Apr 102007

If you are not mountain minded the following trip report may end up completely boring you – heck it may even if you are mountain minded but here’s my full report on our three day Mount Aspiring trip. There’s some cracking pictures if you want to miss out the reading. A few of the pictures of me are courtesy of Tom. Mum – you may not want to read this one. It’s going to be my longest blog entry so far, so if you’re working, grab a coffee, turn your screen, and duck from the boss….

DAY 1 : Raspberry Flats car park along matukituki valley to Colin Todd hut on the North West Ridge

Tom had spent a few days in Wanaka sussing out the situation with the NZAC hut booking, getting route beta, and pouring over the Apsiring guidebook. I must admit I just had it in my mind I wanted to give it a bash, knew it was relatively accessible and never really looked into what was in store – probably the best way. Before I knew it I had my winter gear from Tom, hut tickets acquired from the DOC office in town, new batteries in the GPS just incase the weather turned bad, light energy food purchased, my mate Gareth’s ice axes, the backpack loaded, with mine and Tom’s sitting in my car ready for the 4am wake up alarm.

(First light walking to Aspiring Hut) On Wednesday 4th April we woke to the darkness and cold, unpitched my tent, had brekkie, and were off in the car at 5am, waving off Caroline to her few days of peace. We hadn’t quite realised it was over a 50km drive, and most of it on gravel, to the road head carpark at Raspberry Flats in the Mount Aspiring National Park. We left there at 0615 with me literally shivering in the cold.

Although we had walked past the first visible glacier by the Rob Roy walk, out first daylight view was just as the valley mist was burning off. We then bashed our way through the bush on one of the hardest forest walks I’ve ever done (well, except from the previous one at Picton, but then I never had an 18kg or so pack on with a big stonking rope, ice axes and crampons in it!).

There were several flat sections up the valley alongside the Matukituki river. Little did we realise what a bore they’d be on the long walk out.

There were around six bridge crossings like this but you could tell how far you were from civilisation as they became more ‘rustic’ and the load factor went down from five people to one person only.

Passing Scotts Bivvi was the last landmark before hitting the harder stuff.

After around six hours, we encountered the first of the technical difficulties at an area called The Gut – a three tier waterfall. Of course, we bypassed the obvious easy path and scrambled up the stuff on the left of the waterfall in the picture. Sketchy at best, flaky rock, and even worse with winter mountain boots on. It was here we encountered the first people, but the English and Welsh guys never heard our shouts and followed us up. We had a brief lunch stop here, and I was already noticing the relative lack of fitness, and we still had to do all the technical stuff, and cross the glacier – around another six hours.

Passing The Gut involved some slab scrambling up a three tier waterfall. Luckily it was pretty dry as it was probably the best part of VDiff climb in places, with heavy packs and winter boots on. We spied a couple of useful abseil points for the way down.

At the top of The Gut we passed our first snow. On the way back down a couple of days later Tom managed to get this to snap in a see saw motion.

After the Gut we saw the Stone Wall camp site (quite obvious how it got it’s name) by Hectors Col which meant some more normal walking and scrambling before we hit the start of the Bonar Glacier.

I was pretty buggered by now, desperate for the glacier as that’s the stuff I love, and it would be a chance of scenery.

At this point we were treated to fantastic views of the Matukituki Valley we had just walked up – the best part of 20km. It wasn’t such a welcome sight on the way back!

We caught up with the the other Brits by this point and decided to cross the glacier with the four of us roped together rather than two parties of two.

After gearing up (Tom in the foreground and the other lads in background in the picture) it was on to the last stretch across the Bonar glacier over the Bevan col.

From here we had our first clear view of Mount Aspiring, with the North West Ridge, our intended route being the clear ridge you can see on the left of the summit in the picture.

Finally we got a glimpse of the Colin Todd hut (a dot somewhere on the ridge line on the top left of the picture). The glacier was far more heavily crevassed than we expected, probably having to cross more than 100 crevasses in our route to the hut. At this point the Welsh contingent started to reminisce about the ease of bouldering as a preferred sport over alpine mountaineering in New Zealand.

It would be fair to say I was completely buggered at this point. Twelve hours bush walking, climbing, scrambling, plodding, glacier crossing with around 1500m ascent in one push. The only real exercise I had done in the previous 5 months was my 7 hour forest stint in Picton, and lifting several hundred pints of beer. The thought of a summit attempt tomorrow wasn’t the most appealing.

(Pic : Tom and I all smiles at the Colin Todd hut) The hut had a few parties in it that night so was pretty full – some Aussies, some Kiwis, Welsh, English and Scottish. Some loud mouthed ‘I’m an expert mountaineer’ started to be a tad condascending saying we had no chance of summitting due to the verglass, and everyone in the hut had turned back on the ridge within the previous few days. ‘Get out and get some education’ he cried. ‘Get up there and see how far you get’ cried the voice of reason of others. One guy in his 60’s (we thought) had walked solo up the valley, bivvying under a rock for the night and crossed the glacier on his own. Respect! We got the forecast over the radio which didn’t seem the best so we had already decided to leave the hut a night earlier than planned, but to give it a whirl in the morning, just leaving a bit later than planned to let the sun come out by the time we got on the ridge.

