Well if you have to continue in Hillary’s steps (I use the word ‘continue’ with considerable license – I was in Nepal earlier in the year, Ed’s second home) then this is the place to come. He practiced on a regular basis from the Ball Hut and that’s where we got going from today. We lifted 900 metres on a track that is barely discernable as such. And pretty much straight up. The weather stayed clear and it didn’t take long to warm up. We had waited at the Hermitage for the rain to clear from the Tasman Glacier Valley. Even though it was pouring a slight break in the cloud galvanized our guide. We are good to go and he dragged us away from our coffees. I am not sure how he knew but by the time we had driven around to the mouth of the valley the sun was pouring down even though the rain continued behind us.
We eventually hit the snow line and received a quick brief on recovery tactics if we slipped, a soldiers five on how to use an ice pick and off we went. I have always been a little (Okay, a lot) disconcerted by the images of alpinist making their way along knife edge snow lines, each side dropping away into empty space. Before I know it there I was picking my way along one of those ridges. I had a peek at one point – about 150metres of snow before I hit rock then the rock dropping 300m to the Tasman Valley floor below. Stop peeking! Focus on the ice pick anchor, balance and the next step.
The snow is soft and it makes for hard work. I drop into a hole at one stage and struggle out. I am often up to my knees and it became a piece of concentration to ensure I don’t flex my knee or ankles – it would be very easy to overextend a joint. I happy to find the mental game is in play and my fears of some of this snow work vanishes despite the precarious slopes we pick along.
To distract us the Caroline Face of Mt Cook, on our right shoulder all day, cracks and rumbles and booms as ice, snow and rock lets go in dramatic avalanches that belch down the mountain to the glacier below. Oddly the noise seems out of all proportion to the size of the falls, though as with the Himalayas I wonder if my sense of scale is skewed. I suspect it is. But until we got used to the noise each crack and rumble had me pause in mid step to look across the valley and watch the spill.
We arrive at Caroline Hut and make home very quickly. The radio crackles away with various huts talking about the weather forecast provided by the national parks folk. Our hut checks in – all here: Wolfgang and a party of three. Our timing was excellent – within minutes powder snow starts drifting over us in large light flakes and the weather closes in. The fire (pot belly stove) gets under way, boots and clothes are arrayed and hung to dry and dinner is put on. I am ready for bed after today’s climb. But other things need to be attended to first. Things outside.
If there is anyway a visit to the outhouse can be made magical then I think I discovered it after dinner. I sat with my trousers around my ankles in a snow cave of white powder snow which gently swirled in and dusted my knees – and everything else. I guess you need a tolerance for the cold but I lingered a few minutes longer than absolutely necessary. I never understand why people like to read the paper when in their outhouse but I understand the magic of linger in the snow. By the time I leave the snow is trying to white us out and I arrive back in the hut with a light mantle of white that I need to dust off before I go inside. It will be interesting to see what the place looks like in the morning. I think of home and wonder how everyone’s Sunday has gone. Mine has been pretty special and I look forward to the coming week.