Risk vs Reward  Coping with failure on Malte Brun

Failure is inevitable in the mountains, yet the only time we truly fail is when we do not grow from such experiences. Failure teaches us resilience in the face of future hardship.

I hadn’t slept a moment that night, the wind made sure of that. I lay next to my climbing partner, Megan, bivied at the base of the Beetham valley on the Tasman glacier, praying for this storm to ease. The tent had collapsed partially during the night and with each gust of wind we were forced to press our hands and feet against the walls to avoid total failure. As the sun rose and light became available, the nature of our circumstance did not improve. Even through the hours of relentless 100 km wind and sideways rain, though, we remained dry and warm. Then, without warning, the sounds of rock on rock movement came from the moraine wall behind us. We heard a cascade of stones, let loose by the rainwater, coming straight toward our tent. Megan and I looked at each other, unable to move, unable to breathe, only able to listen. To our relief, many of the larger boulders stopped rolling short of the tent. One rock however, maybe the size of a baseball, came whizzing, hit the side of the tent, and ricocheted away. I couldn’t lay there any longer awaiting the boulder that would end us both. I threw on my rain jacket and was out of the tent, barefoot on the Tasman Glacier and quickly becoming saturated. How did I find myself here?

A month prior I sat on my laptop in my room in Auckland. I had just posted a request on the NZAC Facebook page for a climbing partner to join me on the South Island. Within a few hours, I received a message request. Megan was in! We decided we would try an incomplete objective: a traverse of the southern half of the Malte Brun Range. The stoke was high.

As planning ensued, several shortcomings crept up. I had never even seen the Mount Cook area, let alone climbed in it. Neither Megan nor I had ever attempted a linkup as huge as this. Lastly, Megan and I had never even met, save for a brief Skype call. I personally found it easy to dismiss these issues with the classic response of, “We’ll figure it out”. My ego was bolstered by thoughts of the summits I had accomplished in the US. We were receiving countless warnings from seasoned climbers about loose rock on the Tasman glacier and the treachery we would find on its moraine walls. Looking back now, I feel the inclination to amend my benevolent phrase with the addition of, “… or we’ll die trying”.

Things fell into place and before I knew it, I was about to leave on what would turn out to be an epic adventure! With feelings of excitement mixed with fear, I sat on the plane to Christchurch contemplating the idea of risk and reward and thinking about the challenge that Megan and I were about to face.

Megan and I met at the airport, hopped in the rental car, and drove toward Mount Cook Village. Excited chatter of hopes, expectations, and fears ensued as we neared our starting point. It wasn’t until 2 am that we finally settled in to Unwin Lodge for a short, restless sleep.

Bags packed, ready to go on the Ball Hut Track

A 7 am wake up was followed by coffee, oatmeal, and final packing. With monstrous packs, we began hiking around 9 am toward Ball Hut. The distance wore on us as our packs wore on our shoulders and hips. Doubt crept in, yet excitement prevailed. All the while, across the Tasman Glacier, we could see our objective laid out before us: Novara, Malcher, Johnson, Chudleigh, Nathan, Aiguilles Rouges, and the mighty Malte Brun! It was huge. I was not able to determine this from the images and topos on my laptop in the month prior. But now that I was here, staring at the formidable traverse, with a pack that was too heavy for flat ground, I knew that our objective was simply too big.

Standing on top of the moraine wall, I look down at the Tasman Glacier below and across to the Malte Brun Traverse objective

We stopped for lunch at Ball Hut. After setting down my pack, I looked at Megan’s face for the first time in hours. Up until now, I hid my doubtful thoughts behind a benevolent face and positive quips, but I could contain them no longer. Yet when I looked at Megan, I could see in her eyes the same sad thoughts of defeat.

There we sat, eating lunch in a state of depression known only by climbers unable to climb. It was in those sad moments that we came up with a new plan. We would attempt to simply climb the Malte Brun via its West Ridge and we would do it from a base camp, with light daypacks. Elated with this new plan and excitement restored, we finished up lunch and pressed on.

Megan Picks her way down the Garbage Gully on the Tasman Glacier moraine wall. In the background lies the white ice, 8 km away

The first order of business was getting onto the Tasman Glacier from the top of the moraine. We did so by the Garbage Gully, a route many New Zealand mountaineers know all too well. Once down on the glacier, we began the painstakingly slow plod up the valley. Hiking up the Tasman consists of stepping on unsettled, microwaved-sized blocks of stone that shift with every movement. With every little hill we hiked up we were greeted with more fields of unsettled stone. My legs ached and my shoulders screamed. Each step threatened a twisted ankle. Doubt crept in yet again. I recalled all of the advice that I had ignored from those more experienced about the Tasman Glacier.

I wish I had listened.

Walking up the glacier was slow, tedious, painful work.

This continued into the night until we finally reached the white ice – the part of the glacier that is no longer covered with rocks. Travel was smoother after this, though we were utterly exhausted and out of water.

