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French Ridge Hut

16 July 2010

Coordinates 44°22.288′ S, 168°41.595′ E 

French Ridge Hut and Mt Avalanche. Photo D Hegg

French Ridge Hut is located at 1470m a.s.l. on French Ridge, the lower section of the west ridge of Mount Avalanche, in the Matukituki River West Branch. Owned by the New Zealand Alpine Club and managed by the Department of Conservation, the hut has 20 bunks, a DoC radio, a water tank, solar powered internal lighting  and an external toilet. The bunks and the kitchen area are in separate rooms, and there’s a spacious hall-way at the entrance to take boots off and store gear. A hut warden is in residence during the summer months; private hut warden quarters are at the far end of the building. 

In a very scenic location above bush-line, French Ridge Hut is a worthy destination in itself, and is often visited by trampers who walk in to enjoy the views on a weekend trip. However, its main use is as a base for trips to the Bonar Glacier. It’s a natural stop-over to break the long trip to Colin Todd into two days before climbing Mount Aspiring, and is a good base for ascents of Mount French, Popes Nose and Mount Avalanche via Quarterdeck Pass. French Ridge and the hut are named after Mount French right above. 

On French Ridge. Mt Aspiring in the background. Photo D Hegg


French Ridge was pioneered as an access route to the Bonar Glacier by Major Bernard Head with guides Jack Clarke and Alec Graham in November 1909, while on their way to the first ascent of Mount Aspiring. Head, Clarke and Graham climbed Hector Col at the head of the Matukituki River West Branch. From there they spied what looked like a straightforward route to Quarterdeck Pass, and after returning to the valley floor, they ascended a creek bed and slabs to reach French Ridge near the current hut location [1]

Head’s route remained the only practical access to French Ridge for a long time – until 1939 in fact, when a track was cut through the bush and the sub-alpine scrub to enable the materials for the first French Ridge bivvy to be carried to the site. Two parties (led by W.S. Gilkison and J.H. Stevenson) scouted a route through the bush from Pearl Flat in winter 1939. The next summer, four men (W.S. Gilkison, A.R. Craigie, R. Rodda and J.P. Cook) cut the track in just one day [2,3]

The first French Ridge Hut, a 9 x 8 feet iron bivouac lined internally, was assembled in Dunedin, knocked down and transported to Cameron Flat, from where it was carried by pack-horse to Pearl Flat by Jack Aspinall. Members of the Otago Section of the Alpine Club carried the loads (approx. 800kg all up) to the hut site during the Christmas 1939 Cascade Camp [3]. Construction was completed in just four days during Easter 1940, by three builders and 18 ‘helpers’ (Otago Section club members) [4]

The roof had to be rebuilt and the structure of the hut strengthened during Easter 1944, after the hut had all but collapsed under a heavy snow load the previous winter [5]. More weather damage prompted major repairs again in 1949. Stevenson (who had originally built the hut) noted that “this hut has cost Club members about twice as much work and twice as many headaches as all the other huts together” [6]

A new hut, consisting of a single room with 15 bunks and a cooking bench, was built in 1973. It was partially financed by the families of C.R. Lucas and R. Trotter, who had died while crossing the Breakaway three years earlier, and was thus named the Lucas-Trotter Hut. In 1987, management of the hut was transferred from the Alpine Club to the Department of Conservation under the Matukituki Agreement. The second replacement hut, financed with $50,000 from Club funds and $25,000 from the Otago Community Trust, was helicoptered to the site and built in autumn 1999 [7]

Click here to watch an old video about the construction of French Ridge Hut


French Ridge Map. 1 grid square = 1km. Left click on map to enlarge

Rating: Tramping Track, Moderate to Hard                                July 2010 

The track up French Ridge starts at Pearl Flat, on the true left bank of the Matukituki River, West Branch. The river is generally easy to cross, but if it is high, a bridge can be used about 20 minutes up valley. The track climbs steeply through the bush and the sub-alpine scrub, over several short rocky sections, before easing off above the bush-line. Poles mark the last section leading to the hut. 

Times: Pearl Flat to French Ridge Hut: 2 to 3 hours. Aspiring Hut to French Ridge Hut: 4.5 to 5.5 hours 

Hoar frost at the start of the track to French Ridge at Pearl Flat. Photo D Hegg


[1] Handwritten account by Bernard Head of his approach to Mount Aspiring. MS-3184/001 in Hocken Library Archives and Manuscripts

[2] p71-73 in Gilkison, W.S. (1951) Aspiring – The romantic story of the Matterhorn of the Southern Alps. Whitcombe and Tombs Limited. 80 pages  

[3] Sim, A.J.: Camp Three. The New Zealand Alpine Journal, Vol VIII, No 27, 1940, p155-168. Published by the New Zealand Alpine Club. 

[4] Stevenson, H.J.: French Ridge Bivouac. The New Zealand Alpine Journal, Vol VIII, No 27, 1940, p241-242. Published by the New Zealand Alpine Club. 

[5] Smith, C.E.: French Ridge Hut Repairs. The New Zealand Alpine Journal, Vol X, No 31, 1944, p193-195. Published by the New Zealand Alpine Club. 

[6] Stevenson, H.J.: The French Ridge Bivvy stands again. The New Zealand Alpine Journal, Vol XIII, No 36, 1949, p121-122. Published by the New Zealand Alpine Club. 

[7] New Zealand Alpine Club website. Accessed 16 July 2010

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