I let my eyes fall from him, down the ropes swinging from his struggling frame, to my hands. They are bloody and swollen after two days of battling with granite. Below me the face falls almost vertically to the valley floor; a waterfall of rock three Sky Towers high. There is a disturbing abruptness to the drop; the air seems to hang where rock should stand.
Between me and the valley floor, Derek, our photographer, hugs the rock. Moments earlier he had avoided a barrage of rugby ball-sized blocks of ice by throwing himself under an overhang.
Are we having fun yet?
I dismiss the thought and look back up at Chris. He is gouging out bits of moss and plant life from the crack that stretches above his head. He has run out of handholds, and there is nowhere for him to put the wedge of metal that he holds clamped between his teeth.
“Guy,” he calls, “I can’t go any further. I’m putting in a skyhook.”
With horror movie fascination, I watch him balance the fish-hook-shaped piece of steel on a narrow edge of granite. He clips his rope to it, and, gentle as a snowflake, transfers his weight on to the finger of metal. The rope runs smoothly through my fingers as he descends.
“Get off that thing as soon as you can,” I shout. He ignores me, spread-eagling his limbs, looking for new hand- and footholds, his full weight on the hook.
“Get off that damn thing!” I yell. He gains the safety of my ledge. Glaring at him, my panic button firmly pushed, I wonder again how we are going to get off this wall, and how I had got myself into this situation.
Everyone dreams. Sometimes I have bad dreams about people or things chasing me, and I can’t escape. Other times I dream about quirky combinations of reality and fantasy, such as a dream in which Jerry Seinfeld owed me money. He gave me an expensive dog as collateral, but someone stole the dog while I was looking after it. Worse still, the dog was in the back of his car which I was borrowing. It was better than watching an episode.
I also dream while I am awake, and the Kaipo Wall was one such dream. It was more of a mindworm that embedded itself during a conversation at the end of 1995 climbing season. Chris North, an outdoor recreation tutor at the Manukau Institute of Technology, a friend and climber with unlimited enthusiasm, was discussing future projects with me. Climbers are like junkies in this respect: the moment they have finished one climb they are already craving their next.
The Kaipo Wall came up. It is a massive granite wall over 1000 vertical metres in height equivalent to the runway at Wellington Airport standing on its end in Fiordland’s Darran Mountains. Since Graeme Dingle, Murray Jones and Mike Gill made the first ascent in 1974, no one had attempted its precipitous flanks. As Chris extolled the virtues of the wall and its neighbouring peaks, I reflected on the many heroic stories I had read about climbs in this area, and felt the familiar surge of nervous anticipation that accompanies the planning of a new adventure.
The Darrans are remarkable in many ways. One of some two dozen mountain ranges in Fiordland National Park, they run north-south just inland from Milford Sound. Each year, thousands of tourists stare in awe from buses, boats and aircraft at these improbable sheer-sided fortresses of granite or, more correctly, granodiorite.
This rock type, one of the oldest in the country, was formed from the crystallisation of molten magma in vast underground chambers. Its component minerals quartz, feldspar and biotite are bound together in an interlocking structure which bestows a great strength which climbers covet.
In the Darrans, this rock has been thrust upwards over millions of years by earthquakes emanating from the Alpine Fault. The other major geological force that has acted on the
range has been ice. The fiords that give the region its name are the spectacular result of glaciation rivers of ice which once ran to the coast, carving out great U-shaped valleys as they went. The Kaipo Wall stands in the remote northern extremity of the range as a testimony to the grinding power of ice.
Apart from geography, two other features dominate the Darrans: sandflies and storms. Rainfall there is measured in metres, and the numbers of sandflies don’t bear thinking about.
A century ago, the area was desperately remote. A visit to Milford necessitated either a crossing of the Milford Track (originally a green-stone route) or an even more arduous sea journey. However, the area’s inhospitability did not deter Maori travellers and traders or European explorers.
