Beginner’s luck

May 20

A CLIMBER NEGOTIATES THE LINDA GLACIER. PHOTO: GAVIN LANG

Mark Thomas’ first time up a mountain was bigger than most, but so was the reward.

THE YEAR WAS 1994. SUMMER. I HAD NEVER CLIMBED A MOUNTAIN BEFORE, THOUGH I HAD DONE A SMALL AMOUNT OF ROCK CLIMBING ON THE OUTDOOR WALL IN MORAY PLACE, DUNEDIN. I KNEW ABOUT AORAKI/ MOUNT COOK, BUT NOT AS AN OPTION FOR ORDINARY BLOKES. I THOUGHT IT WAS ONLY FOR SUPERSTAR CLIMBERS, THE LIKES OF ROB HALL AND GARY BALL. ME, I HADN’T EVEN TRIED ON CRAMPONS.

I remember I was a bit surprised when my mates explained we were off to climb Zurbriggen Ridge.

“How about a sea kayaking trip this summer?” I said to my friend, John Williams.

“Nah mate,” John replied, “We’re off to climb Cook. You’ll be right.”

And so the wheels were put in motion for a mission I had no business being on. A mission which helped define me as a person. I stumbled into a wild part of Aotearoa New Zealand that awed me. At the same time, I tapped into a new wild and free compartment of my soul.

We flew into Plateau Hut, where I was introduced to the concept of using an ice tool to self-arrest. John, who I used to call Sherpa because of his love of the mountains, took me out on the glacier and instructed me in the basics of stopping myself from sliding to an imminent death. I remember the disapproving looks of seasoned mountaineers as it became obvious a complete novice had stumbled into the cauldron of New Zealand’s alpine climbing scene. And, oh my god, I remember the mountain.

“a complete novice had stumbled into the cauldron of New Zealand’s alpine climbing scene ”

Mount Cook loomed massive and imposing, the stark white of the snow against the sharp blue relief of the sky. Surely we weren’t going up that thing? It was huge.

As we went to bed the night before the climb, I had some insight into how soldiers must feel before going into battle. I didn’t know much about mountaineering, but I knew I may not return.

Our alarms went off at 2am, and we started scurrying around the darkened hut, head torches strapped to our foreheads like hushed but manic coal miners. It was surreal, and frightening. I was locked into my course of action.

Out on the ice, there was a terrible beauty as we crunched across the snow, not talking, taking in the immense silence, the snow shimmering ghostly, the starlit sky impossibly brilliant.

I was scared. I was in awe.

On the approach to the ridge, we roped up for a tricky section through some rock and ice. I was bringing my mate, Grant “Bunt” Hanan up on belay when he slipped. I heard the sound of his crampons scrabbling for traction on the hard rock. I felt his weight come onto the rope as I braced.

My guts turned. This was real.

Once we gained the Zurbriggen Ridge, the ropes came off and it was every man for himself. It was steep and lonely, and after a couple of hours’ climbing, I looked down. All I could see were the front points of my crampons sticking into the ice, an inch or so of metal on each foot between me and the sheer drop below, between me and oblivion.

THE SUMMITS ROCKS ON AORAKI: LOOKING DOWN ZURBRIGGEN RIDGE TOWARD THE GRAND PLATEAU.

“Oh well, there’s no turning back now,” I thought. I was a keen skier and had spent time on ski fields, but I had zero frame of reference for the situation I now found myself in. It was all on me now. I had to keep it together or I would die. Ski patrol weren’t coming to help.

As a lifetime sufferer of depression, I had often fantasised about death. Right there, that was the transformative moment. The moment when I had to look deep within myself and see what I had. I pushed on up the ridge. Chunk, chunk, ice axe, ice axe. Chink, chink, crampon, crampon. A strong katabatic wind got up and started pelting me with tiny frozen ball-bearings. I could see the gusts coming down toward me and I hunkered into the side of Mount Cook to wait for each stinging blast to pass.

