On my birthday weekend (September 20th for future reference folks…) I headed up into Mount Aspring National Park for what felt like the trip of a lifetime. My pal Ed (a very experienced climber mum…) took me out for my first real alpine mountaineering trip NZ style. A month later I am still buzzing from the trip…!

I am a mountain man, I was very fortunate to be brought up in the English Lake DIstrict and have spent a LOT of time in the fells so I’m pretty mountain savvy. However, Mt. Aspiring National Park offers extreme mountaineering like nothing I have experienced before. The slopes are severe, steep bluffs drop off into deep valleys, there is slippy snow grass to contend with, and then of course you have the avalanche risk! Yup, you need to know what you are doing, where you are going, and caution is required at all times.

Our route started down the Matukituki Valley not far from Mt. Aspiring hut.  We walked along the valley floor past Mt. Aspiring Hut and into the bush, which after a kilometre or two emerges to open up into a terrace leading to Shovel Flat. From there, we travelled through some more bush to reach Pearl Flat. From Pearl Flat, we walked along the river to near where we would start our ascent up French Ridge. OK, so this is where it got more interesting for me. We did a proper river crossing. I was a little apprehensive given I nearly drowned in a flash flood in the lake district, but Ed reassured me that if we used this technique from NZ Mountain Safety Council we would be fine… and we were. The water was glacial, bitterly bitterly cold but we soon warmed up was we got to the other side just by carrying on at a brisk pace to the start of  the ascent up French Ridge. From there, we started a steep ascent through beech forest and the sub-alpine zone. This was a good climb in itself, with creek beds, bush, knarly rocks, and short scrambling routes to negotiate, requiring quite a bit of gymnastics in parts to negotiate. Eventually, we reached the snow line at about 1200 metres. The snow was soft, so we used our poles and ice axes, Ed cut steps (thanks Ed) and I followed. At this point I was a little overwhelmed by my surroundings. About 30 minutes before getting to the snow line I clocked a step bluff ahead of us, which had a very steep drop off to the left of 50 metres or so. The minute I saw this, it made me nervous. When the route we were taking hit the patch of ground with the bluff to our left, the incline had a feeling of slightly throwing you off, and of course it was covered in snow. Here, I took it steady, making sure I had three points of contact in the snow ALL the time. Ed saw me hesitating and told me just to take one step at a time and I would be fine. We joked about it later, and quite rightly Ed said “Yup you would have been a goner-burger if you slipped there”. Yup, it felt a little exposed, but hey – a bit of firm footing, sensible mountaineering and I was fine. We carried up through the snow and reached our hut, French Ridge Hut, and I was pretty pleased to be there. We had started out at about 11am and reached the hut about 5pm, and we were ready for food!  The hut was fantastic, cold – thank goodness for down jackets – but it certainly kept us away from the elements.

I have never stayed the night on a mountain, and certainly not that high up (1465 metres), but the quietness – apart from the crack of an avalanche or the squeal of a kea – is overwhelming (I will edit this post later as I come it with better descriptors…). We slept fairly well that night apart from the keas waking us by dancing on the roof at about 3 o’clock in the morning.

The next day we ventured up towards the Outer Deck (2280metres), we didn’t go all the way as we didn’t have loads of time, but I got a real sense of what it is like to be in serious alpine country. The snow was really firm after a cold night, which made  for firm footing in our crampons, and gave good placement with the ice axe and pole. The ascent was steep and there were serious drop offs, but we were fine, the snow was good, it really was just a head game. If you wanted to, you could carry on from the Outer Deck for several hours and end up doing Mt. Aspiring (I wonder…).

We then reversed our route and headed home. Ed is super fit, so our descent was rapid and I got total jelly legs about half way down, but we eventually made it to the car feeling very pleased with ourselves. Ed and I shook hands, this was a rite of passage for me…

Take a look at the photos below, or alternatively have a look at my photostream on Fickr

The whole trip was amazing, it took me well out of my comfort zone, and for those who know me well, I am a fairly risk-averse person! But it was well and truly thrilling one of the most amazing experiences of my life.

French Ridge, and Mt. Aspiring National Park is truly inspiring. As Arnie once said, “I’ll be back…”

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