Mt Aspiring

DON’T LOOK DOWN

I focus on my boots. Illuminated in the bright bubble of my head torch, they crunch evenly through the snow in the crampon prints of my guide, Andy. I’m concentrating hard and though I’d love to steal a glimpse at the jagged peaks of the Haast Range, silhouetted attractively on my left by the first light of dawn, every time I raise my head I wobble slightly and lose my balance. Not advisable when traversing a 45° snow slope with a run out of bottomless crevasses. I keep my head down and plod on.

It’s 6am on the lower slopes of Mt. Aspiring and we’ve just started what promises to be a big day. Situated in Mount Aspiring National Park, just west of Wanaka, this 3033m peak is only the 9th tallest in New Zealand, yet its beautifully pyramidal summit sees around 100 summits a year. Having upgraded my hiking skills with a technical mountaineering course a couple of years ago, augmented by a week of ice climbing around Queenstown last year, I am now attempting to be 1% of this year’s success stories.

My friend Jared and I met up a couple of days ago at the Wanaka headquarters of Adventure Consultants (AC), a timber-clad two-storey house which belies their status as one of the world’s most respected high altitude guiding companies. From this modest base, and with a full-time staff of just ten, AC co-ordinate up to 80 trips a year to the ends of the earth, from Mt. Everest to the North Pole to Antarctica. There we were introduced to Andy and Thomas. On Mt. Aspiring AC use a guide to client ratio of 1:1, a figure which considerably eased my concerns. If I took a tumble, I wouldn’t want anyone other than an IMFGA accredited professional guide on the other end of that rope.

In stark contrast to my last two visits to the Southern Alps, the weather forecast for the next few days was glorious. After checking our gear and going through the route, we couldn’t wait to set off into the mountains. A short drive and a ten-minute helicopter ride took us to a rocky saddle at the head of the Matukituki Valley called Bevan Col (1851m), from where we could clearly see our objective for the first time. The Maori call it Tititea, roughly translated as Glittering Peak, while early Europeans dubbed it The Matterhorn of the South. From this close up, both descriptions seemed a little too poetic. I saw a jumble of uplifted schist slabs half smothered by cracked ice sheets. “That’s do-able,” I thought to myself and looked over at Jared; I could see he was thinking the same.

We could just make out the red cube of Colin Todd hut, a New Zealand Alpine Club-owned bunkhouse and our accommodation for the climb, perched on a flat, avalanche-free rock platform at the lower end of the NW ridge. To get there, we had to traverse the Bonar Glacier.

DON’T LOOK DOWN

The hut is still a speck in the distance, with many more crevasses between us and it. Only a metre wide but many more in depth, crevasses are an unavoidable obstacle on the glacier traverse, and to peer into the eerie, turquoise  depths is to risk being sucked in. Going around them all would add hours to our day, so it’s over we go. We are roped together and I’ve no doubt Andy would catch me should I commit the appalling blunder of falling in, but even so … it’s best not to look too long into the icy darkness.

At this time of the year the Bonar has degenerated into a slushy landscape of blue ice and runnels of glacial melt water. “How would you describe the condition of the glacier?” I ask Andy. “Dry,” he replies, with a tone to match, as Jared plunges up to his thigh into a hidden sinkhole. “That’s not fair!” he shouts, extracting his dripping leg, “You three all stepped on this bit before me!” I assume Andy’s answer to be sarcasm, the default Kiwi setting, but apparently ‘dry’ is the correct terminology for a glacier devoid of seasonal snow. Try telling that to Jared’s socks.

Most of the South Island’s 3000m peaks are protected by glacial moraines which are often more dangerous to cross than the actual climb, so fly-in fly-out trips are the norm. Aspiring is different: the walk in is strenuous but not dangerous. We flew in to preserve energy but during our stay many groups hike in and out, a good ten hours each way. Also, the flight can have its own complications: Bevan Col is hidden from both the hut and the valley, so the conditions there are impossible to see. It’s not uncommon to book a flight out and walk across the glacier only to have sudden cloud form above the Col and to have to continue all the way down, or return to the hut and wait another day.

Although we chose February for the most settled weather, the warmer temperatures have the consequence of making the NW ridge, first climbed in 1913, the usual route. Had we come in November or December we would have been scaling The Ramp – a fearsome ice slope that runs from the glacier up to a point halfway along the ridge. With a maximum angle of 50° near the top and a run-out that leads straight over a cliff, The Ramp is the most dangerous part of spring ascents and many people have come a cropper there. The surface can become a sheet of impenetrable ice to test the crampon skills of any experienced climber, but more often weariness on the descent is to blame for missteps resulting in a fall. Either way, failure to self-arrest is usually fatal. Of the now possible 28 routes, the NW Ridge is probably the easiest, and for that I am grateful.

