Film – Skiing lines on Aoraki, Mt Cook, NZ

A short film of Ross Hewitt and Dave Searle skiing lines on Aoraki Mount Cook 2019 including a new line on the Caroline Face, a descent of the East Face in deep powder and the second descent of the Bowie Couloir after Andreas Fransson and Magnus Kastengren’s descent in 2012.

In the words of Sam Smoothy ‘sometimes New Zealand can be a cold hearted mistress.’ She was certainly giving us the ultimate in cold shoulder treatment as day after day the South Island got battered by storm force winds as much as 75 mm of precip. The Wyn Irwin hut near Mount Cook village provided us with friendly and cosy refuge. Amongst the temporary residents were the guardian Cam Mulvey, Laura from the DOC Kia Preservation Project, Aussie Tim who was on the Plateau hut build team, Eifel from Singapore and Beau Fredlund from Yellowstone and endless banter passed the time and kept spirits high. It was a chance to adjust to the 12 hour time change, clear the mind and focus on what lay ahead, and do some trail running surrounded by the lakes and glaciers of the rugged Hooker valley.

Back in June Smoothy and myself had started talking about collaborating on some ski projects in the Southern Alps but a dry August had me holding back from buying a airline ticket. Finally in September the snow came and when I saw some activity in the mountains I pressed the button on a ticket. After beating around the bush for a while swapping messages we got to the point and started discussing a new line on the 1400 m Caroline Face. This had seen its first descent in 2017 by Grant, Mosetti and Briggs, a trip I had to pull out of at the last moment due to herniating the lowest disc in my spine onto the sciatic nerve root. A big glaciated face like this changes from season to season and when the door on one line closes others may open. To put it in context the West Face of Mont Blanc is similar in size and holds 4 independent ski routes which are rarely all in condition simultaneously. Since skiing 1000 m + faces is in powder is my thing, I still had an interest in the Caroline Face and the opportunities it holds for skiers. That said it pays to be careful who you speak to outside of the steep skiing fraternity as it makes the uninitiated uncomfortable as their pulse quickens, the blood drains from their face and they stare at your through glazed over eyes as if you are crazy. Its just a question of what you are used to and my last runs in my backyard where Couturier, Mallory and the ultra tech steep and exposed Aiguille du Plan North Face. In Chamonix anything is possible but in NZ you need one day when you won’t be ripped off the mountain by then wind catching the skis on your pack. Doesn’t sound like too much to ask right?

I was all set to fly solo, relishing the chance to do my own thing after a busy guiding summer. So it was a surprise bonus when Dave Searle asked what I was up to and bought a ticket too.

The breaks in the weather were small this spring, mainly too short to make a valley approach and ski the next day and It seemed unlikely there would be sufficiently weather window to make it worthwhile for local Smoothy to hook up. So when we saw a tiny couple hour window we jumped at the opportunity to fly into Plateau hut and get amongst the skiing. We landed there in -20C and bottomless powder that was going to make getting up anything a challenge. Here’s what we got up to.

Ski Descent of Couturier Couloir

One of my biggest dreams was to ski the mythical Couturier Couloir off the mighty 4122 m Aiguille Verte…in powder. From one of the wildest summits in the Mont Blanc Massif a 1000 m of sustained 50/55 degrees. I went up to the refuge prepared for a solo adventure. I knew Gabriel Rivas was heading up with some other friends though he was wanting to ski Col de la Verte. In the end Gabriel teamed up with me and yesterday that dream became reality. Twenty years in the waiting, lots of sacrifices to obtain this one including many jobs, and it lived up to all expectations. What a mind blowing adventure. Great snow, amazing company, intimidating situations with the smattering of snow and the ever present death ice out right acting as a constant reminder to go canny. The line went clean using the lower traverse into the Washburn variation. SUPER STOKED.

After we chatted on the rognan col for a long time and said our goodbyes, I wanted to drink beer and Gabriel was gonna straight line across to the Argie hut to stay another day.

Down on the flat glacier below, a moments lapse of concentration and Gabriel hit a block of ice at speed and tomahawked hard into other blocks of ice. Would you believe it – we’ve just skied the Couturier??! When I got to him I could see the impact on his helmet had probably broken his nose. Struggling to breath and with lots of internal pain, it was an easy decision for me to call a rescue chopper. 3 years ago I javelined head first into the ground out riding and the damage to my back almost prevented me breathing so I could imagine where he was at – its pretty scary when your ribs cage locks out, completely different to being winded which is bad enough, more like drowning – when I flew to the Netherlands the next day for work I had to get Alan White to carry my bags!

