McKinnon Repeats Historic Southern Alps Face the Hard Way

Posted on: July 25, 2014


East Face, Pope's Nose, Southern Alps, New Zealand. Guy McKinnon became the second to climb the face in winter, and the first to do so solo and without helicopter assistance. "The East Face is a fantastic sweep of compact dark schist with small roofs which lend it an air of impregnability," writes Allen Uren in The Mount Aspiring Region. "During winter this air hangs heavily around the face and lines of ice contribute to give it an unfriendly persona."

East Face, Pope's Nose, Southern Alps, New Zealand

On July 18 in one of the most important winter ascents in New Zealand's history, Guy McKinnon completed the second winter ascent of the East Face of Pope's Nose, solo and without helicopter assistance. The face, which had not been successfully climbed in winter for 24 years, provides a hugely committing approach, and no other climber has completed a totally human-powered winter ascent. "It was daunting, frankly," the New Zealander said in an email. He reached the summit in a mere five hours of climbing, after a days-long approach. Kester Brown, editor of the New Zealand Alpine Journal and The Climber, wrote of the climb, "Guy's [ascent] must rate as possibly the finest alpine achievement of New Zealand's modern era."

The first winter ascent of Pope's Nose, completed by Brian Alder, Lionel Clay, Nick Cradock and Dave Fearnley in July and August of 1990, came after repeated attempts by Cradock, who had "some fairly epic bailouts," Brown wrote last year in a list of "last great projects" in New Zealand. The four-man team, who flew to the base of the mountain via helicopter, climbed the face over the course of two days and named their route Fuck the Pope (VI NZ 6). After climbing in marginal conditions and being pounded by snow on the ascent, Clay wrote in the 1991 New Zealand Alpine Journal after the climb, "Nick and I vow[ed] never to go alpine climbing again." Their ascent remained a standard in New Zealand winter alpinism for nearly a quarter century.

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In 2011, Mt. Aspiring National Park revised their management plan, banning helicopter landings in Kitchener Cirque's head, which provides the only access to the face. "This recognises the high value that New Zealand's Maori people accord to the peak in their oral histories and traditions," McKinnon wrote. "You just can't fly a chopper in and raid the area. You have to meet it on its own terms." The 2011 closure made a winter ascent of Pope's Nose daunting. "The walk-in options are all desperate," Brown wrote in the August 16, 2013 NewsWire.

But despite the circa 14-mile approach through steep, glaciated topography and heavy snowpack, McKinnon, who last year made the daring first ascent of New Zealand's Mt. Tutoko's West Face, was keen to attempt a human-powered second winter ascent of Pope's Nose's East Face. "The story of the face is pretty inspiring. It turned back a lot of good climbers," McKinnon wrote. McKinnon, who had tried the approach to the East Face on several other occasions, told Radio New Zealand National in a phone interview that those attempts had ended when he was "beaten into submission by the environment." McKinnon was still intrigued by the face, and by the possibility of a linkup of Pope's Nose and the northeast face of Mt. Aspiring, by way, more or less, of existing routes.

McKinnon's circa 14-mile approach route. After attempting to downclimb a possible line of weakness into Kitchener Cirque, McKinnon was forced to walk around Mt. Avalanche, a journey that lasted three days. [Photo] courtesy Kester Brown

On July 14, McKinnon set off. "After blowing my first attempt at accessing the cirque [via a possible line of weakness into the Kitchener Cirque] on day two, I had to dig deep to go back via another much longer route," McKinnon wrote. From previous experience, he assumed his second attempt at an approach would also be a failure. "I told myself I had to go and try, for self-respect and terrain exploration if nothing else." After two nights in huts and one bivy, McKinnon reached the peak and on July 18 at 9:30 a.m.

For 300 meters, McKinnon climbed a steep initial wall. Ice conditions were nearly perfect, a reality that was not true for the first ascent party. "It was the best ice I've climbed in New Zealand," McKinnon wrote. Although he described the access across neve as arduous, avalanche danger was "non-existent," and McKinnon continued to the less severe upper tiers of the face. At 2:30 p.m., five hours after setting out from the peak's base, McKinnon gained the summit.

Still with his eye on a Pope's Nose-Mt. Aspiring linkup, McKinnon descended to the upper Volta Glacier. Here, his luck all but ran out as he spent a frigid night in a crevasse, pounded by spindrift. He awoke on July 19 and, despite the rough night, climbed some 250 meters up Mt. Aspiring's northeast face. But with ice tools and crampons hardly making purchase in glassy, dinner-plating ice, McKinnon listened to an inner voice that suggested retreat. "Most of my success as a soloist has come from precisely estimating the conditions," McKinnon wrote. "It didn't feel right and I trusted my intuition to back off."

McKinnon on the summit of Pope's Nose.

"[McKinnon's ascent has] taken things to a whole new level," first ascensionist Lionel Clay told The Climber. "Bloody awesome, man...in my humble opinion the first real ascent [of] the face. Respect." Despite the praise, McKinnon remains modest. "I'm not sure that it has reached the benchmark level," he said. "[I]f I had succeeded on the northeast face as well then, yes it would have."

His successful Pope's Nose ascent adds to his long resume of impressive ascents, including the West Face of Mt. Tutoko (detailed in our Darrans Mountain Profile and often considered one of the last great unclimbed routes before McKinnon's ascent). McKinnon is considered by many as one of New Zealand's most accomplished alpinists. With this ascent, Brown concluded in an email to Alpinist, "Guy backed himself and came up successful, the sign of a truly in-touch mountaineer."

Sources: Kester Brown, Guy McKinnon, Vertical Life, 1991 New Zealand Alpine Journal, Radio New Zealand National, alpinist.com, climber.co.nz

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