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Variations on a Theme: alternate versions of classic routes on Aoraki and Mt Dixon

Updated: Dec 30, 2023

It seemed like the first reasonable break in the weather for weeks. I’d like to call the response an orderly mobilisation of the troops, or maybe it was more like the first week out of COVID-19 lockdown; a rush to line up at burger joints and takeaways, a line headed up the Hooker to Empress Hut, and Gavin and I joining in line with three other skiers up to Plateau Hut. We had an excess of cabin fever to sweat out, solid looking snow conditions, and weather up our sleeves to look at more than a few possibilities.

We spent the afternoon on a scope of the West Face of Mt Dixon. One striking ice line up the middle of the face caught our interest. The first two pitches appeared to follow the Central Gully route, but the ice line from midway would be a variation on the classic, with no information in the guidebook. Regardless, it was the line we wanted, so with our objective locked in we settled in to enjoy the social buzz of Plateau Hut.

View of Plateau Hut from the Glacier Dome internet cafe

We weren't anticipating a big day out, heading out at the leisurely hour of 6am to still air and morning glow just beginning to touch the surrounding peaks. Gavin took first lead up a staunch mixed step. Ice conditions were variable enough to add difficulty, the crux a classic pull over a bulge on insecure feet. From there the route opened up into the main snow slope of the Central Gully. I took over the lead into the snow for the full 60m rope length then continued simul-climbing to belay at the base of the ice feature we'd been aiming for – a corner system with a smear of ice glued to the left wall, turning a slight corner to angle back climber's right and out of view. I was keen! It looked sporty - thin and exciting.

Gavin launching into first lead on the West Face of Mt Dixon

Less swinging and more careful chipping away so as not to destroy the ice, a few mixed moves on tenuous front points, and I could peer up around the corner to see what came next. A shoulder width V-groove angling right, filled with good solid ice and snow. Perfect. Running out of rope at the top of the groove, I settled into a comfortable rock belay to bring up Gavin. From here we could see the route relent into lower angled mixed terrain with sections of firm snow, and we swung leads for a couple more pitches until taking off the rope at the final belay about 5m from the summit.

The fattest half of the thinnest ice pitch

The day was beautiful, bluebird and with only small breaths of wind. We could see over to Pioneer Hut, with the South Face of Douglas in full view, and the vast stretches of the West Coast neves. Gavin talked me through his route beta for travel between Plateau and Pioneer huts: definitely one to save for future use. I had full bars of 4G coverage, so the WiFi hotspot went on and the Mt Dixon internet cafe opened for lunchtime business. "Unbeatable views, but appalling table service… they don't even serve coffee!" We saved the weather forecast before descending the East Ridge down out of civilisation reception to Plateau Hut.

A day later, an hour earlier in the morning, we headed the opposite direction on the Grand Plateau. Again we'd been looking at a classic route, but had spied a variation that completely caught our interest: a thin white line coming off the Bowie Couloir on Aoraki. Our timing proved perfect, we'd left the hut aiming to be on the snow apron at the base of the couloir for first light. The reward; a breathtakig alpenglow view of Silberhorn superimposed upon Tasman, the backdrop of Haast to Dixon, the Minarets to Elie de Beaumont, the long white cloud of the Tasman Glacier and the Malte Brun range standing proud alongside. We stopped to take it in. There was no rush to do anything other than enjoy the journey, climbing at the pace that felt right.

Daylight hits the Grand Plateau

Continuing up firm, steep snow and ice on front points, the couloir split at the base of a buttress - here the Bowie Couloir route takes snow slopes left towards Zurbriggens Ridge. We ignored it and moved right instead, following mixed ground and ice steps up a gully toward the Bowie Ridge where a short pillar of ice peeked out at us. Alluring enough to have drawn us in, all the way from the balcony at Plateau Hut. As we got closer we could however see the main pillar was heavily chandeliered ice, detached from the wall behind, and very thin where it flowed over the bulge at the top – understandable given the recent periods of warm weather. There was a great looking flow of ice on wall to the left of the pillar, however I started climbing mixed ground to the right as it would avoid needing to get the rope out. Gavin called out from below – he wanted to climb the ice instead - it looked fun! I stopped for a moment. The lead would take a lot of unnecessary time… but I quickly realised he was right. There was no rush, our goal was not the fastest or easiest way to the summit, nor was it about the summit itself so much as enjoying the climbing and company along the way.

