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A Spring Foray to the Upper Bonar Glacier (November 2015)

By: Rob Hawes, Nina Sawicki and Mark Henson

Source: Vertigo Newsletter

It has taken some two months from completing this trip to having peace of mind to write of its beauty and challenges. The intervening weeks have been fractured with the death of two climbing companions. I have felt halted in a “no-man’s land” where it has felt disrespectful to speak of alpine beauty knowing that it has just claimed the life of one mountaineering friend.  Despite our communal and often unspoken awareness of the inevitability of risk we are nonetheless shocked and distressed by a friend’s death. My other friend died by suicide. Ironically, the beauty and the inherent challenges of climbing had probably gifted us his presence for longer. The mountains take but they also give.

Rob, Mark and I had planned to climb Mt Avalanche last year having seen it on several occasions both from the summit of Aspiring and during that slog across the Bonar glacier. Mt Avalanche seems the poor relation of Aspiring and does not draw the masses, yet it stands proud, flanked by its rocky buttresses at the head of the Upper Bonar seemingly guarding the passageway to the glacier below. We walked in on a clearing forecast but holed up at Aspiring Hut to wait out a wet day: none of us were keen to arrive at French Ridge Hut dripping wet in preparation for the week ahead. We made great mates with Stu, the hut warden, and later enjoyed his company at French Ridge Hut. Stu is fit, knowledgeable, experienced and understated: if you can draw him out he will talk of the many rescues he has completed (often solo) to retrieve bodies from under the schrund at the bottom of the Ramp. Stu later supplied us with goodies from the food stores at French Ridge Hut. The slog up French Ridge does not get easier (four years since my last foray) but this time there were no tears of exhaustion, just a quiet calm that eventually it would stop and we would arrive. This time I was spared the crop of blisters on my shoulders from the pack straps. I could be wiser and travelling lighter or maybe my shoulder skin is simply thickening like my foot pads?

We arrived at French Ridge Hut on a magnificent but windy day and took our time to absorb the surrounding beauty sipping endless cups of tea on the balcony.

Two climbers joined us in the late afternoon. They had completed a “hut to hut” climb of the SW Ridge of Aspiring (they soloed the crux in what they described as perfect conditions). Later I read that these two young men had been invited to join the NZ Alpine Team and so were building up their climbing portfolio in anticipation. We set off for the West Ridge of Avalanche the next day at 5.00 am: clear with a light wind. On the ascent up to the Quarterdeck we encountered perfect cramponing conditions and only one or two small slots to negotiate. We had stunning views west across to Earnslaw and as we gained height we could clearly make out the form of both the East and West peaks of Earnslaw. We paused to reflect on the death of Simon Bell: a talented young Wellington climber and aspiring engineer who probably went missing on the West Peak of Earnslaw almost a year ago (but now a year at the time of writing this). I felt my breakfast reverse its direction as Simon occupied my thoughts. I did not know Simon well but my last memory of him was at Unwin Hut in November 2014 over a shared meal post Aoraki summit celebration for Rob and I. Simon spoke excitedly of the months of climbing ahead on his planned break from work. What a magnificent spot to rest and in many ways it was comforting to see its grandeur: fitting for the person Simon was. I thought of the words of Geoffrey Winthrop Young (an early English Himalayan explorer).

What if I live no more those Kingly days?

Their night sleeps with me still,

I dream my feet upon the starry ways,

My heart rests in the hill,

I may not grudge the little left undone

I hold the heights, I keep the dream I won


Nina climbing up to the Quarterdeck in the dawn light

Maybe I have a romantic streak or maybe I struggle with the possibility of a life devoid of meaning but I think not. Not only did climbing enrich Simon but also the lives of those around him. I thank him for his support on difficult “steps” on various peaks that I may not have taken but for his encouragement.

