Mount Aspiring two ways
15th August 2014
Rob Hawes and I had a plan to head into Colin Todd Hut sometime in August to check out the south face of Aspiring and tick off Stargazer (highest peak in the Haast Range). An unusually long fine spell was spotted, which started on about the 15th of August and held into the start of September (is this some sort of record?) South Face of Aspiring
After we were dropped at Bevan Col on the 15th of August we put on snow shoes and headed over to Colin Todd Hut. This was to be our home for the next six nights. Unlike my regular home, this one required a shovel to dig out the snow from around the front door and did not have running water. The last entry in the hut book was from Guy McKinnon. He had checked out the snow conditions on the Bonar Glacier before his successful winter ascent of the east face of the Popes Nose in July. His entry mentioned poor snow conditions, deteriorating weather and a 'nasty bivvy'!
After a cup of tea we headed outside again to check out conditions on Mt Aspiring. We noted that even though a significant amount of snow had recently fallen (one metre was reported at Cascade Saddle a few days prior), most of this snow had been blown away by strong southerly winds. Snow shoes were useful in the afternoon to travel around the Bonar Glacier, but not essential. The ramp, south west ridge and upper sections of the south face were all wind stripped and the avalanche risk on these aspects was judged to be low. We also noted that even late in the afternoon the south face was still completely in shade at this time of year. This is a good thing as it means the risk of ice falling due to solar activity is minimised. The light southerly breeze forecast for the following day would also help to keep things cool. On the 16th we departed Colin Todd Hut shortly before 5am and headed to the south face. At about 8am we started weaving our way through the crevasses at the bottom of the face. We were forced out left a long way. This meant that after climbing over the 'schrund’ we had to traverse back right about 100m on slightly soft snow before reaching the ice proper. We were both glad to reach the ice which turned out to be fantastic 'climbing ice' (i.e. probably not so great for accepting ice screws).
With Rob ahead, we solo-ed up the first half of the face. The exposure was terrific. However, the climbing was relatively straightforward with each ice tool only requiring a single swing to stick. As we progressed up the slope I thought it was about time to sample a “5-hour energy” product I got free with an online gear purchase and took a swig and scoffed a few lollies. Now I was really in the zone. As I continued up the steep ice slope, Rob went out of sight and I became lost in the moment, focused only on my feet, tool placements and breath.
As I reached the end of the lower section, Rob came back into view and we discovered that the traverse section which looked short from the Bonar Glacier was actually quite long. We started pitching at this stage. I led the first pitch, which was a 60m horizontal traverse. Going up is much easier! During the second pitch we probably only gained 20m vertical. Pitch three ended up being the crux pitch and was highly enjoyable to lead. As I belayed Rob up to the top of pitch three could see that we were getting quite close to topping out on the Coxcomb Ridge. Sure enough, pitch four brought us to the ridge and from here it was a short walk to the summit.
We were on the summit about 3pm. It was great to finally get out of the shade and we quickly started to overheat. Just below the summit we stopped for a late lunch and we melted some snow to rehydrate for the descent.
Rob wandered off ahead as I took some more photos and I met him again at the top of the ramp. We discussed our descent options. We knew from the recce day that the ramp was quite icy. It would require pitching, especially given our tired states. We chose to continue along the north west ridge until we reached the end of a large buttress. From here it is possible to rap off using 2 x 60m ropes onto snow slopes above the Bonar Glacier. I hadn't done this before but Rob had seen guides use this as a descent route in summer. The ridge traverse was interesting but not overly challenging and we reached the buttress in about thirty minutes. The abseil went smoothly and we were putting the ropes away as the sun went down. Once back at the hut we decided the following day would be a rest day! Interestingly, my calf muscles were fine, but my quads felt similar to when I did the 50km Tararua peaks loop in a day (sore!)
Stargazer During our rest day (17th) it lightly snowed. I spent my time reading Paul Hersey's book 'Where The Mountains Throw Their Dice' (found at Colin Todd Hut) which was a very thought provoking book on climbing.
