Climbing ropeless up a steep snow and ice face is never enhanced by mental images of your helpless body falling to its death.
High on the vertiginous slopes of Mt Aspiring, the only thing keeping me from this fate were the front points of my crampons and my two ice axes. I was calm and focused, but could do nothing to stop these mental flashes of my flailing body being gobbled up by white oblivion. The face wasn’t steep enough to worry an accomplished alpinist, but in the absence of such skill, competence, and general good looks, the 40 to 50 degree-slope was more than enough to unsettle me.
A hard kick of the crampons. A strong strike of the ice axe. After a dozen or so movements, I paused to gather my composure, re-focus, before setting out for another dozen moves.
Why do such images always flash through my head when I’m soloing? Does every climber have to deal with this?
Mt Aspiring, New Zealand’s Matterhorn, is an aesthetic pyramid of splendor that masks a malevolent side that can emerge suddenly and swallow anyone trying to scale her heights. At 3027m, her beauty and grandeur attract many.
Katelyn and I had wanted to follow in the footsteps of the first ascent of the North West Ridge, climbed in 1913 by Samuel Turner, Harold Hodgkinson, Jack Murrell and George Robertson. The group succeeded in a 60-hour push, despite horrendous weather and constant bickering. Turner, on returning, not only overstated the feat in saying that it would be “the first climb and probably the last of Mt Aspiring’s east precipices”, but also showed a lack of orientation; they were on the northern, not eastern, slopes.
During that epic battle, they endured an uncomfortable, unplanned and unwanted night in a storm high above the ridge’s most prominent and intimidating feature: the rock buttress.
Most who take on the peak known to Maori as Tititea, meaning Glistening Peak, take a chopper to Bevan Col and walk an hour or so to Colin Todd Hut, at the base of the northwest ridge. But we instead shouldered heavy packs and opted for the steep incline of French Ridge, which offers you branches, tree roots, and all manner of flora to help you ascend the track.
The French Ridge Hut is perched just below the snow line and basks in evening sunlight. When the alarm sounded at 2am the following morning, we were so excited that we were already up and preparing breakfast.
We strapped on crampons, unleashed our ice tools and roped up, moving up a boot track and negotiating the remains of a small – but disconcerting – avalanche on our way to a crest called Quarterdeck. We had a short snack break, taking in the view to the north for the first time. Keeping a close eye on crevasses, we crossed the glacier and made good time to the spot called Kangaroo Patch, on the ridge just below the rock buttress.
But then we lost our way. Katelyn’s crampons disagreed with the loose scree on the ramps leading up to the buttress, and the unsteady nature of the climbing made us question if we had wandered off-route. At one point, we were reminded of our vulnerability when I accidentally bumped my helmet from my head. It somersaulted off the ridge to the northern slopes, where the Therma Glacier accepted it without question.
Eventually, we decided to head down to Colin Todd Hut. That evening, there were several guides in the hut who told us that the rock ramp with the loose gravel was the most common route, despite frazzling the nerves of many climbers. We had to leave the following day, but with a perfect morning forecast, I decided to push for a quick summit before walking all the way out to Raspberry Flats in the Matukituki Valley.
It was pitch black when I downed two muesli bars and left the hut at 240am. Weary and with my eyes half closed, I made my way across steep snow to the boot-track, as clouds hung snugly to the ridge. Concentration was a strain, but I soon found my flow on the way up to Kangaroo Patch. Conditions were glorious. Hard, crisp, solid snow. So good, in fact, that I left the boot-track at one point and climbed straight up to the ridge.
I was soon in the same predicament as yesterday – an exposed position on steep ramps of loose rock. But with my crampons removed and a sense of purpose, I moved confidently, often preferring steeper, more solid rock to looser terrain at a friendlier angle. At one point I put my foot on a small ledge and the schist rock crumbled as I weighted it, but I kept my balance and pushed on.
