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First ascent of the South Ridge of Mt Cook

Sth_Ridge_Mt_CookThe following article was written by Ed Hillary after the successful first ascent of the South Ridge of Mt Cook. It was recounted in the New Zealand Alpine Journal Vol XII, No 35 – June 1948

The party of four, Ed Hillary and Ruth Adams, guided by Harry Ayres and Mick Sullivan, summited at 1:45 pm on Friday 6th February 1948.

“In recent years the South ridge of Cook has received a good deal of attention from strong climbing parties, most of whom have been repulsed by the Hooker’s partiality to bad weather. apparently, the only party ever to have actually climbed on the South Ridge proper was that of Dumbleton and Jackson, in 1940, when they reached at least the top of the first rock step. They reported that the unclimbed portion of the ridge looked difficult, but climbable, and recommended a high bivvy on Nazomi or Endeavour Col. This year also the Gardiner Hut book records many parties arriving full of hopes and plans, only to be hut-bound by atrocious weather. On Saturday, 31st January, Ruth Adams, Bruce Gillies, Mick Sullivan, Harry Ayres and I gathered at the Hermitage with the intention of following the example of so many others in ‘having a look at the South Ridge’. The weather was fairly poor, so we decided to remain at the Hermitage until it cleared. Later in the day, Andy Anderson and Neil Hamilton arrived down from Gardiner. They had been up on Endeavour Col a few days previously and were able to give us some useful information, including the fact that there was plenty of room for a bivvy up on the col. From the Hermitage, the South Ridge looked particularly clear of ice, and although the bad weather continued for several days, the temperature remained high, and no snow fell. On Monday, no improvement was apparent, so Bruce decided to return home.

Wednesday, the 4th February, dawned fine and clear, so the four of us were away at 10:30 am. with heavy packs, including all our camping gear. The usual long, hot grind to the Hooker Hut was relieved somewhat by the gymnastic feat required to cross the second Hooker swing bridge, which was hanging by one cable. We arrived at the skeleton of the Hooker Hut at 1 am. and were very impressed with the amount of work that is being done on it. At 3:30 pm, after a mean and rest, we continued on to Gardiner. Once we were on the white ice of the Hooker the going was very good, and we had no great difficulty with the broken ice below Pudding Rock. Pudding Rock itself was quite a struggle with heavy packs, and we weren’t sorry to dump our loads in the Gardiner Hut about 7 pm.

Thursday morning continued fine apart from some high cloud, so at 1 pm, laden with sleeping bags and covers, a methylated spirits cooker, and food, we set off for Nazomi with the intention of spending the night on Endeavour Col. We headed straight up the middle of the Noeline, and after a certain amount of playing around but no real difficulty, we passed through the badly broken icefall, on to the neve. The long plug up the neve was hot work, and our hopes were dashed a good deal by a lot of middle cloud blanketing out the sun while the low cloud was pouring over Baker Saddle. From the Noeline the South Ridge appeared very clear of snow and ice and was probably in as good condition as it ever is. The first two rock steps did not appear to offer any great difficulties, although steepish in places. However, the third step looked to be no easy problem, and we spent some time examining it for possible routes. The most obvious line was to traverse under it well to the left and then climb up and back to the right on to the ridge. The band of rock below the ice-cap could be turned well out to the left should it prove difficult to scale directly.




We plugged over to the right of the neve, and after a scramble with the schrund, got on to the tongue of snow running up to the right under Nazomi. Steps had to be cut across this, but we were soon on the rocks on the left. A few moments to remove crampons and we then climbed up into the long easy couloir running up to the ridge within a few hundred feet of Nazomi. This couloir was very straightforward, and despite our swags, we were soon up on the ridge north of the peak. An easy scramble up the ridge saw us on top of Nazomi at 5:45 pm after a very enjoyable climb.

The weather, although improving a little, was still rather doubtful, so we decided not to descend to Endeavour Col but to bivvy on Nazomi itself. We chose a spot at the head of the rock couloir about 30ft down on the western side. The descent from here would be assured even in the worst of weather. For the next hour or two, we laboured mightily to produce a platform and protecting rock wall large enough for the four of us. Night found us crawling into our bags after a somewhat limited repast and a hot drink. In order to save weight we had brought very little solid food, and although we were no doubt fully supplied with calories we were rather lacking in that feeling of internal comfort that follows a substantial meal. Also I, at least, found it rather nerve-wracking sensation to lie in a sleeping-bag and see the South  Ridge outlined against the sky, with all its steepness and difficulties magnified by the darkness.

In the early hours of the morning, the wind was whistling through the cracks in our rock wall, and we were all suffering from varying degrees of cold. The weather still did not look too promising, and a glance over the ridge showed clouds over the Malte Brun range which looked rather ominous, so we stayed in our bags until 4:30 am. We then had a hasty breakfast, its main ingredients being, in Mick Sullivan’s words, a ‘breath of fresh air and a good look around”. At 5:30 am we were away, and commenced the descent to Endeavour Col. After a scramble down an ice slope, we reached the col by 6:30 am. Here we found quite an extensive area with plenty of room for pitching a tent in the hollow between the snow and rock. The weather was now looking much better, so we decided to push on. We considered throwing our sleeping bags and covers down the narrow couloir leading directly up from the Noeline neve – the route up which Andy Anderson and Neil Hamilton had come – but decided against it.

