Climbing legend Rolfe Oostra pens the experience that sent him into a state of introspective soul searching; where was his climbing obsession taking him?
The toughest story to write is the one that has bitten you the deepest.
We were all very much alike; each of us obsessed beyond sanity about climbing. Since our early teenage years, we pursued nothing else; climbing took precedence over school, family and girlfriends. Yet within climbing we differed; Graeme was on his way to becoming a top ski-mountaineer, Arend and Jake were powerful sport climbers, Erik was the strongest Trad climber and a big-wall junkie and Jeff, Noel and myself had caught the Alpine bug. Still, we were a tight bunch and loved the companionship of the calling and hitched up and down our big brown land looking for vertical landscapes to quench our climbing thirst.
Together we had put up a banner at the college hall. It read: “Mission New Zealand: Climbers are invited to join us to climb the Southern Alps.” Ominously we had borrowed the Hell’s Angels catch-phrase “Live to climb and climb to die” and pencilled this to the bottom of the banner. The eye-catching picture of an Alpinist hanging over the void by the tip of his ice-axe was Noel’s touch.
I was the most obsessed. Climbing had given me an unexpected take on life that had restored confidence in myself and offered an escape from the droll conventions of suburban life. Climbing was a fringe sport back then and seemed to give a friendly nod to punk music and smoking the herb; both of which I embraced wholeheartedly for inspiration in my quest for finding the perfect route.
By the time the ski-plane touched down on the glaciated back of the Grand Plateau of the Southern Alps we were well honed; each of us had been cranking hard rock for years. We had spent many nights sleeping on the tiny ledges of the big walls and managed to get up some steep ice at Blue Lake in Kosciusko National park. To round off the cutting edge we had even taken a step back and spend 10 days learning the art of mountaineering with an inspirational mountain guide; class 101.
Arend managed to step out of his teenage years up there and we celebrated by swinging our axes into the glittering ice of the East-face of a peak called the Footstool. We were good and ready to play where the big boys play.
Things went well at first and between us we managed to climb impressively and despite being a bit too raucous for Kiwi tastes we appreciated the quiet praises sung by the local hard-men. Erik got the ball rolling by climbing the steep south faces of Hicks and Malte Brun and from the glaciers of the Grand Plateau we managed to nail all the intimidating summits that circle this stunning place.
They say that all good things come to an end. And on the day we finally bid goodbye to the hut and began the tedious descent to civilisation this dreary phrase entered our collective consciousness with the suddenness of a knife stabbing deep into the bone.
The day began simply enough; we closed the door of the hut and donned crampons to begin the descent. Our budget had only allowed for a single ride on a ski-plane onto the plateau but the route down the Haast ridge onto the Tasman glacier and the trail head beyond was only supposed to take six hours. Sure it was steep in places and we needed to be roped up but we were not thinking too hard about the terrain; girls and beer beckoned… and besides, a guide and his client had left easy to follow prints in the snow-pack an hour before us. What could be simpler than this climb down to the glacier that stretched out like a motorway 600 meters below?
“They say that all good things come to an end. And on the day we finally bid goodbye to the hut and began the tedious descent to civilisation this dreary phrase entered our collective consciousness with the suddenness of a knife stabbing deep into the bone.”
We divided into separate rope teams each setting a different pace but each equally determined to get down fast. We were all keen as mustard to experience something different than each other’s company and the rock and ice we’d climbed. Soon, despite knowing better we began to take risks, little short-cuts; anything to get down quickly; aquick bum slide here and a little un-roped bounce across a little crevasse there. These small risks and mistakes began to stack up as we descended and soon went well out of control; the calculated bum-slide to a flat bit in the slope escalated within seconds into a whirling avalanche. We hadn’t gauged the angle of the slope properly nor read the condition of the snow closely, our impatience led to that most innocuous of mistakes; beginners error.
