Patient Buddha + Editor’s Note
Mount Aspiring awaits those who wish to climb it. For three women—a skier, a boarder and a free-heeler—the name proves prophetic, as they find out the hard way that ski mountaineering isn’t always about getting up the peak.
From Women’s Sports and Fitness, March 1998
By Jean Weiss
Moments before the decision to helicopter up to Bevan Col and ski across the Bonar Glacier to colin Todd Hut, base camp for Mount Aspiring, Jill Sickels Matlock voices the fear that has been gnawing at everyone. “I’m freaked,” she says. Her usually solid voice is tiny and truncated. “I’m just thinking about T.R. and the crash, and I’m not sure if we should do this.”
The weather is closing in quickly, as it often does in the coastal ranges of New Zealand’s South Island. What was hours before a clear slice of mountain, forest and farmland is now obscured by disjointed patches of fog, reaching down like mangled hands to grasp the landscape. The chopper’s blades shoot off rough currents of wind, whipping tendrils of hair across the faces of all three members of The North Face extreme team and noisily rippling their waterproof shells. Bonnie Zellers and Kasha Rigby stand within three feet of Jill and still must lean in to hear what she is saying.
The reminder of the helicopter accident that killed their friend triggers thoughts of hair-ball flights into the bush. Bonnie nods and returns Jill’s gaze. “Yeah,” she says softly. “I know.”
The women have been huddling privately, while alpinists Scott Backes and Chris Noble, along to document the trip, pace back and forth a few yards away. Logic and a two-day weather window dictate flying in immediately, rather than spending the two days walking in, even though it’s last minute and everyone must scramble to reconfigure their gear. Still, there’s a pause in making the decision. Is it a cop-out to fly directly up? Will the weather hold long enough to climb? Is the helicopter pilot adequate?
Jill’s acknowledgment of the worst-case scenario disperses the anxiety. Within 15 minutes, members of the group trade shorts and T-shirts for bibs, jackets and one-piece suits, restuff their packs with gear from three helicopter drop piles, rig themselves with mountaineering hardware, jam feet into plastic boots, pull out skis and await their turn to fly up.
An oiled rope lying on the floorboard and the pilot’s just-off-the-sheep-farm rubber galoshes are not reassuring. Kasha and Jill climb into the front seats of the craft. Bonnie sits in the back with the gear. The rear of the fuselage dips and swings with the wind as they float first over the Matukituki River basin, then above steep red beech forest to the left of the snowcapped French Ridge and Quarterdeck. The helicopter shudders and climbs as they sweep up the Breakaway and into the fog.
For a moment they see nothing but white. Then a glimpse of a ridge, a bluebird patch of sky, a view of the glacier below. Suddenly, there it is, Mount Aspiring, an upside-down shark’s tooth piercing the sky. At 9,951 feet, soaring from sea level, what it lacks in height it makes up for in intensity. The northwest face of this crunched mound of metamorphic schist sits with the patience of a pointy-headed Buddha, ridges extending outward like graceful arms, beckoning.
For five years, Bonnie has held the dream of snowboarding this peak. Jill and Kasha came recently to the idea, hoping to ski and telemark the northwest ridge. If all goes as planned, each woman could pull of a historical feat: Kasha would be the first woman to telemark the ridge, Bonnie the first person to snowboard it, and Jill the first woman to Alpine ski it.
All three, each used to traveling as the sole female on most expeditions, welcomed The North Face’s idea to pair them and their disciplines. The trip to Mount Aspiring is as much about proving that a women’s trip can work as it is about climbing and descending the peak.
The helicopter continues its leftward swoop toward Bevan Col and drops them off. Quickly two tents are erected and stashed with supplies for later use. Within an hour, Jill, Bonnie, Kasha, Scott, Chris and a support crew of three New Zealanders descend the Col to ski across Bonar Glacier and up another steep slope to Shipowner Ridge to set up base camp.