At 6:45 am, still climbing on two ropes, we set foot on the South Ridge. The first rock step we found to be particularly loose and requiring caution, although we moved together all the way. We kept mostly just below the ridge on the east side and struck no particular difficulties. A large rock gendarme which seemed to bar the way on the ridge we turned by cutting up the steep ice slope on the east. However, we found on returning to the ridge, that the step-cutting had been unnecessary, as the gendarme could have been turned quite easily on the left or actually traversed. We were on the top of the first step by 7:45 am and as the day was now perfect with hardly a breath of wind, we continued on up the second step.

The rock on this step is a great improvement. We still kept a little down of the ridge to the east. Apart from one or two steep pitches, the going was straightforward, and the climbing exhilarating. However, our packs were rather bulky and heavy for rock climbing, and we found at this stage that they were tending to take the edge off our energy. At 9:15 am we surmounted the second step and relaxed in the sun for a snack and brief rest. We were all rather surprised at the straightforward nature of the climb so far. However, a glance at the third step effectively stopped any too early talk of success. This looked a real problem, requiring a good deal of hard work with the chance that we could still be turned back.

After a close examination of the rock face, we decided to attempt two different routes. Ruth and Mick followed more or less the route we had picked from the Noeline. Mick describes the route as follows: “From the foot of the third step an ascent of about 40ft. over straightforward rock took us to the foot of an area of outlying strata. This forced us to the left towards a shallow couloir before an ascent of this section could be made. From here the pitch decidedly steepens and offers the most difficult section of the climb, because of the lack of holds. Apart from slight variations, the ascent was eventually made to the right of the couloir under the skyline ridge. The direct altitude gain here was about 60ft. Another route on this section well worth investigation is to cross directly to the left skyline ridge which looks quite possible. The final pitch over steep, much-improved rock was accomplished after three attempts by following a very narrow ledge around to the left.”

The route taken by Harry and myself was in a direct line with the main ridge. The rock on this face is very sound, but generally very steep, and in places overhung. Good belays were few, but after some stout work by Harry, we made our way two-thirds of the way up the face before striking some very difficult going. Harry scratched his way up a very steep section, only to be turned back by a nasty holdless bulge. This necessitated a difficult retreat and a new line of attack. We considered cutting out to the right on to a very steep ice couloir. We edged around an unpleasant corner on to a narrow ledge about four inches wide. Here we struck an unexpected blessing. A rock was wedged into a crack about chest height from the ledge and gave us our first good belay for some time. Some distance above the belay was a large crack which offered a good hold and a lead on to easier rock. As the ice couloir looked rather unpromising on closer inspection, Harry scrambled on top of the belay and spreadeagled himself against the rock. He was still about a foot short of the crack. However, by taking an extra step on my hand held at arm’s length above my head, he was able to grasp the crack and wriggle into it. Here he was able to anchor the rope, and I had then the somewhat arduous task of climbing up the rope for a few feet hand-over-hand. After a colossal amount of effort I joined Harry, we moved on to easier going and reached the top of the step. This route is undoubtedly very severe, and in the event of a descent being made, would necessitate double roping down a stretch of approximately 30ft. At 12.45pm we met up again on the ridge, and all had a good moan about the difficulties of our respective routes.

We knew now that the worst of our climb was behind us, so strapped on our crampons with a certain amount of confidence. Good frozen snow took us quickly up to the band of rock below the ice-cap, and this proved quite straightforward, although a good number of steps had to be cut in the ice between the rocks. We were soon resting on the last rocks and then noticed mirrors flashing up at us from the Hermitage and Ball Hut. Of course, we felt distinctly important after this but almost suffered from stage fright as we cramponed up the ice-cap and on to the top at 1:45 pm. A few minutes for photographs, a wave or two to the Hermitage, and we rushed down the ice-cap to the west, to find a sheltered spot out of the wind. Here we decided to have a hot drink, but as our rations were low, Ruth boiled some water and placed in it a bar of chocolate. We all waited in eager anticipation for the delicious cup of chocolate promised us, but instead were presented with a browny-looking mug of hot water with lumps of chocolate sticking to the bottom. However, no doubt we were greatly strengthened, and so at 3 pm set off down the West Ridge. We thoroughly enjoyed this descent and found the rock to be excellent. The breaks at the foot of the ridge appeared very formidable, but some excellent leading brought us through them without much difficulty, and we romped into the Gardiner Hut at 7.45pm very well satisfied after a most successful day.

After discussing the climb in detail, we had several suggestions to make to any future parties.

1. The route advised on the third rock step is the one to the left of the main ridge – that is the one suggested by Mick Sullivan. None of these routes looked easy, but this was the most promising.

2. Although we found most of the ridge straightforward going, it would be a very different matter if iced up, and the third step would, in our opinion, be quite unjustifiable.

3. Our time of 14¼ hours from Nazomi to the Gardiner shows that to a fast, lightly-laden party it should be possible to complete the climb from the Gardiner without the necessity of a bivvy. However, conditions would need to be perfect, with a complete absence of ice on the rocks, and a previous route reconnoitred through the Noeline Icefall.”




Rescue on La Perouse

After their ascent, the party went on from Gardiner Hut to attempt La Perouse on Monday 9th February. However, tragedy befell Ruth Adams and led to one of the most unique alpine rescues recorded up to that time. An account of this rescue is also recorded in the same Journal as above and is attached here in three chapters (PDF kb)

Ruth was extremely grateful for the assistance she received on that fateful climb and bequeathed a substantial amount to the NZAC as a thank you to all those members of NZAC, CMC and the bushmen of the West Coast for her rescue. The bequest was used to help fund the 1991 construction of Centennial Hut, built to celebrate the 1891 founding of the New Zealand Alpine Club. Her letter to the Club may be viewed here, written just 7 days before she passed away on 13th September 1990. Ruth Adams Bequest (PDF, 168KB)


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