Skip to content

Quarterdeck Pass

21 July 2010

On French Ridge, looking up to Quarterdeck Pass. Photo D Hegg

Quarterdeck Pass (2280m a.s.l.) is on the Main Divide of the Southern Alps, between the Matukituki River West Branch and the Waipara River. It is a shallow depression on the ridge between Mount French and Mount Avalanche, only 100m north-west of the point where French Ridge branches off the Main Divide. For all practical purpose, it is right at the top of French Ridge. Glaciated on both sides, to the east it only drops about 15om to the vast plateau of the Bonar Glacier.  

The pass is incorrectly labelled on the NZ Topo50 map series – the correct location is 350m to the south-east, at CA11 592729. When it is not cut-off by crevasses on the west (Matukituki) side, Quarterdeck Pass provides the easiest (and most popular) access route to the Bonar Glacier, Colin Todd Hut and Mount Aspiring. It also gives easy access to Mount French, Mount Avalanche and Popes Nose.  

Descending onto the Bonar Glacier from Quarterdeck Pass at sunrise. Mt Aspiring above. Photo D Hegg


The route up French Ridge and over Quarterdeck Pass was pioneered by Bernard Head with guides Jack Clarke and Alec Graham in 1909, while on their way to the first ascent of Mount Aspiring. On November 22nd, the climbers were planning for an early start from the Matukituki Valley floor, hoping to reach the summit in one day. Fog up high however dictated a more leisurely 9am start, and a bivouac at 5650ft (1720m). Guides Clarke and Graham scouted the route to the pass, from where “they had a most wonderful view of Aspiring, and reported that there should be no great difficulties” [1]. The next day, the whole party crossed Quarterdeck Pass onto the Bonar Glacier and climbed Mount Aspiring. Bernard Head wrote “Tuesday, November 23rd: Up at 1.15 am, breakfast at 1.45, and off at 2.40. A steady climb, and with the help of the steps picked the day before, we reached the top of the ridge of the Matukituki Valley (7550ft) at 3.55. The weather was none too promising, as there was a driving fog.  We had to wait til 5.20 before going on. From the Matukituki Ridge to Aspiring is a snow plateau about 2 1/2 miles across, with a drop at the lowest part of about 700 ft. (My aneroid recordings are open to correction, as the weather was jumping the glass up and down). It was a very cold, blowy morning. When the fog cleared, we started across the plateau […]” [1]  

Two years later, Bernard Head returned to the Matukituki Valley with guides Jack Clarke and Jim Murphy. They climbed to Quarterdeck Pass again on December 20th, 1911. Of this visit, Head wrote in his diary “spent 15min walking about to get my feet warm. Gave the name Quarter Deck as it is the second time I have paced it up and down” [2]. In sailing ships, the quarterdeck was that part of the main deck behind the mainmast. Reserved for the use of the ranking officer on deck, it gave them a measure of privacy for thinking and pacing, things that are difficult to do in the more crowded areas of the ship [3,4].  

Quarterdeck Pass and the nearby Breakaway remained the only access routes to the Bonar Glacier for a long time. An alternative approach via Bevan Col was first used in 1939 [5].  

Route descriptions  

Quarterdeck Pass Map. 1 grid square = 1km. Left click on map to enlarge

French Ridge Hut to Quarterdeck Pass  

Rating: Alpine, Grade 1                                  July 2010  

From French Ridge Hut, follow cairns and a foot trail up French Ridge to the toe of the glacier at about 1800m. During the summer months, footprints in the snow can usually be followed up the glacier to Quarterdeck Pass. While generally straightforward, the glacier is crevassed, and can become quite difficult late in the season. It starts off at a gentle angle but steepens considerably near the top. The upper slope may reach an angle of 30° to 35° depending on how well it is filled in – a fall would have serious consequences. In winter and spring, the whole slope is an avalanche trap if in the wrong snow conditions.   

A schrund often opens up just below the pass from February onwards. In recent years, it has generally been possible to go around the schrund on the right (looking up the mountain), at the edge of the precipice into Glooomy Gorge. However, this has not always been the case. During my first crossing of Quarterdeck Pass in 1998, the only way through was at the northern end of the pass, hard against the slopes of peak 2306m. This involved a reasonably steep pitch on snow. The pass has been completely cut off by crevasses in the past [6]. In 1940, Stevenson wrote that “for those interested, when the Quarterdeck is badly broken and the usual route over French, i.e., up the first terrace above Gloomy Gorge, is likewise broken, a route which will always go is up the second terrace. The mixed rock and snow at the bottom is exposed to an occasional avalanche, and the snow higher up, which is fairly steep, is to be treated with respect on account of the 100ft. cliffs below it”  [7]. This route is no longer in use today. When Quarterdeck Pass is cut off by crevasses, an alternative route to the Bonar Glacier lies over Bevan Col.  

Allow 2 to 3 hours from the hut to Quarterdeck Pass.  

Negotiating the schrund below Quarterdeck Pass, February 1998. Photo D Hegg

Quarterdeck Pass to Colin Todd Hut

Rating: Alpine, Grade 1                                  February 1998 

From Quarterdeck Pass, it’s a good 5km (2 hours+) down the Bonar Glacier to Colin Todd Hut. Allow at least three hours in the opposite direction. There are some heavily crevassed areas to be avoided on the way, and a compass would be of little use in whiteout. The Bonar Glacier is a fearsome place in bad weather, and any attempt at navigating it in a storm would go against common sense.            

On the glacier below Quarterdeck Pass. Photo D Hegg


[1] Conquest of Mount Aspiring. The Press, 18 December 1909  

[2] Accounts by Bernard Head of his expeditions, including the first ascent of Mount Aspiring. MS-3166/007 in Hocken Library Archives and Manuscripts.  

[3] Hamersley’s ‘Naval Encyclopedia’, quoted in The New York Times, “Change in Quarterdeck.” 5 July 1896, page 14.  

[4] Quarterdeck, from the website, Accessed 21 July 2010  

[5] Sim, J.A.: Camp Three. The New Zealand Alpine Journal, Vol VIII, No. 27, 1940, pages 155-166. Published by the New Zealand Alpine Club.  

[6] Porter, H.E.L.: Mt. Aspiring. The New Zealand Alpine Journal, Vol IV, No. 17, 1930, pages 75-83. Published by the New Zealand Alpine Club.  

[7] Stevenson, H.J.: French Ridge Bivouac. The New Zealand Alpine Journal, Vol VIII, No 27, 1940, pages 241-242. Published by the New Zealand Alpine Club. 

No comments yet

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: