Mt Aspiring: Third time lucky

By Marc "Jimmy" Connors 10 September 2009
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Battered away on two previous attempts by perilous weather, our very own ad guru, Jimmy, tackles Mt Aspiring for the final time and discovers that three’s a charm.

Mt Aspiring. Boy, has that mountain been a source of unfinished business for me for some time now, staring back incessantly from its glossy poster on my wall at home, mocking, teasing and inviting me all at once. I have been forced from the glory of its summit, not once, but twice before. My first attempt in 2005 was cruelly cut short by clear skies but cyclonic winds forcing us to retreat while on the lower part of the northwest buttress. The second attempt was even sadder, stuck in a hut for a three-day storm that denied us even a glimpse of the mountain and then forced to walk out or get stuck for further days as front after front moved through and battered the southern alps. I embarked now on my third (and final) attempt to climb it – and in true New Zealand style, the weather was looking sketchy again.

Discovering that Steve Monks would be my guide for the trip was my first moment of encouragement. One of the world’s best climbers, his enthusiasm and optimism for climbing were infectious. Introductions and gear sorting followed and we were on our way. As the helicopter touches down on Bevan Col we hastily clamber out and hit the rocky ground wrapping our arms around the packs that the guides drop at our huddled bodies. The chopper’s engine then roars into a frenzy of turbines and thudding blades and slowly rises. Rocking a little from the wind it hovers for a short moment above us. It then turns away from us, flying over the Col and down into the gorge which drops abruptly away to our right, heading towards the fertile valley far below us.

We begin to prepare ourselves for the slog over the glacier to the Colin Todd Hut, our base for the climb. If it wasn’t for the New Zealand alpine hut system, climbing in the area would be treacherous. Scattered across the Alps in proximity to popular climbing areas, the huts are positioned out of range of avalanche danger. They are therefore built on the edge of head walls, or in the case of Colin Todd, at the far end of a flattening ridge, making them a bit of a mission to access.

Amongst the small talk we kitted up and headed off on our march across the immense Bonar glacier. In the far distance I began to spot the distinctive red dot of Colin Todd hut, and as we dropped down the snow slope and onto the glacier the entire mountain came into view. I instantly began to identify all of the ridge lines, steep couloirs and the giant west face of the mountain. It looked insanely steep, almost vertical. The southwest ridge looked sharp and elegant – regarded not only as a highly sought after climb but as a technical one it was the route we were preparing to tackle this time. Steve ran though all the fundamentals of glacier travel and I was careful not to drop the ball on anything. As Steve stopped to assess the mountain he confirmed the southwest ridge was in great shape. Ready to go.

The west face saw the first successful summit of Mt Aspiring back in 1909 by Alec Graham, Jack Clarke and Captain Bernard Head and wasn’t climbed again till 1965. That first ascent was a hundred years ago. I couldn’t imagine how challenging that route would have been with the climbing gear of the early 20th century.

The mood in the hut the first night and the evening prior to our climb is jovial with laughter darting through the air. The guides hold court as they tell tales of past climbs and trips. Crawling into our bunks soon after dinner, Steve and I try in desperate vain to get some sleep. Outside the wind and snow twirls and howls through brightness, while inside, everyone is cooking, eating, sorting gear, reading or talking, making sleep impossible. As 7pm ticks over, the weather report comes over the radio, momentarily silencing the crowd. Everyone has a stake in the weather as it will determine if they will climb, fly out or get stuck in the hut. The announcer declares that the current front is expected to quickly pass through overnight offering a short window in the morning before a second stronger front, with snow and winds moves through.

It is 2am when my alarm wakes me from my shallow sleep. Steve is outside checking the weather. Part of my brain is urging me to stay in bed but I fight the demon and cross my fingers for good weather. Steve slips back inside and announces we’re going! I jump out of the cosy sanctuary of my sleeping bag and woof down some warm porridge caked with barley sugar as other climbers begin to stir in their sleep in anticipation of the good weather.

