THE HARMONY OF HEIGHT
By Fergus Blakiston
Out of the maze of valleys,
The thousand mountains, shining,
Lifting their rock and snow
Into upper air, ocean of light…
– Charles Brasch, Hawk Over Brown Peak
At sunset I sit on a rock ledge above the Mueller Glacier. Day ends quickly the Southern Alps. Though a chill grasps the air as the sun dips behind the South Ridge of Mount Sefton, the rock beneath me holds the day’s warmth. Far below, the mountain’s shadowy silhouette crosses the Mueller Valley and scales the Sealy Range. To the north, standing like a sentinel above the Hooker Valley, the icy bulk of Mount Cook is bathed in golden light and, further back, the sunlight gleams on a thousand shining mountains.
The indigo sky is clear save for a few streaks of high cirrus cloud; a pale silver moon hangs above Cook like a piece of a child’s mobile, suspended on an invisible thread. Avalanches boom and snap from the ghastly cliffs of Sefton’s East Face as hanging glaciers shed huge chunks of ice. The slopes at the bottom of the face are grubby with debris.
The avalanches are almost continuous. Their white noise reverberates around the peaks as the glaciers disintegrate. The mountains are never totally silent. Rock shatters, ice cracks, water roars: the entire onomatopoeic soundtrack to the turmoil of raw geology, plate tectonics and the mountain-building process.
We had spent the afternoon slogging up the Sealy Range from the Mount Cook Village. Bent beneath my pack, I kept myself focused on the climb by reciting the script of Monty Python’s Life of Brian in my head. I was out of shape after a summer of slothful indolence and this was an impromptu ascent, cooked up over a curry by my mate Mike and I the previous week. I’d done no training for the climb and our provisions – cheese, wine, chocolate bikkies and the like – were more suited to a gentleman’s afternoon ramble than an early autumn alpine tramp. Spasms of cramp wracked my legs and my eyes smarted from the formaldehyde sting of sweat.
We arrived at the Sealy Tarns, halfway up the flank of the range, at lunch time. The sun was gloriously hot and we lay shirtless in the tussocks beside a mirror-calm tarn eating boiled eggs, salami and bread. Parties of guided walkers passed by, hurrying upwards on some unwritten schedule. For our part we were happy to lounge in the sun reading the paper and feeling smug.
We reached the Mueller Hut, bright red in its cradle of rock and fresh snow, at two. The hut is popular with backpackers and a full house was forecast for the evening by the hut warden. We sat on the deck chatting to other hikers about the rigors of the ascent from the valley. A pair of older trampers from Christchurch were sharing, with loud voices, their enlightened views on “women-folk”, “communists” and “the little konichiwas”, so we set off across the snowfield beyond the hut in search of less crowded lodgings.
The last rays of sunlight shine through a hidden pass at the head of the Mueller Valley. Cloud pours over the Divide through a notch between two fanged peaks, like dry ice at a rock concert. The Mueller Glacier, striped with slot-car tracks of moraine, curves down from snowfields beneath the Main Divide. The East Face of Sefton gleams like polished marble.
Mike has tea simmering on the primus so I clamber down to join him. Our digs for the night are an overhang of rock we have christened Drippy Rock Hotel after the melt-water seeping from the stone. We sip the warm shiraz and nibble cheese and crackers as if we are in the lounge bar of some posh alpine lodge instead of our less comfy but no less convivial bivouac.
Sprawled on the rocks beneath the overhang we yarn about the things that drive people to climb mountains. With their deadly shifts in weather, their deathtrap crevasses, avalanches and eternal coldness, it’s easy to perceive the mountains as utterly inhospitable and cruel. But the mountain are neither cruel nor kind: they simply are. Humans may seek to test their inner strengths in the mountains but our puny presence matters not one iota to the implacable rock and ice giants. They exist. They have always been there and will remain long after the human race has disappeared.
The combined effects of a hearty feed of stew, several post-dinner cups of coffee, and a few lung-fulls of a certain herbal substance mean I spend a restless night, listening to the growl of avalanches across the valley. The mountains stand awash in starlight: a negative image in black and silver.
I trace the slow transit of Venus across the sky and watch satellites, gleaming with reflected light, skid across the black background of the universe. Occasionally, a meteorite flashes its dying moments above the peak of Sefton. It’s so still can almost feel the earth spinning on its axis.
Eventually I fall asleep and when I awaken the sun is pouring pink light over the summits. The snowfield surrounding our bivouac is frozen solid. The seepages from Drippy Rock have been staunched by the frost. Even the avalanches have fallen temporarily silent, held in check by the frost’s icy grip
In keeping with the relaxed approach to the whole expedition we loll in our sleeping bags until the morning is well under way. Mike cooks a pan-full of bacon and we perch on top of the rock munching bacon sarnies and slurping coffee. A few parties of guided trampers crunch purposefully past on crampons, heading up the eastern side of the valley towards the Annette Plateau.
A pillow of cloud hangs in the valley below; tendrils of mist reach up to envelop the lower slopes of the Sealy Range. But at Drippy Rock Hotel we bathe in the warm autumn sunshine, with out gear strewn haphazardly around us and our boots unlaced. I try to remember the lines of a Dennis Glover poem called The Harmony of Height: “What pleasure lies in height and cold, the splendour of the hills…”
To me, the greatest pleasure of the mountains is to simply sit and look around. No epic ascents for me. I prefer to leave the dangerous stuff to mountaineers. The day is still young. We could climb nearby Mt Ollivier (1933m) or practice our step-cutting on the glacier below. But the morning is far too nice for anything as strenuous as that. I open a packet of chocolate biscuits and put the billy on for another cup of coffee.