"One of the classic climbs in the Alps,” says Allan Uren in the Mt Aspiring Guidebook, talking about the South West Ridge of Mt Aspiring. It has been on my ‘top-priority list’ of climbs for an embarrassingly long time, one supposedly to do at the first available opportunity. I don’t know why 5 years has gone by since I last went up Mt Aspiring, but it might be that we have so much good climbing in New Zealand and every time a high pressure system comes along, there is too much to choose from.
I rang Gemma Wilson to talk her into climbing the North Buttress of Sabre (also on the ‘list’) with a few days of mint weather forecast right after Christmas. A few minutes went by until I detected a hint of hesitation in her voice.
“Wait, what did you have in mind, Gemma?”
“South West Ridge of Aspiring?”
“Hmmm… [0.01 seconds passes by] Hell yeah!”
This was followed by a dumb conversation about where we could borrow mountain bikes to cycle up the West Matukituki. Dumb because eventually I twigged that Gemma drives a Surf. I rang the Aspinalls and got the key to the gate. Diesel trumps pushbike, and two days later we were hooning up Wilson’s Bluff, in perfect weather, with Neil Young cranking on the stereo. Ah, the Matukituki – it was good to be back.
We left the car at the gate near Cascade Hut and set off on an uneventful but desperately hot grunt up to French Ridge Hut. We downed about 4 L of water each, cooked tea, watched the kea swim in the tarn and went to bed at the civilised hour of 8pm.
At the uncivilised hour of 2am the alarm went off, and by 2.45 we were off beyond the hut, torches almost pointless with a perfect full moon to light the way. The climb to the Quarterdeck was fast, on good snow with not too many crevasse issues, and I got to repeat my usual thing of excessively hyping up the view from the Quarterdeck and how awesome it is. Gemma popped over the top first and agreed entirely – it is such a great place!
A couple more hours plod later and we were at the foot of the West Face, from where we intended to climb a short snow lead and sidle a rocky ledge to reach the South West Ridge at a point above a series of small rock bluffs. Before heading up we needed to get out of the wind, which had been blowing a stiff breeze all morning, and got a brew going under the bothy bag. Half a litre of hot Raro and a Gu later and we both felt a million bucks.
We charged up the ridge with great enthusiasm, despite each advancing step revealing poorer prospects for the conditions in the crux couloir at the top of the ridge. The snow was becoming firmer and the final 300m vertical to the couloir was bulletproof, dinner-plating ice of a type I’ve never really encountered on such a low angled (40-45 degrees) snowslope. By the time we got to the couloir our calves were shot and it was clear that the rope was coming out for the crux pitch. A belay anchor of bomber wires was the only redeeming feature of a fairly messy pitch which Gemma led with confidence. The choice was between a 5m vertical unprotected smear of aerated ice, or, to the left, a tricky little mantle off a steep piece of ice onto a verglassed slab. The latter option was the go, and after one really quite committing move, Gemma was up and into easier slab and ice terrain above.
We kept the rope on, doing a couple of easy pitches and some simulclimbing up the 40-50 degree slopes to the NW ridge. I’ve never pitched such low angle terrain before, but the ice above the crux was bullet hard on top and suspiciously hollow underneath – probably the whole lot will detach with some decent sun. The few ice screws and rock gear we carried (we had 3 medium cams and 6 wires, which was about right) were put to good use – but with different snow conditions it would have been a walk in the park!
Traversing out to the NW Ridge and the snow softened and the angle decreased. A sigh of relief and a moment to shove the rope in the pack was followed by a glorious two minutes stroll to the top of Mt Aspiring. Gemma was stoked to finally get to the top of Aspiring and the view was perfect. I felt like I was visiting an old friend and bored Gemma with stories of trips there, pointing out every single peak we could see.
I stayed on the summit for a few moments after Gemma left to say goodbye to Ari. Thoughts of life and death are never far from peaks with the mana and mauri of Tititea. I couldn't shake the feeling of a lump in my stomach.
With my mind firmly on the utmost importance of a safe descent, we contemplated what way down the NW Ridge we would take. The Ramp would in theory be fastest. The Therma would be easiest. The Buttress was familiar terrain. Eventually some detective work tracing faint crampon marks in the snow revealed no one was using the Ramp and people were going down the Buttress. The Therma looked lousy (from lower down, looking back, the Therma would have been utterly horrendous). So we weaved our way down the ledges and bluffs of the Buttress before hopping off down the ‘Kangaroo Patch.’ A perfect rib of snow led down to the Bonar Glacier at a nice trough of snow that allowed a crevasse-free route between the seracs back towards Mt French.
