NZ Mountaineering – Strauchon face of Mt Dilemma
During December Pete Kuzcera and I spent 17 days in New Zealand, predominantly reading books and drinking tea, but we did manage to get some long alpine rock routes accomplished too! With an optimistic weather forecast, a rusty hire car and a boot full of food we headed straight for Mount Cook village and Unwin Lodge (the NZAC base for all things mountain related). After a day of packing and organising gear, we loaded up 10 days of food and climbing gear and set off on the amazingly pleasant and fun walk up to Gardiner Hut (read: this was horrible!).
The next day was a write off for climbing with our bodies recovering from the walk up the glacier. We decided on a re-con of the approach to our first objective, the Strauchon Face of Dilemma. We plugged steps through soft snow across the glacier towards Baker Saddle and the crossed the small rock band onto the upper slope of saddle. By this time in the day there were already soft snow avalanches sliding down the slope in front of us, and larger slides coming down from the South ridge of Mount La Parouse. We decided to head back to Gardiner for some more tea and reading.
The alarm went at 2am and we were on our way at 3am. With a clear night, there was a great freeze and we made good time following our tracks across the glacier. We weaved between crevasses by headlamp, then ascended the eastern slopes of Baker Saddle and crossed the rock band. The slippery slope of the previous day was replaced with a firm frozen footpath. Making good time, we were standing on top of the saddle peering down into the Strauchon Valley at 4am.
Without having seen the approach to the base of the route we cautiously continued down and down and down into the valley. After loosing about 1000m in elevation we skirted across to the true right of the valley to attempt a better vantage point to view our route. Standing under the vast South Face of La Parouse and peering across through the pre-dawn light we could see the 1500m rock slab of the Strauchon Face. Extremely foreshortened from the base it looked shorter than we had imagined, less imposing now that we could see it in the flesh.
“CLATTER CLATTER RUMBLE RUMBLE”
Oh NO! That sinking feeling entered both of our guts as we swung around to see where the noise had come from. Ice, snow and rock was spewing off the South Face of La Parouse about 400m above us. RUN!
INSERT WORLD RECORD FOR 200M GLACIER DASH HERE
It always amazes me how fast you can run in mountaineering boots with crampons, full climbing pack on your back, tied to another person, over uneven ground. When your life depends on it of course. We looked back from our new, “safer” vantage at the 500m long debris field created from the avalanche. “Stoked we’re not in there” we thought, then we turned around and got on with the main mission.
We arrived at the base of the route at 6am and got our stuff together to begin climbing at 6.30am. The nature of the rock climbing became apparent pretty quickly. This ain’t no sports crag! With 1500m to climb we tried to be conscious of the time by moving quickly but the nature of the protection available (pretty much for the whole route) meant that a fall at any time would probably mean rescue or body recovery. Nevertheless we churned through the first 400m section of the route (with some simul-climbing) and reached the hanging glacier around 9.30am.
After some food and re-hydration we donned our boots again and headed across the hanging glacier, gaining another 100m in elevation. In warm sun now we began climbing the top 1000m slab in a thin shirt with our 10-12kg packs on our backs. Climbing in blocks hopefully meant that the leader would get four pitches of mentally engaging climbing and the seconder would be able to top rope for four pitches, enjoying the sunshine. Unfortunately at the end of each rope length there wasn’t adequate protection to build an anchor. So, we ended up simul-climbing a lot of the route, meaning we both had to be switched on all day.
Adding to the joy of 1000m of poorly protected slab climbing was a little snow patch high on the face. It was situated directly above the corner system we were supposed to be following. In the increasing sunshine it was melting and turning the corner system into a flowing waterfall. So, we had to climb on either side of the corner system, crossing the waterfall a few times.
INSERT LOTS OF LABORIOUS CALF BURNING SLAB CLIMBING HERE
Getting tired and with dusk coming closer we started looking for a spot to bivi at 8.30pm. The snow patch that proved our nemesis all day provided the best option. After putting in two knifeblade pitons for an anchor we set to chopping a ledge to sit on and brew. With dinner and a hot brew out of the way we settled in to watch the last of the sun drop below the Pacific Ocean in the distance.
We stirred from our ledge around 6am and set off by 6.30am. Still climbing in our full bivi gear, it took a while to warm up in the morning shade. With only 5 pitches to the summit we were eating the rest of our food and warming in the morning sun on top by 9.30am. Sunrise and sunset in the mountains are such amazing things. They go a small way to justifying all the suffering.
Descents from mountains are where a lot of accidents happen. They can take as long the climb, involve as much technical ground and are often undertaken in bad conditions. Our descent wasn’t technically difficult but it certainly was mentally taxing, and it took 7 hours… The eastern slopes of the main divide were made very soft by the morning sun. As we slowly traversed across the top of the slopes we continuously set off point release avalanches from under our feet. So the going was slow but we made is safely back to Gardiner Hut for a much enjoyed hot feed, brew and use of the amenities…