The previous evening the snow started in just before six thirty, and just as three others hove into view in the saddle below the hut. They struggle through the knee deep snow and we symapthise and put the kettle on then start into our own dinner. Wolfgang cooks up a mean stir fry but as he is quick to admit alpine climbers are not fussy eaters and at the end of a hard day will almost anything without complaining. He sells himself short because it’s actually quite tasty, helped of course by a fine Pinot Gris which washes it all down. Two Belgians and their Welsh/Kiwi guide bustle in. They are looking a little worse for wear but are very friendly and they fit straight in. They seem to appreciate the hot coffee. And a gingernut biscuit helps revive them. Once settled they pore over maps of the ranges. We wonder at the lack of technical kit given we know what is ahead of us. Have I mentioned knife edges?
The newly arrived visitors joined the other lads for a game of cards. I got a bit of writing done (there is another novel happening) and then got my head down early. We are due up at 0400 the next morning. The cards didn’t last long before everyone climbed into their bunks and settled down. But our bliss up here in Caroline Hut is rudely shattered by the Belgian chap who has a snore that erupts out of the depths of some sort of Hades echo chamber. No wonder the Germans went straight for them in those two world wars – had nothing to do with flat and easy terrain. Our sleep is fitful.
As it turns out we are all anxious about this climb in the dark with those narrow edges and dramatic drop offs. I was awake about 3.30 and drifted through the edges of dreams of folk at home, wondering what everyone is up to, until about 3.50 when Dean decided the Belgian Express it too much snaps on his light and gets going. We follow suit. By 0450 we are fed, kitted up and have crampons lashed on. I bite down my nervousness and tuck in to the back of the line and start climbing.
With the headlamps on the snow there is a magical air around the whole exercise and for moments I am lost in a world that has shades of the elvish about it and I think it would be entirely appropriate for Gandalf to appear with that staff adorned with its diamond white light atop. Instead our white lights bob their way up and up and up. By the time we are half way aling that spur the light has started to lift over the far ranges and before he hit Ball Pass the sun has laid its golden lips on the top of Middle Peak. We stop and happily confess to being stunned by the beauty and magic of the place.
Ball Pass is reason to take a break and to indulge school boy poses over the top of Mount Sefton in the background. I am laughing, partly in relief at having survived that ridge. But the second chapter of our worry is about to unfold as we step over the edge and start a 3000’ foot descent into the Hooker Valley. I am praying every step down. I have no idea how we might do this, can see no solution in front of me and relearn what blind faith is all about – Wolfgang was ahead of us sniffing out the route down. We come down a crazy incline with the rock now closing in and towering over us and drop onto the detritus of an avalanche that has pored through here a day or so earlier.
I am always looking to see where to jump if any of this moves but my options are seriously limited. The smallest block of this ice would smash you so you just take a deep breath and walk in, watch where you put your feet, stay alert and watch out for your colleagues. As we descend into a natural choke point I notice hundreds, even thousands of pock marks in the snow and see they are made by stones that have rained down off the peaks above. Once the sun is up this would be an exceedingly dangerous place indeed as the ice melts and lets those stones go. I fancy I am walking across a white range target, except I am the target. I am happy to be wearing that helmet. Down and down and down some more, always onto your toes until two hours later, and with a sense of disbelief we step out into the tussock and snow grass of the Hooker Valley. We stop for a bite to eat and to sit in awe at the foot of Mt Cook, the peak of which we can now see in all its magnificent glory. Shades of Nepal.
We sat there looking at that white beast for half an hour, admiring the weather spawling off the top but there was little time to waste. We still had another four hours of trekking to get out of there. Some of that was no idle walk but took some real care on our part to negotiate. Indeed, it proved dangerous ground for this clown who, over confident, and hopping from rock to rock, mis-stepped and opened up his shin – for a moment I felt the bone flex as I fell between two boulders and could feel a break about to happen. Luckily that didn’t happen and I toned down the adventure a little –and went back to praying each step! Well, perhaps not quite. But it was a gentle reminder that you can’t take anything for granted in this sort of game. So much so I am going to be back!
15 November 2012