As we pull on crampons and exit the hut into the cold alpine air we discover the wind gusts of last night have disappeared and there is only the faintest of breeze. There is a bright half moon suspended directly above the summit illuminating the northwest ridge and lighting up a tiny scattering of cloud as it passes beneath an ocean of stars.

Stepping over the rocks surrounding the hut and onto the snow, the snow pack feels crusty and is easy to break into the soft snow beneath – meaning there hasn’t been an overnight freeze. This means travel could be arduous and possibly dangerous. Though it’s not even 3am yet and the freeze may be yet to take place. What is for certain though is that it’s not the bitter cold that usually accompanies an alpine start and is even pleasant enough to climb in just two layers.

With head torches lighting the way we move off into the night, marching across the upper reaches of the Bonar glacier we head southwards and soon find ourselves directly below the ramp. Looking up we can see the dark silhouette of the rock bands protecting it. The upper reaches of the glacier gradually steepen and finally meet and snake along the base of the mountain. We continue to move below this line of demarcation, travelling directly beneath its towering walls that rise high above us in the pre-dawn darkness.

Our travel across these gradually steepening snow slopes is interrupted by the need to identify and avoid the many crevasses that scatter across our path. They are challenging to spot in the dark, particularly the ones that hide beneath a thin blanket of snow. We soon reach a point where rock and ice give way to snow slopes which abruptly steepen and morph into the west face. We’ve already gained a lot of vertical mileage and in the early dawn light we can look up at the steep and open face and see a line between some rock bands which will allow us to climb vertically up the face. This is the west face, not the original plan but as we stare vertically upwards we can see that the angle of the southwest ridge creates a meeting point high on the mountain where our line and the line of its arête meet.

We get our ice axes out and with about two metres of rope tying us together start climbing vertically upwards. We use the ‘dagger’ technique with both hands holding the top of the ice axe shafts and punching the picks in the snow for purchase. We also use our crampons for front pointing and this climbing technique gives me a feeling of confidence and we make fast progress up the face as we get into a rhythm. As we continue to climb we can see the clear dark sky behind the southwest ridge getting lighter from the sun which is still buried deep below the eastern horizon. I also become acutely aware of the immense exposure of the west face. The steep face we are on falls away below us in a smooth almost vertical slope until it meets the upper glacier where it ends in a giant void. Far below us the valley is cloaked in clouds. It’s an unforgettable view and I can’t help to keep daring myself to look back.

The higher we climb though, the colder and windier it gets, creating a cruel wind chill factor and as I look up towards what we have yet to climb I see the wind is buffeting the exposed southwest ridge with brutal force. Spin drift is now blowing into our bodies and beneath us the cloud mass is building and rising with intent towards us. I start to feel a race against the weather as higher clouds start to reach us before flying on towards the southwest ridge and then into the nether.

Taking a quick break to put our shell wear on, Steve assesses the situation and states that we’ll continue climbing over to meet the southwest ridge. I know that the couloir comes next and that it’s steeper than the ground we’re on now and with hands getting colder due to constant contact with the snow and aching calves I feel a little dread creeping in. I force myself to deal with it and to front point at all costs regardless of the pain. As we reach the arête and commence to climb along its ridge I know that there is a sheer drop just over to my right and over the south face and I try to focus only on the climbing. Along this exposed ridge line the wind becomes even more savage and the amount of spin drift increases in intensity. Finally we can see the deteriorating conditions along the upper ridge and the wind is blasting into the entrance of the couloir with such intense velocity that it is menacingly driving spin drift up into the couloir like a giant vacuum and then with no where else to go, blowing it off the summit.

Steve makes the call to avoid the couloir and instead decides to diagonally climb across the entire upper west face below the immense rock band that looms above us and which separates us from the northwest ridge. To the left of the rock band and close to the cliff at the northern end of the west face lies our get out of jail card – a gully in which we can climb up through, out of the wind, and onto the northwest ridge.

