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Mt. Aspiring Expedition, Nov '09

posted 15 Feb 2010, 15:27 by Miles Mason   [ updated 1 Mar 2010, 01:36 ]
'Wash your mouth out!' Clearly I had said something wrong; my innocent question of the extent of the climbing possibilities in Mt. Aspiring National Park had raised the ire of the usually quiet spoken and outstandingly polite legend, Allan Uren. At least now I knew there was more to be climbed in the National Park than Mt. Aspiring itself. This conversation took place in July, during the magical time that was the Darrans Winter Meet 2009. It was the seed of an idea which would grow to become a very successful trip to the region in November.

Saturday November 14th, 2009. Myself and Edwin Sheppard are struggling up French Ridge in the
midst of a storm, lugging our 30+kg packs towards the glorious shelter of French Ridge hut. Ed is getting colder by the minute in the biting wind-driven snow so we opt to stop and shelter under a rock while we re-fuel and warm up. 10 minutes, a whole lot of shivering and an entire bar of chocolate later, we're moving again. Unfortunately not for long. As I start up the next steep section, my legs refuse to keep moving and I yell out in pain as cramps work their way over my quads. I'm now cursing the lack of pre-trip training; maybe going on a major adventure two days after my last exam wasn't such a great idea. We slowly continue on until I realise that I can't get to the hut if we continue in the same manner. So we find a handy place and dump the technical equipment - ropes, stakes, screws, harness, draws, biners, everything. With that load off, I manage to continue on for the half hour it takes to get to the hut.

The next day its still blowing a gale and the weather isn't really expected to ease at all until Tuesday. We take this as a sign and take a rest day, well spent sipping hot cups of various delicious sweet liquids. We're surprised to find a couple of climbers arrive at the hut in the evening and even more surprised to learn that they're fellow Aucklanders, bound for the same objective (SW ridge) as us!

We still have daybags filled with food to pick up down at the roadend so on the Monday, with one semi-full pack between us, we start on back down the hill, moving quickly,delighted to arrive at the valley floor in beautiful sunshine. Far too hot for thick overtrou, we both strip off - Ed is intelligent enough to have thermals under his, but I have none, so as we trot down the valley, I feel quite liberated. There's nothing like the feeling of sun on bare legs! After shocking a few foreign daywalkers with more than they wanted to see, we make it back to the road-end and recover our daybags - only to discover that mine has been eaten into by rats. Those little blighters! No harm done though, just the loss of half a loaf of bread. We're soon on our way again, stopping briefly for a speedy lunch at Aspiring Hut. After that, I feel light-headed and not totally lucid as we continue on up-valley. I'm not even sure if I'll make it up to the hut. Again. But we continue pushing on and arrive home at 9pm to news of improving weather the next day and a perfect day on Wednesday! Sweet!

'C'mon Dorkland! Get up!' Nick Cradock was nice enough to wake us as he prepared to leave with his client for the Bonar Glacier. It was far earlier than we were planning to wake. We get up and prepare for our departure, we'll follow them a bit later in the day to to camp overnight on the Bonar. After sorting out the gear, we start cooking up a huge lunch - carb loading with pasta. As we do, who should walk through the door, but our friend from AURAC, Asher! Ed and Asher had climbed Aoraki together the previous season and they'll now be making an attempt on Tititea at the same time also. We add some more pasta into the pot and then all sit down together for a hot meal. Ed and myself leave not long afterward to set up camp, leaving Asher and his partner Stu in the hut. They'll be leaving direct from there for their ascent.

We arrive on the glacier via the Quarterdeck at 2pm and after a wee chat with the ever-colourful Cradock we're off to set up the tent. After dinner and some hot drinks, we lay everything out for the morning and get in our sleeping bags at 7pm. Its still light outside and it takes 2 hours of tossing and turning before we manage to get to sleep. I'm apprehensive to say the least, my first big mountain and my first proper alpine start. The alarm goes at 2am and we tumble out of the tent into the oppressively frigid night air. The stunningly clear night allows us our first view of Mt. Aspiring, its bulk looming inky, wraithe-like from the night sky. A struggle to get the stove going and then breakfast, super duper hot choccies and we're away at 3:30am. Asher and Stu are already past us and we're grateful as we follow pre-plugged steps through the powder. After some time, we decide that the steps are continuing in the wrong direction and after a short discussion, we veer off uphill, taking turns to lead through the soft material. The slope steepens and all of a sudden Ed puts his leg into a crevasse. Probably a good idea to put the rope on about now.

