In August 2014, shortly after my sister returned from working and trekking in India and Nepal, we caught up at a family party and, along with Wendy, hatched a plan to (optimistically) Climb Mt. Aspiring at the beginning of Summer.
Over the next few months plans became more concrete, Wendy took a contract in the Middle East, and before we knew it Brittany and I were days away from meeting up in Queenstown to begin 10 days in the mountains. Our plans were to spend a few days teaching Brittany to be safe on snow, ice and rope, a day climbing Mt. Aspiring, a couple of days walking out and to have a few extra days up our sleeve in case of bad weather.
Fly into Queenstown to meet Brittany, who arrived yesterday. Flight delayed nearly two hours.
See Brittany. Visit outdoor stores for last minute gear (gas and nalgene). Way too much gear. How to make this work?
With 10 days food and lots of gear (rock protection, snow protection, warm weather gear, wet weather gear, cold weather gear to the hilt, …) it’s obvious we don’t want to be walking in.
Bus to Wanaka. Arrived slightly early, pick up Brittany’s hire boots from Adventure Consultants, stashed in a hiding hole, along with a tarp to wrap our bags in for them to look after, because they’re closed on Sundays.
The boots fit well. So far so good.
Phone bus to arrange transport to the helicopter hanger. Bus isn’t running today because “the driver is at the races”. Bugger. Go to DOC (Department of Conservation), ask about other buses. The only other company doesn’t answer. Call helo company anyway and come up with a plan with their help - taxi to their hanger and a shared flight at 3pm.
Buy hut tickets (I should really join NZAC) and food and repack, somewhat better this time. Guy Cotter (owner of Adventure Consultants) drops by while we’re waiting for our taxi at his office and asks us what we’re doing. We help him unload pot plants and make friends.
$70 cab ride to hanger, the other party hasn’t yet arrived but we’re early. Eventually the other party is late. Then cancelled. Bugger.
The pilot offers us a lift into town and back out in the morning to save another pair of cab fees, thankfully.
Arrived at the hanger and the other party was all waiting already - We’re not being stood up this time!
Fly into Bonar Glacier, Brittany gets the front seat. Great flying in although my fingers freeze while gearing up in the shade and Chris gets cranky.
The walk in to Colin Todd Hut exhausts Brittany, but at least we’re one of the first groups in so we get a bed. The hut very quickly fills up, with ours being the first of at least half a dozen flights that day due to two fine days after weeks of bad weather. People continue to flow in and people start begging to squeeze in, setting up tents, scoping out floor space and digging snow caves.
There’s a remarkable amount of snow for this time of year. We head out to the Isa Glacier for some walking and self arrest lessons.
It’s a fun, friendly (and small) hut and we have a very early night, with lots of people in bed before 9pm to go up Aspiring early the next morning.
We pore through the guidebook and decide on Rolling Pin, a Grade II/2, which a few people climbed today and were thrilled about.
Also, it turns out there aren’t stoves here and I’m now somewhat worried about how long my single gas canister will last. Dinner is chewy brown rice and crunchy split peas.
Sleep in until 8, manage to wake Brittany and start getting ready for the climb.
We breakfast on muesli (cold, conserving gas). A French guide and his partner are heading out and offer us extra gas. Thank God!
The climb starts common with Mt. Aspiring, walking up Shipowner Ridge. It’s pretty hard work and there are a few rests along the way. After making it to the top of the ridge we traverse the col to the West to the start of Rolling Pin. An easy first couple of ridges lead to a very scary looking steep face. “Oh well, we’ll see how far we get”, I think.
The first pitches are easy, with some cool views over long steep faces and crevassed glacier.
The steep pitch doesn’t look quite so steep once we’re at it so I give it a whirl. A large rock at the halfway point makes a good point to aim for to reassess whether I want to continue. I get to the rock and decide I should probably place some pro (run out about 30m above the belay). Lucky I do because the last half is a bit less solid and my feet slip a few times (but don’t fall). Somewhat concerned about the downclimb but it’s not terrible. We get to the ridge and have lots of rocks to greet us on the far side - excellent, we can rap down!
An exposed, sharp ridge line for the final pitch gets us to the summit. Woo!
We return the way we came, with big clouds blowing in. Brittany leads the down pitches and me the traverses. I lower Brittany down the steep ice face, backed up to a dodgy rock, then hesitatingly rap off the rock. Apparently I survive and we short rope the rest of the way down. We barely avoid a white out as the mountain disappears above us almost as soon as we’re back on the glacier.
Back to the hut for celebratory water and chatting with everyone else about their day (only about 4 of about 20 people reached the summit).
Tomorrow will likely be good weather in the morning and terrible in the afternoon. Eyeing off Mainroyal in the guidebook, II/1, plan to leave at 7pm to be back by lunch time and well and truly before the weather comes in.
Leave at 7 for Mainroyal and turn back after crossing the ridge to the Dipso Glacier and being met with heavy snow. Return to the hut as the Aussie group of 3 we flew in with are leaving, at 9.30.
An hour or so later an AC group of 2 guides and 2 clients returns from the walk out - An older doctor found the Bonar too tough to walk up so they’re joining us to wait out a couple of days of bad weather in the hut.
Chat a bit to Jono through the afternoon about my trip in February and all sorts of things. He and Gabe are pretty fun. Spend most of the day reading.
Wake to heavy rain and wind. Sit in on the AC prussiking, rope and knots lessons. I help out while Brittany learns. They feed me coffee (!!!!), the doctor makes fun of the “Isagenix cult”, and we chat about climbing. The afternoon is a navigation lesson.
Up at 4am to greet good weather and head to French Ridge Hut. We leave Colin Todd around 5.50 and the five hour walk takes about seven and a half hours.
Brittany nearly pulls me into a big crevasse and I lose my shit over lack of attentiveness. Mega blisters for me and sore neck for her make the rest of the walk pretty angsty. We make up over a rolled ankle a few hundred metres from the hut and Chris to the rescue. It’s obvious we’re not going any further today so we settle in (heavy rain and gales forecast for the next two days).
Cooking, tea, puzzles, card games and teaching Brittany hut-bound crevasse rescue and hauling systems.
In the afternoon I open the door of the hut to be surprised by a guy standing there in his undies. Apparently the walk up was warm. An interesting ex-vegetarian in his mid-twenties studying IT from Chicago, the three of us chat through the afternoon and, after the forecast, decide to head back down together early the next morning.
Tell Alex we’ve decided we’re too tired today and sleep for a few extra hours. 90 minutes after he leaves a heavy downpour starts and doesn’t stop until evening. We seem to have made the right decision (although we bump into him in Wanaka a few days later and he tells us he made it out without getting wet).
More reading, card games and haul systems.
We awake to a perfect day and a surprisingly-tough 7.5km down French Ridge. That’s 7.5km horizontal. And, I guess, about 2km vertical. Very steep going and it’s mid-afternoon by the time we get into Aspiring Hut. The hut warden kindly books a bus back to Wanaka for us (and gets lightly reprimanded for it).
A few group in the hut who have walked in from Raspberry Flats. One guy has nausea, vomiting, fever and stopped sweating during the day. After we convince him to take rehydration salts and get some water bottles around him to cool him Brittany and I discuss weather it’s heat exhaustion or heat stroke. The strange ways we entertain ourselves…
Any easy, flat, fast and beautiful stroll out to Raspberry Flats and we’re checking into a backpackers’, anxiously awaiting a shower, by lunch time.