As my crampons scrape across the last chunk of sastrugi coated ridge I’m aware of two things. The sky is lightening with the promise of dawn and there is not much slope between us and the star sprinkled sky above. In the stillness of a fine, calm morning snowy peaks stretch out below us in every direction, icing on the cake punctuated by the cappuccino froth cloud nestling on the valley floors.
Suddenly there is nothing solid above us. I’m surprised that we can stand comfortably and look around. Surprised at how quickly we got here. Surprised by how far we can see in every direction. The size of DJ’s grin is evidence this experience doesn’t have a use by date. You wouldn’t guess he’s been here twice before. We stand in silence listening to the silence taking in the 360 degree view. Minutes fly by while we’re lost in memories associated with the various landmarks below, familiar acquaintances from years spent visiting this favourite national park. The feeling is a bit like being transported back to a childhood birthday party – a long period of anticipation followed by events unfolding to deliver an experience even more amazing than you wish or imagine.
Sunlight begins to smudge the horizon lighting up the sky and colouring the snow-icing pink, tangerine and yellow. One by one like a series of candles on a birthday cake the white frosted peaks glow ignited by the soft dawn light. The chunky shape of Mt Cook is easily identifiable. Closer to home the twin peaks of Mt Earnslaw remind me of a couple of roller coaster ascents to Esquilant Biv followed by quick descents with bad weather hard on our heels. Mt Brewster is above the clouds stirring memories of a broken crampon, a long exposed summit ridge, unfinished business.
I cry out in delight as I notice the sunrise is casting a pink reflection of the summit triangle onto the western horizon. The shadow starts off small then gets bigger and darker before fading as rapidly as it appeared as light flexes its muscles beating the shade into submission. For an unforgettable 10-15 minutes we watch light sweep the sky, the mountains and the valleys. A fitting way to celebrate ascending a special mountain.
I’d wanted to climb Aspiring since I first saw it on my first tramp in the park named after it, an epic Xmas trip undertaken in my student days. Our route back then was known as the Beans burn – Rock burn, now it’s called the five passes. I’ve returned to the park many times and each trip has been memorable. I recall the feeling of relief mixed with a fresh appreciation for New Zealand wilderness I experienced over three weeks spent exploring the Shotover saddle, east Matukituki and the Albert burn, immersed in the beauty, solitude and remoteness. Absorbed in the challenge of juggling route finding with unpredictable weather and rough terrain. All in stark contrast to the several months of crowded, scheduled, well-trodden paths of trekking and climbing I’d just ticked off in Nepal.
In 2010 from our campsite on Cascade Saddle we looked across to Mt Aspiring and watched the sunset light it up in spectacular fashion. Climbing Mt Liverpool the next day I resolved it was time to try Mt Aspiring again. (An initial attempt Easter 2007 was abandoned after a big storm coated the mountain in verglas).
The walk in to the bottom of Aspiring is brutal. You have two choices. You head up the west Matukituki to Pearl Flat then either keep going to the head of the valley where the route culminates in a tricky rock climb up waterfalls and steep slopes to Bevan Col, or take the slightly easier route by way of French Ridge and the Breakaway or Quarterdeck then across the Bonar Glacier. Both options require solid tramping, scrambling and climbing skills, good fitness and great resilience. They are challenging enough in themselves let alone in winter conditions with packs full of food to last several days plus climbing kit. For these reasons plus the unsettled nature of New Zealand weather many climbers fly to Bevan Col just one hour’s walk across the Bonar Glacier to Colin Todd hut or a bivy site near a preferred route. Most people walk out via French Ridge. Climbing folk-lore is littered with stories of the heroic walk in and summit attempts thwarted by bad weather followed by a miserable retreat.
Being older climbers and hence slightly richer, and well versed in the fickleness of New Zealand weather we flew. This decision was made easier because my brother was coming with us. John is an experienced tramper but working on a farm means he only gets to the mountains once or twice a year. We had taken him for a crash course in ice axe and crampon use culminating in an ascent of Tahurangi a few months prior to our trip.
So after assembling in Wanaka we organised our flight up to the Bonar. After an anxious morning waiting to see if the cloud would lift we met our chopper at Aspiring flats and were soon deposited on Bevan Col. From here we descended to the glacier and roped up for John’s first experience of glacier travel. We crossed the Bonar glacier without incident and were soon settled inside Colin Todd Hut. John immediately befriended the Australian pair, who returned to the hut shortly after we arrived tired from a practice climb on a nearby peak. When they asked whether he would be climbing the mountain the following day, (they had been told by their guide they needed another day of practice), John looked shocked and replied “oh no, I’ve got two young children”. Worried looks crossed their faces before we all burst into fits of laughter. Their guide was a little slower to see the funny side.
