Tag Archives: Mountaineering New Zealand

Tasman Distress

Tasman Distress

This article was published in the New Zealand Alpine Journal 2018

Hiking up the lower Tasman

Our mountain is hidden behind closer, lower peaks of the range. On the left is the Tasman Glacier, the great hulk of Mount Wakefield, then further left in the view is the Hooker Valley and the Peaks of Footstool and Sefton and high hanging glaciers. Through the large picture window of the NZAC’s homely Unwin Lodge to the right is another rage of giant hills. Hidden as well is Mt Cook, whose presence is felt everywhere.

 Malte Brun. Copious research. Maps. Training runs. Guidebook. Internet. Training hikes up hills with a weighted backpack. YouTube videos, blog sites. Lightweight gear purchases piled up at home. Aesthetic and solid red rock perched high on top of the range across the valley from Cook. An expedition certainly. From the ground up. Just hard yakka that might lead us to the prized summit. Charlie and I were to go lightweight.

 A weather window of 5 reasonable days. First steps on the dirt road to Ball shelter the pack felt heavy. I adjusted the waist strap and the chest strap and the shoulder straps for the first of a hundred times. Boots felt clunky and heavy and hot. Not certain whether the car was locked Charlie walked back to check. Everything was hot. Blue sky. Hard work. Rest. Drink. Sunscreen. Trudge. I questioned whether we needed all the stuff loaded up. Charlie’s pack looked too big. Mine just felt heavy. Hot. We took a wrong track into steep moraine then backtracked and struggled steeply uphill to a higher level. Tripped over and landed a bruised cheek. 3 hours to the shelter, 9 km. Water, shade, lunch. The first beginnings of blisters. Should we have called it early and bailed out? Together we decided to push on.

 We needed to descend 100 m down the steep moraine wall. Looking out it was entirely evident that we had embarked on a big adventure, a Big Adventure! Everywhere were off vertical cliffs of dirt and stones. This is an active geological country and erosively alive. Global warming had awakened a monster. Along the length of the wall everything was falling down. Glacial retreat has been up valley and the level of ice had gone down vertically as well. Tall cones of loose stones, dirt and boulders towered in triangles up from the base, at the ready to slide or accept a top up from above. The top edge was scalloped with collapsed sections that appeared as bites out of the earth. Our first challenge was to locate the safest recommended route down to the floor of the glacier.

 Careful perusal of the copied out text from the new guidebook kept at the Lodge. We located the recommended bite and rocky line down. Steep. Loose stones. Gravel slid ahead. Step on the rocks that seemed to be more firmly bedded into the dirt. Down. Steep. Don’t slide out. Zig zag a little. Link up through a bouldery, more stable section. To an intermediate shelf then along a remaining morsel of the old foot trail that was yet to tumble into the gulf below. On this level we gazed out with growing dread at the 5 km of rocky moraine floor that stretched seemingly forever before meeting the white ice way off up valley. It was a moonscape out there, hilled and valleyed. It conjured a scene from the approach to Mordor at the ends of the living earth guarding the fires of Mt Doom. We spied out a route through the first part with a series of go-to points – a dirty white ice cliff, a heart shaped rock then a large shadowed boulder. Down the second section. More dirt and less rocks here. Finally safely to the base.

The first steps would be just like the last across the fierce moraine. Boulders and rocks of all sizes lay in a mess of small hills and valleys interspersed with occasional steep, slippery stone covered ice slopes. Gruelling work. Many of the rocks wobbled or tipped when weighted. Our walking poles skittered and held weight in varied, random degrees. Hot. Sweat. We sat together in the vile, lifeless wilderness on the odd hot flat perch. Drink. Battle through another section. Pick an objective 50 m away and work slowly towards it. Don’t focus on the whole mountain just break it down into small achievable sections. Grinding heat. Still. Progress was very slow. Painfully slow. Literally. For hours under a baking sun. A heat wave. Dry. Parched. Hot rocks above the ice hidden far below the surface. We rationed our water. Precious sips. Sweaty sunscreen. Across the ferocious desert. After several hours of torture every ridge beckoned ahead to be the last only to disappoint like another false summit. Thinking of Frodo struggling with the weight of Middle Earth on his ring into Mordor we pushed on with packs way too heavy. Hot. Dry. Almost out of water we stopped above a large depression. The loads on our backs removed, ice slopes led us down to flowing water. Blessed relief for our thirst, iced water, relief from the heat under an overhang of hard blue ice and, most wonderfully, a large cave of ice caverned and tunnelled away, carved in sinuous flowing runnels of deep blue cold ice, which could have been inside the glacier for millenia. Like veins in the living ice. Now melting before our eyes. We were seeing into its heart, into its within, face to face with the meeting of heat and ice – it shouldn’t have been like this. Out of the brief respite we trudged on with aching feet. A small mountain of rocks promised a finish in the distance only to again deceive. Hot. Finally a narrow ridge provided a key line between crevasses in the transition zone between the bare rock plain and the retreating white ice of the glacier. 5 1/2 hours of torrid torture. This is what it had come to now. Apparently only decades ago the same journey could have been done in quick time across wide tongues of exposed ice through the rocks – relatively easy hiking. A steady stream of helicopters now carried tourists and other climbers unwilling to undergo the effort of the crossing. It is no subtle irony that the same helicopters contribute to the climate problem. We had elected to pay our dues and learn the terrain as it is now.

