01 October 2011

NE Ridge Mt Evans

Step out of bed into your crampons – eventually emerge from your secure snow cave and crunch across a gently undulating snowfield towards the ridge of your dreams, crisp air and a blue sky – days don’t start much better than this.  Four of us have left our snow cave on Erewhon Col and we’re heading for the, then unclimbed, northeast ridge of Evans.  Its profile is just outlined above the snow ramp onto the East Ridge and it coyly hides away as we get closer.

NE Ridge of Evans (right)  and Golden Road (centre left)
We pause to hear the hush of the upper Whitcombe drifting up to us from beneath our feet, the green of the bush back-lighting the blue seracs of the Wilkinson icefall.  Now we have moved up our first couloir and across the Shelf Glacier.  In no time, we are at the first notch in the ridge. To the west, across the McKenzie, the wonderful cliffs beneath Park Dome have us dreaming of future challenges.
The early climbing is stunning with views to the right and left.  Soon we pass a cairn, surely left by Bob Watson and Jack Pattle when they retreated before a nor’wester a couple of years ago.   The five towers of the ridge are impressive and higher up appear ominously through a developing mist and we learn the art of taking each step as it comes.  One tower has a knife-like arête abutting into it.  Its prow looks impossibly foreboding – even overhanging.   Fortunately the alternative – a short drop towards the McKenzie, a sidle and some inspiring ribs of rock back onto the ridge, is our salvation. We climb steadily but, by mid-afternoon, the mist gets thicker and soon we’re climbing in cloud.  It seems appropriate that we should see ourselves, so high, our climbing projected into the surrounding mist.  Brocken above the Bracken! 
It was getting late and Jim Wilson wrote at the time, “A cool wind wrapping tentacles of the inevitable mist around us, brought with it fears of a storm, and the realisation of the distance still to go.”  Late in the afternoon the mist becomes damper as we surmount the north peak and then it clears momentarily enabling us to look back down on the last great outlier of the ridge – where we’d had a belated lunch.  It doesn’t look so bad from above.
Jim Wilson, Mike White and Dave Elphick on Evans Summit
It takes us an hour in cloud to reach the main peak.  On top there is a cairn and amongst the rocks we find an old tin containing the record of Pascoe’s first ascent of Evans.  We add our names and head off in the mist towards the Southern Cornice.  Decision time.
The drop from the Southern Cornice to the ‘Golden Road’ has never been descended.  We can see why.  Beneath the cornice is a steep 100ft snow slope followed immediately by an equal drop of rotten, weetbix rock.  We contemplate the alternative of the descent to Red Lion Col, the battle with its schrund, a long descent onto the Evans Glacier and an equally long trudge back up over Full Moon Saddle – and even a night out.  Something about the proximity of our snow cave tips the balance and we decide to descend Pascoe’s ‘piece de resistance’.  The decision seems easily taken but it seems very lonely on the Southern Cornice in the wetting mist, belaying Jim down the drop.  It’s too late to renege once he’s down the first rope length; descending last with no protection along the way isn’t so funny.  The rocky lower half is a huge stack of coppery-red boilerplate rock held together; by nothing more, it seems, than friction.  God, we are naïve – and lucky.
Eventually we are relieved to regroup at the bottom where the ridge abuts the base of the face.   We are at the wrong end of John Pascoe’s ‘Golden Road’ named from the Flecker poem of the time, in ‘Hassan’.
            “Sweet to ride forth at evening from the wells,
            When shadows pass gigantic on the sand,
            And softly through the silence beat the bells
Along the Golden Road to Samarkand.”
It is now well past 7pm and we make all possible haste along the rocky ridge.  Mike White and Dave Elphick elect to sidle the base of the last gendarme, high above the Shelf Glacier.  I’d reconnoitred the Golden Road the year before with Mike Kirby and I liked what I saw.  Today was to be even better, Jim and I go over the crest.  The climbing is exhilarating.  The mist clears revealing the light of a glorious sunset.  From our lofty perch we see, between the last shreds of the rising mists, the snowfield slopes back to our snow cave tinge in pastel shades.  Pascoe’s  ‘Golden Road’ indeed.  We regain the Bracken Snowfield and trudge happily back to our cave in the light of a rising full moon.  The Taj Mahal is great by moonlight.  Try returning over the Bracken, tired, with your climb behind you, bathed in moonlight.  No, you’re not hallucinating.