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Summer Alpine Climbing – Aspiring, Douglas & Aoraki

Updated: Jan 6

Late spring and early summer often produce fine snow & ice conditions for mountaineering routes on our great peaks. Since the recent trials for the New Zealand Alpine team, the new team members have been busy getting out into the mountains ticking classic routes throughout the Southern Alps. Between them they have racked up ascents of Aspiring, Aoraki, and Douglas, all climbed in superb conditions. One of the core ambitions of the NZ Alpine team is to link up climbing partners keen to go alpine climbing together, and this has certainly been the case over the last few months.

In early November, David Chen and Chris Sillars walked up the Matukituki to French Ridge, establishing themselves for an attempt of the South-west ridge of Mt Aspiring. The higher snow-line in spring made their approach much easier than experienced by Alastair and Michael, who, attempting the South Face in mid-winter, endured exhausting snow-shoeing through fresh snow from the bush-line.

The SW ridge of Aspiring is a classic line in the Southern Alps, ascending a majestic snow ridgeline, culminating in a steep ice couloir (WI3). David and Chris set off from French Ridge hut soon after midnight, breaking onto the Bonar as first glow of dawn illuminated their objective. They moved efficiently up the gradually steepening ridge, relishing the firm conditions set by recent rain. Reaching the couloir, the team was feeling confident and continued through the steeper sections of the route un-roped, making quick time to the summit. As a result, the Ramp descent route was not affected by solar softening. This was Chris second time on the summit, having climbed the NW ridge rock route the previous summer, and Davids first 3000m peak.

With only a days rest, David Chen teamed up with Brent Butler to fly in to Pioneer Hut perched on the Fox Neve to take advantage of a brief weather window and the good ice conditions. Their objective: the South Face of Douglas Peak. As far as accessible, technical climbing on 3000m peaks, Pioneer offers a base second to none. The pair left Pioneer at 4am and by first light David was striking his tools into the plastic alpine ice filling the right-hand gulley on the south face. Pausing from an efficient routine of simul-climbing to pitch out one steep section of WI4, the pair made great time to the summit, having enjoyed a classic ice line up the centre of the face. They were able to descend quickly enough to catch a flight-out that afternoon, little more than 24-hours after arriving. Such is the accessibility of some of our grand peaks.

Several weeks of unsettled spring storm cycles made getting into the mountains difficult, although David found a brief clearance for a jaunt up Single Cone in the Remarkables with the US military.

In early December, a two-day window finally pushed towards Aoraki/Mt Cook National Park. After the storm had cleared, it became apparent that ice conditions on the South Face of Aoraki were in fine form, and the line of White Dreams was on. Alastair McDowell and Michael Eatson were joined by a late addition of Tawny Wagstaff, and the trio moved up the Hooker valley, weaving a route through the Pudding Rock area ice-fall in deteriorating weather, grateful to find a sheltered bivouac spot in a crevasse at the base of the West Ridge of Aoraki.

The weather cleared as the evening progressed, and despite forecasted 70km/h wind, the skies were calm as the South Face drew nearer in the early hours. Tawny tied onto the sharp end at dawn and led four steep ice pitches, and we each resisted the urge to simultaneously cry and vomit as the screaming barfies coursed through our thawing finger tips. Alastair took over the lead for the next block, enjoying plentiful rock protection as well as bomber screw placements for the well featured ice steps. After turning a corner, the final crux of the route came into view an ice-cliff just left of one of the major seracs on the face. Michael traversed into position and sent the pitch of consistent WI3 in good style.

The angle of the upper face relented, but required focus as the icy conditions persisted. It was surreal to finally top out on the Low Peak of Aoraki/Mt Cook as the sun set over the cloud-filled valleys of the West Coast, the Caroline face plunged 2000m below, and our next objective the Grand Traverse stared us down in the fading light. Wary of our fatigue and the onset of night, we simul-climbed the engaging snow & rock ridgeline to Porter Col.

We un-roped for the final climb to our accommodation for the night, NZs highest backpackers Middle Peak Hotel. This was the scene of Mark Inglis & Philip Dooles 14-day survival epic. We set to work melting snow with our Jet-boil, and flattening out a sleeping platform, before collapsing inside bivvy bags, exhausted from the days effort. Before passing out, we each agreed that this was our most intense day of alpine climbing to date.

The third day dawned blue-bird as we emerged from our ice-cave into our world viewed from 3600 metres. From atop Middle Peak, the sweeping summit ridge towards the High Peak entered into view. Conditions across the 1-kilometre traverse varied from easy snow to hard sastrugi ice, mostly the latter, requiring calves of steel and considerable concentration. We simul-climbed as a three for security due to the firm conditions. Ice protection was adequate, but use of the rope did involve much frustration, often catching on shards of sastrugi or slicing through the snow cornice. On the summit of High Peak, we were joined by Reg Measures and Timothy Elson, who had followed our scent from the Hooker Valley, repeating our exact route in blisteringly quick time, showing how efficiently the route can be climbed.

David Chen and Gemma Wilson were by this time descending the summit rocks after climbing the Zurbriggen Ridge. Earlier that morning, the pair were initially disheartened when they woke to white out on the Grand Plateau, however, within half an hour the skies cleared, and they set off with another party of two – Simon and Caleb. The bergschrund at the bottom of the route was easily negotiated and they made reasonable time up soloing up the East Face, topping out below the summit rocks.

At the summit rocks they encountered some great mixed climbing, as plenty of ice had formed from the previous storm. They reached the summit at 1030 in the morning with big smiles. A busy day on New Zealands highest, and an excellent start to a summer in the Southern Alps.

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