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Thursday, 13 August 2015

Mt Aspiring South Face - A Winter Attempt

Mount Aspiring in winter presents a daunting prospect. Deep snows and cold temperatures prevent light or fast style approaches to an ascent - one must come prepared for a formidable mountain in her harshest conditions.

In mid-August 2015, Michael Eatson and I shouldered hefty packs and hiked up the splendid Matukituki, ultimately bound for the South Face of Aspiring, a lofty and ambitious goal for the winter season. Before the Remarkables Ice & Mixed Festival, we were determined to ply ourselves from the more accessible 'mountain crags' and venture higher and further afield for a true alpine adventure.

After a frigid night in an empty Aspiring Hut, we began the icy hike through the Matukituki in darkness, thighs burning as we burled our way up the grunty French Ridge track. Icicles hung from branches and coated the rock trail making a straightforward tramp into something far more treacherous.

At the bush-line we were greeted by bounty loads of fluffy white powder. It seemed that our snow forecasting was not so accurate, and the Aspiring region had been hit just as hard as the Mount Cook region by hard by the recent snowfall. Fortunately we'd come prepared with snow-shoes, helping us to skim somewhat over the surface of the deep snow instead of plunging in thigh-deep.

Even so, it was exhausting work. Hauling full winter loads up the French Ridge was no easy feat, but we were duly rewarded by magnificent weather in our superb surroundings. French Ridge Hut finally appeared over a rise, but as the previous party had left the door ajar, snow piled up into the entrance way, and required a fairly technical manoeuvre just to enter into the hut.

Following lunch we continued up towards the Quarterdeck pass, which seemed an interminable distance away. Justifiably, it was a 2000m ascent from Aspiring hut, explaining our exhaustion as we battled through the soft snow, a Himalayan effort. Crevasse country below the Quarterdeck taught us to be cautious with winter season snow-bridges - prime time for hidden slots with weak coverings. Until the heavy, wetter snows of spring and summer come, the slots can be very devious and snowbridges often lack any structural integrity with temperatures too low to encourage snow to bond.

We finally crested the Quarterdeck as the winter sun descended to the west, throwing magical colours to our new horizon, one with the mighty Aspiring thrusting skywards.

A smooth descent into the frozen expanse of the Bonar Glacier soon provided a flat spot to pitch our tent, the South Face now in sight.

It was an incredibly cold night, with temperatures plummeting to below -15C, given a freezing level of a staggering 400m above sea-level. Condensation inside the tent froze on the inner fly, raining down a flurry of snow crystals on any movement inside the cramped two-person shelter.

During the night, Michael began to complain of a sore throat, which at the time I dismissed as minor, but soon his complaints made me realise he was seriously ill. Having recently recovered from a fever, his throat had now inflamed once more with a nasty bacterial infection. It was painful for him to speak, let alone drink or eat. The South Face was off. Disappointing as it was, there was nothing to be done. We waited till the sun had to risen to break out of the tent. Despite the dry snow, my boots had been thoroughly soaked through the course of the day, and were now frozen solid. I would have been at risk of serious frostbite had we attempted the shady south face, with its 600m of front-pointing a recipe for frozen toes. Despite the grandeur of that South Face, I was quietly grateful that we were heading down the sun-soaked French Ridge...

Michael's perserverance during the descent was admirable, plagued with a horrible condition in an unforgiving environment. We returned to Aspiring Hut that night, another tough ordeal, and Michael flew back to Christchurch that afternoon for treatment.

A self-supported ascent of Aspiring in the depths of winter is an achievement to which I would give high respect.

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