AT 5 A.M. WE PACKED UP IN THE pitch-black dampness to continue our descent from Mount Pembroke. Ron led through the thick coastal foliage and chill mist—unfortunately moving a bit too far ahead at 40 feet away, so I only saw his headlamp occasionally. We had both had enough of each other, but his pace felt spiteful, as if he was again showing off and rushing. With headlamps beaming through the rising mist off the waterfall, we groped from jungle bush to tree, and lowered from slippery rock to mossy ledge.
In a head-bobbing rhythm, I swept my light beam up to see what to grab next, and then down to place my feet as I chased Ron’s tube of light. On one oscillation I saw no light.
I stopped, grabbed a bush and waited a moment. Still no light.
This wasn’t the first problem we’d had on our three-week Kiwi climbing adventure. A week earlier, while attempting Mount Aspiring, we had faced two days of typhoon weather and 90-mph winds off the Tasman Sea. Torrential rain drove through every needle hole in the seams of our floorless tent, and whipped up beneath us. I felt the wise thing was to retreat and wait for a weather window, but gave in to Ron’s pressure to stick it out, based on his philosophy of, “I can tell this weather is going to break.”
At 2 a.m. the screaming wind hit a crescendo like a jet engine using its afterburners, and split the tent wide open. Our gear flew everywhere, and we packed recklessly, grabbing and stuffing. We scrambled across glacial territory, roped but running, while lightning grounded out all around us. Descending 3,000 feet down the French Ridge to an empty New Zealand Alpine Club hut, we were soaked and hypothermic.
The next morning I felt full of “I told you so” attitude, while Ron wanted to pack up wet equipment and head back up glacier. Our tempers flared at the most menial tasks, whether it be what to cook or what to pack for another attempt.
Ron and I had met at the video shop in Estes Park, Colorado, and recognized each other as area regulars with several mutual friends. The next day I had picked him up at 4 a.m. and we climbed the eight-pitch Sykes Sickle on Spearhead in under 10 hours car to car. A month later, we were about halfway up the North Ridge of the Grand Teton, jammed onto a tight bivy ledge, when we found ourselves discussing the possibility of a climbing trip to New Zealand. He would soon be attending a semester of college there. Although we had only known each other a few months, we seemed to climb well together, though I sensed we both possessed a need to do things “my way.”
We crossed paths only one more time in Colorado, attempting a difficult alpine north face in Rocky Mountain National Park on New Year’s Day. The results were disastrous. We had not discussed a turnaround time, and my usual 2 p.m. deadline passed by; two hours later we were bickering about it, and I wasn’t taking no for an answer.
Months later, in New Zealand, I caught up to Ron in a backpackers’ motel in Wanaka, a gateway town to Mount Aspiring National Park. We clashed almost immediately when Ron showered first and soaked the entire room: walls, toilet, mirror and both towels.
The next morning, a 6:30 a.m. flight deposited us at 5,000 feet on the French Ridge, just below the freeze-thaw line of Mount Aspiring. Gloomy Gorge lurked 2,500 vertical feet just off our right elbow and swallowed the occasional calving glacial chunk. Thick, whipped-cream stratus rose up from the valley floor like expanding foam. We strapped on crampons, roped up and headed to the Quarterdeck area of the Bonar Glacier, but were too socked in to see.
After our epic first attempt, we tried the French Ridge a second time, but were again quickly enveloped in clouds. Now tentless, we bivouacked out in the open for two days in hopes of a summit shot. With more driving rain, zero visibility and zero tolerance, we threw in the towel. Things weren’t going well between us, but we applied expedition philosophy: stay focused on the climbing objectives and put the rest aside.
For our next objective, Ron had in mind a line on a coastal mountain that had only received a few ascents. Rising to over 6,500 feet directly out of the bay, Mount Pembroke is enticing and complex, with a huge diversity of topography. We scammed a roundtrip boat ride out of a small harbor to the mouth of the Harrison River, and started our adventure by walking up the salty river in our sandals. We were often thigh-deep in the crystal-clear water but in an odd contrast, carried packs with ice axes, crampons and a small mixed rack. We turned left at the confluence of Pembroke Creek and a few hundred yards later were stalled by a 200-foot cliff split by a thundering tiered waterfall.
