For a climb which the guidebook describes as “A classic ice climb, perhaps the finest in New Zealand…” there’s remarkably little information about the East Ridge of Aoraki/Mt Cook. While there can be something alluring about a little enigma surrounding a climb, there’s also something to be said for some beta on such a route, which hopefully encourages more people to get out there and climb such a stunning line.
Beyond just the route itself, the East Ridge makes for an awesome objective on our highest peak. With the Linda becoming increasingly cut up each year (it’s already quite broken, and the word is it won’t stay in very long this year), not to mention the rather large objective hazards on that route, the East Ridge poses a great alternative, with a variety of descent options. Depending on conditions, the route itself can be fairly easily descended, with raps off the level arête taking you onto the Upper Shelf of the Grand Plateau. Alternatively, it’s a fairly easy descent from the top of the route down the North West Couloir. For a bit more of a challenge, the Grand Traverse from Middle Peak to High Peak makes for a stunning day out, although it can be rather involved depending on conditions.
First climbed in 1938, the East Ridge is still an excellent modern objective, especially when combined with the more technical half of the GT, and it is made much easier and more pleasurable by a fast and light, alpine-style approach.
Our Timing & Approach to the Route
With a narrow weather window, we made an early start, leaving Plateau Hut just before 1am. Avoiding the first rock buttress from Cinerama Col, which is apparently a ‘slightly contrived’ start to the route, we were on the Ridge itself by 2am. The next couple of hours were spent soloing up the ridge, staying on névé on one side or the other to avoid the small rock steps. Just before the level arête, we came upon the only major rock buttress. There may be a way around this in different conditions, but we opted to stay on the crest, getting the rope out for a couple of easy mixed pitches (M1-M2). We hit the level arête at dawn – sometime around 5-5:30am. From here, it’s about 500m of consistently angled ice or névé to the top. Once again, we had excellent conditions, with straight-forward daggering up these slopes until just below the summit ridge. There’s a final couple of small rocky steps here, which we got the rope out for and simuled, putting us at the top of the East Ridge, just shy of Middle Peak around 8am.
Conditions were a bit tougher on the GT with firm, sastrugi covered terrain most of the way necessitating almost a kilometre of crab-crawling on front points mixed with daggering and swinging tools depending on the firmness. Even soloing, this was a fairly slow process. We reached the top of the Linda Route near High Peak at about 11am. From here, there’s a wealth of information on the descent or ascent of the Linda, so I’ll leave it there, but to say we made it back to our gear stash on the Plateau at around 2pm, and after a short brew stop there, got down to a car on the Ball Road at 7:30pm, having done well over 2000m of ascent and almost 3500m descent over 20kms in about 19 hours.
While not overly technical, the East Ridge is long and exposed. With 1400m of vert on the Ridge alone, one needs to be able to move quickly and efficiently over such terrain. Apart from three pitches and a little simul-climbing near the top, we soloed everything. Naturally this is fairly condition-dependant, but pitching the whole ridge and expecting to do it in a day just isn’t feasible. Furthermore, the conditions we struck on the GT were pretty classic soloing conditions: firm, but with sinker tool placements, even though a bit of swinging was needed at times. Thick sastrugi, like we encountered, would have been difficult to protect even if you’d wanted to, with screws getting virtually no purchase, yet it being rather too hard for snow stakes.
- 6 ice screws
- 6 long draws +1 screamer
- 2 x 200cm ab tat
- 60m Half Rope
In hindsight, and given conditions, we could have taken half as many ice screws, if that, but it’s tricky to know what condition the route is in, given it sees few ascents each year.
We could have taken a few pieces of rock gear for the couple of steps, but they were fairly easy to protect with the slings on the draws. We also intended on taking a snow stake, but forgot, and instead bootied one near the top. Nevertheless, were I to do it again, I wouldn’t take one, given that any difficulties are going to be related to hard ice, as snow is going to be pretty easily soloed.
All of the abseils down the Summit Rocks are set up for 30m raps, and while it may have been possible to do it with a 30m rope, the extra length just gives a slightly greater margin in the event of needing to do a few pitches, or, in the worst case, bailing.
I cannot shout the virtues of going light and fast, enough. Not only do you move infinitely more efficiently, but it makes for so much more of a pleasurable experience. The East Ridge truly is a classic New Zealand mountaineering objective which embodies the aesthetic of modern alpinism. Hopefully a little more information motivates people to go out and climb it, such that internet becomes littered with condition reports and photos of this stunning line, rather than just a 1987 video of an East Ridge ascent!