By now, we know for sure we're going in the right direction and arrive without further incident at the bottom of the steep slope which we plan to use to gain access to the ridge proper. We stop to take the rope off and have a drink, we can see the headlamps of the other teams behind us. Its added encouragement and we start on up, flat-footing at first, but changing to front-points as the angle increases. The climbing is easy but, as always tiring on the calves. A short steepish section is quickly dispatched and we're established on the ridge proper. We take a rest while the sun comes
up, watching the others taking a break down the bottom of the slope. We take a video then continue on , flat-footing out way up the elegant curving summit ridge. Steadily, bit by bit, we make our way toward the crux couloir, a steep wall blocking access to the upper mountain. By the time I've arrived, Ed's kicked out a belay ledge and he's racking up for the climb. I give him the lead and whack in a knifeblade for a belay. Ed places an early ice screw and then starts onto the 80° ice. Two more screws and he's done with the really steep stuff, the rope feeds out faster as Ed moves over the easier ground. He runs out of rope and I start preparing to leave as he constructs the anchor. Soon I'm climbing, as the second, making sure I move quickly, over the steep ice and then daggering up to the belay. The crux is done! We put the rope away on 55° hard snow, feeling slightly insecure about waiting around for so long on steep ground. Then we're away, moving again, pushing against the wind whipping across the upper mountain. The surface is icy and the angle is sustained; we take frequent short rests, trying to keep our calves going. It seems like the longest part of the climb, its steep, scary and sustained; we're relieved when we finally reach the NW ridge, its great to be on flatter ground again. From here its just the short easy ridge to the summit. The wind is roaring up the south face, taking a plume of spindrift with it. I shoot a video as Ed approaches the summit and then follow to join him on top. The summit is as I imagined, satisfying, beautiful, talk about dramatic! We take a pile of photos and then go down about 15m down to have our 'lunch' (its 8:30 at this stage). Part way through our luxurious 30 minute lunch, Asher and Stu also reach the summit.

We descend down the NW ridge as a four. The ground is easy and even with the wind still whipping around, its pleasant going. A half hour later, we're at the top of 'The Ramp', site of half the deaths in the National Park. I'm definitely nervous as we descend but all goes to plan and we arrive back down at the glacier safely. Soon we're back across to the campsite and the four of us have a post-match chat, collective whine etc. That night we're back in the hut, resting and feeling relaxed - primary objective complete!

The next day is beautiful too, we're too pooped to get out and do anything so we just hang around in the sun, dry gear and generally enjoy the weather. With Friday and Saturday both looking awful weather-wise, we bunk down for a couple of days in the hut, reading, getting beaten by Ed at chess. Saturday night brings a positive forecast for Sunday, so we prepare to go out the next day. Our plan to is to attempt the second ascent of the Summit Ridge Traverse of Mt. Avalanche, first climbed in '69 and apparently not since. We know the freezing level is falling overnight, so to ensure we get the good freeze, we set the alarm for 3am.

We're out the door and onto beautiful crunchy snow by 4am. We make good time up the Quarterdeck and then around to the base of the West ridge of Mt. Avalanche. We start soloing up pleasant rock slabs, enjoying the relatively solid rock and interesting climbing. We pitch a more compact looking section and before we know it, we're on the summit. This is where the fun really starts - ahead of us lies a kilometre of the most complex ridgeline either of us have ever seen. We both know this won't be easy. I start down the near-vertical soft snow off the summit, sling a large rock and then frontpoint out across the top of a large snowfield - not realising that my gentle tugging is translating into attempts to pull Ed off the mountain at his end of the rope. Some antics to make up for a lack of snowstakes get us across the snowfield. From here on its smooth sailing for a while, alternating between soloing and simulclimbing.

But as I lead down the back of a gendarme, a handhold pulls and I find myself launching backwards into space, thoughts of impending serious injury fill my mind as I plummet toward the waiting ice and rock. The rope stops me ever-so-gently and I graze against some rocks. Adrenaline now pumping, amazed that my only injury is what feels like a graze on the back of my thigh, I call out. 'ED! ...EDDD! I'M OKAY!'. No reply. We're out of earshot. I carefully climb up and sit on the crest of the ridge, unsure of what to do. I don't want to try and climb back up the section I just fell off but I can't find anything decent to use for an anchor. I sit and pant for a while. Meanwhile, Ed is using his Reverso3, attached to his harness as an autoblock to belay himself across to me. By the time he's halfway to me, I've managed to find an anchor and I'm belaying him in too. Finally, we're within earshot and we then both abseil down to a snowfield below. I'm shaken, but happy to continue on for the moment. Another few hundred metres of traversing brings us to the crux of the route. Probably a good time to have some lunch. While unpacking the sammiches, Ed discovers that his platypus has leaked and turned his down jacket into a raro-soaked ball of stickiness. This is bad news, we're not even halfway through the day and we'll have to survive the rest of the time on 1.5L of liquid... not good.