Mountaineering began in earnest in the area with an attempt by Tom Fyfe (who was in the first party to climb Mt Cook), Malcolm and Kenneth Ross and William Hodgkins on Mt Tutoko, the highest peak in the range. Their attempt failed when they mistook Mt Madeline for Mt Tutoko, but they showed the way for future generations of climbers, and the area has remained a popular destination, with its particular hardships breeding fiercely loyal devotees.
Today, despite the tar-sealed highway that winds its way past the southern tip of the range, climbing in the Darrans remains a serious proposition. There is only one hut, and just a handful of tracks into the interior. Push past these fringes of human comfort and it is like pushing through the coats in C. S. Lewis’s wardrobe to an alien world of ice, snow and rock, where it’s “always winter but never Christmas.”
The more we toyed with the idea of climbing the wall, the deeper the hook bit. The mind worm was reeling us in.
By Helicopter, it is a mere hop from Milford Sound, gleaming on a bright January morning, to the Ngapunatoru Ice Plateau, the starting point of our expedition. As we descend, I can see that the plateau is not flat, as I had imagined from the map, but slopes gently to the south, with glaciers fanning out from its centre. Out of sight, on the northern rim, the Kaipo Wall plunges to a snow-free valley. Crevasses split the surface of the plateau, and Mt Tutoko looms huge above us.
We unload a minor mountain of gear. As the clatter of the helicopter dies away, no one says anything. Our thoughts have collectively turned to the tourists down the valley, who are sipping their first coffee of the day and deciding whether to go fishing, walking or out on a cruise.
The members of the first ascentparty were pinned on the plateau for five days in a typically fierce Fiordland storm. We must build a weatherproof shelter in case we, too, are caught out by the weather. The snow is not steep enough for us to dig a cave, but, climbing down into a crevasse, we find a natural shelter left after part of the wall had collapsed.
As we set to work, flattening the floor and depositing a cache of food and fuel, we hear the noise of a helicopter, followed by another, and then the sound of voices. Incredible. It seems our isolated spot is in grave danger of becoming overcrowded.
Sauntering over as if we have always lived here, we discover that the newcomers are a film crew shooting an advertisement for German television. With some surprise, we learn that they are expecting a further 19 people on the plateau that day.
“They have weddings up here quite often,” drawls the guide.
We walk away to take a look at the wall. Where it starts, the snow stops, and there is an edge of rock that acts as a safety rail above the face. Chris and I scramble down on to the rock, lie flat and peer over. My hair prickles. A Niagara of rock falls away from Slabs, buttresses and corners connect two smooth sheets that make up the face in total, about a kilometre across. It looks steep or very steep, depending on whether I look through one eye or two.
About three-quarters of the way across the face a series of broad ramps snake their way down the face like a crazy bobsled run, eventually joining up with the avalanche snow piled at the base. This is our route. We are hoping that it will be a new one.
Alarmingly, there is a large amount of snow lying on the less steep ledges. We had expected the face to be completely snow-free, and its presence will add complications. I shuffle back from the edge as that overwhelming feeling you sometimes get close to a cliff washes over me that of wanting to throw yourself into the abyss.
“It looks OK,” Chris ventures.
“Yeah. The top part looks good.” Which, of course, avoids commenting on most of the route.
We hear the approach of another helicopter. The film crew want us out of their way, so, with a final glance down the wall, we shoulder heavy packs and stalk past the media groupies in their designer jeans and skirts.
From maps and the helicopter we had spotted a spur, which we hope will give us an easy route to the valley. The descent is initially down snow slopes on the eastern backing of the face. At a point roughly half way down, the snow gives way to snowgrass and rocky bluffs.
Over half of New Zealand’s indigenous plants live in an alpine environment, or so my field guide to alpine plants had told me, and I am immensely thankful to each species as I hang off them in turn, descending the steep, vegetated terrain.
At the bottom, we are greeted by flowing water, beech trees and curious kea. We immerse ourselves in various tasks: pitching the tents, sorting and repacking gear, cooking tea, readying the radio for the evening forecast. These routine tasks take our minds off the crushing omnipresence of the wall.