I passed some rock protection wedged between two boulders – a sign of other climbers on the same route – pulled onto a rock step, and was soon on top of the buttress. The ridgeline narrowed and became rocky once again. With snow conditions so good, I stayed low on the west face. It steepened sharply. And then steepened some more.
Without realising it, I had traversed onto the top of the Ramp. The Ramp is the quickest way up and down the mountain, but also the most dangerous. Several people have died – mostly losing their footing on the descent – after the afternoon sun had made the Ramp less stable.
Progress slowed. Focus intensified. Images of my falling body cascaded through my mind, no matter what I did to try and block them out. As I climbed higher, the vertigo increased, but near the top the angle relaxed, and I gained the ridge once again. A rush of relief flooded my insides.
Nothing makes you feel more alive than climbing a ridgeline as the dawn light cloaks the surrounding peaks in a soft blue. Complete solitude in the mountains concentrates all the wonderful things about mountaineering. Self-sufficiency. Embracing the moment. That resounding sense of perspective that comes from being dwarfed by a cirque of mountains as far as the eye can see.
Reaching the summit at the same time as the sun’s first rays summons a unique euphoria. It’s as if you’re witnessing the birth of the world – unspoiled and perfect and infinite.
Mt Aspiring towers hundreds of metres above undulating, glaciated terrain and a jagged skyline. I stared in awe and then swiveled towards the west to behold a sight that made me sink to my knees – the magnificent shadow of Mt Aspiring, a dark triangle commanding the landscape. It was the kind of sight that is greater than just the view, because it awakens a blazing sense of the sublime that words or photos could never aptly describe. I remained there, entranced, in the kind of silence that only mountains can provide, trying to bottle this feeling so I could come back to it later.
Aspiring’s shadow grew starker as the daylight became stronger. It started to shrink as the sun rose and I started my descent. I avoided the Ramp and stuck to the ridgeline, removing my crampons whenever there was an absence of snow.
I made it back to the hut exactly five hours after leaving it, and on a high that only a perfect summit can bring. Katelyn and I had a relaxing breakfast and then trudged back over the glacier to the Quarterdeck, and down to French Ridge Hut. Every so often, we heard tonnes of snow and ice collapsing from the Breakaway, a steep and broken part of the glacier and the preferred approach to Mt Aspiring before it became too unstable.
It was almost 830pm before we made it to the carpark. The final, flat stretch of valley floor was a benign end to a weary day of almost 40km, including about 1800m of vertical gain and nearly 3000m in vertical drop. I could not keep a conversation for the final hour, my face glazing over in a zombie-state.
But I was smiling on the inside, lit up by the fresh memory of the dawn light brushing the summit, her gentle slopes inhaling the warmth, her striking shadow stretching out towards the horizon.
The easiest way up Mt Aspiring is the North West ridge from Colin Todd Hut. Either take a helicopter to Bevan Col and walk across the Bonar Glacier to the hut, or hike in from the carpark (one to two days either via French Ridge, or the more direct approach via Bevan Col).
There are variations of the ridge that can be climbed. The Ramp is the quickest route, though bergshrunds can make it impassable, and even if conditions are good, the ramp bakes in the afternoon sun and has been the scene of many fatalities after climbers had lost their footing on the descent.
Guided parties mainly opt to climb slopes to Kangaroo Patch, and then gain and climb a rock buttress on the ridge. Note that the Mt Aspiring Region guidebook says that the buttress can be bypassed on the north side on easy snow and rock terrain. This is possible, but guided parties usually gain the buttress via rock ramps on the northern side that turn towards the south just as the rock gets steeper, and then climb the buttress proper. This is considered an easier route and can be easily downclimbed or rappelled.
After the buttress, stick to the ridge, occasionally skirting to the northern or southern side as common sense dictates, as it gently climbs to the summit. The ridge is not technical climbing, but can be very exposed.
A guided expedition usually involves a helicopter ride in to Bevan Col. Costs for one person are around $3650 for one person, or $2530 each for two people.
The North West route can be climbed all year round, but the best time of year to do it is November to January.