Once safely at Colin Todd, we scramble for the best bunks and unpack our gear. The hut balcony has incredible views both up the NW ridge and down the Bonar Glacier. The calming sound of water gushing off the mountain’s flanks and flowing under the ice is occasionally interrupted by the rumble of an avalanche and a puff of snow on some distant flank. As cloud drifts up the Waipara Valley, we watch the twin dots of roped-up climbers crawling across the Bonar in our direction. With the weather report still looking amazing for the following day, we eschew our plans for a small orientation climb and set our alarms for stupid o’clock.

DON’T LOOK DOWN

Any decent ridge has exposure and this is no different. Grappling with the underclings, clumsy in my mountaineering boots, I dare not lose concentration. The hut is a speck once again, but below us now, and I will my eyes not to glaze over at the sight of the ice flow hundreds of metres beyond that. In my hiking boots I would be dancing over these slabs but today I’m sweating bullets just to put one foot in front of the other. To trip would have … unfortunate consequences.

After an hour on snow we remove our crampons and begin the rock section of the route. In February the NW Ridge is more of a scramble than a climb and we follow the arête most of the way, hauling ourselves around outcroppings and up buttresses, very aware of the empty space to either side. It reminds me of the Black Cuillin Ridge on Scotland’s Isle of Skye – vertiginous yet riddled with handholds, the most enjoyable type of scrambling.

Andy keeps me on a short rope, only using various bits of fixed protection during the most technical sections such as The Tin Roof and The Green Slabs, although even these don’t surpass a grade 12 and I’m never really out of my comfort zone. Jared’s guide Thomas, a young Frenchman, is far more laid-back. His confidence in Jared’s abilities makes their climb look more fun than ours, although their communications seem to stutter in the high wind. ‘Are you okay with that?” shouts Thomas, indicating a particularly exposed section just off the usual route. “Aah, not really,” yells Jared, clearly wary, “I think I‘d prefer to follow the others.” “Great,” smiles Thomas, “Let’s go!”

I for one am delighted to have avoided the trial of The Ramp but most of the parties gathered on the hut balcony yesterday seemed to regard it with the same philosophical perspective of climbers everywhere. They joke, but climbing deaths are not uncommon in these mountains. While we are still somewhere high on the mountain, a party crossing the Bonar Glacier comes across a very direct reminder of this – decades-old human remains spewed up by the tortuously slow movement of the ice. Two beaten leather boots filled by woollen socks, wrapped in red nylon gaiters and clipped to rusty crampons, lie near some scattered long bones and an original wooden Chouinard piton hammer. The whereabouts of the body from the shins up is a mystery, but from the location of the grisly find and the age of its associated equipment, the guides guess that the unlucky climber must have fallen off The Ramp forty to fifty years ago and only now come to light.

Results of investigation…

“Fifty metres until we rest,” barks Andy, sensing me slowing. We’re near the top of the most physically challenging part of the climb – the shoulder of schist slabs that leads up to the summit ice cap. It’s a wearying zig-zag slog up a path of broken rocks, and it seems a lot longer before he finally allows me to extract my water bottle, drink deeply and snap a few shaky photos. He must’ve meant fifty vertical metres. “As a guide, I have an internal alarm clock,” explains Andy, “It tells me to keep moving as fast as possible to avoid late-afternoon avalanches and surprise storms.” He’s right – a swift summit is the safest plan and we move fastest when Andy is placing all the protection.

One thing’s for sure – I have a newfound respect for mountaineers as athletes. We’ve been going hard for five hours, rarely stopping to rest, with Andy carrying the rope and most of the hardware. I have scaled 6000m trekking peaks before – breathing becomes a chore but you just plod away slowly and surely, step-by-step. This is far more strenuous on the muscles; tomorrow I’m going to feel like I’ve been through a mangle. I can’t imagine going at this pace for twenty-hours above 8000m. The likes of Edmund Hillary and Guy Cotter must be cyborgs. Finally, we hit snow again.

DON’T LOOK DOWN

The summit cone is steep, the old season snow varying in consistency between giant sugar granules and a frozen sheet into which our crampons barely bite. For the first time, Andy constructs ice screw anchors for protection as we front point the last 100m. I focus on my axe biting into the ice, making sure of a solid placement before bringing up my feet. Thunk! Chik, chik. Thunk! Chik chik. In only three short pitches we suddenly have nowhere else to go; I stand up straight and raise my eyes to the blue sky. “Now we just turn around and go down again,” says Andy, somewhere in the background. “It’s a funny old game, mountaineering!” Finally, it’s time to look down.

 

Dan was a guest of Adventure Consultants in Wanaka – www.adventureconsultants.co.nz

 

 




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