Revisiting an Adventurous Decade Countdown 2013: Aoraki/Mount Cook: Reflections on a Rich Week

This was originally posted on December 5, 2013. I’d just finished my attempt at Aoraki/Mount Cook. Enjoy!

When you take risks you learn that there will be times when you succeed and there will be times when you fail, and both are equally important.

― Ellen DeGeneres

Autumn 2013 has passed in a blur of in and out, out and about, here and there, out everywhere. I knew once it was August, it was December. And, I was right. It’s now December 6th and my week on Aoraki/Mount Cook is over and I’m left to reflect on the life lessons learned, the highs, the lows, the climbing skills progressed, the moments, the decisions, the regrets and everything in between. I see it all as a web of connected life where strands pulled in one direction tug the web this way and then that. From my first posts since returning back to Wanaka, it should be evident that I did not stand on the summit of Aoraki/Mount Cook. I don’t often define the summit as success and not achieving the summit as failure, preferring usually to use the sentiment, “I didn’t get to climb as high as I wanted to.”

And indeed, on this climb, I didn’t get to climb to either the summit nor as high I wanted. I did get to climb, however, and early in the week, even that was in question. I had a fabulous conference in Dunedin and hopped on the bus north to Wanaka. As the day progressed, I felt overcome. My heart raced. My world turned black. I was distressed, scared, and confused. I wanted to be on a bus anywhere else. I tried reading, I tried looking out the window, I tried breathing and meditating. It was hard to break the spell of the heavy weight of anxiety/panic that has descended like a black cloak–at times heavy and smothering.

My last six weeks before New Zealand were filled to breaking with travel, work, and stress. I found it hard to focus on training and preparing for the climb. I’d wished I’d never signed up. I had several conversations with Marian trying to find a mind set that would fit the climb, a goal that fit that situation, a summit that might be possible.

It turned out that I reached the summit by stepping foot on the mountain. I lived those first few days with my heart so stuck in my throat, it could hardly beat. I struggled to sleep, to breath, to think. But I just kept stepping towards the mountain. I acted as if I were going to climb it. I kept hoping and praying that the baby steps would finally wear away at the black velvet encircling my head and I could remember that I loved high mountain spaces and how I am in them.

My mind screamed uncompassionate messages of incompetence and failure to train. I countered with strength of experience and affirmation of goodness. Lydia, my guide, likely intuitively, provided a bridge to remembered competence through frequent observation/complement of strength and skill. I kept the tears at bay. I stayed in place. I didn’t run when every cell in my body demanded the action of RUN. NOW. AWAY. FROM HERE. FROM THIS.

I stayed the course. I set foot on the mountain. I climbed as high as I could Tuesday morning in challenging conditions until a combination of physical/mental/mountain hazard situations led me to decide to stop climbing at the Linda Glacier bergschrund around 3000 metres. We’d been climbing for nearly 4 straight hours with only one short break. It was super windy and cold. My legs felt like jelly and the conditions forced us/me to climb at a pace that was on the outside edge of my fitness. I kept up to the pace but it was taking a huge toil.

Lactic acid started to build. I’d started to slow. I’d started to move with less elegance and more clumsy. I was concerned that my legs were burnt, baked, and fried and I didn’t trust them to take me over the next very steep pitch that had huge fall consequences. I weighed the equation over and over in my mind and in the end, the risks came out too great. I decided to turn and head downhill and get to safety before the softening conditions made the journey that much more challenging and dangerous.

I’m left, of course, to wonder if I could have pushed through. I’m left to wonder if I should have asked to take a longer break and slow the pace now that we were reaching the super steep and exposed terrain. I’m left to wonder if I could have found the will and determination to push through. I’m left to wonder if I had pushed on, if the consequences for not being in top form would be lethal.

I know I can climb Aoraki/Mount Cook. Lydia told me so. Over and over again. And I will. I will return with a huge reserve in the training bank, with greater stamina, and a heart and spirit unbridled by stress and doubt. This climb has nudged me to face a slide into doubt that has been mounting for months, clouding my judgment, and taking a huge toll. I’ve seen a new summit here and it is working again with the steep face of doubt, a challenging yet doable climb-one that will call on my skills and resources and creativity to change the dynamic and stop the slide. It’s as if Aoraki/Mount Cook has provided the context for me to practice self-arrest–to fall down on my ice axe, dig in my toes, stop the slide, and then get up again ready to take another step up the mountain (of life)…or down perhaps if the risks are too great.

As you can see, there has been much personal learning and success in pushing through my distress to climb at all. There were also other successes and joys and high points and other things, besides my inner process that were challenging…in the spirit of the famous movie, I’ve decided to capture them as “The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly.”

The Good:
Every adversity, every failure, every heartache carries with it the seed of an equal or greater benefit.
― Napoleon Hill

Climbing with Lydia Bradey and learning so many subtle skills that will shape my climbing for the next few years
Taking on a technical peak that pushed my climbing skills
Getting on the mountain through a crushing period of doubt
The amazing views of Aoraki/Mount Cook
Riding in the front seat of a helicopter twice
Hanging with my climbing family of Lydia, Mark, and Angus
Really hearing Lydia when she said I have good skills
My best feeling alpine start to date (no anxiety, no nausea, ate well, packed well and efficiently)
Climbing for at least two more hours after first thinking that I wanted to stop
Climbing at a hard demanding pace through challenging terrain
Being surrounded by blue, white and black…colours and views that make my spirit soar.
Keeping up to most of the men who were taller and younger
Falling in love with a new range of mountains
Finding a rhythm of stepping and breathing that makes me one with the mountain
Leading two rock climbs (the first time in two decades)
Sharing a few tricks I’d learned with Lydia that she liked enough to adopt.

