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“Quite Aspirational”: A linkup on the South Face of Mt Aspiring

Updated: Dec 30, 2023

Tititea – Mt Aspiring. Probably the winner for my favourite mountain in New Zealand. Or contender for favourite journey – the idyllic walk up the Matukituki, French Ridge Hut perched high above the river, and the somewhat lonesome beauty of the peak itself, presiding above the expanse of the Bonar.

I’d taken advantage of the relative quiet of 2020 to be up the peak twice, by the Southwest and Northwest ridges. Each time, I’d looked over from the Bonar neve at the South Face with a mix of both fear and longing. October 2021 rolled around and ice was fat on South Faces around the Alps. The South Face of Douglas had just yielded an excellent adventure, and I was keen to sink my picks into another. So when a three day weather window presented itself, Sooji Clarkson and I teamed up with the intention to take on a south facing… something. The classic White Dreams (South Face Cook)? Or The Curver (South Face Hicks)? With the weather not quite shaping up to what we’d hoped, fears of avalanche conditions up the Hooker glacier in that first day after a big storm caused us to abandon those plans in favour of the safer approach to the South Face of Aspiring.

Driving to Wanaka after work in the pouring rain, we were grateful to Paul Rogers for kindly giving us a roof over our heads that night. In the light of morning we cruised up the valley, breaking pace only to crab walk across the swing bridges – the only way their narrowness would accommodate our skis! West coast style (read: tree roots) boulder problems on the French ridge track, once again made more interesting with the addition of skis on the pack… The hut saw a transition to skis, accompanied by plenty of made-up reasons why we should stay at the hut that evening. Logic however eventually prevailed, and in golden afternoon light we slowly skinned up to Quarterdeck Pass, anxious to get a look at the South Face before darkness fell.

We were not disappointed! Perfect timing and a perfect viewpoint from the Quarterdeck, and we picked out our line for the next day. We would try to stay as directly under the summit as possible, starting up the line “Mixed Aspirations” (Pete O’Connor, Bruce Hasler, 1997), and linking it to the finish of “Quite Direct” (Al Uren, 1993). We pointed skis down the Bonar neve, and where we ran out of momentum, we bivvied. Darkness came, and the moon rose over the Pope's Nose to light the whole glacier as if it were day. The temperature however dropped as quickly as the daylight, and our Radix dinners were hurriedly eaten from sleeping bag cocoons.

Our alarm broke the stillness at 0330am the next morning, where the moon still provided enough light to eat a quick breakfast by. Then we were up and right into a slog up to the base of the face. The closer we got, the deeper the snow got, and the more laboured our progress. The bergshrund was a relief, and we found even greater relief at the base of the first pitch. Finally. A happy Sooji led off and up the steep, blobby ice bulges. A couple of screws in solid ice, an anchor to bring me up, then a storm of faff and I dropped a bundle of slings and screws off the face. The Sooji was a little less happy.

The second pitch through the top of the rock band looked positively staunch. A thin drip of ice down a slabby corner, and steep steps with curtains of icicles. Happy again, Sooji proclaimed it looked “fun", and gladly took the lead. I watched with apprehension as it however took her somewhat longer than the first…

"She’s onsighted M8s, what if this thing is M8?” “I've never even sent an M6.” “My tools aren't even as nice as hers… This isn't fair!"

These thoughts swirled in my mind as Sooji worked her way up the thin ice. Another anchor materialised, the ropes came tight, and I began to fight up the pitch. It wasn't easy, but it was, as promised – loads of fun. Great sticks in plastic ice, some cool drop-knee mixed moves through a corner, and a steep pull through an overhang onto an ice bulge to finish it all off. For our reward, the angle then eased off significantly. We simul-climbed in two blocks, both attached to the rope, both moving simultaneously, with protection between us.

We crossed the right leaning ramps of the Denz-Thompson and Original routes. Guided by the ethos of taking ‘the road less travelled’, I forged up a small hanging ramp parallel to, but between the established routes. The summit was looking tantalizingly close. We went back into simul-climbing mode, and Sooji sped off with the rack. A true queen of runouts, and lover of conservation efforts… she conserved the gear so much that we didn’t stop until we were fully run out of face left to climb

Following the rope, I popped out over a soft snow lip into the sunshine of the summit, greeting three bewildered skiers. We were happy with our speed, having left our bivvy only around 7 hours previous. As our cup of tea brewed up I remembered I was in ski boots, so proceeded with the logical task of trying to buy a pair of skis off our new companions… but it was to no avail. Thus, we soon commenced our descent on foot. Drat. One easy rappel off a piton atop the SW Ridge’s crux ice step found us on relatively easy ground. We snuck off the East of the ridge, a shortcut returning us to our bivy by late afternoon.

A pleasant ski across the Bonar found us at the Breakaway. Mt French was spitting out hunks of wet snow on occasion, but with the speed we expected to travel on our skis, the risk would be reduced to a level we found acceptable. Just as the sun dipped behind Mt Barff, we scythed through our last glorious corn turns down the ridge, right to the steps of the hut.

Sooji was eager for another early start to walk out the next day, saying something about up the Tasman, that arvo, nip up the East Face of Mt Walter, why not… or something. My thirst for send satiated, I was perhaps less enthusiastic. She took the opportunity for a run back to the car in the name of 'training' while I, lacking motivation, lounged in the sun near Cascade Hut until a 4WD appeared (magic!) to give me a ride out. Back in Wanaka, we rewarded ourselves with fried chicken, and for Sooji – her favourite: carrots (for power).

By Owen Daniell, October 2021.

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