The Secret of the Unicorn  Dilemma and Unicorn – Aoraki/Mt Cook National Park

To rope or not to rope? A key question for Don French, Dan Pringle, James Wright, and Simon Bell when confronting the massive Strauchon Face of Dilemma Peak on the edge of Aoraki Mt Cook National Park. Simon describes this challenging rock climb in these notes prepared for his presentation to the Tararua Tramping Club in June 2013.

This is just one of the stories in Simon’s Trips, a book honouring the life of NZ mountaineer, Simon Bell.

After his disappearance on Pikirakatahi/Mt Earnslaw in Jan 2015, his parents, Colin and Jeni Bell, compiled the book from Simon’s accounts and photos. Lorraine Johns, Rob Hawes, the late Steve Dowall and other friends also contributed stories of tramping or climbing trips they made with Simon.

Simon’s Trips was originally a gift to his family and friends but was later made available in return for a donation to the FMC Mountain and Forest Trust. These donations paid the majority of the costs of digitizing FMC’s publication ‘Safety in the Mountains’ (available here as the ‘Manual‘) and establishing the Wilderlife website. Simon’s estate contributed the balance.

We will be regularly re-publishing a number of stories from Simon’s Trips here on Wilderlife. If you would like the complete PDF, Simon’s Trips may be downloaded here, and a donation made here.

By Simon Bell (February 2013)

I was quite lucky to hear about this trip, because it was advertised on Facebook and I don’t have Facebook! Anyway, my girlfriend Lorraine saw it and I got in contact with Don French. I had had my eye on this trip for a while but hadn’t sorted out climbing partners, so it was a lucky break. I was partnered with James Wright who has done some pretty cool rock climbs before. Don French and Dan Pringle were the two other climbers. Everyone in the group was pretty experienced. The Strauchon Face of Dilemma is a big slab. About 1200m in total, with a small hanging glacier about 300m up the route. Average angle is 46 degrees – this is a very similar angle to the ramp route on Mt Aspiring, but instead of climbing snow with ice axe and crampons you climb warm rock in rock shoes. Some sections are steeper and some less steep.

So a couple of weeks after climbing Sabre I flew down again to Christchurch and met James there. I’d met him a couple of years ago at the Darrans. We drove to MCNP in my car, which I keep stashed in Christchurch near the airport for a handy get away. Don had just come from the Darrans on another climb and Dan flew to Queenstown. We had a mint forecast! The others decided to do some cragging at Sebastopol Bluffs for a day and relax. So I managed to pretend to do some work on my laptop, sent a few emails and claimed back some annual leave, right from Unwin Hut in MCNP!

Dilemma and Unicorn are near Mt Cook, up the Hooker Glacier. It was a 4 day trip.

Day 1 Up to Gardiner Hut. 

Day 2 Up to Baker Saddle, down the Strauchon Glacier for 1000m or so and up a few pitches of rock. We bivvied near a hanging glacier! 

Day 3 Was doing the climb – about 800m face and a traverse to Unicorn and back. Then descend and back to Gardiner.

Day 4 Just walking out.

We set off just before day break and walked around the Hooker Lake and got onto the moraine, which is gravel that sits on top of the glacier. I have only been up the Hooker once before and that was in November. It is much faster in November to get to Gardiner Hut. Gardiner Hut is on the top of the rock in the right of the photo below. Baker Saddle which we would cross the next day is just before La Perouse, another great peak I’d like to climb. In late summer, the soft snow is gone and the glacier is permanent snow / ice which is hard. It is very open – like a big maze to travel through.

Like I said, in November, it is easy to get to Gardiner Hut. The icefall you can see below is covered in snow and you just walk around the rock and there is an easy snow ramp around the back. In summer it is quite fun. You get to scale Pudding Rock. Higher up there are some cables which you can clip into to stop you from going so far if you fall. Climbing Pudding Rock was actually pretty good practice for the climb ahead, although we did it in mountain boots, not rock shoes.

It took us maybe 8 or 9 hours to get to Gardiner Hut. We got there early afternoon and got to chill out for a bit. We checked out some of the entries in the hut book. There had been a couple of other parties that climbed the Strauchon Face in the last month or two. Jane Morris, a guide who lives in Mount Cook Village, soloed the route and did it in 8.5 hours hut to hut. She then walked out in the same day, meaning that her entire trip from the Village was under 2 days.

We weren’t going to go anywhere near that fast or travel as light. I guess if we had really backed ourselves to solo the route, a day trip from Gardiner Hut would be an option. But I wouldn’t recommend it unless you know the area well, the conditions well, and are pretty confident at slab climbing. Our plan was to bivvy at the base of the hanging glacier. That means we had to climb the face with our bivvy gear, along with our ice axe and crampons etc. We spent ages deciding what to take and what to leave behind. I convinced the other guys to leave their sleeping bags behind – just wear a down jacket and long-johns inside the bivvy bag. I had down pants too.

We got our first look at Dilemma and Unicorn once we got to Baker Saddle. Dilemma is on the left. You can see the slab going off to the right. The edge you can see has an average angle of 37 degrees. The part we climbed has an average angle of 46 degrees. Unicorn is the next peak on the right. Unicorn has an even steeper face 52 degrees, it is one or two rock grades harder. I think it would too hard for me to free climb and too long to pitch. I’m not planning to go back and try it! From Baker Saddle we had to descend 800m or so on nice snow. We were worried it would be broken up and out of condition as it is some years, but this summer the snow was still good. If you carry on down the Strauchon Valley past the lake, you can get out to the Copland Valley. But it involves some serious bush bashing I have heard.

