Has mountaineering always seemed too hard, too risky or too expensive? Surely it’s not worth the effort when there are thousands of other sports to choose from? Our Editor Tim thought the same, so New Zealand (Aotearoa) native Dom Douglas ran him up Tititea / Mt Aspiring to show him what it’s all about.
Doesn’t the word just conjure up a subtle romance?
Icy, windswept peaks, deeply cracked glaciers and exposed ridgelines, straddled by steely-eyed men and women whose sheer ability to endure hardship leads them to constantly push their limits. Gnarly weather and unstable terrain makes climbing mountains one of the most lethal sports out there, so why do it?
‘Because it is there,’ said the famous mountaineer George Mallory.
But is that enough? Is risking your life for the sole purpose of standing on a thingy that’s higher than all the other thingys really worthy of our reverence?
When an email came through from Dom, offering to guide me up New Zealand’s 3033m Mount Aspiring I slammed my laptop shut. I love sport climbing and the occasional multi-pitch, but mountaineering was a sport that I’d always put in the ‘nah’ basket, due to the cost, the hassle, and the risk.
But less than two months later I was walking out of Queenstown Airport into pouring rain. With me was an enthusiastic Dom and my brother Mike, a younger, more rugged version of myself, who’s a bit handier with an ice axe.
The Southern Alps of New Zealand stretch 500km along the South Island, perpendicular to the prevailing westerly wind. This means that they cop an insane amount of precipitation – up to 15,000mm a year at the Main Divide – that helps keep a year-round snow cover on the mountains.
Mt Aspiring, Tititea in the Māori language, is one of 16 peaks in the range over 3000m high and the 23rd highest peak in NZ. While this doesn’t sound particularly massive when compared to the Himalayas, the latitude and wild weather on the South Island can make for some pretty spicy technical climbing.
But we weren’t planning anything too extreme. Hike in with light packs, fire up the North West ridge (‘It’s basically low-grade rock climbing anyway!’) then hitch a cheap heli ride out with a tourist flight. Easy steezy.
After almost an entire day of rain in Wanaka however, our spirits had moved from dampened to significantly sodden.
The forecast for the mountains was worse too. Rain and wind with 100km/h gusts dominated the charts. But there was a sliver of hope. On Thursday the wind was going to drop under 20 clicks for the morning. But to have a chance at the summit we’d have to be in Colin Todd Hut by then.
We killed time with trail running and some rock climbing, but by Monday night Dom’s feet were itchier than a junkie’s forearm.
‘Fuck it, let’s hike to Aspiring Hut tonight.’
We were going up the mountain.
Too Stingy For A Heli
Nowadays the standard way to ascend Tititea / Mt Aspiring is as follows:
- Drive to Aspiring Helicopters
- Fly to Bevan Col
- Schlep your gear 2km across Bonar Glacier
- Find a bed in Colin Todd Hut, make a tea and gaze at the summit 1200m above you
- When you’re done, just cross the glacier, fly back down the valley and grab a whiskey in Wanaka, old chap
Funnily enough, this costs a buttload of money, something that Dirtbag Dom, myself, a writer, and my younger brother who-somehow-bought-a-house, don’t have in spades.
Luckily there’s a way around it: Start at Raspberry Flat carpark, 1400m lower and a good 26km further away from the hut.
With our mountaineering boots on (the weather was too grim to bother with trail runners) and Subway Footlongs literally strapped to our packs, we were off. We marched past the Rob Roy Glacier turn off at sunset, smashed our subs in the hut and were asleep by 10.
Wet Slabs and Root Pulling
As expected, day two dawned wet and unforgiving. We left the hut in our Arc’teryx hard shell jackets and trudged up into the mist. It was set to be a huge day.
The best part about our el cheapo ascent was that it meant we were going to get stuck into some proper Aotearoa tramping. I’d never tramped on the South Island of NZ and as we crossed suspension bridges that spanned the spoils of towering waterfalls I could almost see the silver lining on the clouds above.
By the time we reached Scott’s Bivvie (which is a crappy cave under a boulder) we’d ascended steeply for a few kilometres and the track had gone from formed path to mud puddles with a side of roots. Weighed down with an overnight pack and mountaineering gear, it was tough going.
But the official track had just ended and it was about to get a whole lot tougher.
Our route now involved scaling a scree slope, traversing a steep face covered in thick green plants and then ascending up a giant sopping monolith onto a ridgeline. As we arrived at the base we saw a party of two disappearing into the clouds, so we began traversing.
What came next may have been the most terrifying part of the entire expedition. We had gone too high and could see a clear path off to the right below us. With a deadly drop, nothing to grip but soaking wet shrubs and footholds kicked in mud, I began a sketchy downclimb, assisted all too eagerly by my weighty pack.
