Into The Mountains – Technical Mountaineering Course – Alpine Guides Mount Cook

Into The Mountains

Technical Mountaineering Course – Alpine Guides Mount Cook

The view from the hut balcony
The view from the hut balcony

A personal account – Feb 2017


Denali, Greenland, Big Ben on Heard Island, the Himalayas, Sierra Nevada, Bugaboos, the Matterhorn, South America. These were some of the mountains my friends and brothers had climbed on since doing their mountaineering courses to learn the ropes on snow and ice in New Zealand in the seventies. While they did several seasons in the Southern Alps honing skills and developing experience before venturing to other ranges I volunteered in Africa, got involved in family life and forged a career in outdoor education. My work took me away from home regularly – it would have been too hard to justify taking blocks of extra time out for New Zealand and longer expeditions – so I focussed on rockclimbing and extending my collection of books by Joe Simpson, Bonatti, Herzog, Dougal Haston, Jon Krakaur, Galen Rowel and a host of others. Then a chance hike around Grindelwald where I paid my respects at the bottom of the Eiger and saw the stunning Finsteraahorn in the distance surprised me with an intense emotional response and coincided with the opportunity to pursue the dream that had been shelved for so long.

Mt. Cook beckoned above cloud on the flight over. On the drive beside Lake Pukaki next day the sun shone on the green water but clouds foreboded further up the valley. By the time I reached Unwin Hut rain was sheeting down. Waterfalls thundered off the hills behind the hut. The following day the clouds lifted and Cook’s summit caught the sunlight. Rainbows appeared over Nuns Veil across the valley.

Day 1

The course kicked off at the AG base in Mt Cook Village – intros, gear checks, a little theory and roping up for glacier travel. The group seemed switched on and quite skilled in rope sports. Back at Unwin the picture windows showed off the Malte Brun Range and Mt Wakefield.

Day 2

We practiced how to prussik out of crevasses and had an early weather check. A quick dash over to the airstrip, pack the chopper and we were away up the Tasman – mountains everywhere, the glacier, moraine walls, lakes. 10 minutes later we landed at Tasman Saddle about 500m from Kelman Hut. We carried gear and food up to the hut. Crampon technique, self arresting on back, front, headfirst, fun. Fine weather. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABill, the chief instructor, a total legend in mountaineering, gave us a detailed intro to hut life and safety procedures. We practised essential knots as the team settled in together. Paul was from Alice Springs and was doing the course to skill up so he could climb with his wife who was an accomplished mountaineer, Pat was the super keen ice climber with funky ice tools that he had already been practising with dry tooling in the rain at Kangaroo Point with Josh who seemed up for any adventure. Alice was contrasting her PhD on seagrass with snow and ice training and Nick from the USA had already been steep water ice climbing back home. Six of us with Tai, who was quietly capable and exuded skill and confidence, and Bill.

A blasting wind arose in the late afternoon. The surrounding mountain landscape was wonderful – peaks of snow and rock, a plunging valley to the east, glaciers and ice falls. Mt DArchaic stood majestic on its own about 10 km away. Misty cloud flowed in from the sea to the west and covered the landscape. Two other climbers pitched up Mt Aylmer and descended through the afternoon.

Aylmer sunset
Aylmer sunset

Day 3

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERATerrible weather was forecast but conditions turned out OK. In the clear morning we did snow anchors on the upper flat of the glacier below the hut – top clip snow stakes, t slots with ice axe backups, mid clipped snow stakes buried in compacted snow, then snow bollards which tested under the weight of several “falling” climbers.

At lunch time Bill did a session on racking and carrying gear and provided everyone with harness clips and backpack strap circlips. I felt much more capable and confident after this as I didn’t get tangled up in extraneous gear and had everything in an organised fashion

In the afternoon it was misty and lightly snowing but the wind was light. We pitch climbed for six pitches up the snow slope and across a tricky schrund up to the rock buttresses of the peak above the hut. This was a great session of climbing and working together efficiently while practising anchor and belay setups. It felt terrific to be climbing in the atmospheric conditions.

Later we practised using the ATC Guide in multiple use modes.

Paul, who pulled out of going in My Kitchen Rules at the last minute, and I cooked ginger chicken and ginger tofu with honey soy vegetables and rice for dinner. Typically the food included lots of fresh ingredients, the fridge being a convenient covered hole in the snow/ice outside the hut. We cooked in pairs and pitched in with all the chores.

The pattern of the hut days settled into a sort of routine which always started early and maximised every minute. This suited me, and seemingly all the others, as we had paid lots and were there to learn as much as possible.

Day 4

Overnight rain and snow continued in the morning. We did intensive skills inside. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe hut is really well set up as an instructional space with weight bearing anchors fitted into the ceiling and upstairs landing and other anchors around all the walls. Equalising anchors, lowering using the ATC Guide, abseiling with prussiks above and below, joining ropes, throwing and deploying ropes, abseiling on thin ropes. I had done a lot of rope work prior to the course but still learnt heaps. The afternoon cleared and the wind dropped so we “went outside” and did rock anchors. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe views between the clouds were spectacular. All of us were itching to go climbing.