“This is IB Base, with the weather forecast for the South Island’s alpine regions for Tuesday the 14th of January,” the radio crackles. “In Fiordland, the weather will continue to be clear with light winds through Wednesday. However, by afternoon on Thursday the weather will deteriorate, with high winds and rain expected.”
A day and a half. That’s all the window we are being given. Discussion. Agreement. We will go for it.
Dinner, a sumptuous smoked chicken pasta, has suddenly become as tasteless as cardboard. I am swirling the food around my plate uninterestedly when Derek calls out, “Hey, look at this! You guys really know how to pick a route.”
An avalanche is tearing down the middle section of our proposed line of ascent. Silence. Chris goes back to scrubbing out the billy. Derek fiddles with his cameras. Something decisive has to be said. Nothing comes.
We start to work out alternative lines of ascent, and, after much debate, we decide on a line that should satisfy the twin criteria of safety and achievability. Two days is how long it will take. On the first day we will climb our original line to a shelf where we will make camp. On the second day we will attempt the steep half-kilometre-high headwall. As a contingency, we can escape to the right and follow the route of the Dingle/Jones/Gill ascent.
With this decided, we pack all the gear we will need for climbing and spending a night on the face. I grimace as I lift my pack, and earnestly hope that it will be lighter on the climb. Alarms are set and we attempt to sleep.
Dragging Myself from my sleeping bag is surprisingly difficult for someone who was awake all night. Chris seems cheery as he readies himself. I hate him for his enthusiasm. As I dress I recall an old mountaineer’s adage which states that the more nervous you feel, the better your chances of success. Judging by my internal levels of adrenalin, we will be unstoppable.
Before we set off, we practise a ritual that we hope will appease the gods that watch over this valley. I say a karakia, then Chris tells us to pick up a small rock, feel its roughness in our hands, and mentally put into the stone all the things we don’t need on the climb. Undue fear, ego and uncertainty are left behind, stacked in a little pyramid.
It takes us an hour and a half to reach the base of the wall from our campsite. Mostly, we walk in silence, each of us coming to terms with the climb ahead. We scramble up a dry stream bed to reach the wall. Touching it for the first time is sweet. Despite its wetness and the moss growing on it, I can make out the grain of the rock.
We move quickly and unroped up the lower slabs, following a weakness that contains a stream, but soon the face steepens. Above and to our right a large corner system bisects the upper face. From this distance it looks climbable, and most importantly, it is safe from any avalanche danger. Leaving my tramping boots on, I lead off up a slab towards the corner, relishing the sunshine and sound rock.
A broad ledge covered in snow affords ample room for a lunch stop. The drop that has been growing steadily beneath our feet is now highlighted by the midday sun. From where I sit I can see the start of the corner only five minutes scrambling away. We can also just see the ocean across the valley side.
Yeah, we are feeling pleased. The sardines and crackers are tasting even better spiced with the thought that we could be four or five rope lengths up the corner by dinner time.
It looks life it gets easier after the overhang,” I say, with a certain smugness, knowing that it is Chris’s lead. “Right, I’m going to have a look.” Chris pauses. “Is no one going to say, ‘No you can’t possibly, let me go instead?'” he asks, quoting The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. I shake my head.
It is scary to watch, and Chris describes it later like this:
“Once you are leading, you have no thoughts to spare. Your whole mind and body concentrate on the way you can link the hand- and footholds. You feel the movements of your body, the flexing of muscles and tendons, your centre of balance. There is a unique satisfaction in being so totally absorbed: you don’t feel the depths below, nor the heights above. You don’t even think about what happened to the teddy bear in the opening scene of Cliffhanger. The now is everything. You live each moment intensely.
