Mt Aspiring – or Tititea (“Steep peak of Glistening White” in Maori*) has a national park named after it, and is often called the Matterhorn of the Southern Hemisphere. It is a majestic peak towering in the background behind Lake Wanaka. Glimpses of the beast can often be seen when skiing at Treble Cone. The three thousand metre peak jutting out of the cloud certainly has a magnetic pull to the budding ski mountaineer.
Charlie Murray, his Freeride World Tour star bro Craig Murray, and mates Fraser McDougall & Ryan Taylor, made their awesome assault on Mt Aspiring, and bought back the story and pictures. Charlie tells the tale of their big adventure.
Sitting in class on a Friday afternoon isn’t an easy task, especially for a young skier dreaming of the mountains, and in particular Mt Aspiring. Thoughts already lost in the weekend, I decided to see if I could make this dream a reality so lost myself in my cell phone. Checking weather maps and frantically messaging a crew, we decided that even though the weather looked touch and go we would have a crack at a two day, approach, climb and retreat mission of Aspiring.
After packing all my gear and picking up Ryan in Christchurch, we drove through the night chatting with excitement of the adventure to come. Arriving in Wanaka in the small hours we jumped straight into bed, enjoying the last bit of comfort before the upcoming saga.
We awoke on Saturday to Fraser knocking on the front door, packed up as quickly as possible, jumped in the truck, threw the bikes on the back, and started reversing out of the driveway.
‘Shit! What was that?’
We jumped out to find the Go Pro completely smashed on the driveway, forgotten in all our excitement. We set off up the Matukituki Valley only realizing upon arrival at the car park that the EPIRB hadn’t made it in either.
One Go Pro and a few hours lost, we arrived back at the car park at 370m, it’s now mid-morning. Putting our skis and climbing gear on our packs we saddled up on the bikes and began the spin up to Aspiring Flats hut.
Parking the bikes we began trudging up the incredible Matukituki Valley towards Mt Aspiring, past 70 metre drop waterfalls through untouched native beech forest. After a beautiful hike up to the head of the West Branch we transitioned from dry ground to alpine as we began to climb from the head of the valley at 980m.
The first section is a steep climb up a rock face beside a waterfall. With heavy packs and in ski boots we slowly navigated the pitch. We quickly scrambled past two huge avalanche paths, before continuing up into a couloir full of avalanche debris. The debris was to our advantage as we could simply boot pack up the snow instead of on the wet rock.
Once out of the choke we put skins on skis and began skinning up towards Hector Col, at 1498m. Just below the col the sun started sinking dangerously close to the jagged spine of the Southern Alps. We began traversing across underneath Mt. Bevan, 2030m, around to Bevan Col, 1851m. As we approached the col night fell, the clouds rolled in, and visibility decreased to around 20m.
At the col we got the headlights out and decided to attempt a night crossing the Bonar Glacier (1600 – 2200m) to Colin Todd hut. The odds were not in our favour as it was dark and beginning to snow. We roped up and skied down onto the Bonar. The Bonar Glacier is about six kilometres long, over one kilometre wide, and nearly flat. This makes navigation an absolute nightmare with low visibility. Fraser and I had been to the Bonar before, so we desperately ran off memory and headed out across the glacier.
We couldn’t really afford to make a mistake as we had been lugging huge packs for over 12 hours, walked nearly 20km, and had climbed over 1600 vertical metres.
Everyone in the party was exhausted, and not feeling positive about a night out on the ice. Following the slight contour of the glacier and with a stroke of luck we managed to bear in the right direction to the hut. As we neared the far side of the glacier the cold southerly front began to pass, and we could just make out the ridge, where the hut is located. Finally, with the hut in sight and the thought of a hot rehydrated meal as incentive, we summoned up our last bit of energy for the final 30 minute push through deep snow up to the hut.
Arriving at Colin Todd hut (1790m) we found it empty and freezing cold. We threw on all of our clothes and hopped into sleeping bags. The water tanks outside had frozen taps and the lids frozen on. This was a serious dilemma for us, as we had only packed enough gas to boil water for our meals. We hadn’t taken into account the extra gas needed to melt snow down for water. Fraser and I set to work trying to access what we thought might be some unfrozen water inside the tanks. Using one of our skis we fitted it into grooves on the lid and used it like a giant lever to unscrew the top of the tank. Fortunately the water inside only had a thin layer of ice. We quickly cooked and ate a basic dinner before falling asleep at around 1am.
We woke at a leisurely 7am to frozen southerly winds howling around us. Drowsy and tired from the approach the previous day, we wanted nothing more than to stay in our sleeping bags as the cold Antarctic wind cut through the hut. All liquids inside had been transformed to ice, dulling any appeal to get going.
Breakfast was muesli and scroggin, designed to be fast, efficient and refueling. There was no time to boil water for a hot meal, so we put our gear on and shivered around the table, forcing down cold mouthfuls of muesli.
With the southerly still blowing we checked our equipment, making sure we weren’t leaving something crucial behind. Then we broke through the ice in the water container again, going for the camel tactic of drinking as much as we could to get hydrated before setting out.
