Climbing Mount Hopeless
On October 23rd at 11:41am, I found my breaking point. It happened 2100 metres up Mount Hopeless, on a calm spring day, when my climbing partner and I decided enough was enough. I stood breathless as we watched the other members of our group rope up and turn a corner into the void. They were willing to accept the risk. We were not.
Truth is, I didn’t expect to summit. I’d heard (and read) Mount Hopeless was a difficult climb. My climbing partner Sirius Buisson and I had little technical experience. If we were going to summit, it would be our good fitness and grit that got us to the top.
Our trip was led by Simon Williamson, Wellington section chair of the NZ Alpine Club, and secretary Carolyn Ellis. From Picton we piled into a NZAC-rented bus, big enough for the All Blacks, and drove two hours south to St. Arnaud where we arrived at 11pm and camped by the lake.
The next morning was calm and cool, the kind of morning the eels of Lake Rotoiti live for. At 7:30 we met our taxi boat driver and forked over $30 apiece for a 15-minute ride that saved us two hours of walking. We began our hike at Coldwater Hut. My shoulders immediately begged for mercy under the weight of my pack. Like climbing and camping gear, whisky is essential for dealing with Mount Hopeless.
From there it was a five-hour walk to Hopeless hut. Three hours in, a DOC sign warned us that our hut was closed due to avalanche risk. After a brief chat and a collective fuck that, we continued past the sign, suitably titillated by the added danger.
Hopeless hut was built by members of the NZ Alpine Club and opened by Sir Edmund Hillary in 1967. Given the warning sign, we weren’t surprised to find the hut empty. We settled in and enjoyed a leisurely afternoon of swatting sandflies by the river.
We awoke the next morning at 4am and set foot up Hopeless Creek for the summit. Torches ablaze, we bashed our way up the east side of the creek before emerging onto the subalpine scrub. Behind us the peak of Mount Angeles glowed pink under the rising sun. We continued upward, following cairns for another hour until we reached the snow line where we strapped on our crampons.
Then disaster struck. A technology disaster, that is. Seeing his Instagram moment, Sirius whipped out his phone for selfie and then FUDGE – the phone slipped from his hand, hit the crusty snow and slid 500 feet down the mountain face and over a cliff into phone heaven. It was a sobering reminder of our fate should we be as careless with ourselves.
We continued zigzagging up the late morning snow. My anxiety rose as we approached a steep couloir. Simon lead the way, the group following in lockstep. At the top of the 200 metre chute was a corniced ridge. I noted to myself that a fall back down the way we came would feel like a massage compared to the guaranteed deathfall on the other side.
From here we began scrambling up loose rock, the consequences of a fall now lethal. It didn’t take long before Sirius and I threw in the towel. The exposure was just too scary. I knew it was time to call it quits when I wanted to cry, shit and vomit simultaneously. Simon and Carolyn didn’t seem phased – but for Sirius and me, this was our riskiest climb to date. We pushed ourselves further than ever before. So with mixed emotions we shouted our goodbyes and belayed two pitches down to the relative safety of the snow bowl below.
It was an emotional lunch as we sat looking at the massif. On one hand, I was relieved to be in relative safety and pleased with our accomplishment. We agreed to turn around at the same point, which made our decision easier. On the other hand, we lost to the mountain. Failures. Denied. I pondered our decision as a spider moved in on my cheese. I wondered if the elusive summit was just beyond. If we had braved that last pitch, would we have topped out shortly after?
With our minds and bellies full, we descended 1,000 metres back to the hut, and didn’t waste time cracking into the celebratory-turned-consolatory whisky and pastis. The hours ticked by as we waited for Simon and Carolyn. Soon it was 5pm. Then 7. When darkness fell I began to worry. Finally, at 10pm, the door swung open and in marched our weary climbing partners.
Turns out they’d continued climbing for several hours, ascending to great heights but stopping 40 metres shy of the summit. It was too dangerous to press on they said. After 15 hours and no dinner, I would been homicidal. But they seemed oddly content as they recounted their afternoon. I was relieved they were back safe, and soon allowed the sound of their Jetboil to lull me into a deep sleep.
On our walk out the next day, we spoke about risk and our decision to turn back. I confessed that Sirius and I were probably ill-equipped to tackle what turned out to be a grade 3 route. I also confessed my presumption that a trip with NZAC instructors would mean personal instruction. Club trips, I learned, aren’t structured this way. They’re trips for members by members but are not instructional by nature. This keeps risk the responsibility of the individual and not the trip leader. What frustrated us the day before as we watched our trip leaders disappear into the clouds made perfect sense then.
What doesn’t makes sense, however, as I ponder the trip weeks now, is how a weekend climb can be satisfying yet an objective failure. I suppose if I ever want to get serious about climbing I have to make peace with failure. But what would Walter Bonatti say to that? When is failure smart and when is it weakness? I’ve got a lot to learn.