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South West Ridge of Mt Aspiring

Updated: Jan 6

“One of the classic climbs in the Alps, says Allan Uren in the Mt Aspiring Guidebook, talking about the South West Ridge of Mt Aspiring. It has been on my top-priority list of climbs for an embarrassingly long time, one supposedly to do at the first available opportunity. I don?t know why 5 years has gone by since I last went up Mt Aspiring, but it might be that we have so much good climbing in New Zealand and every time a high pressure system comes along, there is too much to choose from. I rang Gemma Wilson to talk her into climbing the North Buttress of Sabre (also on the list) with a few days of mint weather forecast right after Christmas. A few minutes went by until I detected a hint of hesitation in her voice. Wait, what did you have in mind, Gemma South West Ridge of Aspiring Hmmm? [0.01 seconds passes by] Hell yeah! This was followed by a dumb conversation about where we could borrow mountain bikes to cycle up the West Matukituki. Dumb because eventually I twigged that Gemma drives a Surf. I rang the Aspinalls and got the key to the gate. Diesel trumps pushbike, and two days later we were hooning up Wilsons Bluff, in perfect weather, with Neil Young cranking on the stereo. Ah, the Matukituki it was good to be back. We left the car at the gate near Cascade Hut and set off on an uneventful but desperately hot grunt up to French Ridge Hut. We downed about 4 L of water each, cooked tea, watched the kea swim in the tarn and went to bed at the civilised hour of 8pm. At the uncivilised hour of 2am the alarm went off, and by 2.45 we were off beyond the hut, torches almost pointless with a perfect full moon to light the way. The climb to the Quarterdeck was fast, on good snow with not too many crevasse issues, and I got to repeat my usual thing of excessively hyping up the view from the Quarterdeck and how awesome it is. Gemma popped over the top first and agreed entirely it is such a great place!

Gemma on the Bonar Glacier
Aspiring West Face and SW Ridge

Brew time
Gemma above the mantle on the crux pitch
Gemma on the summit
Gemma and Jaz on the summit

The glacier was in perfect condition, with roping up unnecessary and a faint breeze blowing us home. But, its still a long way to the Quarterdeck we'd dropped to 1800m to avoid the messiest parts of the glacier and it's 2300m on the pass. It was 8pm when we finally got below the crevasses on the Quarterdeck to outstanding glissade conditions all the way back to the hut. A 600m descent in 30 minutes was much better than the day?s average it had been 18 hours since we left the hut. The next morning we crawled out of our sleeping bags to begin the short march downhill and down valley. Tired legs weren't too bad since we'd been diligent about keeping hydrated and eating plenty of food the day before. Nevertheless we were very happy to accept several cups of tea from Don, the friendly warden at Aspiring Hut. After that we jumped in the river, had a wash, fired up the truck and hooned off. A classic mountain mission, indeed.

SW Ridge Beta

Gear:

Per rope team, assuming mid to late-season conditions – if early season, still take the rock gear but add a couple more screws or another light snowstake

– two semi-technical axes and sharp crampons are the go

– 1x 60m half rope

– 3-4x medium cams (0.4-1) with biners

– 6x medium wires

– an angle or knifeblade piton might have been handy

– 4x ice screws 1x 19 cm, 2x 16 cm, 1x 13 cm

– 4x extendable runners + 1 screamer

– 2x 120 cm anchor slings

– 1x lightweight MSR 60cm snowstake

Food etc: 1x Jetboil Sumo, 1x small canister LPG, raro or electrolyte Gu Brew, bothy bag. Plus food per person: 3x Gu, 3x One Square Meal or equivalent, Kendall Mint Cake or chocolate.

Strategy: Lots of people camp on the Bonar. I reckon stay at French Ridge Hut. Yes, it’s a big summit day, but let’s look at the advantages. Much better sleep. Unlimited water means you are fully hydrated. Less sunburn. Way, way smaller pack. Light sleeping bag and warmth. No tent. No need for a white spirits cooker to melt snow. Less cooker fuel. Climb the Quarterdeck with firm snow before dawn and a lighter pack – this leads to less time overall on the trip spent walking, since you go faster.

It took us 3.5 hours to get from French Ridge Hut to the foot of the West Face at a spot where you might bivvy, and it would be about 2 hours down from there. So we’ve added 5.5 hours to the summit day compared to camping. Sounds like a big deal. But let’s say it takes 5 hours to get to the same spot, with a full pack, in the afternoon sun, not 3.5. You’ve added more walking time to the trip and used more energy. You’ve got to piss around getting the tent up and melting water, and packing the tent up the next day. And you have to carry a heavy load back across the glacier. I reckon that 5.5 hours extra (probably a conservative overestimate) on the climbing day is fully worthwhile for the better sleep and better hydration alone. You’ll just function better, and with long summer days or a decent headtorch, at least 8 hours of that day are pretty brainless plodding in the snow. We stopped regularly for Gu, food, carried a Jetboil so we could melt snow and have hot sweet drinks, and had a bothy bag to get out of the wind. I reckon really big days, over 18 hours, are totally achievable with this method. Dan and Steve and Jono go for 48 hours in Patagonia with these tactics. So don’t plod miserably up the snow with a massive pack – go hard and go light from a comfortable base. It’s about the climbing, right?

The route:

It’s a walk to the bottom of the West Face from the Bonar, avoiding crevasses of course. There are windscoops where you can pause to brew up before you tackle the ridge. About halfway up the SW ridge at about 2600m there are some annoying rock bands. So, find any way up the snow leades or use rock ledges to get to the pure snow arete which leads the rest of the way up to the couloir. We didn’t need to pitch here, the snow was max 50 degrees and there were one or two scrambles on verglassed ledges that required care. The snow arete is about 30-50 degrees (mostly about 40) which in good snow would be a breeze all the way to about 2900m. Here, a couloir provides the crux of the route. No idea what it looks like in good conditions, but based on what I’ve heard, maybe a 5m 70-90 degree ice step on the left of the couloir. Probably there will still be rocks showing and these have good cracks for small-medium gear. When the crux ice is out of condition, as it was for us, we had a short, fairly unprotected mantle onto a rocky slab to the right, which led to easier broken rocky ground. About 5m of steep terrain, M3 R crux. From here it’s snow or ice on rock at about 40 degrees for about 150m until you meet the NW ridge 2 minutes below the summit.

Descent: depends on conditions. Rapping/downclimbing the SW would suck – don’t. Your best bet is whatever way on the NW Ridge is in condition. Be careful if you take the Ramp. Abseiling onto the Therma early season might warrant 2 ropes. The Buttress is easiest to navigate if you’ve been before. Good luck!

Time: we took 18 hours hut to hut. The SW ridge was really slow. We had to swing our ice axes hard for each step from basically 2700m to near the summit, with the exception of the crux where the ice was annoyingly soft. We descended the Buttress which is slow but safe compared to the Ramp. Glacier travel back across the Bonar was fast. So maybe 18 hours isn’t too far off the mark for normal conditions. But every climb is different!

MORE PHOTOS AT:


Climbing the Bonar Glacier
Gemma on the lower SW Ridge
On the NW ridge and about to tag the summit
On the Quarterdeck
Tired Gemma back at French Ridge Hut
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