A trip up the Hooker Glacier to Empress Hut is one of the must do Kiwi alpine experiences for any visiting or local mountaineer.
When I had just starting mountaineering I was lucky enough to tag along with some friends on a winter trip to Empress. It was early June, the Hooker Lake was frozen solid. “We will be skiing in I was told. If you want to come you better have skis as well.” No problems I thought and even though I had not skied before or didn’t even own a pair of skis I rented some excessively heavy fat skis with alpine trekker bindings attached and gave it my best shot. As you could imagine skiing up a complicated glacier with an oversized 90L pack, with almost no experience was a rather slow affair. The temperature was frigid, the crevasses were gaping and basically I was shit scared from dawn to dusk.
Day one we got lost in the ice fall under pudding rock and as it got dark we decided to retreat and bivy at the base. During the night an avalanche ripped off the size of the wall above us and the powder cloud covered the spot where we lay in the open. At the time I remember being quite calm and thinking oh well , its not like I can go anywhere and rolled back over and went to sleep. The next day we made it to Gardiner Hut. (This no longer exists, destroyed by rockfall in 2015.) Day three saw us finally reach Empress. My skins refused to stick and I ended up plugging steps with the skis on my back while the others encouraged me on. No doubt they were worried if this punter they had let join them was going to give up before we even made it to Empress. Overall I think I lost 5kg for the 6 day trip. The highlight of that being a short climb to Harper Saddle which at the time seemed like quite the achievement.
16 years later and I have made many more ventures to the Hooker Glacier. Luckily it no longer takes three days to reach empress. On my most recent visit a 3 day weekend trip Steve Fortune and myself headed in to climb the classic South Face of Hicks. We were unsure if the face would be in good condition but Jane Morris had assured us there was plenty of white stuff on it so we thought what the hell. Lets go and have a look. A typical walk to Empress can take anywhere from 6 – 12 hours. Most parties probably do it somewhere between 10 – 14. This time conditions were in our favour and we made good time reaching the hut 8.5 hours after leaving Mount Cook Village.
Once established at Empress you are faced with the view of New Zealands best alpine ice crag. At approx. 600m vertical a crag might be slightly misleading but…… it takes less than ten minutes to walk from the hut to the base of the South Face on Hicks so by New Zealand standards its about as close to alpine cragging as you can get. (minus the approach walk that is) Many parties climb part of the face the rap off when they reach the summit snow fields. I would however encourage people to continue on to the summit ridge and the summit itself. The views over the West Coast, Fox & Balfour glaciers are well worth the extra effort.
Once we arrive to Empress Steve and myself scanned the face for possible climbing options. Both of us had climbed the mountain before with Steve already having climbed it twice and myself just the once. The Gun Barrels looked to be the line in best condition. Steve had already climbed this route before with Kester Brown the year before, but he graciously agreed to climb it again as there was no real question that it was in the best condition of any route on the face.
Rack – We carried 8 ice screws, v thread tool, single set of nuts, two knife blade pitons and a set of cams 00 C3 - #2 C4. 8 quick draws and two anchor cords. The ice climbing on the route is around WI4-5 at the crux two pitches depending on the conditions. The rock is absolute crap. I would not want to try and mixed climb this route if there was not enough ice. Your ice climbing ability will determine how many screws you should take. 8 screws after take out two for each belay left 4 screws per 60m pitch. If your unsure add a couple more in. We mostly took yellow 13cm and blue 17cm screws with one long one for the v threads.
Descent – We rapped back down the route. Starting at the summit we walked back down the summit ridge to the first rock step. From here it was approx. 12 60m absails the first being from a piton in the rock, the next three angles climbers left back to the top of the exit gully on the Gun Barrels, these three and the remaining absails were all on v threads.
Times – 8.5 hours Mt Cook Village to Empress Hut including a half hour lunch break at Pudding Rock. 9 hours Empress hut to Mt Hicks Summit. 5 hours to descend the route and get back to the hut. This would be faster if conditions on the lower pitches were better and you could find good enough ice for V threads faster. 5.5 hours Empress hut to Mt Cook Village on the walk out. Bear in mind if this is your first time up to Empress or your first time climbing Mt Hicks you would likely take more time than we did. Both of us had been up the glacier many times and knew our way around the mountain.
Hut – Empress hut has a good supply of hut blankets so outside of mid winter conditions it would be fine to head up with no sleeping bag. Steve and myself took a prototype Macpac sleeping bag quilt. Basically a light weight down blanket and in the end I slept in that while he took advantage of the one hut sleeping bag. The hut has a good supply of pots, pans and cooking utensils.
Ropes – 2 x 60m ropes are ideal for the SF of Hicks. It would be possible with 50m ropes but this might limit some of your descent options.