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Wednesday, 16 April 2014

Dreams of Aspiring

Mount Aspiring. The Matterhorn of New Zealand. Gregor Kolbe and I had dreamed months before of climbing this most aesthetic of peaks on one of her most neglected routes - the sunny alpine rock of the North Buttress. So thin was the mountain literature on the route that it felt like embarking on a first ascent... "a direct and exacting rock climb on the sunny face of the mountain, with amazing views of the ocean as you’re climbing", so the guide book said. Chris Sillars came along for the ride to accompany us for the approach and solo the North-West ridge. Together we set off from Christchurch, bound for Wanaka, and beyond, the Matukituki Valley...

North side of Mount Aspiring/Tititea, 3033m - her foreboding view from Shipowner Ridge.

Chris in the Matukituki Valley
A very welcome change from the Aoraki region, the approach to Aspiring is extremely pleasant. Wild moraines gladly exchanged for soft trail through a majestic river valley. The renowned Matukituki often called 'the most beautiful valley in the world' led us easily to the base of the Waterfall gut. Now things became interesting. Here we met a group of eight Otago University students also Aspiring bound. They were faffing mightily, so we upped the pace for an overtake to tackle the technical section up rock slabs to Bevan Col.

Cooling off under 'the Waterfall'
An intricate route lay above negotiating tricky slabs, made difficult by dwindling shoe tread and heavy approach packs. Above the second layer of slabs, a great introduction to the remarkable schisty Aspiring rock, the Matukituki really opened up below us. 

 Crossing the south arete of Mt Bevan, high above the Matukituki

Rock turned to snow as we entered the curving saddle of Bevan Col, the gateway to Aspiring. Disappointingly, the Bonar plateau was bathing in cloud, but almost on cue, a gap in the cloud blew over, revealing a scintillating first glimpse of our mountain...

First glimpse of Aspiring
We witnessed interesting dynamics at the Colin Todd Hut. The hut was full to the brim, comprising of guided parties, climbers who had flown in, and parties who had walked in. The dynamic was mostly one of slight embarrassment and inadequacy by those who had flown in, but also one of entitlement to the hut and facilities by those who had paid large amounts of money to be guided to the summit. My ethos is always to walk in the first time to have a feel for the route, and avoid the disconnection to the land that flying in to a high base hut brings. However I do appreciate times where flying in has its benefits; by making the most of a weather window, and increasing the walking to climbing ratio. A day spent working in the city would easily pay for the helicopter flight on the day saved by not walking, while remaining better rested.

A tough ten hour day to the hut, we rested and fuelled up while socialising with the fascinating hut inhabitants, pysched for our shot for the summit the next day. We felt good. The weather forecast was pristine. What could go wrong?

Alpine start form Colin Todd, 4:45am

Hard work up the Iso Glacier

Clouds of dawn and darkness lifted as we crested the Iso Glacier. I stopped and nervously took a close look at our beloved North Buttress. The French guide was right. The entire rock buttress from the Therma glacier to the summit was smothered in snow. These was very unusual conditions for February, the typical season for alpine rock climbs. Where snow was not present, dark wet streaks could be seen. Climbing steep snow on a northern face in the height of summer would have been foolish in the extreme. At this point in our hesitation, Chris skipped ahead of us, eager for his solo attack on the North West Ridge. The decision was simple; we accepted a very adequate Plan B and joined him as a team of three, up the North West Ridge.

Hesitation at attempting the very snowy North Buttress Route; the dry North-West ridge on the right skyline
Aspiring in Feb 2010. Note the relatively dry North Buttress, centre left plunging into the Therma. Photo: Jaz Morris
A morning above Bonar Glacier
After mentally preparing for quite a challenging and technical route on the North Buttress, likely to involve around 500m vertical of simul-climbing - moving together while placing protection in the rock... the North West ridge felt like it would be a breeze. However, while less steep and technical, it was no walk in the park, and required full concentration of effort.

Big exposure along the ridge

The lower flat section of the ridge involved some very airy traverses around rock gendarmes and some fun cheval-like straddling of the ridge as it sharply narrowed - the drop off to the Therma glacier on our left was huge. This is potentially what makes the ridge a challenge - to use a rope over such a long distance would be very time consuming, potentially such that the summit shot would be compromised unless the team was very efficient. We soon approached 'the Buttress', a huge step in the ridge that stared down on us from the hut. Countless route options up the steepening rock were possible, we had to choose just one and make it count...

