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Aspiring, by Scott Gilkison

18 May 2010

The romantic story of the Matterhorn of the Southern Alps

“Aspiring is not merely an object to be climbed; it is a creation of beauty and majesty to be admired, to be gazed at with understanding and appreciation. In the cold grey light of dawn, in the brightness of sunrise, in the blinding noon-day glare and in the gentle shades of evening it has its own ever-changing glory. Some of my happiest and most successful trips have been arranged, not to climb the mountain, but to see it from yet another angle, from a fresh vantage point. Aspiring has many and varied appearances, some more graceful than others, but it is always mighty, always dignified, and forever fascinating”.

“Aspiring” is a book about the history of a mountain. It is, however, not a cold summary of facts and events. It’s written rather as if it were the story of a person, and a person the author knows well – as suggested by the subtitle, it is a romantic story. Even when reporting about third parties’ trips, Gilkison’s writing always shows his personal experience, his deep connection to the mountain.

The book starts with a brief introduction about the geography of the Mt Aspiring Region, followed by an account of Gilkison’s own climb, the 10th ascent of Mount Aspiring in 1935. The second chapter is a summary of James Hector’s exploration of the West Matukituki, and other exploratory transalpine trips in the first decades of the 20th century.

The chapters that follow are all about the climbing exploration of the mountain: Teichelmann’s attempt from the Waiatoto; the first successful ascent by Captain Bernard Head, Jack Clarke and Alec Graham via the west face in 1909; the second ascent by Samuel Turner, via the buttress on the north-west ridge; the third ascent by a party of “holiday makers”, first to climb the ramp; a summary of the next ten climbs; and the first ascent of the south-west ridge, by Stevenson, Dick and Lewis in 1936.

Two noteworthy stories in which the author was personally involved help break the monotony of the theme: an account of the epic rescue of an injured climber, who had to be carried out all the way from the Volta Glacier via Ruth Ridge and the East Matukituki, and the story of a failed food drop from an airplane in the Kitchener cirque.

The final chapters tell us about the early settlers in the Matukituki, and the making of huts and tracks. The last one is, in my opinion, the most interesting one of all. In our rushed visits to the Matukituki Valley, we always take the huts and tracks for granted. As we climb steeply to French Ridge, or take shelter from a storm in Aspiring Hut, we seldom think of what it would be like if we had to push our own way through the subalpine scrub, or where we would stay if the hut weren’t there. Well, there were no huts in the Matukituki when Gilkison first visited it, and there was only one track up the valley floor. The author witnessed the development of the valley first hand, and tells us about the effort of volunteers who built Aspiring Hut during their holidays, or cut a track up French Ridge to make it possible to carry building materials up the mountain. And while Gilkison sees most development as positive, he shares a few thoughts on the impact that huts and tracks have on the experience of visitors to the valley, and the sensation of remoteness and wilderness that is lost to younger generations.

Reference

Gilkison, W.S. (1951) Aspiring – The romantic story of the Matterhorn of the Southern Alps. Whitcombe and Tombs Limited. 80 pages 

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