Climbing Mount Aspiring

Tuesday 20th March 1994

As the Moon rose over the Ship Owner Ridge of Mount Aspiring, I couldn’t help but think of how different it looked to the rising moon in Outback Australia. Here, in the Southern Alps of New Zealand, the moon had an icy-blue colour and appeared quite small. In the flat plains of the Outback of Western Australia, where I grew up, the rising moon appeared huge and yellow. This Alpine experience was adding a new dimension to my life.

Here I was, at the tender age of 43, about to climb my first real mountain, having never even climbed a ten metre crag until the day before. I had always had a secret ambition to climb, ever since reading the ‘Ascent of Everest’ by John Hunt, the leader of the first successful expedition to Everest. Subsequent books by Bonnington and others and photos of climbers perched in impossibly huge and exposed places filled my dreams. Many years’ of study, internship, specialising work, and family kept these thoughts in the background.

Middle age is a time of reckoning, about what is possible, and what is not, about what is important, and what is not.

I have a wonderful wife and family, I have achieved most of what I had set out to do in my career, but I still have this urge to climb a real mountain. With awareness of the march of time, I thought if I didn’t do this soon, it would become an impossible dream. What really fired my enthusiasm was an article from ‘High’ magazine about a middle aged English hiker who, with a bit of training and a guide, climbed the Matterhorn.

The nearest real mountains to Australia are in New Zealand. I had seen advertisements for guided climbing, and after obtaining some pamphlets from local gear shops, decided on Mt Aspiring as the most likely candidate. After several phone calls and a couple of faxes to Mount Aspiring Guides at Wanaka and three weeks of waiting, I was on my way.

Twenty-four hours and four plane flights later I arrived at Wanaka in the evening. The last flight from Queenstown to Wanaka was as the sole passenger in a small Cessna, on a bumpy ride along the Cardrona Valley, with glimpses of Mt Aspiring to the west, and occasional glimpses of grazing sheep – on the hills above us! The taxi driver ominously informed me they had just had two weeks of perfect weather.

Having checked into the hotel, I walked a short distance along the waterfront of Lake Wanaka to the office of Mount Aspiring Guides. Then I met my guide Paul Scaife, and was introduced to the gear necessary for glacier travel and mountain climbing. Most impressive were the Koflack plastic boots. These had a rigid sole, which was rather uncomfortable on the feet, but came into their own with crampons in ice and snow, and also held the thinnest ledges of rock when climbing. There were also harness, ice axe, crampons, and helmet to be fitted.

The next morning we headed up the valley for basic rock-climbing and rope work – hearing about figures of eight, tying on, belaying, nuts, wedges, friends, carabiners (“crabs”: NZ and “biners”: US). We spent several hours on bigger rocks, culminating in a 20m climb up a crack/corner, with Paul leading. At the top was a slight overhang which I found difficult to get around and slippery in the now-falling rain. I managed to slip off the crux, but Paul had the rope tight at the crucial moment. After scrambling to the top, we abseiled down: another new experience for me. Paul was meticulous in checking and double-checking the anchors. I realised that to succeed in climbing the mountain, I would have to put complete confidence in the guide and the equipment. Telling myself this, I leaned out backwards over the precipice, and started a slow descent. All was fine for about 5m until I had to swing under the overhang. As I swung in I forgot to take my hand off the rope, resulting in an unpleasant crunch as my finger was crushed against the rock. When we reached the bottom, it was time for prussiking practice (using small loops of rope to climb up the main rope). This was essential for crevasse rescue if required.

By now the rain was pelting down and we headed back to Wanaka. The rain persisted for two more days, but on the 3rd day the clouds started to lift.

We drove up to Raspberry Flats at the end of the road of the West Matukituki Valley. At last the real adventure was going to begin. The walking was easy at first across grassy flats. The lifting clouds revealed beautiful mountains all around, and across the valley my first glimpse of blue-green glacier ice as the Rob Roy glacier hung above us.

