“Everything is energy and that’s all there is to it. Match the frequency of the reality you want and you cannot help but get that reality. It can be no other way. This is not philosophy. This is physics.” - Einstien.
As we watched that four-hundred metre wide snow and rock avalanche tearing towards us, flowing like water into crevasses and grinding to an expressive stop uncomfortably close, the physics and reality of what we saw got pretty interesting. The biggest avalanche for more than twenty years (since the east face of Mt.Cook fell off in ’91) now successfully blocked any crossing of the Linda Glacier and our initial access to the north-east face. Fifteen climbers and guides now stared at a vast alpine landscape, instantly changed. It seemed to almost defy the processes of erosion and glacial movement, which take thousands of years to shape landscapes. In less than a minute, we watched this entire glacial terrain and plateau transform. Pretty humbling stuff. And my reaction? It wasn’t fear. Sure, there was a resemblance of fear in what I felt after watching what potentially was the end, but it wasn’t straight up fear. Even now, I’m struggling to label that emotion, although I recall it clear as day. The closest literary equation I can put to it is a very deep and connected respect for the energy of the mountains.
Flying into Mt.Cook for a climber is like going to church for a religious person. Plateau Hut sits at around 2000 metres, above the Tasman valley. Mt.Cook towers above you from the other side of the Plateau glacier. Left and right of it, sharp peaks fan all around, creating a panorama of giant serac cathedrals and knife-edged ridgelines. For an alpinist in New Zealand, this is the holy land.
I sat there for a while, looking into the frozen amphitheatre and internalising what had just happened. My biggest fear about climbing Mt. Cook is avalanches and ice falls from overhanging seracs. It’s an external danger that you have zero control over. After watching that avalanche, I think everyone’s concerns were blown straight out of the water. It blew everything out of proportion and changed the game completely. Nobody knew how it had affected the stability of the glacier or if there were more overhanging sections of mountain waiting to fall off.
Myself, J.D. Osborn and Georges Millet were here with a plan to summit and fly speed wings from the highest peak in New Zealand. With such a plan, it didn’t take me long to come to the conclusion that a glacier sized avalanche of snow and rock could only add essence to the already ambitious adventure. In fact – and I’m fortunate to be on the other side of the world to most of my family when I say this – it added an element of excitement for me. This may sound outlandish, but it woke up my senses and almost seemed to put me in tune with the energy of Aoraki. It was as if the mountain had put its cards on the table. Now it was up to us to fold or go all in.
The following two hours was an intense show of helicopters circling the glacier and the guides trying to make decisions. Even the cool, calm and collected Georges had to go and lie down for a while. There was a radio call inside the hut between one of the guides and the head of DOC in Mt. Cook village, which seemed to reveal their intentions to close the hut.
Half an hour later, two heads of DOC and Mountain Safety in the village landed a helicopter outside of the hut and determined it closed. We were all offered a free helicopter ride out of the area and back to the village. The decision they were making seemed logical, but it also made no sense for me. I was aware that it was a simple case of nobody knowing what was going to happen next. To me, it was pretty simple. There was a huge rock and snow avalanche now in our immediate path to climbing Mt. Cook. Could it be safely crossed? Nobody yet knew. Was another avalanche of the same size likely to fall in that same space? Probably not. Was the rest of the surrounding area open to avalanche potential? Definitely…but we already knew that! We were here to climb Mt. Cook. For me, nothing had changed. This avalanche had simply made it visually vivid as to how exposed we were.
Watching everyone heli out of Plateau, leaving us to sleep outside the hut, was one of the most enlivening moments I’ll never forget. Saying no to evacuation made no sense and perfect sense at the same time. I fully respect J.D.’s decision to heli out. The guy just recovered from breaking his back flying off a mountain in the States. He was part of the final heli load to depart, leaving me, Georges and three other mountain convicts on the glacier. I had walked out close to the heli to film them taking off and J.D. was filming us from inside. Just as the skids left the snow, we made eye contact and saluted each other. Fuck, I will never forget that moment. We spoke about it afterwards and it seems that he won’t either. It’s incredible how hard it is to say enough is enough sometimes and I’m very much aware of it. Props J.D., ya made a solid decision.