Dom and Mike clearly have a screw loose and weren’t bothered by trusting their lives to flora, but apparently my eyes looked like dinner plates. We were about six hours in and hunger and exhaustion were starting to take their toll.
Luckily, Dom’s built like a particularly sturdy port-a-loo, and took a bunch of pack weight off of me to keep us moving.
With the rain now a steady, icy drizzle, we ascended up sopping slabs for featureless kilometres. Finally, with as much ceremony as a limp noodle, we reached the snow.
The best thing about walking on snow is that you can smash a straight line. Unlike bushwalking on a predetermined path, you’re free to explore, make your own route, carpe the diem.
Sure, you’re probably walking up a featureless snowfield – but you still feel that freedom.
Crossing The Bonar Glacier
Glaciers are awe-striking in the purest way. Imposing sheets of ice, they slowly wend their way down from the high places, creaking as they crush everything in their path.
To get to Colin Todd Hut we were going to have to rope up and move across the glacier in a hasty fashion. It’s never safe to hang around in places like this.
With Dom leading the charge, we trudged in silence across the icy expanse. We were over 10m apart, to minimise the damage should any of us take a swing into an unseen crevasse, and coupled with visibility of not more than 20m, a sense of isolation set in.
And then we were there, crunching our way up to a small red hut perched on a hillside overlooking the glacier. Get. Me. Inside.
Stormbound At Colin Todd Hut
Less than an hour after our arrival the hut started shaking. It shuddered with blasts of wind and rain and snow whipped past the window in the fading light. Later in the trip some Department of Conservation workers would tell us that 140km/h gusts had shifted the hut 20cm on its foundations. I’m kind of glad we didn’t know.
We awoke the next day from the sleep of the dead. The entire cabin: a group of three mates, a bloke and his guide, and us, were totally happy with extending the snug times for as long as possible.
But by 2.00pm we were playing a demented form of charades that had escalated to imitations of twerking and Donald Trump. Cabin fever already had us in its grips – yet the group of three mates who were in the cabin when we arrived were cracking into day 11, with only a few of those featuring weather good enough to venture outside at all.
And then it happened. Sunlight burnt through the window like a godly ray, its warmth exciting all it touched. Frenzy ensued. People dried boots, took photos, sunned themselves on the rocks outside.
I spent most of the time looking upwards, towards the peak of Tititea, as it began to pierce through the clouds.
We slept early, ready to rise at 3.00am to get a start on our summit attempt. But we awoke to howling wind racing beneath clear skies and I distinctly heard a muffled ‘fuck that’ from Dom’s sleeping bag.
Around 4.00am the wind suddenly died and we launched into prep in earnest. I followed Dom’s advice to ‘be bold, start cold’ and donned a 260 merino thermal, my Arc’teryx Alpha SV shell, gloves and a beanie. My toasty Arc’ Atom hoody was stuffed in my pack for extra warmth, if needed.
Off we went, trudging along beneath the north-west ridge, we made our way to the ‘Kangaroo Patch’, a big ol’ patch of snow that kinda looks like the QANTAS logo.
Suddenly the icy snow was too steep for switchbacks and the real mountaineering began. I kicked the front points of both crampons into the slope and dug the front of my ice axe into the snow in front of me, traversing along with a steep slide below. My nerves and calves screamed in unison and I had visions of tumbling down the snow slope, my companions ripped down with me, as we all fell into a crevasse.
But fear keeps you going, and before I knew it we were at the base of the ridge.
The North West Ridge
There are a few routes up Tititea, ranging from tough, technical ascents, to slogs up the aptly-named Snow Ramp. The North West ridgeline is the most common and suited Mike and my rock climbing experience.
For the rock climbers out there, imagine scrambling up sections of crumbly grade 14 climbing and traversing in stiff, heavy mountaineering boots. We were unroped to help us move quickly, a fact not lost on me as I gazed into the Therma glacier hundreds of metres below.
I took the lead as the ridgeline gave way to a wide and slightly less steep, section of crumbly rock. We’d stashed some excess gear at the end of the ridgeline and were feeling good – it was 9.00 or 10.00am, the summit was in sight and conditions were still blue and crisp.
As far as mountaineering goes, conditions were peachy, but at roughly 2700m above sea level the wind was a bit brisk. And it was definitely getting stronger, flapping our hoods and seeking out every crevice for a bite.
The icy spire that decorates the peak of Tititea is covered in snow year-round, it’s an imposing shape that leads some to call the mountain ‘the Matterhorn of the south’. We donned crampons for the summit push but decided against roping up – the snow was icy and firm, but soft enough in the morning sun to easily slam in our ice tools.
