As The Northern Hemisphere shred season approaches, the door is closing on the Southern hemisphere’s time. The tragedies down south this year brought back memories of some of my time on the planet’s south side. The losses of J.P Auclair and Andreas Franson will cut deep to the core of the global shred community.
As the season drew to a close during the spring of 1996 I was spinning in limbo. My best friend had just died and the only thing that kept my spirit afloat was being in the mountains. I had this overwhelming need to prove that embracing one’s passion for the mountains and the study of shredding and ski mountaineering was a worthwhile calling. That my buddy Trevor had not just been a kook who had given his life up for nothing important.
I looked into the employment exchange program Blackcomb Mountain had with the Treble Cone ski area in New Zealand. I had seen a picture of Mt. Aspiring’s stunning West Face in an old global Mountain guide about a year earlier and had it on my radar as one of those far off dream descents. When I realized that Treble Cone was actually in the same valley as Mt. Aspiring I knew that this could be my opportunity to make an attempt on shredding this face a reality.
After settling into Treble Cone and the town of Wanaka I started asking around and getting out on the shred with some of the locals. The face was definitely well known and was at the top of the list for NZ’s mountaineering community, yet by all accounts it seemed it had not been shredded. My old buddy Billy Stiles was also at Treble Cone working for Doppelmayr, installing and maintaining the southern hemisphere’s first six pack chair lift.
Access to Aspiring from the Wanaka area is long but straight forward, so after a couple of good dumps Billy was stoked on the idea and we headed up the Matukituki River valley for a few days of adventure.
The approach to Aspiring was via a 10km track to the Aspiring Hut, followed by another 5km’s to Pearl flat, then a crazy steep trail to the French Ridge Hut situated at the edge of the Bonar Glacier. From here a quick tour across the glacier brought you to the base of the West face.
We made the long approach up the Matukituki more reasonable by using our mountain bikes (back in the day you could bring bikes on international flights for free, as long as you put them in a box). It was still a long grunt to get there in a single day and we needed all the light of a full moon to get to French Ridge hut around midnight. We were well rewarded with incredible views of New Zealand’s southern Alps bathed in moonlight.
The next day we made our way out onto the Bonar to where we could get a good look at the line. After a few minutes studying the face I could tell Billy was uneasy.
“Sorry bro,I hope you`re not pissed, but I`m not going up there with you. That`s nuts! It`s way steeper than I thought, there`s not much snow on it – barely looks skiable, and we`re a long way out.“
“No worries bro.“ I thought it was interesting that many of the reasons he had for not wanting to do the face where the same ones that fueled me to do it. Although I did think it might be do-able there was a lot of ice on the face and I wasn`t about to go solo.
Working at T.C. I became great friends with Chris Eby, Tony “Gromet“McCutcheon and Shane Tooey. In addition to pushing out the boundaries of the Treble Cone backcountry we traveled all over the South Island shredding our faces off. It was Awesome!
I was on the other side of the planet, but I felt right at home. Fully immersed in my passion for the shred, I had purchased a 60`s vintage Austin for $150 bucks, and although he needed supplemental lead and burned some oil, “Steve” gave us unlimited access to the mountains around the Southern Alps.
Shane and I made another attempt on Aspiring , but after a couple days hanging out in the French Ridge hut while a South Pacific storm hammered the mountains we groveled our way down the greasy trail with our tail between our legs .
By mid September the high alpine of the Southern Alps was well blanketed with snow and I knew conditions on the face would be good. But the ski season was coming to an end and my job at Treble Cone was over. Then I received word that the Legendary Fred Beckey had secured funds for a trip he was putting together for an expedition to the unexplored Da Xue Shan range in central China. If I wanted to be a part of it I had to be home in a week.
I booked my flight home. It had been an amazing time but I couldn`t help being a little disappointed over not shredding Aspiring.
Then two days before I had to leave Wanaka, Shane called. He had a cinematographer friend who had got to town recently and had told Shane he could pay for a heli flight with Charlie Ewing to get us quick access out to Aspiring so that he could film the descent for “The Holmes show“, a New Zealand prime time news program.
The catch was that we had to be successful so he could sell the footage to pay for the flight. If we went out there and didn`t shred the face we would have to pay for the flight. I had no idea where I would get the money, but I felt really good about our chances to ski the line.
“Deal,“ I said.
The next morning was bluebird and we were at Charlie Ewing’s by 7 am. Charlie Ewing was a sheep farmer with an old Hughes 500 heli he used to manage his huge ranch just up the Matukituki valley from Treble Cone. I had already been in touch with Charlie about the possibility of getting a flight out to the zone, but it was a long flight from his farm and the cost was beyond us.
The backseat was a board propped up on two milk crates with a plywood floor covered in straw. Charlie laughed, “Don`t usually have anything back there but sheep“.
Once the heli was fired up Charlie told me to lean out the passenger door and unclip the leads from the battery. Sparks flew and I thought we were going to explode, Charlie laughed again. He was awesome! We landed across the glacier from the face, where Dan could set up his camera. An hour tour and we were on the face. 1000 meters of consistent 50 degree chalk with a dusting of pow. Perfect!
The “”Holmes show”” ran the story that night and Dan got payed for his footage. The next day I was on a plane back to Vancouver with just enough time to re-pack and head for China.
Trevor’s death had really messed me up but I felt the fog was beginning to lift. The path he had helped me find had value, and I now knew that if I followed my heart, I could accomplish anything.
JP Auclair and Andreas Franson, you will be sorely missed. But you will continue to inspire the rest of us, as long as we are here. Thank you for being who you are.