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From Worse to Worst

For two brothers, being trapped on a mountain was the easy part.

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“OK, Go,” I said.

Tim said, “It doesn’t look—”

“You’ll be fine. I’ll tie myself to this boulder and belay you. Just step in and balance with your ice axe.”

Scott’s Creek was a raging, muddy torrent of pressure waves and curling stoppers, the current hurling fist-sized river rocks 10 feet into the air. Larger rocks thudded and knocked, rolling beneath the surface, and the mid-afternoon rain beat down on the steep slopes tipping into the creek. We hadn’t eaten for two days.

Tim took a step and looked up doubtfully. He was about 30 feet away. “Just go for it!” I yelled against the roar of the water.

Another step, and Tim disappeared, sucked under the churning water. The rope went taut, lifting me off the ground and spitting off water droplets as it vibrated. I was suspended between the room-sized boulder I had slung and my drowning brother.

***

We were on day five of an intended two-day ascent of the North Ridge of Mount Sefton, a 6,600-foot alpine rock route in the isolated Copland Valley in Mount Cook National Park, New Zealand. It was Tim’s first mountaineering trip.

After a two-day approach march, we climbed two thirds of the ridge in one push, navigating wet slabs and loose towers of broken schist. Two cot-sized flat spots provided a brilliant bivy, but the next morning we woke to an ominous sky.

I glanced at Tim. He looked tired. I guess I looked the same.

“What do you reckon, Jay?” he asked.

“Well, I don’t fancy a descent on all that loose crap. Kinda impossible really. I guess it’s up and over. Let’s go.”

As we packed up, a businesslike breeze hit. With it came South Coast rain: cold and heavy.

We swapped leads up drenched dihedrals and loose, blocky arêtes, route finding pretty efficiently, and eventually gained 50-degree snow slopes. It started sleeting. We simul-climbed, moving diagonally up, wet-snow avalanches repeatedly trying to sweep us away.

“Hey, Jay, look down there,” Tim shouted from the other end of the line. I twisted around. The cloud had briefly parted and we could see our tracks below, meandering perilously close to the jagged cornice.

We later learned that the storm killed two climbers on nearby Mount Cook, and our failure to return made the front page of the Australian newspapers.

I was starting to shiver from the wet even while I climbed. “I’m getting cold, Tim. I need to get out of the wind. There may be a schrund up there.”

We had noted ice cliffs above us as another source of danger, so knew the terrain was broken. Half an hour later Tim lowered me into a tilted crevasse, and I thumped and poked around at its base, 15 feet down, creating a flat floor and checking that it was not undermined. Soon we were in our bivy bags, partly sheltered from the wind and wet snow, brewing soup.

Thirty hours passed. Periodically we dozed. Otherwise we constantly tried to redirect dripping water and brush off incoming snow. We had long debates about whether to eat another mouthful or save it for later, how long we might be stuck and what descent routes might be possible. We continually looked up out of the slot, hoping for a respite in the storm. It was only months later that Tim told me that throughout this time, and for the entire trip once it went south, he had been certain we were going to die.

At 8 p.m. the wind quieted, so we hauled ourselves up to the surface to take a look. Mighty castles of cloud heaped around us on all sides. An easy half pitch above was the summit of Mount Sefton, while below, several abseils would see us onto the Douglas Glacier, stretching west toward Welcome Pass.

I took a compass reading for the pass. The weather was going to close in again.

“Down climb or abseil?” I asked, keen on speed.

“Abseil will be safer. We’re a bit too depleted.” Tim was right. “Man, we are close to the top! Shall we go up?”

A collective pause. “Nah,” we chimed.

“Let’s get out of here.”

The storm swirled around us, the snow slanting across the arcs lit by our headlamps. We trudged around crevasses, keeping roughly to our WNW bearing. Between us the rope crackled and sparked in the electricity of the air. It was very beautiful and scary; the full surreal wonder of mountaineering. At midnight we stumbled onto the pass and into rain. Unable to see the way, we lay down in puddles.

At first light we found cairns leading us down. We reckoned we were home, but we hadn’t counted on Scott’s Creek.

***

The toes of my boots dug into the ground, keeping me upright. The rain pelted. The brown water had swallowed Tim whole. It seemed to take a long time but was probably only seconds before I realized I had only one option. I had no idea what the outcome would be—but let out slack.

Tim popped up, released from the pressure-wave, and stood thigh-deep in the current, pack still on his back. He lunged for a rock, then thrashed to shore.

“You OK, Tim?”

He was beyond words. Exhausted, we bush-bashed back up the bank to a large boulder, crawled under it, and spent the night huddled. We later learned that the vicious storm had killed two climbers on nearby Mount Cook, and our failure to return made the front page of the Australian newspapers.

In the morning I stumbled out from under the rock. The rain had stopped. Scott’s Creek was a tame little brook. We dragged on, abseiling down waterfalls from wet, slippery ledges, to the valley floor.


James Strohfeldt, a Melbourne surgeon and psychotherapist, is a climber of over 30 years. His brother eventually forgave him for Sefton, and they have gone on to many other adventures.


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