Our first overnight walk in New Zealand was going to be somewhere in the Mt Aspiring National Park, and we eventually decided on the French Ridge Hut. You can access this hut in two ways; option 1 is to follow the Matukituki Valley for about 14kms before heading straight up out valley, while the 2nd option is to get a helicopter to Colin Todd Hut (the base for climbing Mt Aspiring) and traversing the Bonar Glacier before descent to French Ridge. Having never done any mountaineering and being on a student wage, we chose option 1.
The track starts off by following the Matukituki River through extensive farmland that is full of sheep and cows, both of which were raising young and were a constant source of excitement for Emily. This part of the walk is easy going and has little change in elevation, following the flat valley through the mountains. After 8.8kms and two hours of walking, we reached the Aspiring Hut, where we had a quick snack and chatted with the warden. It is essential that you purchase a NZAC pass so that you can stay at the the French Ridge Hut; these are $25 per person and can be bought from the Mt Aspiring National Park Visitor Centre in the nearby town of Wanaka, or you can pay the warden directly if you are carrying cash.
From here the track begins to wind its way up into the forest and over a couple of rivers, with the help of two suspension bridges. It is then back down by the river and across Shovel and Pearl Flats, which are known avalanche paths and need to be traversed quickly. One hour and fifteen minutes after leaving the Aspiring Hut, we reached another choice point. The warden had mentioned that we can save about 20 minutes of walking by fording the river, rather than walking further upstream and taking a suspension bridge across. Given the water level seemed safe enough and we were happy to cool off, we waded our way across the river and towards the track on the other side. In hindsight, we should have taken our boots off and crossed in our camp shoes, but we were fooled by the first section of river which was significantly shallower than the other side.
The next part of the walk we knew would be the most challenging; from the valley it’s an almost vertical path straight up and many sections were not far off of this description. Initially, you climb up through beech forest that has a number of exposed roots and smaller shrubs that are useful foot and handholds. Once you are out of the tree line, the climbing doesn’t get much easier and you have the added warmth from the sun. The view from here is well worth the slog, and looking back down at the valley floor it is hard to believe that only an hour or so ago you were down there. As you pass across French Ridge, there is a small break in elevation gain as well as a number of small tarns that could be used if water levels are low.
The last climb seems to go on forever but eventually you spot the toilet, and the hut is only over the next little bump. We had made pretty good time on the way up; 1hour and 50 minutes with an ascent of 988m in a distance of 2.6kms. We were told that most people take between 2 and 3 hours.
We then spent the rest of the afternoon drying our wet and sweaty clothes and admiring the local group of Kea that hang around the hut. It is wise not to leave anything outside of the hut, as the Kea will almost certainly take interest; we had heard stories of Kea flying away with boots and keys. Later that night we were joined by a group of three people that had come down from Collin Todd Hut after spending 7 days learning how to ice climb.
We left early the next morning as we wanted to leave the mountains and head towards the West Coast.
Day 1: All up; 17.2kms in 5 hours and 53 minutes with 1340m ascent.
Day 2: Back to the carpark in 4 hours and 29 minutes with very few breaks and sore knees.
Getting there: From Wanaka, follow Mt Aspiring Road all the way to the end. Note that the last 30 minutes of driving is on a very corrugated dirt road with a number of small creeks that need to be traversed. We had a 2WD Toyota van which had enough clearance to pass safely, but anything lower might have some trouble. The base is rocky and therefore there is very little chance of getting bogged. Would not recommend crossing after heavy rain or snowmelt unless you had a 4WD.