We began to zig-zag again, each step taking us further above a massive expanse of run out snow. This also meant more time to self-arrest, by rolling onto my front, raising my crampons off the snow, and digging my ice axe in, but it was little comfort. I focused on taking shallow lines across the slope to avoid a slip.
Then we were nearing the top. The summit arched its back and we hooked into its spine, scaling it vertebrae by vertebrae. Suddenly we were front pointing again. We weren’t vertical, but it damn well felt like it – to my left and right the valley was literally kilometres below.
Adrenalin kicked in hard, and I was almost disappointed when abruptly, there was no more up. We were standing on a small, slightly slanting patch of snow next to the three other blokes from the hut. Ahead of us, a cornice dropped harshly into the valley below.
I could barely believe it. All my worries about fitness and skill, fear and weather, just melted away. The sky was burning blue and to the west we could see the ocean. For kilometres in every direction snow-covered smaller peaks pointed up at us. Bowed to us even. My head rushed with pride and awe.
But elation slowly gave way as I realised we still had the descent ahead of us.
Down And Out To Wanaka
The vast majority of mountaineering deaths occur on the descent. Fatigue, changing weather and a lack of concentration are often the culprits, but these disguise a greater cause. Summit fever. The obsession with summiting often drives people to push far harder than they should, and they begin their descent already completely spent.
It’s a paradox of mountaineering that the same people with the drive to achieve remarkable ascents are probably the most likely to ignore the warning signs.
Luckily I wasn’t feeling spent, but I was tired, and the thought of trekking all the way back to the hut to not eat a burger didn’t get me psyched.
But we managed. We rappelled down sections of the ridgeline, avoiding some spicy rockfall, slipped in slowly slushing snow and lost the cleanest route on the ridgeline more than once. Luckily my Suunto 9 Baro was still on 70% or something phenomenal, so we were able to find our way back to our ascent route without too much hassle.
As helicopters pumped through the valley towards Bevan Col, we realised that the biggest hassle was yet to come.
Because we’d hiked in through shocking weather that had kept the helis firmly grounded, the eight members of our hut crew had experienced perfect weather conditions. Spotless even. Now the weather window was closing again, but because the next day was going to be possible, every poor bastard hanging out in Wanaka had jumped in a heli and flown up to the hut (to be fair, some Italians and Chilieans had hiked up from the valley in a single day – legends).
Going to sleep that night we had 15 people squished into the hut, another 14 camping around it and 10 brave souls bivvying up on the mountain.
I was awake for hours as a constant stream of mountaineers left for the summit, their headlights dancing up the ridgeline beneath a starry sky. I even thought about having a crack at astrophotography, but fatigue and cold kept me snug in my sleeping bag – and something else was stirring…
To keep light on the details, our last meal had profoundly disagreed with my stomach; by dawn I had evacuated both exits. With not even a coffee to keep me going we headed off down the Matukituki Valley. Our 26km hike out had begun.
Single Malt Reflection
Sipping single malt whisky back in Wanaka (a mountaineer’s tradition according to Dom) was a time for reflection.
Late in the day, Dom had received a text on the sat phone offering us a $90 (75% off) heli flight out. There’s no doubt we would have taken it if we’d been up at the hut, but instead we could claim a complete, valley to summit ascent of the mountain. Over 2700m climbed and a 60km round trip ain’t nothing to sniff at.
Mt Aspiring National Park is wild, sparsely populated and steep – it’s isolating, yet vigorously and ruggedly beautiful. With the adventure over, I could finally look back on mountaineering with true clarity.
Is Mountaineering Worth It?
I’ve tried my hand at lots of outdoor pursuits – multi-pitch climbs, overnight kayaks, bikepacking, cross country skiing, trail running and downhill skateboarding to name a few – but nothing comes close to mountaineering.
The closest comparison I’ve found, unlikely as it seems, is multi-day hiking. The self-supported nature, intense connection to the environment and gruelling mental and physical strain of a tough hike are powerfully similar to that of tackling a mountain. It’s objective focused, you have to be able to rely on your crew, and you have the privilege of seeing some views that very few get to see.
The difference of course, is that mountaineering is like hiking on steroids and pre-workout.
Climbing Tititea / Mount Aspiring was one of the hardest and most dangerous things I’ve ever done, but it was undeniably worth it. In an uncontrolled environment I pitted my tiny, insignificant self against a giant uncaring mound of rock and ice and came away better for it. And that’s the thing, it’s not about the mountain. It’s about you.
It’s about pushing yourself to the limit to find out who you really are. It’s about relying on yourself in a world where everyone’s got someone to blame, and it’s about making memories that shape you as a person, that pull you through the bad times and rev you up in the good ones.
‘Because in the end, you won’t remember the time you spent working in the office or mowing your lawn. Climb that goddamn mountain.’
― Jack Kerouac