Journey to Mt Aspiring
By Powergirl Em, Nutritionist, Creator of Em’s Power Cookies, 3x Coast to Coast Champion
On a beautiful sunny day with a cracker forecast, we headed into the hills of Mt Aspiring National Park for our next adventure. After a quick grocery stop to pick up supplies, we drove out to Raspberry Flat to begin our 5-day journey. Although I have lived in NZ for over 17 years and have done a fair shake of outdoor pursuits, I’m embarrassed to say I had never been into the West Matukituki Valley! My years of racing kept me focused on more specific training elsewhere I suppose. My venture into this part of Aotearoa was well overdue and I was brimming with excitement and anticipation!
My partner Craig is an outdoor superhero. He had been taking me to places I’d never been, and we had been clocking up some decent forays into the hills in the prior months.
I could feel my fitness coming back after 10 years since stopping racing. Over these years, I had drifted away from doing regular missions, and my new norm became mowing, scrub-cutting and gardening on my west coast block of land. I got distracted with the never-ending toil which took me away from being in the mountains, and this was not completely aligned with my values. Don’t get me wrong I absolutely love gardening, it was just that I became off-balance. Ahhh to be back in the mountains and feel the power of a heavy backpack and the sweet smell of beech forest. I felt like I was finally home as I drank in the majestic surroundings.
Day 1 – Raspberry Flat to Liverpool Hut ~16km
Filling the packs at the car was rather hilarious. Gear was spread out everywhere, and the quantity of food was impressive. Normally I smuggle in a few cans of Garage Project beers, but due to the length of this trip and the gear needed there was no room for that sort of carry-on. Instead I snuck some fresh veggies (a whole cucumber, 2 tomatoes and an avocado!) to feast upon for our lunch stop, much to Craig’s surprise. He shook his head in relative disdain and asked, “Who on earth carries a cucumber in an already over-loaded pack??”. I just giggled and said, “I’m Powergirl!” and pretended I couldn’t feel the weight.
Our first day was just a tramp to get into Liverpool Hut, which is perched high up overlooking the valley floor. The hut was fairly full of cheerful overseas trampers, now living in NZ.
Day 2 – Mt. Barff ~6 hours climbing and view-gawking
The next day we reduced our pack weight to just our climbing gear, and headed up Mt. Barff which towers over the hut. The higher perspective on Barff showcases spectacular views across to French Ridge Hut, Bevan Col, the Bonar Glacier and of course Mt. Aspiring.
It had been over 20 years since I had used crampons, so this was an easy day for us with the intention to get up high and for me to practice with the gear. It was very fun, and the conditions were easy and forgiving. Seeing open crevasses and then traversing above them was slightly scary while at the same time very cool. My ice axe technique came back quickly, and Craig’s skill and confidence made me feel very safe. However the view towards Bevan Col where we were heading on Day 3 was an intimidating sight.
Day 3 – Liverpool hut to Colin Todd Hut ~10km
Day 3 we awoke to a claggy morning which made descending from Liverpool Hut interesting. The route down from the hut is a little like “Jack and the Beanstalk” so ideally you want to do it when it is dry. We had no issues; in fact it was an easier than expected descent.
Once back on the valley floor we headed west, gently climbing all the way up to the head of the West Matukituki Valley. The fog and mist stayed with us and created an ominous, chilly scene as we got to the valley head and “The Waterfall” which is the start of the climb up to the yawning Bevan Col.
It wasn’t cold but I felt chilly and nervous as we put on climbing harnesses and mountaineering boots. I could not see the way up. It just looked steep and scary. Craig explained where the route went, and we climbed up. The climb itself was not hard, but it was exposed in such a way that a fall would be bad, and the damp conditions added a further element of risk. About halfway up I noticed anchor points for belaying and thought, “why are there belay points, and why are we not using them”? I later learned that the alpine guides use these for clients, or they can be used in wet weather or with inexperienced nervous climbers (um, me!). At any rate seeing them messed with my head, and I felt a little outside of my comfort zone, as I thought about my Mum in Canada who would be very worried if she knew what I was doing.
We noticed 3 climbers below us and they were ascending very quickly, so we decided to wait for them. They looked fast and competent. When they got to us, we chatted, and as expected they were young and go-getter climbers. I dubbed them “the child prodigies”. They moved up the face in an impressive fashion and it made me feel rather old. At the top they stopped for a snack, and we kept moving ahead, joking that they would be passing us again further up Bevan Col. But as we made our way up the climb, to our surprise, we never saw them. And we actually ended up beating them to Colin Todd hut! I told Craig that experience trumps youth, and that we were actually much faster on regular tramping and steep terrain, but no question the climbing skills of these youth were something to be marvelled.
