mount aspiring - 9931' - SW ridge ai4
After returning to Queenstown after climbing Mount Cook and dropping off Graeme at the airport for his return flight to Auckland, I took a look a the weather forecast and was amazed to see a two day window of perfect weather in just a couple days time! So I began the climbing partner search and found a previous correspondence with Luca on Facebook, who messaged me a few weeks prior about wanting to climb. I responded again asking if he wanted to climb the SW ridge of Aspiring and he replied with a resounding yes! He is half English and half Finnish living in New Zealand so he drove over from Dunedin right away and we met Andreas and Brad, who had climbed the east ridge on Mount Cook, met up with us for dinner to discuss plans and ideas for the four of us to climb it. The weather window was going to be for Friday and Saturday November 29-30, however Brad unfortunately had an early morning flight leaving from Christchurch Sunday morning so he contemplated getting a helicopter access. Due to the strict regulations in Aspiring National Park, helicopters can only land at Bevan Col, which is not too practical for an ascent of the SW ridge.
Luca and I made our own separate plan leaving them to hopefully find a way to make it work before Brad had to leave. Coincidentelly, my new friend Eva who lives in Wanaka invited both Luca and I to her friendsgiving party to celebrate Thanksgiving which happened to fall on the day before the weather window began. I was thrilled to be able to join as Thanksgiving dinner is my favorite holiday. We had a lovely time with about 20 people crammed into her shared home everyone having made a dish. I made a cornbread casserole. The looks on the faces of the Europeans in attendance at some of the traditional american Thanksgiving dishes (candied yams in particular) was quite funny. I don't think they were a fan!
Eva was nice enough to let me crash at her place as well, and in the morning, Luca and I drove to the Raspberry Flat trailhead in our own cars and met there at 8:30am. We organized our gear and loaded up our packs, which were heavy with my huge mountaineering boots, rope, climbing gear and food. Under clear skies and beautiful warm weather we started hiking up the Matukituki River Valley, having collected Amelia who we ran into at the parking lot who recognized me from the Plateau hut. She joined us for the hike into French Hut as she was meeting up with a couple other of her friends at the hut. The Matukituki valley is a spectacle of greenery and rugged mountainous landscapes that is also neatly cultivated with sheep farming. It's a cross between untouched raw alpine splendor and cleared grasslands with enough sheep to warm an army. The trail up the valley heads up 9 kilometers of flat valley through the privately owned farmlands, dodging sheetshit the entire way to the Aspiring Hut. Mount Aspiring briefly becomes visible from the trail, but Mount Rob Roy really dominates the view from the bottom. Side stream crossings without bridges were plentiful however I was able to jump or boulder hop across them all. Most people just accept wet feet and walk through them in their shoes. Once we arrived at the Aspiring Hut, I realized it's more like a hostel with an array of flush toilets, a full kitchen and comfortable bunks managed by the New Zealand DOC. We stopped for a brief rest here before continuing an additional 6 kilometers up the valley, as it curves from west to north until we reached the base of French Ridge. A few swing cable bridges were encountered to cross over otherwise impossible rivers. Here, we were able to ford across the Matukituki River, having hiked far enough upstream for it to be less than knee deep which saved us about a kilometer of walking to take the bridge further upstream. Once across, we dried out our feet and had a lunch break in the pleasant green grass.
We started up the track to French hut, which immediately became very steep. Root climbing was the name of the game here, and with my heavy pack, and my mountaineering boots carried in my hand, combined with the heat and humidity it was a fairly slow ascent for my standards. Nonetheless, we made steady progress gaining the 850 meters of elevation gain. The first 500 meters was in the forest where at times a 6-8 foot vertical step would be encountered that you had to literally climb the tree roots to ascend. The humidity in the trees was noticeable causing me to sweat, which I usually never sweat! Once we reached treeline, we were greeted with views of the ultra rugged west face of Mount Avalanche, with Gloomy Gorge dropping steeply below us to the right. The waterfalls that dump into the entire Matukituki valley are otherworldly and the term gigantic doesn't do them justice. One particular one we saw seemed to have a volume of water twice that of Snoqualmie Falls at it's highest flow, free falling down a 600 meter cliff!! Looking west directly across the valley from treeline we saw the Liverpool Hut, and looking north at the head of the valley we spotted the route up to Bevan Col, the "normal" way to approach Mount Aspiring if you plan to climb the NW ridge from Colin Todd Hut. However in winter and spring conditions, the slabby ascent to Bevan Col is very dangerous with very slick steep rocks complete with flowing water having killed numerous people when they slide to their deaths. The French Ridge route is much better in early season, before the Quarterdeck becomes to crevassed.
