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The Right hand Icefields of Mt Hicks

Updated: Dec 30, 2023

The weather window presented itself: a good clearance from Thursday to Sunday in mid September. I had been playing tour guide for my parents for most of the last month, which although lovely had left me frothing for a climb. Having heard that the Sheila Face of Aoraki was in primo fat condition, Alastair McDowell, Ruari MacFarlane and Sooji Clarkson were all keen to go try the Sheila Face testpiece – Pilgrim. Sophie Jenkins was keen to head to Empress Hut as well, and asked me if I wanted to come along.

I was sold, figuring it would be an awesome opportunity to warm up for the spring season in the big mountains. Despite the enticing reports of stellar conditions on the Sheila, we had concerns about tackling this huge objective just right now. Two friends – the last pair to complete the climb – had made it through the technically difficult climbing low down on the face without significant issues – however the long moderate slopes closer to the summit was where they had started to come a bit unstuck, eventually needing a rescue on the descent route.

We couldn't be certain the same wouldn't happen to us. Furthermore, the descent down the summit rocks, Linda Shelf and Fyfes Gut is a tall order after such a massive climb and we were keen to dial in our systems before attacking such a large objective. I suggested we scale back our plans to climb the Right- hand icefields on the South Face of Hicks. Sophie was amenable to this idea, and the mission was set. I packed all the necessary gear into Sooji's van, and after the expected hiccups one encounters when packing after work – supermarket stops and the like, Sooji, Ruari and I finally set off down the road.

We arrived amongst the mountains in Aoraki Mt Cook Village later that evening, and sorted through our own personal mountains of gear. We'd planned on a 5am start for the Hooker approach the next day. Sophie and I slept a bit, Sooji and Ruari very little. A southerly had recently blown through, and snow covered the Hooker valley track as we began our approach under a near full moon. Soon we were sliding around on the ice covered rocks of the Hooker lake, with the additional company of a handful of other keen climbers who shared our destination. Once on the moraine however travel was made reasonably easy, as the fresh snowfall covered lots of the usually annoying rocks. The wind however was fearsome, and we quickly pulled further layers from our packs. Once at the base of Pudding Rock, which marks the first real corner in the path of the Hooker Glacier, we moved solidly into what I call "mountaineer mode" – putting on skis, boots, helmets, harnesses and the works. Sophie was arguably more in mountaineer mode than the rest of us – donning snowshoes instead. The Pudding rock icefall – normally the main obstacle to be overcome – looked reasonably filled in. Sophie and I elected to go true right, due to lesser angle and more filled in slots. Quite easily, we were soon above the icefall had some lunch on the first flat, filled in section of glacier. The other three parties chose to travel on the true left of the icefall, and also encountered little difficulty. They remained behind us, but not by very far.

After lunching, we skinned through what I called "the gauntlet," a narrow section of the glacier between seracs of the upper Empress shelf, and the seracs on the East Face of La Perouse. Either side holds unstable ice that can run clear across the valley if a big enough piece goes and was not a place I was keen to hang around. Near the uphill end of the gauntlet, we were caught by an unroped Alastair, pushed along by his superhuman fitness and focused hunger for the coming send. He relieved me of the skintrack-setting duty, much to my enjoyment. As the mid-afternoon shadows grew, we skinned the last few steps around the upper icefall and up the last knob to Empress hut. We were greeted with a somewhat spooky sight upon opening the hut door. After our friends had climbed the Sheila, they had not made it back through Empress so their stuff was all still untouched since their departure few days prior. We weren't too spooked however by the pile of food they'd left behind, some of which we gladly consumed. The wind outside was strong, but not terribly howling, and we settled in as the other parties trickled in after us.

The next day, we went for a recce of what we wanted to climb. Good terrain for a skintrack was found on the true left of the Sheila glacier, and under a warm late morning sun we made our way up. Several lines on the right hand icefields presented themselves. The furthest right one looked most promising, and we were reasonably happy with this for our choice of line. The skiing back down to the hut was fun – soft cream cheese snow and small playful slots to jump over. The rest of the day we relaxed, ate, and debate flew back and forth between the whole group about what things could be left behind to lighten us for the climb (Shovel? How many screws? Negative attitudes are heavy – so definitely leave those behind?) as we all got ready for our respective big days that were to come.

I had seemingly just gotten to sleep when an 11pm alarm rang for Sooji, Alastair and Ruari. An hour or so of light and cooking noises followed before their midnight departure, and by the time I got to sleep again it was the turn of our 3am alarm to ring. Final preparations were made, breakfasts were eaten, and soon Sophie and I stepped out the door and started cruising back up to the head of the Sheila. Near the base of the route, we found snow getting deeper and deeper, prompting some concern about avalanche danger. However, a quick dig in found well bonded consistent wind blasted fragments, with no propagation seen in the tests we performed. Our avalanche fears assuaged enough to continue, we stashed our skis, racked up, and headed up the climb.