So far we had been able to avoid the malice of the thick coastal rain forest by staying in the river. Now we put on mountaineering boots and gaiters and began to grovel through the insanely thick vegetation, grabbing roots, moss clumps, tree trunks and bushes. Climbing with heavy packs up the greasy face was an amusing but agonizing and dangerous chore. As nightfall approached, we made it into a narrow clearing in the upper channel of Pembroke Creek and hustled up another 500 vertical feet onto the barren rock of the glacial cirque before pitching camp, now using a small summer backpacker-type tent.
Following a sustained early-morning rain we got going at 8 a.m. The cirque rose in three distinct tiers of about 500 feet each, and ended below a hanging glacier. The first and third tiers were smoothly polished granite mostly lacking features in which to place protection. Unroped, we struggled to find a safe route, many times being dead-ended, losing precious time debating choices. Finally spying what appeared to be a climbable line, we busted out our skimpy rack and skinny rope. Our boots lent poorly to 5.8 friction face climbing, and the big runouts between pieces were scary, but we persevered for three pitches. The final leg of the ascent required crampons and axes. We packed away the rope, rack and harnesses and took on the last objective, a 2,000-foot steepening glacier-choked couloir that joined the summit ridge.
At a time of day when I thought we should have been climbing fast and safe, I looked over to see Ron in the center of the icefall taking on a steep ice line and soloing an 80-degree face to the next step. This wasn’t the first time I felt threatened by his decision-making, while he considered me a conservative wuss. We pushed on to within 200 feet of the summit, but then, even at sunset, with a boat ride scheduled for 9 a.m., we could barely agree to head down.
We arrived at the tent and broke camp at 9:30 p.m., continuing down the creek by headlamp. At 11 p.m. the thunder of pounding water told us we had reached the crest of the falls. We bivied there.
I turned out my headlamp, straining to see Ron’s light through the fog. Nothing. I yelled again, more loudly, to be heard over the waterfall. I was getting pissed off and felt we should have stuck together. I yelled once more.
Oh, Jesus Christ, I thought, this can’t be happening—where’s the dickhead? My guts tightened up. I moved down a few yards, gripping small trees and checking my foot placements like a baseball batter digging in for the swing. I scanned the abyss with my torch. Had this asshole just split?
My thoughts turned to the worst possible outcome. I continued to scan with my headlight, struggling to slow the process.
Clutching a tree, I leaned way out and looked down over the edge. At least a hundred feet below me gleamed large round river cobbles.
How would I get a medivac helicopter in here and when? Is he even alive? Maybe just broken bones.
My light reflected off his face! He even looked kind of alive, pale features upturned. I continued down the cliff on a left-descending traverse, reached a small rivulet and walked down a staircase of exposed rock, ankle-deep in running water.
Illuminated by my headlamp in the blackness of the morning, billowing clouds of mist rolled off the face of the waterfall. The water had carved a hollow, eroded tube at its base. There! Pushing his floating pack and paddling behind it was Ron. He staggered to his feet in knee-deep water, not knowing whether to laugh or cry.
We stood in a long awkward silence. I wanted to bitch-slap him. As he meekly explained, he had lost his footing, and slid about 50 feet though moss, grass and small bushes down the 60-degree slope, accelerating. Then he launched—free falling over 100 feet into the blackness. Nor did the water landing comfort him, because in his panic he thought he was only mid-cliff, about to be swept over the falls.
Sore but mobile, he wrung out his polypro shirt and grabbed a dry fleece vest from his pack. He related that after his big kerplunk, his headlamp had sunk to the bottom of the pool, still turned on. He had freed himself from the pack straps and dived 10 feet down to retrieve it—in his double plastic climbing boots.
We took a moment to eat an energy bar, and were off. The sky was just acquiring a dull glimmer of pale blue light as we headed down river at 6:30 a.m. We pushed as fast as we could, arriving late at the fjord’s edge. No boat. After an hour of swatting the voracious sand flies, we were thrilled to see the launch approach on the flat, glassy water of the bay.
Mount Cook was the last goal on our list, and a few days later we climbed it, but in zero visibility the summit was fairly anticlimactic; my clearest memory is of how the effects of old accidents kicked in, putting my lower back in agony.
Though a few days remained, we went our separate ways. On the return flight to Colorado I was packed sardine-style into a middle seat, and the extended sitting exacerbated the vicious pain in my sciatica. I landed in Denver, endured spinal surgery within three weeks, and never saw Ron again.
Greg Sievers continues to climb ice and rock throughout North America and in the Andes, Himalaya and Russia.