Greg snacking; the North Buttress visible on right caked in snow

We found ourselves on a rising traverse on the Therma glacier side of the buttress. A steep 20 metres section on moderately good rock passed nervously, but landed us on top of the buttress and the summit ice cap now back in view. The crux behind us, we dropped almost all our technical climbing gear and pranced up the 35 degree firm snow slope to the summit. Sensational views opened up across to the glaciers and lakes below out to the West Coast. Endless pristine wilderness as far as the eye could see...

Upper snow slopes on the NW Ridge

Haast Range, Lake Waiatoto, Upper Volta Glacier

Not a breath of wind. Thick icicles protruded from the perfect ice cap as we chopped our way to the pinnacle of the mountain. We looked back down to from where we had come. The broken Bonar, the harrowing Coxcombe Ridge, the floury blue Waitatoto Lake, the sweeping Upper Volta, the sunny Matukituki, the schist of the North West Ridge... All laid out in glorious sequence of unending three-sixty panorama. It was almost too much.

Our first 3000m peak

Greg celebrates on the summit with a handstand; the gnarly Coxomb ridge behind to the right

Pointing towards the next objective...

Bulbous clouds on the horizon limited our range, unfortunately blocking the Darran and Aoraki mountains from view. Nigh on midday, I felt it time for a nap, and lay back on my pack for a snooze. I woke half an hour later, somewhat delirious and confused, before realising we were still on the top of Mount Aspiring...

Chris on the upper NW ridge
The descent was quick - firm snow from the morning had now received an extra few hours sun and provided a perfect soft glissade down 500m to the top of the buttress. For once we appreciated the snow conditions that otherwise would have rendered the slope a plain scree clobber. We followed the Buttress to its prow, before following heavily slung boulders down the well used rap route. At least five pieces of tat were found at each of the three rap stations. The decision to descend the Kangaroo snow patch, an apparent shortcut, was quickly called off due to the very soft snow sluffing down the slope into gaping slots. The full ridge was by far the safest descent route.

Rapping down the buttress
Rappelling the buttress descent route
It was a majestic evening at Colin Todd hut. The evening hours were consumed spectating the final few climbing parties descending the ridge late into the evening, just as last rays put on a spectacular Aspiring show. Our relaxed itinerary now allowed for two easy days walking out from Colin Todd, across the crevassed Bonar, down through the Quarter Deck pass to French Ridge hut, and back out the Matukituki to Wanaka.

Soaking up last rays from Colin Todd; Greg is ecstatic

The Quarterdeck Pass
The devastating plunge from French Ridge into the Gloomy Gorge

Celebratory handstand at French Ridge with Mt Barff behind

Although at first disappointed in failing to climb our much-dreamed route up the North Buttress, we found it a good lesson to always be prepared to wait for a route to be climbed in its optimal condition. The unseasonable snow covering much of the rock was definitely not optimal, and would have been foolish to have 'just gone for it'. There are only two types in mountaineering: bold climbers and old climbers. We enjoyed scoping out the two major access routes to the Aspiring plateau via Bevan and Quarterdeck and look forward to many more ambitious routes on the Aspiring peaks in years to come...

Our route up to Bevan Col (left), route to the summit, and return via Quarterdeck Pass. North Buttress route in red.

South Face of Aspiring


  1. Hello. Very nice trip report. Question: the date at the top of the report (Wednesday, 16 April 2014). Is/was that the date of the trip itself, or when you posted the report?

    1. Hi Andrew, the date of the trip was February 2nd and posted later in April. I recommend Jan-Feb for the NW ridge, in April the quarter deck pass will likely be cut off and you will have to walk out via Bevan Col, which would be a more difficult descent route but there are plenty of in-situ anchors for the waterfall slabs.

    2. Ok, great. Thanks for the reply. I find it in general hard to date the photos one finds on the 'net, so I'm always looking for other date clues. It is very useful to be able to get a sense of the snowpack level at particular times of season.

      We're not actually planning to climb Aspiring itself. Rather, we'll probably be tackling something easier - the SE ridge on Mt Barff, or perhaps the Pope's Nose. And, we'll be doing it mid-February. So, my line of investigation in this particular case was to figure out when (approximately) access via Quarterdeck Pass becomes problematic.