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The Shaft, WI4, MC5-, 560m. First Ascent, West Face Pibrac.

Updated: Jan 7

“I’m here and I’m excited!” Steve’s plane must have landed and he’s txting me to remind me I'm running a bit late. I’m excited as well. I haven’t really been climbing with Steve for almost three months. We have a few weekends set aside before our Patagonia expedition and are many plans for unclimbed lines we hope to try. Our first objective being the South Face of Marian. However some massive avalanches have cut the road off and its not looking like it will open until Saturday afternoon. That’s too late for us, I have to be on a flight to Hawkes Bay for work 3.30pm Monday. This means our weekend mission must start either Friday night or early Saturday morning. Next we consider Percy Smith. The avalanche advisory is sitting at considerable with high winds cross loading multiple aspects. After checking out the two possible approach routes we decide Percy Smith will have to wait for another weekend. We are down to our last major objective. A new route on the Shelia Face of Cook. We had been waiting for a big spring storm to plaster the Shelia with good ice. Perhaps this would be the one.

I have a long chat with Jane Morris regarding avalanche conditions. Things don’t sound very good at Cook. I guess the weather is going to be perfect but the conditions will shaft us into doing nothing! Still we decide the Hooker Valley is our best option. We figure we can make it to Empress on Saturday and if the Shelia is not on we will look for something on the South Face of Hicks or Nazomi as our back up. Jane tells us that it should still be possible to walk up to Empress with no snow shoes or skis. Maybe this was the local sand bag? Twenty minutes onto the white ice and Steve is out front plugging steps it certainly felt like one. The wind transport has dumped masses of snow around the glacier. Swirling biting cold wind whips down the Hooker Valley and we plod our way towards Gardiner Hut.

At the base of Pudding Rock Steve punches through three crevasses one after the other. We decide the ice fall route is off. Up the waterfall line instead. This however is heavily loaded with masses of new wind deposited snow. We quickly put in a belay in the rock just in case the slope slides. Then make a high traverse over to some hard ice as soon as we can. After taking seven hours to reach Gardiner we decide the snow conditions are not suitable for walking to Empress. The 40cm of fresh snow that fell the day before with the wind transport thrown in has made things pretty difficult. As I watch Steve walk across an icy slope to the hut door with no crampons on I give him a sharp reminder. “Watch it!” don’t want him falling off pudding rock. Just the day before a man had died at Tasman Hut doing just that.

Our plans for the weekend had changed like the wind. So now after a few hours cuddled up in a wollen blanket we were off back down the Hooker Glacier and at 3am were standing at the base of the Mona Glacier. Avalanche debris is everywhere! Some major slides have come down here in the last few days. We spend five minutes pondering the wind loading and almost pack it in and head back to Cook village. Steve states “my turn around point is going to be quite low today”, “mine is as well”, I offer in reply. I guess its all relative though as we are already out considering what to climb with the avalanche warning being at considerable. Then after much deliberation we decide just to head up and take a look. If it is not possible to get to the South Face of Nazomi we can always go back down. Part way up the Mona we decide the snow pack is to unstable to traverse into Nazomi which leaves us with one last option for a climb.

Its fair to say the Mt Pibrac was not on our list of mountains we dreamed of making a first ascent on. At 2514m with three established lines all in the grade 3 range it hardly seemed like a good weekend objective. Especially as you had to walk a long way up the Mona to reach the base. I am not a fan of taking my climbing gear for long walks. However the day before we photographed the West Face and this appeared to have an excellent looking ice line right up the middle. I guess we were also out of options so even though the conditions had shafted us out of our original plans we were going to make the most the day. As we walked up the Mona snow was lightly falling. This continued until 7.30. Our forecast of perfect weather seemed a bit off. Still we plodded on. Finally in low visibility through the snow we spotted the starting point of our line. We stuck to a steeper ice runnel rather than taking the broad snow gully in the center of the face, and its deep snow.

The climbing surprised both of us. A lovely initial pitch of WI3 got us going. Then another nice WI2+ into some thinly ice covered slabs that we simu climbed. Pitch 5 was a scary traverse. A shaky piton the only protection across thinly iced rock. My nerves were a bit on edge after spending so much time on loaded snow slopes during the early hours of the morning. This traverse didn’t help them. Slowly I made my way across and into an awesome ice runnel we called the Shaft. The Shaft was around 50m long and capped by a fantastic vertical bulging chimmney. This proved to be the technical crux of the climb. All up we climbed around 12 full length pitches before gaining the true West Ridge. From here it was around four more pitches onto the real summit. I was truly shocked and pleased by the lenghth and quality of the climb. Who would have thought this mountain that has probably be written off by so many before could hold such great long varied climbing.


We reached the summit at 2pm after six and a half hours climbing. Starting at 1950m our line topped out on the summit at 2514m. 12 interesting pitches of climbing then four more along the West Ridge. We found very enjoyable climbing up to WI4, M3. The upper West Ridge was also very enjoyable. The views from Pibrac up the Hooker, across the Tasman and all around the Mt Cook massive were excellent. With the sun shinning and early in the day both of us were even going to make it to work on Monday! Not something I usually expect after a weekends climbing with Steve. We took our summit photos, soaked in the veiw then headed back to Cook Village. 4 hours and 30 minutes later we were back chatting to Jane and Guy recounting a suprisingly good day in the mountains.

The Shaft, Wi4, MC 5-, The first ascent West Face Pibrac 2514m Daniel Joll, Steve Fortune. 15th September 2013.

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