The climb of the West Ridge of Mt. Avalanche continues up the glacier on the north side to avoid the gendarmes which guard the lower section of the ridge. We traversed across the top of the wind scoops and gained the ridge by traversing across to the west face and then delicately up to the bottom of the slabs. The first slab is straightforward but always a toss-up: crampons on or off?  I elected to keep them on as I actually find climbing with crampons helpful and I can get my spikes in those tiny cracks. I had bought new aggressive crampons specifically for this and they worked really well. There was an airy traverse round to the first slabs which was straightforward but exposed and this led us to another patch of ice: thin but cold and firm just below the second set of slabs. It was good practice to juggle standing on an exposed small ice stance while removing our packs, removing crampons, attaching them to the pack and then putting out packs back on all while standing on the small ice step with not a great deal to hold onto!

The second slab was steeper and more exposed. Uttering my proverbial frustrating un-committing “umm…” as I approached it, Rob kindly (and discretely) threw down a rope but once on the slabs they were actually quite straightforward. Mark came up behind me without a rope. Above the second slabs the climbing was straightforward but sustained and steep with a thin layer of ice on rock. It was not consistently hard and I heard the worrying sound of water running underneath. A recent winter climb of Single Cone with Nick Allen (CEO of Mastering Mountains: a charitable trust for people with Multiple Sclerosis) presented similar conditions and prepared me well. By the time we summated, the wind had picked up and some clouds had started to scud by.

The descent was straightforward but we were careful not to move too closely together, being cautious about the stability of the ice. We

Nina and Rob on the summit of Mt Avalanche

Nina and Rob on the summit of Mt Avalanche

abseiled off the higher slab and down climbed the lower one back down to the wind scoops.

The next day we had a rest day (inclement weather and wind) and we were joined by several entertaining professional guides and clients over the next few days as they returned from successful Aspiring summits. One of the most notable clients was a young engineer who was recovering from a fractured cervical spine, and he spent several hours in the bunk room doing his regular work-out. (“My goodness” I thought “Is not climbing Aspiring sufficient ..?” apparently not!)

Another guide from Italy had left behind three young children for the southern climbing season and was beholden to bring them back a picture of a sheep. However he was captivated by the antics of the Kea whom we thought would win the hearts of the children over the sheep. We enjoyed Stu’s food stash of goodies that day with a delicious full cream chocolate mousse being the high-light followed by my home-made bliss balls.

After a day of rest we headed up again to the Quarterdeck leaving at 4.00 am to climb the Popes Nose 2700 m. The day was brilliantly clear but the wind chill ferocious. The climb to the Pope’s Nose is 1400 m from French Ridge Hut and we again enjoyed perfect cramponing conditions. We encountered some large crevasses as we ascended higher to the ridge on the upper slopes of the glacier so we made a decision to get out the rope having felt confident un-roped on the lower Bonar.

As we climbed higher the wind chill intensified. We started the airy traverse (some 1000 m above the Kitchener Cirque) to the summit proper but I noted Mark about 10 metres ahead who had starting to down climb. “It’s too cold” he gasped. It was also extremely windy and both of us were struggling to stay upright: the prospect of a traverse above the Kitchener cirque was not appealing. My wide-bore water bottle with electrolyte solution froze within the last 20 minutes.

Mark decided to put on another layer and get out of the wind. I quickly put on my down jacket and within minutes we both felt better but I had to smash the ice in my bottle with my axe to get fluids. We watched Rob “two tool” along the final aspect of the ridge to complete the last few metres to the rocky summit proper and then make a rapid descent back to us. We descended quickly to the lower Bonar and the prospect of sunshine but it still remained bitterly cold. Mark had been unable to eat much and was not feeling that well and so headed back to the hut. After lunch Rob and I picked a nice line up the face of Mt. French: an enjoyable solo climb sussing out the firmer snow as we weaved our way through the rock bands.

I worked my way to the firmer snow top right and through the rocks to the summit ridge. Topping out on Mt French gave us spectacular views down to the Matukituki Valley below and an impressive view of the shadows of Gloomy Gorge. When we reached the hut Mark had perked up and was feeling better. The next day was another good climbing day and Rob sent off to climb the SW face of Mt. Avalanche (now confident of the descent route). I had some impressive blisters (probably from different forces on my boots with new crampons) and Mark decided on a rest day to really recover from his bug. Rob returned in the early afternoon successful and jubilant. Rob had first seen the SW face of Mt Avalanche many years back from the kitchen window of French Ridge hut and had long had his eye on it. The weather was good, the snow was well consolidated, he had time and we had established a descent route down the NW ridge from our earlier climb.