At last the ice highway

Walking on the smooth ice was highway like. At times we wove a path along raised lines between furrows and hollows. Small streams of melt water drained the surface and joined to form larger flows that disappeared into holes small and large. Some were filled with water and others were rushing waterfalls. We could feel it melting around us. Intense bright light. Everywhere a drink. A little further for the day.

A flat spot in amongst some boulders on the ice in the middle of the glacier made for an “expedition” style camp. A tent area was levelled with ice axes, a big table rock the kitchen bench. Right beside the tent was a small moulin which was round and a perfect size for billy dipping to collect water. Like a narrow mine shaft it disappeared into the mysterious depths of the ice. Mount Cook and the Minarets towered above. Small avalanches from perched glaciers way above broke the stillness with waterfalls a constant background. Cool katabatic breezes and strange wafts of warm air alternated from up valley. The light slowly dimmed and the full moon rose. We cooked and ate then lay down in warm bliss cocooned in down. In the darkest hours of the night doubts drifted through a period of half sleep – we were cut off by the desperate moraine from a straightforward escape, was it all too hard, were we carrying too heavy loads, would our (mine anyway) oldening body cope, had we bitten off more than we could chew, should we call it in the morning before we got ourselves even deeper in???? Some moisture seeped through the tent floor in the night and wetted part of Charlie’s sleeping bag.

Early morning clear. The weather conditions were even better than predicted from my hundred pre-trip checks. We had a window of maybe 3 1/2 more good days. All being equal this should be enough. It was why we had reorganised the trip so we could be just where we were. Muesli, tea. Charlie seemed keen to go.

Up the ice. Smooth and hard and slippery from overnight cool. Crampons. Along the floor of the valley our way was shaded and cool until the sun crested the mountains to the east. A valley opened way above the moraine wall which revealed our objective silhouetted in early morning light, still 2000m above. We made a good pace, slowed only at a bend or where the angle increased causing the ice flow to shear and crack into crevasses and compress into hillocks. Zig zag. More surface streams and creeks flowed into holes in the ice almost beckoning us to slip and slide in. The whole range felt alive with erosion and flow and occasional falls of rock and ice. Sound, movement of the breeze. Tasman seemed to have a living presence, cold and hard and aloof, strong but fragile, watching, sensing our passing maybe. Holding us to account.

Helicopters started early ferrying the tourists up from the village to walk and explore the ice, and climbers, unwilling to effort themselves, to huts and mountains that in times past had only been accessed on foot up this massive river of ice and rock. Below the Beetham valley a stream rushed steeply downslope besided by more steep moraine walls of dirt and stones. In those past times a safe route up the more stable slopes had enabled access to a high hut which was used as a base to climb the mountain or access another hut near the now disappearing Malte Brun Glacier. Now further up past the outlet stream of the Malte Brun and Turnbull Glaciers was our recommended route. From out on the ice all the possible options looked desperate, the sort of things I sometimes had nightmares about – cliffs of dirt and stone that would crumble down faster than you could climb up. Perception was foreshortened and when we actually made our way to beneath the most likely looking bouldery stream line disappearing skywards its angle was slightly less than the critical steepness between definitely unclimbable and possible. Sometimes it’s hard to judge something until you actually step onto it and engage with the parameters. Our key line up consisted of larger rocks piled together between the finer and smaller steeper walls. The rocks were mostly settled on each other in reasonable solidity enabling upward progress. Occasionally one would dislodge and tumble down a few meters to come to rest again. Many had to be gingerly weighted. Helmets on. It felt good to be scrambling, without poles in hand. The responsibility of the person higher up was to be extremely careful not to send rocks that could take out the person below, and that of the person below was to try to climb to the side of the fall line of stones from above, and to trust. In an unspoken pact of connection with one another we slowly ascended. At the first steepening the boulder line changed to dirt and loose stones. We angled across and up to another line of larger rocks. 100m. Slow. False lines led into other steepenings. 200m. Rest. Apart. Easier more secure sections then others less so. Hot. Hard work. Exhausting. Another drink. Rest again. A false top. Eventually a saddle came into view over to the right. It took an age to reach. 300m.