As we gained elevation, we ascended above the mist of the valley floor and punched through to sunshine. The feeling upon reaching Bevan Col and seeing the iconic Bonar Glacier close up was a fantastic sight, and it felt like you could almost reach out and touch Mt. Aspiring.
We roped up and donned crampons to cross the glacier. I thought about falling into a crevasse but there really weren’t any, and Craig just laughed at me when I asked the silly question.
Getting to a crowded Colin Todd hut was neat. Everyone was super friendly and welcoming. There is a nice comradery feeling at this hut; everyone there is doing the same thing. And you couldn’t really beat the killer sunset scene.
Day 4 – Mt. Aspiring
We were awoken by a couple of other climbing parties in the hut making very early starts. We move pretty fast, and the conditions were fine, so we didn’t start climbing until about 6am. The beginning of the climb was a straightforward crampon walk up a steep snow slope to access to the rocky NW ridge.
We quickly caught up with a couple of the earlier parties who were roped up on the rocky exposed section creating a bottleneck. Two things happened here that shook my confidence. 1. The party in front was roped up and moving very slowly. “Why? It must be hard?”, I thought to myself. Seeing them somewhat struggle made me feel like I needed to be roped up as well. 2. The party of the prodigy-youth followed us from behind and literally danced around us, sans-rope, on the steep rock with death-consequence drops on both sides of the scramble.
Craig got the rope out and belayed me across the exposed section. While we were waiting, I also got cold, and I didn’t feel right. We discussed the exposure and what the climb ahead involved. It only goes one way, and that is up steeply! I felt OK to continue but wanted to be roped up, however that meant we’d move very slow, and with me feeling nervous I didn’t want to be a liability due to my fear, and put Craig at risk. It wouldn’t have been much fun either. I wanted to climb the mountain with confidence, enjoyment, and fast! Today was not that day.
We decided it was best to turn back much to my disappointment in myself. It was a beautiful day to be climbing. I felt like it was a lost opportunity, and that I had let Craig down. Instead we did a wee side tour over the Therma Glacier and practiced rope skills, ice-climbing and self-arresting. I felt so much better with the decision, although I couldn’t help myself constantly looking back up to the beautiful peak in awe. The funniest part of our skills-day was when Craig unexpectedly tested my ability to stop a fall being roped together as he threw himself down the steep (but safe) slope, ripping me off my feet. I wasn’t ready for it, but I stopped the fall with no dramas and said “do it again!” giggling with excitement.
When we got back to the hut, we had a couple hours to ourselves in the sun before the other climbing parties returned. Upon their arrivals, everyone was full of joy from their successful climbs and we had a magical evening together enjoying another breath-taking sunset. Everyone that was, except the party that bottle-necked us on the ridge; they didn’t return until after midnight! That is NOT how I want to climb Aspiring.
Day 5 Colin Todd Hut to Raspberry Flat ~25km
The next day was a big walk out from Colin Todd Hut back to the carpark at Raspberry Flat. We got an early start across the Bonar Glacier and down Bevan Col. When we arrived at “The Waterfall” my trepidation was high. It was wet and claggy which meant the descent would be slippery, so we put on our climbing harnesses and got the rope out with the intention to use the belay anchors to abseil down. However, as I was chatting away and feeling happy, before we knew it we were half way down the steep descent. By that point it was clear that down-climbing was not a problem and I felt super comfortable. My perspective had completely shifted and I reflected on how the mental game plays a huge role in climbing, just as it does with racing. A little experience, practice, confidence, and familiarity goes a long way.
Once on the valley floor we changed over boots to our La Sportiva Helios, very light weight running shoes. With much lighter packs we flew down the valley and out to Raspberry Flat like two fantails playing and dancing over the rocks in a unison flow. We made good time on our walk out, giving us a feeling of satisfaction and joy about our climbing-turned reconnaissance mission.
The experience of this trip was invaluable. I acknowledged I was not ready to climb Aspiring, but being in the environment, seeing the mountain close up, and understanding my skill gaps gave me a clear road map to prepare for next time. Although I was disappointed in myself to not be able to climb, making the decision we did was the right, mature, and egoless one. There is no place for bravado in the mountains, and I will always humbly respect that.