We slowed our pace a little for the last 350 meters to the French Hut enjoying the views. Interestingly enough, the French hut and ridge was named after a French member of one of the early expeditions to Mount Aspiring who hated every moment of the expedition. After it was all said and done the Kiwis, being the cheeky pranksters they are named the approach after the negative nancy
We arrived at the hut at an elevation of 1480 meters (1100 meters up and 17 kilometers from the trailhead) and were greeted by a handful of other hikers, and Amelia's two friends who were also planning to climb the SW ridge the following morning. It was great to drop the pack and parse out things not needed for the climb and chat about the route and plan of attack. Luca and I agreed to wake up at 12:30am and be on the move by 1 in the morning. With that settled, we made dinner and I took some photographs of the Kea who never gave up trying to steal anything left out on the porch. At one point one made off with someones boot sole, and almost made away with one of my socks. Eva and Josh (hosts of the friendsgiving party) also arrived an hour after we did with intentions to climb French Mountain. Amelia was happy to join them the following morning. By 8pm I was asleep.
With a full hut (people even sleeping on the floor in the dining area), we tried to keep quiet as we got up and finished packing up our gear. We ate a quick breakfast and started up the remainder of French Ridge at 1:15am. It an 800 meter ascent from the hut to the Quarterdeck, which is a flat section on the south ridge of Mount French above the low saddle connecting to Mount Avalanche. It was excellent travel on the snow slopes at night up the ridge, with the final bit crossing through a couple small seracs and crevasses. The snow maxed out at 35 degrees or so and we reached the Quarterdeck in a little under two hours. We continued on, dropping down 200 meters and onto the upper Bonar Glacier which we quickly crossed with firm snow. While we were checking on which route to take to cross the Bonar and reach the base of the SW ridge, the other two guys caught up to us and we leapfrogged a couple times crossing the glacier and aiming for the western flank of the lower SW ridge. With just enough starlight, we were able to make out the silhouette of Mount Aspiring against the moonless sky. We traversed around the west side of the rocky lower ridge until reaching a small depression where the real climbing would begin. Here we took a small break while the other two guys continued on up the initial slope to meet the ridgecrest. We continued on up the slope and upon reaching the ridge we saw them starting up a steep rocky section of the crest. Knowing that would take considerably longer, Luca and I decided to climb directly up a steep 50-55 degree neve/snow face just left of the ridge where we could overtake the other two again, and hopefully reach the base of the crux gully first. So up we went, with Luca in lead up this beautiful snow face perfect for front points and ice tools. As we ascended, the colors of twilight increased, and upon reaching a short mellow section where we regained the ridgecrest, I snapped some photos of twilight.
My hunch was correct, and we indeed passed the other two as they took longer getting up the rocky segments. Luca and I then continued on a non-stop push up the now 40-45 degree neve, which was trending into more solid ice on the ridgecrest towards the base of the crux gully. As we were ascending this section of the route the sun rose, and provided a spectacle I will never soon forget. With the steep south face of Mount Aspiring lit up by the glowing first rays of sunlight, I had to snap a few more photos!
