More like the Learning Curver ! Lighter packs and a better looking weather window had myself and Lionel walking up the Hooker for the second time in a couple of months with the South face of Hicks on our minds. After seeing the epic trip Al and Ben had we just wanted to go and check it out for ourselves!
Lionel already knew these mountains very well, but he had not visited Empress since 1989. Lionel Clay used to be a regular up the Hooker in the 80s, he knew the valley like the back of his hand. Imagine the contrasts of a visit 31 years after his last. A new glacial lake, wasted moraine walls, 2 fewer huts, a new Empress, and a whole lot less spring ice on the South Face of Hicks.
We set off up the Hooker Valley bright & early at 530am on Tuesday morning, with Alastair and Andy in tow, who were also bound for Empress. All of a sudden we were traversing the Hooker lake with caffeine-fuelled Al leading the way. [Note to self, don’t let Al have caffeine when you are following him.]
After roping up with Lionel we stayed on the true-right of the Hooker Glacier with easy cramponing, after some hot sun exposure we stepped into Empress Hut after 9.5 hours. From the balcony of Empress we have the most spectacular views of Hicks, La Perouse, and the mighty Sefton! Eating dinner and watching the sun go down on them is truly the best experience. We discussed ice conditions and logistics, got some precious sleep, and soon Lionel and I were approaching the Curver on the South Face of Hicks.
Feeling the burning calves on an awe-inspiring line on Hicks was humbling. I started on the first pitch leading up a full rope length, climbing conservatively with a full mixed bag of feelings. Not long after, Lionel appeared ready to climb the second pitch, after a quick discussion on route choice, belay choice, conditions and general flow of our team.
The third pitch I found to be the crux, with a little bouldery move and thin climbing with sparse protection. Mostly screws and some rock pro. After looking hard for a belay anchor I brought Lionel up. Another talk about the speed we were moving we decided to call it a day starting to look for something to rap off. Three 60m rappels had us back on solid ground under Hicks.
We walked back to Empress slightly gutted thinking we had messed up our window of opportunity to clamber up the great looking South Face. After some rest in the sun looking up at the route and some more talk we figured out where we went wrong and what we needed to do.
In what felt like no time at all, we were back walking under Hicks. My first pick swung into the squeaky ice on the first pitch at dead on 06:00. I felt a lot better about climbing The Curver today. After a day's rest the whole route had leaned back in my mind making it feel much easier, a lot less gripped and just able to climb with no doubt. We smashed out the first 4 pitches landing us on the major snow ledge at 10am.
With the angle starting to ease off we got into a good steady rhythm. From the second snow field we did a simul pitch of 120m and similar to just below the summit ridge rocks. Lionel climbed straight up and over at 3pm and down the decent to a belay. Not even a fist bump on top, that's how efficient he was. Although some celebration for what in my mind was a great achievement would have been nice...
It was cool to pop over the ridge and see Tom Stone and Byron Harvey who climbed the Curtain Route, making for a great abseil party down the original descent couloir. Four tatty abseils and one bolt from the top of the couloir was followed by an easy traverse across a rock ridge onto the slopes below the curtain back to Harper Saddle.
Gear recommended for climb:
10-12 screws, 16cm were useful up top
8x alpine draws
2x 60m half ropes
Set of offset nuts with some smaller RPs
Set of cams 0.2-2