tracks on known if very tenuous ground. It was just about as frightening as on the way up. The heat of the day continues to soar ,exponentially above the forecast freezing levels (new arrival Robert records 10degress at plateau later that pm), and a few hours later stuff was falling down everywhere, including over the similarly delicate maze of tumbled ice guarding the base of the Jones route I’d been on previous day. I’ve never seen seracs so responsive to diurnal temperature fluctuations. But, before then, I have continued to flat, safe ground, far out over the plateau, away from Cook’s sweltering clutchs I sit down in the snow and stay there, an empty husk. This should have been a joyous moment. I cry.
The news is out already by the time I drag my skins back to plateau hut. Magnus is dead.
I only had the pleasure of knowing Magnus for two or three days. Despite this I regarded him as a friend. It was a pleasure, and it was an honour. Magnus was one of those people who instantly radiate true warmth. Shining through his words and actions were friendship and genuine care for others, without pretence or ego. He was open, he did not hide himself. His laughter was frequent, genuine, and he was hilariously funny to boot. His generosity touched me. Not only did he force me to accept their extra food…and wouldn’t hear of taking it back once they returned…but upon learning I’d forgotten a toothbrush, he insisted I keep his, and wouldn’t hear my refusals. In the mountains, that struck me as no minor thing, and I was oddly touched by it. I consider myself truly lucky to have spent time with him, the last days precious of his life. He was shining so brightly.
I am so glad his last morning was so beautiful, the coming of light and colour to the earth that day was ethereal, and I saw two specks on the most beautiful ridge of a beautiful mountain, pushing on up into glorious sunlight. Two great friends in a sublime setting, moving on with ease and pleasure, pausing a moment in a notch to soak up the gathering space , the expanding view. That morning moved me deeply with it’s beauty, and solidified 100% in my mind the worth of this, the pure beauty of being part of such a place and moment. For me it drove out all my earlier doubts and fears from the bottom of the mountain in the dark, and really solidifed the worth of this, why this environment and experience is worth risking for… a reward like that sunrise is as real as life gets, I do believe. Magnus, you already knew this, Magnus, you LIVED your life, and cared, inspired were loved by and loved others too. Nothing much higher can be said of people, I don’t think; what are we here for?
–I feel so deeply for Magnus’ friends and family,and hope that they can see this too. I can’t explain why the death of a mountaineer I’d barely met has moved me so; except that it didn’t feel that way. I can’t really articulate anymore, can’t write how Magnus’ life was worth living, though it led to being taken early. Best is to read the moving account by Andreas, which is frank, stark, but pays true honour to his true friend, Magnus Kastengren. http://andreasfransson.se/
I share a little with Robert. The new guided arrivals are great people, but I can’t truly connefct with anyone, and at first hide in my bunkroom, the window shored up with a matress, dark and cool. and I know Tony and Tim somewhat. I know they understand to some degree, but only some. I leave the next morning, skinning a lonely yet caressing, soothing wind and shifting cloud. These are my mountains, my lifeblood, treat us, treat me, as they may. I follow Magnus’s ski tracks, still arcing graceful, powerful turns under inerama col. The walk out is therapuetic. I run into Lucy in the village, I run into her somewhere in the hills every spring. She also understands. There is a strong kinship in this world. Keiran and Carl are there. I am glad to see them. I should be going back into the snowy realms tomorrow, the forecast storm vapourised to nothing much. I can’t won;t, no will to push me up again. We get drunk.
We trundle out to a beautiful valley behind benign Lake Ohau late next afternoon, tussock hills, rocky ramparts, gentle valleys. We smell woodsmoke before we reach the hut, splasch across the river. The next day we we climb superb alpine rock for 500m up Bruce Peak, no stress, easy moves in a beautiful place. No ice, goden sunset glissades in corn snow. I’m enjoying myself with my good friends in the mountains. I’m sure Magnus, Hiroki, would have enjoyed this. But I am not tormented, or saddened, at this time. up here I rejoice in life.