The Bad:
Failure should be our teacher, not our undertaker. Failure is delay, not defeat. It is a temporary detour, not a dead end. Failure is something we can avoid only by saying nothing, doing nothing, and being nothing.
― Denis Waitley

The questions that regret nurtures.
3000 metres, not 3754
Deciding to climb after the conference, not before.
Deciding not to attend the 12 day skills course before the conference and then the climb afterward (the course providing the mountain hardening and the conference the rest/relax before the climb)
Deciding to prioritize other activities/work/stuff ahead of preparations for Aoraki/Mount Cook
A hugely long intimating summit day
Trying to climb to 3754 after living/hanging at sea level with just one day of acclimatization

The Ugly:
I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.
― Thomas A. Edison
40 cm of new snow that required us to wear snowshoes until the bergschrund (extra weight on top of heavy mountain boots)
Having to traverse a few scary, tiny, narrow crevasse bridges in snowshoes
A howling wind that multiplied the cold
Ice balls the size of cantaloupes and boulders that had recently fallen from ice cliffs that overhang the route
Climbing a debris slope of a recent avalanche
Doubt and the anxiety it propagates
A super heavy pack filled with technical climbing gear (I’d trained with a 25 pounder-I should have made it a 40 pounder to be safe)
Not enough stamina/endurance training (one of the first climbs that I didn’t do ten Signal Hills for prior to leaving)

I’m sure more will come to mind but it’s time to close for now-I have a date with a waterfall in the morning for my last technical skill development in New Zealand. I look forward to celebrating the goods and leaving the bads and uglies to wither and fall away like leaves in autumn. Pictures of the climb follow.

My first view of Aoraki/Mount Cook…This is the view from the National Park Headquarters in the midst of a storm that eventually dropped 40 cm of snow on the mountain.

Because we couldn’t fly out to the mountain, we stopped in at the National Park Headquarters and I enjoyed learning the history of the mountain including the stories of the many women who’ve climbed it. The first woman to reach the summit of Aoraki/Mount Cook was Australian Freda Du Faur in 1910. Betsy Blunden was the first woman to professionally guide the mountain starting in 1928 (she was first woman in the world to work as a professional alpine guide). The first team of all women to climb Aoraki/Mount Cook was in 1953 (demonstrating the increasing skills and independence of women climbers). The team members were Mavis Davidson, Doreen Pickens, and Sheila MacMurray.

Look who else was featured on the displays of the National Park…the one, the only, and my guide, Lydia Bradey. Lydia was the first woman to climb Everest without the use of supplemental oxygen and I believe, remains the only New Zealander to do so to date.

Lydia is very humble about her accomplishments. Here she was kind of enough to post with her picture. You can see she is humouring me!

Our first glance of Aoraki/Mount Cook from our helicopter flight in. This picture gives a good look at the Linda Glacier and the Plateau Hut is on the ridge line that is near the right side of the photo at the midline.

Our first view of Plateau Hut…this “flying in thing” could spoil a girl…though I often think the walk in is a critical part of mountain conditioning. Looking at the terrain, it would be quite the climb just to get to the hut!

I loved that the windows in the hut were also emergency exits and further got a kick out of thinking of nature as a cure for all sorts of personal emergencies.

A team of two heading out towards Mount Dixon to stretch their legs and work on skills.

This was the first view we’d had during our climb of Aoraki/Mount Cook when the sun rose. We headed out of the hut in the pitch darkness at 1:00 am under a sky ablaze with stars. The large peak in the background is Mount Tasman.

Here Lydia is standing on a debris field from an avalanche that occurred the day before. We waited two days after the snow storm for conditions to stabilize and for lots of these kinds of slides to occur. What you can’t see is that this slope was also covered in “ice balls.” This dropped from ice cliffs above and ranged in size from small round ice cube to cantaloupe to large boulder of ice. They were clear, beautiful, and lethal if you happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

The Linda Glacier route on Aoraki/Mount Cook is “big terrain” and heavily crevassed. My hat (and helmet) off to the first two teams who broke trail on the morning of our climb. Not only did they have to break trail through 30-40 cm of snow, they had to find bridges over many huge crevasses such as the one that Lydia is standing beside.

The descent was quite warm and here we are celebrating that we are almost back at the hut (seen at the mid line of the photo on the right of the image). You can see that Lydia has herself all protected from the “death star” a.k.a. the sun which is quite powerful both in New Zealand as well as on the glacier…put the two together and you have the recipe for a good sun burn.

A view of the glacier lake at the end of the Tasman Glacier during our helicopter flight out. Did I mention that this “flying out thing” could spoil a girl? The flight out allowed us to spend two days working on my technical rock climbing skills rather than hike/climb out.

Looking down on icebergs that have broken off the Tasman Glacier floating in the lake. The water doesn’t look blue yet because it is full of glacier silt. You can see the changeover to that awesome glacier teal colour in the photo above. More coming about the climb and lessons learned in a subsequent post.

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1 Response to Revisiting an Adventurous Decade Countdown 2013: Aoraki/Mount Cook: Reflections on a Rich Week

  1. Anonymous says:

    What an incredible read. Thank you for sharing!!

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