Mt. Tasman Speed Descent

flight from cinerama

“There are many shades in the dangers of adventure” – Joseph Conrad

The pull of the mountains is hard to explain. There is an unspoken energy in the high and steep places of this world. Perhaps it’s something about these alpine starts and leaving behind the relative safety of our base camp in the early hours of the morning for the cold silence of the alpine environment. The only sounds resonating in this world are our crampons slicing through snow and ice, providing a repetitive beat for the chime of equipment moving on my harness.  It’s a personal soundtrack of alpine approach. Invariably, and to the beat of it’s own drum, comes the hair-raising bass. That deep and bone-chilling sound comes from overhanging ice-cliffs, seracs and crevasses, as the unimaginable pressure and force of them threatens to fall and slide. Occasionally my partner adds his own sound and I feel the tension of our rope change. With the light of our head torches, we find our way through and over deep and empty obstacles within the glacier. Overhead, the stars provide a highly defined light of their own. This ceiling panorama covers us in visual depth – a universal grasp of distance that I have seen only from mountain backcountry and the middle of oceans. They are our audience, watching over us during our attempt. The beat continues, as we keep the pace as fast as it will flow, hoping the bass of falling mountains enters not our rhythm. Just make it to the lower buttress, I tell myself.

As New Zealand weather forecasts go, we’ve chosen a good one; no wind to six thousand meters for forty-eight hours and the skies are perfectly clear. The freezing level could be lower, but it’s low enough. If you want to climb one of the highest peaks in the country, the forecast doesn’t get much better. If you want to fly from the summit of that peak, it’s essential. Having a speed wing in the bottom of your backpack adds an element to alpine climbing that I would best describe as efficient. Our plan to summit and fly from Mt. Tasman this morning could go one of more than a few ways, but if we pull it off, it will be a smooth and clean way to summit this photogenic and captivating mountain.

We reach the base of the lower buttress of Syme Ridge.  This extremely aesthetic line connects the Grand Plateau glacier to the North Shoulder of Mt. Tasman. After finding our way over the final crevasse, I begin to lead the first pitch of our climb. We’ve chosen a couloir that we think will deliver us quickly to the ridge arête. I climb with confidence, not thinking about my belay – it’s a good feeling to have complete trust in your climbing partner. Three full pitches up this narrow couloir lead us directly onto the arête. The sun is beginning to rise from the east and already we no longer need our head torches.  The horizon is painted a deep orange, but still contrasts heavily with the deep blue and black of the night sky. As I bring Georges up on the final pitch, the morning light begins to pour in and behind me Mt. Tasman glows red. The feeling is that of serenity. Or rather, serenity mixed with adrenaline – a damn good cocktail…

sunrise hits the mountain

georges lower syme

sunrise duo

We both sit on the knife-edge ridge and look up at our route. The ridge isn’t wide enough to stand on. One side is soft ice, the other soft snow. Above us, the ridge maintains its sharpness, via what appears to be a minor rock step and a few bergschrunds to keep us honest. For eight hundred meters, we’ll be climbing on pristine and steep alpine terrain, eventually leading us onto the North Shoulder.

sunrise glow

After layering up on sunscreen, we set off again. Choosing the harder side of the ridge to climb on, we stay level with the arête. Axes bite and pull fluidly, while crampon front-points kick below. Before long, we establish a slow and steep rhythm. I’m aware of Georges below me on the rope, but rarely feel the need to look down. We’re simul’ climbing and moving well. That feeling of the present allows the rest to fall away, and I find myself simply focused, surrounded by dramatic and steep beauty in every direction. Truly, nothing else matters. It’s a high and delicately balanced perspective that I find nowhere else in life – a connection with something profound, momentous and decisively expressive.

aoraki and silberhorn

georges climbing syme

An hour or so passes and we find ourselves about halfway up the ridge. We stop for some food and water, at the bottom of an overhanging section of serac. Not a bad place to be on a Wednesday morning! At this stage of the climb, we exchange few words. Both of us are focused on our bodies and going through the motions of alpine ascent. You’re pushing yourself in many aspects, both physically and mentally. Along with the demands of the climb itself, I find my thoughts returning often to our ambition of flight. Every breath of wind stirs me to look at the sky and clouds below. Is there some weather coming in? With every step, our perspective of the summit changes. How do take off options look? Can we get off?