Every evening at 7.00pm there was a radio sched to check who was in each of the huts and to give hut users a detailed weather forecast and avalanche analysis. We took it in turns to use the radio and record the weather details. Later this info was used to formulate a Plan A and Plan B for the following day. Being out in the mountains for so long (8 days in all) enabled us to witness several weather systems rolling through, to relate what we were seeing to the forecasts and to develop invaluable knowledge and experience of the conditions. We learned fast that any activity in the mountains was dictated by the weather. The predictions for the day following the next were ghastly – severe gale up to 110 kmph, 240mls of rain in one day, freezing level 3,600 m (Kelman Hut is at 2500m).

Day 5

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAt 4.30 am we started hiking down to the ice fall in the Darwin Glacier. Under headlights Alice, the lightest climber, fell through a snow bridge but held on with her legs dangling in space (she was safely roped up) in a crevasse. We spotted some other climbers high up on a beautiful snow and ice route on Mt Green. Ice climbing practice was done on the glacier ice, starting from low angle right through to vertical and gently overhanging. Pat’s super tools got a workout. The physicality of the steeper climbing felt great. We placed ice screws and made v threads for abseiling, and were astonished at the strength of the v threads.


A circuitous route took us through the icefall and then we plodded back uphill in hot, intense sunshine. Huge weather remained forecast for the next day.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Day 6

HUGE rain. 80kmph wind at least. The hut shook and leaked a little. I wondered about the welfare of two groups of friends who were supposed to be out in the mountains on this day. It cemented in my psyche that you would have to be really well equipped and dug in to survive such conditions without a hut.

The day was filled with interesting and useful rope skills and practice. Anchor systems, leading through efficiently. First aid kits.

Day 7

The storm cleared.

At a large crevasse we did practice rescues. In a safe instructional context with Bill and Tai providing backup belays for the rescuers we “fell” in the crevasse while our buddies threw themselves onto the snow, dug their feet in and held the “falls” on their harnesses. The rescuer then made a t slot anchor, transferred the climber’s weight then the climber either prussiked out or was hauled out using an assisted haul or 6:1 system. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAFor me it was powerful learning how quickly the rescuer can be dragged towards the crevasse while trying to arrest the fall. I would have this at the forefront of my mind when on the Bonar Glacier a week later.

The later afternoon was taken up with theory on navigation and route finding and skills – kiwi coils, alpine clutch, locking and hauling systems using tibloc, bachman, microtraxion and ATC Guide methods.

The weather forecast for the following day was good apart from a SE airflow. Sunset was a stunning display of pinks and orange against a black, jagged silhouette skyline. The evening star rose above the outline of Mt Cook and Tasman to the west. Grey, soft cloud edged up over the Tasman Glacier and enveloped Tasman Saddle hut further down the valley.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Over a coffee Bill passed on lots of detailed info on access and climbs on Malte Brun, a mountain that was high on my list of interests.

We prepped for a “summit day”. Lunch, clothes, backpack, ropes, gear. We would breakfast at 4.00 and depart by 5.00 am. A super excited feel enveloped the whole group.

Day 8

3.45am. Snowing, heavy snow cover, very low visibility, light wind. Learning – SE airflow often leads to cloud and often snow. Back to bed for a sleep in. Up at 6.00am.

Inside – rope skills. Block leading, monster munter, knots with one hand.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe limited vis was perfect for navigation exercises. We trekked through thick mist to Tasman Saddle Hut using various methods to maintain course and estimate distance. On the return we trekked up to the start of our proposed climb for the following day on Mt Aylmer, setting a nice set of steps in the process. This process was invaluable on Aspiring for me a week later.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAEvening cloud engulfed the hut again. Oh dear. Maybe we wouldn’t get to summit anything on the course!

Tai shared important background and gave a small group of us tips on climbing Mt Aspiring, topos, routes, access, descent etc over maps in the afternoon.


Day 9

3.30am. Bill had already been up for a while and had the copious water boiling. His personal generosity with his time for the group throughout each day, I thought, had been instrumental in setting a philosophy for the whole course. He was forever doing myriad tasks to help individuals and the group progress. It seemed no wonder he had been a part of so many expeditions to the Himalayas- Everest, K2, Gasherbrum – he would be a key team player in these situations.