Was I in a dream? Clinging to the ice of the Zurbriggen Ridge, an insignificant speck of humanity under attack from a malevolent maelstrom. This was quite a lot more intense than the sea kayaking I had envisaged for my holiday.

I caught up with another friend from our party, Marcus Thompson. He had lost his water bottle and asked for a sip from mine. I marvelled at how totally relaxed he seemed.

SKIERS DESCENDING THE EAST FACE, THE FACE A CLIMBER ASCENDS WHEN HEADING UP “ZURBRIGGEN’S”. THEY ARE RAPPELLING THROUGH A HORRIFYINGLY STEEP 100-METRE ICY SECTION NEAR THE TOP, AS YOU DO. PHOTO: GAVIN LANG

Eventually we reached the top of the ridge. The strongest pushed on to the summit, while Grant, Marcus and I knew enough to quit while we were ahead, and turned for the descent through the Linda Glacier.

It wasn’t steep like the terrain we had just been on, but it was dangerous, and demanding. Seracs loomed over us, and we had to cross gaping crevasses. By now it was getting late and rather than detour around the crevasses, we developed our own technique for crossing them. We roped up and took turns at being the first across, making a running leap and hurling ourselves at the opposing wall, crampons and ice axes protruding, clawed cats preparing to shimmy up a tree. Once across, each leaper would set up an anchor and bring the others over.

It may have been the direct route, but we weren’t fast, and when night fell we were still hours away from the safety of the hut. I was tired, more tired than I had ever been in my life and, as we trudged across the glacier, every now and again my legs would collapse and I’d find myself lying face down on the hard, cold snow.

“Come on boy, up you get,” Bunt urged each time I hit the deck.

We made it back to the hut almost 24 hours after leaving it the previous morning. We rested for a day. The fine spell of weather continued. Now rather than looming, the mountain beckoned, and I was gripped with summit fever.

Those of us who hadn’t made it to the top – me, Bunt, Marcus and Greg Cain – decided to return, there and back via the Linda Glacier. I once again found myself in totally foreign territory, high on a steep section of New Zealand’s biggest mountain, without the knowledge to navigate the terrain safely. I led the climb through the crux of the ascent, the summit rocks. This time we were roped up and one of the boys had me on belay below, but I was so gripped with fear I couldn’t bring myself to stop, even briefly, to put in protection. Had I fallen, there was nothing to stop me hitting the deck.

When I got to the top, I trussed myself to the side of the mountain like a neurotic city dweller engaging multiple deadlocks on their apartment door, convinced more was better, trying to feel safe while actually being terrified. I brought the boys up on the rope.

“What happened to the protection?”, Bunt asked. I just shook my head. I had no answer.

We had done it. We had climbed Aoraki / Mount Cook. If I had died, I’m sure the coroner would not have been kind to me. NOVICE CLIMBER GOT WHAT HE DESERVED. But I survived, and I achieved something I never ever dreamed of, or even contemplated. After we got to the top of the Zurbriggen Ridge, I remember Sherpa saying, “You can be proud of that mate.”

I didn’t have skill, or experience, but I did have heart. And I discovered a reservoir of self- reliance I didn’t know I possessed.

WELL, THAT’S TERRIFYING. ZURBRIGGEN RIDGE PHOTO: GAVIN LANG

I also realised I didn’t want to die. High on that mountain, when death was closer than it had ever been before, I found out I wanted to live. Putting myself at extreme risk made me appreciate life. The whole experience was startling and beautiful.

Back in Dunedin I called in at The Percolator Cafe for a coffee. My barista, Ruth, used to seeing me heavy with the weight of office work and depression, said, “You look different.” She thought for a moment. “You look like you belong.”

MARK THOMAS

Mark Thomas lives in Hawea Flat with his wife Janey, dog Kramer and ginger cat Big Eddy. He earns a living as a chimney sweep, and spends his free time chasing swell, wind and snow.


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