“A Buddhist story describes a man who is chased by a tiger and leaps off a cliff to escape. As he leaps, he grasps a small tree root, which just holds his weight. Looking down the cliff, the man sees another tiger waiting at the bottom, gazing up with hungry eyes. Just when he thinks it cannot get any worse, two small mice begin to gnaw at the slender root he is holding on to. The man spies a strawberry growing on the cliff in front of him: he picks and eats the strawberry. It is the most delicious thing he has ever tasted. When you are leading a hard pitch, you know exactly how he feels.
“As I climb up the overhang, I notice that holds are becoming sparse. Much as I appreciate the alpine plants, they are clogging the cracks where I would love to place a wire. I need both hands to hold on to the rock, so I can’t weed to see if a crack is hidden behind the plants. Plants are also growing on the ledges where my best handholds would be. There’s a big vegetable sheep a type of cushion daisy growing like a wart on the rock at one point. For lack of decent rock holds I hug it tightly and try to avoid thinking about its breaking strain.
“The next few metres look difficult, and I attempt to tie a sling around a large rock wedged in the crack.. However, a tug of the sling dislodges the jagged-edged boulder, and it narrowly misses the ropes below me. This is ridiculous: I’m half way up a 1000-metre rock face, I can’t put any wires in the crack and I’m about to fall off. A fall at this stage will at best cause me serious injuries, and rescue is days away.
“I coax myself up a few more metres and stop. The next hold is a metre out of reach up a blank wall. I wedge a wire behind a semi-solidlooking block, attach a sling to it and put my foot in the sling. I gingerly stand up, and, at full stretch, my fingers can just curl around the next handhold. I gasp with relief and force a camming device behind a fridge sized boulder.
“The next moves are across an almost featureless face to another hold. This time there is no crack for me to wedge a wire into. I lean out to the side and see a tiny ledge only as big as the tip of a fingernail. I can’t hold on to anything that small. The only alternative is to rest a skyhook on the ledge and put my full weight on to it. I’ve never done anything this desperate before, and I’m appalled that I can even consider it seriously. However, it’s the only way on to the upper wall. I calm myself, test the skyhook, then hold my breath and step on to it. It holds my weight. I stand up, and with a cry of desperation just reach the final handhold. Pulling myself on to the safety of a ledge, I find my hands are shaking uncontrollably, my throat is dry and my composure is still dangling on the skyhook a few metres below me.”
Once Chris is safe he ties a third rope to his anchor system and I jumar up this rope to him. Jumars are devices which slide up the rope but lock off with any downwards force. By attaching them to my harness I can climb the rope instead of the rock.
Chris looks terrible. His epic is drawn on his face in stress lines. After a brief discussion and some scouting by me, the decision is made to retreat. Above, the wall continues to be mossy and loose, and neither of us wants to have a repeat of the last pitch. We have difficulty locating anything we trust enough to abseil off, so I decide to place a bolt using the equipment we have lugged up the face for just such an emergency.
As the drill hammers away at the rock, I think happily that we will have a safe bolt placed in less than 10 minutes. Then the drill bit breaks. It is my only one. Avoiding Chris’s eyes, I enquire about the strength of his anchors, and we decide to abseil off a wire which is wedged reasonably solidly in a crack. Chris lowers me so that I can retrieve some equipment that I couldn’t reach on the way up. I face a big swing if the wire doesn’t hold. It does. Chris comes down last, and I hear him talking to himself to force concentration.
Time has evaporated. It is 5.00 P.M. The shine has gone off the face and the day, and we have gained no new ground since lunch. Chris looks pale and drawn, and I feel shaken from watching his acrobatics and from the abseil down.
They say home is where the heart is. My heart is far from our overnight bivvy site: a two-person-wide crack that angles down like a staircase. We move rocks around to level off a sleeping platform. During the preparation of dinner, we talk about the climb facing us the next day. Any thoughts of pushing a hard new route have gone out of our minds. We now want to get to the top as easily and quickly as we can.