Hope and Promise: The Trip Begins
A morning rainbow in Auckland is a hopeful welcome following a 12-hour flight from Los Angeles and a near disaster when Bonnie’s snowboarding bag is missing at luggage claim. The women search for the glossy banana-colored bag, casually at first, then urgently once their luggage carts, piled high with matching red, yellow, green and black duffels, are the only ones left in the terminal. Three security guards venture over to query the group. A German shepherd sniffs the duffels and ski bags. Granted, the team stands out: Either there was one hell of a sale at The North Face, or this is a sponsored expedition. Kasha finally sleuths the bag from behind a conveyor belt. The team clears customs and flies on to Queenstown.
The next morning, the map store is the first stop on a long list of to-dos: tune up skis, purchase wands, buy an extra pair of skins and ice screws and shop for food. As the group moves through town, they cause a minor sensation The New Zealanders have heard of their arrival.
Kasha, 26, arguably the most famous of the trio, launched into the spotlight in 1993 when she took fourth place as the sole telemarker in the U.S. Extreme Skiing Championship. A free-heeling Heidi (she wears her blond hair in side braids when in the backcountry) with blue painted toenails and a waitress’ appreciation for food and spirits, Kasha’s telemarking is something to behold. The extend of her renown, though, has more to do with the fact that she’s a smart, shrewd crowd pleaser with appeal similar to that of the singer Jewel. Charmingly casual and friendly, she exudes the aura of a former hippie chick who’s discovered fashion.
Appearance and pretense are the antithesis of Jill. Straightforward, pragmatic and quick to respond to a crisis, at 34 she’s one of the best off-piste Alpine skiers in the world. She happened onto the scene in 1994, drawing from a background as a ski racer to win the U.S. Extreme Skiing Championships in what was her first backcountry competition. Since then, she’s taken fifth, second and third in the World Extreme Skiing Championships and first in the 1996 U.S. championship.
Of the three, Bonnie is the veteran. A snowboarder who claims more first descents than any other woman in the world, she’s also a more experienced mountaineer than Kasha and Jill. Often snowboarding with her well-known husband, Jim, she counts among her descents the Col du Aiguille Verte and the Puobel Couloir in Chamonix. In 1990, she was named snowboarder of the year by International Snowboard magazine, and in 1991 the most extreme woman snowboarder by Transworld Snowboarding. Bonnie works as a nurse in Reno, Nevada. At 36, she’s a complex mix of nurturance and harsh resolve.
The group is still getting acquainted when they reach the tiny grocery, resulting in painstaking politeness as they plan their meals. The noodle soup for dinner would be fine. How about two courses for each evening meal? Let’s get two tubes of cream paste for coffee because Scott usually goes through one on his own. This continues a while until Jill, Kasha and Bonnie start filling their own basket, while Chris and Scott pair off. Flexibility ends when it comes to selecting chocolate. A private matter, each takes a turn solemnly perusing the shelves of white, dark, caramel and fruit and nut Cadbury bars. Two 17-ounce bars seem the proper quantity. Kasha decides on just one dark chocolate bar, amidst disapproving glances. No one wants to have to share their supply with someone who didn’t adequately plan. From the grocer, it’s on to the mountaineering store. “The conditions have been perfect,” the woman behind the counter assures the team. “Are you skiing the northwest ridge?” The team explains that it is skiing, telemarking and snowboarding it. “You know, I think someone just snowboarded the ridge last week.” The look on Bonnie’s face doesn’t change, but later, while walking back to the apartment, her disappointment is evident. “One week. I can’t believe it.” At least she’ll still be the first woman to snowboard it.
In the evening before dinner, the team gathers for a weather report. The forecast is bleak. There is a three-day window, including today, which was spent running errands, followed by a four-day storm, then a light clearing, then likely another storm. After a short silence, Bonnie speaks. “I always think it’s best to get on up there. I’d like to leave tomorrow.” Jill and Kasha agree. Scott and Chris think heading in at the beginning of a storm system is a bad idea. They suggest waiting out the storms in Queenstown. “This is your trip,” says Scott finally. “You get to decide.” The following morning everyone is up early scrambling to get ready for the drive to the trailhead.