After two and a half hours we arrived at Aspiring Hut, a large stone building with huge glass windows looking up the Valley with a glimpse of the south west ridge running up to the peak of Aspiring. We paused for a cup of tea and chat to the caretaker, then set off for Shovel Flat. This is about 1km wide, and from its sides, the walls of the valley rise vertically 6,000 ft to snow covered peaks and numerous waterfalls tumble thousands of feet to the valley floor. Until now, the walking had been easy or on a well cut path. After crossing Pearl Flat, the track became steeper and less well made, through beautiful beach forest. The beech roots were less attractive when the rain came down. Slipping and sliding with a heavy pack, my lack of fitness began to show.

The track petered out on the river bank – it was time to cross the Matukituki. Fortunately it was only knee deep, but it was incredibly cold, about 0 degrees C. As I stumbled from rock to rock, using my ice axe as a walking stick, my feet felt the cold like a drill going right through them. It was a great relief to get across and socks on.

By now we were not too far from Scott’s Bivvy, a camping cave we were going to stop for the night. I had expected a nice, large sheltered cave, so I was surprised when Paul announced we had arrived, al I could see was a large rock – the Bivvy was a hollow underneath, about 1m high and 3 x 3m area.

We laid out our thermorests and sleeping bags as covers and Paul got the MSR stove going. As I scrambled outside, I slipped on a rock and fell onto the stove. My right thigh gave a distinct ‘hiss’ and burning smell as the corner of the stove dug into the skin.

After dinner, the rain stopped and we went outside just to see the moon rising over Mt Joffre. We scrambled up the rock to get photos, unfortunately I slipped, but Paul grabbed the strap of the camera, which saved me from falling. I don’t think he was very impressed by my clumsiness.

The next morning we set off for the real start – the head of the Matukituki Valley. This huge cirque seemed unsurmountable to me, but as we got closer Paul pointed out a 45-degree hollow running up the head wall, known as ‘The Gut’. This is the very source of the Matukituki. We scrambled up for a couple of hours, and then reached some vertical rock with fewer holds. Paul climbed up about 150ft by himself, to a fixed piton. Securing a cam device as well, he then belayed me as I headed up the slope. It was probably about 60 degrees, but no decent holds if one slipped. The edges of the plastic boots gave excellent grip on the small cracks and ridges in the otherwise smooth rock.

After another hour of scrambling we reached the snow leading up to Bevan Col. As we stopped for lunch, low cloud came tumbling down from the Col. We were now at about 5000 ft. Fitting the crampons I found a little awkward, even thought they had a snap-on fitting to the boot. Then up the ice slope into the cloud. Paul kept me roped up until we reached the Col. We then went up a snow slope near the Col to practice self-arresting. This is using the ice-axe to stop a slide down an ice slope. As well as a ‘routine’ feet first slide on one’s back, you also have to be able to stop yourself if going head first, backwards, frontwards, and sideways. The aim is to twist yourself into a feet first position then roll onto your front, digging the point of the ice-axe in with the bottom of the shaft upwards to increase the angle of tilt.

While we were fooling around in the snow, a couple of figures appeared in the gloom below. They too were on the way to Colin Todd Hut, our destination across the Boner Glacier. They disappeared as Paul and I roped up for the glacier crossing.

We scrambled down the rocks, then onto the glacier. For the first time five hundred yards, it was easy to follow other footsteps in the snow. The first small crevasses began to appear. These were about 2ft wide, and seemingly easy to hop across. When we came to the third crevasse, Paul jumped across nonchalantly. When I jumped, I put my boot onto Paul’s foot hold on the other side. I didn’t thrust the front points in deep enough and suddenly I found myself peering at the ice on the inside of the crevasse – I had fallen about 10 feet and become wedged, twisted to the left. Me first instinct was to dig my crampons in, but the crevasse opened up to nothingness below my waist, and I couldn’t get a hold. I then recalled my pre- trip reading on crevasse rescue, and figured Paul would be putting in a snow stake belay for me (and him), prior to having a look for his vanished client. By now I was getting quite cold.

