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Aoraki South Face – Grand Traverse and Tasman Syme-Silberhorn

Updated: Jan 6

There is something aesthetic and satisfying about traversing over the top of a mountain and descending a different route. Whether on technically easy or more demanding routes it's a style I have always respected and enjoyed.

In early December my good friend and long-time climbing partner Tim Elson visited New Zealand in the hope of ticking some classic routes as well as meeting some of more of the team heading out to Peru next year. Before he arrived I suggested a long list of potential climbs but warned him not to get his expectations too high due to the potential for mixed weather and the fact I could only get a single week of leave. A week or so out from our planned trip metvuw suggested two short back to back weather windows with a bad weather day in between. I had unfinished business with White Dream on the South Face of Aoraki/Mt. Cook after backing off due to marginal/thin ice conditions in 2014. Knowing that Tim shared my love of traverses I suggested walking in to try this and linking it up with a Grand Traverse to Plateau Hut, followed by a Syme-Silberhorn traverse of Mt. Tasman in the second weather window. Packing at Wyn Irwin Hut we stripped our gear to the bare minimum: The sad demise of Gardner Hut meant we would have to carry bivy kit and we needed 4 days food for the link up but we economised on everything else, taking one 60m rope, 9 ice screws and a minimal rock rack.

The walk in up the Hooker was straight forward: fast travel around the west side of the Hooker Lake and up the western edge of the moraine and a relatively straightforward approach to Pudding Rock. The cables on pudding rock are in remarkably good condition given the scale of the rockfall which damaged Gardner Hut last year. I'd say they were about 70% intact. The main damage appeared to be to the more horizontal cables and consisted of the anchor bolts/hangers at one end or other failing. The cables themselves were pretty much undamaged meaning it would be quite a quick job to re-attach them. We had the rope on from the glacier so simul-climbed up pudding rock clipping the odd bolt. From Wyn Irwin to the top of pudding rock took about 6.5 hours at a fairly easy pace. We considered bivying on pudding rock but decided to get a bit closer to the base of the route and pushed on for another 2.5 hours to a nice bivy site on the lower lip of the bergshrund below the south side of the West ridge. Arriving at 3pm we had plenty of time to chill out, melt snow and discuss tactics for the morning.

At 5:30 the next morning we were crossing the bergshrund below White Dream and roping up for the first pitch. There were several route options due to the fat conditions and it wasn't obvious which was easiest but it didn't really matter as the perfect plastic ice meant we could pretty much climb where we wanted. We block led through seven long pitches, the last of which turned out to be the crux. From the top of the technical difficulties we unroped and soloed the upper face. The excellent conditions meant we reached the summit of low peak at 11:00 and it was an easy decision to continue with plan A to go for the GT and descend to Plateau.

Reg Measures seconding on White Dream

We summited the high peak at 2pm after soloing as far as the middle peak then getting the rope out to simul-climb the sastrugied blue ice near high peak. We stopped for a quick chat with Michael Eatson, Alastair McDowell and Tawny Wagstaff on the summit (they'd climbed White Dream the day before and spent the night in middle peak hotel). The summit rocks were busy with people descending so we took the opportunity to whip out the jetboil and melt a litre of water. In hindsight this was a great idea as we didn't lose any time and the extra hydration kept us moving fast. After passing a few other parties on the abseils we jogged down the Linda glacier, at one point making a short sprint when a serac collapsed high up threatening to come all the way down to the Linda. 12 hours after crossing the bergschrund we reached Plateau hut.

It was great to see Plateau busy with both guided and independent parties. The weather the next morning was windy and rainy with nobody doing much but the banter was good fun. In the afternoon the rain cleared and we managed to get a good look at Tasman although the wind was still howling. The forecast was for the wind to remain quite strong the following day and then for heavy rain and wind that night but after much debate we decided to give the Syme ridge a try if the wind was howling on the summit ridge we'd just have to turn round.

The next morning we left the hut at about 3am and wound our way through the crevasses between Tasman and Dixon to the far side of the Syme ridge. The wind was still strong and neither of us were feeling particularly positive about our chances but we decided to continue as up the top of the Syme Ridge it wasn't too committing and we could turn round if it got any worse. Once on the Syme ridge the snow conditions were excellent so we un-roped and soloed up the perfect neve. The sun rose as we approached the north shoulder and we put the rope back on for a short section of simul-climbing to get over a steeper step. Once on the ridge the wind had dropped a bit but was still gusty. Some ominous looking clouds were starting to build but we figured we had a few hours before anything bad arrived. Conditions on the summit ridge were tricky with blue ice and large sastrugi on the west side of the ridge and steep softer snow on the east. With the gusty wind threatening to knock us off balance it was slow work stamping, kicking and swinging our way to the summit.

Tim Elson approaches the summit of Mt Tasman

The summit of Tasman is a pretty wild and special place with huge overhanging rime ice features on its western side. The view from the summit was amazing: Across to the Linda and down towards the north faces of hicks, Drake and Magellan in one direction and across towards Haast, Douglas and the Fox Glacier in the other. With the ominous clouds still building we were keen not to waste time so pushed onwards and downwards towards the top of the Silberhorn. It was less windy on this ridge but still blue ice. Once over the Silberhorn and off the divide the snow conditions improved again and things speeded up. Two abseils got us through the rockband and then we roped up for some glacial route finding before sprinting across the mad mile under the watchfull eyes of everyone at Plateau Hut. Back in the hut at 11am we were super excited that the wind and weather had abated long enough for us to complete our plan now we just had to walk out.

Tim Elson descending the Silberhorn

All up it took 7 hours to slog over Cinerama to the Tasman Lake terminus with a couple of distractions on the way. The first to watch while the top serac on the Caroline face collapsed and triggered an avalanche which ran the full height of the face, and another to collect an abandoned ice axe lying on the boys glacier (which was subsequently returned to its rightful owner a couple of weeks later!).

Overall it was an amazing trip on some classic routes which deserve to be on everyone’s list. It once again reminded me again how great the climbing is on New Zealands highest mountains. I thought a few of Tim's observations after his first experiences of climbing in Aoraki/Mt Cook national park were quite perceptive:

  1. I think I might have to come back there's so many awesome looking routes

  2. If this was Europe there would be climbers everywhere

  3. I can see why New Zealanders make good expedition climbers (refering to the walk in and walk out!)

  4. Walking up the Hooker was actually ok – but I can see why you might want to fly in to Tasman Saddle!

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