serac mountain vista

We continue on up and Georges takes the lead, climbing straight up the ridge into the sky. Another hour or so passes and we reach the top. The view opens up into a white-capped landscape panorama that remains vibrant in my mind long after seeing it. The summit of Mt. Tasman is now to our south, connected directly by the North Shoulder and we have a panorama stretching from the Tasman glacier to the west coast. Either side of the ridge drops off dramatically. To our left, we can fall all the way back onto the Grand Plateau and to the right, into the west coast. This is it – time to switch on to the terrain and make good decisions. We take a moment and absorb our three-sixty view of New Zealand’s Southern Alps. The Main Divide is clearly visible as it drops into a pristine expanse of glacier and eventually into the Tasman Sea.

main divide and the west coast

dont fall

I look up to the summit of Mt. Tasman as Aoraki back drops our line to the summit. I can see the spot below High Peak, where we launched our speed wings from last season. I remember how ‘less than ideal’ conditions were that day and smile. “And here you are again, ya nutter”. Today however, conditions are very much in our favor.

Mt. Tasman North Shoulder

I lead four pitches up the east aspect of the North Shoulder, with around one thousand meters of air below my feet. As Georges reaches the fourth belay, we both smile. A few minutes of simul’ movement brings us to the summit of Mt. Tasman. The view is more than reward for nine hours of ascent. The spine of New Zealand’s Southern Alps stretches north and south below our feet. And there’s no wind! We’re going to fly.

georges north shoulder

Excitement pulls us from relaxing on the summit too long. We climb down two or three meters, to a space wide enough to lie out our canopies. A light breeze blows from the north. We decide we’re going to run true with the ridge and hook right when ready.

Crampons off, axes in the bag, and ice screws and other sharp objects are packed away. I consciously feel my focus heightening further. After a few essential checks, we’re both sure off our exit paths. It’s a committed takeoff, with unstoppable steepness after the initial few steps. With one look at Georges behind and a quick remark, we’re gone.

It’s an absurdly incredible feeling – landing back were we started nine hours ago, only three minutes later.  Those three minutes of flight are a mixture of pure adrenaline and intense fun. Carving the air and flying in steep proximity with the terrain of an alpine peak is indescribable.  I now stand meters from Plateau Hut, our start point, with my canopy by my feet and the hot sun above my head, looking back up at that three thousand meter peak in awe and with ultimate respect of it’s terrain and character.

I bunch up my wing and walk over to Georges. We landed meters apart and apparently he’s as happy as me. We shake hands with big smiles, in mutual disbelief that we pulled off our plan. On the 13th November 2013, we are the first to fly canopies from Mt. Tasman’s summit. For a while we can’t stop laughing. We just stand their shaking our heads and staring back up at the summit of Mt. Tasman.

We enter the shade of our alpine hut, strip our clothes down and cool off. After putting together a quick lunch and rehydrating, we’re repacking our bags. The excitement begins to grow again. We travelled to Plateau Hut with both a speed wing and paraglider each. The dream plan was to summit Tasman, fly back to the hut, repack our bags, cross the glacier to Cinerama Col and paraglide back to Mt. Cook village. With perfect weather and no wind continuing throughout the day, we see the chance to follow through with that plan. It’s good to climb with Georges, with his fitness at such a high level. It adds a dynamic that keeps us charging on, when I’d perhaps be content to hang out and take it easy. And with that said, by two o’clock, we’re slinging our packs again, roping up and starting our crossing of the glacier to Cinerama Col. With no wind, the glacier is a furnace and it doesn’t take long before I’m saturated with sweat, as it drips from my chin. We charge on through the now soft glacier snow. My eyes stay focused on the edge of the glacier, where I’ve no doubt we’re going to be able to launch the paragliders from. We stop occasionally out of exhaustion and I feel the sun burning from above as I glance often back up to the summit of Tasman, feeling a stronger connection than the day before.

Two sweaty kilometres later, we reach the edge of the Grand Plateau and it welcomes us with a perfect wind, licking up from the valley below. Harnesses back on. Ear-to-ear smiles. Quick orange as a pre-flight snack. And we’re flying. Georges and I fly in close proximity, laughing our heads off like kids.

flight from cinerama

After picking up the car from the village, the drive back to Queenstown allows time for processing the past forty-eight hours. The mountains provide me with an experience and connection that is far beyond most things in this life and I’m stoked to be planning and living these alpine journeys. By nine o’clock, we’re back in town – drinking beer and eating food with the housemates. I wake up in my own bed the next morning after a solid sleep and laugh out loud. Whatta trip. What a trip.

The pull of the mountains is hard to explain, but they continue to captivate me. There is a feeling that comes only in the high and steep places of this world, during that delicately balanced state. It’s not a place to stand still for too long and perhaps that it part of the mystique and lure. I will say one thing though; moving fluidly on alpine terrain is like music. It’s a free flowing and expressive state that produces a rhythm, unlike any other. – Benjamin Letham.

Tasman Speed Descent raw footage

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