Upon topping out on the northwest ridge I didn’t have much time to think before Steve grabs my hand and, shaking it, shouts ‘nice work’, then confirming that the summit is less than 100 m away. I spot tracks leading up to it. Below us swirls an ocean of sun-streaked clouds completely surrounding us. There is not one gap through which to see land. I peer down the northwest ridge which looks like the perfect extreme ski run with a steep and smooth line accompanied with drop offs on either side. Some of the clouds finally rise to meet us except now the wind is cyclonic and forces the cloud to break up as it flies past us into the atmosphere above the mountain. We quickly head up and as we reach the lee side of the summit, shake hands again and then immediately head straight down. Talk about a quick visit! Snow flurries are blowing up and into our bodies as we charge back down the northwest ridge. The further we drop though, the calmer the conditions become, and by the time we reach the top of the ramp we are out of the wind and in a blanket of cloud. We take a break and we hoe into some muesli bars. It is 8am!

I’m ragged and exhausted after the descent of the ramp and after crossing the glacier we reach the final climb towards the hut. The hut is an oasis of food and a warm cosy bed and I am desperate to be there. I gulp down the remaining water in my bottle, every cell in my parched body sucking in the hydration. Another climbing party enjoying a day off in the hut watch as I drag myself along behind Steve. Once in the hut we throw off our gear, gulp down a steaming cup of tea and fall into our bunks and into a deep coma of exhaustion.

That night the talk turns to getting out and there are two options; walking out, which is physically punishing after all the hard climbing and which is particularly grueling under the weight of our heavy packs and climbing boots, or getting a chopper out. I’d walked out before and while the Matukutuki valley is one of the most beautiful places in New Zealand, I want to fly and discover that other climbers have the same idea. The accompanying guides must have liked our enthusiasm for the chopper and the talk soon turns to the blissful concept of drinking cold beers in the pub that very evening! As always in New Zealand though, the weather has the final veto and as it turns out another front moves in thwarting our plans and we spend the next day trudging out. We finally reach Strawberry Flat, spotting Steve’s partner Zoe who has cold beers waiting for us. And at that very moment, the clouds remind us what country we’re in as it starts pouring with rain.

The essentials

» Climbing guides: When you book an Mt Aspiring ascent with Aspiring Guides you get five days with an extra day as a contingency in case of bad weather. The weather in New Zealand can make or break a trip so with this time frame you have a very good chance to summit. If you get in and summit without using all the scheduled days you still have your guide for hire. For me this meant a day of rock climbing just out of Wanaka with Steve Monks. Call Aspiring Guides on +64 3 443 9422 or visit the website.

» Getting there: Fly direct with Air New Zealand (website) to Queenstown, which is only a short shuttle ride to Wanaka, base of Aspiring Guides. Organize shuttle and accommodation before you go. Shuttles travel between Wanaka and Queesntown six times daily and the ride
is scenic and takes a little over an hour (website). 

» Visas & Money: Australians don’t need a visa for travel in NZ and our dollar is always strong against the kiwi. Have kiwi dollars on hand. NZ has ATMs for credit card cash advances and cirrus network withdrawals, plus moneychangers and banks.

» Equipment: Aspiring Guides hire out quality gear such as ice axes, crampons etc. Guides run equipment checks before heading off so anything that you forgot can be easily picked up locally and the guides know where the best stores are. 

» Trail Accommodation: You’re spoilt for choice in Wanaka. One of the best choices is the Purple Cow (website) as it has a great vibe and awesome views of Lake Wanaka. It’s also a short walk to the centre of town.

» When to go: Climbing season is November to April. This period offers great snow cover and a settled snow pack covering most routes. Early season sees more snow cover. NZ has a maritime climate and sits in the path of prevailing westerly air streams. These moist cold winds hit the west coast and the Alps, rise then unleash on the mountains. Once this weather moves through settled weather prevails (until the next front) it can be cyclonic and snowing at night and sunny and still the very next morning (and vice versa) High pressure systems can also sit over NZ offering sunny settled weather. Summer in the Southern Alps also sees long days with darkness in December not falling until 10:30pm. 

» Permits: Aspiring Guide will have this covered for their clients along with hut fees, flight access, etc.

» Map: E39 1:50 000 topographic