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Mount Avalanche, 2606m

1 August 2010

West peak coordinates 44°25.308′ S, 168°44.464′ E 

Mount Avalanche south-west face and Maud Francis Glacier from French Ridge. Photo D Hegg

Mount Avalanche is an elegant mountain that culminates in three peaks aligned on a 700m long summit ridge: west peak (2606m), middle peak (2518m) and east peak (2533m). The west peak is a major nodal point dividing the Matukituki River West Branch to the west, the Matukituki River East Branch to the east, and the Waipara River to the north, while the middle and east peaks are on the watershed between the two branches of the Matukituki River. The mountain feeds four glaciers: Bonar (north), Avalanche (south), Maud Francis (west), and Hood (east). 

From a mountaineering perspective, Mount Avalanche is a relatively accessible peak which offers a great variety of climbs, from easy rock scrambles (the west ridge) to moderate snow routes (the south-west face) and more technical challenges on its many other ridges. 

Abseiling the slabs on the West Ridge of Mt Avalanche. The Maud Francis Glacier below. Photo D Hegg


I have spent much time researching the origins of the name “Mount Avalanche”, but have met with little success. The earliest mention I could find of the mountain is on the map accompanying McKerrow’s, Hector’s and Haast’s articles in the Journal of the Royal Geographical Society of London, 1864 [1]. James McKerrow most likely named the mountain, as he would have had a frontal view of the peak and of the Avalanche Glacier from Mount Alta, which he climbed in 1862 [2]. The Avalanche Glacier is a large hanging glacier which continually discharges ice avalanches into the head of the Glacier Burn, hence the name. 

Detail of the map of the Otago Region from the Journal of the Royal Geographical Society of London, 1864. The first mention I could find of the mountain

Mount Avalanche and Avalanche Glacier from Mount Alta. Photo D Hegg

The Maud Francis Glacier on the western aspects of Avalanche was named by Bernard Head in 1911, in honour of his cousin who had given him hospitality at Waimate after his ascent of Aspiring two years earlier [3]. The mountain’s glaciated northern slope was named “Flight Deck” by Paul Powell [4], presumably due to its position at the very end of the Bonar, the comparison to a ship’s deck being prompted by the nearby Quarterdeck. Paul Powell also named the Hood Glacier, after Captain George Hood, who with Lt. Moncrieff, had made the first attempt to fly across the Tasman in January 1928 [6,7]

First to climb Mount Avalanche were D.H. Leigh, W.H. Walker and J.A. Sim on 3 January 1935. They started from a camp on French Ridge in a clearing southerly, and after negotiating a badly cut-up Quarterdeck, they crossed the Bonar Glacier to the toe of the north ridge. This proved to be “very steep and broken”, but the west ridge “showed an easy angle in its lower reaches dimly seen through the mists”. They walked back across the Bonar, and completed the climb which is today the standard route to the summit. “The day was clearing steadily, but mist still covered the peak, and the view was ruined”. On the way down, they debated the option of returning straight to their campsite, or whether they should “remove the reproach of virginity from Mount Bevan.” “The call of duty won”, and they trudged down the Bonar Glacier to bag their second ‘first ascent’ for the day before returning to their camp via the Breakaway [8]

The first ascent of the East Peak of Mount Avalanche was claimed by P. Powell, D. McTaggart, R. Cunninghame and G. Bayliss in October 1960, from the Matukituki River East Branch via the Hood Glacier. Their climb was notable for the release of a racing pigeon from 2100m of elevation, to test an alternative to radio communications for the purpose of search and rescue. In spite of concerns that the bird might be plucked by kea, the pigeon swiftly returned to Dunedin, covering the distance of 210km in 4 hours [5,6]