How quickly it happened stuns me still; one second I am laughing and egging my friends on to descend on their arse and the next I see them bounce like rag-dolls down the ever-steepening ice into the waiting jaws of the Tasman’s many crevasse’s half a kilometre below. The snow they triggered as they fell build up into a huge wave of cement like sludge that followed them into the many crevasses stretching along the mountain. Stunned by what I was seeing, the first thought that entered my head was how I was going to explain this to my parents; only six months previously my younger brother had died of a brain aneurism; an event that might have been caused by being hit by rock-fall whilst climbing at Buffalo National park only a week prior to the life-support machines that kept him alive being turned off forever. I was roped to Jeff, just behind us came Jake and Graeme; spinning into space and becoming engulfed in an avalanche were Noel, Arend and my twin brother Erik. Life collapsed around me.
The cool head of my rope mate Jeff and the climbing team of Jake and Graeme just above drove back the panic that overtook me. They were shouting at me; demanding me to remain focused; to switch off every irrelevant emotion and tap into every significant experience that had led me to this point in life. We needed to climb down to the glacier to see if anyone was still alive; as fast as we could. Only by staying cool was I not going to turn this disaster into an even greater one. We turned into the slope and as quickly as we could, kicked our crampons into the ice to begin a bee-line descent to the crevasse that had swallowed our friends.
“We hadn’t gauged the angle of the slope properly nor read the condition of the snow closely, our impatience led to that most innocuous of mistakes; beginners error.”
We found the right crevasse as soon as we hit the glacier; an ice-axe lay near its icy lips. We looked in but could see nothing but the cold blue-black depths. Still, Jeff and I set up an abseil and hurled over the edge. 50 meters in we found that a huge ball of snow was blocked between the 2 walls of the crevasse; a hand stuck out from its top. Frantically we began to dig around the hand but panicked when we noticed that whenever we touched the ball of snow it collapsed into pieces which vanished further into the blue-black depths. We attached ourselves to our rope with prusiks and hung from it taking care not to weigh the snow. Using our hands and helmets we began the grim work of digging up our friends.
They say that the 3 things most likely to kill you in an avalanche are trauma, suffocation and hypothermia. We found that the hand belonged to Noel; his beaten up face suggested that trauma had done its ugly work. We pulled up the rope connecting them and quickly found Arend; the amount of snow packed into his mouth had undoubtedly suffocated him. We recovered Erik; still alive but unconscious and severely hypothermic. His helmet had been knocked over his face as he tumbled and thankfully created an air pocket that had kept him going for the time it took us to reach him.
After the funerals I visited Arends parents; we’d been good friends prior to going to New Zealand and I cried with them as we sat in his small room on which walls still hung the pictures of the mountains he one day hoped to climb. I accidently ran into Noel’s Dad a month later at the train station. He was standing on the platform as I hopped off the Sydney train. He turned away when he saw me, alive and healthy and broke down crying; clumsily I placed my hand on his shoulder but he pushed me away. Soon after I boarded a flight to Africa; I needed the space to confront the demons that had begun to grow within me.
Now 25 years later I sit and pen these words in the kitchen of my home in the French Pyrenees. I am dog-tired from days of cattle class travel after another stint on an 8000-metre mountain. The kids are on their way to school and I stir more sugar into my coffee. Sleep has escaped me yet again but the events that shaped me all those years ago are still as crisp as the cold wind that howls over a mountain summit. I have relived those moments many times since. And I have witnessed the cracks appear in other climbers happy relationship with their sport as equally bad things happened to them. The fact that I am privileged to be sitting here writing this never escapes me and the lessons learned that day keep me alive when I return to the mountains. It is the worst way to be shown the truth but the clock can never be rewound. Perhaps the greatest knowledge that grew from this story is that the mountains will not let you get away with making mistakes too often; it is a privilege to dwell amongst these noble giants but only a fool thinks that he is immortal and climbs as if the mountains owe him a favour.
Rolfe is Founder and Head Guide for 360 Expeditions, which offers climbing, trekking and fundraising adventures across the globe. In his 30-year climbing career, Rolfe has summited hundreds of peaks all around the world; in Australia and New Zealand, U.S.A., South & Central America, Asia, Africa & Europe.
To join him on an expedition and for more info visit www.360-expeditions.com