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May 2011 Issue
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Promenade to paradise

Closing in on French Ridge Hut. Photo: Jacob Saathof
Raspberry Flat car park-Aspiring Hut, 2.5hr; Aspiring Hut-Pearl Flat, 1.5hr; Pearl Flat-French Ridge Hut, 3.5hr
Raspberry Flat car park is approximately 50km west of Wanaka at the end of the Wanaka – Mt Aspiring road and is accessible by two wheel drive cars. A daily shuttle runs from Wanaka to Raspberry Flat
Topo50 CA11

French Ridge Hut, Mt Aspiring National Park

A wave of dirty water rolled in front of the shiny, two wheel drive Toyota. I winced as a large scrape was heard from underneath the car. It was beginning to look like borrowing the mother-in-law’s car for a trip into the mountains was even more dangerous than climbing!

My wife and I were destined for French Ridge, with a goal of climbing Mt French!

Open grassland covered the valley floor, decorated by bright yellow mountain buttercups and cool green groves of beech, all watered by the energetic Matukituki River. As we walked we met day trippers, trampers and families treating their children to an overnight stay at Aspiring Hut. There was a relaxed feel and plenty of valley to share.

After passing Aspiring Hut, our travelling companions thinned out and the scenery stepped up a notch. As we approached Pearl Flat the sides of the valley transitioned from steep tussock-covered ridges to near vertical cliffs. Beech forest climbed from the valley floor and hanging glaciers gripped the sides of white summits. Tributaries of immense energy tumbled down stone staircases to join the Matukituki River.

Our bare feet burned in the frigid water as we shed boots to cross the river at the base of French Ridge. Here the relaxed strolling ended and the hard work began.

French Ridge is steep. A well-defined track follows a ladder of tree roots which reach for the sky. As we shouldered the extra weight of an assortment of alpine gear I thought back to the early builders of the original French Ridge Bivouac. In 1940, without the luxury of air support, they carried heavy hut materials from the car park all the way to 1500m on French Ridge.

Beech slowly gave way to mini beech and then to golden tussock as we climbed higher. Suddenly, over the changing horizon, a red toilet slid into view. The hut soon followed and we bounded up the last 20m with renewed energy.

The sturdy 20-bunk French Ridge Hut stands at 1480m and has a wide veranda overlooking the Matukituki Valley to the south and Hector Col to the north-west.

While Nadia spent the evening relaxing on the deck, I explored the surrounding area. Tussock slopes lead to the vertical edge of gloomy gorge and a view towards the 400m icefall of the Maude Francis Glacier. Traversing ledges to the left of the hut, golden tussock gives way to grey schist and the pointed top of Aspiring, reaching over the lip of the Bonar Glacier.

At sunset the sky caught fire, white mountain peaks glowed deep orange in creation’s flame. The atmosphere was breathtaking, a scene of immeasurable beauty that will remain etched in your memory forever.

In the evening the hut community gathered in the cooking room as Grant, the volunteer warden, made an announcement. Some were keen to climb Aspiring, we were keen to top Mt French, but everyone was keen to hear the weather. Bad news: summit-day was no longer to be bathed in sun but was now to be drenched with rain.

The forecast was spot on so we shouldered our heavy packs and made for the valley. Although the rain had thwarted our attempts to climb higher, it did little to dampen the excitement we felt for having experienced such a beautiful location.

– Jacob Saathof