It was snowing lightly and there was limited visibility but in parts of the sky the moon and some stars shone through. We left at 4.45am and followed the previous day’s footsteps through the murk to the base of the south face of Aylmer. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIn 3 pairs we did 4 pitches up the steepening ice on front points with axe and hammer. The ice was covered in powder snow. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAStakes, ice screws and rock protection were used as runners and anchors. The atmosphere and aesthetics were stunning – we were snowed on, the mist swirled and slowly the sky lightened. Openings appeared in the cloud revealed a huge drop off the ridge. Sun struck Mt Cook. Peaks were islands in a sea of valley cloud. Pat led the pitches placing ice screw runners. Climbing the upper pitches was exhilarating – I played with the minimum amount of effort necessary to swing the axe and crampons into the ice for adequate grip. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWith multiple groups climbing and anchored the feel was of a mini expedition. On the small summit the sun warmed us while below the 800m north face dropped off into the cloud. We simulclimbed and down pitched along a narrow ridge back to a col and then down to the base. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThrough all the bad weather and training of the week this was a wonderful culminating experience. Back at the hut at 10.30.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAA chopper took us back out to civilisation. Shower, clean clothes, dinner at the pub.

Day 10

Rain again so instead of rockclimbing on the Sebastopol Crag we made rescue stretchers. Tai gave us detailed input on mountains and routes that would be the most suitable next steps for us all. Bill responded in detail to Alice’s request for tips on high altitude climbing.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

I had loved living in the mountains for the 8 days. I had tuned in to the weather and begun to understand its ebbs and flows. I had learned much about mountaineering, been exposed to the wealth of knowledge and experience of the two fabulous guides. I felt confident and supremely motivated to undertake my own forays into these mountains, to Europe, America and maybe beyond. I had a list of 100+ peaks to climb in New Zealand with a growing log of info. Perhaps if I tried to do about 4 per year I could have enough for the next 25 years. If I could scramble up Kitchener from Mueller hut then meet up with a mate in a few days time and be lucky enough to score some clear weather to climb Aspiring that would make 4 so far, 40 years later than my mates and brothers, but what matters that! It’s the here and now that counts.

Thanks to Bill Atkinson and Taichiro Naka (see interview “The Climber” Issue 98 Summer 2916/17) and Alpine Guides


References to check out

Win Hoff – Cold Water Survival

Mark Twight

Steve Hause – mountain athlete, uphill athlete



MyHike NZ maps


Accu weather

NZ met service – videos on shelters etc – med supplies

Map toaster NZ – articles on gear, clothing, attitudes, techniques


Commercial radio mountain weather forecasts – 4.00am and 4.00pm



“Amateurs train till they get it right. Professional train till they can’t get it wrong”


Avalanche risks

Recent snowfall

Strong wind(transport of snow)

Signs of recent avalanches

Cracks and whoomping

Rapid warming


Bill’s Euro Advice on High Altitude Climbing

  1. Drink 6 litres of water per day above base camp using 1 litre bottle, pee bottle at night
  2. Carry as little weight as possible
  3. Spend as little time as possible at high altitude
  4. Climb quickly up and down – solo easy terrain
  5. Have a plan that includes “timing marks”. If you don’t meet a mark descend immediately
  6. Eat big at Base Camp, noodles and soup above Base Camp
  7. Do bigger, higher, harder routes elsewhere as training to arrive already acclimatised to the target peak eg climb Cho Oyu for Everest in 24 hr attempt
  8. If partners acclimatise at different rates arrive at Base Camp at different times
  9. If you are dealt a poor hand (weather, snowpack, sickness, visibility) give up early
Peter’s New Zealand
100 + Great PeaksList from NZAC, friends, AGL guides (**) etc
2 Arrowsmiths
3 North Peak 2659m
4 Jagged 2720m
5 Arrowsmith 2795m ♦♦♦ East Ridge
6 Arthurs Pass Good access by foot, smaller mtns
7 Avalanche 1754m


8 Phipps Pk 1984m


9 Franklin 2088m
10 Rolleston 2271m


♦♦♦ Otira Face, High Peak Route, snow, ice, rock
  Temple 7-9 pitches of alpine rock
11 Murchison 2399m


Glacier routes
12 Aspiring Region
13 Dragonfly 2165m


14 Ionia 2249m
15 Stargazer 2341m


From Colin Todd Hut
16 Alba 2355m


From bivvy at Lake Crucible
17 Maori 2507m


From Cascade Saddle
18 Pollux 2542m


From Top Forks Hut long day, bivvy near base?
19 Aspiring 3027m


III 2+

♦♦♦ South West Ridge

North West Ridge (climbed with Tom Walker Feb 2017)

  Bevan, Rolling Pin, French
20 Branch River
21 Scotts Knob 2185m
22 Brewster Region
23 Brewster 2423m


♦♦ South West Face, 1 day walk in (3 day trip), 3 hrs to Brewster Hut. To Armstrong then along ridge or via Brewster Glacier
24 Barth 2431m


25 Darrans
26 Talbot 2110m ♦♦ Talbot – MacPherson Traverse
27 Sabre 2167m


♦♦♦ North Buttress

(climbed with Ian Brown – rock route from Phil’s Bivvy)

28 Christina 2502m
29 Tutoko 2746m ♦♦♦ South East Ridge
30 Fiordland
31 Mitre Peak 1692m
32 Irene 1879m
33 Pembroke 2000m
34 Flattop 2292m
35 Erye Mountains
36 Eyre Peak 1968m
37 Forbes Range
38 Clarke 2274m
39 Sir William 2612m
40 Earnslaw 2819m ♦♦♦ North West Ridge / West Peak – East Peak Traverse
41 Fox
42 Barnicoat 2821