The following day (18th) we headed towards Stargazer, initially staying on the west side of Rolling Pin and subsequent peaks until we got to the col between Mainroyal and Pt 2296. However within minutes of the sun hitting the eastern slopes, we observed, from the safety of the col, the new powder sloughing off. In some cases these sloughs were initialising small point releases on the main slopes, which would have the potential to knock a climber off their feet. With some disappointment we returned to the hut to try again the following day.
We were successful on the 19th and I'm glad we chose to wait a day as our old tracks were lightly covered in snow in places from the solar-related activity the previous day. The biggest drama was that Rob initially started climbing Skyscraper, not Stargazer! I confirmed my gut feeling with a GPS and we continued onto Stargazer without incident. In the wintry conditions the east ridge was straightforward and did not require a rope (except for glacier travel). South west ridge of Aspiring
That afternoon, with our two main objectives already completed, we managed to contact DOC in Wanaka via the radio and get an updated forecast. “We don't normally do this” she said, but we were grateful that she did on this occasion. We were a little scared calling her back, though, after I realised I'd forgotten to record one key bit of info (the situation for tomorrow!)
The forecast was good for climbing the next day (20th) which was coincidently the date I had said I'd be back at work. Not so! The south west ridge was too tempting .... Also my partner Lorraine Johns had just climbed Kilimanjaro (5895m). Climbing Mt Aspiring (3033m) twice makes 6066m right!?
Having already been past the south west ridge on the way to the south face, and knowing the descent route, we had a rather relaxed approach to this climb. The lower sections of the ridge were pleasant and we rapidly gained height. We also had a prime view of the south face and it looked rather imposing from this angle. We were glad we did the harder climb first!
At this time of year the crux was totally filled in with fat ice and it was an enjoyable lead. We kept pitching past the crux and towards the summit (three pitches in total), mainly because it seemed easier to continue pitching than try to put the rope away.
We summited Mt Aspiring for the second time on this trip at 11am and Rob promptly made a phone call to his daughter. As it turned out, tomorrow was his birthday and he was confirming that we'd be out tomorrow for the celebratory dinner!
Walkout 'Happy birthday!' I called out to Rob after the 4:30am alarm woke us up. Outside it was clear but a strong southerly was blowing. We left the hut around 6am but only made it as far as the toilet before returning! The spindrift stung our faces and we could barely stand. However, we knew the hut was on a windy spot and it probably wouldn't be as bad lower down. We put on sunglasses to protect our eyes from the snow and set out once again!
The trudge across to Bevan Col in high winds was pretty average and we were running on empty. After finding a sheltered place for a drink and an OSM bar we felt a little better and continued on out. The lower sections of the Bevan Col descent route were very straightforward in winter conditions (what slabs? what waterfall?) and we were back in Wanaka before dark, with plenty of time to freshen up before heading out for dinner!
Somnus During a rest day in Wanaka (22nd) I decided another peak was in order before returning to Wellington. Fortunately, Rob agreed. We set off from Wanaka at around 6am on the 23rd for Somnus, the highest peak in the Humboldt mountain range. We accessed Somnus by driving to the start of the Routeburn Track, walking to Routeburn Falls Hut and then up the North Branch.
Wikipedia told me that “In Greek mythology Hypnos was the personification of sleep. The Roman equivalent was know as Somnus”. What I knew about Somnus was that it has a magnificent feature – the Somnus Couloir. The climb is about 1800m vertical from the carpark to the summit and about one half of this is gained via the couloir. Step plugging up this sucker really started to wear us out, even with light packs (no ropes, just a stove and some overnight camping gear).
We arrived on the plateau late afternoon and were able to pitch the tent, drop our gear and summit before dinner. A pleasant night's camping followed before a gentle walk out on Sunday 24th. I'd left my car in Frankton for a 'quick' dash back to Christchurch. This ended up taking ages, particularly as every hour or two I'd stop and buy delicacy items such as sushi, real-fruit ice cream, coffee & a muffin, fish and chips, Red Bull and chicken chips! Sunday night was spent in a motor park cabin in Christchurch, before catching the early morning flight back to Wellington and the world of work.
- Party members
- Simon Bell(scribe), Rob Hawes