Going back to this last January, I started looking at mountains to climb here in NZ. The one that caught my eye was Mt. Aspiring. Also known as the “Matterhorn of the South”, she towers above the Aspiring National Park in high demand of respect. I researched the routes and the southwest ridge peaked my interest. Climb until you gain the ridge, then you’ll come to a couloir filled with ice. Two pitches of ice climbing leads you to the Northwest Ridge, where you gain the summit. The PERFECT route for where Joe and I were at in our Climbing, it’s all I could think about.
I was most excited about Aspiring as it was the first Mountain and route I picked out for us to climb. So when we came to NZ only to here of warm temperatures and poor conditions, my heart started to sink and I tried not to think of the worst. We went from the DOC (Department of Conservation, similar to the National Park Service), multiple guiding companies, and to the gear stores in search of information. One of the guide companies conditions report confirmed our fears... “Southwest Ridge is incomplete”. In other words, rather than picturesque ice straight to the summit, you’re more like to discover loose and dangerous rock. My heart sat in my stomach for a few days, to come so far for one major objective seems silly. But as Ive been told and am figuring out... that’s a part of Climbing.
So with that, we started looking for new objectives. Asking around Wanaka, we were quickly laughed at when people figured out we didn’t have any rock gear. In a good snow year, ice screws and pickets are plenty. In a year like this, rock shoes and rock pro is the way to go. People started throwing out different options, one of those being Mt. Barff.
Everyone I've talked to about Mt.Barff doesn't know exactly why or the reason behind its unusual name. If I had to guess, I'd say that the person who christened the mountain with a name like Barff, must've puked multiple times just trying to get to the base of the snow. Terrible skree rock lines her flanks and makes for a huge undertaking.
We drove towards the Raspberry Car Park and encountered many fords along the way. The last looked deep and impassable for low clearance Hidey, so we parked her on the side of the road and added a mile and a half to our already 9 1/2 mile day.
The first 3/4 of the hike is completely flat ground through the Matukituki Valley. Crossing through farm land in the presence of towering mountains on our sides and even larger beasts in front of us. We arrived at Aspiring Hut for a brief lunch and admired Mt Aspiring and Mt Barff that rose straight ahead.
After a couple more hours of walking through flat valleys, we found ourselves at the base of the mountain that would lead us to Liverpool Hut. The sign read as: “Liverpool Hut-2 Hours. WARNING: This hike is steep and treacherous in wet AND dry conditions”.
We started up and quickly realized that the sign was no joke. More like scrambling, most of the hike you were hand over foot pulling on roots and rocks to get you up. Over 2,500 vertical feet of “climbing” was had, with 40lbs if climbing gear on our backs. By the time we reached the hut we sat in exhaustion and stared at Barff that was peeking in and out of the clouds.
Prior to leaving on this adventure, a local gear store employee advised us on the path through the scree rock to get to the snow. With a hand made map, Joe ate some lunch and scampered off to find the trail for tomorrow morning. I sat in the hut until his return multiple hours later. In that time a few hikers came to the hut for a nights stay, which we warned that we would be as quiet as we could at 1:30AM while we packed our bags and headed out for the climb.
Joe returned looking tired but optimistic. With the hut being at 3,608ft, that meant we had 3,708ft to go for summit day. With an early start then next morning, we ate dinner and quickly climbed into our sleeping bags and fell asleep before the sun had set. 1:30AM rolled around faster than expected. Both Joe and I groggily changed and went to the mud room to grab our packs. We had left the hut by 1:57AM, and as we looked into the night sky an ominous cloud blanketed the summit.
With mostly moonlight and stars we started up. Through the bush, we finally found our way to the rocks. A few wrong turns had led us astray but soon enough the cairns started to be more consistent and we knew we were on the right track. Each step was methodically thought about. With pebbles on big flat slippery rocks, a fall would have high consequences.
After two hours of just rock scrambling we found our first snow patch. We took advantage of the low angle and changed shoes, put harnesses on and roped up. The change from rock to snow was glorious, and rest stepping brought back wonderful memories from earlier this summer.
The angle slightly increased on the mountain and the sun started to rise. Our hopes were high that the change in temperature would clear the dark cloud that we were now just a few hundred feet from. Up until this point the Climbing was easy. Few crevasses, and moderate angle made for smooth sailing. Soon enough we had climbed our way into the clouds. Before long the sky became the same color as the snow and the definition between the two was gone.
I could see Joe just ahead and nothing more. The bright green rope between us glowed in the whiteout, keeping us together. The clouds would shift and we’d hold our breath, looking around for some sort of indication of where we might be, only to be engulfed again in the white. We stopped, took off our packs, threw on a warm jacket and waited.
We waited, and waited. In the same spot we sat and looked to see if the weather would be on our side. After more than an hour, doing sun dances and asking for a break the weather persisted. Should we go? Or wait just ten more minutes?? The thought of getting back to the hut and the Mountain showing her face made our stomachs turn in frustration.
With the snow already soft and getting softer we knew our time had ticked away and we turned around following our tracks back to the rocks. When you do make the decision to go down due to weather, your mindset switches from: “please sun, C’mon, just a little less cloud!” to: “I hope I never see the sun again.”
Going down is always a tricky thing, with tired legs it tends to be the place where most accidents happen. With a summit in hand, the euphoria feeds into the thought process of thinking about each muscle movement that’ll get you down safely. Without one, it requires what seemed to be more thought and effort.
We changed our shoes and took off our gear for the rock section. We stepped as carefully as we could. There was a few moments where my butt hit the ground but luckily those moments were met with a smile and laughter as we continued on.
We arrived back to the hut after 8 hours and 30 minutes of Climbing. We had made it 3/4 of the way to the top before turning around. Luckily when we looked Barff’s way, all there was to see what big, white, engulfing clouds.
The rest of the day was spent in the hut. That afternoon the clouds increased and the wind picked up. Rain was repeatedly pelted into the side of the hut, and Joe and I were glad not to be up on the mountain.
The next morning we headed down, we down climbed the roots and rocks and once safely at the bottom we celebrated with a candy bar, as we knew from here on out was just flat ground.
Walking on “flat” ground is easier said than done. With heavy packs and tired legs the next 4 hours seemed to drag. When we reached the last mile and a half of our walk both Joe and I tried to not look ahead. I could’ve sworn the car was getting farther away even though we were walking towards it!
Of course we got back to Hidey, took off our shoes and drove the rest of the way back to town. The clouds never broke around Barff while we were in the valley, only to solidify the decision to turn around.
While Climbing you tend to dream of the food you see in town. This trip was no different, and while trying to be good with our money we’ve only managed to eat out once the entire trip thus far. We decided to reward ourselves after a good effort and all we could think about was the Turkish Kababs and fries that were on the main drag. We had walked by the restaurant so many times, so to actually go inside was euphoric.
We sat down, thoroughly stuffed ourselves with food and started thinking about the next climb.