43 Douglas 3087m


44 Torres 31603+
45 Lendenfeld 3200m


Nice, straightforward
46 Frans Josef Centenial Hut
47 Rudolf 2730m
48 Spencer 2796m
  Jervis 2
  Minarets 2+? ** 2km to base, 45 degree snow slope, 3 pitches
49 Godley
50 The Thumbs 2547m
51 Loughnan 2576m
52 Brodrick 2637m
53 Sibbald 2804m
54 D’Archiac 2865m ♦♦♦ East Ridge
55 La Perouse
56 Drake 2974m
57 Magellan 3065m
58 Vancouver 3309m
59 Hooker
60 Lean Peak 2364m
61 Unicon 2560m
62 La Perouse 3081m
63 Liebig Range
64 Tamaki 2444m
65 Nun’s Veil 2737m Gorilla Stream route – access over Tasman Lake by boat, ascend stream, bivvy and climb next day, large crevasses
66 Upper Tasman From Tasman Saddle/Kelman Hut
67 Hochstetter Dome 2823m


straightforward, 6 hrs, plus traverse of Mt Aylmer grade 1+ to 2-
68 Green 2838m


Route up south ridge looks stunning, climb from Tasman Saddle hut with bivvy on route so top section done at night and descent when still frozen. Beware avalanche risk after storm loading
69 Chudleigh 2954m


70 Minerets 3056m


standard route from Delabash Hut easy, from Centennial 2+
71 Haidinger 3068m


72 Elie de Beamont 3111m


check accessibility regarding crevasses later in the season
  Aylmer 3? South face – ice route 4 pitches (climbed as part of ABL TMC course Feb 2017)
73 Lower Tasman From Plateau Hut (fly in or long walk) – walking access – up to Ball Shelter onto Tasman, up creek to Boys Glacier then Cinerama Col across Grand Plateau – 10 hrs

From Pioneer Hut – fly in, can be full – choppers cheaper from from west coast

No radio weather

Shorter climbs on Pioneer Ridge routes

74 Pibrac 2516m


75 Anzac Peaks 2532m


76 Nazomi 2931m


77 Haast 3138m Staircase Route
78 Tasman (the climbers peak) 3498m ♦♦♦ Lendenfeld – Tasman – Torres Traverse

North shoulder from Marcel Col – big snow ridge (4-5 snow stakes)

79 Aoraki/Mt. Cook 3766m ♦♦♦




West Ridge and Grand Traverse


Zurbriggen Ridge

  Wakefield 2058m Scramble, panoramic views, up Guides Route and down SE spur, hiking route up SE spur
  Ball Pass Route From Mt Cook Village, over Pass to Ball Hut, 8-10hrs,then down to Blue Lakes.
  Dixon 2/3 *** East Ridge, 1 ½ km to route, 4 pitches then walking to summit
  Glacier Dome
  Mallory/Allack 1+/2- snow clad non technical peak on flanks of Mt Cook – 2-3 hrs
  Haidinger ** South Ridge
  Lendenfield *** Cross glacier, Marcel Col, 5 pitches
  Drake and Magellan ** Best alpine rock in Mt Cook
80 Malte Brun Range Not climbed very much due to tricky access due to high, unstable moraine wall
81 Hamilton 2997m


82 Malte Brun 3159m


♦♦♦ West Ridge variant

Long day, rockfall? bivvy?

Access from Bonney,Turnbull or Malte Brun glaciers – bivvy on Bonney Glacier, moraine wall can ? be climbed onto Darwin Glacier, Bonney might be cut off at steep part,

From Tasman Hut or Kelman

Good camping/bivvy snowgrass BX16 785743

FC – Fifes Couloir – steep snow gully or rock to right of FC

  Aiguilles Rouges 2950m


North Ridge
83 Mt. Cook
84 Sefton 3157m


♦♦♦ North Ridge

From Douglas Flat Hut, high bivvy, descent?

85 Hicks 3216m


♦♦♦ North Face, Central Buttress (rock route)
86 Mueller Walking access to Mueller Hut – large, 3 hrs walk
87 Annette 2442m


From Mt Cook Village or Mueller Hut

solo from village via Sebastapol?

