Our Cool Couloir: a traverse of Mt Sealy, Aoraki Mt Cook National Park
4-6 January 2010
In the New Year, three club members climbed Mt Sealy (2627m) in the Mueller Glacier area. Our original intention was Malte Brun but persistently poor weather persuaded us to do a shorter trip. Our plan was to tramp up to Mueller Hut and climb Sealy’s North Face.
Heading up to Mueller Hut in clearing weather, we enjoyed fine evening views of Sefton, Cook, and Malte Brun beyond. We set an alarm for 4am, hoping our porridge, bacon and coffee aromas wouldn’t disturb the hut’s many other visitors.
Tuesday dawned perfectly fine. The upper ice shelf of Sefton soon glowed in the dawn sun. In a couple of hours we crunched over Annette Plateau, scratched across a rocky ridge and plodded the gentle slopes of the Metelille Glacier. Mt Sealy loomed, its north face all slanty layers of rock, some lit brightly and others ominous in shade. We saw our intended route above the glacier neve in the left of two couloirs, 200 metres of climbing at an average angle of about 45 degrees. The lower gully was narrow, dry and surrounded by bare slabs and walls while the upper half was snowy.
The rope came out immediately! Being out front meant Dave got to lead the first pitch, groping along a shelf to big slabs sprinkled with loose rocks, then halting at a difficult point where all options were unsavoury. Steve came up next and found a better route around a small snowfield, finishing his pitch on a sunny ledge sheltered from rock-fall. Paul took the gear sling and set off to lead pitch three. Although easy-angled, it involved off-balance bridging, undercling holds, a rope-jamming notch and a detour around a big boulder to protect against a fall. Steve led again, a difficult start then enjoyable climbing up a corner then back to the couloir. It had taken over four hours to complete these awkward rock pitches and reach the snow slope. With a rising breeze, clouds were starting to drift over the summit 100m above us.
Dave and Paul led two long pitches on snow. Dave sensibly anchored in the firing line of a dormant cannon - a loaf-sized rock did launch nearby, fluttering past as if made of paper! Paul chose a safer site for his belay, providing a good base for Steve to get the seventh pitch off the snow and into the summit rocks. The summit was an awesome fortress. Walls and ramps of loose rocks stood around us. The final pitch ‘Exit Choss’ was difficult to protect. Mostly, promising holds gave hollow taps. The trickiest part was standing on a wedge protruding from a vertical stack, delicately reaching up the stack over a large round rock and pulling up in the hope of finding a more plausible move above.
At 3pm the team stood on top of Mt Sealy after eight pitches. A shaky-looking ridge led towards Mt Cook Village and the sky had become a grey ceiling. But we could see an easy scramble to the other side of the summit and the unspoken prospect of a retreat faded away. Relieved looks all round. We descended by climbing down easier 45 degree snow slopes to the Sladden Saddle where we passed an enormous wind scoop - a 25m deep gash at the edge of the Sladden Glacier. Once back on the Metelille Glacier, we could afford to relax at last.
The return to Mueller Hut was an easy walk across gentle snow slopes. After a 15 hour day, we were the last folks to return to the hut; tired but satisfied from a challenging day. We felt we had earned our tucker!
Reflecting on the climb was an interesting experience. Both happy and scary images surfaced randomly in quieter moments. The warmth of the solid red rock. Passing abandoned gear jammed in the rocks. A slow motion clip of a big boulder tumbling from a nearby ridge down the glacier. The fine sunny vistas across the park.
A few weeks on, these thoughts have mostly merged into a single memory of a great little adventure!
- Party members
- Paul Maxim (leader, with Steve Hutchison and Dave Grainger (scribe)