Rob departed around 3.30am for the Bonar, across to the flight deck arriving there at 5.30am and so was able to make use of “useable daylight”. He dropped down from the flight deck at 2300m to the Maud Francis glacier at 2000m. Rob moved across the Maud Francis and up to 2200m. He needed to pick his line and looking at a line from directly below is different from 2km away from the hut. Rob confirmed his ideal route with his GPS.

Just as Rob prepared to climb he glanced over his shoulder and the sun had just touched the tops of Sir William, Pluto and Mt Earnslaw, where our friend Simon had gone missing and Rob reflected for a while about Simon and decided to dedicate this solo climb to Simon.

The real climb started at 2300m and topped out just over 2600m and is a constant 60 degree slope. The first 100m vertical is on a snow slope with the next 200 on a lovely arête, 2 tools and front pointing all the way. With firm snow conditions it is a lovely climb, yes exposed, but given it is a direct line straight up, a very comfortable solo line. The climb topped out about 30m south of the summit and a little below it. It required a delicate traverse along a knife edge ridge which was the most challenging section of the climb. On one side of the traverse is the route just climbed, the other is the Hood glacier in the Kitchener Cirque – an unprotected fall either side was unacceptable. The traverse forced Rob from one side to the other and back several times and at times 1 tool and 1 foot on each side.

The reward was a pleasant, calm and clear summit. The descent was straightforward following the descent route from the earlier climb of the NW ridge. A solo climb of the SW face was a very pleasant and recommended 6 or 7 hour return day from French Ridge hut. We descended that day to Aspiring Hut along with the chirpy companionship of another guide also called Mark and his very fit client. With the heat in the valley that afternoon, the guide was happy to “let him go” and he sped off to the hut. We had a lot of fun that night at Aspiring Hut with the guide Mark and shared a lot of banter about gear and how to minimise pack weight (all my gear was strewn across the floor being scrutinised piece by piece). I’ll be cautious about complaining about the weight of my pack in future!

Mark (guide) told me later the news of Stefan Spörli‘s suicide but one week earlier in November. I felt the news like the blast of an avalanche, and I went immediately to wake (friend) Mark up (who was dozing) to share my grief. I struggled to physically get the words out of my mouth. Later in December when I spoke at Stefan’s memorial service at his parent’s house in Auckland I recalled that “visceral punch” on first hearing this news. Stefan was an exceptionally talented climber, skier mountain guide and artist. When I think of Stefan and his love of the mountains these words come to me.

Petrarch (c 1345):

Up where no over shadowing mountain stands

Towards the great and the loftiest peak

A fiery longing draws me

Shortly after this trip Rob and Steve Dowall set off to climb the North Ridge of Cook via the Empress Ice shelf. Steve never made it to Empress Hut and is presumed dead (although his body has not been located). Steve’s memorial service in Timaru in early December was a fitting tribute to a man of great integrity and commitment to the welfare of others. Like Stefan, it was evident that the mountains sustained Steve through his life, and something he had shared with his father Alf.

Ironically today as I complete this, I read in the Taranaki Herald of the legacy of Steve Dowall and his work In Myanmar addressing poverty and malnutrition. I have referred to three great men who have been woven into this story. We saw the resting place of Simon on this climb; we heard the news of Stefan’s death toward the end of our trip and I have delayed writing this to give space to both Steve and Stefan’s memorial services and to allow Rob time to process his grief before reflecting on his personal solo climb of the SW face of Mt. Avalanche.

As a doctor my work frequently presents the injustices of untimely death and illness. Something I have found helpful for me comes from a psychotherapist Stephanie Dowrick:

Life is frequently unfair. At such times, we should love more fiercely. Not less.

(Stephanie Dowrick)

Posted: 04/05/16

Posted By: Narina Sutherland