  Kitchener 2042m


Hike and scramble – from Mt Cook Village or Mueller Hut (soloed Feb 2017)
88 Sealey 2639m


long way, short climb, 2 days from Mueller, bivvy
89 Burns 2740m


90 Footstool 2767m


From Sefton Bivvy, check access through crevasses, up snowfield, round corner to ridge
  Edgar Thompson Long day
91 Landsborough
92 Fettes 2454m
93 Dechen 2630m
94 Hooker 2652m ♦♦♦ Hooker Glacier Approach
95 Ohau
96 Rabitters Peak 2289m
97 Dasler Pinnacles 2303m ♦♦ North Ridge
98 Percy Smith 2469m
99 Williams 2538m
100 Ward 2644m
101 Hopkins 2682m
102 Seaward Kaikouras
103 Te ao Whekere 2595m
104 Manakau 2609m
105 Inland Kaikouras
106 Alarm 2877m
107 Tapuae o Uenuku 2885m ♦♦♦ Hodder Valley, South Ridge
108 Olivines
109 Somnus 2281m
110 Climax 2432m
111 Rakaia Headwaters
112 Malcolm Peak 2514m
113 Evans 2637m ♦♦♦ North East Ridge
114 Whitcombe 2644m ♦♦♦ North Ridge – Menace Gap Traverse
115 Rangitata Headwaters
116 Tyndall 2524m
117 Warrior 2591m
118 Remarkables
119 Double Cone 2340m
  Grand Traverse
120 Ruakumara
121 Hikurangi 1752m
122 Taranaki
123 Taranaki 2518m ♦♦♦ East Ridge
124 Tararuas
125 Hector 1529m
126 Tongariro
127 Ngauruhoe 2291m
128 Tahurangi/Mt. Ruapehu 2797m
129 Travers Range
130 Paske 2232m
131 Faerie Queene 2237m
132 Hopeless 2278m
133 Travers 2338m
134 Franklin 2340m

Mount Aspiring – Sublime Adventure


Mount Aspiring – Sublime Adventure

(Note – topo sketches included at end)

The rope connected us. Tied us together. Inseparable. I’d consider and agonise over its necessity many times in the next week. Ours was beefy, strong, purple. A crossover from the static and predictable world of rockclimbing, not well suited to the wild and dynamic higher mountain. Aspiring. The questioning would reach a crisis at the last throw of the dice.

Day 1

The plan was a good one, to walk in some of the way as the forecast weather cleared, which would give us a shorter day for the main approach to Colin Todd Hut up on the ice plateau. From the Hut we could climb the peak. Rain and storms had swept the South Island as we made last minute preparations and gathered more information.


Snow covered the peaks on the drive in to the road head. Creek crossings were a little flooded for the hired corrolla. We left Raspberry Flat at about midday with the showers seeming to retreat up the valley as we walked. The Matukituki River was swollen green with rain and glacial melt water. Through daisies fields and past cows and sheep the flat trail led us to Aspiring Hut where we rested and took stock of the weather. We pushed on relying on the forecast for an improve which it did for a time. Shovel flat, high hanging glaciers, Pearl Flat, wire bridges over streams, into magical mossed beech forest like Middle Earth. We forged ahead through wet scrub on a lesser trail getting saturated. Scott’s Bivvy Rock beckoned us. Alas even the fancy GPS phone navigation app could not help us locate it. We thrashed around looking. Totally buggered. Showers returned. 7.30 pm. In a tussocky clearing we sheltered from the wind behind a clump of bushes and laid out bivvy bags. “I need food”, Tom.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe stood around miserable, ate dinner in the rain. I struggled into my goretex bag and wrestled into sleeping bag and dry thermals. Then through the long night I fretted between searching for down soddening drips and leaks and asphyxiating due to lack of oxygen. Showers persisted through the night. Miraculously I stayed dry and warm and alive and welcomed the relief of morning. More sprinkling rain brought a sleep in.




Day 2

The forecast good day did clear a little so between showers we packed up. EVERYONE had advised us not to go up the Bevan Col route in wet conditions so we headed off on a retreat towards the alternative French Ridge Hut which would give us shelter and a chance to dry out, but use up a valuable extra day.


Walking down beside the stream within 100 meters of our Bivvy spot we noticed some of the river rocks were drying out. Maybe the notoriously treacherous steep slabby rock would be dry enough to be feasible. So we decided to change the plan and try for the Bevan Col route. 100 meters up the valley we discovered the palatial, dry (compared to a rainy night in a bag) Scott’s Bivvy rock We could have spent a fun, comfy, dry night holed up in the small shelter under the rock and looked out at the passing showers. We lost the track then and struggled and fought through tangled, wet boulder scrub with the really heavy packs (RHPs) for way too long. The food, fuel, warm clothes, too thick rope, rockclimbing gear, my antique heavyweight ice axes etc etc weighed too much. I thought a lot about Sherpas, porters and people of the past with their heavy loads carried into the mountains as I struggled. I thought about how much work and punishment a body, my body, Tom’s body could take before breaking down.

