2012 Easter in the Godley

Easter started perfectly. Stunning weather forecast, great objective and a solid climbing partner in my sister Christine.

We were off to climb Mt D’Archiac, a lovely mountain in the head of the Godley Glacier. I had climbed it two or three times in the past, but not in recent years. There was the promise of ice on the South Face, and we had use of the necessary 4WD to cut out the 22 mile walk up the Godley riverbed. Christine and I met in the small mountain town of Tekapo on Easter Friday, full of enthusiasm and confidence, and headed up the gravel road to Lilybank Station (read “high-country sheep-ranch”). We managed to bump the ensuing 22 miles of river bed without incident, thanks to Christine’s skillful driving and a certain amount of guess work as to the route. We arrived at Godley Hut late in the afternoon. All was good!

Next morning we started the seven hour walk up Separation Stream to the Separation icefall. My shonky knees were playing up and we were slow. We also realised, once we had a view of the south face of D’Archiac, that the ice routes weren’t formed enough to be a viable proposition….but never mind! There were plenty of rock routes. We climbed the Separation icefall late in the day, and set up camp on the level ice on a beautiful evening, with promise of an even better day to come.

Christine and I were away from camp before daylight, with the intention of climbing the SE Ridge of D’Archiac from Separation Col. The col was only an hour above our campsite, and we thought the 600m ascent to the summit would be straightforward and that we’d easily descend the East Ridge and be back at camp mid afternoon. But something about the SE Ridge had us uneasy; the rock looked steep, loose and unconsolidated. We decided to traverse the Forbes Glacier for a look at the East Ridge and possibly make this our ascent route. Open crevasses slowed our progress and we zigged and zagged here and there, finally reaching Revolution Col, the low point on the East Ridge, at about 10am. But again, the route looked menacing, and we could hear rock fall in the hidden gullies, out of our sight.

“Why don’t we climb the Denniston Glacier,” I said to Christine, “and try and get onto the North Ridge high up. That way we can stay off the rock for as long as possible.” She agreed, and we started a steep rising traverse across the top of the glacier, heading for an obvious notched breach in the North Ridge. We’d almost circumnavigated the mountain 180 deg! Unfortunately the sun was now on the upper reaches of the mountain, and the rock fall had begun in earnest. Boulders as large as televisions were bounding down deep icy gullies on the upper glacier, and we had to pause…then sprint, pause…..then sprint again to get across them. In the back of my mind I knew we shouldn’t be there, that this was too dangerous. But we pushed on, reaching a low point on the North Ridge, 100m from the summit, at midday. We paused to eat, and survey our situation.

Christine stared into the northern distance as she chewed on her sandwich. Then, “I’m not sure about this,” she said. “I really don’t like this rock. This mountain is a pile of f… rubbish.” I was silent for a minute, and then grudgingly agreed. She was right, this was unnecessarily dangerous…we should go down.

Front pointing back down the upper glacier it became obvious the rockfall had intensified with the midday sun. The gullies bombarded us, as we paused… then ran, paused… then ran. The most active gully was near the bottom, and I crouched in the middle for minutes as boulders shot over my head, and Christine yelled at me, “Keep your head down, keep your head down.” We were both across the gully when I heard a soft “yow” from behind. Christine was bent double. “I’ve been hit,” she said. “Where,” I replied. “On my calf,” she said, “but I can keep going.”

We down-climbed, but after several minutes Christine said, “There’s something wrong!” We rolled up her trouser leg to reveal the most awful gash on her upper calf, down to the bone and exposing all manner of tendon and ligament and blood vessel. We both became quite faint! “We’ve gotta get back to camp,” Christine said stoically, and after a creative patch up job using a Buff and a roll of strapping tape, we pressed on, reaching camp just on dark. What to do now?

By 4am I was on the march down the icefall, intent on reaching Godley Hut where I knew there was a mountain radio. I was very aware a NW front was moving in and that the necessary helicopter pick up for Christine was marginal with the rising wind. I stumbled down Separation Stream, and reached the hut by 10am. Flicked all the switches and twiddled all the knobs but the radio refused to respond…much to my consternation! Bugger! With nothing for it but to drive, I marched back to our vehicle muttering verbal abuse at the Department of Conservation and the New Zealand Alpine Club, both of whom were responsible for the upkeep of the radio. I gunned Christine’s little Suzuki Vitari into life. Roared aerially down the Godley River, driving with Formula 1 skill (despite putting several holes in muffler) but only found cell phone coverage once I reached Lilybank Station. By now the wind was raising great clouds of dust from the river flats and gusts pounded the vehicle.

I rang 111 (that’s ‘police’ in New Zealand). “I need a helicopter pick up for an injured climber IMMEDIATELY! The weather is closing in,” I squawked. “Hurry up!” Hurry they did and within 45 mins a helicopter wop-wop-wopped its way up Lake Tekapo towards me. On landing, a handsome and manly Search and Rescue personel indicated I take a seat beside him and we wobbled into the air and up-valley, into the gale. The pilot was tense with concentration as we dodged behind mountain faces, trying to shelter from the gusts. Even so the journey was fraught with bumps and jolts I, who hate helicopters at the best of times, was very scared! Finally we reached the Separation Glacier….but where was Christine! There was no sign of our little yellow First Light tent, no sign of my sister and her injured calf. Finally we spotted her waving frantically from the moraine where she had retreated to keep out of the wind. The pilot settled the helicopter on the ice and one of the SAR team jumped out and piled rocks on the skids, while myself and the other bundled Christine and our equipment inside. We roared into the air and shot of down valley with the gale behind us.

Next afternoon Christine had surgery at Timaru Hospital and the prognosis for a positive recovery is good. Even so, the incident has left me pondering the arguments for and against purchasing a Personal Locator Beacon. I realise we were lucky…the situation could have been that much worse; it could have been Christine’s head that was struck by that rock!