After what seemed a long time, but probably only about 10 minutes, Paul peered down from above with a look of bemusement to inform me that in 20 years of guiding, I was the first client to fall down a ‘slot’. He had rigged up a pulley system to make an assisted hoist. After pulling out my pack, he then started on the hoist. With him pulling on one rope, and me pulling on mine I slowly started to surface from the abyss. With great relief I crawled out onto the surface of the glacier. After a while we continued on our way. Every crevasse after this I cleared by a good margin! We came to the lateral moraine with very hard ice and large chunks of rock.

We started to ascend the ice towards the hut. All this was in the cloud, so we were relying on Paul’s navigation in zero visibility. From below we heard voices – the climbers we had seen earlier at Bevan Col. Paul called out that they were too low, but eventually we lost contact with them. We kept on up the ice, crossing some sections which were rock hard. Paul cut steps with his ice-axe. Finally we came to some rocks and rested on a small outcrop was Colin Todd Hut. It was no Hilton, but a welcome site after a long afternoon on the glacier (and in it!).

The hut was once bright red, but has faded to a dull orange. It measured about 10 feet by 14 feed. The outside was corrugated iron, the structure being anchored by wires at strategic points to surrounding rocks. Inside there are bunks for about six people in comfort, eight reasonably and ten if everyone is very friendly! There is a steel bench for cooking. The most important feature is the hut radio, used for daily reports back to Wanaka of who is in the hut, their planned movements, and to receive weather reports, the ‘sched’ or schedule taking place each evening at 7pm. Base at Wanaka calls all the huts in the area in turn. Each hut reports back on the current situation. For groups moving in an area, it is very useful to hear of the progress of different parties.

Having taken off our crampons and shaken down our gear, we stepped into the hut. On the top bunk at the end of the hut were Julie and Christopher who had arrived earlier in the day. They were both instructors with an outdoors school in America, visiting NZ on sabbatical.

After we had settled in the two climbers we had seen and heard earlier in the day arrived. They had missed the track up the side of the glacier, but eventually found the hut. They were Gavin and Matt from Melbourne, where they worked in gear shops.

All four of the younger set were avid rock-climbers, keen to gain some experience in alpine climbs.

Wednesday 21st – Recce Day

Next morning dawned fine but still cloudy at and below our level (6,000 ft), but we could see Mt Aspiring looming above the cloud in the sunrise, a plume of snow and cloud billowing off the north face. It was a good day for low level recce, so Paul led me off to check out the south face, especially the notorious ramp, where we could be abseiling down after our summit attempt. This gave valuable practice in climbing with two ice axes, front pointing with crampons as we negotiated various crevasses around the base of the ramp.

There was a beautiful sunset that evening, with a few clouds in the valleys below, the alpine glow on Mt Aspiring, and the moon rising over the Shipowner Ridge.

Thursday 22nd

Paul’s alarm goes off at 0300. Prepares favourite breakfast of bacon and fried bread (lots of fat for energy!). Force down cereal as well, then off about 0400.

Beautiful starry and moonlit night. Start up Shipowner Ridge, wearing headlamp when in moon shadow. After two hours, we reach an ice slope – on with crampons for about an hour. We reach the buttress at first light, and pause at the base of the buttress to remove our crampons. The moon has set, the eastern sky becomes lighter, then the pink, grading into white, then purple, and dark blue above.

Gradually, as the sun climbs the eastern horizon, and we look back at the pink light on the Ridge and the Neve, we see four climbers ascending around the buttress. Although technically not more difficult, the exposure is intimidating to a novice climber. However, good hand and foot placements keep appearing to give me confidence. Occasional bulges of rock are scariest, with hundreds of feet of space below. Paul belays from a conveniently placed piton, with back-up friend. The whole horizon glows shades of orange, and then fades to pale then dark blue as daylight arrives. As we scramble up through the gullies, the exposure becomes more intimidating.

By late morning we reach a snow slope of 45 degrees, the north side of the last section of the buttress. Crampons and ice tools see us over this section, and on to more easy rocks to reach a small col at 2,240m.