Eventually, about 20 minutes after sunrise we reached the base of the ice crux and along a rocky outcrop just to the right of the ice I set up a two-cam anchor and we racked up, took a small rest and I mentally prepared myself. It looked steep, possibly even vertical in a short spot. I grabbed the ice screws and assisted the other two clip into our anchor. Shortly after that I was off. Initially the pitch started out in the 60 degree range, but quickly steepened to dead vertical for a 2 meter stretch before easing a little. The ice was not great, but was good enough for solid pick and crampon placements. I was not able to find any solid ice to hold good screw placements though, and resided to running the whole thing out a full 60 meters without any pro
When I ran out of rope, I pounded a picket into the hard snow which worked as an excellent anchor to belay up Luca. He enjoyed the pitch. I then led up a second full 60 meter pitch up easier 60 degree neve/snice and was able to get one bomber cam placement in an exposed rock outcrop to my left halfway up. I reached the top of the gully where the terrain flattened significantly and placed another picket anchor to belay. In two pitches we had efficiently climbed through the crux, and a simple final 300 foot walk ascent on icy snow less than 30 degrees in steepness brought us to the summit at about 8am. I was elated to have been successful on both Mount Cook and Aspiring within a one week timeframe. I couldn't have asked for more on my trip to New Zealand, and as I write this, I might actually get another climb in before I leave for South America on Monday the 9th. We enjoyed completely calm and clear summit conditions for almost 30 minutes. I was hoping the other two would meet us on top so we could celebrate together, but we wanted to get down before the snow on the Bonar Glacier got too soft for easy travel on the 200 meter ascent back up to the Quarterdeck.
Down we went, making quick work of the upper NW ridge passing by three pairs of climbers (all guided) coming up from the Colin Todd hut. They had all flown in via helicopter the day before to Bevan Col. We reached the spot in the ridge where we had to decide to either descend the ramp or the north buttress, which would consist of some rocky traverses and likely some rappels. With our boots and crampons still on, and the snow still very firm it made sense to simply downclimb the bucket steps already in place on the ramp. The ramp is not to be taken lightly though, as there have been people killed slipping here and falling 200 meters over the cliff below. So we took it slow, carefully face-in downclimbing the 45-50 degree upper snow slopes following a descending leftward traverse utilizing excellent bucket steps. Eventually, the exposure and angle eased and we were able to walk down. The final part was another steeper section with a short rock step down. At the base of the ramp we were once again on the fringes of the Bonar Glacier. We rested a bit and roped back together for the horizontal glacier walk south back towards the SW ridge. Upon crossing below the base of the ridge and reaching the large flat upper glacier we unroped and went at our own paces 200 meters back up to the Quarterdeck. Luckily the snow was still decently firm underfoot, but with the sun out strong, it was softening quickly. In what felt like an eternity (only maybe an hour) we reached the Quarterdeck once again and took another rest. From here it was all downhill, 800 meters back to the hut on perfect plunge stepping snow. Just before 2pm we returned to French hut where Amelia greeted us. She had successfully climbed Mount French with Eva and Josh that morning. Celebratory talks and some food were had all around!
I took a couple hours to rest and pack up my gear and had decided I wanted to hike back down to at least the Aspiring hut to avoid hiking down the steep trail through the woods in the rain that was coming the following morning. Luca opted to stay at the French Hut though. It worked out in the end because the other two guys had a couple of my cams that we needed to grab from them. At 3:30, I started down solo and returned to the valley floor, opted to take the bridge across the Matukituki this go around and hike 6 kilometers to the Aspiring hut. With my boots tied to my pack this time my shoulders hurt by the time I arrived. I also occationally looked back up the valley towards French Ridge to see darkening clouds which re-affirmed I made the right choice to hike down. When I arrived at the Aspiring hut I was greeted by a large group of girl scouts (over 20!) making plenty of noise. Some of the adults in their group were impressed with my feat but being thoroughly exhausted I went right to sleep at about 7pm.
By the time I woke up, 11 hours later it was pouring rain. I had secretly hoped the rain would hold out for a few hours in the morning to allow me to hike out the final 9km dry but no dice. I decided to wait at the hut until the rest of our group made it from French hut so I was able to get a confirmation they were all ok. Around 10:30am they all arrived, soaked, cold and dreary wishing they made the same decision I made the afternoon prior. I briefly corresponded and prepared myself to become as wet as they were. My flimsy nylon windbreaker didn't protect against much rain, but at least I was able to hike with the mountaineering boots on, and the hut ranger was nice enough to give me a plastic bag to cover my pack with. The hike out wasn't so bad, however all the creek crossings had risen a lot, and all the normal muddy spots were indeed very muddy! With my big boots and gaiters on though I didn't really worry about getting too wet. A couple hours of misery later I arrived at the car, and threw all my wet clothes in and drove back to Wanaka where burritos, burgers, and beers were all consumed.