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News | Dec 11, 2020

Mt. Aspiring for flow

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Sven Hansen and Patrick Hobbs were determined and made the most of a small weather window to get the job done. Have a read about their Mt. Aspiring ascent here.

Written by Sven Hansen

Occasionally an adventure blasts your flow experience wide open. Summiting Mt Aspiring on 1 December with good friend Pat Hobbs took us to a new level of fulfilment, humility and gratitude.

Mt Aspiring, at 3033m, is New Zealand’s highest peak outside of the Aoraki/Mount Cook region. It is often called the Matterhorn of the South. Perched over the Matukituki Valley that winds up from Wanaka, Mt Aspiring is an intimidating mountain of soaring rock and ice. An ascent requires significant expertise and is subject to extreme weather.

Six months ago, Pat posed the question. Somewhat naively, I said yes. It took months for the reality of this commitment to bite. Without much heavy walking or climbing in decades, it was obvious that a significant amount of training was required. Fear became my friend.

Over four months, we set about more serious training with the support of friends and our wives, Sonya and Susan. This included an ascent of Mt Ruapehu in crampons on an icy and windy day, Coromandel, Waitomo, Te Mata, and a bunch of local pack-bearing grinds. My legs did not enjoy getting fit again. At 61, gym work, physio and massage became essential.

We arrive in the glorious Wanaka where we spend a few days preparing gear, climbing Roy’s Peak (1,500m) and mountain biking as the weather deteriorates. On Monday we meet our guides, James and Will - somewhat sceptical of these two enthusiastic old geezers.

Ready to dash if the weather clears, hope is crushed by low cloud. On the way back to Wanaka from weighing at the helicopter base, Will decided that some rock climbing would be in order. He marched us in our heavy alpine climbing boots, harnesses and helmets to a 10 m, grade 19 crack in a vertical rock face. “You must be kidding!” was all I could think.

Nevertheless, we both scaled this test twice – albeit without grace. Our guides, though, seem satisfied and send us to bed for a 5 am start.

Arriving at the Raspberry Flat parking lot for the helicopter pick-up at 6.30 am, we are pressed uncomfortably to organise endless gear. We hustle aboard to soar up the Matukituki Valley and land at the top of the Bevan Col.

We now have typically two days of climbing compressed into one day. We start down onto and across the Bonar Glacier. Pretty relaxing and awe-inspiring as we march toward the looming monster of Tititea (the Maori name for a steep peak of glistening white – they were wise enough to leave it alone as a place of gods).

Then we lighten our packs by storing our sleeping bags, extra food and gear, under some rocks, before starting our 1300m ascent to the top. We head up an icy, endless slope toward the base of the North-West Buttress ridge. Now we are on all fours with ice-axes at as we crawl up to the ridge. It is a glorious day. Magnificent views of our Southern Alps bloom around us under an azure-blue sky. Pretty perfect actually. No rest for the climbers as we confront the Buttress. She is intimidating from 50 km, let alone when you look straight up the jagged rock face.

This grade 13, massive ridge of rock is crumbling and black with hundreds of meters dropping off either side. We are roped to our guides, very focused, breathing slowly, and moving only one limb at a time.

We spend two hours climbing vertical and fractured schist rock. Yet, it is glorious, calm, and warm. The views demand awe and attention.

Eventually, we hit the ramp – the last few hundred meters – to the summit. Crampons and ice-axes back, to trudge up a narrow ramp straight up the North-West ridge. We feel the altitude and struggle to control our breath as we creep upwards. The extraordinary beauty continues to stop us in our tracks. It is jaw-dropping.

We are getting into the flow rhythm of plan, move, grind, rest, water and fuel.

Then, somewhat suddenly, we are at the top. It is a small icy platform with space dropping into eternity on every side. One can see coast to coast and up and down the great peaks of Aotearoa. Mt Cook suggests that she too is there when we are ready.

We have summited Tititea!

Summiting a demanding peak is the richest experience of flow. The challenges are relentless. It is not for everyone. To apply the skills required over the seven hours to reach the top one has to be deeply engaged and fully focused on each task – handhold, step, knot, carabiner, breath and pain management. Seven hours have vanished. In the moment, moving, open, refocusing, awed, determined and deeply in the flow zone.

Relaxing and absorbing a moment on the roof of our world is a rare delight. A light wind cools us down. The colours so clear. The expanse so vast. The peaks endless.

Too soon, it is time to head down. Have to get serious quickly. It is steep, and we have to move fast to get back to Colin Todd Hut. The ice is now soft, and we make good headway down the ramp.

I am very conscious of the challenges of the Buttress wall below, it looks more threatening from above, my legs are tired, courage must be found, and refocusing is required. Good to have expert guides.

We pick our way down, enjoying two wonderful 30m abseils. Hundreds of meters of fresh air claw and suck at our boots.

Then down to the glacier to collect our gear and back up to the hut. Unbelievably we have it to ourselves.

The keas (big green and smart NZ mountain parrots) are reassuring. Rest, food, camaraderie, and sleep are very welcome, after twelve hours on our feet.

Overnight the wind begins to howl. The keas have gone. The weather report for the next four days is ghastly. We leave at 6 am buffeted by 80 km gusts and make our way through white-out conditions down and across the glacier and back to Bevan Col. Then we descend into the Matukituki Valley. Down the dwindling glaciers and complete six 30m abseils down the Bevan Col steep, rocky gash to reach the valley floor. An interesting experience being tossed about on a rope by an 80 km gust.

Then the 20 km grind down the valley, descending a total of 1400m from the Colin Todd hut. It is absolutely stunning, with deep rich green, flowering plants, cascading waterfalls, and crystal blue river running through the mountain beech forest. The last hours are spent in drenching, icy rain. Our legs are wobbly. We make it to the car – after another twelve-hour day of almost non-stop push.

Mission accomplished.

The recovery – warm car, shower, food, hot spa, fresh sheets and rest – is exquisite.

Thank you, Pat, James, Will, Aspiring Guides and our incredibly supportive partners Sonya and Susan. This is one we will not forget. We wonder what is next…

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