So that was that and then there were five. I’ve spent a good amount of time doing stuff on the edge with Georges over the past two years in Queenstown. This, by far, topped everything. He’s got a reputation for being understated and modest to say the least. I don’t think there’s anyone in town that does as many sports to such a collective high standard as him. It’s not a rare thing to see Georges quietly pull off something that most people would make a big fuss about. He’ll just do it and carry on as if nothing happened… I also fully respect his decision making in the mountains, which I think is possibly the most important part of a relationship between mountaineers. Needless to say, there’s no one else I’d rather be committed to such a demanding adventure with. (Georges is also a champion gas bomber. The man seriously has superhuman rocket fuelled powers!)
The other three that decided to stay were also solo climbers. They were two glacier guides from Fox and a younger, extremely interesting German chick. She was tripping out when we shared summit plans and told her we were taking speedwings to the summit. I’m sure if we had a spare wing, she would’ve asked for a crash course outside the hut! As it turned out, we were both planning the same route up the mountain.
The atmosphere of our base camp had now changed. It was quiet, relaxed and we were very much on our own. Before the evacuation, there were three separate guided parties. With that said, you always know in the back of your head that if it goes wrong up there, then there’s a lot of experienced mounatineers around. From this point on, we had to make concise decisions. Although the intensity of the situation was still present, I felt myself relaxing into the evening. The guides had left behind a box of luxury mountain food that they’d brought in on the heli for their clients. We also had a box of wine and a million dollar sunset. Summit eve could be worse! We chatted it up and prepared our equipment. In less than six hours, we’d be turning on head torches and attempting to climb Mt. Cook.
With my heart racing with the anxiety of crossing the avalanche, I couldn’t sleep. Actually I think I got about half an hour, sixty whole minutes at a push. It didn’t matter. I was amped and ready to go as soon as the alarm went off just before midnight. Harness on. Quick gear check. Helmet and head torch on. Drink as much water as you can. Crampons. Jacket. Gloves. One axe out. Let’s go.
That familiar crunch of crampons on night frozen snow was echoing into the cold silence. A perfect sky was above us, without a single cloud and a clear alpine panorama of stars. We reached the wall of the avalanche in minutes.
Climbing into it was a surreal experience. The sidewall was five metres high. I took one look back at the remote civilisation of our base camp and that was that. A few steps into the debris and we were surrounded. After taking our crampons off, Georges led the way through the chaos. For all the rock climbers out there, there’s new bouldering inside that avalanche! Boulders the size of small houses, pieces of rock the size of your hand, massive chunks of snow and ice and everything in between – crushed together in a chaotic mess. We were relatively safe as everything had frozen together during the night. But wow… That was something to remember. Georges laughed and shouted out that we could name the passage through and claim a first crossing. I think we settled on the Millet Letham Express.
Much quicker than we had anticipated, we were climbing off the other side and strapping our crampons back on. Sweet. Done. After a quick pee on it (in a fully ceremonious act to claim the avalanche as our own) we were roping up for our night journey through the crevasse fields. For the next five hours, we’d be at the mercy of the towering seracs above us.
We walked through the night. The chilling silence was broken only by our crampons piercing the snow and our occasional reassuring conversation. The first serac fell just as we were entering the ice cliffs. It put me on edge for a few hours, until I eventually relaxed through the tension. I felt the energy of Aoraki and worked to cultivate it into long and deep breaths, trying to hold together a relaxed rythym. Roped together, we fell into a mutual rythym of ascent anyway. You get to the point where you can feel your partners movements without having to look, through the subtle tension changes of the rope on your harness. On one hand, the rope keeps you alert and on the other, it allows you to relax. When tied together in these environments, its almost as if the rope is alive. Its movements form the foundation of your relationship as mountaineers.
