In his first showing on Legend, Jöttnar Pro Team member Tom Grant talks about probing the limits of his own psychology and leaving his mark on New Zealand. This is the story of the long-coveted first descent of Aoraki's Caroline Face (seen above on the lefthand side of the photo), for which Tom and his team won the Skiolets d’Or.
‘2000m of steep skiing on a continuous face?’ I pondered the possibilities for a moment. It was 2013 and my long-term mountain partner and good buddy Ben Briggs had just excitedly described the Caroline Face of Aoraki/Mt. Cook to me. Late steep skiing legend Andreas Fransson had just asked Ben if he wanted to join him on a trip to New Zealand that autumn. Ben declined the invitation, but we were left with little doubt as to what Andreas’ intentions were. A 2010 ESPN article by ski journalist Devon O’Neil listed the face as one of the world’s top 10 biggest unskied lines. The calibre of the challenge was clearly laid out.
Attempts had been made by some of the world’s leading ski mountaineers and a Red Bull team had allegedly spent €1million on an aborted ski descent of the face. That autumn Andreas ended up going to New Zealand with another Chamonix friend of ours, Magnus Kastengren. Tragically, Magnus fell to his death while skiing towards the Caroline Face from the summit and the exact cause of his fall remains unknown. I have no doubt they would have succeeded had Magnus not fallen.
Highly visible from the road into Cook Village, the Caroline Face of Aoraki/Cook is of national significance to Kiwis and even features on their $5 note. On first inspection the Caroline Face appears to be an unlikely looking mess of steep broken glaciers and formidable ice cliffs. An internet search reveals the rapidly changing nature of the face; the seracs can alter dramatically on an almost annual basis. The Face had not even seen an ascent until 1970, when it was climbed by Kiwis Peter Gough and John Glasgow over two days. The first ascent was major news and it was rumoured Walter Bonatti had had his eye on the face.
"The rumble of serac fall just behind us gave the cold night air some menace"
During our summer of 2017 New Zealand had a really fat winter. Our man on the ground in Cook Village and local ski mountaineer Cam Mulvey reckoned it was as good a time as any to come for steep skiing. I recruited Ben and Italian maestro and self-styled punk skier from the Julian Alps, Enrico Mossetti. Enrico and Ben had never met, however I had total confidence in the team from the start. The three of us booked our flights and three weeks later we were off.
On arrival in NZ we were treated to a week of rain and there was plenty of time to ruminate over just how dangerous a proposition the Caroline Face is. I went over the familiar pattern of searching my inner motivation and thinking about my young son. I think of Andreas and Magnus and my dozen other fallen friends in the mountains. My approach to risk has become warier, my own mortality felt more acutely with experience and tragedy. Yet I want to act decisively when the time is right, and the pull of extreme adventure remains strong. I had total confidence in my ability and that of the team but what scared me was what I couldn’t control; avalanches and serac fall.
We finally got our window. On the helicopter flight in we flew as close to the Caroline Face as possible. The face was white and we spotted a crucial weakness in the gigantic middle serac band. Two scouting trips to the bottom of the face later and we were brimming with anticipation, knowing that we could navigate the serac band without exposing ourselves to unjustifiable danger.
The alarm went off at midnight. Predictably, we hadn’t gotten much sleep. Leaving the warm safety of the hut just after 1am, we headed to the bottom of the East Ridge, our chosen line of ascent. The rumble of serac fall just behind us gave the cold night air some menace. The first 300m of climbing was on 50 degree breakable chest deep snow which slowed our ascent to crawling pace. Wordlessly we toiled on, each of us wondering at the time whether turning back was the better option. Finally we were off the crust face and onto a delicate knife-edge snow arête with huge drops either side. The exposure and cold weighed on us and it was with relief that at 9am we topped out the ridge and descended towards our line. After rappelling over the 100m vertical ice cliffs guarding the face, we knew we were totally committed. As fortune would have it, we had judged the conditions to perfection and coming off the rope we landed in stable, boot-deep powder.
"To leave our mark on a small piece of New Zealand history was a special thing and we were amazed at the warm reception we got from enthused locals who are very proud of their mountain"
Arcing out big turns we skied til our legs burned and then realised we had descended but a small fraction of the upper face. A route finding error would have proved disastrous, but we had done our homework and drawing on the sum of our experience we navigated a way down as fast as possible. The skiing was a pleasure and stress dissipated from my body with each smooth turn knowing that we were going to succeed. Halfway down the face we skied into a couloir dissecting the colossal middle serac band, making one last 40m rappel. After a pause to gaze up at the overhanging serac wall above us we charged through spring snow, losing hundreds of vertical metres in a matter of moments. Each blind roll gave us pause for thought, but Ben skilfully located the right exit line. An hour and a half after putting skis on our feet, we were safely off the face. Relief swept over me, along with the immense satisfaction of knowing that we had skied the face in the best style possible and with what felt like a healthy margin of safety. To go in the first place was a gamble, but we had faith in our instincts and we were well rewarded.
Skiing the Caroline Face was the biggest descent the three of us have ever made, and not the sort of line I want to try and ski every year. However, I’ve found that probing the limits of my own psychology and propensity to risk taking has its rewards. To leave our mark on a small piece of New Zealand history was a special thing and we were amazed at the warm reception we got from enthused locals who are very proud of their mountain. We did what I initially considered too risky back in 2013 after first looking over pictures of the face. The challenge and the scale of the mountain daunted us, yet we were able to find a way to succeed which didn’t amount to playing Russian roulette.
The trip ended with Enrico, Ben and I performing Neil Diamond’s ‘Sweet Caroline’ at the Cook Village local karaoke night. Singing is not our speciality and the audience was too drunk to listen to us. But we didn’t care in the slightest.
Tom Grant is a member of the Jöttnar Pro Team and an IFMGA Guide. More information on Tom's guiding services can be found at his website, linked here.