Low afternoon sun illuminates Colin Todd Hut, a red 15-foot by 20-foot aluminum box perched on Shipowner Ridge. As the team crests the saddle, they view an endless sea of mountains and glaciers, dappled with strokes of pink. It is unclear why anyone would prefer the crowded hut to a tent. The team sets up four across the Saddle—a tent for Scott and his film equipment, one for Chris and his cameras, one for the skiers, and one gear tent dubbed the “garage”—then heads to the hut for dinner.
Inside, several Kiwi men sprawl across bunks they’ve claimed by laying out their mummy bags and pads. The hut sleeps 12. There is a tiny porch, a mud room for hanging wet gear, and one main room with a counter and shelves for cooking and food, a radio, a barometer, solar-powered lights and a small table with benches in the middle of the room. There is no wood-burning stove for heat. A stack of trashy gossip magazines, New Zealand’s equivalents of People and Us, seems out of place. Stoves sputtering in the background, Jill questions one of the Kiwis who has skied the ridge. In fading light, it is difficult to see details of the map on the wall that traces the northwest ridge route. Primarily visible is a grid of dark lines highlighting a section of the climb called the Ramp. “Use extreme caution,” it reads. “Fatalities have occurred.”
The next morning, the three women, Chris and Scott are up early, hoping to climb the mountain. By 6a.m., while the team is eating breakfast, all of the Kiwis have returned to the hut from their attempts to climb the ridge. Although the sky is clear, barometric pressure is falling, and lenticular clouds swooping over lower peaks forewarn of worse weather to come. By 10 a.m., all seven natives leave the mountain, including two men who in the single day before had hiked from the trailhead to the hut. Chris and Scott suggest that the team use the rest of the day to skin up the ridge to get a better view of the route.
When the team returns to base camp, it finds a comic bit of vandalism. Two large, stocky parrots called keas have clarified the sentiment behind a hut ledger entry offering a recipe for kea stew. Guidebooks say the birds have a diet that’s diverse and vegetarian. Today, they have proved it by pecking holes in two tent rain flies and the metal shaft of an ice ax. By afternoon an enormous lenticular engulfs Mount Aspiring, a waterfall of wind and clouds cascading over its tip. For the next 24 hours, the group waits out the storm inside their tents. By the next evening, the storm system has moved through, and the team decides to try again in the morning. Kasha sews together safety straps she’s fashioned from strips of webbing and tries not to think about the Ramp. “I know I’m going to be gripped when I get up there,” she says. “I’ll be gripped no matter what. Why put energy into it now?” “I just hope it isn’t icy,” says Bonnie, looking up at the mountain.
The next morning, Jill takes a final sip of coffee from her Ski Like a Girl insulated mug, zips her bibs, straps on her beacon and clunks out the door. Shortly after 6 a.m., the team is skinning up the glacier toward the Ramp. Four hours later, Jill, Kasha and Bonnie are moving slowly up the Ramp’s 50-degree slope. The snow along the cliff band above them is unconsolidated and sugary, so rather than climb straight up through it, the group traverses right to better snow. The trade-off is that the fall line leads to a series of cliffs below. Chris and Scott are unconcerned about the exposure and deem it unnecessary to rope up or belay the climbers.
It is the most exposed, unprotected climbing Kasha and Jill have experienced. As they climb upward, Bonnie picks out the line she’d like to board down but notices that the snow is too firm and needs a day in the sun to warm up. As they near the top of the Ramp, clouds blow over them. The team regroups in a less-exposed area near a rock outcrop, sucking tubes of GU as they debate whether or not to continue. Scott and Chris think they should bail out. Bonnie wants to go up, but this time the men prevail. The group descends, a tricky down-climb for all the women. Jill looks down a couple times and decides not to look down again. Kasha and Bonnie have a harder time pushing away their fear. Scott talks Bonnie down through the scariest section.