Around 6pm, just short of twelve hours after leaving we made it to Colin Todd hut, our home for the next two or three nights. A superb setting, and we made it before nightfall so managed to watch the sun go down over the glacier, and the stars creep out. While the temperature plumetted, we tried to hold our pee in to avoid multiple toilet trips to the long drop toilet.

As the sun went down we sorted out our kit, had a bit of a chin wag in the hut, and generally took in the ambience of my first night in a mountain hut – thankfully not one of the mobbed french ones. The usual way of accessing this ridge is to heli in and walk out, or vice versa. Everyone thought we were a bit nuts to walk in, attempt a summit, then walk out the next day – hardcore British mountaineers we all put it down to, although the Welshman was still admiring the sport of bouldering…. What the hut crowd seemed to find even more bizarre was that I had lugged a pint of fresh milk up with me rather than just using milk powder, but hey, you’ve gotta have the odd luxury!

By 9pm we were all crashed out, reckoning we were around 70km from the nearest town at Wanaka. The alarm set for 0530 if I remember correctly.

DAY TWO: North West Ridge from Colin Todd Hut

The alarm was ringing at 0530 and we left around 0630 in the dark heading up the Shipowner Ridge. This was a relatively late start, partly due to the predictions of heavy verglassing (ice) on the ridge. We joined the glacier to hook up to the North West Ridge. For the previous few days parties had been stopped by verglass ice on the rocks so we left a bit later hoping to give it a chance to melt by the time we got there. Realistically we never expected to make the summit but we decided to head as far as we felt comfortable doing. It took over an hour before the headtorches were switched off and we accessed the glacier again.

Sunrise on the glacier – me on the end of the rope.

(Pic : A heavily crevassed access to The Rolling Pin, viewed from the North West Ridge)

By now we were in a true alpine environment ascending the North West ridge with the odd drop up to maybe 1000 feet, and crevasses in all directions. It was amazing. As we had all but sacked off the summit we had plenty time to take it all in.

It was a bit daunting to see the other parties from the hut leave across the glacier around 0830. The Welsh and English guys just walked up the rock a bit then headed back with a mammoth trip back to the car park, without even attempting the ridge! I doubt these pictures will show it properly but there are three shots taken from the North West Ridge looking down to the Bonar glacier – one without a zoom, one mid zoom, and one full zoom where you can actually pick out the people (the tiny black dots) walking back out. We were now all on our own which was a great feeling, but we knew one other party had bivvied on the South West ridge and were probably due in the hut tonight.

This is Tom on the ridge about two thirds of the distance we made. We decided to rope up, largely for the practice of moving together. Most parties just solo this as the rock is, well, pretty shite to say the least.

This shows around half of the route with the Colin Todd hut being on the flat block of rock in the left of the picture. We scrambled up the ridge in the picture, crossing the glacier patch on the right to join up.

This was pretty much my favourite belay stance as it felt like I was on the top of the world.

Me on the ridge with the Rolling Pin on the right hand side – another mountain.

Tom on the North West ridge.

One footstep to the left, and we were the best part of 1000 feet to the crevasses below. When we backtracked over this part both of commented ‘I can’t remember this exposure on the way up!’

This is the Bonar Glacier we walked across – erm, slightly more crevassed than expected!

This is almost at our lunch stop, where we decided to turn back rather than tackle the next big tower looming in the picture. We made it to around 2400m, the summit being just over 3000m. A bit frustrating as its a relatively easy ramp to the summit after here, but this was the crux and it would have been verglassed over. We would still have been hours from the top and have to come back again – as they say, the summit is optional, the descent isn’t!

We timed heading back to the hut perfectly – just before the clouds rolled in over us, but giving great shrouded views of the summit we missed out on this time.

I also saw my first Kea’s (mountain parrots) which are renowned for nibbling and pinching anything you leave around. This time they tried to demolish the Colin Todd hut.

Unfortunately the crowd that had been in the hut the night before left it in a bit of a state – ridiculous after trying to lecture us on mountaineering, they seemed to have no pride in their surroundings, even when the left at a reasonable hour in daylight. We got back around midday with nothing to do but play shithead with a pack of cards left behind, while listening to the Cure’s greatest hits through my headphones layed on the table! To kill time we decided to restore some pride in the hut by giving it a good clean and tidy – dishes and all.

