Date: Tue, 21 Dec 2004 16:26:20 -0800 (PST)
From:  "Michael Tselman"
Subject: Note 3 (New Zealand)

Dear friends,

PS. Here is picture of the mountains and the route we climbed. The picture shows the West face with our route on the right and the North West Ridge on the left. As we got back to the hut I proved to my partner that my descent route was correct, but it was a bit too late for that. What we descended happened to be a known route called West Couloir (NZ grade 3)

I have just returned from an 8 day climbing trip back to civilization. Our goal was to climb mt. Aspiring (3047m) by a classic SW ridge route (NZ grade 3+, French D+). The weather was the major factor and we've been unlucky with the weather so far. It's mostly raining at the low elevations and snowing with gale force winds higher up. Climbing in New Zealand is probably close similar to climbing conditions in Patagonia. The south island of New Zealand is just ove 1000km from Antarctica, and being a narrow island it gets the worst weather from all sides except when winds blow from the North (which happens rarely). There are no mules to hire here and the approaches are long. Luckyly, there are a few mountain huts supported by the New Zealand Alpine club. A walk in for our climbing required a day and a half of hiking with all the gear and food for 4-5 days. The first day was a realtively short 12km walk to the first hut, but we got to the hut soaking wet as the rain was absolutely horrible. The next day the weather was good and we went up the French Ridge to the French Ridge hut (1465m) - the base of our climb. This was the steepest trail I have ever been on. About a kilometer of elevation gain on a tree covered trail where you propell forward by grabbing and pulling on the tree roots and steep rocks. With a heavy backpack this required some fine climbing techniques with laybacks, backsteps, knee-drops, smears, rockovers, etc.. and all of this on the mud/rock/tree terrain. Exciting! Fortunately all the roots were conveniently placed and our ascent to the hut was succesful. That first day the hut was full due to a single day good weather window. A few guided parties and a few climbers and trekkers. As we settled, two guys came down from the climb of the South Face of mt. Aspiring. One of the guys was a visiting strong kid from Alaska - he has a few first mad ascents to his name and the route they climbed there is crazy as well. M8 and 5.11 climbing on iced up rock, thin ice and bad snow on completely vertical terrain. Really mad. Oh well, he is a professional. Our objectives are much more modest. So, for the weather we wait. Every morning and evening at 8am/pm the hut warden gets a forecast via radio call and the forecasts are not promising. The weather is unstable. The winds are strong. The barometer is falling every day. We stay in the hut. We play cards, we read books, we do crosswords. Wen we get tired of sitting, we do short ventures outside just to caome back in 2 hours once it starts raining again. Then we come up with more active exercises - pullups, pullups on one hand, pullups on ice tools, then we go crazy - bouldering in the hut: full traverce of the kitchen area without touching the floor, bouldering around and underneath a kitchen table (it works around the long side but not the short side - cannot fit the shoulders between table legs while your heels are hooking the top of the table.) What can I say - waiting for the weather is hard. We know we only have 4 days woth of food, but some people leave their food when they go down so there are some leftovers of packets of soups, cereals, etc, which we snatch for future use. That works out fine.

We meet an amazing couple there. They are from NY and they are in their 70s. The are spending the last 10 years travelling the world and experiencing everything they still can in their life. She was a pianist and he was in publishing, I believe. Now they are retired and can afford the neccessary luxuries. The have two guides carrying all their stuff and taking care of them , but they still had to get up that horrible trail up to the hut on their own (even without the backpacks it's hard) and I have the greatest respect for them. They are so alive! I really wish when I'm their age I will have the health and the live force within me to still have so much interest and energy left. They have been everywhere - Nepal, Tibet, Mongolia, South America, Antarctica. They want to go to Wrangel Island now to see polar bears in their natural habitat. These people are amazing!