The second storm is worse than the first. The tents shudder against the northwest and westerly winds. Inside it sounds like a train barreling through a tunnel. By the fourth morning on the saddle, the tents are entombed in two feet of wet, heavy snow and dripping inside from condensation. Bonnie, Kasha and Jill move their sleeping bags into the hut. Scott follows soon after. Chris stays in his tent alone for one more night.
By day two of the second storm, it becomes obvious why the hut, and especially the tabloids, are here. Jill and Bonnie sprawl across two top single-berth bunks. Kasha stakes out territory in the tent below Bonnie, Chris below Jill. Scott is spread out on a couple top bunks in another corner. From their separate perches, everyone, except Chris, who remains dedicated to his personal stash of reading material, is consumed with the trashy magazines. Now and then, a howl of the wind is interrupted: “Did you know that Brad Pitt and Gwyneth Paltrow broke up?” A pause. “Did anyone know they were together?” By day three of the second storm, the seventh day on the saddle, even the gossip has become boring. Jill rallies the group for a short time with an impressive array of party tricks—table climbing, a one-footed mouth bob for a dollar bill on the floor—at which everyone tries their hand. Then it’s back to reading.
By the fourth day of the storm, the hut is filled with soggy socks, long underwear, inner booties, hats and gloves. Nothing dries. The group employs various techniques—placing hand warmers loosely inside boots, sleeping with wet socks between two layers of underwear—to get gear dry for the next attempt. In the end, it’s a futile task. Any clothing that is worn outside even briefly gets encased in rime. It becomes evident that the 30-second walk to the outhouse is too long. Everyone pees in a bucket in the mudroom and dreads their turn emptying it off the hut porch. The group runs out of toilet paper. A second use for the glossy magazines is discovered.
It takes a while to realize that the wind has finally stopped. An hour later, there’s a clearing. Each person slowly unfolds like a tightly closed petal and walks outside to enjoy the sun. It’s a brief luxury. Decisions must be quickly made. Should they use this window to leave the glacier or to call up a helicopter for a resupply? Scott and Chris suggest the women think about spending the day on the Ramp. Are they up for another try? The decision is theirs, and the three request privacy to make it. The next morning the team is up by 4 a.m. and out the door by 5 a.m. The early start is in vain. When they reach the base of the Ramp, the weather has already fallen apart. Just to be sure, they wait it out one more hour, then return sullen-faced to the hut.
Jill Goes Up the Hill
It’s beginning to look like no one is going to make it off the saddle, let alone up the mountain. The team planned to travel through Fiji on their trip home. About now, sandy beaches are sounding pretty good. The next morning, the ninth day on the saddle, Chris is up at 4 a.m. for a gratuitous look at the weather. It stormed all night, and he returns with the expected news. Everyone settles deeper into their sleeping bags to wait out the day. At 7 a.m., Chris is up again for a second look, this time returning quickly. “I see blue sky. The weather is clearing. Let’s go.”
Jill, Kasha and Scott spring into motion, pulling on clothes, stashing lunch supplies, buckling boots. It isn’t apparent until 20 minutes later that Bonnie is still sitting up against the wall of her top bunk. The night before, she decided not to go. “I need the route to spend the day in the sun,” she says. “It would be foolish for me to go up there. I’m not here to carry my board down the mountain.” She eventually pulls on her down booties and coat and heads outside to help kasha search for missing sunglasses and Jill find a second ice ax. It isn’t until they ski off that she crumples, shrugging off solace from the crew as a tear slides down her cheek.
It’s today or never, and Jill, Kasha, Chris and Scott all know it. It is with a certain fierceness that Jill and Kasha skin together toward the base of the Ramp. Chris and Scott are waiting at the turnaround point. The conditions aren’t good: blue ice under four inches of snow, marginal weather. “We’re going to the top,” Chris tells the women. “From this point on, there are three options. You can go up, and if you don’t like it, you can go down by yourself. You can dig a cave on the ridge and wait for us to help you get down, or you can go with us to the top.”
