A couple of days of high pressure were forecast; the weather window looked like it was wide enough to sneak through on Tuesday. Gavin sent out a call – could anyone make it down for a climb? As the forecast updated however, the incoming cold front looked set to sweep through sooner than we’d thought. Early on Saturday morning we decided to shift the climb a day sooner to match. I had to get down to Wanaka! I cancelled my Saturday plans and quickly rolled out of bed, threw an assortment of gear in my overworked car and hit the road. Objective: the South Face of Tititea/Aspiring.
Sunday we strolled up the quiet Matukituki. Quiet... until Aspiring Hut! We met the OUTC (Otago University Tramping Club) out in full force, recovering from the previous night’s shenanigans with an impressive brunch BBQ. Our destination that afternoon was only as far as French Ridge Hut, so we had time to stop and chat, and try the chocolate cake (verdict: excellent).
After a chilly night in French Ridge, 3am brought calm clear conditions: the perfect alpine start. Travel was slow but steady up to the Quarterdeck and across the Bonar Glacier, with foot penetration around ankle to mid-calf and Matariki just clearing the Coxcomb Ridge and summit of Tititea. A little after sunrise we were under the South Face and finally it was time to start climbing. Although the initial objective was the Chocolate Fish route, on approach it seemed Gavin and I had been thinking similarly... what about that other line going to the left? An easy decision (yes), so I racked up, tied in, and headed to the schrund at the base. I could see all the way under it. The whole snow apron was an impressively large unsupported mass. It felt solid though, so I tentatively high stepped on to the lip. It held. Lucky I hadn’t eaten too much OUTC cake.
Leaving the Chocolate Fish behind, we quested out left into a series of short mixed steps linking ramps of consolidated snow. An exciting mixed mantle to another ramp and I reached the end of the rope. Gavin took the rack and continued left on to the face. Patches of good ice glued to slab gave fun, featured climbing. We swung leads again, into thick ice petals which melded together into vertical step formations. They resembled oyster mushrooms – probably a more nutritious breakfast than chocolate fish – and proved tricky at times when loose unconsolidated snow under the lip meant small overhangs to negotiate.
Climbing in the chill of the shade all day, the sunlight on the Coxcomb ridge above looked like an excellent reward to end our route. However we could also see spindrift churning off the Coxcomb, and anticipated high winds on the ridge to match. A fist bump at the top to celebrate the ascent, and we continued up the ridge. However the winds were worsening, and continued to worsen until eventually we made the decision to turn back and downclimb the Coxcomb ridge. This proved slow going and quite involved – the ridge is wildly exposed for the most part and contains some impressive cheval sections. Five rappels and some engaging downclimbing later, we made it through the maze of bluffs and on to snow slopes connecting to the Bonar.
A whoop of joy, a Radix meal and some not-tea (tea minus teabags), before the plod back across the Bonar. The winds were still increasing and we could see cloud coming in from the North – the window was closing and our tracks were long gone. I was glad of Gavin’s experience of the area, navigating to the Quarterdeck in poor visibility can get confusing at best. We were soon out of the wind once lower down French Ridge, and back to the hut approximately 23 hours after we’d left. Much longer than expected, with hours eaten up by travel in softer snow and the time spend negotiating the difficulties of the Coxcomb.
On our return the hut had two new arrivals – none other than NZAT member Karl (Merry) Schimanski and his brother Brad! Bedtime was officially delayed in lieu of endless cups of tea - this time with teabags - and good chat. If we were tired it was quickly forgotten in good company. By the time we made it to our sleeping bags the sky was starting to lighten, so we nabbed a couple of hours of sleep before heading back down the Matukituki to Wanaka, and (for me) back on to Christchurch.
Route: Kia rapu i tõku māramatanga [Seeking the Light] M4 IV 5 300m
Gavin Lang, Sooji Clarkson, 27 July 2020
Gear used on climb: