First Descent | Ben Briggs on Conquering New Zealand Giant, Aoraki
On October 27 2017, Ben Briggs, Tom Grant and Italian skier Enrico Mossetti made history when they undertook an outrageous first descent of the Caroline Face on Aoraki, commonly named Mount Cook.
The Caroline face first came to my attention in 2013, after skiing together in the Spring, Andeas Fransson invited me on a trip to New Zealand that Autumn. I didn’t know anything about the mountains there but was excited for a trip with Andreas, who by that time had already made quite the name for himself in the ski mountaineering world. Unfortunately it was not to be on that occasion, being a ski bum I couldn’t afford the trip on short notice.
Andreas had been casual about his plans to me, saying only he wanted to ski beautiful lines and get to know the mountains there. My friend Brendan had spent the season in New Zealand and so I put the two in contact but he was leaving as Andreas arrived.
“Ya should have gone with him and I should have stayed there. He’ll ski the Caroline face.”
Brendan wrote to me. With some people I would have tried to hide my ignorance out of pride. “Bit late to tell me now! What face is that?” I replied, “What’s the mountain? I don’t know it.”
Brendan sent me a link to a series of articles about the biggest unskied lines in the world. The Caroline face was one of them and my interest in New Zealand and been sparked.
Tragically the trip did not go to plan and Andreas’ partner and Chamonix character Magnus Kastengren was killed in an attempt on the mountain. I always wondered how things could have turned out differently if I went on that trip but spending too much time thinking about things you can’t change is a fruitless activity.
Fast forward to 2017 and once again a friend was inviting me to New Zealand, this time it was long time partner in crime, Tom Grant.
In the period between both Andreas and Brendan have passed away in the mountains. Losing them has made me cautious but also reluctant to miss opportunities, I was apprehensive to be away from my one year old son, but it was a trip I wouldn’t turn down for a second time.
Tom and Ross Hewitt had been to New Zealand two years previously and encouraged me and Italian skier Enrico Mossetti to join them with tales of beautiful unskied mountains. Ross picked up a nasty injury just before the trip and so we were reduced to three. Reports of good conditions were reaching us and there was some talk of the Caroline face starting to be banded around. This grew and by the time we arrived in the country our sights were firmly set on this huge 2000m glaciated face, the last and most difficult to be climbed on Aoraki/Mount Cook, New Zealand’s highest Mountain.
The First Descent
One week after landing in New Zealand our weather window arrived. The alarms on our phones ring, its midnight after a disturbed nights sleep. Like always the nervous energy coupled with an early night prevented us sleeping properly. In the previous days we had studied the face, checked the conditions, memorised the route and made some warm up turns… we were ready. At 1am we leave the refuge into the still cold night and before long we find our rhythm skinning towards the East ridge under a beautiful starry sky.
Hearing rumbles of unseen seracs in the night increases the tension and we are happy to reach the start of the boot pack where we know there is no exposure to anything above us. We relax slightly while changing from skis to crampons but our happiness is short lived, we find ourselves trenching up waist deep snow. The hours pass quickly but our progress is slow, each of us taking our turn in the lead, no one complaining but internally considering retreat. We all know it will get easier when we reach the knife edge arête and so we push on. Break the crust, remove the top foot of snow,smash the next layer with the knee, step up, repeat.
The Arête passes more easily but care is needed, a large fall into the void awaits on either side. The Sun comes up to warm our cold bodies and we are encouraged upward with the top in sight. At the top we consider the time, its an hour or so later than we had hoped. However the temperature is still low, conditions seem good and with no easy descent the choice is an easy one to make…
I give Enrico a belay while he scouts around looking for the best ice to make a rappel over the initial seracs and before long we reach the snow. I’m last down and surprised to find the others grinning in deep powder, its going to be good.
We expect the initial slopes under the Porter col to be short before the traverse to the crest of the Clit route in the centre of the face, it only looks a few hundred meters away. Enrico heads down and we realise the immensity of the face has played tricks on us, he’s making big turns but not gaining much ground towards the traverse. We are treated to a long open powder face, each of us taking a turn to lead the way, followed by a beautiful passage through a broken part of the glaciated face to traverse onto the spur. Its steeper here and the snow isn’t as deep, I can feel the ice under my skis and head down cautiously but soon the angle eases again and the snow gets deeper.
Tom takes over and heads toward the middle serac band, its over a hundred meters high and over hanging in places but we had spotted a weakness through it from the helicopter flight to the refuge. Things turn out better than we had hoped, we ski down a ramp in to the serac where it has collapsed and we only need to rappel 40m. The skiing difficulties are over, we know the lower half of the face isn’t very steep but we need to ski quickly to avoid being under the immense seracs above.
The snow is heavier and creamy here, we ski full speed at the same time towards the bottom. The slopes seem endless and legs burning we pause just above the maze of broken glacier which marks the end of the face, we spotted only one possible exit and need to hit it perfectly. I spot our reference point, an ice cave that seems to collapse ever few minutes and we gingerly navigate the last hundred meters through crevasses and seracs before skiing out by the side of the cave and away from it as quickly as possible.
One project completed and its time to find the next. Cam, the warden of the Wyn Irwin hut where we were staying, is a fountain of knowledge on the mountains in New Zealand and gave us so much beta we were spoiled for choice for our next objective. Finally we settled on Malte Brun, the highest mountain in its chain opposite Mount Cook and never skied.
Sitting at our friend Evan’s on our first days in Christchurch flicking through the climbing guide I noticed a route called the Zig Zag. I pointed it out to Tom and Enrico and Tom said he had though about it too but wasn’t sure how skiable it was. Our attempts to see it from the Plateau refuge left us none the wiser and every one we mentioned it to just gave us funny looks,
“…you mean to climb right? Not to ski?”.
Luck seemed to have been on our side so with a positive feeling and with several good plan B’s from Cam we decided to give it a go.
We set up camp on the Malte Brun pass, from here the route is relatively short, 600m compared to the 2000m of the Caroline face, but its much steeper and more technical. After a tricky bergshurd crossing we make quick work of the climbing, following the obvious line of weakness through the mostly rocky face. At the summit the clouds swirl in around us, momentary plunging us into darkness before lifting and leaving behind just an atmospheric mist.
The skiing is steep on a rock peppered face but the snow is good and in places its possible to link nice turns. Some extremely narrow passages and one mandatory straight line form the crux of the route and bring us to the short rappel. Coming off of the rope marks the beginning of the beautiful but sustained exit couloir. Until here the skiing has been over huge cliffs but the sizeable bergshrund huck still leaves no room for error.
“we take some sick pleasure from our suffering, things aren’t meant to be too easy”
An icy cold night on the Col saps our motivation for some of our other plans and we content ourselves to harvesting perfect corn in the sun on the only once previously skied North face of the Aiguilles Rouges. We know the walk out is going to be tough so we ski down the beautiful rolling glacier as far as possible before setting up camp for the night. 10 hours of walking over some of the worst terrain imaginable finally brings us back to the village but we take some sick pleasure from our suffering, things aren’t meant to be too easy… Although next time I will be flying out!
Soon after the weather changed but we were happy to be tourists and enjoy our time left having already accomplished more than we could have hoped for. New Zealand should be at the top of the list for any ski mountaineer, there are still countless first descents to be had, even on Mount Cook, but also beautiful mellower touring accessible to everyone (if you don’t mind some walking).