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French Ridge

Published
December 10, 2020
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THIS POST ACCOMPANIES MY BOOK THE SENSATIONAL SOUTH ISLAND: NEW ZEALAND'S MOUNTAIN LAND, AND WILL BE UPDATED SHORTLY

MY tramp up to French Ridge Hut wasquite difficult, as the track was coated with spiny plants native to NewZealand called speargrass, which gets very slippery underfoot when it snows.The track was also filled with mountaineers who, like me, wanted to climb MountFrench. I had brought my ice axe along and wanted to practice my skills with iton the mountain.

                             

Photo showing French Ridge Hut, under my ice axe

The French Ridge Track forks off to the right from PearlFlat in the Matukituki Valley and was around a 3.2-kilometre walk from theLiverpool Hut where I’d come from. From the flat, trampers ford the Liverpoolstream or cross over on a swing bridge to the track and climb for a few hoursthrough bush and subalpine terrain to reach the French Ridge Hut.

The hut offers spectacular views of the nearby Mount French,named after WWI Field Marshal John French, who was, rather ironically, said to havebeen be afraid of heights (hat tip Danilo Hegg, ‘Mt French, 2356m’, insouthernalps.wordpress.com).

The climb is only a five to six-hour return trip from FrenchRidge Hut, heading up towards Quarterdeck Pass and then along a snowy ridge tothe summit. Although not a prominent peak itself, Mount French is an incredibleviewing platform for the nearby Mount Aspiring and Bonar Glacier, and is oftenclimbed by mountaineers in consolation for not making it to these.

I met two such climbers from Australia at French Ridge Hut,who had attempted to climb Mount Aspiring using just their rock-climbingskills. They got stuck halfway up the mountain on a rock without any rope andhad to be helped down by a nearby Norwegian guide who was taking a New Zealandwoman up the mountain. He stopped his ascent to throw them a line, and oncethey were off the rock, they slid down on the snow and were just gliding overcrevasses in their haste to descend the mountain! The guide and the New Zealandwoman just couldn’t believe that people would descend in such a foolhardymanner and were amazed they didn’t fall down any of the crevasses!

While I was at the hut, I met a mother of two who also usedto rock-climb and had attempted to climb Mount Aspiring. She didn’t make thesummit either because it was too windy. However, she said she’d done it justfor the experience and that she climbed for the journey, not the peak –something I thought was a great principle to have!

I really was amongst interesting company at French RidgeHut. As well as the rock climbers, there was a man who lived in the woods inNorway, and a policeman from Auckland who had come down with three friends toclimb Mt Aspiring. However, he had decided not to climb because he hadn’t beenout on a mountain for over 10 years. It was quite a wise decision to make,really, especially as he had a young family to take care of and his wife hadn’twanted him to go.

While his friends headed towards Mount Aspiring, thepoliceman climbed up Mount French on the side of the Bonar Glacier, which couldhave easily caused an avalanche. A woman coming down with a guide had seen thisand gave him a right talking to for endangering all of us by taking thisreckless path instead of using the existing steps. I certainly followed thestairs when I climbed Mount French, as climbing in the snow is easier if youjust follow the track!

Later, two mountaineers with thirty kilogramme packs cameinto the hut, and I don’t think I’ve ever eaten as much as I did that evening!They offered me a pistachio nut spread and all sorts of other food and, seeingas I usually hike with only just enough food for the tramp, it was like afeast! I decided to stay there for a couple of days after that.

Another mountaineer I met was a man named Dean who had beenup Mt Everest about eight or nine times and was on the French Ridge Track as aguide. He was with a guy from Australia who had done three weeks ofmountaineering and was trying to get to the top of Mt Aspiring. I talked toDean for a bit, and his stories made me think I really would not want to be aguide. Imagine being stuck with some awkward character for weeks and be paid tokeep them company and psyche them to the top – it would just drive me batty!

I left French Ridge Hut having thoroughly enjoyed my time inthe mountains, thinking about how I’d love to climb Mount Aspiring one day. Imade good time on the way down but was still deep into the Matukituki Valleywhen night fell, and then, all of a sudden, my torch went out. I had broughttwo with me but the first had died days earlier, so I was left scrambling downthe valley in the dark. To make things worse, it also started raining. Iresigned myself to the fact that I’d probably have to sleep out in the rain,not having brought a tent. However, I did have an emergency blanket which youcan buy for just ten dollars. I felt pretty good about using this if I had toand was preparing to sleep outside in the rain under a tree. However, Ithankfully made it back to my car and didn’t have to spend a wet night in thevalley after all.

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