Fortunately the rescue was quick, unfortunately Gabriel suffered 3 broken vertabrae, 2 broken ribs and contusion to a lung. Get well soon Gabriel and thanks for an all time day. I drank your share of the beer last night too!

Petzl RAD Line Review

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Ross Hewitt skiing the North Face of Aiguille du Plan – 60 m RAD line body coiled. 

In 2016 Petzl recently released the RAD (Rescue And Descent) line rope which is  a lightweight rope that can be used with other components of their RAD system for glacier travel, crevasse rescue and abseiling down cliffs. While I’d used skinny 5.5 mm spectra or dyneema abseil ropes for many years before that, they had severe limitations as the sheath wasn’t bonded to the core, making them a dubious proposition at best for crevasse rescue scenarios.

The RAD line is a 6mm static rope that is made from high modulus polyethylene (Dyneema), aramid (a heat resistant synthetic fibre) and polypropylene.  The sheath is bonded to the core so it can be clamped and climbed.

RAD Line Specification

  • Material: Dyneema, Aramid, polypropylene
  • Diameter: 6 mm
  • Weight/m: 22g/m versus 37-42g/m for 8mm+/- dynamic half ropes – approx 50%
  • Weight 30m/60m: 660/1320g
  • Type: static (elongation less than 2%)
  • Certification: CE EN 564

Out of the box it is instantly apparent that the RAD lines are supplied without a middle mark, something I quickly rectified with a Petzl rope maker. I use a Reverso combined with a Prussic for abseiling.  The reduced friction of the small diameter rope without a Prussic in the Reverso is notable. I try to avoid Italian hitches at all cost because they wear your ropes sheath and also induce twist in the rope.

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Tof Henry rappelling with 60 m RAD line into the Couloir of Col du Plan

One trait the small diameter ropes have is their tendency to get in a tangle and putting them in a rope bag with save you a half hour of frustration every time. By tying the bag to the second end of the rope means the bag can be thrown to get the rope set on the line of an abseil efficiently in seconds, even if the wind is blowing up the line. My 60 m line didn’t come with a bag but I made one from an Exped inflatable mattress stuff sac. I can’t stress how essential these are and how often I see people in Chamonix with a bunch of knitting to sort out.

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Getting ready for a big mission with the 30 m RAD line in its bag. Photo: Ross Hewitt

When rappelling or undertaking a rescue, a static line is great as there’s very little stretch to pull out the rope making it much more efficient.  The flip side to this is the force of a fall is not reduced by the stretch which means that the system experiences a high force over a short duration in a fall scenario. Petzl testing indicates that there is a slightly better chance of arresting a crevasse fall with a static rope as the load is more predictable without a second pull, however falls on rock or during a rescue could be bad on a static rope.

The RAD line is a brilliant go to piece of kit that has served me well over the last years with its low weight meaning I often have a 60 m version in my pack. I’ve just bought a BEAL Escaper so it will be interesting to try that out and effectively half the rope required for certain abseils. Understanding it is static and the loading effect on anchors is important and its worth reading up Petzl’s tech tips here.

The complete RAD system comprises:

  • RAD Line (basically a 30m or 60m x 6mm static cord)
  • Micro Traction (a low-friction pulley/rope clamp)
  • Tibloc (lightweight/basic rope clamp)
  • 3 x Attache 3D Carabiners
  • 120cm dyneema sling
  • A rope bag with ice screw sleeve

Petzl Altitude Ultra Light Harness Review

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In 2016 Petzl launched its ultra light range of ski mountaineering and alpinism gear which comprise Gully axes with technical picks, 6 mm RAD line for glacier use, the Irvis Hybrid  and Leopard crampons, and the Altitude harness.