The glacier was in perfect condition, with roping up unnecessary and a faint breeze blowing us home. But, it’s still a long way to the Quarterdeck – we’d dropped to 1800m to avoid the messiest parts of the glacier and it’s 2300m on the pass. It was 8pm when we finally got below the crevasses on the Quarterdeck to outstanding glissade conditions all the way back to the hut. A 600m descent in 30 minutes was much better than the day’s average – it had been 18 hours since we left the hut.
The next morning we crawled out of our sleeping bags to begin the short march downhill and downvalley. Tired legs weren’t too bad since we’d been diligent about keeping hydrated and eating plenty of food the day before. Nevertheless we were very happy to accept several cups of tea from Don, the friendly warden at Aspiring Hut. After that we jumped in the river, had a wash, fired up the truck and hooned off. A classic mountain mission, indeed.
SW Ridge Beta
Per rope team, assuming mid to late-season conditions - if early season, still take the rock gear but add a couple more screws or another light snowstake
- two semi-technical axes and sharp crampons are the go
- 1x 60m half rope
- 3-4x medium cams (0.4-1) with biners
- 6x medium wires
- an angle or knifeblade piton might have been handy
- 4x ice screws 1x 19 cm, 2x 16 cm, 1x 13 cm
- 4x extendable runners + 1 screamer
- 2x 120 cm anchor slings
- 1x lightweight MSR 60cm snowstake
Food etc: 1x Jetboil Sumo, 1x small canister LPG, raro or electrolyte Gu Brew, bothy bag. Plus food per person: 3x Gu, 3x One Square Meal or equivalent, Kendall Mint Cake or chocolate.
Lots of people camp on the Bonar. I reckon stay at French Ridge Hut. Yes, it's a big summit day, but let's look at the advantages. Much better sleep. Unlimited water means you are fully hydrated. Less sunburn. Way, way smaller pack. Light sleeping bag and warmth. No tent. No need for a white spirits cooker to melt snow. Less cooker fuel. Climb the Quarterdeck with firm snow before dawn and a lighter pack - this leads to less time overall on the trip spent walking, since you go faster.
It took us 3.5 hours to get from French Ridge Hut to the foot of the West Face at a spot where you might bivvy, and it would be about 2 hours down from there. So we've added 5.5 hours to the summit day compared to camping. Sounds like a big deal. But let's say it takes 5 hours to get to the same spot, with a full pack, in the afternoon sun, not 3.5. You've added more walking time to the trip and used more energy. You've got to piss around getting the tent up and melting water, and packing the tent up the next day. And you have to carry a heavy load back across the glacier. I reckon that 5.5 hours extra (probably a conservative overestimate) on the climbing day is fully worthwhile for the better sleep and better hydration alone. You'll just function better, and with long summer days or a decent headtorch, at least 8 hours of that day are pretty brainless plodding in the snow. We stopped regularly for Gu, food, carried a Jetboil so we could melt snow and have hot sweet drinks, and had a bothy bag to get out of the wind. I reckon really big days, over 18 hours, are totally achievable with this method. Dan and Steve and Jono go for 48 hours in Patagonia with these tactics. So don't plod miserably up the snow with a massive pack - go hard and go light from a comfortable base. It's about the climbing, right?
It's a walk to the bottom of the West Face from the Bonar, avoiding crevasses of course. There are windscoops where you can pause to brew up before you tackle the ridge. About halfway up the SW ridge at about 2600m there are some annoying rock bands. So, find any way up the snow leades or use rock ledges to get to the pure snow arete which leads the rest of the way up to the couloir. We didn't need to pitch here, the snow was max 50 degrees and there were one or two scrambles on verglassed ledges that required care. The snow arete is about 30-50 degrees (mostly about 40) which in good snow would be a breeze all the way to about 2900m. Here, a couloir provides the crux of the route. No idea what it looks like in good conditions, but based on what I've heard, maybe a 5m 70-90 degree ice step on the left of the couloir. Probably there will still be rocks showing and these have good cracks for small-medium gear. When the crux ice is out of condition, as it was for us, we had a short, fairly unprotected mantle onto a rocky slab to the right, which led to easier broken rocky ground. About 5m of steep terrain, M3 R crux. From here it's snow or ice on rock at about 40 degrees for about 150m until you meet the NW ridge 2 minutes below the summit.
Descent: depends on conditions. Rapping/downclimbing the SW would suck - don't. Your best bet is whatever way on the NW Ridge is in condition. Be careful if you take the Ramp. Abseiling onto the Therma early season might warrant 2 ropes. The Buttress is easiest to navigate if you've been before. Good luck!
Time: we took 18 hours hut to hut. The SW ridge was really slow. We had to swing our ice axes hard for each step from basically 2700m to near the summit, with the exception of the crux where the ice was annoyingly soft. We descended the Buttress which is slow but safe compared to the Ramp. Glacier travel back across the Bonar was fast. So maybe 18 hours isn't too far off the mark for normal conditions. But every climb is different!
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