A lone piper, facing Lake Manapouri and the mountains of Fiordland, plays a dirge for Keith McIvor. Photo: Bob McKerrow
Keith McIvor was my closest friend. He taught me to climb when I was 17 under the Caroline Face of Mount Cook on the Ball Glacier. Little did we know then that the Caroline Face would act out a final drama for Keith some years later. Whether in the bush, crossing rivers, on steep ice or crumbling rock, Keith was the safest climber I knew. He was equally at ease in a bar regailing us with yarns of his work in a medical laboratory, and later, university life. He nearly always had a broad smile across that broad, brown face of his and a twinkle in his eyes as we planned our next trip over a pint of Speight's.
Keith McIvor (right), Graham Lockett (centre) and Bob McKerrow (left) on the top of Mt.Huxley. Easter 1967
My life was shattered during that long winter at Mount Cook in 1972 when Keith died, when he fell, tied to Bill Hauck, from just above the ice cliffs on the Caroline Face of Mount Cook. He and Bill were attempting the first winter ascent of the Caroline face of Mount Cook Aoraki. Part of me has been numb since then. It's like the clock stopped ticking. Yes, that old thief of a clock that steals our life away minute by minute.
Mount Cook village during the winter of 1972. Keith died soon after this photo was taken. Photo: Bob McKerrow
I can still see Keith shimmying on front points across green ice on Mt. Dixon, running along the ridge connecting Rolleston to Philistine without a care in the world and falling in love with Vicky. Vicky died three years later on a New Zealand-Indian expedition in the Himalayas. I never asked her but I wonder if she was numbed by Keith's death ? When we are young you don't ask these questions, it is only when you slow down a little that you wonder what might have been.
Keith took many of our team photos. Aoraki Mount Cook on the right and the Tasman Glacier between Rod McLeod on the left, and me in the centre. Jim Cowie is on the right. Photo: Keith McIvor.
l to r. Jim Cowie, Bob McKerrow. Jan Sarnquist and Keith McIvor after doing a new route, a variation on the Notch Route, Mt. Talbot, Darran Mountain, Fiordland. 1969. Photo. Frank Sarnquist.
My mind drifts back to our first great climbing season, which we simply called Malte Brun 1967. Young, fit we walked up the Tasman Glacier to Malte Brun Hut. Keith McIvor, Jim Cowie, Rod McLeod and Robert (Bob) McKerrow. Scottish names with a lilt that is musical to the ear. We climbed de la Beche, Minarets, Malte Brun and Elie de Beaumont and of course, Rumdoodle and Turnbull. Keith, a powerful climber, was always out front when we struck an obstacle.
The head of the Tasman glacier where we climbed in late 1967. Photo: Bob McKerrow
Elie de Beaumonth (l) and Minarets in the foreground. Peaks we climbed in 1967. Photo" Bob McKerrow
The next year, 1968, we turned our attention to Mt. Cook. The same four did Cook, a traverse of Dampier and Vancouver, and Mt, Tasman. Photo: Bob McKerrow
The ridge from the summit of Mt. Tasman to Silberhorn. Photo: Bob McKerrow
We did some of our most diverse climbs in 1969. Here is Keith with Vicky Thompson at Sefton Bivvy. That year we climbed in the Darrans, Mt. Brewster, Otira Face of Rolleston and a traverse to Philistine, and peaks at the head of the Fox Glacier. Photo: Jim Cowie.
Jim Cowie on the summit of Mount Douglas, 1969. Photo: Bob McKerrow
Our team started breaking up in 1969. I went to Antarctica in 1969-70 for 13 months. Those three years of learning to climb with Keith, Rod and Jim rank amongst the best of my life. We were young, athletic and we could almost run across the mountains and swim flooded rivers. We were safe, but tough yet gentle, bold but humble, and always swayaed by beauty and truth. These truths I learned from Keith.
Keith, Jim and I all spent time in Antarctica and were enriched by these icy experiences. Photo: Bob McKerrow
I think back to the that August day in 1972, when Keith McIvor arrived at my house at Mount Cook where I was working for the National Park and doing some guiding.
Keith was beaming, " We are going to have a crack at the Caroline Face," he said rather nonchalantly. I was worried. It had been a cold winter with lots of snow. My first concern, was, were he and Bill Hauck equipped. I was like his younger brother, but bolder now that I had climbed in Peru, Antarctica and was now on the mountain rescue team. "Let me look at your pack and the gear you have," I brazenly asked. Taken aback, Keith reluctantly brought his pack into my large room, which overlooked the south Face of Mt.Cook. He wasn't well prepared. His gear inadequate. What do you say to your guru and mentor who taught you to climb ?
I tried to be supportive. I gave him my new Joe Brown Karrimor pack as it had a sleeping mat, and you could put your lower body in the pack and keep warm. I gave him many items of clothing that were much warmer than what he had. His eyes were a bit dreamy, a bit glassy. Keith was now a student studying for a B. Com. He had little money and it seemed he and Bill had adopted a fairly cavalier approach to this climb. In their hearts it was noble and somewhat romantic venture. Where had Keith's efficient and organised approach gone to? Keith was driven, goal driven, but not well prepared. I had just spent a week in Plateau hut putting the roof back on after a storm. It dropped to minus 20 oC at night. When skiing out from the Grand Plateau I had a bad virus, and almost died of hypothermia when I fell asleep resting. It may have been my last sleep had Kevin 'Agony' Pain not come back to find me.
" Keith are you serious about this climb," I asked. " Well get your shit together," I demanded. I also ascertained both he and Bill had girlfriend problems that were playing on their minds. Rumors floated around that they had swapped girlfriends.
Can you stop a flooded river, can you stop an avalanche ? I don't think so. Could I have physically stopped Keith ? I doubt it. The next morning he and Bill Hauck headed out. Two days later they climbed the ice fall on the Caroline Face on Mount Cook and settled in for the long night.
Shortly after midday the next day, Gavin Wills in his small plane saw two bodies on the snow at the bottom of the ice cliffs. I was gutted, but somehow knew it was coming. I believe they were hit by an icefall, or snow and ice avalanche, which knocked them off the ledge they were camping on.
All ice we learn as children
Is a dead inanimate thing
But ice falling on a mountain
Is alive with a death that sings
The ice's song is enchanting
Fit for mountain Kings
First it's high and then it's low
Lacrimoso from the strings
It's been over 35 years since Keith died. It scared a lot of us, particularly Stan and Elsie, his Mum and Dad. I lost a mentor.
It has taken me 35 years to write about it. The unconfirmed death of Irina Yun really moved me and brought back a flood of memories and I felt I still haven't dealt with the loss of my best friend, Keith McIvor.
I can still hear the piper playing amazing Grace across Lake Manapouri. where sound, wind and ripples meet.