The weather forecast has fore warned us that today’s sunshine is due to disappear. So, having no viable alternative, we must traverse back to the line used in the first ascent. Pushing through the avalanche path quickly, before the morning sun has had a chance to soften the snow, will give us the best chance of avoiding danger. We scout part of the route before tea, but we are not sure we can get on to the ramp from where we are. If we can’t, we will have to descend, wasting time and height in the morning.
There are many imponderables to work over as we eat tea, chat, read and pretend to be comfortable. As the last light leaves us, we start to arrange ropes, packs and other nonmetal equipment into a mattress. If sleeping in your bed is a 10 and trying to sleep on the overnight train from Auckland to Wellington is a 0, our spot comes in at -5. But you take your comfort where you can get it.
“That was an awful night. I don’t think I slept at all,” is my contribution to the start of the day.
“What? You didn’t sleep?” Derek retorts through chattering teeth. “Your snoring kept me awake all night!”
Somehow we arrange the burner so that it doesn’t do any permanent damage to person or equipment. The Raro that arrives hot and sweet is the best thing that has happened to me for at least 24 hours. My mind is clumsy with sleeplessness, and body cold and stiff as we organise ourselves in the dark. Once again we practise our “please keep us safe” rituals before abseiling to the start of the traverse at first light.
Hogbacks are lens-shaped cloud formations that are the most reliable early warning system in the mountains for the onset of bad westerly weather. Several are decorating the eastern sky. Is this an omen? Do we turn back now while we can, I wonder, then say out loud to Chris. A quick discussion follows, and I bow to his experience. He says we should go on, and hands me the ropes.
With each metre gained, the possibility of retreat diminishes. Traversing, I run out a rope length and come to a good belay. A big overhang prevents me from seeing if we can connect to our ramp. I yell this back to the others, and hope that Chris can find a way through as he climbs past me. He can. We have overcome the first hurdle of the day, but in doing so we are fully committing ourselves to climbing to the top, come what may.
Sitting on my side of the overhang, belaying Chris, I am happy, oblivious to any problems that he may be facing. When I arrive at his belay I discover that he isn’t happy, perched as he is on the very edge of the avanlanche path.
“Man, I was really lonely around here by myself,” he says, pointing to the tiers of snow above us, “and I would really love it if you could climb, y’know, fast?”
Expecting at any moment to hear a crack and have a wall of snow smear us off the face, fear force-feeds my nervous system, and I move into high gear. Slabs are great. Usually off-vertical, they are less tiring to climb, and have ample holds. Their one drawback is that they tend not to have cracks or weaknesses. This creates a problem for me, because it means that I am unable to attach any of the shiny bits of metal that are hanging off a sling around my neck. It would be great to place them for two reasons. First, once attached to the rock and then to my rope via a carabiner, I won’t fall further than my last point of attachment. At the moment, that is Chris. Second, there will be less weight around my neck. Thankfully, after 30 metres I find a crack. Acknowledging the relief that is wafting up from below, I keep climbing.
“Ten metres . . . five metres . . . two metres,” is the judgement on the amount of rope left. Choice phrases fill my mind as I feel the tug of the fully extended ropes attached directly to Chris. I can’t find an anchor point. I look again under moss, behind spiders, into the ether. No good. Not a crack in sight. I am unable to provide safety, either for myself or the others.
I reserve my best curse for the useless drill still weighing me down. “Chris, I’m safe,” I say, shuffling uncomfortably on my shoe-width ledge. It strikes me that if this is safe then it is some version of safe that I was not previously aware of. All I have to offer is the strength in my legs.
I ask all known deities to keep us safe, but when Chris passes me and takes the lead meaning that if he falls we will almost certainly be torn off the face I feel we need more, and begin asking the rest. Deals are struck, and after at least one lifetime I hear Chris yell he is safe. I enquire whether that means my definition of safety, or whether he is actually attached to the rock. He is. Thank you. I start climbing.
Chris is actually sitting in a stream. Water is pouring around him, and behind him is a large block of snow poised to fall.
