Monday, 22 December 2014

A Merry mountain Christmas

It's Christmas eve and the morning mist rolsl across the Mekong River from Laos into the mountainous Loei district of Thailand. I am spending another Christmas in the mountains.

The traditional northern hemisphere Christmas with snow and reindeer used to seem foreign to me as a child living in New Zealand in the middle of summer and going to the beach after a Christmas lunch. I suppose I have always associated Christmas with two things: the birth of Christ and adventure. As a child it was outdoors, beaches,  a swimming hole and later, I discovered mountaineering. When I was 19, I climbed Malte Brun, an impressive 3000 m rock peak, on Christmas Day, 1967, in the Mount Cook National Park. In the New Zealand mountains I had finally found snow in the middle of a NZ summer.
On the summit of Malte Brun in 1967 with Aoraki Mount Cook in the bcakground. Photo Keith nMcIvor

The following day, Boxing Day, we climbed the high peak of the twin summits of Minarets. I was fortunate to join a team of three crack Dunedin mountaineers, and together we climbed many of the 10,000 foot or 3000 metres peaks in the Mount Cook National Park, and also, Mt. Aspiring, over the years.
In 1967 we were labelled the 'Four Scots' McIvor, McLeod, Cowie and McKerrow. Together, or in pairs, we climbed many of the 3000 metre peaks in NZ, including Mt. Aspiring.
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

My first ascent of Aoraki Mount Cook, our highest mountain on Christmas Day, 1968. It was a 20 hour climb and probably the best Christmas present of my life, standing on the top on New Zealand.  Read the story of Keith's tragic death attempting to do the first winter ascent of the Caroline face of Mount Cookin 1973. .

Two years later on Christmas day 1970, I climbed Aoraki Mount Cook again, this time by the East Ridge with Chris Timms. Chris later went on to win an Olympic gold medal in sailing.

On Christmas eve 1970, I was working for the Mt. Cook National Park on mountain rescue team. We knocked off about 3 pm that afternoon and were celebrating in the Park workshop. About 7.30 pm a scruffy climber walked in and said, "I have a ski plane booked to fly into the Grand Plateau in a few minutes. My partner hasn’t turned up so I need someone to climb with."

Most of us were glowing with the effects of large quantities of beer and relishing the thought of a relaxing Christmas day the following day. I looked at Chris Timms, with his curly blond locks falling down over his shoulders, and an impish smile, and I was instantly attracted to this odd character, and I said "yes". That was the beginning of a long friendship.

My pack was always packed, ready for rescues so I grabbed it, stuffed a few cans of beer into it, and 30 minutes later we were on the Grand Plateau with Mt Tasman and Cook towering above us. It was 9.00 pm in the evening. We had the last two remaining cans of beer and grabbed 3 hours sleep. We woke shortly after midnight to a starry sky. We wolfed down some breakfast and hit the hard snow at 1 am. Chris Timms was hell bent on doing the East Ridge of Mount Cook. As I stood on the steep knife edge ridge, my feet were not steady. The effects of the beer were still there. I could think of no place better in New Zealand to quickly sober up. ( This is where I took the picture of Chris posted below) I looked at the Caroline Face of Mt.Cook and searched for my friends Mike Browne and Keith Woodford who I knew were attempting the face today.
Chris Timms on the East Ridge of  Aoraki Mount Cook on Christmas day 1970. Photo: Bob McKerrow

Near the top of the ridge where it comes out just below the middle peak, we struck gale force winds and blizzard conditions. The snow and ice stabbed like a driven nail into our faces. For survival, the only options were to dig a snow hole on the summit ridge, and wait until the weather abated, or drop down into the Hooker Valley to Empress Hut. Originally we had planned to zip over the middle and high peaks and back down the Linda Glacier to Plateau Hut.The descent was the most treacherous in my whole climbing career as neither of us had been on this side of the mountain, and we fell a number of times descending what we found out later, was part of the Hooker face. Visibility was almost zero and we fell, staggered, stumbled our way to safety.
I can remember both of us falling onto the bunks in Empress Hut and both rocking with laughter. " Shit Bob, that was close," said Chris. We had clearly diced with death and survived. Chris Timms and and I were to survive many other close shaves in the years ahead, but eventually in 2004, his luck ran out. We walked out down the Hooker Glacier and out to the Hermitage the next day. Chris was such fun to be with as he sang, joked and enjoyed everything around him. While descending the previous day, Chris had ripped the seat out of his long johns and his bum was showing in places, much to the amusement of tourists as we hit the track near the Hermitage. Chris never cared about what people thought and laughed with them. He had an admirable quality of being able to laugh at himself.
Above left, Chris Timms after winner a gold medal in the 1984 Olypmics for sailing.

Over Christmas time of 1970, I spent time with Jim Cowie, Bill Denz and Chris Frazer at Pioneer Hut at the head of the Fox Glacier and the four of us climbed Glacier Peak and Mt. Douglas together. Bill Denz went on to be one of the country's top mountaineers.
Our Christmas playground as young mountaineers. Haast, Lendenfeld, Tasman and Aoraki Mt. Cook.  Photo: Bob McKerrow

For nearly a decade I spent my Christmases in the New Zealand mountains interspersed with climbs in Ethiopia, Antarctica, Kenya, Borneo and the Himalya.
On the summit of Mt. Kilimananjaro, 1978 ; "As high as the sky" wrote Hemmingway.

 In 1978, when living in Ethiopa, I climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro on Christmas Day. In 1969  Christmas was spent in the Antartcic, and in 1986, preparing for  a trip to the North Pole in Ely Minnesota.

Yesterday I flew  from Bangkok to Loei where I will spend Christmas in the mountainous Phu Kradueng national park, not far from the mighty Mekong River.

 I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help.

Being in the mountains at Christmas time reminds me of the birth of Christ and how glorious mountains are.

On Christmas day in the mountains I like to find a quiet spot and think of all those mountaineers who died doing what they loved, especially those who I were close to and still grieve. Keith McIvor, Howard Laing, Kevin Carrol, Mike Cooper, Bill Hauk, John Hume, Richard Tilley, Dave McNulty, Rob Hall, Gary Ball, Vicky Thompson, Bruce Jenkinson, Dave McNulty, Anatoli Boukreev, Chris Jillet, Erica Beuzenberg and Faye Kerr.
The last two photos of Phu Kradueng National Park are  courtesy of TripAdvisor


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