The West Coast, Halcombe


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Mt. Halcombe (middle) at sunset.

(Note: to avoid confusion I call Mike Giles “Mike” and Mike Mageropoulos “Mageropoulos”) Also sorry about the few pictures, my Olympus broke at the start of the day so we just had  Mageropoulos’s SLR which stayed in the pack most of the day.

After a day of Ice climbing on Pioneer Ridge and having decided to start with an easy peak and climb two different routes to arrive on the summit and descend together, we looked through the guidebook until we settled on Mt Halcombe. An easy approach and a nice looking couloir on the backside had Mageropoulos and I excited, while Mike and Alex were keen for a snowy face romp. Perfect.

We were up at 3:30, and by 5 am we were even on the glacier! Have to work on that early morning efficiency…

A quick crossing of the Explorer Glacier and a slog up through multiple, open bergschrunds led us to the base of the technical climbing.

We parted ways with Mike and Alex who headed right, while we traversed left. We hadn’t traversed very far at all when we spotted a nice steep looking couloir with some OK looking steep ice in it.

Mageropoulos led off and after about 20 m slung the only thing he could find. (A frozen chunk of rock wedged in the snow) and brought me up. I glanced up at the vertical snow and ice in front of me, then down at the crap belay.

Maybe we should try the actual route. A single rap brought us back to the base of the coolie and we traversed further round to the left.

After rounding the corner, we came across another couloir. This one still definitely wasn’t from the guidebook. It had a big s bend shape to it and looked fairly well frozen. Being pig headed and feeling like the previously ascended routes in the guidebook shouldn’t be any cage to our climb, we started up the second unknown couloir of the day.   I led up for 30m or so up steep 70/80 degree plasticy ice and snow, starting out of big bergschrund and finishing in a perfect coolie. The ice wasn’t quite good enough for a screw, so I pounded in a snows take till it hit the rock below, kicked a good stance and brought up Mageropoulos, who as still racked up with all our rock gear. Mageropoulos led through dealing out raw brutality with his tools  and sending chunks of ice and snow down in a near continuous stream. We even developed our own system, Mageropoulos would yell “Snow” if it was just loose stuff and I would glance down. If he knocked and big chunks of ice or snow off he’d yell “Ice” and I’d dodge. If he yelled “Rock!” I’d really dodge.

Thinking Mageropoulos had packed a belay jacket and wanting to move fast, I’d opted for a merino shirt, my Atom lt and a very light soft shell. Mageropoulos had assumed I’d packed a belay jacket.   By this point the wind had really picked up and I was well and truly freezing. Adjusting my stance, I noticed blood had been soaking through the knees of my soft shell pants and onto the snow where I was kneeling on them. Interesting.  I spent thirty minutes or so swinging big circles with my arms to try and force some blood into my fingers and keep warm whilst I belayed Mageropoulos through the steepest climbing of the route.

Mageropoulos reached the top, built a nice belay consisting of some rock pro and a pretty good screw and brought me up. His belay was situated at the top of the coolie, just before it met a 45-60 degree ridge of snow which led up into the sun and to the summit. The prospect of climbing in the sun really excited me because well, I was quite cold. The snow ahead however did not. In the shade, it looked pretty solid, and not too steep. As I started up I cursed the fact I only had one snow stake and reluctantly placed it as I reached the edge of the shady snow in order to protect the belay from a factor two fall. Thing is that would have been about 7 m into the pitch. Which looked long. Real long. 75m long. (twin ropes are 60 metres long)

Continuing up through the mushy snow I climbed slowly and deliberately, double checking each step and tool placement. After about 30 I stopped to dig a t-slot into which I’d place one of my ice axes and then lead on with a single tool. I started digging, but didn’t get very far till I gave up on that idea. See the thing is the sun had really gotten to the snow and turned it into a rotten snow ice mix often called “Snice”. Snice has the wonderful characteristic that is has the consistency of say, a frozen beer.

Seriously

And the holding power of a frozen beer. The snice was shearing away in chunks and clearly wouldn’t have held good pro. The good new was there looked to be a boulder stick out of the snow that might just be in reach of the belay. Mageropoulos and I still had our glacier coils on at this point, but there was so much slack in the system I didn’t worry at all about taking mine of uncoiling them and dropping the slack back to Mageropoulos. Climbing deliberately and carefully, I made my way to the Boulder. It was a big smooth pale piece of rock, half uncovered.  I spent a good twenty minutes checking it over for gear. Like actually 20 minutes. I took knife blade pitons and bent them trying to pound them into seams. I placed c3 cams in tiny round pockets they pulled right out of. I tried using the snow to hold slings on the round rock. At one point i considered placing my pick over a juggy hold and belay mike up off that before i came back to my senses. Eventually, I gave up on the idea of getting good gear. Or any gear at all in fact.

