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SW Ridge: Aspiring, NZ
Jan. 16-21, 2006
with Thomas Haines
by Krister Sorensen
Along the vally floor.
We left the car and made it to Aspiring Hut in about 2.5 hours. It was there that I realized I forgot my gators back at the car. We decided that we could jimmy rig something and we didn’t need to go all the way back; however, this got Thomas thinking about things that he could have left at the car and he realized that he didn’t have his headlamp! This was an item we couldn’t go without. We left our packs at Aspiring Hut and walked the approximated four miles back to the car, hung out for a bit, ate some food and walked all the way back. Not a fun detour and so stupid of us. We camped outside Aspiring Hut in the shelter.
The next day we made the grunt to the French Ridge Hut. We decided to make the river crossing instead of going up the valley to the swing bridge which turned out to be a good idea because despite the 1 km marker we heard the trek to the bridge is steep and long. In preparation for this we hiked the valley and crossed the river in our running shoes. On the other side of the river we put on our boots and hid our shoes in a bush for the way back.
The lower part of French Ridge is crazy. It was pretty steep and at many points we were climbing up the roots of trees! Once we made it to the hut we had plenty of time to relax. That night two groups were unaccounted for; two Kiwis and four Austrians. They were supposed to arrive at French from Colin Tod Hut, but they never showed up. The weather that day was not very good, so there were a lot of concerns. The weather report for the next day was not very good either, so we decided to make it a rest day.
The next morning both groups showed up. They said visibility was ghastly and they couldn’t find the ¼ Deck, so they dug a snow cave that the two Kiwis (who were women) and two Austrians slept in, and the two other Austrians (one was a woman) slept in a tent. They were tired but glad to be in shelter. The Austrians wanted a helicopter to fly them out from there but helicopters are only allowed to do that in an emergency, which, in my opinion, there was no emergency and they were more than able to hike out. The Austrians were upset about this and we found out later they issued a formal complaint! Sometimes I can’t believe the laziness of some climbers. The two Kiwi women were awesome, though. We found out later from them that the Austrians would have been in bad shape if it weren’t for them, though they were quite humble about it.
The next day we left the hut around 11 am and hiked to the base of the SW Ridge. We could tell that there was ice in the couloir which affirmed our aspiration to attempt it. We made a ledge to sleep on with our ice tools and waited out the rest of the day. We were hungry so we ate two dinner’s worth of food!
Just below the Route.
The next morning was completely clear and we started our climb at 6:30 am. As we were making our way up there were two other climbers coming up behind us. We were carrying all our bivy gear up and over while these guys had hardly anything. One had a small pack and the other carried only the rope. This allowed them to move a little faster than us and they caught up to us at the first rock section. Tom led through a crazy rock line where we had to mantel over a big block on a small ledge. It was kind of scary. The rest of the rock section was pretty simple and it brought us to the ridge proper. As I was following Tom through the rocks, on of the two other guys lost a crampon, and it was gone down the slope. They descended and were not to be seen again, though Tom and I both thought they could have retrieved their crampon and still surmount the mountain with little problem for as fast as they were moving, but I guess they didn’t think so. Maybe the crampon broke.
On the Ridge Proper.
The ridge was fast moving ground and such a beautiful line. When we got to the base of the couloir I could see Tom’s desire to lead it in his eyes, and although I also wanted to lead it I let him have it.
It wasn’t too steep; WI 3+ I would guess, but the ice was crap! Most of it was rime and wouldn’t take a screw. You would sink your picks in and they would slice through the ice when you tried to pull down on them. Thankfully this only lasted for about 20 feet until it came to easier ground. From the top of his pitch I took the lead out of the couloir.
Pitch after the Crux.
Two pitches and that was the crux. Tom took the lead again to the top but once the rope went tight we were simul-climbing again to the summit. It was pretty windy and kind of cold. The sky was clear and we had some amazing views. It looked like we would have great weather for the rest of the day. We unroped for the descent and started making our way down the NW ridge. This ridge is not steep at all and made for a quick and easy descent until the Ramp. We were planning on going down the Ramp but we were advised to continue down the ridge and rap off the buttress. Some thick fog made its way in and made things really interesting.
Not the best weather to descend in.
Aspiring is made of the rock “schist,” which is exactly what it sounds like. The rock would crumble apart in your hand. The ridge becomes extremely exposed and we had to make some sketchy moves on this crap rock. Apparently, this is supposed to be safer than the Ramp. The guides will no longer use the Ramp because that is where the most amount of deaths on Aspiring have been so now they use the buttress. After being on it myself, I can’t imagine the Ramp is more dangerous than the buttress. I would bet in a few years they will have a lot more deaths on the buttress than they ever had on the Ramp, but I can’t say for sure because I’ve never been on the Ramp.
With the help of a guide for route finding, we finally got off the buttress and onto snow, but the fog was still among us and visibility was even worse. We kept hitting crevasse after crevasse and it was difficult to navigate. All we needed was a short clearing, but the guided group caught back up to us and helped us once again. This is the danger of descending a route you’ve never been on. I know we would have been fine on our own, but it was nice to have the assistance of the guide.
We decided to not go to Colin Tod and to continue up the Bonar, around Mount French, and descend to the French Ridge. The rest of the descent was pretty uneventful. Some more fog rolled in when we were on the Bonar, but we had the ¼ Deck marked on my GPS. The Bonar is notorious for fog, so I suggest doing something similar to be able to find your way back. 14 hours from our start time we were back at French Ridge Hut. We spent one last night there then made our way back to the car the next day. It took about six hours to get to the car. No problem!
Finding the way through the Fog on the Bonar
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