Four Aspects of the Compass: Northern Exposure

THE NORTH BUTTRESS OF MT HOPKINS

Paul says he’s not mentally tough enough to match the ‘really top guys,’ but admits that over the years he has notched up a solid reputation for making first ascents in the less obvious corners of the Southern Alps. Not the hardest routes, he says, just a fair number of them.
‘I guess I’m a solid all round climber—not the best, but certainly not the worst. I enjoy all types of climbing although I’m not particularly good at any one thing.’
His pathway into mountaineering has been self-taught and erratic. He claims he had no idea what he was doing when he started climbing and his ascent of Aoraki Mt Cook very early on in his career was far beyond his skill level and it was ‘a miracle we got up and down in one piece.’
The exception to Paul’s modest appraisal of his climbing is his first ascent of the colossal North Buttress of Mt Hopkins in 2006. He climbed this with Kynan Bazley —a New Zealand doctor currently living in British Columbia—and it’s one of the few truly meaty new climbs done in New Zealand during the 2000s.
‘I’d wanted to climb the North Buttress of Hopkins since first seeing a photo of it in a guidebook,’ Paul says. ‘The remoteness, the pureness of the line, the fact others had tried and failed on it—this all made it appealing to me.’
The North Buttress of Hopkins towers westward over the beech forests of the Landsborough Valley, a tremendous 1100-metre hatched arc of black and red rock fringed by the Le Blanc and Romping Water icefalls. The mountain itself is guarded by Black Tower to the west and a long sinewy rib of snow leading far down to the flat expanse of Barron Saddle to the north. Beyond Barron Saddle is the white and grey speckle of the Mueller Glacier and beyond that again the Mt Sefton and Aoraki Mt Cook massifs. To the west is a glimpse of the West Coast beaches and to the south the long Hopkins Valley drifts lazily away and out to Lake Ohau.
Paul admits that when he and Kynan were paused at the bottom of the route on the morning of the start of their ascent he ‘silently cursed himself for being there’.
‘Standing at the base contemplating a climb that looks to be never-ending, as this one did, is the time when I most doubt myself. Dithering lets those negative thoughts ooze through the cracks of your resolve,’ he says, ‘and before long you start to think that maybe this is the climb when your luck will finally run out.’
The pair started up the climb early on the morning of 15 January after flying to Dobson Saddle and spending a night in a bivouac. For the first two hours they climbed unencumbered by the rope, soloing 500 metres of slabs and shallow corners, and skirting around the occasional overhang. Sometimes they climbed close by each other, sometimes they moved apart. ‘We each worked to our own internal rhythm, responding and making decisions about the terrain ahead,’ Paul says.
Paul and Kynan stopped for lunch near the tongue of the Le Blanc Glacier. From here they could see the laid-back western slabs of Mt Foster, the steep cragginess of Mt Townsend and the pile of rotten rock that is Black Tower. The day was sublime, there was not a breath of wind and not a cloud within 100 miles.
Paul says at that point he felt relieved at how easy the climbing had been, but nervous about the steepening ground above. ‘I felt I was keeping it together, but still wasn’t convinced about the outcome. There is a certain paradox about not wanting the mountain to roll over and play dead, as it were, but then cursing it when its claws are extended.’
After lunch they began a section of focused soloing up rounded arêtes, the angle here was not so steep, but positive holds were lacking. ‘It was intense and yet relaxed, and I was overwhelmingly convinced that this was where I was supposed to be. Then Kynan called about getting the rope out and it broke my sense of flow.’
For the next seven hours the pair moved relentlessly upward, running out ropelength after ropelength, communicating with nothing more than a nod or a word.
‘I lost count of the number of pitches we did. The ground became increasingly difficult as we moved up and right towards the summit ridge. At this stage I began to hate my altimeter watch. Earlier in the day the vertical meters had flown by; now every metre was fought for, every pitch seemed to bring us no closer to the summit. On one pitch we even went backwards.’
The hours rolled forward and both Paul and Kynan began to tire. Paul wanted nothing but to ‘get the bloody thing done with and be back home to normality. I want to be back on level ground.’
Kynan, who had been doing the majority of the leading, hesitated at a section where the undercut ridge had no footholds or handholds. He was forced to stand on a sliver of rock at the edge of the overhang with nothing but hundreds of metres of space beneath him, spinning down to the Le Blanc icefall far below. Paul says it took all his focus to follow Kynan, to concentrate on the move that would get him to a secure stance. ‘I was so tired,’ he says, ‘and I compared myself repetitively to Kynan, who seemed continually composed and with-it. But in another sense I felt I was finally coming close to my ‘real’ ability as a climber.’
By now the pair knew they must be close to the summit, after all they had been climbing upward for 14 hours. A small face streaked with grey and white quartzite appeared above them. Kynan paused to place two small wires before gingerly leaning across to reach a tiny overhanging off-width crack.
‘At this point I was thinking, Jesus, what next? But Kynan climbed on without much fuss and disappeared over the horizon line to find a belay, with a wee hoot.’
Three pitches later Paul and Kynan reached the summit in the slanting evening sunlight. As the sunset faded the pair ate crackers and salami and contemplated their next move—whether it should be to head down a ways before dark, or bivouac there and then on the summit. They’d been on the go for 17 hours.
‘This remains the most full-on climb I’ve ever done,’ says Paul now, ‘and it provided me with a full spectrum of emotions. Joy and satisfaction, even though I knew this would fade and I’d have to put myself out there again.’