26 October 2011

North Face of Mt Hicks

From My Memoirs:

North Face of Mt Hicks - 1957

From our snow cave high on the La Perouse Glacier, we had to drop down the glacier and sidle left to get to the foot of the, then unclimbed, north face of Mt Hicks. We’d had a big yesterday on Tasman and a late start meant that we didn’t get onto the rib until after eleven. Our initial intent had been to climb up the snowfield, which runs up under Dampier. A few whirring sounds and the bulging ice cliffs above dissipated our resolve and we scampered over to the nearest rib of Hicks adjacent to the bottom of the snowfield. At first there was nothing too difficult about the rock, but after a few hundred feet the big nose on the rib appeared more ominous. Jim Wilson and Mike White were ahead when we reached it and were investigating a shallow gully immediately to the northeast of the nose. When Dave Elphick and I caught up they were scratching about on what seemed to be a steep smooth ice-worn part of the gully – and voicing doubts about its feasibility.

Looking Up Gully Crux on Hicks
Dave Elphick on Crux
We elected to investigate the rock further away from the ridge crest and soon found ourselves in a chimney, which offered a good belay point. Dave climbed on above me in the chimney and, discovering a route, backed down and traversed horizontally out onto a little face where he put in another belay – a good lead, given our ‘all purpose’ footwear of the time. I climbed through and extended our progress until we were above Jim and Mike. It was now getting late and via a lot of shouting into the cloudless sky we decided to separate, Jim and Mike electing to descend, Dave and I lured on by our position above the crux and the clear weather. We climbed onto the crest of the rib and continued, sharing the lead and leapfrogging belays up what was a superb arĂȘte, at times narrow, at others offering airy ledges and diagonally slanting open chimneys.
BLS above Rib Nose (Photo: DJE)
BLS on Upper Rib (Photo: DJE)

Towards the top we sidled left and the afternoon was over when we finally reached the Dampier-Hicks ridge. A short scamper on crampons along the ridge took us to the summit soon after the sun set. The lights of the Hermitage shone up through the gloom of the Hooker Valley. It was 8pm and we were in for a night out. Despite the clear sky, a cool breeze had sprung up and we settled down behind a little rock sangre, rapidly built in the last of the light. We had no warm gear other than our jerseys and parkas; we tucked our feet and lower legs into our roomy Mountain Mule packs. The night was spent shivering, turning every few minutes to give relief to our outer sides and checking the time. Our equanimity was disturbed about four in the morning as the moon rose beyond Dampier and we could see hog’s backs starting to form over Cook. The wind was steadily rising.

At four we switched on our torches and nervously made our way back down the ridge to the top of our rib. Here we awaited dawn and enough light to climb. Right on the cue of dawn the storm struck. We had no choice but to go down and from the very start the rocks iced up. Every foot placement was deliberate and the NW wind, rocketing up the face, had the rope between us arching up into the sky. The ice and rock made short work of my woollen gloves. We continued for hours, each of us encased in our little cone of concentration, all sense of exposure lost in the storm. All along we wondered how we’d manage at the nose on the rib, our crux of the previous day. For several of our trips Dave had argued, one against the three of us, for the inclusion of a 200 ft thin rappelling line in the party gear. Now in the icy gully beside the nose Dave unpacked his ‘bloody rope’ (as we called it) and arranged a good sling on one of our two precious pitons. In sleet we abseiled down our crux of the previous day. At the bottom of the abseil I was going up and down like a yo-yo on the thin line and luckily had just enough rope to make it to a stance. Dave joined me and we down-climbed and abseiled again, now in torrential rain, before heading off onto the snow. We were moving very slowly now, not because of deliberation, but because we were bloody cold. Speech was difficult. We wasted no time, packed the ropes away, and moved out onto the snowfield and the La Perouse Glacier with as much vigour as we could muster. We managed to warm up a little and just kept moving on up the neve hoping we wouldn’t miss the cave. At about 1pm we heard a shout and there in the sleet, starting to move away from the snow cave, were Jim and Mike. They had warm gear and drink in their packs and had decided to go looking as far as the bottom of the face. We all dived back into the cave and they helped us get out of our sodden gear and into dry clothes and sleeping bags. Ah, that hot brew. We emerged from the snow cave two mornings later. The face of Hicks was plastered with snow and we contemplated our narrow escape. The following morning we went out over Clarke Saddle.

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