Thursday, March 3, 2016

Mt Aspiring

The brave man is not he who feels no fear,
For that were stupid and irrational;
But he, whose noble soul its fear subdues,
And bravely dares the danger nature shrinks from.
~ Joanna Baillie
Often referred to as New Zealand's Matterhorn, Mt Aspiring has a distinctively aesthetic profile. At 3,033m it stands as one of NZ's 25 highest mountains and is also one of the more achievable 3,000m peaks. Ever since another climbing / tramping expedition 2 years ago, where we camped in sight of Mt Aspiring, I have harboured the desire to reach the summit. 

It was getting a bit late in the season but we pencilled in late-February for the climb. A close eye was kept on the weather forecast so when Metvuw showed a few days of settled weather arrangements were hastily made. Dad and I soon found ourselves in Wanaka ready to head into the mountains.
With a limited weather window and work constraints we opted to helicopter in to Bevan Col in order to save two days of arduous tramping. From the col it took 2 hours to cross the Bonar Glacier - another new experience for me. I took the time to peer down into a few crevasses but most were fairly small and easily stepped across. Colin Todd Hut stood out like a beacon up on Shipowner Ridge. The hut windows look straight out at the summit of Mt Aspiring and the Northwest Ridge, so we were able to get a good look at our planned route.

4am. Time to get up. With clear skies and a full moon it was quite light outside and the mountain stood out clearly. Geared up and out the door before 5am, it was half an hour up the rocky path to the snow slope above the Iso Glacier. Crampons on for a nice plod up to the NW Ridge. Dawn broke and the red moon set as we abandoned crampons for the rock on the main ridge. Immediately there was an airy ledge to traverse so the rope came out (and stayed out until this spot on our return). Dad short-roped me for most of the climb; simulclimbing in a few places and belaying on the sketchier bits.
I was really noticing the exposure on the ridge and was not too happy with having nothing on either side for a couple of hundred metres below! Inching across a ledge with your heels hanging over mid air and fingers clinging to small pockets in the rock it a little terrifying. Halfway along the ridge I got pretty petrified on a traverse and almost decided to turn back. Only the thought of everything we had poured into this trip, and the desire not to fail, kept my moving forward. A few moments on solid ground clinging to a rock to regain composure and I resolved to carry on. I was here to climb the mountain - I had to trust Dad and his judgement. With perfect weather conditions we had to give it our best shot.
I wore my tramping shoes along the rock ridge for better grip and manoeuvrability but it meant that my pack was heavy - carrying boots as well as crampons and iceaxes. It also meant that we had to avoid the small snow pockets on the ledges. Switching back to boots and crampons for the summit snow cap I was much happier to have solid snow beneath my feet. There were still several hundred metres to climb, including plenty of mixed snow and rock which meant whipping crampons on and off as well as walking on rocks with crampons. The final steep slope up to the summit was hard but steady work.
Finally, after 8:35 hours we reached the top. My first 3,000m peak! The weather was so clear and calm that we spent 20 minutes taking photos and resting, picking out other mountains such as Earnslaw, Tutoko, Sefton, and Mt Cook in the distance.

We still had a long way to go. Coming down the snow was relatively quick, and once back on the rock of the NW Ridge we took a slightly different route in places to what we came up. I kept my boots on instead of switching to shoes in order to make use of the ledges with snow on, however this meant that I was even less confident on the rock slabs. A true climber would have been horrified at my technique - plenty of knees and bum shuffling - but it got the job done (albeit slowly).

We did one abseil off the buttress, which I actually enjoyed after the first few metres of learning to trust the rope. It was now getting late and I was tired but focused on getting off the mountain safely. I was hoping to get off the rock section while it was still light and it was a huge relief to finally reach the snow just as darkness fell and the cloud swirled in. With footprints to follow it was an easy plod back to the hut but it took a lot of concentration to stay awake and not make any stupid stumbles.
At last the hut appeared. 17 1/4 hours after setting out we had returned victorious!
The 'walk' out via Bevan Col the next day was itself an adventure, with steep exposed rock slabs and 4 abseils!
Two questions which I have encountered frequently since the climb are:
  1. Was it fun?
    In short, no. I am glad I took on the challenge but I can't really say I enjoyed it. Definitely type 2 - 2.5 fun (definition).
  2. What is next?
    At this stage I don't have any other big expeditions in the pipeline.

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