At the “Head of the Valley” we met up with a Canadian couple who had camped for two days waiting for the weather to clear. They somehow exuded mountain competence and experience. Up past the first waterfall all the rock was wet, and steep! The other two started up a low route on a rising traverse of narrow ledges as Tom and I roped up and pitch climbed a section up to and past a bolt, more vertically and closer to the edge of an abyss on the right. The Canadians joined our route and within sight of each other (this leant a significant air of confidence and commeraderie) we decided the rope was unnecessary as there were no real anchors (we didn’t see any more of the abseil route bolts that must have been hidden from us) and the terrain seemed ok. Just! Tussocks and small plants were good to pull up on, the boots edged on small holds and grooves enabled us to balance our loads and teeter upwards as the drop below beckoned with greater height. One section had tricky moves on a ramp overhanging the abyss. Scared. Tenuous. I’d seen a video of a group having an epic descent in heavy rain. They had given up, camped on a small ledge then finally reached the ground next day terrified and drenched. Eventually we made the flat ridge at the top. Flat. Safe. We navigated together then in mist, sharing our info and topo sketches and trying to make sense of the complex terrain. Down a little then up right along a system of slabs which were covered in snow and wet, balancing delicate moves with the RHPs.

The slabs dropped off to the valley floor. After crossing a stream gully we slogged up a steep snow gully, sharing the step making effort. Above a buttress we climbed onto a snow arête and saw the Col only a little higher and further over.


In a small clearing in the clouds the white summit cap of Aspiring mystically appeared, lit up by the late afternoon sun. As if rewarding us for our effort and risk, and beckoning us on. A moment of clarity and beauty. Our first view of Tititea.

It had taken 6 hours to toil up the 950 meters to the Col. Having roped up we crossed our first crevasse within meters of starting down a snow ramp and then onto the Bonner Glacier.  It seemed to take forever, slowly plodding across the snow and ice. I focussed my mind on looking out for crevasses and tried ridiculously to step lightly. Following the Canadian’s steps was reassuring but no guarantee. At every step I tried to sense the tension in the rope behind leading to Tom, to be ready to instantly throw myself down and dig my boots into the snow so I could hold his fall through into a hidden canyon of ice. This was our first glacier crossing since our mountaineering course. On our own. At the end of a very long day. Stay switched on. Don’t relax. And hope Tom, at the other end of the rope, was doing the same and was ready if I suddenly holed through to thin air underfoot, that he’d hold me dangling by that thread over the icy void.  With RHPs. A final killer 100 meter ascent from the glacier slip sliding up a narrow gully took forever before we reached the rocky domes around the hut. 7.30 pm. Totally spent – physically and mentally.


The weather cleared. Aspiring/Tititea is a stunningly beautiful mountain. Any ascent from the valley floor is a huge challenge, nothing is gained easily and the fickle weather dictates the terms. Friends have spent weeks hutted and camped nearby only to return home without having stepped on the mountain. We were trying to make the most of the first period of forecast clear weather for the whole summer season (mid Feb) so far. Boots off. Food. Tea. Dinner. Comfort. Shelter. Relief. Rest. Amazingly at 8.30 pm two fellows arrived who had walked in in one 12 hour push – epic!

The Plan – 3 days good weather was forecast – clear, light winds. So far in New Zealand we had only had the occasional good days in amongst atrocious conditions – rain hammering, winds belting. We shared valuable info on possible ways of doing the North West Ridge with the two other pairs. They were on tighter time schedules and aimed to climb the following day. We would trust the weather and have a day to rest and explore to sort out which way we would take, and to familiarise.

To sleep, to sleep, dry and long. My heart seemed still to be thumping as I lay in the moonlit hut – altitude (surely not), dehydration, exertion?

Day 3

The “one day walk inners” left at 4.00am and the Canadians, who turned out to be a mountaineering instructor and an Antarctic remote camp supervisor, departed with more confidence at 7.00am. Later on we followed their tracks up the ISO Glacier and then went on to climb on a nearby smaller peak, the Rolling Pin.


We returned via the Shipowner Ridge to the hut. Throughout the day Aspiring stood clear and majestic from every vantage point, intimidating, tantalising and always beckoning. Much later than expected we spied both groups near the summit in perfect weather – around 2.30pm. Later still we saw nothing of them. 2 guides arrived with clients who had walked across from the helicopter landing about 2 km away. Then another 2 couples arrived from French Ridge Hut having made it through the Quarterdeck Pass which was normally cut off so late in the summer. Throughout the afternoon I checked on the climbing pairs, seeing nothing, with a growing sense of concern for their safety.

From all our sources of info there seemed to be four main ways to climb the North West Ridge.

  1. The “full” NWR – very long and time consuming on the lower third. And we had already done the  Shipowner Ridge section.
  2. Via the ISO and Therma Glaciers – a quicker way past Shipowner but still slow below the “slab”.
  3. Via the Ramp – a steep snow slope overlaying slabs that bypasses all the rock on the ridge – deemed too dangerous due to avalanche risk so late in the season.
  4. Via the Kangaroo Patch which is a snow slope leading up to the “slab” at 1/3 height.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Late in the day the guides and their clients did a reconnaissance up the Kangaroo Patch, and in the process set a nice set of steps in the steep snow. Based on our own analysis this was also our preferred route. I worried some more about the two climbing parties who were spending so much time on the climb and I considered how remote and isolated they were should anything go wrong.