I settled myself into a belay tucked out to the side, and Gavin launched into the ice. Tricky thin sections and an awkward start executed with style, then he was pulling the bulge at the top in to easier snow slopes, and on to a belay. Delighted with the climbing and the joy of movement on ice , I followed up behind. Assuming the crux would be the ice step, we took the rope off to continue up the gully. I had thought we would soon rejoin the Bowie Couloir, but we were now instead skirting very close to the Bowie Ridge. The couloir would be right on the side of Zurbriggens by now, but the routes would join if we followed the Bowie up. On reaching the top of the snow gully the climbing on to the Bowie Ridge turned more difficult - snow giving way to rock steps and thin ice, the gradient turning from mellow to steep - vertical and a slight overhang out of a corner. We made a swift decision together to put a belay in and the rope back on, and I hooked into the pitch.

Mixed climbing to gain the Bowie Ridge

The corner held a nice technical sequence, thin feet and a highly justifiable alpine knee to pull the overhang, then on to mildly insecure and engaging climbing up easier ground. Gavin smashed out the pitch behind me, reporting that he had indeed also used the alpine knee. Again putting the rope away, we scrambled the last ten metres to the ridgeline above. In the gully below I could see the bootpack from where Cameron and Melvin had climbed the Bowie Couloir a day before. The rock of the ridge was shattered and not downclimbable to the gully from where we were, so it was logical to continue up the Bowie Ridge, after stopping to have a bite of morning tea (and internet cafe - full 4G coverage again baby!)

The scramble to the top of the Bowie Ridge was loose but straightforward. From here we were on top of the Linda Shelf, sticking true to the ridge and enjoying the scramble through the summit rocks and on to the final ice cap. I could see people on High Peak. As we got closer, they downclimbed toward us and we recognised Mark, Clement and George, with skis on their backs and the audacious plan of skiing the East Face. We crossed paths briefly, intending to head up to the summit and back in time to meet them for a proper yarn. They were not the only friends we knew were out on the mountain that day - we had spent the morning squinting across the Linda to try spot Alastair and Andy, who had headed up the Syme Ridge of Mt Tasman to traverse across to Silberhorn. There is a special feeling of camaraderie from whistling and yelling across at little black dots on another mountain, which though unrecognisable, you know are your friends.

Scrambling the top of the Bowie Ridge to the base of the summit rocks

I had never climbed Aoraki before, so standing a little way along the summit ridge was a particularly special moment for me to pause. A slight chilly breeze kept us from lingering too long, but still, never feeling a rush – we took as much time as felt right to take in our surroundings from the roof of New Zealand. Rejoining the skiers at the top of the East Face, we ate some more lunch in the internet cafe while they rappelled through the rocks on to the fae. When they were off the rope, we retrieved their snowstake anchor to return to them later and retraced our steps back to the top of the summit rocks.

Alastair and Andy... somewhere... on the Tasman-Silberhorn arete

We downclimbed with care, before jogging across the Linda Shelf to Green's Corner. I took a bit of time in this safer spot to put on some sunblock before we picked up the pace again, running and glissading down under the Gunbarrels, past the constant rockfall of Mt Vancouver, and to Teichelmann Corner where the objective danger lessened and we stopped to remove crampons. We could see the skiers on the Grand Plateau, beginning their skin back up to Plateau Hut. We were in good spirits and high energy from a few amazing days out in the mountains, so despite soft snow conditions and a variable surface crust we were joining them on the balcony less than 45 minutes later.

Descending from the summit ice cap, almost time for a cuppa tea and a liedown

Central Gully Variation , West Face Mt Dixon, IV 4 Gear taken on climb:

8x ice screws (10cm, 2x 13cm, 3x 16cm, 2x 19cm – short crux sections and available rock gear meant fewer would have been adequate)

6x assorted size nuts and 4x assorted cams (00, 0.2, 0.5, 0.75)

8x extender draws

Route climbed on the West Face of Mt Dixon, crux pitch from approx halfway

Bowie Couloir Variation (Zurbriggy Stardust*), Aoraki Mt Cook, IV 4 *though quite likely it’s been climbed previously, so perhaps naming is still reserved for the first ascensionists…

Gear taken on climb:

6x ice screws (10cm, 2x 13cm, 2x 16cm, 1x 19cm – short crux sections meant fewer would again have been adequate)

6x assorted size nuts and 4x assorted cams (00, 0.2, 0.5, 0.75)

8x extender draws

Zurbriggy played guitar
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