First published in the NZAC Climber magazine. This article was edited by Tom Hoyle. The text was written by Kim Ladgies and Rose Pearson for Caleb Jennings.
If Pilgrim was tried in the 1990s or earlier, it has been lost in the mists of time. The earliest account of someone having a look that I could find was Al Uren in the early 2000s. He recalled seeing it from the Sheila Face’s Central Buttress and thinking, ‘Gee, that looks hard’. He continued, ‘I think it was one of those routes that needed a new generation, as it had a reputation for shit falling down it.’ While I’m not sure about the next generation of climbers, by the mid 2010s the next generation of climbing equipment had certainly arrived. Aggressive tools designed for climbing steep ice without getting pumped. Light aluminium ice screws adept at biting into brittle ice. Lightweight modular stoves, like the JetBoil, that can be handled while operating to fend off dehydration. And most importantly, in my opinion, the modern LED head-torch with Lithium Ion battery technology that allows for technical climbing and route finding through the night. Together these allow for long technical routes that are threatened by overhead hazard to be attempted in a single push at night, when they are safest.
In 2016, Caleb Jennings, Cillian Kennedy and Ben Dare all ventured up the lower sections of Pilgrim in a period of settled, but warm weather. Caleb and Cillian headed right at a junction about four pitches up the gully-climbing on until the ice ran out several pitches up. Marooned, they spent the day sheltering beneath an overhang as sun-loosened rocks from the upper slopes rained down. They retreated with the freeze. The next day Ben crept out for a solo reconnaissance and retreated after encountering similar rockfall. The next year, Ben returned with Steve Fortune. They headed left at the junction four pitches up and climbed on to a steep wall with a hanging ice dagger. They tiptoed behind the dagger and almost unlocked the steep mixed pitch, but couldn’t quite pull the final overlap. Returning to the outside world, they shared news of their attempt: it could go, just not by them on that day. Would the pilgrims come?
The first ascent
The forecast came with all the force of a biblical prophecy. The kind of forecast that real Kiwis just stare at for a while, then after a good long whistle of admiration, nod their heads and say “double yoke-ah”. I called Caleb, and pretty soon I'd changed my flight home and was hitch hiking out to Mt Cook Village.
We had plans to climb the Balfour Face but it became apparent to us that a fair bit of new snow had fallen and due to a persistent south- easterly it was all now hiding on the other side of the Silberhorn. A bad idea perhaps. What to do? I suggested a trip up the Hooker - I'd never been and was keen to check it out. A little flash of excitement went through Caleb's eyes and he agreed almost at once. I wasn't sure whether to be happy or afraid.
“It's gonna be sick” he said “we'l probably just ski most of the way in. It'll probably be like 6 hours or something”. This was all sounding great to me, a good sleep then a nice casual day to get in.
“So when do you want to get up?”
“How about 3am?”
“Hang on if it's only 6 hours why do we have to get up at 3am?”
“uh it’s just better- get there nice and early, might take a bit longer...”
An impression that it was a little more than a casual stroll in to Empress Hut was starting to form in my mind. All in all, it wasn't too bad. 10hrs in, which is pretty quick I'm told, and probably means 6 or even 5 hours in Caleb speak. I was keen to stay hydrated and look after myself on the way in so that I would be fresh for the following day. We achieved this by drinking half a litre at the lake then not stopping for six hours till we reached the hut. There was a light breeze blowing and to stop would have meant taking out another layer you see...We could have sold our urine to stain floorboards. Rich Mahogany.
I knew Caleb was burning to try a new route on Cook. Not a new route, The new route. I'd heard lots of talk about it. I'd heard it was death. Or it was safe but hard. That rime poured down it during the day time. I was cautious but also curious. The fact that all the precip had come from the South East made me think that just maybe the Northerly aspects would be free of rime. And the temps were low. When Caleb proposed trying it I agreed cautiously, “We'll go and look in the day and if it seems right we can start up at night”
“It'll be good” Caleb was psyched
The route looked incredible. I was amazed that it hadn't been climbed. The rock looked free of the rime coating that was apparent in the photos he'd taken on a previous attempt and the temps were low so we decided it was a goer. I was keen to get going as soon as a solid freeze was on the mountain maybe 9pm, I was worried about the sun coming round before we were out of the tight couloir. Caleb was a bit concerned about climbing the whole thing in the dark so we settled on up at 11 for a midnight start. We packed light; a stove and a light puffy but no bivvy kit. We wanted to move fast through the lower half of the route. If we had to sit out some darkness we could always sit on our packs and huddle for warmth. An awesome bivvy option for someone else.
At midnight, under crunchy snow, we started toward the route. Caleb offered to break trail up to the route as I would probably be faster leading the crux section and therefore I should save my energy. I didn't complain. I love climbing with people who have no ego attached to taking on certain roles in a big climb. People might ask who led X or Y pitch, but on a big route leading miles of easier terrain, or finding the way on a descent, or brewing water are all equally important parts of success. A team where everyone pitches in to their strength will succeed, where others fail.
