Turning around 200m from Aoraki Mt Cook summit, on a perfect bluebird day, when you’re the only ones on the mountain – is a bitter pill to swallow.
The Flight into Plateau Hut is one of the most incredible flights around. Working on one day’s notice, I flew over to CCH to take advantage of a 2-day weather window present in Aoraki Mt Cook. 5 hours after landing, my climbing partner and I (Stefan King) were standing at the Mt Cook Ski Plane office securing a flight onto the glacier that evening. At 4pm we boarded the plane.
It’s easy to see why the flight is so popular with tourists. Within a minute or two of stepping off the tussock surrounded Tasman Valley you find yourself soaring past the Ball and Caroline Glaciers, over Cinerama Col (2333m) and onto the Grand Plateau Glacier.
We scampered across to the hut, scoffed down some dinner, and went straight to bed. Roughly 3 hours later, our alarms sounded at 0015, and we woke up to a great freeze overnight. It was on. We flew across the Grand, overtaking all other parties except one. As the angle increased, and we reached the base of the Linda Glacier, and an enormous roar thundered down from above. In the pitch black darkness, it could have been anywhere.
After calling out to the party in front of us and making sure they were okay, we continued – only to meet them in 20 minutes. They had decided to turn around and go back to the hut. The serac fall had spooked them silly. The angle continued to increase gradually as we negotiated the intricacies of the Linda Lower Crevasse field. The ice blocks become larger and larger as we weave between them. We stop for a quick drink underneath a mammoth serac, like a wave frozen in motion – waiting to break. The rest of the Linda is an uneventful slog, with beautiful cramponing, culminating with a traverse to find a bridge across the Bergshrund. After the Shrund, the angle maintains a solid 40 degrees leading up to the first pitch of the Summit Rocks.
After a pitch or so we intersected with Zurbriggen’s Ridge, and stopped at Spaghetti Junction to witness the most amazing Sunrise I’ve ever seen.
We made it two pitches further when from a belay we watched a Helicopter fly by, beneath it carrying the limp body of someone unknown. The only person that it could be was legendary IFMGA Guide Jane Morris. We later learned that she (only) had a compound fracture due to rockfall, and was fine. The combination of witnessing this, a lack of sleep, and being pretty gassed lead to the decision to head down.
From the bottom of the Summit Rocks, the Linda Schrund sat – like a shark’s gaping mouth – waiting to swallow us whole. The Bridge that we crossed in the morning was noticeably softer, however we managed to cross this without event.
Looming below us was the infamous ‘Gunbarrels’. The Linda Glacier route is plagued by objective hazards such as serac fall from many known Ice-fall areas (Gunbarrels, Linda Shelf, Silberhorn Arete, Teichelman’s Corner to name a few). and avalanches + rockfall. The ‘most’ dangerous of these is the aptly named Gunbarrels. As we descend over the edge of the Linda Shelf, they come into view for the first time (it had been dark when we passed them in the morning – frozen in place). Now with the sun’s full power dissipating itself on them, they were starting to soften up. 160m of messy, seracs and overhanging blue ice.
A quick look at our path down followed a gully running directly underneath the runout zone if anything was to fall off the Gunbarrels. Already the path had been covered by several small runouts, and we hoped that no more of these greeted us on the way down. We raced past the gunbarrels, dodging the occasional rock and piece of ice that would roll down to greet us. When we reached the bottom of the Shelf, 3 long glissades took us well out of the runout zone to Teichelman’s Corner. Thinking of the three Australian’s that were buried under an avalanche here the year before, we hurried along. 20 minutes later we stopped for a drink.
It was here, in between two of the crevasses on the lower Linda, an enormous Serac toppled off the Linda Shelf, liquefied, and began rushing its way down the valley towards us. Several hundred thousand tons of rock, ice and snow formed a loose wet avalanche and headed our way. We grabbed our packs and started running towards the nearest crevasse, but before we were forced to make a drastic jump for cover – the avalanche plateaued out on a flatter part of the valley above us, and stopped. Unlike it – we didn’t stop until we got back onto the Grand Plateau – out of the way of anything that could slide.