After lunch, we set up a bomber anchor and ab down into the infamous notch, traversing across a series of snowy ledges brings us to a rock prow. We're not yet in the notch. We set another anchor and Ed abseils down a snowslope and then off the vertical edge of the notch proper. I wait at the anchors... and wait, then wait some more. Eventually I hear the off rope call and start my abseil, willing the anchor to stay where its supposed to. As I reach near the end of the ropes, I discover they don't quite get to the bottom of the notch - this is what caused all the waiting around. After a bit of tomfoolery, we're both down in the notch, looking up at a blank wall running with snowmelt. Its intimidating. As the better rock-climber, Ed takes the lead. A short knifeblade pin is the only gear on the blank wall, Ed climbs above it, bearing down on small crimps and crampons on tiny crumbling edges. Its a horribly tenuous position to be in; there are hardly any footholds, his hands are rapidly numbing from the chilling water soaking the wall and a fall would mean ripping the piton and a Factor 2 onto the belay. Its not gonna happen, he carefully reverses the moves back to the belay and spends the next five minutes dealing with the hot aches as his hands warm up. At this stage I'm still feeling shaken after my fall and I suggest the idea of abseiling off the ridge down to the safety of the glacier. But Ed's having none of it - down and to the left we can see what looks like a ledge leading up and around, a way to bypass the wall. He's happy to take the lead and reluctantly I agree to the plan, Ed's enthusiasm overcoming my negative mindset.

He starts off down the steep loose gully and when he reaches the point at which he can step over to the ledge, places a substantial nut. He then takes the large step over to the ledge, taking the time to smash an icicle out of the way before placing a second big nut and disappearing around the corner. The ropes continue to feed out steadily, occasional instructions yelled back before I hear a whoop and a call of on belay - he's done it! I dismantle the belay and with trepidation follow the ropes down the steep gully, chimneying carefully off the sides before I reach the first nut placement. I wrap my hand around the sling, aiding off the nut as I stretch my foot across the expanse - making sure I ignore the hundreds of metres of air beneath me. I reach the ledge and call for a tight rope as I fiddle around removing the nut. After its out, I establish and see that the ledge is a perfect ramp, leading back up to the crest of the ridge. I make my way up, pleased to have the tight rope above me, crampon points smearing on rock slab. I arrive at the belay without any further fuss, we're both ecstatic, the crux is behind us! I don't waste any time in moving off on the lead but its not long until I reach a section we need to abseil, a wave of rock with a huge overhang on one side. There's an ancient piton here - where the first ascentionists rapped down. We discuss options while straddled on the crest of the wave and the only plan we have is to wrap the rope around a knob on the top and make our way down from that. Unfortunately, this plan involves lowering ourself off the crest by our arms to commit to the abseil. I set up my device on the ropes, backed up with an autoblock prussick and then lower myself off the edge, gingerly committing my weight to the rope. It holds and I abseil down, finding somewhere to wait while Ed abs down. When he lowers himself off the edge, the rope partially slips off the knob. Hanging from his hands over a massive void, he reaches up and sets the rope back onto the anchor. Phew! With that out of the way, we continue simulclimbing along the ridge, wary of the approaching night. Just as we think we're home free, we come to another abseil. We wrap the rope around a big block, the tension holding it on and each of us carefully makes our way down to a snowfield which leads the way to the finish of the traverse, middle peak. Putting away the rope, we solo up snow and then loose rock to the summit. Completely tired out, thirsty and elated, we contemplate the prospect of a quick run out to low peak but the fading light makes the decision for us.

The relative safety of the glacier is reached at 9:30, the last of the light rapidly disappearing. We trudge down along the Maud Francis glacier toward the Flightdeck, regularly stopping to suck on chunks of snow. We talk about the events of the day and how we're pleased its a warm and windless night. A quick climb up the Flightdeck brings us to the Bonar glacier and we're quickly on top of the Quarterdeck, eager to be down the ridge and back to the hut. We finally walk in at midnight, have a brew and attack our sleeping bags with exhaustion.

The next couple of days pass with consistent bad weather so we decide to walk out early. We attempt to eat as much of our food as possible before we leave and then trudge out in the rain, pleased to be heading back to the dry and warm.

We'd like to thank the Auckland Uni climbing and tramping clubs for the gear hire, NZAC for the guidebooks and huts and everyone we met for being awesome.