By around 6am, we were reaching the end of the vulnerable part of our ascent. Under the Gunbarrel (the name for the largest and most intimidating serac tower), we had the Linda Shelf in sight. After crossing a frozen avalanche, we reached the bottom of it. Our climb of Mt. Cook had begun. I couldn’t be happier to have reached steep terrain and be out of the fall line of seracs. It was such a moral boost for me to be out of that russion-roulette terrain. With an axe in each hand and hard snow under blade, it was on. We were climbing Aoraki and the sun would be soon to rise.
Still roped together, we started climbing the Linda Shelf. The black outline of the rock buttress was visible above us. Taking a direct line above the bergschrund, we reached the steepest part of the lower climb quickly. Watching the black ink of the night sky slowly absorb colour before the sun rose was incredible. As the morning light began pouring in with the sunrise, our panorama opened up. We weren’t even close to the top and already the west coast was visible. I could see distant waves breaking on the shore. I remember promising myself that one day I would surf the west coast at sunrise and stare up at Mt. Cook from the ocean.
The next few hours brought more technical pitched climbing. Although exhausted and feeling slight effects of less oxygen in the higher altitude, the warmth of the morning sun was refreshing. We climbed around six protected pitches, up inside the couloir and through the summit rocks, which led us up and onto the summit ice cap. The slope angle was steep and the ice brittle and hard, but with careful axe and crampon placements it was all good. We were moving slow now, but with the summit in sight, there was no doubt that we were going to reach the top within an hour.
- Copyright Mark Watson
At around 11am on Monday the 21st January, I summitted Aoraki for the first time with the best partner I could ask for. Georges and I were both elated to be standing on top of New Zealand. I clapped my hands together for my father, as promised, and sent waves towards Europe via butterfly effect (one week later he told me that he surfed perfect waves in Portugal’s sunshine for three days!).
It was only five minutes or so of relaxed contempt on the summit, before the demand for focus arrived. The hours of dreaming, of visualizing, of imagining the possibility of launching speed wings from this very summit were now concentrated into present time. Now. We climbed Mt. Cook. When you dream of something for long enough, it’s the strangest feeling making that dream reality. You feel inside your dream and I could feel myself accepting it. It was strange and makes me now smile; as if my dream to fly from this peak was a childish notion – now I was standing here and the self-preserving and rational side of my brain had to accept it! Ha! I called my own bluff. Here we were and in an almost comical realisation, there was only acceptance. Ok, Ben, do it. Let’s see it. Fly your ass off Mt. Cook.
The moments leading up to being clipped in and about to fly, seem now in memory to be a blur. Commitment – that word has definition to me now, if it didn’t before.. Complete submission and commitment. All you have is what you have and only those precise reflexes can allow you to perform the act. My take off wasn’t clean and far from perfect. With alpine packs and a rotor-filled crosswind, neither were the externals. But I’m writing this blog, so take off happened. I watched Georges go first, dissapearing off the ridge. Full-on and non-hesitant commitment. It had to be. I remember standing there afterward, hands on the control lines, staring off the face of Mt. Cook into the empty air below. My life never felt so real, so pure, so right there and living. I could feel every breathe and my senses were alive. I was as alive as I’ve ever felt. Those seconds before taking the first step, changed my life.
I must have stood there for three minutes, but it felt like three seconds. Three minutes was the length of Georges’s flight back down to the glacier and he radioed me instantly after landing. It went something like “Ben, take off was not good..I basically fell off the mountain..the air is not good either with lots of turbulence, so just be ready for it”. My Gopro recorded his dialogue and it’s pretty full-on listening to it even now. Georges is part of the best group of paragliding and speed wing pilots in New Zealand, who I very rarely hear voice concern in spicy situations. To hear those words from him was heavy.
With one step forward and complete commitment, I was airborn. The energy I felt in those moments on Aoraki has still not left me. I think it never will. It is, in essence, what I’ve been searching for. The ultimate high.