Morning came easy after a night's stay at Glentanner Holiday Park. The weather looked promising. Sun warmed us as we made coffee and toast out of the back of Vanna White. Given our late arrival, we settled up with the camp host upon our exit.
An intermission of sheep, cattle dogs, and their shepards was an entertaining delay to our short drive up the road -- a sure sign we'd finally arrived in this foreign land. Soon, we would be tossing our gear with the our guides Anna and Jane.
Alpine Guides Limited (AGL) is based in a cabin immediately adjacent the the Aoraki visitors center in Mt. Cook Village. From the car park, a small series of stone steps through bush lead up to a surprisingly secluded setup in an otherwise bustling mountain town.
We were warmly greeted with cheers upon our arrival. Due to my somewhat frantic phone calls and emails, office admin Daniela was well aware of our luggage and car troubles. Turns out our mountain guide Anna was considering driving out to Twizel to pick us up that morning -- an early sign that we would be in generous and capable hands. Thanks to Russell Armstrong, this wasn't necessary.
Anna has crisp blue eyes, curly dirty blonde hair, and the rosy completion of an individual who spends countless days in the alpine. In particular, the sun had disclosed a childhood scar across the bridge of her nose.
Jane is slighter in build, with fair skin, dark hair, and a sneaky smile. Her giggles are contagious. As the senior guide, she would function as a supervisor to Anna on our trip. Soon, we learned that this was Jane's first trip into the mountains in quite some time. Earlier in the season, she had a run-in with some rock fall while descending Mount Tasman on the Emmes Ridge route. She suffered a compound fracture of her humerus and now has a metal bar holding the bones of her upper arm together. Her recovery has been slow. Too slow for her pace, anyhow.
Approach Notes: Helicopter. A first for Suzanne and I both. The ride was a short 10 mins up the Tasman Glacier drainage to "The Grand Plateau" and the sharply painted red Plateau Hut. That's right, no bushwhack, no river crossings, and no tired dogs from a full day of hiking. Instead, stunning views and color commentary over the headset via Anna. "See those specs in the moraine? Those are boats. Just to give you a sense of scale. Over there, the south aspect is the steepest face on Aoraki."
Later, we would discover that this face had a name: Caroline. And that Jane had once soloed a stiff line up this seemingly vertical terrain. For us, she happily mentored Anna and played resident one-armed photographer for our outing.
Anna got us acquainted with our digs for the night. A gracious bunk room just off the entry / gear locker area. We tossed our bed rolls out and then had lunch. There in the kitchen and common area, a small party of seven was practicing anchor building and swinging of leads. The six clients were being instructed by Andreas from Aspiring Guides. Greetings between the guides were collegiate, intimately friendly, and vacant of any sense of competition. Soon we would all be scampering around on Glacier Dome, a bump on the ridge running up and away from the Plateau Hut leading to Mount Dixon.
Our Climb: The weather was perfect. For our ascent, Anna roped up to Suzanne and I, leaving Jane free to snap photos of us all. We switched back up the broad shoulder leading to the ridge crest. Approaching an ascending traverse, Anna short roped us -- a snug way to ensure we didn't pendulum down into the crevasse below. We soon reached a broad crest. There, our guides made fun of how we say "Glay-shurrr," in contrast to "Glay-see-er."
The vistas were already second to none. Beside us, the other teams were now ascending a steeper face applying the skills they were just practicing in the safety of the hut. We arrived at a tiny moat below a step on the ridge. We swung climbers left onto steeper terrain. Here, Suzanne's trepidation was building -- the runout looked dicey and climbing up such sheer snow in crampons was a new endeavor.
Anna lead out then prepared to belay us. I tried to mansplain the safety of the system to Suzanne. Encouragement from Anna and Jane proved more beneficial. Privately, while setting up the anchor on top, they'd debated whether Suzanne was too nervous to finish the climb. Jane, ever wise, assured Anna that Suzanne "wasn't over the edge yet."
