Updated: May 26, 2020
After driving down to Mt Cook for a long weekend climbing trip, our plans suddenly changed. I had been looking forward to climbing the couloir route on Mt Footstool all week and the weather was looking great. However, on the Thursday night, I got a call from Evan, saying that the couloir route might not be in great condition due a lot of warm weather during the week. Instead he suggested we fly up to plateau hut and just go for Mt Cook.
Although I said yes immediately, I was a little hesitant. I had wanted to climb this mountain for a long time and I think in my mind I had built it up to be an incredibly difficult climb. Evan suggested the Linda glacier route and even mentioned the possibility of camping high on the glacier to make summit day a little easier. I suggested we walk as I wanted to check out the route to plateau hut for a future walk in walk out ascent of Mt Cook.
After getting a great rate for flights up to Plateau on Inflight, we flew up in a full plane, landing on the Grand Plateau. This was my first experience landing on snow and it was amazing. However, after getting out of the plane and walking the 10 minutes or so to the hut, we were told that we had just walked over crevassed terrain and we should have been roped up! On top of that they were mountain guides - professional mountain climbers. I had only been there for a short time but I was already beginning to feel like a greenhorn among seasoned pros.
We discussed our plans and decided that the comfort of the hut was too inviting and rather than head up the glacier and camp high, we would stay in the hut and get an early start. Plateau hut is absolutely stunning, with plenty of beds and a large kitchen/dining area. Not to mention the great views of the east face of Cook. We could see part of the Linda glacier and it looked heavily crevassed, although, from discussions with people at the hut, there had been plenty of ascents this season including recent ascents. This meant that hopefully I could follow footsteps up the Linda meaning we wouldn't have to do too much route finding in the dark.
We decided to set alarms for 12 midnight and leave the hut at 1am. We would be joined by Piotr Nowak and his climbing partner George Gerard across the Grand Plateau, however, they were intending to climb Zurbriggen ridge - a harder route but which avoids the Linda glacier. I knew Piotr from previous climbing trips to Mt Sealy and the Warrior and I wished them luck as we parted ways and we headed up the Linda glacier in the dark.
Luckily there was footprints from previous ascents heading up the Linda glacier. Not only was it pitch black, but we were heading up in fog. I couldn't imagine route finding among the crevasses in these conditions. We were roped together with me in the lead but all I did was follow the footprints and hope they were going the right way. I was quite nervous crossing some of the snow bridges and I even fell once when my leg went right through a snow bridge to hanging in space below.
After a few hours of walking and still no sunrise, the terrain seemed to get steeper. I wanted to stop to check the GPS but just as we stopped, small chunks of ice started to fall around us. I got hit in the helmet hard and we decided that this was not a great place to stop. We ran to the left as far as we could to get out of the path of the falling debris. Once everything settled, Evan suggested we were on the upper Linda shelf. Trusting his judgement, and him taking over the lead, we began traversing around a bluff which brought us to a prominent schrund which seemed to cut all the way across the top part of the glacier.
By this time we could see the first rays of sun coming up. I wasn't sure if this meant we were making good time or not. The first bit of light did help us to identify the best place to cross the schrund and we traversed over and climbed up what seemed to be the narrowest point. A little further up a snow gully and I saw some bolted anchors in the rock. It was a bit of a relief seeing these, as it meant we were going the right way and that abseiling off this mountain might be easier than expected. I had heard stories that the summit rocks were littered with abseil slings, however, for whatever reason the route is now bolted making it easier to negotiate as well as making the place a little tidier.
The summit rocks was what I though would be the crux of the climb. I had this idea that it was super exposed and a little steep but I was pleasantly surprised when we began climbing this section. Evan led the first pitch - even placing an ice screw in some very hard water ice. I think he placed it just because he could rather than actually needing to place protection. The climbing was not too steep and not as exposed as I expected. In fact, apart from the summit itself, it was mt favorite part of the climb. I think a big part of that was that the belayer was anchored to bolts, rather than having to place protection, so it felt super safe. We took turns leading until the rock gave way to ice again and we could see the summit.
The final part of the climb is the summit ice cap. It wasn't too steep but I could feel very hard ice under the snow and I was worried that I wouldn't be able to self arrest in a fall. I asked Evan if he would lead a pitch out just to see if it felt ok to solo. He agreed and after a ropes length said it would be fine. He untied and began going for the summit. Evan is a lot bolder than I am so I knew I was still going to be nervous going up from here, but seeing him make fast progress pushed me on.
Finally at around 9.30am we reached the summit in perfect clear weather. We couldn't believe our luck. We had amazing 360 degree views of the surrounds mountains including Mt Tasman, New Zealand's second highest peak which was now 200m below us. For a brief period I could say I was the highest guy in New Zealand. However, this point is called the climbers summit as this is where most people climb too. The true summit is actually about 20 meters away out on an exposed ridge. Evan went for it and I asked if he wanted a belay but he was comfortable without one. I wasn't intending on going out to the true summit unroped but after seeing him confidently do it, I decided I had too as well. I carefully and slowly traversed out, trying not to look at the cliff below me. The ice was quite firm but not hard and it felt safe enough to go all the way to the true summit. I was so glad I did as it was an epic feeling.
The descent was straightforward and we did it in reasonably good time. We were able to use bolts to abseil the summit rocks apart from a small section where we left a sling behind. When we reached the bottom of the summit rocks, we ran into Piotr and Greg. They had had issues with falling derbies on Zurbriggen ridge and were making slow progress. The were in good spirits and headed up through the summit rocks as we began the descent of the Linda.
Once we reached the point where we were below the gunbarrels - which is a name for the ice cliffs that dominate the top of the Linda glacier - we decided to jog. These ice cliffs often shed large chunks of ice and because it was the afternoon and quite warn, we wanted to be under these cliffs for the shortest amount of time possible. Evan led and we remained roped together. The jog was absolutely exhausting and every time I slowed down the rope would go tight as Evan pulled me on.
We eventually made it to a point where we started walking again and again we had to negotiate the crevasse fields. Some of the snow bridges had collapsed and we had to find alternative routes. We eventually made it out and back to Plateau hut at around 4.30pm taking around 15.5 hours total. We were congratulated by people in the hut and had a good meal before having an early night. Evan met some people in the hut who were climbing Mt Dixon the following morning and decided he would join them. I, on the other hand was looking forward to a sleep in. Evan and co returned from a successful climb of Mt Dixon the next morning before I was even out of bed!
We decided to fly out instead of walking and caught the next flight out. It was an amazing trip and just one of those last minute decisions that turns out to be really great. It was great weather and perfect conditions. I will be looking forward to climbing many more peaks around here.