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Going solo in Aoraki/Mt Cook National Park

Updated: Jan 7

I looked down, for the thousandth time, at the crampon points kicked in as far as I could tolerate, my toes aching and bruising with every step. It seemed funny at the time, wondering if Scarpa had this in mind when they designed the Manta, a pair of boots usually sold for tramping and transalpine.

I looked up, the only way of progress, as a final 70-degree step ran out into an easy gully leading to the summit ridge and glorious sun above. I swung my tools higher, stepped up, and breathed. Then repeat. No room for error with 300m of air below, no rope, nothing but a pair of G12 crampons, my modified Petzl Aztar axe and a Petzl Quark, its second bolt starting to rattle ominously. Better not torque that axe pick.

Possible first ascents on the South Face of Turner Peak (2338m) and Pibrac (2514m).

'Névé Névé Land' (MC3+/WI2, 250m) – Turner Peak

'JM Goes Tramping' (MC4-/WI2, 350m) – Pibrac

Both routes soloed on 3 November 2013 in 5 hours return from Ball Pass

A few of the participants on my Otago University Tramping Club snowcraft course had been asking to do a trip for some time. The plan was Ball Pass, and a weekend was chosen. This turned out to be the first in two months with decent weather forecast for both days. I agreed to the trip and sneakily packed a pair of technical tools, harbouring intentions of spicing up the trip by sneaking an ascent of the South Face of Turner Peak, right above the Pass. Although the area is one frequented by guides, notably from Alpine Recreation, I could find no record of ascents of this face.

Plugging steps in deep wet snow above Caroline Hut seemed to rule out finding any decent climbing material, but arriving at Ball Pass, the Face was plastered in fat ice and excellent névé . I could take my pick of lines to the summit, with some looking soloable and others looking fun for another day (and with another person). I went to sleep that night wondering if I was up to the task, or if I would end up climbing Turner's standard route with the rest of the group.

Not very early the next morning I said goodbye to the group and descended 5 minutes off the Pass to the foot of a promising line heading about 250m direct to the top of the Peak. I started up a line spotted from the Pass which proved too much for my nerves; WI3 straight off the deck! I backed off and chose a ramp out to the right which I believed would link up with a series of ramps and steps all the way to the summit. Once committed, the next 30 minutes or so were a blur of outstanding snow on the 50-70 degree sections and, on the steeper steps, that rare kind of snow ice that takes ice axe picks with a thud and a reassuring vibration of the axe shaft. Three steps of WI2 were the crux, and I was never off my front points, nor afforded the luxury of daggering 'piolet traction' all the way. The climbing was outstanding, the views to Mt Sefton and the Divide incredible; I was having fun!

As the final ramp to the summit of Turner rapidly disappeared beneath my feet, I could relax I'd done it, I'd committed myself and gained the reward. Perhaps the route was a first ascent? I doubt it, but if the luxury of naming the line is mine, I'd like to call it Névé Névé Land (MC3+/WI2, 250m) If only one never had to grow up and go back to the real world!

The climb wasn't over. I reached the summit of Turner, and there, just a few hundred metres away, was Pibrac, with its 350m South Face, in the same outstanding condition, possibly also unclimbed. It was begging to be climbed.

I weighed my options. First problem was no easy walk-off descent like on Turner. It would be up and down the South Face. Could I descend the route I wanted to climb? Probably not. Was there an alternative? Yes, an easier, but longer line, with a steep section at the bottom that would require all my attention.

Ten minutes later I was pulling myself over a schrund and starting up the South Face of Pibrac. The line was easier than Turner, but not by much, and bigger. I was in a deep gully, about 60 degrees, with the odd 70-degree step and one WI2 crux, at about half height.

Now only 80m below the summit of Pibrac, I made the final steep moves out of the gully, exiting onto an easier 50-degree ramp that formed the way to the top, and the upper section of my descent line. Finally at the summit ridge, I could breathe, and take a couple of photos of the route below, and the stunning view of Nazomi and Cook in the distance. Unfortunately, my NZ Alpine Team mentoring has not yet included lessons in the high-alpine self-portrait from Ben Dare and my camera chose this moment to die. Shit. I was relying on that to check the route down.

I scratched over loose blocks of rock to tag the summit, and saw the rest of the OUTC group nearing the top of Turner Peak. I hoped they would read my note in the snow as I retraced my steps to the line of ascent. I had, it seemed, correctly judged that the descent line would be easier and began a delicate down climb, always on front points and my burning toes. Daggering seemed not to worsen the loose bolt on the Quark, but progress was slow. I was scared the bottom 100m was steep and I was not sure I would find the right series of snow ramps.

At what I guessed to be roughly the right spot, I hacked out a quick step, took my camera battery in my armpit to warm it up and got a few seconds of playback, enough to look at my photo of the face and choose the right descent. I don't know if I would have chosen rightly otherwise. From above the descent looked rather steep. I had underestimated the severity of this section and no easier options were available.

It would be a cliche, but accurate, to say that I completely lost track of time descending these last steps of solid WI2 ice, with few rests for the tired calves. Every movement was deliberate. I was shit scared. Fear became the firm swing of the axe. Every kick with the crampons was calculated and precise. Slowly, the metres disappeared. At last, I placed my tools as low as I could and stepped down, at full stretch, to plant my feet below the schrund and off the face.

Forty minutes later I was back at camp, returning via Proud Pass and gratefully meeting the tracks of the rest of the group coming off Turner just a few minutes previously. Now, I could relax, totally shattered but proud to have seized the day. The route 'JM Goes Tramping (MC4-/WI2, 350m).

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