South (Hillary) Ridge Of (Aoraki) Mt Cook at New Year

The Hillary Ridge of Aoraki Mt Cook with the Caroline Face on the right.

A couple of years ago there was a big national debate in New Zealand whether to rename the South Ridge of Mt Cook ( now called Aoraki Mt Cook) the Hillary Ridge, in remembrance of our icon Sir Ed who died recently. The argument didn’t just involve the climbers- it seemed to embroil much of the public as well.

Sir Ed made the first ascent of the South Ridge in 1948, He was guided by Harry Ayres. “Should the ridge be named after Hillary when in actual fact Ayres guided him,” went the argument. Would Sir Ed have wanted the ridge named after him anyway? Probaby not. Shouldn’t it just stay as the South Ridge? Probably. Back and forward went the debate for quite a few months. Eventually it was decided to honour Sir Ed by changing the name to Hillary Ridge…and so it stands.

The Hillary Ridge was one of the two routes I had left to climb on Aoraki Mt Cook and I’d been making plans to do it for some time. But for one reason or the other the plans had always fallen through. But I decided it was this summer or bust, before my arthritic knees and ankles got the better of me. I enlisted an unsuspecting Canadian friend over on an academic sabbatical, and we headed off up the Hooker Glacier on a lovely fine day just after New Year. After eight hours of stumbling up the moraine we reached our bivi site at the base of the West Ridge, where the Noelene Icefall comes down to meet the Hooker. I could tell Rob wasn’t that impressed with the days jaunt, but he kept his mouth shut.

We were away at 1am, me out in front trying to negotiate a way through the icefall. We stumbled round in the dark trying to fathom the crevasses until 5am, when we miraculously fell upon the base of Endeavour Col, the start of the ridge proper.
“Jeez, these Noo Zealan glaeciers aren’t like the ones at home!” Rob said.To my increasing embarrassment, several rocks just missed our heads as we climbed the narrow couloir up the Col. We reached the Col at 7am, many hours behind schedule. The sun was up and blazing.

Surprisingly, we climbed the ridge itself in good time. Ice conditions were great as we traversed out over the Caroline Face for the first section of the climb. We negotiated the rock towers easily, and there wasn’t a breath of wind on the long slog up the summit ice field to the low peak of Cook. We put the rope on for a few pitches but mostly climbed ropeless within a few meters of each other. From the top, Rob thought the views west to the coast and east out over the McKenzie Country were amazing. At 2.30pm we started the decent down the Nor’West Couloir back to our bivi site.

Descending the couloir is a bitch. If you abseil, it takes hours. If you down climb, you run the risk of being knocked off by rockfall, and it’s a killer on the calves. We down climbed, but I could tell Rob wasn’t happy. Half way down I stopped to take a photo, pulling off my nice Berghaus gloves to use Rob’s camera. One of the gloves slipped out of my hands, I made a lung for it, almost fell, and in the process (my God!) dropped the camera, which leapt off down the slope, in increasingly wild bounds. I was very despondent- I now owed Rob a camera, plus my favourite glove lay in some crevasse way below me.

We reached the bottom of the Nor’West Couloir at 6.30pm, and were forced to do a 60m abseil off a snow bollard to cross the enormous bergschrund guarding the exit. Rob had never seen, let alone used a snow bollard before, and his face was a picture of doubt. “No way,” he said. But he had no choice. Then one hundred meters from the bergschund we came across a very deep overhanging crevasse that was just too far to jump. We stood at the edge dithering and psyching for awhile, then resorted to abseiling into the gloomy (and dangerous) abyss where the crevasse ran out against the rock. Then we had to pitch our way out again. By now it was getting dark and I could tell Rob had about had enough. Fortunately nothing more untoward happened and we were back at our bivi site at 9.30pm.

Back home, I was very pleased, I had my tick. And to my surprise, Rob rang a few days later to say it was the best days climbing he had ever had. Funny how you forget the bad bits!