More “ridge” than “French”. That was the startling omission in the hut comments section for French Ridge Hut an alpine refrigerator resting on the slopes Mt French and next door to the Bonar Glacier.
They weren’t wrong—As we crested the snow line my mind had gone to that place where a weary tramper dwells. Just over that next hump. Just round that bend. Surely just around the bend. I swear there is certain part of the reptilian brain that alights at the prospect of a hut at the end of a long day. After a hot climb we were salivating in anticipation, just like the mutt’s in Pavlov’s dog study our lungs heaved heavily, ready for a reward. Just over this last hump for sure. At the third such hump I let out a curse and wince just in time for the hut loo to come into view.
My partner and I slurped toward the hut putting on a brave face for the fresh looking trampers sunning themselves on the hut deck—two friendly kids from Dunedin, one of them sporting a most impressive mullet, although I hear the kid’s are calling them a ‘lettuce’ these days. The Dude looked like Billy Hargrove from Stranger Things and now my partner Jack has been talking me out of getting a similar coif for days.
Anyway back to the tramp!
We had been warned about the slog but on a day like today the view was worth the climb. After nudging the easy 2 hour trudge to Aspiring Hut out of the way we were onto greener pastures tracing a line along the Matukituki Valley. After Aspiring Hut the trail turns into dreamy stroll and I swear it’s simply down to the lack of grazing cattle and cow shit. There is a signboard at the beginning of the valley with a cheery pic of the family that runs the nearby station coupled with many claims that their cattle does little to harm the environment and E.coli sampling is perfect…sure, sure.
From the valley getting to French Ridge is a straight up brutal ascent with some ropes in place for the more adventurous climbs through the bush line. Once out in the open we had clear views of the valley and Liverpool Hut looming under the presence of Mt Barff. A few of the trampers we met were keen sadists who had been at the neighbouring abode the night before. As day turned to dusk a group of 4 kea conservation members turned up and set up a curious looking station of used coffee bags, kea recordings and an alluring bell on the end of pole. The coffee bags were laced with fishing wire in which the kea became ensnared before they were delicately handled and banded. The next morning we were lucky enough to see banding in action and the keas seemed oddly subdued while they were fitted with transmitters. Once released the keas made audible cries ‘kkkaarcks’ that caught on the wind were something more akin to:
French Ridge Hut was by far one of the more busier huts we had stayed in with 11 trampers in total but it was very relaxed and friendly with much of our company other kiwi’s on summer holidays. When we left the following morning we knew that despite our gruelling climb the day before, navigating the descent would be a slow and steady affair. I had forgotten that the trick to descending steep and impossible terrain was to turn around and climb down backwards using the boulders and tree roots like a ladder. ALWAYS. I made the mistake of attempting to slip down front ways and caught my tent bag on a stray tree root. As I hung precariously in suspension It took a few minutes to take off my backpack and re-center myself before falling haphazardly onto the trail below. R.I.P MSR bag. Oh well it was mostly tenacious tape these days anyway.
The knees were rattling towards the end of our descent but once back down we were out in the open and rays of glorious sunshine spilled through the Matiketike Valley. We took our time crossing the icy river and headed back to Aspiring Hut through stands of beautiful beech forest ever grateful for the shade. A long hot walk out with a few dives into the river the perfect end to our French Ridge exploration.