Caleb led the first few pitches quickly, finding good sheltered belays, a fine thing in a tight gully. I was amazed at the quality of the ice. Good solid water ice, not the sun effected rot I was expecting. After about an hour we came to a steeper wall broken with streaks and blobs of water ice. I took the rack from here. A fun pitch of ice led to a belay below the crux. It looked intimidating, a semi detached pillar of ice flowing over a roof. Caleb joined me at the belay and we both considered the next step. I'd built the anchor as far out of the way as possible but it was not completely sheltered from falling ice. “Don't worry about it I'll be fine,” Caleb seemed unable to complain about any kind of punishment. Cautiously I climbed up to the pillar and had a look. There was no way I was going to touch that column that was less than 12 inches in diameter with Caleb below. Instead I was able to dry tool up rock behind the ice until the height of the roof. Pumped, I was thankful for a perfect handjam at the top. A beautiful rest to catch my breath. Leaning out on the jam it was just possible to sink a tool over the lip. “Sorry Caleb,” I thought and stuffed a cam into the thankgod jam, then a wild swing over the roof, feet cutting loose and some graceless desperation and soon my feet were back on ice. Awesome.
Caleb started up the pitch with the heavier seconds bag. A bit more game he stemmed his way up the pillar, which to my amazement did not snap. Of course, the cam in the jam was stubborn and Caleb was forced to battle away in some strenuous positions. Finally panting and puffed but with a big grin on his face Caleb arrived at the belay. “That was sick”.
The pitches continued with amazing quality. Thin ice, but well protected with rock gear when needed. We were both stunned at just how fun this climb was. After some time we popped unexpectedly on to the central snow field. An array of awesome looking finishes to the route presented themselves but the rime gargoyles that were now just starting to roast in the kiwi sun
looked foreboding. Instead we simuled up the snow field and onto a rib near the summit. From here Caleb took the lead and skillfully guided me up some awkward but fun pitches into the warmth of the sun. It was still early and we were high on the mountain so we brewed up, and reflected on just how amazing this adventure had been so far.
After our brief coffee break we made our way to the summit. I'd never climbed Cook and I was taken aback by the beauty of the Southern Alps. A healthy layer of windslab had formed but it was possible to weave a track around it, or stay on mellow terrain. We stopped again above the summit rocks to brew up, enjoying watching the evening light on the Balfour with a hot chocolate. We both couldn't believe how pleasant this whole outing had been. “This can't be alpine climbing” Caleb suggested “I'm not thirsty or scared”
Caleb led the rappels down the summit rocks. It's always great climbing with someone who knows the area and Caleb certainly did. Darkness set in as we reached the gun barrels. A couple of short “intervals” as Caleb called them and my heart was thumping but safe again on the slopes below the North Ridge of Cook. We simul-climbed up to the col and peered down Fyfe's gut. A good freeze was on and the mountains were silent so we began rappelling. Or trying to, we both seemed incapable to get the first V thread in, like two embarrassed tradies who can't bang in a nail. We soon found our competence and made 7 rappels to the glacier below. I kept threatening to downclimb, I hate low angled rappelling, but wiser and patient Caleb dealt with this calmly. “Just keep rapping Kim”.
The next day dawned clear again and after a particularly faffy pack up we were on our way out. Despite the varied conditions I've never been so thankful to have skis on my feet. Pretty soon we were above the icefall. It was obvious that you could avoid the icefall entirely by cutting a steep traverse and jumping the schrund. We stood for a while weighing up the different risks. “Stable as a table,” I proclaimed – with four days of baking sun and no new loading the snow had cooked down. I shot over the schrund and even enjoyed a few nice turns to the moraine. Caleb was down shortly after and we exchanged high fives. “Less than an hour to the moraine- that's sick” having walked out a number of times Caleb was pysched to have avoided the plod. “Stable as a table” I proclaimed again, I'd learned this phrase in NZ and although it is rarely an accurate description of the winter conditions, it has a nice ring to it. The words were barely out of my mouth when two natural avalanches ripped from high on the ridges, one making its way to valley floor and engulfing my deflating confidence in a powder cloud. “Or not,” Caleb replied.
As we crossed the swinging bridge, we were accosted by 4 American back packers. “Where have you guys been? Have you been skiing? What have you guys been doing?” Caleb, ever humble, replied “Oh you know just skiing around a bit.”
“That's so awesome - you guys are legends” I think if Caleb said we'd climbed Cook their heads might have exploded.
Back at the Unwin a few folks congratulated us on our climb. It felt a bit odd that everyone knew already. Pip made us espressos and gave us freshly baked bread with butter. Unbelievably good. We piled our stuff in to Caleb's ute and drove back to Caleb's place in Darfield. Dossing at Caleb's for 2 hours we got back on the road to Christchurch airport, where we both had our respective very red eye flights to catch. Walking through security we looked like a couple of strips of beef jerky with eyes badly painted on, but smiles were stretched across our faces.
