Girdlestone. The sharpest and most technical of Ruapehu’s twelve summit peaks and my next obsession. Perched to overlook skiers taming the lower slopes, Girdlestone defies Ruapehu’s rolling peaks and stands off to the side, stoically daring adventurous skiers and burgeoning mountaineers to attempt its company.
Luckily, I was not alone in my enamouration with the peak. Our friends Jenna and Jordan (two badass travelling Canadians currently delving into New Zealand’s hidden secrets) joined SK and my fervor. We planned our first trip without “the parents” (i.e. instructors who know what they are doing) and, with avalanche warning at considerable, set out up the slopes. When we got to the top of the ski field (they call them ski fields because there aren’t trees), we were stopped by a very nous ski patroller: “Sorry guys, we’re going to be setting off explosives to get rid of potential avalanches, you won’t be able to head any higher. With these avalanche conditions, I would highly recommend you guys pick another objective for the day.” Despite our adolescent-like craving for independence, this is not one of the situations in life where one rebels against the proverbial “parent”: one listens and lives.
New Zealand has this fantastic avalanche measurement site which spells out the researched likelihood of avalanches in the area you are adventuring. The scale goes from 1-5:
1 low : HAVE FUN.
2 moderate : know how to unbury someone from an avalanche and have fun.
3 considerable : be an expert at all things avalanchey.
4 high : stay inside.
5 extreme : STOP BREATHING YOUR CHEST VIBRATIONS MAY CAUSE AN AVALANCHE.
So, I mean, we were already pushing our luck a bit heading out. Bummed but not deterred: we spent the day exploring Ruapehu’s lower slopes and practicing our rope work.
The next day we again walked up the ski slopes and found our way to the base of Girdlestone. Avalanche risk had dropped to moderate on the south face of Girdlestone (it remained considerable on all other faces) and so we put on our crampons and wrapped the leashes of our ice axes tight around our wrists. Excited and thrilled at my first parentless adventure and to finally catch sight of Ruapehu’s summit crater, I set out up front. At this point I should mention there is a NZ scale for mountaineering and it goes 1 (easiest) – 7 (hardest). The south face of Girdlestone is a grade 2 (“steeper, trickier – may need a rope”) – which was a bit ballsy to do as my first ever summit venture and probably not advisable. But I have a tendency towards impatience at the “beginner” phase of any endeavor so this wasn’t exactly out of character.
Too quickly, the ground dropped away and I became increasingly aware of the exposure to a very, very long runout down a very, very steep slope to my right. I lapsed into my special place of faux confidence but even that could not withstand the unbearable way my crampons barely bit into the ice hard surface of the mountain. As my breath caught in my throat, logic caught up and I realized the reason the avalanche risk had dropped to moderate on the south face was because all of the snow had been whisked away to load other aspects: leaving the south face a stable slope of ice concrete.
My fear of heights knocked with too much familiarity up my spine and I relinquished leading to SK who confidently soldiered on. We climbed, trying to find places of security in patches of snow and yet simultaneously wondering about the security of that snow and whether it would suddenly break from the ice beneath and slide us down Girdlestone’s taunting slopes. Our discomfort forced us to use both ice axes: but no matter my position, relying my weight on the security of an axe that was barely chipping a centimeter into the ice while shifting my weight and kicking repeatedly into the ice with my crampons in an attempt to make a foothold… comfort was no choice. Our pace slowed.
At 12:45pm we finally reached a place for rest about 200 meters vertical from the summit. Up until this point we had traveled without being anchored to rope but, seeing a wall of ice ahead of us, and rocky bluffs below we knew we would have to get it out for the last stretch to the summit. This meant we would be travelling even more slowly. Furthermore, we were also just shy of an hour away from our turnaround time ** We looked uneasily around each other, avoiding eye contact. We looked up to see the wall of ice in front of us and down to see how little headway we had made. We hummed and hawed and weighed our desire in context of reality we didn’t want to admit existed. SK went ahead to check out if the ice wall was as scary as it looked. Sense of scale is ruined in the slopes of snow – or is it? As I watched him walk away panic clouded the edges of my mind for I was terrified that he was not terrified. Jenna looked at me inquisitively. I felt the weight of the decision fall on me. I didn’t know what to do, did I? I could feel the awful twisted combination of fear and time-constrained-stress edge into my ability to decipher a decision. I stopped. I breathed out and I mentally stretched my palm against the garbled, panicked nonsense and said from my zero: “I am confident we have the skills to reach the summit. I am not confident we can reach the summit and make it down before dark. We should turn around.”
And like that, we let it go. We called SK back and started the slow descent: digging our ice axes into the hard ice before us and stepping down one spiked foot at a time before returning focus to move our ice axes. Defeated and yet confident in our decision: we again turned to practicing our rope work until it was time to return to our car and return home.
Back in Wellington, I watched and felt the rhythms of my body processing and internalizing what I had just done and the place I had just taken myself. I needed distance from ropes and rock climbing. My fear and lack of enjoyment was such that I questioned my long term commitment to the world of alpine. Was I inventing my passion for mountaineering out of boredom? At the pretense of something epic? Did I even enjoy it or did I just like the idea of it?
Thus far it has proved to be none of these. The key, I think, is patience. Patience and perhaps corralling my drive a bit and trying a grade 1 route before undertaking a grade 2 (novel, I know). After all, there is a fine difference between extending comfort to the point of growth and extending too far to the point it becomes inhibitive. As the days passed I eased myself back into areas of risk that again grazed the edge of fear.
That was Girdlestone round one. Round two happened two weeks later.