A little higher again we crested a ridge into the most sublime scene. A snow covered remnant of the lower Turnbull Glacier nestled under an unnamed peak of vertical red rock. A large section of ice had broken from this and floated in a small magically blue lake. The higher glacier fed a stream that rushed and tumbled noisily over large blocks of stone into the lake. Another stream flowed out of the lake and down onto lower slopes. On the higher white slopes of snow a party of two tiny climbers inched slowly upwards, 3 hours ahead of us. Other red peaks towered around the cirque and the buttresses of the summit block of Malte stood above these.

We pressed onwards in the mid-afternoon towards the upper glacier. A little higher we sat exhausted, filling water bottles. We still had two separate glacier sections, a rock step and 600m more of elevation between us and our intended bivvy spot. We weren’t going to make it in time. We had either been too slow or hadn’t allocated enough time for the approach. Our anticipated weather window didn’t have any leeway in it to allow for contingencies like this. Take any more time and we would expose ourselves to a possible huge lashing storm in a tent for several days. We had both experienced such storms in the huts nearby and vowed never to be caught out in the 100+mph winds and seeming oceans of rain and snow that fall from the sky. Together in a matter of a few minutes we called it in, made the decision and decided not to push on. Rested for a little. The year of planning and prep and training would come to nought. The dreamed of summit would not be ours to savour. Elusive. Disappointment.

Down. Descent back beside the narrow torrent to the lake shore. A single flat tent site right beside the lake. Packs off. Sat. Rested. Ate. Drank. Removed the big boots that encased tired, aching feet and a couple of blisters. Hot late afternoon sun. Snooze. Put the stove on for a brew. The tent up. Like a man cleansing his soul Charlie immersed himself completely in the ice water three times. I walked around the lake shore to the snow slope. The ice flow was close to the edge, the tent in the distance on the gravel beach, the peaks up on the left, the Tasman valley off the edge below right, and Mount Cook sitting steadfast across the void. For decades I’ve had these sorts of images in my mind’s eye and carried them close to my heart. Exhaustion melted away slowly as the beautiful reality of where we were slowly seeped in. Coffee, dinner, photos. The sun set with light blazing rays through Cook. The moon rose close to the lakeside peak. The now deeper blue of the lake reflected moon and tent light. To think of this as a consolation prize would have been a gross ingratitude. Sometimes in the natural world events conspire to deliver treasures unexpected. Like any true adventures the outcomes are often unknown. It wasn’t till later that we would consider more deeply the value of our decision making involved in turning round. Too tired to resist the call of the horizontal we were unaware of the glittering river of stars that blanketed and kept watch over our high mountain camp through the night.

Early morning, early start, a long day ahead, make the most of the cool shade. A last wistful look back at the lake. our high point and the beckoning Bonney Rib. Sometimes big undertakings take several attempts. Each experience leads to learnings that eventually build towards success. Motivation can deepen over time. Familiarity brings appreciation of the critical aspects – the effort involved, the most appropriate equipment, the lie of the land, the stages of the approach and exit, the team’s capability, the amount of time that is required and a host of other things.

Slowly, carefully we began our return down the boulder and scree line. The larger rocks felt more secure. Scrambling, down climbing. The finer stones and gravel slid out, each footstep became a dynamic movement so much easier than on the ascent. Heavy packs took muscle and balance to finesse through the more hostile steeps. Stop. Drink. Rest. We worked together with one above and below, a few smaller rocks and runs of scree tumbled down, safely. Eventually I reached the base, dumped my pack and rested. Looking up I noticed Charlie take an awkward tumble sideways. He took a long time to recover himself, straighten his load, angle legs downhill, stand and get moving again. Gingerly he continued down to rest at the glacier ice edge. I had to help him remove his pack from his right shoulder. In his fall his pack had forced his shoulder forward sharply into a rock. A torn rotator cuff was well known to him, having recovered completely from one many years prior. He was pretty sore and sure that this was another. A long rest, took stock, ate, rehydrated with cool glacial meltwater. We considered our options – using the sat phone to call in a rescue chopper, walking down the glacier to try to pick up a return chopper from the regular glacier hike tourist trips, or continue to hike out. He made the call to continue and see how it developed. We had 1 1/2 days before the forecast foul weather would envelop us.

