Mt Aspiring Climb, New Zealand
22 February -1 March 2007
All content copyright © Ashley Burke 2007. Not to be used for any purpose without permission.
TRIP: Mt Aspiring Climb, 22 February - 1 March 2007
PARTY: Chris Berwick, Ashley Burke, Rob Hynes, Greg Salway
I have created a web page celebrating our trip here :
Chris Berwick has put some of his photos here:
Mt Aspiring, altitude 3025m, towers over the national park of the same name in New Zealand 's South Island . Presiding over its part of the Southern Alps, west of the town of Wanaka , Mt Aspiring is sometimes referred to as the Matterhorn of the south, being of similar shape and formed by similar geological processes as its European counterpart.
It was our objective on this trip to climb this mountain from the Matukituki Valley , using a route that follows this valley up to Bevan Col , thence the Bonar Glacier, thence Colin Todd Hut, Shipowner Ridge and finally the North West Ridge of Mt Aspiring itself.
Many groups use helicopters to lift themselves, their guides and their equipment to Bevan Col , from which the return trip to the summit can be done in 2-3 days of fine weather. However, for us, climbing mountains by helicopter just doesn't count, and we decided to take the additional challenge of attempting the mountain ourselves, unguided. Whilst this made the climb very difficult and challenging, we found the trip all the more rewarding for us having done it under our own steam and initiative.
We arrived at the Raspberry Creek car park in the Matukituki Valley at lunch time on the first day, and after lunch, set off with enormously burdensome packs. Incumbered by all our climbing gear plus 7 days food, we lumbered slowly up the valley. The weather was warm and sunny apart from the wind, and the valley scenery was beautiful, with valley flowers in bloom, grasslands waving in the breeze, and mountain peaks bedecked with glaciers. By early evening we reached Pearl Flat and decided to camp here. As soon as we stopped in this idyllic spot, we were descended on by a cloud of sandflies, which harried us as we setup our tents. In the end, the only possible defence was to retreat into our tents, or armour ourselves head to foot with goretex clothing.
On the second day we continued up the valley through dense beech (Northofagus) forest until we crossed an airy swinging bridge and reached the very head of the valley. This was a spectacular place, we had broken through the tree line and were now surrounded by towering valley walls, from which tumbled great waterfalls, and perched above these were hanging glaciers and rocky peaks.
Dead ahead was one prominent waterfall, and a narrow rocky gorge above and out of site behind it. We had to get to the top of this waterfall, and up that narrow gorge.
This wasn't fun. Getting to the top of the waterfall wasn't a problem but to get up the gorge above it required us to climb a series of narrow ledges along a steeply slanting rock slab. With our heavy packs, combined with the fact that the narrow ledges were connected to eachother by nothing but steep wet and slippery rock, we were struggling. Fortunately Chris was able to climb up the hardest bits unaided, and there were some pitons and slings banged into the rock, so it was possible for him to get a rope down to us so we could haul ourselves up.
By the time we were out of this difficult gorge, it was time for lunch. And it was a beautiful spot to rest. The forest and the sandflies were now far below us, we sat on a sunny grassy spot with a stream bubbling by.
Then it was more climbing to reach a tongue of snow that extended down from Bevan Col. Here we roped ourselves together in pairs and fitted boots and crampons for the snow climb up to Bevan Col. As we neared Bevan Col, we gained our first views of Mt Aspiring, and these took what was left of our breath away. It towered high above the surrounding peaks, was smothered in glaciers, and was crowned by a fluted snow cone at its very summit. We were supposed to climb that somehow.
When we reached Bevan Col it was late afternoon, there was not a breath of wind, and below us the Bonar Glacier choked the valley it was in with ice. It wasn't far across to Colin Todd hut, so the decision to camp here was not unanimous, but it provided an opportunity to camp out in beautiful surroundings. The evening light caught Mt Aspiring and other surrounding peaks, and from here you could see past the mountains and far out to sea.
The next day was mostly fine weather. We had blown one possible summit day by deciding to camp at Bevan Col instead of going all the way the day before to Colin Todd Hut. We had 3 more summit days up our sleeves in case of bad weather, hopefully the weather would hold out for us. Today would be only a short day across to Colin Todd Hut on Shipowner Ridge, and we would thus have all afternoon to rest and prepare for a summit bid on the following day.
Crossing the Bonar Glacier was very easy, as here the glacier is level and free of crevasses. However, as a precaution we were roped up in pairs again, in case of hidden crevasses, and as protection if someone slipped on the short but steep climb from the glacier up to the hut.
We reached Colin Todd Hut in time to witness an “emergency evacuation” from Colin Todd Hut. One poor soul was suffering from a sore throat, headache, tiredness or something. His guide, suspecting some dreadful malady like tuberculosis or bird flu, organized a helicopter rescue, and wanted to use the hut's supply of chocolate powder to "sprinkle on the snow to create definition for the helicopter pilot to see where to land". We suggested that he lay a few rocks or a groundsheet out instead, which seemed like a better idea to us, although it didn't work as far as wresting the chocolate supply from him was concerned.