"Climb on." Suzanne soon stepped over and up to the rocky col while I tired to keep up with her pace. After a short drop over to the other side, we waited while Anna lead the next pitch -- another short ascent up snow then along a narrow snow ridge to the base of the summit block. Here, Suzanne's will would be further challenged. "Rock climbing in crampons, first time for everything."
Jane and I both coached her hand and foot placement. In no time flat we were summit lounging. Smiles all around. We descended the back side and traversed through the Grand Plateau. The scale of the special cirque is difficult to convey.
Back at the hut. More coffee and tea.
Another helicopter arrived. This time, a rescue team. Jane and Anna both were hoping it was merely a training exercise. This was not the case. A party of two triggered their Personal Locator Beacons high on Aoraki. They had ascended the east ridge and were descending back to the hut via the Linda Glacier. There they could not discern a safe line through broken upper Linda. Both were safely extricated and soon gathering their gear to head back home. We shared snacks and warm drinks with them as they sorted their gear. The rescue team departed and another lift came an hour or so later. This emergency assistance is offered free of charge in New Zealand.
Evening came and Anna prepared a lovely dinner of a cream sauce pasta with smoked salmon. The evening round of radio call and response soon began. One of the rescue team leaders was now calling from a base to all the various huts within the Canterbury region. Starting north and working south. Weather reports and party status at each hut was confirmed.
Following these formalities was an open mic night of sorts. A relay of "hellos" and "how are you mates." The banter was at times cryptic, riddled with scratchy feedback and kiwi slang. But the pertinence of this strange network was not lost on me. It was easy to sense just how tight-knit the community of hut keepers, climbing guides, and trekking guides is. They are colleagues who do not see one another all too frequently. This radio was a life line not merely reserved for emergencies but daily comfort.
We closed out the night with Bananagrams (or "Bah-nah-nah-graaahms" in Kiwi) and more tea. Our education in Kiwi slang continued -- and while those words were fair game, American slang was not, much to competitive word-nerd Suzanne's chagrin.
Late that evening, after many of us had gone to bed, a party of two arrived having just completed the "Grand Traverse" of Aoraki. These two gentleman were employees of the Department of Conservation. It was very apparent that both Anna and Jane were proud of their success. Jane had been anxious checking on the progress of their descent, keeping an eye out for approaching headlamps. She prepared some additional food and hot tea upon their arrival. Both men were thankful and flattered by her offering.
High winds and a full moon on a starry night made after-dark pissing off the cantilevered Plateau Hut deck equal parts beautiful and precarious. Morning came and we waited out a small storm system to pass. Once clear, we flew back to Mt. Cook Village, this time with Grand Travese team in tow. Our pilot was the same one who'd flown the rescue mission the day before -- according to Jane and Anna, he was the best in the fleet.
In-flight headset chatter debated the rescued party's reasons for bailing on their descent from the summit. The consensus seemed to be that the climbers would have been fine if they'd continued, but let their heads get the better of them.
Having arrived in early afternoon, we had time for lunch and a short hike. Anna lead us to Red Tarns -- little alpine pools filled with a striking red algae -- just above town. Her tales of childhood farm life in New Zealand and knowledge of local flora made for a very enjoyable jaunt. Soon, we parted ways and said our farewells.
Hiring a climbing guide was a reluctant first for me. In this instance, the cost could be validated with, "It's our honeymoon, let's splurge." The scope of the trip was well within our abilities, especially as humble followers. But us as "clients" -- this was foreign territory. I was concerned that the comradery found in the mountains might somehow be tarnished by the paid arrangement. Would our guides feel like partners?
The answer was a resounding YES. I'm so deeply grateful to have connected with Anna and Jane -- two very talented, interesting, and badass women. In such a short time, we shared not only mountain views but the gifts of friendship, including frequent ribbings, intimate stories, and hugs.