We stop for a lunch break. Beautiful sunny day, not a breath of wind. The younger set have raced ahead, and are now high above, like a line of ants on the summit icecap. We start up mixed snow and broken rocks, reaching the summit ice cap at 2,440m. While we don crampons, the four youngsters descend, big grins all over the place.

Me feeling rather like a puppet on a string, Paul starts up the steep ice cap, keeping me short roped. Up and up we go, my view being a wall of ice and Paul’s crampons. After an hour, there is a sudden change. One second it’s ice, the next step, looking over the top of the summit ridge, and over into the West Matukituki Valley and beyond – an incredible sensation.

Two more rope pitches along the knife edge ridge, and at 4pm, there is no more to climb. We are at the top. The mountain falls away from our small snow pinnacle. There is no flat summit – one’s feet straddle the summit ridge.

Now is not the time to relax – now is the time to secure an ice axe belay to the summit ice. This done, we shake hands and take obligatory summit photos. Then we savour the incredible panorama around us.

To the northeast, we can see the bulk of Mt Cook and Mt Sefton on the horizon. To the southwest, we could see Tutuko and Milford Sound. What appeared a stone’s throw away were the nearby peaks – Avalanche, Rolling Pin, Main Royal, Stargazer.

Immediately below us to the north, the Therma and Volta Glaciers, with the headwaters of the Wild Waitoto 9,000 ft below. To the south we looked across the Bonar Glacier over onto the West Matukituki Valley, and could just see Aspiring Hut on the flats.

Even as we watched, clouds started to well up from the valleys – after half an hour on the top of the world, there was a long way to safety. I asked Paul if the ascent fee included the descent. He appeared to consider this seriously for a moment.

I then edged my way gingerly down the summit ridge, the pull of gravity and sense of exposure was incredible. After two pitches, Paul then dug in a snow stake, and I abseiled down several more pitches to the mixed rock and ice. Meanwhile Paul had nonchalantly down-climbed between belays.

We reached the small col at the beginning of the notorious Ramp. Quite a few people have died here. It starts off not too steep, but imperceptibly becomes about 60 degrees, at which point the acceleration if one slips is too rapid to self-arrest. Paul belayed me on abseil, then I put in an ice axe belay, while he down climbed very carefully, front pointing and using both ice tools. By now the sun was low on the horizon, and it was important to get to the rocks at the bottom of the ramp before sunset.

We set up the abseil onto the Bonar Glacier just as the sun was setting. Our last “rap”. Then we had to negotiate the jumble of ice blocks in the bergschrund of the glacier.

Here our previous day’s foray came into its own, as we quickly found our tracks, which in the gathering gloom steered a course through the mass of crevasses. It was by now quite dark, but soon the moon was rising behind Mt Aspiring. Before long it was shining on the Bonar Glacier, the perfect shape of the mountain casting its magnificent shape across the white wilderness.

We then made the final climb up the snow slope to Colin Todd Hut, arriving at 2300. The ever-energetic Paul brewed up some chicken noodle soup and into a nice warm sleeping bag at 2400.

One group of climbers got up at 0100 and were back at 0600 due to cloud and wind. Another party set off at 0400 and returned at 1130 due to mist and poor visibility. We left the hut at 1300, crossing the Bonar Glacier by compass bearing due to the mist.

Then a couple of abseils down “The Gut” and we reached Shovel Flat at 2100 and sunset, and bivvied in the clearing – it was a clear night.

Saturday 24th March

We headed back to the car via Aspiring Hut, and returned to Paul’s parents’ place, had a shower and did the washing. Paul’s parents, Marg and Gerald, turned up, not in the least surprised by a stranger hanging out his washing in their back yard!

We celebrated with a “pig out” at Relishes that night – smoked salmon bagel and veal steaks – then went on to Guy Cotter’s place for afters so that Paul could ask about conditions at Mt Cook – our next planned climb.

****

March 1998

After returning to Climb Mt Aspiring with our son Tristan a few years after this, I was back again in March 1998 to climb for the 3rd time with my wife Wendy. She’s written about our epic adventure there in her book, ‘On Aspiring: Journey Beyond Courage”, here: https://glastonbury.com.au/on_aspiring/.

****

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