12 May 2016

Early Climbing Days - Eight - Mt Hicks (North Face) 1957

North Face of Hicks - route marked (Photo DJE)

Mt Hicks proved to be a bit of an epic. Time was running out for our climbing season based in the snow cave we'd inherited and enlarged on the upper neve of the La Perouse Glacier, to the west of Aorangi/Mt Cook in the summer of 1956/7. We did some great climbs from this base so we decided at the end on an attempt on the, then unclimbed, north face of Mt Hicks. The weather was fine as we dropped from our snow cave and sidled south towards the base of the face. We'd intended to climb as far up as possible using the snow but a threat of ice- and rockfall from above had us scampering over towards the the base of the first rib on the face. We arrived on the rib about two or three rope lengths above its base and roped up.

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 left 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 a gully – and voicing doubts about its feasibility.

BLS on Lower Rib (Photo DJE)

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 while Dave and I were 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 rock arĂȘte, at times narrow, at others offering airy ledges and diagonally slanting open chimneys. 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 nearby over Mt 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 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 sphere of concentration, all sense of exposure lost in the storm. All along we wondered how we’d manage at the 'nose' on the rib.

DJE in Chimney (Photo BLS)

Crux of Climb (Photo BLS)

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, bless him, 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. Luckily I had just enough rope to make it to a stance. Dave joined me and we down-climbed and abseiled once again, now in torrential rain and hail, 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; slow and blurred. 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 were Jim and Mike, starting to move away from the snow cave entrance. They had decided to go looking as far as the bottom of the face. We all dived back into the cave and they helped us out of our sodden gear and into dry clothes and sleeping bags. Ah, that hot brew. We'd been out from the snow cave for over 29 hours.

BLS Above Crux (Photo DJE)
BLS on Upper Rib (Photo DJE)

We emerged from the snow cave the next morning. The face of Hicks was plastered with snow and we contemplated our narrow escape. The following morning we went out over Clarke Saddle to the Hermitage in one day, a 21h epic. And I could write a book about that last day - my next blog post.