We retired early determined to leave Colin Todd at 4am to minimise the chances of encountering soft snow while descending the ramp. We had a full moon and despite mild temperatures the snow was sufficiently firm for us to make rapid progress back onto the Bonar where we followed the easy crevassed slopes to the base of the ramp. If you can get across the bergschrund at the base this route effectively cuts the corner on the main ridge providing relatively steep (45-55 degree), but direct access to the main ridge.
Our early start turned out to be a stroke of genius not due to the snow conditions but because we arrived at the top at the same time as the sunrise. At 4.30am we didn’t know this however and DJ was muttering about how more light and more sleep would have assisted route selection. I was happy to jump the bergschrund at the base of the ramp under cover of darkness and then head up a slightly steeper line than necessary to join the NW ridge proper!
I’d read many stories of parties underestimating the ramp, particularly on descent. This is easy to do particularly if you ascend by a different route, are in “I’m nearly home” mode, underestimate the extent to which the snow softens as the sun warms it and/or you fail to appreciate that the terrain steepens as you get closer to the bottom. The ascent though is relatively straightforward provided you concentrate and find your rhythm. We got our pacing right and paused only briefly when we reached the main NW ridge to shake out our hands before continuing.
Four hours after leaving the hut we had our summit sunrise. Elated as I was to have been to the top I was anxious about descending the ramp given its reputation. We had a short discussion about whether to rope up but decided to start out soloing. DJ was comfortable soloing while I was fairly sure I was comfortable but wanting to hedge my bets, not yet experienced enough to judge how I’d feel on the steeper section. “It would be good if it was slightly less icy or I had slightly more technical tools”. I reflected. Heading up a steep slope is quite a different feeling to down climbing, partly due to the inevitable fatigue on descent but perhaps the bigger factor is no imagination is required to picture what will happen if you slip.
As it transpired I could have soloed the ramp comfortably in the perfect conditions we encountered but half way down I decided we should pitch. We had plenty of time thanks to our early start and quick ascent and I was about to head off on an alpine course for which I had done very little practice using a rope.
What followed was a seemingly endless period of digging in, constructing snowstake anchors and then down climbing while being belayed by DJ, stopping making myself safe, belaying DJ down to my anchor point then setting off again. This was all excellent practice and I’m glad I did it because I found it tough. The snow was hard enough to make digging a platform a mission. Getting the ropes right and setting the anchor properly took lots of care and attention. I got cold hands and sore calves. I struggled to be patient and make good decisions. At times grumpy, hungry, and/or scared I recognised this was definitely what I needed– the discomfort associated with pushing my climbing boundaries. The angle of the slope left no room for error. I counted my blessings. It could have been colder, it could have been steeper and DJ could have been less patient.
We reached a spot near the bottom of the ramp only to discover my pitching had led us away from where we needed to be to re-cross the bergschrund. I’d guided us to an unpromising site above some nasty looking rocks and a big drop off. Cue some deep breathing from me. DJ calmly took in the scene, he’d been advising me to pitch left for some time. After a few minutes thought and a little bit of scouting DJ found a spot from which to set up a belay. He lowered me down and across to a better position. I organised the rope while he down climbed to join me. Relieved to be away from the rocks we soloed the final section of the ramp to the bergschrund.
Getting ourselves back across the bergschrund was more difficult than ascending it. DJ put me on belay and I lowered myself into the bergschrund and wiggled and levered myself across to the far side of it, digging in enough to get my balance so I could shuffle sideways along its lip and guide DJ down. The main problem was we couldn’t see where to put our feet and if we’d fallen into the bergschrund getting out would be problematic. We crossed the bergschrund just as the sun hit the ramp. From the far lip it was easy travel to the glacier below. We stopped a couple of times to shed clothing and eat jelly beans.
We arrived back at the hut at noon, eight hours after we set off. After lunch and a snooze we wandered up Shipowner Ridge with John. The following day we walked across the Bonar in perfect conditions reaching French Ridge hut in time for lunch. Here I left John and DJ to enjoy a night in the hut followed by a night at Liverpool Biv and headed out to the road end to sort out my gear for my alpine skills course. The walk out was long and hot but as my spirits were still soaring in the clouds above, very pleasant. With each foot step I reflected on the highlights of a very special trip and plotted a return visit to do the classic south-west ridge. Our good luck and timing was underlined by the fact that our Australian friends were unable to summit on the day after we did despite perfect conditions. One of them caught a virus necessitating a helicopter evacuation. I hope they get a chance return to Aspiring and realise their dream of climbing it.