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Mount Aspiring / Tititea, 3033m

26 July 2010

Mt Aspiring from Bevan Col. Photo J Morris

“At the head of Hawea, dist(ance) about 40 miles, is a very lofty snowclad peak which I called Mt Aspiring” – John Turnbull Thomson

(But see this article about The Naming of Mt Aspiring for more detailed information).

Mount Aspiring is in many ways the centerpiece of the southern portion of the Southern Alps. It is 400m higher than any peak for 150 kilometres, and its prominence and distinctive spire mean it can be seen and identified from hundreds of places at all points of the compass. From the south and west, it appears a great pyramid of ice soaring above all other peaks. From the south-east, Aspiring’s great South Face rises like a shark’s fin. From the north, it is the highest peak on the horizon, unmistakable with its ice-free upper faces and attendant peaks of Fastness, Avalanche and Rob Roy.

I fell in love with Aspiring in the course of a score of trips in 2009. Previously a valley tramper, I came to low summits and ridgelines on more ambitious weekend trips. Nearly every time we saw Aspiring, like a friend in the distance. Trips to Mt Bevan and Mt French were calculated strategies to acquaint myself with Aspiring’s main access routes, meanwhile growing in affection for such a stunning mountain. After a trip in January 2010 to Mt Liverpool, the strain to see the view from Aspiring rather than of it became too much. So, in three days at the end of February, Nina Dickerhof (my other half) climbed Aspiring via the full North West Ridge.


Mount Aspiring was known to the Maori, who referred to it as Tititea, the “peak of glistening white” [1]. The name “Aspiring” was bestowed by surveyor John Turnbull Thomson in December 1857, from Grandview Mountain near Hawea [2]. It is the highest peak outside the Cook District but had to wait a decade longer than that region to see any attempts at its high peaks. The Matukituki River, whose west and east branches drain the southern and north-eastern aspects of Aspiring, had been farmed  since the 1870s. The first, Cameron, left the Matukituki after a record snowfall wiped out much of his stock, and left his name at Cameron Flat. Duncan Macpherson had a homestead near Cameron Flat but drowned crossing the river. Since 1920 three generations of the Aspinall family at Mt Aspiring Station have kept a proud tradition of assisting climbers and providing hospitality[3].

Despite thirty years of farming the east side of the mountain, the first attempt at Aspiring in January 1908 was via the Waiatoto Valley from Westland, which drains the massive Volta and Therma Glaciers to Aspiring’s north. A strong party of Ebenezer Teichelmann, Alec Graham and Dennis Nolan struggled up the notorious bush of the Waiatoto. This venture took so much effort that they had only time for an ascent of Glacier Dome above the Volta before Teichelmann was due back in Hokitika for work. He wrote “no one but a lunatic will ever visit the Therma Glacier twice, unless a track is cut” [4,7,8]. They spotted the NW ridge as a likely candidate for an ascent, and if they’d had more time may well have succeeded. Due to glacial recession, Glacier Dome and Aspiring are practically impossible to access from the Waiatoto in modern times (despite a track up much of the Waitaoto)

The first ascent came nearly two years later, on 23 November 1909. After a failed foray up the East Matukituki, Major Bernard Head, with guides Alec Graham and Jack Clarke, succeeded in finding a route up French Ridge from near Scott’s Biv in the upper West Matukituki. From a camp below the Quarterdeck Pass, they pulled off a remarkable piece of climbing, crossing the Bonar Glacier and hewing steps up Aspiring’s West Face [5,9,10], a route not repeated until 1965. It seems the ice on the West Face occasionally reaches a critical mass, whereupon it is totally shed (as it is doing in 2010) before gradually building up again. Nonetheless, their route, even when on form, is considerably more difficult than the North West Ridge route and was a cutting edge (excuse the pun) climb at the time.

In 1913, Samuel Turner, Harold Hodgkinson, Jack Murrel and George Robertson made the second ascent and first via the NW ridge, again from a bivvy on French Ridge. Benighted by poor weather above the Buttress, they spent a miserable night taking turns under a one-man overhang of rock before returning to their camp after 41 hours on the mountain. Turner described it in breathless terms, claiming “the first climb and probably the last of Mt Aspiring’s east [sic] precipices” [11]. He was a competent mountaineer who made first ascents of Tutoko and Hooker, yet found the relatively easy NW ridge inexplicably harder.

In following years, many new routes on Aspiring were attempted and won. The ramp, one of the most popular routes today, was first climbed in 1927 by Aitken, Miller, Boddy, Ellis and Shanks, on the 3rd ascent of the mountain [6]. In 1936, the stunning South West ridge was climbed by Stevenson, Dick and Lewis from a camp on the Bonar. Without modern 12-point crampons and reverse-curved ice tools, theirs was a bold climb [12]. The SW ridge consists of steep rock or snow steps where it meets the Bonar Glacier to a narrow and exposed ice ridge of around 40-45 degrees. The crux is a narrow 65 degree couloir on the west side of the ridge (on form when filled with ice, otherwise a grade 13-16 rock route). One to two pitches up the couloir leads to the top of the ridge where it meets the NW ridge a few metres from the summit. It is a stunning route of snow and ice, graceful and elegant from all sides. (Alpine grade 3+).