We laced our crampons up and set out from the hut, excited to be on the move again. At a glance upwards, Tititea stood towering, with a vicious wind ripping over the Nor-West ridge. It seemed like a long way off, and the summit was out of view.
All we could do was cross our fingers that the clear weather window was coming and trudge on with heads down into the wind, one foot after another. We knew there was going to be a window, we just weren’t sure on the exact details as to when and how long for. The plan was to climb from the hut to the top of ‘The Ramp’, and hopefully when we reached that point the wind would have eased off and we could carry on up the NW ridge in lighter winds to the summit.
We stared out up Ship Owner’s ridge above the hut before roping up and navigating a sketchy down climb onto the glacier. With axes out we headed up the glacier around massive holes and ice formations to the start of The Ramp. The Ramp is an angled snow slope above exposure that leads up from the glacier to the NW ridge.
After a quick snack we headed on up The Ramp. We were stoked to find good conditions, windblown winter snow made for perfect climbing. We negotiated a few icy seracs before topping out of The Ramp, 2430m, with calves on fire and short of breath. We had a well earned rest, stoked that the wind had dropped, and admired the view from Mt Aspiring down to the West Coast. The house size cracks in the Therma and Volta glaciers seemed a long way below.
Once we got our breath back we continued on up the northwest ridge. The ridge seemed to go on forever, relentless on the legs. Eventually we topped out on the summit!
We had got the weather perfect, the wind had dropped right off, and we were pumped to shred from the summit down to the glacier. We soaked in the amazing panoramic views of the Southern Alps, before gearing up and setting off from the summit at around 3pm. The snow at the top was icy and lumpy, but as we descended it got better and better. Airing into the top of The Ramp we skied it quickly, dropping down onto the glacier. Finding a few rocks to air off, and a little jump line, we threw in a few flips and spins for good measure before the final ski down to the hut.
Arriving back at Colin Todd hut we grabbed our sleeping backs and headed off across the glacier. The plan was to start the long mission out before a large storm scheduled for Monday morning trapped us there with hardly any supplies. We had about 2 hours of sun left, and we were still in the beautiful calm weather window.
With no time to kill we skied from the hut down to the Bonar Glacier in beautiful spring corn and warm evening light, roped up, put our skins on and began the ski tour across the Glacier. Climbing back up to Bevan Col we stopped and took our last look back at Mt Aspiring, now radiating gold and pink colours from the quickly sinking sun. As much as we would have loved to stop moving for a few minutes and soak it in, we had to get going if we wanted to make it past the gnarly section of the descent before it got dark. Everything went purple and we got our last glimpses of the sun as we skied down from the Col in the direction of the Matukituki valley. With Mt Aspiring on the other side of the col we felt a small sense of satisfaction deep down, but we knew the hard work was yet to come.
We lost the light quickly and got to the rock down-climb in the dark. We set up a rope and rapelled down a rock face onto the snow below. Slowly skiing down the steep couloir we reached the waterfall which begins the Matukituki river. We climbed down the last challenging bit of rock, and reached the head of the valley relieved.
It was pitch black as we whipped our ski boots off, had a snack, and kept pushing on, torches in full effect. Navigating to the start of the trail we began the descent to the valley floor.
With time ticking on we kept pushing, until absolutely exhausted we pulled over at about 11:30pm for ‘dinner’. We ate what remaining food we had, and made the decision not to pull up for the night and sleep; instead we would go the whole way out the valley, and just have a quick 10 minute power nap.
After walking as fast as our tired legs would take us we arrived back at the bikes around 1:30am. Slinging our still massive and heavy packs over our backs we climbed on and began pedaling. God did it feel good to be rolling, and the legs were thankful for a different motion. After what seemed like an endless amount of small hills I started grinning as I recognised the last downhill to the carpark. Throwing the bikes on the back of the ute at 3:15am we cracked the beers Ryan had brought along, knowing full well that we had earnt them 10 times over by pushing ourselves to the limit both mentally and physically over the 48 hour mission.
Still buzzing from the feeling of completion we arrived home just after 4am and quickly fell into some much needed sleep. I woke around 9 to look out the window and see the outrageous weather front roaring down the valley, ahead of schedule. Minutes later the rain hits hard and I can’t help but smile and let out a little laugh of disbelief in my warm dry bed, comfortable, tired and full of satisfaction.
The Mt Aspiring mission team were: Charlie Murray, Craig Murray (who has since become one of the top Freeride skiers in the World with big wins on the FWT Tour. Unfortunately the COVID-19 virus shut down of skiing in Europe denied him the chance to ski for the title at the final 2020 season event in Verbier), Fraser McDougall & Ryan Taylor. Bunch of bloody legends all of them! And great candidates for any potential sponsors out there looking for serious talent who do great things out of the ordinary.
The lads have not been idle since this feature. Check out their take on arguably the World’s best “small” ski hill, Mt Olympus, here, or another one that stacks up, mighty Revelstoke in BC.
*We don’t claim to be experts on maori names; our source for the meaning of Mt Aspiring as Mt Tititea is the National Library of New Zealand.