Jill has already decided that she’s going to go as far as she can. Kasha hesitates. Maybe under different circumstances, she’d try. A few days earlier Chris and Scott had said they could help just one of the three women up the mountain. Kasha realizes she’s not the woman. She isn’t feeling the drive, and even though this is Jill’s first time climbing a mountain, Jill is mentally and physically the strongest. “Sorry it’s gotten so military,” says Scott as Kasha turns to leave. Jill, Chris and Scott pick a line and front-point straight up the steepest section of the Ramp.
While the three attempt the northwest ridge, the rest of the team breaks down camp in hopes of a speedy departure whenever it clears. There’s a self-conscious lack of comment about those on the mountain. As the hours pass, it begins to fog and then grow dark. Finally, Kasha says, “Jill’s main concern was whiteout. She was much more worried about a whiteout then about ice on the route.” The information is received with silent nods.
Shouts and laughter suddenly erupt outside the hut. It’s 7 p.m. The three are back. No one gets up to greet them as they disrobe in the mud room. Jill comes in, face wind burned, crying, laughing and going around hugging everyone. Miraculously, they climbed through the fog, summitted and returned within 11 hours. Bonnie and Kasha congratulate Jill. “It was heinous,” Jill says. “Wicked gnarly.”
As Scott, Jill and Chris dig into the food set before them, Jill recounts the climb. “We were at the top at 2 p.m.,” she says. “As wide as this room is was the widest you could ski. There were sheer drop-offs everywhere. I was crouched down with two ski poles, side-stepping down the mountain.” She demonstrates the near-fetal position she assumed as she dug Chris’ ice pick poles into the snow in front of her. “You could barely see where you were going. I couldn’t get an edge. It was like pingpong balls or golf balls frozen into the snow. When they broke, it was like skiing over huge ball bearings. I traded my skis for crampons and walked halfway down the ridge. Then I put my skis back on and skied to the Ramp. I actually felt better on my crampons than I did on my skis. I never thought I’d say that.” Chris, Scott and Jill are ecstatic. Bonnie and Kasha are excited for Jill. There isn’t much acknowledgement from Bonnie and Kasha toward Chris and Scott as everyone prepares for bed.
Getting off the mountain, getting out of the weather, getting away from each other: Three goals reunify the group. The morning after Jill’s victory, the team awakens to yet another storm. A short opening might break the following day. Chris announces that the group will leave tomorrow. First Jill, then Kasha suggest waiting for another report to clarify when the weather might break again. This makes Chris angry. The women remain in their sleeping bags, also angry. Chris and Scott step into the mud room to talk. Chris has been taking the fall, and Scott agrees he should step in. Bonnie, Jill and Kasha are silent, tight-lipped, furiously writing in their journals. When Chris and Scott return, the Kiwi crew is treated to a full-blown group therapy session, initiated by Bonnie, participated in by all. It’s cathartic. The team is joking and laughing again. They decide to hike out tomorrow, no matter what.
A Rain Check
It’s 4 a.m., and the weather is calm. Team members pack their backpacks, eat breakfast and clean the hut as quickly as possible. The decision has been made to hike down the headwall, a 13-mile day from Colin Todd to the trailhead and the fastest route out. Risky, too, due to high avalanche danger. The plan is to descend the headwall early before the snow starts to slide. By 9:20 a.m., the team has skied down across the glacier to the col, secured gear for a helicopter pickup and stuffed light packs with emergency supplies, preparing for a long day out. The team descends in a line, kicking crampons into the snow, holding ice axes in uphill hands and ski poles in downhill hands. The line is surprisingly easy, and before long, the group is standing on solid ground, switching ski boots with hiking shoes for the trek across streams, through red beech forests and farmland dotted with mother sheep and baby lambs, out to the vans.
It’s a cruel irony that the next several days on Mount Aspiring are sunny. As Jill, Kasha and Bonnie wander around Wanaka, a small town outside of Mount Aspiring National Park, they are taunted by clear views of the mountain. A trio of New Zealand climbers that the women passed on the way out easily summit the next day. “Hopefully, this was the bad weather trip, and I’ll have good weather on my next one,” Bonnie reflects on her dream. “I would love to give it another shot. It calls to me.”
