Mt Barff, New Zealand (attempt)

December 8-10, 2008 / Grade III, glacier travel, 45° snow & ice

After a few of days spent at Arthur's Pass, trying to get in shape, we drive south to Wanaka. Wanaka is a tourist town, the gateway to Mt Aspiring National Park. It's also become our favorite town in New Zealand. It has a great location on the shore of a beautiful lake in one of the driest parts of the south island, gorgeous mountains views, and a compact, small town feel. It's also a bit of a climber's town, with two climbing shops, and good cragging nearby. The funky local movie theater and the delicious chocolate croissants at Whole World (the supermarket) don't hurt either.

We arrive in Wanaka the first week of December. Spring seems to be in full swing. The weather has been nice and stable for the past three weeks. Unfortunately, that's about to change... We check into the cheapest RV park in town and try to find out what snow conditions are like in the mountains. There are two guides companies in town (Aspiring Guides and Adventure Consultants). We get good beta from Aspiring Guides. The SW ridge of Mt Aspiring has been climbed in the last two weeks and is reportedly in good condition (even though the snow is already gone in the upper gully, making the route somewhat more difficult). After checking the weather forecast though, we decide that the weather window is too short to tackle Aspiring: it's noon on Friday, we are not packed and the weather is supposed to turn for the worst on Sunday night. In the guidebook, we read about a minor peak, Mt Barff, which, like Aspiring, is also accessed from the beautiful Matukituki valley, 50 kms out of town. If anything, this could make a good training climb, and should offfer magnificient views of Mt Aspiring. We go back to the van and start packing frantically.

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Our van at the campground in Wanaka.
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This red truck is actually a "hotel on wheels" for German tourists! Honeycomb style! Totally NZ...
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Mt Barff from the valley floor; our intended route is the right hand skyline .
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Finishing packing at the trailhead (Raspberry Flats).
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The trailhead.

The next morning, we drive the long gravel road up the Matukituki valley to the carpark and trailhead at Raspberry Flats. From there, we hike to the Liverpool bivy, where we will spend the night and get up early the next day to climb the mountain.

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Hiking toward Aspiring Hut.
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The trail wanders along the river in the beautiful Matukiki valley.
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Almost feels like we're in the Swiss Alps...
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Crossing one of the suspended foot bridges.
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Views from the valley.

The trail wanders in the beautiful upper Matukiki valley. The grade is very gentle (except for one steep section) to Aspiring hut, which we reach after about 2 hrs. We take a long break there and refill our water bottles (restrooms and untreated water are available at the hut). The trail then gets a bit steeper as it climbs to Pearl Flats. A party of two Kiwi climbers pass us while we are taking a break along the river. They are going to Mt French. They managed to drive all the way to Aspiring hut with a 4 wheel drive, after paying the farmer at Aspiring Station for a key to the gate! They ask us what we are up to. We tell them of our intention to climb Mt Barff. They mention that the snow is going to be deep and soft up there... should have taken the hint...

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Eric on the approach.
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No kidding!
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On the very steep "trail" to Liverpool Bivy.
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Almost there - looking back at the Matukiki Valley.
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The tiny Liverpool Bivy.

From Pearl Flats, the "trail" to the Liverpool Bivy is extremely steep and involves a fair amount of root pulling and scrambling. It makes the infamous approach to Inspiration in the Southern Pickets of Northern Washington almost seem like a walk in the park. The Bivy is an extremely small sheet metal quonset hut. Barely enough space for 6 and a small shelf for stoves. For now, we're the only ones here… not for long it turns out.

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Mt Barff from the hut. Our intended route is the right-hand skyline.
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Room...
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...with incredible views...
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...of Mt Aspiring.
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The French Hut (on one of the access routes to the Bonar Glacier and Mt Aspiring).

A group of three hikers arrives late afternoon (a young French couple and their Czeck friend), and a lone Kiwi skier shortly after them. The hut gets too crowded, and much too noisy to sleep. The group of three are not climbers (they are just there to spend the night - a concept that I'm not sure I understand...) and they don't intend to wake up early at all. They talk and talk and talk. The skier does not seem too hurried to hitting the sack either. Grrr! We need to get up early if we want a chance at the summit. It's really warm and we're not even sure we'll get any overnight freeze. Fortunately, we brought a small tent. So we move out of the hut and set it up on the only spot we can find: a wider section of the access trail right by the hut.

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Mt Aspiring, appearing behind "the Breakaway".
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Mt Barff at sunset.
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Slogging up the easy snow slopes at sunrise...
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...with incredible views of Mt Aspiring.
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Small icefall on Mt Barff.

We still don't get much sleep. The other four are talking outside late in the night and don't settle down before 11PM.

We get up at 1:30AM. It's still warm. We gulp down some oatmeal and leave camp at 3AM. Gaining the ridge turns out to be very tricky in the dark. We scramble up very steep tuffa (tall yellow grass) slopes only to realize we went up the wrong gully. Smooth slabs and cliff bands block the way to the ridge. Back down. Descending steep tuffa is tricky; Lucie ends up putting her crampons on! Wicked! We try another gully; this one seems to lead to the ridge, but not quite. Down again. We find a vague trail (a portion of the trail from Liverpool Bivy to the Arawata Saddle) that continues further up the main drainage, and eventually find a workable route.

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More views of Aspiring.
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Cannot take our eyes off the SW ridge of Aspiring!
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Our high point, before turning back in soft snow.
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Looking up toward the summit form our high point.
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Views from our high point.

We make it on the ridge proper at 6:30AM. The snow is very soft. It did not refreeze overnight, despite the clear skies. The conditions don't seem to improve as we get higher. We take turns breaking trail. It's a lot of work. By now, the ridge is in the sun... won't help. The ridge gets steeper and the snow conditions don't improve. Eventually, we decide to turn around at about 2000m, in knee-deep snow on the knife-edge ridge.

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Ditto.
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The steep gully leading back to the Arawata Saddle trail.
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Descending snow slopes in the upper part of the gully.
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Back at the creek.
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Getting back to the hut.

We make it back to the hut at 10:30AM. We rest there for a while: drink, eat and nap. The others are on their way out. Bad weather is supposed to move in tonight, so we decide to pack and hike down.

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Looking back at Mt Barff from the hut.
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Packing our gear.
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The Quaterdeck (the route from French Hut to the Bonar Glacier) as seen from Liverpool hut.
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Starting the steep hike down.
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Crossing the suspended bridge on the way back.

It's pretty late when we leave the hut (5:30 PM). We're pretty beat. We had hoped to reach Aspiring Hut, where we could have spent a dry night, but cannot make it. We end up camping on a sand bar by the river one kilometer or so downstream from Pearl Flats. It starts raining that night as expected. We wake up the next morning to the sound of sandflies beating against the tent fly! We are horrified. We did not notice how terrible the sandflies were the night before. The wind and heavy rain rpobably kept them away, but now they're eating us alive! lesson learnt: do not even think of camping by a river in NZ!

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We awake the next morning to the sound of sandflies hitting the tent fly.
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The cozy Aspiring Hut.
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Watching the gloomy weather from the comfort of Aspiring hut.
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It's raining in the valley.
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Typical NZ landscape.

It is still raining. We pack our gear the best we can in a drizzle, and hike out without breakfast to Aspiring hut. We take a long break at the hut, having breakfast and trying to dry some of our gear. We're the only ones there. We leave a couple of hours later and finish the hike out in more rain. The streams, which were almost dry when we hiked up two days ago, are now flowing deep. We find ways across most of them but eventually have to take our boots off for a knee-deep crossing.

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Does this cow need a haircut?
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Driving back to Wanaka.