With that bit of entertainment over and done with we had the hut to ourselves until those who were on Aspiring that day clomped back into the hut, dreaming about the hot chocolate they were about to have, until they were told the dreadful news and offered naught but hot water instead.
At 7:45pm the hut radio crackled into life and delivered to us a totally ambiguous weather forecast. Would tomorrow be OK for a summit bid or wouldn't it? We decided to set the alarm for midnight and then poke our head out to see.
Midnight came and we poked our head out to see, but we didn't see anything. We didn't even see our hand 10 feet in front of our face, and there was a soaking wet north-westerly wind, the hut was enveloped in thick cloud. Hardly ideal weather for climbing Mt Aspiring. So it was back to bed.
Our decision not to climb was vindicated next morning, when we woke to rain hammering against the windows of the hut, thick grey cloud, and wind lashing the hut from the northwest. This weather didn't deter the other hut occupants from leaving though, they had already bagged the peak, so they braved the sodden weather for the long trudge back to the valley.
We were confined to the hut all day, and we entertained ourselves by practising our rope skills inside the hut. We set up Z-pulley rescues using the bunk head as a belay, prussiked up to the ceiling and back, devised knot tying and crevasse rescue competitions, and basically had a great time. While all this was going on, Mr Bean emerged from his sleeping bag only to the extent needed to be within groping distance of his book, in which he was immersed from dawn until dusk.
At 7:45pm the hut radio crackled once more, and the ambiguous weather forecast came through, a 2 way bet on what the weather would actually do. 60km per hour NW winds, some rain in the west, clearing in the east. We decided not to bother getting up early to check on the weather, tomorrow would be another lay day.
And then we woke up to blue sky. Dammit! We had blown another summit day! It was too late to try for it now. As it turned out, it was just as well we didn't climb today either. The clouds soon rolled in and smothered Mt Aspiring again. We went for a walk up the Bonar Glacier in the morning. In the afternoon, Chris and I rehearsed crevasse rescue, alternately rescuing each other from a gap between the snow and the rock not far from the hut. Mr Bean still had a chapter or two to go, so didn't join us.
7:45pm came again, the weather forecast was a bit better. Winds from the south-west, 70km per hour about the peaks, mainly fine. "Let's go for it!" we decided.
3:00am. The alarm woke us, Chris and I stepped outside to check the weather. The sky was so clear you could almost touch the stars. A cold wind was going. Tea, breakfast, gaddle up, go!
3:50am. We left the hut and climbed up Shipowner Ridge in the dark. Mr Bean and I had checked out this part of the climb in the daylight a few days before, so all was hunky dory. Then we reached the snow. Shoes off, boots on, crampons on, rope up, gaddling irons out. Then up the snow onto the north west ridge of Aspiring.
The snow ended and the rock started. Then the fun began. First, a horribly exposed narrow ledge to get around, fortunately it was on the leeward side of the ridge. Then a really serious obstacle. Right on top of the knife-edge ridge, with terrifying drop-off on either side, an awkward move to get across a gap. Chris and Greg didn't like it, but both confidently got across. I went into old woman mode fussing and faffing until Greg kindly took my pack. Then with my heart in my mouth, I made my move and got across.
Mr Bean, on the other hand, was in trouble. The angles were all wrong, it was dark, the cold wind was blowing, we were getting nowhere. It was a very dodgy move, you wouldn't want to slip here, and there wasn't much to belay off. As Mr Bean held back, we shivered and grew cold. The stars were fading, it was growing light in the east, we were getting nowhere. This was the low point of the trip. At last Mr Bean made his move and was across.
At the next difficult move it was my turn. We had climbed up steep and exposed slabs, it was now fully light, and we had to sidle out to the left of an impassable rock outcrop. Doing so would require one vital and perilously exposed move. A sheer 400m fall down to the Therma glacier would be the price paid for the slightest slip or loss of balance. My reaction to situations like this are always the same. I turn into stone and point blank refuse to move without a rope. Chris came to the rescue with a loop of rope belayed off a solid boulder. My state of petrification melted away and I easily negotiated the move when on the rope. Mr Bean wasn't far behind.
Then came the loose sidle. Nothing but a series of disconnected loose ledges smothered in schist. The vastness of the Therma glacier was far below. A nightmare for anyone scared of heights. Slowly we picked our way across. To stray off route could be a horror story. We inched our way along and up. Then came another difficult rock climbing section. I found a piton and a sling in a rock, and we used that to belay Greg around a perilously exposed move. Then Greg top-belayed us up.