The Middle Peak was the last one to fall, at the hand of T. Bowden and G. Bishop on 22 January 1963, via the south ridge from the Maud Francis Glacier [9]. D. Innes and L. Kennedy traversed all three peaks on 15 February 1969. Their exploit, unrepeated until early 2010, was just the final act of an astounding trip, where they walked in from the Matukituki River East Branch to Moncrieff Col, climbed the virgin Scylla and the north-east ridge of Popes Nose (first ascent), moved on to Colin Todd Hut, traversed Mount Aspiring via the north-east and north-west ridges, then crossed the Bonar Glacier to Quarterdeck Pass before completing the first traverse of all three peaks of Mount Avalanche [10]

Several other routes on the mountain have been climbed since; for more information see the NZAC guidebook to the Mount Aspiring Region [11]

The slabs on the west ridge of Mount Avalanche. Photo D Hegg

Route description – the West Ridge to the West (High) Peak

Rating: Alpine, Grade 2                              March 2010 

The west ridge of Mount Avalanche is a pleasant scramble on rock of reasonable quality, although it does deteriorate near the top. A rope may be useful especially on the way down; although not steep, the slabs on the ridge make down-climbing quite tricky, and most parties will prefer to abseil. A few slings are all that is required to protect the route and to set up abseil anchors. The climb can be easily completed in a day as a return trip from French Ridge Hut

From Quarterdeck Pass ascend the Flight Deck (the eastern end of the Bonar Glacier) to near the top of the snow slope, thus avoiding the gendarmes in the lower section of the west ridge. Aim for a horizontal section on the ridge at the toe of the summit pyramid, at about 2400m of elevation. After a first rock step the ridge flattens out, then rises to the summit as one broad, 150m high slab split by a number of winding vertical cracks. Pick a line connecting the cracks, some are wide enough to stand in; slings left by previous parties will help finding the best route. The exposure increases higher up, but the rock climbing doesn’t get any harder than grade 10. Beware of loose rock near the top. 

Route topo of Mount Avalanche west ridge. Photo D Hegg

Mount Avalanche map. 1 grid square = 1km. Left click to enlarge


[1] McKerrow, J. (1864) Reconnaissance Survey of the Lake Districts of Otago and Southland, New Zealand. Journal of the Royal Geographical Society of London, Vol. 34, pp. 56-82. 

[2] McKerrow, J.: Reconnaissance Survey, Otago Witness, Issue 556, 26 July 1862, Page 3 

[3] Pinney, R.: Bernard Head – A Biography. The New Zealand Alpine Journal, Vol 35, 1982, p120-123. Published by the New Zealand Alpine Club.  

[4] p91 in Powell, P. (1967) Men Aspiring. AH & AW Reed, Wellington, 183 pages 

[5] Chapters 13 and 14, same as above 

[6] East Peak of Avalanche. The New Zealand Alpine Journal, Vol XIX, No 48, 1961, p111. Published by the New Zealand Alpine Club. 

[7] Powell, P. in Otago Section of the New Zealand Alpine Club newsletter, November 1968.

[8] Sim, J.A.: Mts. Avalanche and Bevan (1st ascents), and an ascent of Mt Aspiring. The New Zealand Alpine Journal, Vol VI, No 22, 1935, p154-156. Published by the New Zealand Alpine Club. 

[9] Bishop, D.G.: Tiger Country. The New Zealand Alpine Journal, Vol XX, No 50, 1963, p116-122. Published by the New Zealand Alpine Club. 

[10] Kennedy, L.D.: Beyond Moncrieff Col. The New Zealand Alpine Journal, Vol XXIII, No 56, 1969, p120-125. Published by the New Zealand Alpine Club. 

[11] p110-113 in Uren, A. and Cocks, J. (2009) The Mount Aspiring Region – a guide for mountaineers. 3rd Edition. Published by the New Zealand Alpine Club. 162 pages

One Comment leave one →
  1. Zittydog permalink
    2 January 2012 2:58 pm

    Great peak if you don’t feel like hitting the big one. SW face is similar steepness to SW ridge of Aspiring

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