Bike, hike and fly  L’Arête Française

Only one hour from French Ridge Hut to Raspberry Creek?… Wasn’t on foot, but it didn’t involve any engines or motors…

There’s quite a logistical delight in combining multiple backcountry disciplines into one trip.  Staring at a gorgeous weather forecast, whilst staring at French Ridge on the map had me thinking about a trip I’d wanted to do for a while; to Paraglide down from the hut.  My buddy Richard was also staring at the forecast, but he was focusing instead on the expanse between Raspberry Creek and Aspiring Hut.

“Lets ride our bikes from the car park to the park boundary” he says..

I raise my eyebrows and ponder the wisdom of such a move: “With a 25kg overnight paragliding pack?” 

There are a number of well known ‘slogs’ in tramping lore; sections of walking which aren’t especially enticing, but are mandatory in order to get to a place where there are more route options. The Waimakarri from the SH73 bridge to Carrington Hut is well known to Cantabrians, and the West Matukituki from Raspberry Creek to Aspiring is perhaps an equivalent in Otago.

The difference in the ‘Matuki though, is that its possible (and permissable) to cycle to the park boundary, along the 4WD tracks of Aspiring Station.  But with no meaningful method of distributing that 25kg’s between our backs and our bikes, it was going to be a slog none the less.

I really love it when tourists gawp and stare at you.  Straddling our steeds at the Raspberry Creek car park with ridiculously large packs and skiing helmets, we definitely got a few looks.  Where 99% of the people were off to snap selfies in front of the Rob Roy Glacier, we were obviously off to do something a little less ordinary.

Selfie by Richard Sidey

The smug look on my face disappeared very quickly, and I was glad those same tourists weren’t around to see me suffer.  Despite dual suspension, the rough track was inflicting a sadistic toll on my barely padded nether-regions. Mostly in granny gear, we ground our way slowly up-valley and up until this moment, I had conveniently forgot that up-valley also means gradually up-hill.  The (lack of) speed and weight on my shoulders (and groin) had me questioning the wisdom of our mode of travel.

West Matukituki. Photo/Richard Sidey

Not Richard though, a seasoned bike-packer with a Tour Aotearoa under his belt.  He happily pedaled away, way out in front, whilst I tried my best to pretend I was enjoying myself.  Despite my internal complaints, we did get up the valley much quicker than walking. Before we knew it, we were at the park boundary, and stashing our bikes in a spot where (hopefully) the Kea wouldn’t notice them.

Time to stash the bikes. Photo/Richard Sidey

We continued up valley, me with a slightly bow-legged gait, past Aspiring Hut and into the Beech forest. Despite several trips to the area, I’d never been past Aspiring Hut, and I was suitably impressed at the gorgeous forest, huge waterfalls and iconic peaks that revealed themselves as we continued along.

Shovel Flat Waterfalls. Photo/Richard Sidey

I once mocked those who took off their shoes to cross a river.  Wet boots is the Kiwi way, right?  Well, with only one shallow crossing and no spare socks (or shoes) we opted to go Euro-style. Any paragliding trip with ‘standard’ flying equipment means serious compromises in every other department to save weight. Only Freeze dri for dinner, no spare socks, (don’t ask about undies) one 27g cooker and 600mL Titanium mug between us, sleeping with all your clothes on inside pathetically thin bags.. You get the idea..  And still the pack weighs 25kg..

It was a warm December afternoon, but the sky was overcast and the forecast rain looked like it wasn’t too far away. We ate a late lunch without delay, laced up our shoes then began the grunt up French Ridge.

Like the lore of the valley slog, other tracks have a reputation that precedes them. “You’re going straight up”  “we had to haul ourselves up tree roots”  “its brutal” were the advice and anecdotes I received about the track up French Ridge. I was expecting something rather severe, but instead encountered what I’d consider a ‘good’ track if it were in Westland.  Maybe the coasters are right that us eastlings are a bit soft?

Starting to steepen. Photo/Richard Sidey

Higher up the track, we did, in fact, do a bit of root hauling as the ridge narrows and steepens. Off to the right, almost sheer cliffs drop away into Gloomy Gorge and on the left, steep slabs angle back to the valley floor. The track has some quite airy-feeling viewpoints, and peering carefully over the edge, I was able to see a little bit into Gloomy Gorge and I tried to catch a first hand glimpse at the site of a ground-breaking canyoning descent:

This canyon is legendary among Canyoners, and as I lay gawping over the void, it dawned on me how much the Matukituki means to so many corners of our diverse outdoor community. Day hiking tourists, mountaineers, paragliders, ski-tourers, canyoners, family groups and access-friendly farmers.  We’re truly all in this together, and all wanting to preserve and enjoy our little patch of perfection..

Back to the moment, I shrugged at the view. As expected, all I could see from my position was the moment the river disappeared into the Chasm.  Hopefully tomorrow, I’d be flying directly above and peer into the canyon’s cauldron.