Sophie led off across the bergshrund, which proved to be one of the hardest parts. The shrund was a 3.5 meter high monster of overhung soft snow, and after falling in once, Sophie busted out the snow shovel – the bringing of which had been a topic of much debate ('Leave what's heavy behind!), and began tunnelling through to some climbable ice. After ditching the shovel on a screw for me to collect on seconding, she scampered up the increasing-quality ice, then belayed me up. After seconding the awkward snow fight pitch, and retrieving the shovel, I arrived at the anchor to find the conditions we had dreamed of: plastic polystyrene alpine ice, but just enough hard grey stuff around to make protection bombproof. I led the next pitch, relatively low angle with a cruisey section of snow in the middle. Seeing the next pitch, I was salty that if we kept swinging leads, Sophie would get to lead it and not me. The salinity was unwarranted however as to my surprise, she graciously allowed me to lead it, and huge fun followed. Steep blobs of perfect sticks and easy foot placements found me run out high above every screw in what seemed like no time at all. After finishing the 60 meters of rope, I happily whacked in a screw belay and started belaying Sophie up.

The next couple of pitches increasingly fulfilled the calf-burning reputation of the Right Hand ice fields, although a thin layer of wind packed snow had covered the firm grey ice and helped to make the climbing relatively easy. After one more easy pitch by me, Sophie led a couple of fun pitches through ice-blobbed rock steps. With the ridge top nearing, Sophie led off on a simul block, linking a few pitches before handing me the rack to finish it off. The very top section was calf burning 60 degree grey ice, easy to climb and bomber to protect. I maxed out my cardio and tried to run it out as much as was still prudent, hoping that the pro would stretch all the way to the ridge. About 10 meters runout above my final screw, and only a couple meters from the ridge, I started hearing scary hollowness develop in the ice. A bit of hacking revealed some soft snow underneath, and I gingerly climbed the last few moves of snice to the ridgeline.

A quick snow stake to bring up Sophie, and I could enjoy the view. Behind lay the La Perouse glacier, with the enormous ice cliffs of Dampier just next to us. Sophie soon joined me on our perch, and we were stoked. It was only around 1:30PM, plenty of time to whip up to the summit and still start the descent with plenty of daylight left. Just as Sophie was preparing to lead off for another pitch up the ridge, we heard the sound of rotors coming our way. A chopper from The Helicopter Line hovered into view, flying by us very slowly, peering at us as if to ask if we needed rescuing. Someone must have activated an emergency beacon. With a flurry of head taps and thumbs ups, we tried our best to indicate that we did not indeed need rescuing (In retrospect – we should have used the international signals for if one needs help – Y or N signals made with the arms), and the helicopter resumed its search pattern around the head of the glacier. With thoughts of our friends on the Sheila face just across the valley, we nervously agreed to have a bite to eat, and watch the movements of the helicopter. Our worst fears were confirmed when the chopper seemed to fixate itself on where we had last seen Al, Sooji and Ruari on the Sheila Face. We agreed this was not the time or place to push worries or speculation around, and we began to focus on getting ourselves down as safely as possible.

Not entirely happy with conditions at our snow stake anchor, we thought on how we would get down the single pitch through the snice, to where good ice quality for v-threads existed. Sophie, being about half my size, abseiled down while I sat on the snowstake. She quickly built a bomber v thread, which I then downclimbed to. Sophie was the more experienced of us with building V-thread anchors, and as it is often easiest to have one person lead descents of this type, we began to get into a rhythm. Sophie would bounce test the thread while backed up, rap, build an anchor, then when happy with that anchor, free the ropes for me while building the next thread. I would remove backup and rap when the ropes were free. Rinse and repeat. After our second abseil the THL machine buzzed away and we began pushing worries away by making up stories of how maybe a PLB had been triggered by accident, or one large administrative error and somehow our friends didn't actually need rescuing at all. We did our best to put this all in the back of our minds to keep our full focus on descending safely. Easier said than done! After the fifth abseil, the hopes of it all being a false alarm were dashed when the big, black, noisy BK-117 Otago rescue helicopter arrived and began hovering over our friends location, and appeared to be winching someone down onto the face. Sophie impressively remained laser focused on leading the descent, while I caught myself being a bit fearful for them. Soon, the big BK buzzed off and the echoing noise of jet turbines and rotors was replaced by an eerie, ominous silence and our own wonder about what had gone wrong with three of the best climbers we knew.

With nightfall coming, we did our final abseil over the shrund and back to our skis, debating whether to head over and fetch the ski gear Sooji, Ruari and Al had stashed on the other side of the glacier. If they had been rescued and would not descend that way, they'd definitely appreciate having their gear retrieved! However as I was skinning up to their stash, we noticed two head torches coming down from the bottom of Fyfes Gut. When we arrived at their skis, we heard a call in Ruari's voice. Sooji's got a broken hand, it got hit by a piece of rime.

This was extremely welcome news in an odd way – thank god it wasn't something worse. In the gathering dark we all skied (and Sophie snowshoed) down to the hut for a tasty, well deserved dinner.

The next day we awoke at a rather leisurely hour to begin our ski down the Hooker. I grew somewhat impatient with waiting for the snowshoeing Sophie, but there wasn't much for it – she probably wished herself on skis more than I was impatient, and she didn't actually end up much behind anyway! I attempted a kind gesture towards Sooji by bringing her boots down the glacier, but unfortunately hadn't secured them quite well enough and somewhere they fell off to be claimed by the glacier. Ouch! The walking along the moraine went as smoothly as the broken ground allows, and soon we anxiously speed-walked our way around the Hooker lake hoping no moraine walls would decide to un-glue themselves above us. We definitely gave them as little time as possible in which to do this! Happily, none did, and we found ourselves cruising down the Hooker track to the car park, attracting the usual weird looks from tourists in our rugged and overloaded state. Al's Adventure Prius was soon overfilled with our gear, and we started the evening drive back to Christchurch – but not before stopping for some fried fish in Tekapo.

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