In surprising good spirits Charlie pushed slowly down the ice. At the reduced pace and with more rest breaks than on the journey in we had time to savour more of the sculpted moulins, melt holes, stream runnels and waterfalls in the surface of the glacier.

Moulin

We rethreaded our way through the maze of mini ridges and mostly shallow crevasses. We inched our way past huge waterfall outlets to high glaciers. As his internal conditions became harder and we slowed more we started counting off talus piles at the base of mountains beside the valley to gauge our progress. Each became a mini objective to attain in the overall task. Choppers dispensed tourists nearby at the bottom of the ice. Still Charlie was firm about making his way out under his own steam. His blisters were becoming an issue as well by this stage. We drank deep and filled water bottles over lunch.

Midday. The moraine had taken us 5 1/2 hours on the way in. 1/2 an hour to climb up the moraine wall to the hut – I guessed we’d reach Ball Shelter and the safety of a straightforward hiking trail by 7pm, Charlie guessed 6.30. We made good time back through the big parallel crevasses and then stayed left following slightly easier terrain with smaller stones the average rather than the larger, more difficult balanced rocks. We almost walked at a normal pace for several short sections. Then it was back to Mordor, endless piles, up and down. Rest. Drink. Long ridges that ended in depressions, sidled along crumbling slopes, tottered from boulder to boulder, knees and feet. Heat. We sat on flat rocks together in what seemed like a lava field. The rocks had absorbed the sun and radiated heat. Hot. Dry. We later learned that in the heatwave week of 30+ degrees C days this day had been the hottest ever day recorded in nearby Queenstown (35.2 C). The valley side walled by the moraine and mountains each side created a huge oven for us to cook ourselves in. 4.30pm the hottest part of the day. I picked out an objective, a particular rock about 50m ahead, to aim for.

Charlie “Tough Guy” Freer

Then again, rest. And again through the afternoon. From the start we could see our shangri la, our objective, the grassy flat where the difficulties ended, in the distance. Charlie was struggling, pain levels at 7 – 8 out of 10, serious painkillers. Resting on a baking rock he reminded me of the story of Joe Simpson’s survival crawl, dragging his smashed leg across terrain like this in Peru. Later each ridge falsely promised to be the last before the valley side. Finally the sun went down below the mountains and we were bathed in cool. The oven door had opened. At 7.30 pm we struggled to the end of the valley floor section.

I offered to do two laps of the climb up through the moraine wall to carry mine and Charlie’s packs to the top. Charlie “Joe Simpson” Freer declined. Tired legs and sore feet. We slowly inched upward on balanced rocks and sliding gravel to the half way shelf. Then again to the top. Flat, grassy ground never seemed so sweet. 8.30 pm. Completely spent. We collapsed onto soft grass. Boots were cast off to release swollen feet. Charlie removed his socks and strapping tape. Ugly raw skinless flesh on the inside of his heels. His feat of endurance and self possession gained legendary status. Eventually we resurfaced, tented, cooked and recouperated enough to appreciate the stunning scenery from our balcony position.

Step by painful step Charlie walked out down the rocky track which became a gravel road. Sometimes we walked together and at others alone in our own worlds. Lots of rests. Relief and a hug at the Carpark. Thoughts turned to next year. Could we justify the chopper ride in and out because it is much harder now? Or is it just a different mountain now? One that maybe we are just not fast, strong or fit enough to climb unassisted?

Next day as we returned from the doctor the weather window slammed firmly shut. Wind blasted straight down the Tasman Valley. Cloud whipped across Cook and the other mountain tops. The bottom of the glacier was a maelstrom of dust and flying gravel. It felt apocalyptic. Like the mountains in a vengeful rage were showing us the end of the world.

Overnight the cyclonic storm front (Fehe) delivered massive rains across the whole country. Damage was extensive on the west coast. Many roads were cut off. A large number of vehicles were stranded overnight by flooding rivers and needed to be helicopter rescued the following day. Blizzards dumped snow higher up. A church was knocked flat by the wind.

Mount Aspiring – Sublime Adventure

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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The sun touched the South West face of Aspiring.

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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.

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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.

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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”.

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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.

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THANKS

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

NOTE

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

 

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Abridged article in NZAC Australia Section magazine Sept 2017