“It was the only place I could find an anchor,” he says unhappily. It must be true that fear lends you wings, because I literally fly up the next 50 metres, stopping only when I think I am safe. We break out the muesli bars, and munch away while discussing the next part of the route. Far above our heads, we can see another corner system formed by the meeting of the ramp and the main face. This seems to promise escape from the face, and Chris makes a beeline in that direction. Rope length follows rope length with little discussion, except when we meet at belays and swap the lead. Then we babble about everything and nothing. Tiredness has bitten. We are inane and banal. We linger between belays, savouring the comfort of company before leaving for another lonely turn out in front. The moves become automatic.
“You’re on belay.”
Again and again.
The top seems to be getting no closer. We are walking against the stairs on a giant escalator. Our fingers have split and are starting to bleed. Whenever I come across a pool of water I suck it dry. When our eyes aren’t on the climb they’re on the sky. The weather continues to hold. Finally, we are crossing the upper snow patches we had seen from the plateau, and our exit corner is only one rope length away.
We are elated, but what lies in between is the ugliest piece of climbing I have ever done. It is another unprotectable slab, but this time it has the added charm of being wet and moss-covered. A growing anger grips me as I garden my way across it. I wonder when the wall is going to roll over and die, and, looking between my legs at the prospect of a dangerous fall on to the less steep slab below, all I can think of is the pain, and how furious I would be.
I make it to a safe belay at the base of the corner. Slipping into my down and windproof jackets, I allow myself the happy thought that all the snow is below us now. Nothing can fall on us. Better still, from now on the climbing looks straightforward.
I should have known better, for in a few moments Derek is dodging ice missiles and Chris is entrusting his life once again to a skyhook.
Reunited, we stand white-lipped and look for a route.
I lead a pitch. Then Chris. We check and recheck our safety systems. Top-of-the-wall paranoia has set in, and we are only too aware of the enormous distance to the valley floor, and of our exhausted brains. It would be easy to make a stupid, fatal mistake now. Get-home-itis is pulling strongly.
“Guy, clip into this”
“OK, I’m safe. Are you safe, Chris?”
“Yep . . . hang on, I’ll check. OK. Where’s Derek’s rope. Is that safe?” “Uh huh.”
I set off on what looks like the last pitch, making each move with all the care and concentration I can muster. Then, unbelievably, there is only two metres to go. Reaching up, I pull myself over the edge and discover that, instead of a snowy plateau, I am on a knife-edged ridge which runs away from me in both directions.
I look despondently along the loose blocks of rock that constitute the ridge, to a small saddle. Beyond that is a short scramble up more loose blocks to a summit. Further back still is the easy snow.
I didn’t want this. I didn’t want to concentrate any more. I want it to be easy. I want us to be safe.
“Chris, I don’t know what to do,” I call, sitting on the ridge. More correctly, I am thrown by this last difficulty, and want someone else to solve the problem for me.
Chris refuses to play the cavalry, so I resign myself to climbing over the loose blocks. It is easier than it looks, and soon I am sitting at the saddle, setting up a belay. Sitting back, it dawns on me how warm it is out of the wind and shadow of the face. The sun is setting, catching the Tasman Sea and making it flame brilliantly. Taking off my tight rock-climbing boots sends blood rushing back to my numb toes.
Chris climbs the final ridge quickly and brings us across to him. Suddenly, we are at the top, hugging and laughing, relief filling us until we are drunk with it.
It is a short celebration. Night is falling, and we need to reach the safety of our crevasse camp. We trudge across the ice on legs that are barely co-operating.
We feel an enormous respect for the wall. We didn’t “knock the bastard off,” nor did we grind it down. The wall has allowed us to climb it, we have survived, and it feels good.
But the memory of fear and pain is still fresh. I turn to Chris. “I never want to do anything like that again.”
Chris stops and looks fixedly at me. “Yeah, neither do I.”
We start walking again. After a while, I pause to appreciate the vivid colours streaked above the summit of Tutoko by the setting sun. I grin, knowing that once the tiredness and stress have left my bones, the dreams will start again.