Exposure

A Stunning Descent of New Zealand’s Mount Aspiring

Light
Photo: Forest Woodward

One phone call with native New Zealander Graham Zimmerman led to many more, and, in March 2015, we set off for New Zealand’s South Island with two other friends, Kyle Dempster and Jewell Lund. Our objectives were simple: climb some mountains, eat some meat pies, explore. Months of planning boiled down to a few days of packing and preparation, a string of red-eye flights, and our groggy arrival in Christchurch. From there, we made fast tracks for the Southern Alps, fingers crossed for good weather that never came, with our sights set on the southwest ridge of Mount Aspiring (9,951 feet). Helicopter pilots declined to fly us to the base of our objective, so we opted for the long slog by foot, some 30 miles up the Matukituki Valley. We eventually summited via the southwest ridge. While the climb itself required some heavy trudging, what stood out in hindsight was the array of environments and ecosystems we passed through during our 72-hour descent from Mount Aspiring. We navigated across glaciers and snowfields, jungles and flooded rivers; exchanged greetings with local sheep and shepherds; and eventually arrived in the cascading heart of Fiordland, Milford Sound.

Photo: We reached the summit of Mount Aspiring, at 9,951 feet, around 4:30 p.m. on March 8. Heavy gusts swept across the corniced summit. Over the next 72 hours, we traveled through myriad landscapes and microclimates as we descended Aspiring and back into the Matukituki Valley, eventually wending our way into Fiordland.

Photo: Forest Woodward
Descending from Mount Aspiring, we were surrounded on all sides by white as the clouds rolled in. We picked our way through unknown territory, eventually setting up a series of rappels that allowed us to descend safely back to the Bonar Glacier at the base of the mountain.
Photo: Forest Woodward
As the last light faded from the sky, the white clouds that had shrouded us during the descent lifted and revealed the expansive and intricate rippling of the glacier below, allowing us to pick a route back to the alpine hut where we would spend the night.
Photo: Forest Woodward
We woke to reports of more rain on the way and enjoyed a cozy breakfast in the Colin Todd Hut before packing our bags to begin the hike back down to the Matukituki Valley.
Photo: Forest Woodward
Jewell Lund watched the storm move in from the balcony at Colin Todd Hut.
Photo: Forest Woodward
After a couple mugs of coffee, Kyle Dempster’s itchy feet and inquisitive nature led him on an exploratory mission up the granite wall a few hundred yards from the hut.
Photo: Forest Woodward
Another wave of classic New Zealand weather rolled in, signaling that it was time to pack our bags and get back to lower elevations.
Photo: Forest Woodward
Kyle carefully picked his way across steep, wet granite slabs at the head of the Matukituki Valley.
Photo: Forest Woodward
The rain settled in to accompany us for the rest of the day. The steady drizzle turned the slabs around us into a series of cascades, forcing us to set up rappels.
Photo: Forest Woodward
We descended through the last of the steep terrain that marks the head of the Matukituki Valley. From here, our path became less technical. We made good time descending the next six miles through scree fields, jungle, and grasslands.
Photo: Forest Woodward
The bad with the rain: it made the walking rather soggy. The good with the rain: the waterfalls were quite impressive.
Photo: Forest Woodward
High water levels made for an exciting crossing of the Matukituki River.
Photo: Forest Woodward
We spent a cozy night at the Aspiring Department of Conservation hut in the heart of the Matukituki Valley. The next day, we rose early for a mellow ramble over the last six miles to the end of the road where we had parked.
Photo: Forest Woodward
After a brief parley with the locals, we were granted safe passage back to Wanaka.
Photo: Forest Woodward
After an evening spent resupplying in Wanaka, we loaded up our minivan and drove winding two-lane roads through arching green canopies of Fiordland’s temperate forests.
Photo: Forest Woodward
We eventually arrived at the head of the valley and were greeted by a scene pulled straight from our wildest childhood imaginings: “It’s like The Land Before Time! Wait, no, Jurassic Park! No, Middle Earth!”
Photo: Forest Woodward
Graham Zimmerman enjoyed some fine granite sport climbing high above the road that brought us from Wanaka into the northwest corner of Fiordland.
Photo: Forest Woodward
As the sun set, our road from Wanaka dead-ended at the head of Milford Sound.
Photo: Forest Woodward
After three days of constant motion, we found ourselves at last at the Tasman Sea.

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