But all this had taken so much time. We had been going for 7 hours already. Could we get to the summit and back in a day? How would we know when we should turn back? In my mind I decided on a drop dead turnaround time. At this time, regardless of where we were on the mountain, we would turn back if we had not done so already.
But soon began the promised Kowmung Ridge. Someone back in Sydney had mentioned that most of the North West Ridge of Aspiring is no harder than a Kowmung Ridge. Most. No mention of what we had just come through. But now we were on it. And it was ridiculously easy. We just ambled straight up the mountain until we were at the base of the fluted snow cone that formed the actual summit. Only a few rope pitches remained and we would be standing on top. And the view from here was incredible. The valleys far below us were smothered in glaciers or mist of both. Gravity had sucked some these high glaciers downwards, creating a chaotic cauldron of crevasses, seracs and icefalls. Thrusting up out of the ice and mist were rocky peaks of every description. We were high above all the surrounding peaks, as if in an aeroplane. Far away on the northern horizon was the unmistakable shape of Mt Cook, New Zealand 's highest mountain. Mountains dropped away to the west coast and we could see far out to sea.
But first, lunch. We were starving. We ate, changed into boots and crampons, gaddled up with a clanging and clattering armoury of snow stakes, ice axes, crampons, and ice hammers, and started pitching for the summit in full rope lengths, paired up.
The snow ridge acted like an aircraft wing for the wind. As the wind rose to breach the top of the ridge, it accelerated roaring across the top at high speed. As we climbed the snow cone, we bore the full brunt of the wind. And there was one other adversity. The bad weather of the previous two days had moulded the surface of the snow into a myriad of overhung ice nodules. These acted like cleats for the rope, which was forever getting caught on these nuggets of ice. There would have been dozens of these snags on every square metre of slope. Sometimes wrenching the rope would break the ice nugget and free the rope, other times we had to back down a little to slacken the rope until the wind blew it free and onto the next ice snag. So struggling like this and yelling into the wind and yanking at the rope and trying not to slip and hammering a snow stake that didn't go in far enough and cursing and getting cold and struggling on and yanking some more and bellowing to our climbing partners ... we finally got there. Mr Bean had set an anchor about 20m below the summit. It was then that I knew that I'd make it. Only one more pitch. As I passed Mr Bean he said, "well you might as well go up and bag it". So I did just that, and hammered in an axe and a stake, then bellowed down at him to rip his crap out of the snow and come on up. Then we were both sitting on top. Then Greg and Chris came up. It was fantastic. We had all made it. It was 1:15pm.
Here on the summit the wind was gentler, the aerofoil effect, and everything else, was below as. We revelled in the fine weather, admired the views, and took photos all round. Our thrill was tempered by the sobering thought that we still had to get down and back to the hut safely by dark. We recalled the difficult lower section of the mountain and really wanted it behind us by dark. By the time we upped our snow anchors and began heading down, it was 1:50pm, just 10 minutes before my drop dead turn around time.
For the descent we decided to make life easier for ourselves by abseiling all the hard bits. By now we just wanted to get down in one piece. So we unashamedly used up plenty of sling rigging up abseiling belays and this sped up our descent considerably.
When we reached the particularly hard section on the crest of the ridge lower down, we decided to bypass that section entirely by doing a 50m abseil off the side of the ridge and then climbing back up to the ridge lower down and beyond the tricky bit. Once this was done we only had one exposed ledge move left to go and we would be back on the snow.
By the time we got to the gentle snow slope, the sun was low, the moon was rising, and ice and rock were bathed in a clear orange glow. The wind had died off completely and it was a beautiful evening. We quickly descended Shipowner Ridge and were back at the hut just before 9pm. It had been a 17 hour marathon day, very hard, very challenging and very rewarding. The hut was packed out with newly arrived climbers, by the time we were cooking dinner they were already in bed. So we ate quietly and clambered into our sleeping bags, safe at last.
Due to the 2 bad weather days, plus the day lost by camping on Bevan Col , we had no time leftover to explore other parts of the region. So the next day we headed back over Bevan Col and down into the Matukituki Valley where the sandflies welcomed our return with frenzied enthusiasm. The descent through the narrow gorge was much easier since all we had to do was abseil down. We camped that night near Aspiring Hut, and the following day, in weather that remained warm and sunny, we returned to the car park at Raspberry Creek. Then it was back to Queenstown where we concluded the trip by doing the rounds of the local pub, Thai restaurant, and ice cream parlour.
And now I am just totally stoked by the whole trip, not because I made it to the top, but because all 4 of us did, and back safely. It was a great team effort. I am quite certain that if not for Chris' and Greg's confidence and competence over the difficult and exposed sections, that Mr Bean and I would certainly not have made it to the top. It was a full on challenge, in which we were stretched to the limits of our experience. We met the challenge and succeeded - as a group. Which peak next?
Now click here for the slide show.
All content copyright © Ashley Burke 2007. Not to be used for any purpose without permission.