Tom and I carefully prepared for the next day – lunch, gear, rope coiled and set out, bags packed, clothes laid out, boots and crampons readied. It was reassuring to have time to do all this methodically – for our first big mountain. Just like in our training course we had everything ready for “summit day”. We just hoped the weather gamble would still pay off.

Eventually one party returned at 8.00 pm. They’d had an epic 16 hour day including having to reverse 4 pitches trying unsuccessfully to do a rising traverse on snow across the slopes above the Therma Glacier. The other party returned at 8.30 – 13 1/2 hours. Tom and we’re both thinking that if these parties had taken so long we would be in for a very long day. It was difficult to get to sleep with the buzz in the overfill hut, and to stay asleep later. Keyed up. I drank water through the night top prehydrate.

Day 4

I awoke before the alarm at 2.50 am, lit the stove and woke Tom. Within 15 minutes there were 5 climbing pairs bustling about. Muesli, 2 cups of tea and another drink of water.

Harness on, crampons, backpack, axe, rope. First out the door. A slowly moving set of tiny headlamps followed up the crunchy set of steps under moonlight and a canopy of stars. At 6.00 we reached the slab. At its left edge we climbed a short easy pitch up the ridge as the other parties got going, and then traversed round left onto the open face. The sky lightened a little. Fears of a bottleneck on the rock dissipated as parties climbed around each other on the fairly straightforward rock. Friendly and unhurried, waiting, moving aside, cheery chat. We made up a commeraderie of climbers from Australia, New Zealand, France, Peru and Italy. It was like a day out on a popular crag – on the “Matterhorn of the Southern Alps”, surrounded by now pink tinged snowy peaks and plunging dark valleys and glaciers and snow all around and below. 3 pitches of roped rock climbing on the left hand face (looking up) brought us back onto the ridge proper. I felt at home on the rock – on familiar ground. We were going well. Tom and I moved efficiently together. The practice climbing we’d done was paying off. I laughed and chattered and waved to the other groups nearby.

For a time we simulclimbed the rocky ridge with 20m of rope between us threaded round blocks and through gaps in the rock. On both sides verticality plummeted away to steep snow and ice below the cliffs. The sun goldened the surrounding peaks and ranges. The two guided parties dropped behind and one pair went in front.


At 8.30 am we reached the “notch”, a low gap between the rocky lower ridge and the snow and ice of the summit section. Morning tea, stash the rock gear and some water for the descent. We removed the rope as the snow looked straightforward and consistent. Without anchors and belays, which would have taken too much time, any slip or mistake by one of us would mean the end for both if we had remained roped together. I remembered a line from my course, “If you’re not attached to the mountain the rope is a danger to you both”. Crampons back on we made our way up.


Stepped up slowly through the snowfields. As the angle steepened I zigzagged a slow and careful ascent. The ground and snow continued to be fine for well placed steps, driving the side points into the surface for maximum grip. Over near the right edge Where cliffs dropped away I  was able to spy another group on the near vertical ice couloir section of the South West Ridge.

Higher up my mind played tricks with the numbers I had written down as staging points. Tom’s altimeter had us at 2870m which I calculated at about 500m still to go but I could hear whoops and see helmeted heads peering over at us from not very far above. The summit ice steepened but it was still ok for us to safely solo so we made our way up subtle slightly lower angled ramps and then out left a little. And then there it was. 10 m away. The others were taking photos of us as we made the final few steps. I was overcome.


I had to hug and shake hands with everyone. Reaching a dream that had percolated for forty years happens only rarely. Time and health and loved ones and the world has to come together in a special combination in that one place at that one moment. The world is indeed a wonderful place. Peaks and lakes and glaciers and valleys and ice and snow and rock blazed with light everywhere. In certain moments time and life is concentrated in sublime adventure.


10.30 am. We photoed and laughed and lunched in perfect windless calm on Tititea’s mountain top. The south west ridge pair appeared to join the merry throng. In a quiet moment Tom and I shook hands in a gesture of thanks to one another for sharing the climb and for making it possible for each other.

Down – switch on again. The ascent is only half the climb. We stepped down the icy sastrugi, slow, measured steps, taking lines that gave the greatest chance of a self arrest should we make a mistake. Minds off the view, eyes locked on feet. Concentrating hard not to tanglefoot or catch a crampon strap. Back at the notch I collected the rock gear. Six of us scrambled back along the narrow rocky ridge together. Awkward moves over the left or right faces or along the actual crest. Up and down. The axes came out for a steep short icy section and the rope for a snow slope protected with an old piton.


At the base of the steep buttress now 8 of us shared ropes and chatted as we abseiled 4 rapells in happy company together. Then all safely back at the slab we descended at our own pace in pairs roped together against the hidden crevasses in the softer afternoon snow.

Back to the hut. 3.30pm. I was tired but not buggered. The climb had been splendid. Easier and less nerve wracking than anything on the Bevan Col route, which was true to popular legend. All our skills had been brought out, but we had not been pushed out of our comfort zones. Bit by bit, section by section, it had all been OK.