Well.. Even the bad weather has come to an end and we are getting are one and a half days of decent forecast. To climb the mountain from the hut is a very hard undertaking with almost 1800m of total elevation gain just to get to the summit and then there is a long way back with over 5km of glacier crossings. So on the first good day, after a good breakfast we head out with intention to bivy under the beginning of the route and start early next morning. We get to the bivy site in about 3-4 hours, dig a snow cave - hard work if you don't have a shovel (which we do not), make a good meal, melt a lot of water for tomorrow and crawl into our sleeping bags and bivy sacks. I do not have a proper bivy sack - instead I'm using one of the emergency bivy sakcs with alluminized fabric. It is really light (under 200gr) and keeps the elements out. Unfortunately it is a nonbreathable material so all the condensation gets onto my sleeping bag. Well... I cannot overstate how great Western Mountaineering bags are - despite mine being an ultralite model with ultraliet fabric, it keeps the moisture away from the down and I stay warm and dry through the night. 2:30am the alarm rings. We eat some oatmeal, melt more water and around 5am we are out and climbing as it gets light. (these are the longest days in the Southern Hemisphere). The climb itself is along the beautifully steep South-West ridge of mt. Aspiring. The total elevation gain for today is 800m. The lower section of the ridge is at a pleasant 45 degree angle which we mostly simul-climb using couple of pickets as running belays. At the very beginning there is a very steep mixed ice/rock/snow step. Almost verical. I get the lead. No pro in the ice - too thin and hollow. I manage to put a picket just below the step and as I get higher I cannot find a single pro point. I clear some ice off the rock with the tool and find a small crack. In goes the nut. I set it in with a hammer a bit deeper, just to be sure. 3 steps over the buldge, some rocks and I'm on a good snow slope. Now I can see all the rest of the ridge till the crux of the route which will come at the very end. We climb, we rest, we climb and get tired. The wind picks up, but it is not too cold. The conditions are perfect - firm neve - ideal for pickets and ice tools. It's 11am and we are at the crux. The narrow couluar with a steep iced up bottom section which then should get wider and nicer. I get to lead the crux. This is were it gets a bit scary. The ice is too thin. I manage to get the first screw in by less then 10cm until it hits the rock. I tie it off Get a bit higher and try to plcae another one. Again bad luck. It goes in well at first but then I feel that it goes into emptyness. Nothing solid underneath. I try a few more spots - one is a bit better then other. The climbing is not too hard, no worse than WI3, but the sketchy pro and the exposure make it much harder. I calm myself and go up. Carefully, very carefully clear the bulge and I'm back on good steep neve (very hard snow). Full rope length up and I can belay my partner. He gets to the belay and continues up. The slope is steep and sustained. 60 degrees. We go like that for 2-3 more ropelength and join the softer snow and gentler angle of the adjoining North-West ridge. Half a rope and we are on the summit. It's noon. The views are fantastic, but the clouds are starting to roll in. We need to start our descent. A GU gel goes in. Some water. A few pictures are taken and we are going down the easier North-West ridge. In the middle of the ridge there should be a place called "The Ramp" which should privide convenient descend to the side of the glacier where our bivy stuff is stashed in a cave. We get to what we think is the top of "The Ramp". We are going down. Here we have a disagreement. It gets steep and we do not clearly see the descent route. I'm convinced that the ramp goes slanting to the right and my partner is convinced that it is slanted left. I cannot convince him. Too bad. We go left. It gets steeper. He does not seem to be comfortable downclimbing steep snow especially when traversing, so I lower him down full rope lenght and then downclimb. It gets really steep for downclimbing - 45-50 degrees. Some iced up rock as well. We need to get down fast as the clouds are rolling in. A few ropelengths like that and we see a potential descent route. Steep rocks prevent downclimbing and we leave a picket and rapell one rope. Another 2 ropelengths of downclimbing and we are above a bergshrund which we succesfully jump over. Finally on the glacier. It's around 4pm. Not bad, considering that it gets dark after 9pm here. Crevasses are either vell defined or well covered, as it si pretty much winter conditions here, so we have little trouble navigating the glacier back to our snow cave. Get our things quickly and back home we head. Clouds/fogs cover the glacier at some times, but we know our bearings and soon run into a well travelled trail which helps immensly getting through the afternoon snow. The last raise exhausts us completely and after that we are on a direct route to the hut. We are at the hut by 7:30pm. Tired but happy. An hour later we are eating dinner and it is raining really hard outside.

Next day the rain gets lighter and we descend climbing down the trees and out of there, to our car and back to the small town of Wanaka, to the beer, food, sleep, shower, internet and preparations for another foray into the mountains of New Zealand. Maybe we'll get luckier with the weather the next time. As for now, I'm finishing this note, and drops of rain are forming on the window looking at the street outside.

Till the next time,