Four Aspects of the Compass: Eastern Promise

THE RAMSAY FACE OF MT WHITCOMBE.

Slightly built, reserved and with a disarming smile, Guy McKinnon doesn’t give the appearance of being New Zealand’s most active solo climber. He used to work as a museum host, managing to save money for his expedition climbing by living with his parents. Guy now lives in Aoraki Mt Cook Village and works for DOC seasonally. In 2010 he became the first climber to complete solo ascents of all 34 of New Zealand’s 3000m peaks, a feat accomplished over 15 years.

He says he didn’t set out to be a soloist, but it fitted in with his work life, ‘As a working man it was always difficult to find and keep partners and I never had the public holidays most club climbers had.’

It’s the exploratory nature of mountaineering that attracts him the most.

‘If I could be reborn into any era in climbing history it would be as a gentleman of the British Alpine Club, traipsing around the Himalayas with Frank Smyth or Eric Shipton. Back in the day when mountaineering was still a romantic exercise, not merely a competition between branded athletes. Otherwise I’d hold the rope for Fred Beckey in his younger days climbing in the Cascades and the wider North American continent.’

Guy points out that he has done plenty of climbing with other people, but that after wrecking his ankle in 2005 falling on the North Ridge of Aoraki Mt Cook , it was easier to go it alone. The injury made him too slow, he claims; he was the weak link, always apologising.

Guy thinks his most satisfying solo climb is the Hidden Balfour Face of Mt Tasman—one of the steepest ice routes in the Aoraki Mt Cook region. He climbed this in 2001. The route takes a line from the high and remote Balfour Glacier , directly up to finish on the ridge between Torres Peak and Mt Tasman.

‘The details are a bit hazy as it was years ago and I was still young—a different person than I am now. I’d already walked away from the route once because of the awful approach (to the face). It’s threatened by a truly colossal ice cliff. But I was irked by this and after some time went back and just went past the cliff as fast as I could. Once I was on the steep ice I had to pull it off as there was no way back. It was strenuous and steep in one section with a devious bit of rock to negotiate but once I’d done that I knew I had it in the bag. I just needed to concentrate, show respect to the mountain and not take any shortcuts. I was back to the tent after eight hours. I was impressed with myself.’

His winter ascent of the Ramsay Face of Mt Whitcombe caught the imagination of both climbers and the public for its audacity and foresight.

‘I enslaved myself to an obsession to do this climb,’ Guy says, ‘I’d been travelling into the area for a number of years and Mt Whitcombe was always there—a muscular thug of a mountain. I’d read the stories about the race for the first ascent of the face, and about the dangers.’

He first tried the route in July 2006, but doubted his ability and retreated, claiming the mountain was too steep, too dangerous. A year later he was back. The weather was perfect and this time he was 300 metres up the face before being hit by an avalanche—and surviving.

‘There was a mighty boom and I didn’t bother to look up. Snow rushed over me, between my legs, down my neck. When it was over I was still there. I could barely concentrate on getting down. I was thinking, What if you finally go and get yourself killed!? You’ve already pushed your luck. When will you be satisfied? These thoughts felt like gravity, and you can’t argue with gravity. You just go down.’

In July 2007 he was once again at the bottom of the face. ‘One way or another I’d sworn to climb this thing. How else could my life move forward?’

Conditions were better this time. There was less snow and more ice, with three bands of ice to be negotiated before the face narrowed in a steep gully. He realised the crux was likely to be the third band.

Of the first part of the climb, Guy wrote: ‘Things progress well as I climb a short ice step and up some snow to the second band. To my surprise I’m climbing fairly effortlessly. As I move across the lip the spindrift washes over me but the ice is so good I can place tools blind if I have to. I think, ‘I’m in the zone,’ whatever that means.’

From there he was committed to climbing the route. He was beyond retreat. He raced up steep snow and ice slopes to the third ice band—the crux: ‘I tighten my leashes and gloves and head off. Up and right slightly; it’s getting steeper now. A slight bulge to the left seems to hint at a rightward finish to this short step, so I place my tools high. Suddenly I’m out of ice! I’m on vertical snow; and I whack the tools into the white above me in vain. Shit! I shoulda gone left. I take a half step down and across, feeling very off balance. I sink a tool wide out, but my hands and feet skate across, leaving me hanging on my left arm. This is the kind of climbing I vowed never to do—everything is up for grabs and control is an illusion.’

Guy is at his physical limit, and grappling to maintain control of the situation. An inner voice told him to ‘slow down, slow down’: ‘I begin to make very small, calculated moves, and I feel my strength returning. I concentrate on each strike of my tools, and reach an off-vertical area where I can rest. I look up and see I have 200m of steep but straight forward snow and ice to negotiate. At this stage I know I’ve done it.’

On the summit a cold winter wind was blowing. The western slopes of Mt Whitcombe were packed with snow and impossibly beautiful. Guy turned to look back down the face, it was cast in shadow, but for the moment he was standing in the sunlight.