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French Ridge

Published
December 10, 2020
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The Wānaka/Queenstown area showing the Matukituki Valley, which includes French Ridge (see detailed map below). Background imagery ©2019 DigitalGlobe, Maxar Technologies, Landsat/Copernicus;Map data ©2019 Google. Additional information added.

The Upper Matukituki Valley with Mt Aspiring / Tititea, Rob Roy Peak, the Cascade Saddle and other features, including French Ridge (not named) below Mt French. LINZ via NZ TopoMap, 2020, CC-BY-SA 4.0.

MY tramp up to French Ridge Hut was quite difficult, as the track was coated with spiny plants native to New Zealand called speargrass, which getsvery slippery underfoot when it snows. The track was also filled with mountaineers who, like me, wanted to climb Mount French. I had brought my ice axe along and wanted to practice my skills with it on the mountain.

Photo showing French Ridge Hut, under my iceaxe, and the view into the Upper Matukituki Valley (West Branch)

French Ridge Hut. Source: NZ Department of Conservation (DOC), CC BY-SA 4.0.

The French Ridge Track forks off to the right from Pearl Flat in the Upper Matukituki Valley (West Branch), and was around a 3.2-kilometre walk from the Liverpool Hut where I’d come from. From the flat, trampers ford the Liverpool stream or cross over on a swing bridge to the track and climb for a few hours through bush and sub-alpine 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 have been be afraid of heights (hat tip Danilo Hegg, ‘Mt French, 2356m’, in southernalps.wordpress.com).

The climb is only a five to six-hour return trip from French Ridge Hut, heading up towards Quarterdeck Pass and then along a snowy ridge to the summit. Although not a prominent peak itself, Mount French is an incredible viewing platform for the nearby Mount Aspiring and Bonar Glacier, and is often climbed by mountaineers in consolation for not making it to these. The views back down into the valley are really good as well.

I met two such climbers from Australia at French Ridge Hut,who had attempted to climb Mount Aspiring/Tititea using just their rock-climbing skills. They got stuck halfway up the mountain on a rock without any rope and had to be helped down by a nearby Norwegian guide who was taking a New Zealand woman up the mountain. He stopped his ascent to throw them a line, and once they were off the rock, they slid down on the snow and were just gliding over crevasses in their haste to descend the mountain! The guide and the New Zealand woman just couldn’t believe that people would descend in such a foolhardy manner 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 used to 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 just for the experience and that she climbed for the journey, not the peak –something I thought was a great principle to have!

I really was among interesting company at French Ridge Hut. As well as the rock climbers, there was a man who lived in the woods in Norway, and a policeman from Auckland who had come down with three friends to climb Mt Aspiring. However, he had decided not to climb because he hadn’t been out on a mountain for over ten 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’t wanted him to go.

While his friends headed towards Mount Aspiring, the policeman climbed up Mount French on the side of the Bonar Glacier, which could have easily caused an avalanche in the local topography, apparently. (One notes the presence of a Mount Avalanche in this area, and the Avalanche Glacier as well.) A woman coming down with a guide had seen this and gave him a right talking-to for endangering all of us by taking this reckless path instead of using the existing steps. I certainly followed the stairs when I climbed Mount French, as climbing in the snow is easier if you just follow the track!

Later, two mountaineers with thirty kilogramme packs came into 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, seeing as I usually hike with only just enough food for the tramp, it was like a feast! I decided to stay there for a couple of days after that.

A Sunset from French Ridge

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

I left French Ridge Hut having thoroughly enjoyed my time in the mountains, thinking about how I’d love to climb Mount Aspiring one day. I made good time on the way down but was still deep into the Matukituki Valley when night fell, and then, all of a sudden, my torch went out. I had brought two with me but the first had died days earlier, so I was left scrambling down the valley in the dark. To make things worse, it also started raining. I resigned 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 you can buy for just ten dollars. I felt pretty good about using this if I had to, and was preparing to sleep outside in the rain under a tree. However, I thankfully made it back to my car and didn’t have to spend a wet night in the valley after all.

Further Resource

For a brief but somewhat more historical and technical discussion of the climbing of Mount French, which includes a photo from the summit across the Bonar Glacier to Mount Aspiring/Tititea, see Danilo Hegg's aforementioned 'Mount French, 2356m'.

If you liked the post above, check out my new book about the South Island! It's available for purchase from this website.

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