There are quite a few different options for starting the climb. We weren’t sure if we had found the ‘correct’ one. However, we didn’t like the look of the other ones, so we decided this would do. If we went further to the right there was the risk of rock fall. There was supposed to be a bolt at the base of the route, but we never found it! Transitioning from the snow to the rock is quite challenging! The schrund was pretty big and looked very dangerous if you fell down it! Not really an option just to jump over to the rock unless you were very brave! It goes down about 5m and narrows up a lot. We transitioned to our rock shoes and got lowered down the snow and then bridged over to the top. It worked pretty well. Once we got onto the climb, it was about 4 pitches to get to the hanging glacier. The climbing was quite straightforward and easy angled slabs! I think the slab in the photo is about 40 degrees.

We had a nice bivvy spot with running water and great views. When we got there it was very misty and we couldn’t see the face. We heard a rock falling, it sounded big and coming from very high up. We could hear it crashing on rock and then on snow. We saw it for about 2 seconds as it came out of the mist, off to the right of where we were camping. It was huge! The guide wasn’t lying when he said watch for rock fall! We had an average night’s sleep. We were all slightly cold with no sleeping bags although it probably wasn’t a very cold night, maybe 5 degrees. It was a pretty cool place to spend a night – feels pretty remote! It was a bit intimidating to wake up and look at the face once more.

We set off maybe 30 minutes after daylight. Don and Dan started pitching the route right from the bottom. James and I decided to start off soloing the route and see how we went. We each had some nuts and cams on our harnesses and could build an anchor if we saw a steep bit ahead. I had the rope and set off ahead. Pretty soon we were 100m off the deck. There were enough places where I could relax and take at least one hand off the rock to take photos. The first crux of the climb was traversing to the major crack system. I remember one section where the slab was getting quite blank. I could climb up OK but was not really able to traverse. James thought he could see a better way lower down. He asked if I could downclimb and join him. I had to say that I wasn’t happy to downclimb the section I was on, but I was happy to climb up a few metres and build an anchor, then drop the rope down to him. Once I got up there I could see an easy traverse too, so he came up the same way unroped and we carried on. Once we got to the crack system the climbing was a bit easier again, grade 12 to grade 14. Having a 10kg pack on your back doesn’t help though! Still you need to focus a lot, one slip and it’s game over.

Once we got a bit higher up again – now maybe 600m from the hanging glacier, I found a nice flat ledge where I could take my pack off and we took some photos. We could see the other guys- they were pitching the entire route and it took them 12 hours or so to climb to the top of Dilemma. It took us about 3 hours. They completed 28 or so pitches from the hanging glacier! It is a massive route!! Given how many pitches they were doing, they actually moved really fast.

We had another crux section – maybe grade 15 for 40m or so. I remember thinking at the time just how sustained it was. I was happy being on it, but if it stayed like that for another 30m I probably would have considered building an anchor. You definitely don’t want to get pumped on a route like this. By now we could see the top of Unicorn and the col between Unicorn and Dilemma. Once we got to the col I had to consult the guide book to find out how to climb Unicorn! Actually, this is a great Tintin book that I used to read as a kid. After this trip, I decided to give the book to my nephew! This video gives a good look from near the col – we had found a flat ledge which you could bivvy on. It is called Hotel Hilti.

Once we got the col we chilled out for a bit – we were both in mild shock having just completed the route. But we didn’t want to sit still for too long in case we lost courage. We dropped one pack and climbed to the top of Unicorn. We took the same approach as before. It looked quite steep but was OK and we didn’t get the rope out. While doing the traverse, you can see the big Strauchon Face below, which goes on and on! I got some cool shots of James during the traverse. The first one is a shot of Dilemma with Mt Cook in the background. The other ones show just how blocky the final grunt up Unicorn is.

It was pretty cool when we got to the top! You can see Sefton in this pic – the North Ridge is another objective that sounds cool. We had cell phone coverage and so thought I’d give Lorraine a call. As it turned out, her phone was on at the time but had no coverage as she was climbing a peak in Lewis Pass. Never mind. Once we got back to the col we started to chill out a bit. There was a patch of snow there so we melted snow and had a big drink. After waiting for maybe 1 hour and the other guys were nowhere in sight, we decided to press on. Even if we wanted to help them we wouldn’t be able to rap down and help!

While we were up here, we saw an impressive ice fall and snow avalanche. The traverse to Dilemma was fun. Once we got to the top we downclimbed the ridge for a bit then abseiled down onto the snow. Once we got near Baker Saddle we heard the other guys call out – they were on the top of Dilemma. It was a pretty cool trip. Anyway – that’s enough from me, hope you enjoyed it.

Wherever you are Simon we’ll always remember the secret of the Unicorn. Best climb! -James

We will be regularly re-publishing a number of stories from Simon’s Trips here on Wilderlife. If you would like the complete PDF, Simon’s Trips may be downloaded here, and a donation made here.

Wilderlife