We named the route Pilgrim as a reflection of Caleb's pilgrimages to attempt the route and up the Hooker Valley in general. Caleb was an incredible mountaineer. He burned to explore the wild corners of his magnificent island and of the world. He was also an incredible friend and adventure buddy. The guy you call when you have a plan that will clearly involve being wet, cold and hungry. The guy that carries more than his fair share but doesn't tell you about it. That laughs, and makes you laugh, when you'e miserable. Considered and careful but when a dangerous task needs to be done, gets on with it. That looks over mountains he'd seen all his life but shares the same joy as if it was the first time. Caleb I will really miss you.
- Kim Ladgies
Papatūānuku shifts imperceptibly in her sleep. Far above, a man stumbles. He is strong, but on this occasion he falls. The snow beneath him begins its slow slide. It gathers pace. Oblivion. She notices not; but for those close to him, their lives change forever. They wander grieving on this earth, alone, and in groups, seeking out his scent that lingers in the places he frequented. They travel to the Anti-crow; the last dwelling he entered, and see the last words he wrote. Others travel south to the hunting grounds of his youth. His brother takes up his rifle, and gives it a new home.
A years passes. We leave Wyn Irwn at 4:45am. I am guided, as I was a year before, by his footsteps, then not yet a week old and still clear in the snow. We reach Empress hut. His name repeated again and again in the hut book alongside two others taken too soon. We take an early night. 2am. Left-foot, right-foot. We wind our way up the Sheila glacier. Surrounded by inky blackness. 2:45am. A familiar opening in the Sheila face, last year I continued past, this year we enter its beckoning mouth. We re-rope for simul climbing. Thunk, thunk. A few hundred meters pass. We regroup. Left or right? We head left, trusting in his words.
Another pitch. In our headtorches, we can just make out the base of a pillar before it fades into the darkness above. 6am. Dawn is coming. I cork-screw up the pillar. I pause, hanging for a moment where it steepens, then flee right following pockets of ice through overlaps. The steep, absorbing climbing tests my nerves. Gasping, I finally top the steep wall. I'm spent. 8:30am. A tight stepped gully looms. We begin a futile race against the sun. It catches us three pitches on at the base of the snowfield. 10:30am. Our backs dripping and lungs bursting, we push upwards pausing only when we reach the relative safety of the central buttress' crest.
A quick brew, and we continue to the summit for 4pm. The spine of Papatūānuku stretches to either horizon. Her low-lands are hugged in cloud. We are close to him, here, where heaven mets earth. We pause a moment, but then we must be on. We follow in the path he set: down the summit rocks, a traverse high on the Linda, up to Green Saddle in twilight, the abseils down Fyfes gut, until finaly we creep back to Empress for 12am. Until next time Caleb.
I'd like to thank Caleb Jennings (1987-2018) and Kim Ladiges - the first ascensionists for encoraging us to climb Pilgrim and sharing their route beta with us. I'd also like to thank Milo Gilmour, and Reg Measures for joining me on the approach and in Reg's case the ascent of Pilgrim.
- Rose Pearson
Pilgrim climbs the central gully just to the right of Fyfes gut up the Sheila face to a large snow slope at 2/3 height. Climb the snow slope up and right exiting it onto the the Central buttress route 200m from the summit. Follow this to the summit. In total it is approximately 900m. The lower gully section is a natural funnel feature, so it is best climbed in cool conditions with little rime. Both the first and second ascenists climbed this section at night. The following route description is based on the conditions found during these first two ascents. The pillar does not seem to form every winter and tends to come in early spring. The pillar be viewed from near the base of Hicks during a reccie.
Rack - screws for a full pitch of WI5, cams BD 0.1-3 with double 0.1-0.4, wires half set.
Approach - Ascend the Sheila glacier from Empress hut trending left beneath the Earl ridge and eventually the Sheila face. There are 2-3 shrunds to pass, which it is best to sight the day before. Continue up the Sheila glacier towards the main gully of Fyfes gut. Pilgrim starts from the last snow alcove in the Sheila face before Fyfes gut steepens.
Pitch 1-4 WI 3-4, M2-3 Climb the gully for a few hundred meters until it widens.
Pitch 5 WI4, At the widening climb up and left (not hard left) aiming for a pillar. Best to belay tucked in down and left from the pillar to protect from a potential pillar collapse.
Pitch 6 WI5, M6, Climb up the base of the pillar and then either continue up the pillar, mix climb behind the pillar, or to the left of the pillar to reach the top of the headwall above.
Pitch 7 WI4, M5, Climb up the gully through several constrictions untill to meet a right trending ramp system.
Pitch 8-9 WI3, M4-5, Follow the right trending ramp through small steps until you reach the base of the snow slope.
Pitch 10-15 WI1-2, Follow the snow slope up and right through a faint depression to reach the crest of the Central Buttress. Note in heavily ice/rimed conditions there is a direct line that will form up and left direct to the summit.
Pitch 16-20 WI3, M3-4, Follow the remained of the Central buttress route to the summit.