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Petzl’s Altitude harness was designed explicitly with light weight (150g) and pack size in mine. Its ‘wireframe’ construction is the key to its weight and low profile design. If there is any doubt if a harness is required there is no reason to leave it at home. It has an integrated belay loop making it easy to set up your cow’s tail and prussic for abseiling and anchoring to the belay. The leg loops have plastic closures so the harness can be donned with crampons or skis on and each loop has a silicone lined ice screw hold to stop you screws swinging around and while skiing and having the edge taken off the threads. A metal safety type buckle makes adjustment at the waist easy. Originally the harness had 4 vertically orientated thin tape loops for gear which I hated. Gear would bunch up and the tape loops would always catch in the gate. More than once I dropped a piece of gear because of difficulty in racking it. Thankfully Petzl have rectified this in the latest version with conventional gear loops.

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I’ve used this harness since it launched in 2016 and durability is very good. It’s comfortable to wear all day ski mountaineering or lightweight easy alpinism but if I’m doing a route with hanging belays or a pitched climbing I will take a Sitta harness instead. One thing I noticed is the stiffness of the material might mean the leg loops catch when take strides but proper adjustment sorts this out.

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To summarise this is a great lightweight harness for suited to ski-mountaineering, light alpinism and expeditions. It also comes with a stuff sac to keep it compact in your pack and there are 3 size options.

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Petzl Irvis Hybrid Crampon Review

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Running out the rope between spike belays guiding Breche Tacul. Photo Sam Burrell

Petzl’s dedicated ski mountaineering crampons series have been around a couple of years now which is more than long enough to test new technology and its durability. Petzl took a new approach connecting the steel front and aluminium rear sections of the crampon with dyneema rope or Cord-Tec in Petzl speak. This not only reduces weight but its main advantage lies in the ability to fold the crampons in half and reduce the overall pack size. Getting everything to pack down smaller is the holy grail and means my 27-32 litre pack works for everything from technical Chamonix day hits to 6 days hut to jut touring through the Alps. A compact pack brings its centre of gravity close to my back. The closer its centre of gravity is to my own reduces the lever on my core muscles and helps me ski faster, longer, better.

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Compact Pack Size. Photo Petzl

The combinqtion of steel toe piece and lightweight heal piece is perfect for ski mountaineering where you might be climbing up a alpine face and encounter some hard black ice or need to negotiate some sections of rock scrambling. The spec weight is 570 g with the anti-snow plates fitted. They come with both a wire and universal front bail so fit boots in the B2 & B3 categories.

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Col de la Verte. Photo Koen Bakers

Out of the box I set my crampons up on my boots and went out ski touring in Arolla. We ended up climbing along a prolonged rocky ridge and after a while I noticed the toe piece had a tendency to yaw or skew to the side – something a traditional crampon can’t do due to the torsional rigidity of the bar. I then realised the dyneema had ‘bedded in’ to its working length and I just needed to adjust the tension up. You can do this at home with the crampons fresh out the box, putting them on and off the boot and tensioning using the dyneema hooks at first then micro adjusting by moving the heal bail a notch further forward.

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Ross Hewitt Climbing Col de la Verte. Photo Drew Tabke

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Ross Hewitt Skiing Col de la Verte. Photo Drew Tabke

So I’ve used these on everything from climbing the 700 m 50/55 degree Col de la Verte ice face, guiding Dent Blanche and the Matterhorn or climbing fast and light alpine routes like the Peigne, Pelerins, Deux Angle, Plan, Midi traverse. They are utterly brilliant and the dyneema stands up to all the abuse you can throw at it, being extremely abrasion resistant. After 2 years with around 400 days on the mountain, the aluminium heal has worn more than the dyneema so there are no worries about how robust these crampons are. I was particularly impressed with the quality of the steel and only recently sharpened them for the first time in preparation for skiing the North face of the Aiguille du Plan. In winter I used them on ski boots with the wire and in summer on the new fast and light Scarpa Ribelles with the universal bail. They are light enough so I only take the full aluminium Leopard crampons if I know I’m only going to travel over snow.

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Traversing Peigne, Pelerins, Deux Angles, Plan, Midi. Photo Andrew Wexler

Unlike most crampons which are asymmetric, these crampons are identical except for the position on the buckle which would conventionally be on the outside of your foot. However, for steep skiing I put this on the inside as the body doesn’t not bend that well to do up crampon straps on the outside while hanging onto steep faces!

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Ross Hewitt Guiding Dent Blanche. Photo Tim Neill

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Gear for glacier approaches to rock routes at Envers des Aiguilles