Aoraki/Mount Cook East Face
It was the 25th of October 2017. I was driving from Christchurch to Mount Cook Village on the Rakaia Highway through heavy rain and strong wind gusts. ‘The conditions would soon be perfect on Mount Cook for any steep skiing/snowboarding objectives’ was all I could think about while I tried to hold the steering wheel straight against the wind.
In Mount Cook Village I met with “Captain Hotshot” Dan Stucki from Utah. We shared the flight up to Plateau Hut on the next day. Both of us wanted to ride the East Face of the highest mountain in New Zealand. The almost 1500m long descent is a ski/splitboard mountaineer’s dream. Just looking at the East Face from Plateau Hut is pretty stunning. It is such an aesthetic face. The thought of riding it in perfect conditions drove me all winter and spring.
At Plateau Hut we met with Jordan Tiernan and Holly Burns, two friends of mine from Scotland. They also wanted to ski the East Face. Two other Kiwi ski/splitboard mountaineers, Rowan and Willy, had the same plan, too. So we decided to form a group of six. It’s a pretty big group for such a huge face. But if we’d take turns beating the trail (similar to a Belgian tourniquet) we could be faster than a smaller group. At least that was the plan.
Jordan’s friend Tom Grant and his steep skiing mates Ben Briggs and Enrico Mosetti were at the hut, too. They wanted to ski the mighty 2000m!! Caroline Face on Aoraki/Mount Cook. Up until then the Caroline Face hadn’t seen a successful ski/snowboard descent. So far, that daring feat had only been attempted. On the next day, a new chapter would be added to the history of the mighty Caroline Face and the history of ski mountaineering in New Zealand.
An hour after our alarms rang the nine of us gathered at 1am in front of the refuge. Tom, Ben and Enrico headed for the Caroline Face which they wanted to reach via the East Ridge and the Porter Col. Meanwhile Holly, Jordan, Rowan, Willy, Dan and I went for the East Face. Soon we reached the bergschrund below the exit couloir. Unsure of the conditions of the bergschrund, we played it safe and set up a belay. Unfortunately that cost a fair bit of time. Afterwards we climbed the exit couloir and started up the lower section of the face. We gathered, discussed our situation and soon made the call to turn around. The crust in the lower part of the face was very thick and rock hard, we didn’t all agree on the conditions in the upper face, but most importantly we were already behind schedule. In my mind, I already planned to give it another try on the next day. I was pretty certain that the conditions were good in the upper face and the sun would have its effect on the hard crust in the lower face.
Back at the hut, we waited for Tom, Ben and Enrico to return from their descent. They had succeeded. Sweet as! What a historic performance! Now, they needed a rest day.
The 28th of October should be our day. On that morning, it was only Dan and I who set off from the refuge, this time at half past midnight. On the way to the face, Dan unfortunately fell into a small crevasse. He didn’t fall very deep, however, and he managed to climb out by himself using his ice-axes. He was fine, but the incident added a bit of spice to the mission. We moved on and by the time we reached the bergschrund, the loud rumbling of collapsing séracs had sharpened our senses even more. This time, we easily climbed over the bergschrund without a belay and basically ran up the exit couloir. We quickly made progress and soon found ourselves breaking trail through knee-deep powder. Nonetheless, it was pretty tiring after a while. As we had climbed more than half way through the face, the sun was about to rise. The pink/orange colours reflecting in the snow of the whole East Face were unbelievable.
We traversed below a big sérac and then climbed further up towards the 50 degree crux section. The higher we climbed the slower we progressed. In the crux section we realised that it was skiable. We knew it would be difficult though. As we topped out we were pretty exhausted. The view over the whole main divide and down to the West Coast made up for a lot of suffering.
At just before 10am we started our descent. After the sketchy crux section, which we side slipped in its narrowest part with ice-axes ready in both hands, the face opened up.
Below the crux the angle eased to an average of 45 degrees. The snow was deeper here and super powdery and we made fast and huge turns. Looking down onto the Grand Plateau and over the Tasman Glacier in the distance was pretty impressive.
To our left was the famous Zurbriggen Ridge and to our right numerous séracs and crevasses made the East Face look pretty hard to navigate. So we more or less followed our line of ascent. Soon we traversed below the sérac to our left and skied further down past the steps of our boot pack. As we got to the lower part of the face the snow was already pretty wet. Unfortunately, we missed the exit couloir at first and skied down too far to the skier’s left. As we realized that we were cliffed out, we shook our heads in disbelief, bootpacked back up and finally skied down the right way through the exit couloir and over the bergschrund and back to Plateau Hut.
It was a great mission and we were lucky to find the face in such good condition. Now it was time to celebrate and enjoy ourselves in Mount Cook Village with lots of amazing people!