Ascents of Aspiring were fairly rare until 1932, when Cascade Hut was built by the Otago Section of the New Zealand Alpine Club. During a climbing camp in 1939, with over 100 members in attendance, tracks through the bush to Shovel Flat and up French Ridge were constructed. At the same time, materials for a hut were carried up French Ridge, with the hut there being completed in 1940. The addition of two climbing bases led to an increase in climbing in the post war period, leading to numerous ascents of new routes on Aspiring. The Coxcomb Ridge was climbed in 1953, the North East Ridge in 1955, the North Buttress in 1956, the South Face in 1971 and the North Face in 1978 [12].  All these routes (apart from the North Buttress) are significantly harder than the NW and SW ridges.

North West Ridge from near Pt 2151. Photo J Morris

The North West Ridge

Rating: alpine, grade 2.                           February 2010

The North West Ridge is an exciting but straightforward route up Aspiring.  Starting from Colin Todd Hut, an hour’s travel up low angle rock on the Shipowner Ridge takes you to Pt 2151, the top of the Shipowner Ridge. As 2151 is bluffed on the north side, a sidle 100m below this point on the west side to the Iso Glacier is required. This route involves small rock steps, and in late season conditions, it may be easier to access the Iso at any convenient point about 300m from Colin Todd Hut. A large crevasse across the Iso may be tricky to cross (halfway to the Therma Glacier from Colin Todd), hence the standard route from the top of the Shipowner. An alternative route accesses the foot of the NW ridge via snow on the Bonar, but this is less interesting and it has less of a view.

From the Iso, good flat travel on the Therma neve leads to the lower North West Ridge. In early season conditions, a snow ramp from the Therma leads above the Buttress and is the easiest route up the mountain. It seems glacial recession is taking its toll on this route though, so it cannot be relied upon. The standard rock route follows the ridge. The lower NW ridge is a flat traverse of numerous small gendarmes with a good foot trail, generally traversed on the Therma side (remember this on the way down when the trail is less distinct). This area is known colloquially at the Kangaroo Patch, although I’m not sure why. At the head of this section is the infamous buttress, which forces a sidle on the west. This is the crux of the NW ridge route. A good foot trail can be followed where it leaves the ridge crest below the vertical step of the Buttress, and an ascending line on good ledges is followed to a small col where the route rejoins the ridge crest at the top of the Ramp. The buttress sidle is straightforward and should not require pitching unless covered in snow (in which case it would be a poor route).

A very approximate route around the Buttress. The snow in the centre can be traversed over it, under it, or through it (a tunnel where the ice meets the rock allows access above the snow). Photo J Morris

Another alternative to the sidle of the Buttress is to follow the Ramp, a 40-45 degree snow lead which itself sidles the buttress on the East side from the Bonar Glacier, leading to the col above the Buttress. This route is usually cut off by a schrund from January onwards, whereupon it becomes a grade 13 rock step followed by (often) blue ice. In earlier season conditions, when on form, the Ramp has caused several fatalities, usually due to complacency on descent, where climbers walk rather than down-climb or abseil the Ramp. As the Ramp has usually been softened by the sun by the time of descent, anything but constant attention when climbing down it would be foolhardy. However, this or the Therma route would be the best route in winter or early summer (although the Ramp is exposed to windslab avalanches after fresh snow and NW/SW winds).

Above the col, the ridge is broad and low angled, and is essentially a highway to the summit whether snow covered or bare rock. This section of climb, however, involves about 600m of ascent and can take a deceptively long amount of time. The summit itself is an ice cap of usually 35 degrees, which is usually tackled on the south west side where the wind carves the ice into an exposed ridge. This may require one to two pitches, especially when rimed up.

On the descent, the route around the Buttress has a habit of being less obvious than on the way up. A few abseils may be required to find the best travel. It seems most people make common mistakes on the way down, so abseil spots are often festooned with slings and cord, and will be obvious. Below the Buttress, the travel is straightforward, but remember to turn the largest gendarme on the flat section of the ridge on the Therma side, otherwise you might have fun (like us) figuring out a rather exposed route on the Bonar side.

Time to the summit: 4-6 hours.

Time back to Colin Todd Hut: 4-6 hours (depending on abseils).


[1] Reed, A.W. (1996) The Reed Dictionary of Māori Place Names, 3rd Edition. Published by Reed Books. 144 pages

[2] Thomson, J.T. (1857) Fieldbook 47, Land Information New Zealand, Dunedin (to be transferred to Christchurch in November 2010)

[3] Chapter 11 in Gilkison, W.S. (1951) Aspiring – The romantic story of the Matterhorn of the Southern Alps. Whitcombe and Tombs Limited. 80 pages.

[4] Chapter 3, same as above

[5] Chapter 4, same as above

[6] Chapter 6, same as above

[7] Chapter 16 in McKerrow, B. (2005) Ebenezer Teichelmann – Cutting across continents. Tara-India Research Press, New Delhi, 270 pages

[8] Chapter 8 in Graham, A. & Wilson, J. (1983) Uncle Alec and the Grahams of Franz Josef. John McIndoe Ltd, Dunedin, 224 pages

[9] Head, B.: Conquest of Mount Aspiring. The Press, 18 December 1909

[10] Graham, A.: The Climbing of the Silver Cone, Aspiring Range. p215-219 in Moreland, M. (1911) Through South Westland. Whitcombe & Tombs Limited, London, 219 pages

[11] p54-70 in Turner, S. (1922) The Conquest of the New Zealand Alps. T Fisher Unwin Ltd, London, 291 pages

[12] p60-71 in Logan, H. (2002) Classic Peaks of New Zealand. Craig Potton Publishing, Nelson, 151 pages.



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