Ménage à trois
I always find it difficult leave early in the morning for a tramp. It was no exception when I left my flat at 6:30am to pick up Jakob and Sam to drive towards the Matukituki and Mt French. In Wanaka we stumbled around in an attempt to buy food for the trip and proudly walked away with six 99c packets of pasta and a couple of carrots. Then it was onwards to Raspberry Creek, where we were greeted by a blue sky and some gorgeous (gaawwwgus) sunshine.
Our trio march toward Aspiring Hut, commenting that the walk was a lot more manageable sober vis a vis Bushball. We cruised past day walkers on the way making the most of the flat terrain that we knew wouldn’t last forever. Aspiring Hut made for a welcome rest break for much needed rehydration. The track past the hut was a lot easier to follow than I found a few weeks prior. Soon we emerged onto Shovel Flat and were greeted by a moody landscape. Giant cliffs towered above us, with cascades falling down their faces. Light filtered through the clouds to cast dappled patterns on the mountain sides.
We raced the sun as it tried to hide behind the mountains on the left of the valley. At Pearl Flat we took off our boots and waded across the Matukituki, simultaneously enjoying the cool water and fleeing from the swarms of sandflies. Jakob had warned us that the track consisted of about 20m of flat before 1000m of verts. Turns out he wasn’t kidding, soon we were clawing our way up scraggly tree roots, clinging on for dear life.
The going only got more interesting in the scrubline, making for the most interesting full body workout. To our right the ridge dropped away to a steep gorge whilst Mt Avalanche stood proudly above us at the head of the gully.
We scrambled our way up the ridge which was exposed in parts. Our trio struggled up the path, with a few oxygen breaks along the way. Jakob warned that there would be another three false summits, so we were surprised when the French Ridge Hut emerged as we crested a rise. We sat sweating outside the hut taking in our achievement, before the cold darkness forced us to retreat through the door.
Inside we found a bunch of English blokes huddling around one of those little burner things hotels use to keep their food warm and a french couple easing in to a bottle of wine. We were buggered from the walk up so decided not to dilly-dally and started making dinner. This was where the real beauty of the 99c pasta came in, just a lick of hot water, bit of butter and milk and hey presto we were away laughing. So genius I was surprised I hadn’t thought of it before. It took a bit of faff to get our gear all sorted for the next day, we planned to leave early as to get the best of the snow and to make the most of the daylight. The only issue was that Jakob’s headlight was bung and AA batteries are hard to come by at 1400m. In the end he had to resolve to using his phone torch as the French girl managed to break the cheap headtorch that lived in the hut. Other highlights of that night involved attempting to translate what the Frenchman was saying.
“Is that near Ass Pass?” — Frenchman
“Ass Pass?” — Me
“I think he is trying to say Haast Pass” — Englishman
The next morning we stumbled from our beds, stirred by the dulcet tones of android default alarms. We had to disturbed the Englishman that had retreated to the living area to escape snorers in the bunkroom. In time we had our crampons on and were heading off in the vague direction of the Quarterdeck. I say vague as we were operating at minimal brain capacity and with feck-all light. Our crampons bit into the snow as we plodded upward, following the contours all too aware of the cliffs that lay to either side. Slowly the mountains around us appeared out of the darkness, their lofty heights veiled in snow and dominating the skyline. We were especially thankful that the sun was rising, as my headtorch had started to flicker and diminish. Finally its light was extinguished and I cursed the god of batteries. In the twilight gloom we sent Jakob first, as that way we would know if our next step would send us into the abyss. Luckily that was not to be and soon the ridge was illuminated in that soft light that precedes dawn.
On our right side the Quarterdeck loomed before us. The strange thing about snow in the low light is that you really get no bearing on distance or steepness. It seemed to be a never ending slog up the hill, only for the gradient to increase and the top to move further away. High above the rock cliff to our left we spotted impressive cornices hanging above us, not exactly the most encouraging sight. In time we front pointed our way up the final lip and finally caught our first glimpse of the Bonar Glacier.
From here we took in the surrounding mountains, trying to get a sense of bearing. Mt Avalanche stood proudly before us and just over yonder was Mt Aspiring. In between was our goal of Mt French, just along the ridge that acts as a containing wall for the glacier. After a quick refuel we set off once again, now faced by a bitter wind chilled by the ice. Remembering those funky cornices we took a precautionary line away from the edge. Ironically, this was the more dangerous option. About 50m into our endeavor I let out a yelp as the snow below me gave way and I plunged up to my waist into a crevasse. Luckily I had eaten plenty of pasta the day before or I might have slipped lower. I can only equate the sensation of no longer being able to trust the ground to walking into a minefield. We took a lot more care after that (by putting Sam L in front, although that still didn’t entirely work…).
We gunned it to the ridge and this somehow was more comforting. Don’t ask me how as the drop down the other side was still making me shit myself. Travel along the ridge was straightforward, although we gripped our walking axes tightly for reassurance. As we reached the summit the sun began to rise over the surrounding mountains and the texture of the snow and ice became apparent. It was just gaaawgus.
I didn’t feel particularly like dilly-dallying as to be on a pointy thing isn’t the most reassuring position, and also we still had a long day ahead of us if we were to get back to the car. So after a few winds of the disposable we cautiously followed our steps back down the ridge.
We made the smart decision to avoid crevasse city and instead veered more towards our friends the cornices on the way back. Dropping down the Quarterdeck was a simple affair, especially because we could actually see where we were going now. It was a relief to plonk my ass down at French Ridge Hut at 11:15am after a successful and satisfactory climb. We weren’t alone at the hut, two feathery rascals had decided to join us in enjoying the view and the water tank. I had to be cautious as they were looking toyingly at my camera, considering if it was nibblable.
Inside I hoovered up most of my remaining food, and took on plenty of water (Hydrate or diedrate). The others followed suit before packing up our sleeping things and cleaning up any mess we had made at the hut. Then the ‘only’ job was to get down off this bloody ridge. It is true that the way down is a lot faster, but I don’t think it is any less painful. We passed some runners on the way up and that gave us some motivation to move quickly (nutcases). It really was a miracle that the only injury on the way down was a bit of a twisted ankle on my behalf, given the way we were flinging ourselves down the slope. We emerged to the sight of the Matukituki, ready to kiss the flat flat earth.
This relief was short-lived, as soon we were swarmed by sandflies. Boots were flung off and we fled across the river. The rest of the walk down the Matukituki was straightforward. Morale was low, but there was nothing to do but march down the valley. At Aspiring Hut the runners finally caught up with us. We took the opportunity to have a rest break to mow through any remaining snacks. It was hard to force ourselves back out but it had to be done. The last hour and a half were mind numbing. I tried to keep the others motivated with some great chat about holes in swiss cheese but it was lost on them. Finally around 5:30 we stumbled into the carpark in drips and drabs, feeling very ready to get to Wanaka for some much anticipated pizza.
The Matukituki and Mt French are a beautiful places. Some people say that life exists at the edge of your comfort zone. In that case, I did a lot of living over the weekend!