I think it would be fair to describe him as “giddy as a school girl” in his response. We started researching routes, picked our dates, booked flights, and before I knew it I was stuck-in, as they say. I have a fair bit of experience rock climbing and backpacking, and my complete lack of alpine experience didn’t seem to worry Tony too much, so I didn’t let it worry me. Ignorance is bliss. Or lethal. You never really know until the end.
I picked up some proper mountain boots, an ice ax, crampons, an alpine harness, and a replacement copy of Freedom of the Hills (my 7th edition is in storage). Tony put me through some self-arrest training on a trial trip up Mt. Ruapehu. I must have done well enough; he didn’t cancel our tickets.
I spent the next six months getting myself in shape at my CrossFit box. Then, in mid January we flew from Taupo to Queenstown, caught a bus to Wanaka, and did a final gear sort. The weather report was not in our favor, with only two days of clear weather before a front came through that would bring snow and gale-force winds. We decided our chance at the summit was to try and push all the way up to Colin Todd hut (the high elevation summit staging hut) on day one, summit on day two, and make a hasty retreat on day three.
The next morning we caught our shuttle van from Wanaka out to the Raspberry Flats Trailhead. We shouldered our very heavy packs and began the walk up the Matukituki valley. We cruised up the valley, and at lunchtime were forced to make a decision. Trying to descend from the upper hut in bad weather, with what were sure to be battered bodies, was beginning to sound like a bad idea. So Tony made the wise decision to abandon the summit, and instead make the most of the good weather we did have.
We headed left from the valley, up a ridiculously steep trail to Liverpool hut for our first night. Liverpool is a nice hut with an impressively placed outhouse, but happens to be on the way to no-where, which meant that the two kilometer distance and 700 meter elevation gain was all given back on our return to the valley floor the next morning. Whatever else this Liverpool guy did with his life, it better have been good, because his hut placement is terrible.
So, day two started with a short retracing of steps, then a left turn up the valley. After a few hours of route finding and stream crossing we reached the upper end of the valley. From there we started up loose scree, then solid granite slabs toward Bevan Col, the entrance to the lower aspect of the Bonar glacier. Eventually the granite gave way to snow and ice, and it was time to let the ice tools and crampons earn their keep.
Moving up and over the Bevan Col put us on the Bonar glacier, at the foot of Mt Aspiring. I had a bit of disappointment that we weren’t going to be able to summit, but honestly, less than I had expected. It was enough, on that day, to be surrounded by peaks and crunching across the glacier under blue skies.
We were forced left briefly by deeply crevassed iceflow, then swung right and up the Bonar glacier. I was preparing for about a two-hour glacier walk, but it was slower going than that, and was four and a half hours later when we reached the top of the glacier. During that time, I developed what I have come to call the Bayless Glacier Shuffle. It is a precise rhythm of thirty steps and then a three-breath pause. My legs were so tired that was the most I could manage. Tony didn’t seem to have much trouble keeping up, but he didn’t mind the rest, either. He fell into one crevasse I had walked over without even seeing. Fortunately, it was narrow and he didn’t require any heroic rescue.
Following tracks in the snow, at about sunset we reached the ridgeline demarking the Bonar Glacier from the Quarterdeck. With a sharp right turn, we were finally on the decent. The Quarterdeck is a crevassed ice slab that forms a pass between Mt. French and Gloomy Gulch (about a thousand meter sheer face that would indeed make your day gloomy). Weaving around and occasionally jumping over crevasses, we picked our way down toward French Ridge. Ice gave way to rock and we were able to take off the crampons. By this time it was well into night, forcing us to navigate by headlamp, looking for orange trail markers.
We finally reached French Ridge hut at 12:30am. We had walked 18.5 km (11.5 miles) and ascended 1800 meters (5,900 feet) over the course of seventeen hours. I had consumed six liters of fluid and peed once. Tony asked if I wanted to eat. I think I grunted something about being too tired to breathe. We dropped our packs, dug out our sleeping bags, and passed out inside French Ridge hut. We woke about six hours later, ate our dinner for breakfast, and went back to sleep.
The decision to get down from the higher elevations proved a wise one, as the peaks were covered by low cloud that morning. We were met with cold winds and some spitting rain, but also by brilliant rainbows below us in the valley. Aspiring Hut was empty when we arrived there, wet and very sore. We were grateful for dry firewood and a wood burning stove. Next morning we limped back through the rain to the trailhead at Raspberry Flats. I have never been so hungry for a hamburger at nine in the morning.
The next few days we knocked around Wanaka and Queenstown. Tony cheated his way to a luge victory, I ate burritos, and we both cried a little every time we had to walk down steps.
It was an awesome adventure, and other than a crampon spike to the leg and some seriously mangled feet, we escaped pretty well intact. We’ve decided that next time we’ll take the helicopter up to the glacier. But there will certainly be a next time.