The brave 8th batch of Make It Real, consisting of Aizhi, Andrew, Ben, Evan, Meryl, Suling, William, and myself, ventured to take their technical mountaineering course in the treacherous Southern Alps in New Zealand. This writeup records my personal impressions of the trip, which I barely survived.
On arriving to the Mount Cook National Park, we met our guides, Jamie and Nicolo. The first shock came when they had a closer look at our gear. We carried two pairs of boots each, and for most of us, exactly zero pairs of boots qualified for actual mountaineering. Renting a pair set us back seventy dollars per person. There were other problems too, so we eventually ended up spending hundreds of dollars before seeing a single snow flake. Furthermore, our departure was delayed by bad weather, so for two days we had not much to do but to enjoy each other’s company. We frequently displayed the mysterious sign of the Martians, supposed to be originated from Meryl. Well, the entertainment value of displaying the sign of the Martians is low, but we were really bored. When the weather cleared at last, we filed into a helicopter, pieces of luggage and food were piled on top of us, and off we went. Flying by the summit of Mount Cook in a helicopter with 42kg of frozen bread resting on your lap is something that everybody should experience himself/herself.
We climbed out of the helicopter, gathered our gear and food, mounted our crampons, roped up, and gaily started marching up towards the hut some two hundred meters above us. My joyous marching was suddenly interrupted, the crampons came off. On a closer scrutiny I found that the plastic layer that held together the rubber sole and the leather body of the snow boots had shattered. Salomon certainly is a durable brand, I heartily recommend it to any depressed mountaineer with suicidal thoughts. This could have been the end of my trip, but luckily a few hours later another helicopter was coming in, it fetched me a pair of boots, and there was much rejoicing.
So the TMC commenced. Before we flew off for the course, we had been training hard in Singapore. We had trained so hard that I had had to skip trainings on a regular basis to preserve my sanity. However, we seemed to be completely unprepared for what had been waiting for us. It is one thing to climb the staircase of a HDB one million times with a packed bag for added fun, but ascending on a glacier with mischievous ropes slipping off your shoulders and getting to funny places, wearing crampons that just do not want to behave the way you would expect, while a twenty-knot wind is eager to blow you into bottomless crevasses, well, that is an entirely different story. We slowly learned how to deal with these issues. The ropes should be kept tidy with strong knots and a few curses, so they would not get ideas to slip here and there. Crampons are a pain and they cannot be tamed, one has to get used to them. If the wind is too strong, the good mountaineer is cheerfully sipping wine in the hut, and does not think about going out in the cold for purposes other than visiting the loo. For reasons not entirely clear to me, the loo and loo-related acts were the most popular topics during chit-chatting. I admit, using a pit toilet in shivering temperatures is an adventure like no other, but listening to all aspects of it for ten days was a bit tiring.
Loo matters aside, food is also worth mentioning. We did not really excel in high-altitude rice cooking. What we cooked was something between porridge and glutinous rice with a massive charred layer at the bottom. Andrew was in charge of curries and other dishes, and his unfolding talent in the high art of cookery helped us to rather edible dinners. Though peculiarly most dishes contained carrots: it did not matter whether it was green curry or carbonara, we had thick slices of carrots to chew on. Our impromptu fridge was the snow just outside the hut. A bold volunteer had to dig up the ingredients for the evening meal every morning, and this digging had its own challenges. First of all, the snow got deeper and deeper every day, so we had to dig more and more. Secondly, hideous powers were moving the food under the snow, so the frozen chicken was never there where we thought it to be, resulting in much cursing and curious ice axe shaped cuts in the chicken.
But mountaineering is so much more than just walking about in the snow, eating carrots, and finding relief in a pit toilet! For many days, we were forced to stay in the hut by a massive storm that did not show any willingness to leave. The stocks of wine were rather scanty, so we had to fill the days with less amusing activities, such as learning. For instance, we learned everything about the weather patterns of New Zealand, which was far from fascinating, but we also learned how to use an avalanche transceiver, which was cool. You wear this cunning device under your jacket, and if you get buried under an avalanche and you die, necrophiles can still find you following the signals of the transceiver, and exhume your body for purposes you do not want to know about. We also learned some rope tricks, such as advanced prusiking, prusiking with knots that were not meant for prusiking, prusiking on ropes that were not meant for prusiking, and twenty-five different methods of abseiling. All this was recorded for the future generations by master cinematographer Evan. Ben developed a theory that prusiks were absolutely not needed in mountaineering, though I did not manage to get the gist of the core of his argument, and the practical demonstration did not prove him right.
Once the storm passed, we ventured to a saddle where we could practice crevasse rescue. First step is to create a bomb-proof snow anchor. It should not take longer than a few minutes for one person. Working in pairs, we were ready with the anchors in about an hour. Second step, accidentally fall into the crevasse. Apparently, it would be in reverse order in a real crevasse accident. Step three, the victim rescues himself by means of prusiking up. That is it. I nearly got stuck at step two. I was wondering what peril might be lurking down there where I was to fall. Sharp stakes of ice? Ferocious creatures ready to devour NUS students? Or perhaps a liquor store, I thought at last, and flung my wretched body down the abyss. To my disappointment, no liquor store was to be found. Moreover, something was wrong with my knots, and I could not move my prusiks upwards. I was stuck, and soon I got frustrated. Suling dropped next to me sparkling with glee, threw some sarcastic remarks at me regarding my not so outstanding performance in prusiking, and disappeared above the lip a few minutes later. I proceeded a good quarter an inch in the meantime. After an hour of struggling, a rope of hope was lowered, and I was rescued from further misery.
Knowing everything about mountaineering, we attempted to climb a nearby peak, Mount Aylmer. The snow was only moderately unpleasant to walk on, the wind was terrorizing people in some other part of the world, and the clouds also found better victims than us. We were walking in glistening whiteness, applying sun screen every now and then. At the end of the day, however, we were not burnt, we were incinerated. The peak itself was not that challenging, one could easily climb it without snow anchors and pitching, but nevertheless, we used snow anchors and pitched up all the way. On the way up my partner, William, found it appropriate to share a bit of information about himself: he was afraid of heights. When he told me, we were standing on the ridge with the mountain sharply dropping a good six hundred meters on both sides. The confession did not increase my confidence in him.
All torture and suffering must come to end, and so did our TMC. Our guides thought we should do somethings else on the last day, so we went for ice climbing. Ice climbing might appear as something safe, but this impression is deceptive. As I learned by experience, ice climbing is a lethal sport. The basic process is simple, you kick your crampons in the ice wall, swing an ice hammer in the ice above your head, then repeat until you reach the top. Kicking the crampons is fine, but things can get tricky with the ice hammer. The damned thing tends to get stuck in the ice. I made the unforgivable mistake of hitting the ice hammer too low, at about eye level, and surprise, it got stuck. I was trying hard to pull it out, and when it finally popped out, it hit my clever face, splitting my upper lip open. Blood squirted on the ice, and I felt my front teeth moving. I was quickly given first aid and grieved briefly. While I was busying myself with disintegrating my face with various mountaineering tools, Aizhi attempted to climb a sustained and overhanging ice wall with no rests. I would have deemed it impossible, but Aizhi managed and succeeded.
We were unfortunate with the trip. The equipment that we dragged all the way from Singapore was mainly unused. The weather was awful for most of the time. More importantly, we were unprepared, just very-very unprepared. Yet, we are still alive, and we added another certificate to the stack: we are qualified mountaineers ready to climb any peak that is not too steep/difficult/challenging.
– Peter Wittek, MIR 8.