For our guides, the mountains are our happy constant. People come and go, but the lessons are always there in the high peaks. For Michael Rooke, he had a long list of objectives on his ever-growing figurative napkin floating in his mind. Over the past decade of living in Franz Josef, the meaning of climbing changed for him as he took a bold approach to follow his dreams.
There is a mountain you can see as you fly into the Franz Josef Glacier. It stands tall, dominating the horizon of rock that sits at the back of the Franz Josef Neve. Although deemed the Matterhorn of South Westland, I couldn't help but feel it was not getting the attention it deserved. Mt Spencer, 2788m tall and I wanted to stand on top of it. My track record would suggest I am attracted to aesthetically pleasing mountains, but this time I was ready to push my limits. I wanted to climb the best of the best. Cody was my climbing partner and colleague, we chose to climb the SW buttress, graded 4- and described as “a relatively long but not especially difficult route, on excellent quality and steep rock”. It sounded perfect.
We flew into Centennial hut, sitting just shy of 2400m. Whilst the rest of Franz Josef slept, we forced down breakfast and approached Mt Spencer. Night navigation has its pitfalls, little did we know we fell victim and after climbing a steady snow ramp, we noticed we climbed up the wrong buttress. However, the day was young, and spirits were high, so we decided to bail off the route and find the line we came for. As we made our way down the snow ramp and onto our first rappel, our rope got stuck, giving us no choice but to cut 10m of rope off the end. A small set back but nothing that would dampen the mood. Upon reaching the correct buttress, we simul climbed to make up for lost time. The route required another rappel onto a gendarme to reach a small ridge which led to the main wall of the buttress.
Being at height was not a daunting prospect for me, but this rappel sent a package of emotions I was not so familiar with. As I positioned over the edge, I slowly lowered myself down whilst using my feet to swing myself onto the ridge. As I pushed off the rock, my foot slipped and sent me swinging out over 100m of exposure. The rope ran along a sharp edge, the adrenaline rushed through my veins as I hurriedly searched for a rock to catch myself on if I were to fall. Luck was on my side, and I swung back to safety. Cody has a similar experience on his turn; however, the rock gave way beneath his feet. If he were not attached to the anchor at this point his fate would rest amongst the Franz Josef Glacier. Both sat on the ridge and slightly pale, we tried to remain focused. Fear got the better of Cody as he stated the climb was “beyond him”. The pressure was on as he asked me to lead us up the wall or back down to safety. I assessed the cracks up the wall and thought to myself, do I have this? It looked like it could go and with full trust from Cody, I racked up my gear and started the ascent. The laser focus was real. It took every trick in the book to calm my breathing and stay in control. As Cody reached the anchor at the top of the wall he expressed “that was actually quite fun”. We continued to simul climb to the top where Mt Cook and neighbouring mountains stood before us, stretching right out to the Tasman Sea. This was my first summit in the Franz Josef Neve. It was a humbling experience.
We decided to rappel down the south face of the mountain. In hindsight I couldn’t tell you why we decided to do this, instead of the much easier route to the north. The climber's flaw is often celebrating too early and underestimating that getting off the mountain can be the hardest part of the climb. This came to speak the truth. With only 2 rappels away from the ground, we were suddenly reduced to moonlight. On a desperate attempt to get down swiftly, our rope got stuck for a second time, but this time much worse. We were on a small ledge, both clipped into the same piece of protection and the only way down was for someone to climb the stuck rope back up to free it. I was sure it would hold my weight, so without discussion, I tied on my prussic cords and began to ascend the rope. I managed to free the rope with a few tugs, and we were shortly back on safe ground.
We found ourselves walking back to the hut in the dark. I was elated, relieved, scared, grateful, inspired... and tripping over my own feet. At this point I had burnt the candles on both ends, having been so vigilant with decision making for the best part of 16 hours. Cody took responsibility on getting us back to the hut safely. There are no short cuts in the mountains, risk is everywhere and there are often external factors thrown into the works to really spike subjective risk. One quote that particularly stuck with me in the early stages of guiding is that "to have a great adventure, and survive, requires good judgement. Good judgement comes from experience. Experience, of course, is the result of poor judgement." Luckily, the benefit of climbing with the same partner bodes well when you start acting out of character. I thought the glacier would be fine to walk across without crampons, but that was my flawed sense of judgement influenced by sever fatigue. After conquering spencer, the last thing I wanted to stop and put on more gear, but Cody was aware enough to know that safety never takes a day off.
This trip was a true testament to my strength, but what it confirmed was my love for the mountains and how each mountain will teach you lessons you didn't know you needed. You may measure yourself against many things in life, but among the mountains, you will always be small.
Glossary of climbing terms:
Buttress: A large protruding face
Gendarme: A pinnacle of rock
Simul climb: Two climbers climb at the same time whilst placing protection
Rappel: A controlled method of descent