At 11 pm we reached the Beetham Valley. This was our access point to the West Ridge of the Malte Brun. Our destination for that night was the old hut site in the valley above. This meant that we had to scale the moraine wall up and off of the Tasman. What seemed an easy step on the topo map now revealed itself as an epic endeavor. The moraine wall was huge and comprised entirely of loose rocks and boulders held together with dirt, like a Jenga set ready to topple. And the centrepiece of this moraine wall: a 100 meter waterfall that plunged from the Beetham Valley above and into the depths of the glacier we were standing on. As we stood in speechless awe of this natural wonder, I couldn’t help but feel as if the water rushing into the heart of the glacier was synonymous the doubt that began filling my own heart. It was beautiful yet terrifying.

Our tent site under the moraine wall. As difficult as it was, the scenery sure made it worthwhile.

We knew that our intended route was up a supposed ramp on the true right of the waterfall, but in the dark we saw no such route. Exhausted, disheartened, and scared, we decided to camp on the glacier for the night and begin up the moraine wall early the following morning.

I awoke at 5 am to find Megan already up. She hadn’t slept very well. Neither had I. The image of that moraine wall had kept me tossing and turning all night. Might as well get up, we both agreed. We ate and packed up camp. In the dark we made way for the mythical ramp that would lead us up the moraine wall. After some searching, we found it!

Looking at the Beetham Valley above from the Tasman Glacier. Our tent is circled and the path up the moraine wall is traced in red.

Finally, our luck seemed to be changing as we were graced with some decent rock. In the predawn chill, I put on rock shoes and eagerly led an easy pitch of climbing up the ramp. It felt good to be climbing solid, protectable rock. Megan followed. We were psyched and hopeful that things would go smoothly from here on out. They didn’t. This small patch of good rock gave way to more loose choss-fields above and we soon found ourselves back on dangerous ground with slow progress into the Beetham Valley.

The single roped-pitch we did. The rock turned back into a chossy mess soon after.

Spirits nearly crushed, still adorned with heavy packs, we picked our way up the loose moraine wall for hours. With every step we would knock huge rocks down the 45 degree slope. As such, we would take turns moving while the other was out of the way. It was horrible, slow, dangerous climbing. “What are we doing? Why are we taking this risk?” I would ask occasionally. To which Megan had no answers. Excitement gave way to doubt and we pressed on.

Around 10 am, it came to the point that we were simply moving too slowly to complete the West Ridge of the Malte Brun safely that day. With imminent bad weather coming in that evening and into the following day, there was just no chance of completing even this rescaled objective. My heart sank, overwhelmed by the feeling of failure.

It was then that Megan took a step and before she knew what was happening, a massive 25 kg block was pinned on her leg and more rocks were ready to collapse on her if she attempted to move. She yelled and I ran down the slope as quickly as I could to her, taking care to not bring more rocks down onto her. I feared the worst: a broken leg deep in the backcountry. As I removed the rocks and unpinned her leg she stepped aside and I let loose the block. It tumbled the whole way down the moraine wall. To our relief, Megan’s leg was fine, yet our fortitude was broken.

We turned around and made a series of rappels off of loose boulders back the bivy site from the prior night. Though disappointing, it actually came as a bit of a relief when we turned around. There was something about our endeavours that simply did not feel correct.

Megan making one of several rappels down the moraine.

Unable and unwilling to hike back out that same day, we made camp in the same bivy spot. Megan and I went to bed knowing full well that the weather would worsen as the night went on as per the forecast, but we had no idea just how bad it would get.

And there I found myself, barefoot in sideways rain, quickly becoming soaked. It was morning now and light was shed on the seriousness of our predicament. Megan ditched the tent too. It was better to fight hypothermia out here than to get crushed by rock fall in there. We hatched a plan whilst yelling through the wind. As soon as the falling rock subsided, we quickly unpegged the tent with all of our stuff in it and dragged it 15 meters further away from the crumbling moraine wall. After re-pegging it in a safer spot, we began packing up.

Soaked and cold, there was nothing to do but keep moving. It was time to leave. With waterlogged packs and broken spirits, we began the long, slow, painful plod down the Tasman Glacier.

So began the soggy, cold hike back down the glacier.

It would take us the entire day and most of the following night, but we would make it back to Mount Cook Village, safe but shaken.

Sitting here now after several months of contemplation, I could list off every poor decision that was made that lead us to that stormy night on the Tasman Glacier. Talk to any veteran alpinist and they will tell you that they too have had experiences similar to ours. Failure is inevitable at times in the mountains as it typically comes with doing difficult things. Yet the only time we truly fail is when we do not grow from such experiences. Failure teaches us resilience in the face of future hardship. It makes us proceed with caution into new endeavours and makes success all the more sweet. I am happy to have failed at climbing the Malte Brun for it has inspired me to go forward with a newfound humility and respect for the mountains that grant us such wonderful experiences.

Wilderlife