Kasha isn’t sure she’ll try again but remains pragmatic about her foiled attempt. “I wanted to go up, but I made the decision,” she says. “We do the best that we can do under the circumstances. When I turned around at the Ramp, behind my sunglasses, I was holding in a little tear.”
As for Jill, despite the odds, she made it. “It was a team thing for the three of us to go together,” she says. “I’m just super-competitive. I think that’s what made me want to get up that mountain again. It wasn’t about the other women. It was about the mountain.”
Editor’s Note: But First, Are You Experienced?
From Women’s Sports and Fitness
By Jean Weiss
I was in a predicament. Not because the wind was blowing hard or because the snow had left me drenched. I was in a predicament, on assignment at the base of the northwest ridge of Mount Aspiring, because I couldn’t manage to get back out into the snow to get wet again. The wind was blowing so hard, I couldn’t reopen the outhouse door.
“Did anyone see me come out here?” I wondered for one frantic moment. Then I realized, “Do I want anyone to see me out here like this?” The answer was no. Quickly, I set to work. First, I pushed. Then I really pushed. Then I braced my leg against the wooden framed wall and hurled my 120 pounds against the door. It opened just a little, but it was a toehold, and building on that, I squeezed my body out.
When The North Face invited Women’s Sports + Fitness to come along on its ski, Telemark and snowboard expedition to New Zealand’s Southern Alps, we were excited but cautious. It wasn’t your average press assignment. The trip involved glacier travel, climbing and skiing and hiking with a heavy pack. If we sent an editor along, we wanted to make sure we did it responsibly. As the staff member with the most mountaineering experience, the possibility fell to me. After lengthy discussion with The North Face and interviews with team members on the telephone, alpinist Scott Backes, along to film the women, agreed to take me in his charge. I was good to go.
Now all I had to do was train. Inspired, I immediately broke my middle toe at a party doing an especially expressive dance move. “Don’t worry,” my sister the doctor told me. “Just tape it to the next toe.” You’ll still make your trip.” With just more than a month to departure, I embarked on a mountaineering crash course. Although I knew I wasn’t an equally qualified team member, I didn’t want to be a liability.
Cardiovascularly I was already strong, as I’d been training for my first marathon. The broken toe ruled out more running, but I could hike. I spent one day each weekend carrying a heavy backpack up a 14,000-foot peak and three other weekend days learning glacier travel and rescue technique from alpinist and Exum mountain guide Doug Chabot. The rest of my spare time, I speed-read the classic mountaineering books and rounded up gear. I returned so frequently to Neptune Mountaineering here in Boulder that they loaned me skis and randonee [ACCENT ON FIRST E PLEASE] bindings for the month, probably just to be rid of me.
By the time I met the team at the Los Angeles airport, I could set up a crevasse rescue pulley system within minutes, employ numerous crampon techniques, and self-arrest with an ice ax from frontward, backward and upside down falls. I ended up using none of those skills.
Mountaineering, it seems, isn’t just about what you prepare for; it’s also about what you haven’t prepared for. Such as getting stuck in an outhouse. Or having to hold Scott Backes’ hand for leverage to avoid being blown off the saddle as we ran to the tents from the hut after dinner. Or klutzing down a steep slope on short parabolic skis wearing plastic mountaineering boots and a backpack nearly half your weight while the nation’s best extreme skiers try to conceal their smirks.
We all had our best and worst moments, a fact that brought new meaning to my understanding of weak link. On this trip, skill level took a second seat to good attitude. As we waited out the weather, the trip became a test of mental endurance. Lucky for me, that was one area in which I was well trained. After three winters living alone in an isolated one-room cabin, I felt lucky just to have company.
In the end, after our greatest triumph (Jill making it up the mountain) and our lowest moment (a conflict-riddled day 10 on the saddle), the group descended the glacier as a unified team—a team I felt proud to be a part of. I’d forgone two plumb assignments in the tropics to sit out the howling at the base of Mount Aspiring. Taking it all into account, every moment was worth the trade.