We were joined by a guide from the Adventure Consultants (whom we had spoken to a couple of days earlier in the Mainly Tramping shop) with a client, so had a nice relaxed chinwag over dinner before retiring early. We checked in on the radio and got the latest forecast, and the predicted rain rolled in a few hours later than forecast. When I went on a quick dash to the toilet I tripped on my lace and landed in a small puddle :

‘Is it raining hard outside’ I was asked.

‘Not as hard as it looks’ I replied, trousers and fleece mostly covered with water.

Day 3: Colin Todd hut back to the Raspberry Flats car park.

We woke up at 0630 which is another relatively late start, so that the bulk of the glacier was crossed in daylight. We never left the hut until 0750 by the time we were fed, roped and geared up.

So off it was crossing dozens of crevasses, mostly of the size of the one on the left or smaller, so no great shakes really. Only a few required a decent jump over, although some would have swallowed up small houses at the right (or wrong!) places.

One of the parties had left a note in the hut inviting us to help ourselves to their food they had left at the Bevan Col by the heli drop location. Although most would be happy at this thought it really wound us up that they flew in, but basically couldn’t be arsed lugging their excess food down the valley with them. It’s because of idiotic and lazy situations like this that flights to the Colin Todd hut may be in jeapordy. They even left a frigging helmet up there. We scoffed some of it but made sure to carry our wrappers out, like we had all of our rubbish, including empty gas cylinders.

Just before we left the glacier we got a clear view of the daunting trek back down the valley. We had a bit of a long winded way to get down because if we carried on towards the valley we would have ended up above this :

Tom discovered he maybe weighed more than he realised as he made this snow ramp collapse and act like a see saw. Luckily just after this point we saw a couple of abseil points that had probably been set up by the party leaving the day before. At least it meant we didn’t have to scramble down the slabs at the Gut, which were far wetter than the day before.

Tom setting up an abseil.

This was the first abseil alongside the waterfall which thankfully wasn’t as much of a raging torrent as expected, or predicted by the ‘hardcore mountaineer’ at the hut, as the rain wasn’t quite as hard as forecast. This is the part that stops several parties and the older guy in the hut once waited here for six hours before the water level receded. We managed to be lucky with the weather again and walk out in the dry. This was the first abseil I’d done that I actually needed to and not just for practice. Somewhere down this route Tom yelled ‘hurry up man’ as every pull on the rope focussed my mind on the slightly sketchy spike the abseil point was hanging from, despite Tom keeping it tight for me.

This shot shows the bottom of the gut, and the face we scrambled up on the way up to the hut – this time we took the bloody obvious path! Although we took our time to pat ourselves on the back for getting over the difficulties there was still a 4-5 hours slog back down through the ‘hardest f’in forest walk I’ve ever done’.

These two shots were taken just under the waterfall above, which was under the steep cliffs shown a few pictures previously. We then had to walk down a steep descent through the bushline and along the valley.

We checked in with the DOC ranger Caroline at the Aspiring Hut who greeted me with ‘Where are you from mate?’ in a lovely North East of Scotland accent from Banchory, 30 miles from my home in Aberdeen. It’s a small world. Soon we bumped into the couple that owned Mainly Tramping who we’d spoken to in the shop and they managed to take our minds off some of the last hours walking. The walk back was a mix of lively chirpy banter between the two of us, and deathly silences when we both got bored with the slog along the valley. The only chirpy points seemed to be when I produced the odd jelly chew savaged from the ‘lazy bastard aussies’ food stash on the glacier. By now our feet were beginning to groan with even the slightest ascent or descent.

Eventually it was all over. Just before darkness fell, and just before the forecast rain pished itself all over Wanaka.

We spent the hour long journey back to Wanaka gasping to get to the supermarket to buy a stash of cold beer and a takeaway. Off we went, limping into the supermarket, straight for the beer. But of course this is New Zealand!!!!! No alcohol sales on Good Friday or Easter Sundays, and even all the pubs were shut! We were doomed! What a complete and utter ********. We had to laugh afterwards though – my reaction to the shop assistant was ‘Jesus Christ that’s unbelievable.’ ‘Yeh, it’s all his fault’ was Tom’s sharp response.

Anyway, I’m been drabbling on for quite a while now….

What an epic trip. Three days hard graft from almost no exercise. Valley, forest and glacier walking, crevasses, probably over 60km travel, huge drop offs, my first three real abseils, plenty of laughs, and I got a great buzz from doing stuff I enjoyed. We had also ‘saved’ spending around $2000 on a guide so have a lot of beer to get through… Yes a few nights up there makes you realise how much wonderful places there are to be on this planet (ooh that’s a bit deep!) and being up there with so few people and so far away from it made it feel like we had been away from civilisation for weeks!

Huge thanks to everyone involved from the guides to the shop staff who gave us some info, and especially to Tom for lugging some of my winter gear and clothes over from the UK, sorting out all the huts, and being a grand mate during the whole thing 🙂

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