Adrenaline surges through me like a car on a Scalextric circuit. My heart thumps fast and loud like a foreboding tribal drum. I thrust the shaft of my ice axe into the snow, the shaft of my ice hammer further to my right. Then I pause and wonder again whether the footholds kicked by three people before me will hold out. The early morning sun is quickly softening the snow, making it treacherous – would kicking a new hole be better or worse?
I’m halfway across our penultimate pitch up Mount French (2356m) in New Zealand’s Mount Aspiring National Park, in the South Island’s south-west. The wall of snow is a few degrees from being vertical, and we’re inching across it sideways, like upright crabs. The snow continues below me steeply for about 300m before blending seamlessly into the Bonar Glacier, interrupted briefly by a jutting rock ledge. If I do fall, the snow anchor 10m away should halt my descent – theoretically. But in this slush puppy snow I don’t feel certain.
I scold myself for needless pessimism and reoccupy my mind with the simplicity of the task. I exact a firm kick into the snow, two, three more times, to be sure – then move on, tentatively. Another minute and I’ve reached the others. Another 20 and the four of us are exchanging handshakes and smiles, and snapping photos on the summit. It’s my third summit in five days. I’m thirsty as hell and have an uncommon yen for sugar, while muscles all over my body are calling out for mercy. I feel absolutely fantastic. It’s a honeymoon hit from a new drug.
Until I visited New Zealand I’d been merely an armchair alpinist, yet I couldn’t resist the Southern Alps as they repeatedly called out my name. Full of gung-ho hubris, I hired an ice axe and crampons and started on the Ball Pass Crossing, an alpine route over the Mt Cook range. Roughly a third of the way along I found myself involuntarily descending at great speed. But for a few sideways rolls, I might not be here today. I thought it might be time to learn a few basic mountaineering skills, so I enrolled on a seven-day Mountaineering Instruction Course with the Wanaka-based Adventure Consultants (started by Rob Hall, who died on Everest as harrowingly told in Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air).
Climbing is not a cheap pastime. As well as an ice axe, ice hammer, ice screws, snow stake, helmet, harness and numerous other bits of hardware, the equipment list includes three different types of trouser. Luckily, most essentials can be hired.
After meeting our softly spoken guide, Anna, and two other participants, day one was spent organising and trying on several thousand dollars’ worth of kit. We drove into the steep Matukituki Valley, then scrambled into a helicopter for an exhilarating 20-minute ride down the narrowing valley, alighting on Bevan Col (1800m), our base camp for the week.
It was a truly stunning spot. Nestled between the snow-clad Mount Bevan, which loomed directly in front of us, and the Mount Joffre range behind, with the Tasman Sea in the distance and peaks (I counted 19 in all) stretching to the south, we also had front row seats for the mesmerising and massive Bonar Glacier which looked like a massive silk sheet that had been repeatedly slashed by Freddy Krueger. That afternoon we practised methods of self-arrest (stopping a slide – no handcuffs involved).
After donning our armour the next day, including a share in a 60m rope, we learned how to make prusiks with slings (enabling rope ascent) and how to rope-up for glacier travel, the threat of sliding into a hidden crevasse omnipresent. The knots seemed impossibly and needlessly complicated at first, but by the course’s end I knew their value and could do them blindfolded. We took it in turns to lead as we zigzagged through the glacier field, glancing warily into the hidden ice worlds as we traced the length of crevasses.
Another day we practised using ice screws and making safe snow anchors. Then came the glamour skill – ice climbing. It seemed so heavily reliant on instincts: the sound of axe hitting ice, the feel of a precarious crampon hold. A few slips and I could hear those tribal drums again. When do we cut the rope, like in Touching The Void?” asked some wag. We learned about reading the weather, trip planning, navigation and more besides. We also practised crevasse rescue. This involved walking into a large hole and hoping your partner broke your fall before you reached the bottom, then constructing a complicated yet effective pulley system to yank you back up.
Now, sleeping out in the snow under the watchful arm of Mount Aspiring, all our hard work has come to fruition. Nicknamed the Matterhorn of the south, at 3033m it’s the park’s highest. As ever, the lingering sunset is magical. It’s overwhelmingly peaceful watching millions of stars twinkling above the beguiling peak. I swear I’ll be back with my new skills to climb it soon. I’m completely hooked – beyond salvation.
New Zealand’s highest peak, Aoraki/Mt Cook, stands at 3763m compared to Everest’s 8848m, meaning that the Southern Alps could easily be seen as a mountaineering playground. But it’s a playground where, if the apparatus aren’t treated with due respect, even the big boys fall off the swings. This is, of course, where Sir Edmund Hilary learnt his clove hitch from his Italian hitch before conquering Everest with Tenzing Norgay in 1953.
The most popular climbing region is Mount Cook National Park. Situated in the middle of the South Island it has 22 peaks over 3050m. The quieter Mount Aspiring National Park, in the south-west, has the highest peak (Aspiring) outside the Mt Cook region and boasts more than 100 glaciers.
Though relatively small, the country has many technically challenging summits. The lack of seriously large peaks in New Zealand makes it an excellent place to hone technical skills without having to battle with the effects of altitude. Plus, the traditionally capricious Kiwi weather can often make climbs eventful. There are a handful of professional guiding companies running domestic and international excursions.”