Problem was, I didn’t have much rope left. I left the boulder/exposed rock sheet thing and blasted straight up for the summit ridge, which looked to be about 20 to 30 metres away.  I ran out of rope 15 meters from the ridge and its rock pile which held sweet cracks to place gear in. After some yelling and pulling on the rope, Mageropoulos realized he would have to start climbing and eventually rounded the corner onto the ridge.

“Be careful! No gear!” I yelled to Mike as we simul-climbed to the ridge. Reaching the ridge, I plugged several probably crap cams in and clipped them all to the rope, chucking Mageropoulos on belay. By the time he had reached the belay it even had good gear and was equalized. I led one more pitch around the corner to the summit proper, where I belayed off of a T-slot and some good cams. We reached the summit at 12:00 pm.

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Mageropoulos straddles the top
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I (James Bultitude) sit on the top facing Mageropoulos.

Straddling the summit left short relief, the real fun of the day was about to begin. The wind up high was quite severe, enough so we had to yell to speak even sitting right next to each other. We pulled out the radio and yelled over it to Mike and Alex, who had a similar epic, but were back on easy ground, having not attained a “proper” summit. (One of them should write up their day! Hint, Hint!)

We spotted them at the base of the North Couloir, which was just to my left and topped out under a 30 m wall of loose rock. Deciding to descend via the north coolie, we rigged an interesting abseil. (I’ll sling the block and you belay me onto it then i’ll hang on the sling to keep it in place while you down climb onto it) And were ready to rappel. Mike and Alex complained we were “dropping the whole mountain on them” and promptly left, which turned out to be a very good idea. I started rapping first and was about half way down when i heard a loud TWANG and felt the rope wobble , followed by a winded feeling. Looking down, I watched a lunch box sized rock fall away from me spinning wildly before hitting the coolie and sliding towards the glacier below.  After a long moment, I realised the rock had hit me. First in the helmet, then it had rolled down, cutting my nose slightly before smashing into the headlamp that was still around my neck. The headlamp was smahsed open and spewed out its batteries. Surprising since it was Black Diamond Storm, which SCREWS closed. It still doesn’t work quite right for some reason. Close one.

Reaching the coolie,  started looking for the next rap anchor. Spotting a fridge sized rock tower, i pushed on it ever so slightly to see if it was secure and watched the whole thing fall down in pieces to the bottom of the North Coolie. Finding little in the way of gear, I hammer in a hollow sounding pair of  pitons and Mageropoulos came down. We searched some more, and found nothing. Eventually I decided the two crappy pitons (One never made a noise any better than a low dong , they should produce a high pitched ring when properly placed, and the other seemed to have cut its way INTO the rock) would do and started to rappel, trying to place no weight on the anchor at all. This worked until the first of three vertical sections.  (Mageropoulos later told me when I reached the first one, one of the pitons shifted in the crack, something they are most definitely not supposed to do.) Our biggest fear at this point was that the ropes wouldn’t reach the glacier and that we would have to hang around and rig another crappy abseil. The wind was even worse, and visibility had dropped substantially. Crossing the first vertical bulge, I spotted the bottom and the rope sitting on the flat glacier below! I proceeded to fall through the bergschrund on abseil, climb out and slide to the end of the rope before taking myself off and promptly crawling happily to a safe looking section of the now flat glacier.

“Off rope!”

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The rock to the right is small part of the debris that came down the couloir below me.

Mike followed the abseil and we pulled the ropes and coiled one. The visibility was now quite low and it was stinking hot. We roped up for glacier travel and followed Mike and Alex’s foot prints back the 4 or so km’s through zero visibility and 30 degree heat. Fun times.

We heard some serious rockfall on the way back, but other than that it all went surprisingly well. We were back at the hut around 3:30 pm completely wasted, the descent having taken a surprisingly long 3 and half hours.

The route we climbed is not described in the guidebook, but it’s probably not a new route. That said we found no evidence of other climbers on it. We call this route “Blitzing Everywhere”  and propose a grade of NZ 4+ because of the steep crux pitch led by Mike M and generally sustained nature of the climbing with little gear for 4 pitches. It could be repeated much faster without attempting a different route first and loosing less time to communication about whether you are simul-climbing or not.

I wrote up a description of our route and put it on thecrag.com here: http://www.thecrag.com/climbing/new-zealand/pioneer-hut/route/251410257. If anyone has climbed this route or has a photo of Halcombe from col to the northwest (spassed and forgot to take one) we would love to hear about it.

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