“It is not the mountain we conquer, but ourselves” – Edmund Hillary
We spent three incredible days taking a mountaineering course at the Caroline face of Aoraki Mount Cook. Although we both had winter climbing experience and avalanche knowledge, we hadn’t spent much time on crampons walking amongst crevasses and the icy snowpack and cloud formations were a different from home. We thought it would be a good idea to take a weekend high alpine skills class with Alpine Recreation Guides. Our teacher Lewis had summited Aoraki Mount Cook and its surrounding summits many times before. We definitely don’t have the skill to summit this mountain and frankly, I am not sure I even have the desire to dedicate myself to acquire that much skill to do so. I just want to get more comfortable so I can enjoy some basic mountaineering activities.
We started our journey walking along the Tasman Glacier and making a shortcut to climb a valley leading us the Caroline Hut, our home for the next two nights.
The shortcut climb is a steep scramble up rocks through alpine vegetation before finding snowline where we strapped on our crampons, cutting steps into the icy face. Just before reaching the hut, the Caroline face of Aoraki Mount Cook loomed above us.
Caroline Hut is a private hut, owned and operated by Alpine Recreation. It has roughly 8-10 bunks (I can’t remember) and is equip with some cooking essentials and additional safety gear that afforded us to keep our packs somewhat light on the climb up.
This location was overwhelmingly beautiful. Even the little outhouse had exceptional views of the Tasman. It was the first time we had to remember to take an ice ax to the bathroom…one misstep could be tragic.
We enjoyed a lovely sunset, lighting the tip of the mountain and eventually painting the sky above. We spent the evening perfecting knot tying skills in preparation for tomorrow’s activities. I can tie alpine butterfly knots and klemheists until my fingers fall off, but the the Figure 8 double loop will forever give me grief.
We woke early to start our training. We would begin with basic cramponing skills, self arrests, locating an avalanche transceiver, and abseiling (rappelling for my US friends). We are fairly comfortable in crampons, having walked over many glaciers and climbed Mount Taranaki during the October snow/ice cover. I will never be great at self arrests, a pretty important skill to have. If I fall on my left side, I am excellent…on my right, forget it.
The next day we were headed on our ‘mission’ around the base of Kaitiaki Peak, past large crevasses over Ball Pass and back to the hut. It was big day filled with extreme moments of fear. I have included pictures of the relaxing bits along this route, but I needed full concentration along ridgelines with death on either side (no photos available). I find that I am far less comfortable with the exposure in snow than on the drier rockier slopes. Lewis our guide constantly reminded me that the snow is far more safe than crumbling rock. It didn’t matter, my heart was in my stomach at times.
Some quality time relaxing to enjoy the view of the Tasman Glacier.
Mission accomplished! What an epic adventure. We learned so much in these few short days. We learned how to work as a team, how to let the beauty of the mountains help us overcome great fear, and that we will probably never be amazing mountaineers…and I am perfectly OK with that.
Weather was moving in on us so we quickly abseiled back down to the Tasman Glacier. The color was stunning this evening.
Once we arrived at the Aoraki Mount Cook Village, we were treated with another remarkable sunset.
The following day we departed the park, driving along Lake Pukaki. The vegetation was covered in an icy coating that created a stunning contrast to the turquoise water, providing us with one last glimpse of the beauty of this place.
I am forever in love with Aoraki Mount Cook.