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Rock Climbing at Mount Cook

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Mount Cook is the Mecca of New Zealand Alpinism, but not knowing anything about ice tools or crampons, we were going in search of rock shoe fun on greywacke – New Zealand’s answer to sandstone. In New Zealand long, all day rock climbing routes are rare, but the area surrounding Mount Cook had several outings that boasted three stars for quality, however just one fell within our meagre abilities. Red Arête featured over a hundred meters of world-class alpine rock at a surprisingly accessible grade and we were keen to get it on our tick list. Even our South Island Rock guidebook bubbled with enthusiasm - “A truly marvellous day’s outing. Take a fine wine, French bread and soft cheese.” It then goes on with the more workman-like “Also take a handful of wires for clipping bolts, a couple of mid-range nuts or CDs and a large stack of quickdraws.”

Sebastopol Bluffs, just outside Mount Cook village, was our destination and we spent some time 500 meters away, beside the road, staring at the day’s proposition. We stood at the bottom of an almost flat U shaped valley, massive mountains with intimidating icefalls surrounding us in all directions. In the presence of such giants our objective looked trivial and we eagerly shouldered our loads and struck out for the cliff.

Twenty minutes later we stood at the base of the cliff. It didn’t look small anymore. It was gargantuan, swamping our peripheral vision. Leaning back with our necks strained, we still couldn’t make out the top and our heads swam. Putting off thinking about what we were about to do we busied ourselves flaking out the rope, sorting the rack and the other countless small jobs that had to be done. Trying to find the right route was a problem. There were so many lines of bolts it wasn’t possible to tell if we were on the right climb, we could easily have been on something well beyond our capabilities. “Oh well, we can’t stand here all day,” I said, parroting off my new favourite saying “You pays your money and you take your chances”

I led up the first pitch before any further indecision squandered the day. Everything felt right, the sun was on my back, the friction of the rock was good and my movements were fluid and panic free. After clipping each bolt I’d stop, steady myself and play those little mind games that keep you focused and cool. I’d take a couple of deep breaths, smile and imagine the sound of a carabiner clicking closed meaning I had made it three metres to the next bolt. Before I knew it I was at the top of the first pitch, 10 storeys off the ground on a small ledge. I quickly anchored myself and set up a belay for Phil and Barbara to follow. It was reassuring to feel my hands confidently knotting the rope and creating failsafes, they’d done it so often now no conscious thought was necessary.

Phil and Barbara quickly and easily joined me on my tiny ledge, which now felt totally overcrowded like a bar seat in a busy Dublin pub at closing time on a Saturday night. We speedily transferred the rack to Phil’s harness and he steadied himself for his lead. “Which line shall I take?” he asked pointing to three possible lines of bolts. “Just go wherever feels right”, I said, unwilling to let hesitation start to rot our confidence. Without further delay, Phil launched up the wall, the silence of the mountains now penetrated by his fiercely controlled breathing exploding out of his lungs.

Pitch 2 finished as easily as it had started and the rack was transferred from Phil back to me. As I stepped out from the safety of Phil’s belay into the uncertainty of the start of the third pitch the exposure of our situation, high on a cliff and surrounding by mountains, threatened to overpower my feeble mind games. Breathe, smile, clip and on I went. A small roof, normally not worthy of note, barred my way and I paused, searching for a risk free way of bypassing the obstacle. The moments hesitation allowed fear to grow and soon I was neither able to go up or down, almost frozen with uncertainties and possibilities. It was time to stop thinking and time for doing, so I gritted my teeth and swung my leg over the lip of the roof and heaved. The only obstacle of note passed I positively strolled to the next belay.

We sat around admiring the view and basking in the sun on the generous ledge at the top of pitch 3. Phil was high on the success of his previous lead and was gung ho to lead the next one, however, just a move or two into it he decided that it wasn’t as easy as it looked and backed off, gentlemanly offering me the lead.

He was right; it wasn’t as easy as it looked. The holds got a bit thin, well spaced and only the width of a finger deep, but the friction was good and the angle low enough. All well within my capabilities but none the less every time I clipped a bolt my mind would race and I’d have to fight the urge to back off. Every move had to be precise and controlled, no room for the strong but careless lunges that fear and desperation breeds. For the first time I started to entertain the idea that maybe we weren’t on the right route, maybe we wouldn’t be able to do this.

“You are coming to the end of the rope” Barbara’s voice broke me out of my self-examination. Sure enough I was nearly 30 meters above our last belay and the next set of anchors was a good 5 meters away, more rope than Barbara had to feedout as she was tied into the centre of our 60-meter rope. Surprisingly, having a crisis to deal with immediately snapped me out of any self-doubt, I held my position as Barbara untied, freed up rope and backed up every system like an old hand.

Soon we were all sitting together admiring the view. We didn’t have a fine wine, French bread or soft cheese, but our muesli bars and chocolate still tasted pretty good. Truly an exception day in the most spectacular of locations.

Pictures - click to enlarge
Picture of Barbara abseiling off Red Arête near Mt Cook New Zealand  travelogue
Photograph of Red Arête near Mt Cook New Zealand  travelogue
Barbara abseiling from the fourth pitch

Eying up the climb from the road

Picture of Barbara leading Red Arête near Mt Cook New Zealand  travelogue
Photograph of the view from Red Arête near Mt Cook New Zealand  travelogue
Barbara leading on day two

An icefall provides just part of the backdrop

Picture of Lake Tekapo New Zealand Traveloguee
Picture of Lake Tekapo New Zealand Traveloguees
Lake Tekapo
Lake Tekapo