Now above the bush line, as expected, it began to rain..  Paragliders don’t tend to mix well with water, especially the tightly and professionally packed reserve parachutes stored within our harnesses. Get those things wet and they won’t work as well if needed, and if they stay wet, they will certainly degrade and fail to do their job.  Our somewhat ineffective pack covers did their best, but we did our best to make good speed to the red refuge above.

Dodging showers at French Ridge Hut. Photo/Richard Sidey

Just as we reached our shelter from the storm, the rain stopped and after moving in, we draped ourselves and our moist flying equipment across the huts tiny balcony. As the showers came and went, so did creatures on other adventures. Day tripper photographers, mountaineers on their way to Colin Todd, young foreign backpackers and a circus of curious Kea.

Curious Keas. Photo/Richard Sidey

We coyly reconstituted our Freeze-Dri, whilst our hut companions pulled wine, cheese, crackers, chocolate and more from their impossibly small packs.  Richard and I were the only Kiwi’s in the hut that evening, but we were pleasantly surprised with the kiwi-style welcome. Everyone made room for the others, the delicious treats (including the wine) were shared generously, and the place kept nice and tidy. Who says all visitors are disrespectful of our mountains and our huts?

The morning dawned gorgeously clear. Richard and I sat on the porch, enjoying the morning light on the peaks whilst slowly eating breakfast and drinking coffee.

Coffee time! Photo/Dan Clearwater

There was no need to rush; we knew the cool katabatic breeze would be blowing downhill for a few hours yet.  The sun needed to do its work, heating the shady slopes below, to warm the air and get it rising (and therefore blowing gently up-hill) before we could launch.

Every half hour or so, we poked our head around the corner of the hut, to assess the katabatic, and as we expected, it was slowly dropping away. The summer snowline was almost immediately behind the hut, but the lack of an overnight freeze meant it was good travel on soft but supportive snow.  Only 10 minutes higher up,  French ridge angled back slightly into a perfect-looking paraglider launch spot.

Above French Ridge Hut, with Pikirakatahi/Mt Earnslaw poking its summit up far beyond Cascade Saddle. Photo/Richard Sidey

Dumping our packs on a bit of scree, we inspected our snow-runway.  Plenty of space to lay out the glider, not so steep that we’d keep sliding if we tripped during take-off, but steep enough that the wing would pick us up and away from obstacles if the take off was successful.  Now all we had to do is wait.  And drink terrible instant coffee…

Parawaiting.. Photo/Dan Clearwater

Parawaiting is always anxious relaxation.  On one hand, conditions aren’t right for flying, so all you can do is sit back, enjoy being in a gorgeous place and wait for them to improve. On the other hand, if they don’t improve (or they change rapidly and you miss the safe take-off window) then you face a long walk home, carrying an excessively heavy ‘tramping’ pack.

Our improvised windsock (plastic streamer on a hiking pole) finally began to hang limply, but still ever-so-slightly downhill. It was time to get ready!  Wings were laid out, lines untangled, harness connections, buckles and reserve safety pins inspected.  Radio’s and flight instruments were switched on, warm layers and gloves pulled on, harness donned. A familiar routine, but with a familiar elevated pulse; my mind knows that I’m about to run head-first off a mountain, attached only to a glorified tent-fly and some dental floss.

Getting ready. Photo/Richard Sidey

There’s just the slightest kiss of a breeze on my cheek, which signals the katabatic is finally dead.  I take a deep breath, ease forward, then lean powerfully into a stride as my wing comes up above my head. The stride quickens to a run as the wing accelerates and within meters I’m already going faster than I can normally run.  Snow is flying from my boots in a sort of half sprint-half glissade. It feels like I’m glued to the snow, but finally the wing bites into the sky, and I’m safely airborne.

 

Finally, my paraglider is carrying me, rather than me carrying it! I know this flight won’t last long, and I can barely decide where to look.  Down between my toes to the waterfalls and cataracts of Gloomy Gorge, back towards the icefalls of the Quarterdeck, up towards Tititea, or along my flight path to ensure I always remain within reach of a good landing option. “Richard’s airborne” crackles over the radio, and I twist in my harness to see the little green and blue speck following me, 500m behind.

A paraglider pilots view of the West Matukituki. Photo/Richard Sidey

In the calm air of mid-morning, there isn’t enough lift to remain airborne for long, and after 15 glorious minutes, I’m planning my approach into the fields by Aspiring Hut. Safely on the ground, I watch as Richard comes in beside me, to make a text-book landing…

 

With huge smiles, we carefully fold and pack our wings; somehow jamming all the extra stuff around our gliders, which always seem to take up almost all of the room inside our packs.  A short distance down-valley, we unlock our bikes and the smiles turn to grimaces as I recall yesterday’s experience of cycling up-valley.  Except today, its down-valley!  With a smug effortlessness, we’re coasting quickly back along the 4WD track. Only a few short climbs require any effort and as I coast, I finally acknowledge Richard’s wisdom.

Just over an hour from the snowy French Ridge, we skid into Raspberry Creek car park in a cloud of dust.  Speed wasn’t the aim, but it sure was fun to go fast after a morning of going very very slow.

Dan Clearwater and Richard Sidey are members of the Southern Hang Gliding and Paragliding Club

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