Tea. Boots off. Rest in the warm sun. Inner glow. Food.

A tepid bath in a secluded pond in the rocky knolls nearby – heated by the sun, clean and washed, then lie on the warm stone, naked before the stupendous landscape and the sun. Best bath ever.

The guided parties arrived over dinner. Our thoughts turned to the next stage – getting down to the valley. The Bevan Col route filled us with dread even on dry rock so we opted for French Ridge via the Quarterdeck – in spite of the crevasse stories.

Day 5


Another up at 4.30am and depart at 5.30 morning. We hoped for firm snow in the cold morning. We plodded back across the Bonner then did a slow climb to the higher part of the glacier between ice falls. The blue ice rose like a silent, slow moving wave in front of us.


The sun touched the South West face of Aspiring.


We trudged upwards, the packs a little lighter. A long uphill in the sun and glare took us to the snowy pass of the Quarterdeck which led down to French Ridge and the safety of hiking trails. It’s never over till that lady sings and I couldn’t hear any notes in the breeze. We had also left early to go through the Quarterdeck icefall before the sun softened everything up. So a quick stuff of the face with food and we were off. It was firm and hard still. A little scarey. Down steeply, then across a huge crevasse at the edge of the cliff above Gloomy Gorge, down some more, over (just!) a crevasse with a large foot hole, down, gingerly across then onto a steep section of ice. We front pointed sideways on frozen toe holes from previous climbers. Committed, we continued across then diagonally down.  The ice axe pick dug in deep with each step.  A massive yawning crevasse waited 30 meters of steep ice below. This was much harder than anything on the climb, the course or even Bevan Col. Trust your buddy. Front point down, some more, careful. I could see the bottom. Concentrate. Tom’s crampon came loose. I dug a little stance for myself and tried to ram my axe handle into the ice for an anchor, unsuccessfully. Tom stayed in control, balanced with his pack on, ice axe dug in, and carefully reattached it. Trust. Don’t fall now. Ice screws were in the bottom of the pack, unavailable. The rescue knife that could have cut us free from one another lay forgotten at the back of my harness. We didn’t both have to go. Then down a step at a time. Eventually onto softer then less steeply angled snow and finally to the bottom. Release. Relief. A close call, just in control, there’s a very fine edge between safety and danger sometimes.

Lunch on a sunny rock. A pair of tar scampered over the snow. Valleys. Mountains. Down snow then scree and rock and into alpine grassland. French Ridge Hut. Tea. Views. Keas. Muesli leftovers for a second lunch. Waterfalls tumbled from hanging glaciers everywhere into the valleys. Their constant murmur, a low hum, sounded like it could be the lady’s song at last.

Day 6

Down, down, down. In the dark (it’s a habit now) to reduce the risk of getting stuck in the carpark due to flooded streams from the forecast afternoon rain. Down from the bright red hut. The descent track hugged the edge of the drop into Gorge. Tangled roots provided hand and foot holds. Into the beech forest at last. Careful not to twist a knee or ankle. The stream at the bottom, 900 m below the hut, tumbled and churned glacial green and silver over boulders beside mossed trees. Rest, eat, recuperate.


Along the valley floor the track wound back in and out of the forest and daisy fields. At regular rest stops we looked back and far above to the mountain top visible above the ice of the Breakaway. High, aloof, imposing, now with a wind blown cloud plume in the deteriorating weather.


We passed by a variety of people, hikers from across the world, the DOC hut warden off to catch and band robins. And at Aspiring Hut a pair of seasoned climbers, “Aspiring is probably the finest mountain in New Zealand”.


And a group of exuberant young adults who had mountain biked into the clearing to lunch and rest. A similar age to the students I had worked with for many years I struck up a conversation with a bubbly guy and girl at the table where I was tying up my pack. I learned that they were a group from Mount Aspiring College out on an outdoor trip for the day. “I want to climb Mount Aspiring in 2019. It’s my aim”, the shining young man told us with a determined and hopeful grin while pointing up the valley from where we’ve come. “Good luck and good on you”, I responded and thought ‘may the force be with you and may the lady of the waterfalls sing your safe and exuberant return from the journey’. In this brief interchange I sensed a strong connection through a wrinkle in time, a reflection of my self across the decades and across the wooden bench. A circularity, a sense of completion and renewal. The call and wonder of the mountains.



Tom – for being on the other end of the rope, for trusting and for sharing every aspect of the journey

Tai – from AGL for all the info so generously shared about the climb and access

NZAC – for providing the forum for Tom and I to connect up

AGL – for the terrific Technical Mountaineering Course which gave us the skills and knowledge and confidence to take it all on (Bill and Tai)

Adventure Consultants and Aspiring Guides in Wanaka for providing even more bits of information


Message from daughter on the day we left – “Sorry I missed your call. I was at an African dance class. Hope your adventures are sublime.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA


Abridged article in NZAC Australia Section magazine Sept 2017