With mounting desperation I replay Dan Clearwater’s instructions at the top of the waterfall. “If the water hits you in the face, kiss the rope.” Kiss the rope? I force my nose through the curtain of water towards the fluorescent orange smudge of the rope, drop my legs off the wall, loosen my grip and surrender to the relentless downward force. Seconds later I’ve slid off the end of the rope and I’m bobbing, breathless, in the surging pool below.
I swim slowly towards the rest of the team and we stand in the shallows, debriefing. Stonewall Canyon, etched into the greywacke basement rock on the crumbling fringe of the Wairarapa coast, is straightforward, as New Zealand canyons go: perfect for a first-timer like me.
But the gentle creek I’d splashed and boulder-hopped through a few hundred metres upstream, so refreshing after a sweaty uphill scrub-bash, had abruptly changed character as the canyon narrowed and steepened. Its sudden ferocity had caught me off-guard. I looked back up at the waterfall with new-found respect. Perhaps I had been guilty of what Toine Houtenbos, Dutch-born director of Abel Tasman Canyons, describes as the “classic Kiwi mentality” when it comes to descending canyons.
“There are many keen climbers, hikers, kayakers and cavers who see canyoning as an extension of hiking, so it’s often underestimated. It’s an attitude that I haven’t seen anywhere else in the world.”
That’s if we’ve even heard of the sport. While Kiwis have been doing more-or-less planned descents of canyons for decades, they didn’t really have a name for it until recently. As Wanaka canyoner Annette Phillips explains, “It was just hard-core outdoor dudes kind of going ‘wet tramping’.”
But from a few bedraggled souls, floating down gorges with their tramping packs, enthusiasm for the ‘quirky’ sport of canyoning has been gathering momentum and now stands, insiders predict, on the verge of exponential growth as people catch on to the fun that can be had travelling through the “drainpipes” of our vast outdoor playground, as Phillips jokingly puts it.
Recent exploration in these obscure creases of the landscape has largely gone under the radar. Then, in February this year, a group of canyoners at the top of their game ventured for the first time into one of the toughest canyons in the country. Dan Clearwater, our team leader in Stonewall, calls it a “cataclysmic hole in the Earth”—the legendary, evocatively named Gloomy Gorge drains a huge glacier in Mount Aspiring National Park, making it a high-volume, white-water canyon of world-class proportions.
Water defines canyoning in New Zealand: its beauty, pleasure, challenge and danger. Carving its way through the landscape over millennia, it crafts hidden playgrounds of sculptured rock, slots, caverns, arches, elegant waterfalls and seductive pools of other-worldly greens and blues. White-water spray drenches rock walls carpeted with velvety moss and ferns.
In a remote Fiordland canyon, Phillips came across the clearest water she’d ever seen in her life. Canyoners see a lot of clean water, but this seemed almost invisible. She and French canyoner Alain Rohr found themselves simultaneously mesmerised by its clarity.
The purity of the water is the first thing he’s drawn to, Rohr explains. “After this it’s the hydraulics, the movement of the water and the bubbles like a jacuzzi. Then the erosion of the water on the rock and how it makes the shape of the canyon.
“Sometimes we just go into a canyon that we know and check all the pools. We go to feel the push of the rapids and the power of a waterfall, to use these things like a fish, maybe. You can play in water like a child,” he says.
Dan Clearwater is also affected by the dynamism of these “mountain waterparks”.
“It’s like wandering down the artery of a being. There’s the water flowing through the middle of this canyon; it’s very loud and incredibly beautiful. It’s just alive, constantly moving and pulsating.”
To make a good canyon, you need water, rock and verticality. This interplay of natural processes in infinite variation gives each canyon its distinct character. The rock has to be weak enough for water to erode it into a gorge, but strong enough that the resulting rock walls don’t collapse under their own weight, Clearwater explains as he gives me a quick survey of our main canyon-making rock types.
“Greywacke is very hard, but it’s fractured and brittle, so these rock walls tend to collapse. But in a few places, where the greywacke is without internal cracks or imperfections, canyons form.
“And we have small areas of schist where there’s hundreds of canyons right next to one another, like the Aspiring region. Schist is comprised of layers, which have varying resistance to erosion by water, so it depends on the way the strata are orientated as to what sort of canyon might form. If the layers are vertical, you can get a very deep, narrow, slot canyon. If they are orientated 90 degrees to the river, then you get lots of waterfalls, with deep, clear pools.
“There are a reasonable number of granite canyons on the West Coast. Because granite is so hard, these canyons only tend to form beneath a hanging valley with a glacier, where huge volumes of glacial melt water and highly abrasive glacial rock flour have been pumping down, day and night, for thousands of years, and these cut through the granite like a knife through butter. Those are probably the most beautiful and difficult canyons of all.”
Much of the challenge posed by New Zealand canyons is simply related to the volume of water that goes through them, says Clearwater. “If you turned the tap off, they’d be incredibly easy. The difficulties come from dealing with the white-water problems in narrow places.”
A vivid vocabulary specifies these challenging ‘features’: undercuts, strainers, siphons, potholes, boulder sieves, sumps, inescapable pour-offs and eddies. Knowledge of canyon hydrology and white-water skills are required as canyoners slide, jump, abseil, swim and down-climb through them.
As with other outdoor sports, the dynamic balance between the skills of the canyoner and the challenge of this natural playscape is crucial. A range of specialised equipment such as customised harnesses, wetsuits and high-friction shoes complement the more generic verticality tools of climbing hardware, anchor materials and static abseiling ropes, along with white-water safety gear. Much is borrowed from existing sports, but canyoners use it in highly canyon-specific ways.
These ‘toys’ should be just enough to make the activity possible, safe and enjoyable, without overwhelming what philosopher Thomas Heyd calls the “spontaneity of nature”.
The sense of going “on nature’s terms” is central to the ethos of activities such as canyoning.
Playing with nature requires respect and, more often than not, engenders a special connection with the qualities of wild spaces. Enjoyment comes from the sheer sensory pleasure of being immersed in water, or awed by rock sculptures, while simultaneously meeting a natural challenge with a well-honed set of technical skills, experience and ingenuity.
In stonewall, clearwater patiently guides me through the basics of canyoning. I carefully manoeuvre myself into position for the first short slide by bridging with my body against the force of the water to create friction for my feet on slick rocks. Looking back upstream from the pool beneath, I appreciate the difficulty of back-tracking in a canyon. To climb up smooth, slippery rocks, against the flow of water, looks impossible.
Clearwater started canyoning in 2005, after switching from rock and alpine climbing. He enjoyed the technical aspects of these sports but not the “marginal protection and the huge exposure”. When someone suggested canyoning, he took a borrowed rope to try Chamberlain Creek in the Tararuas and was instantly converted.
Back then, information about correct techniques was hard to come by in New Zealand. Undeterred, Clearwater began trawling the internet. He joined trips overseas, where the sport is more popular and organised. Finally, while in New Caledonia for work, he got his hands on a French canyoning manual.
“I don’t speak French but I’m really interested in technical aspects of rope work, so I went through and deciphered what was going on and why. I just sort of pieced it all together.”
France is widely considered the birthplace of canyoning and there its origins are intertwined with the evolution of caving. In 1888, Edouard-Alfred Martel, the “father of speleology”, descended a gorge-like underground river that traverses the Grotte de Bramabiau beneath the limestone plateau of the Massif Central. The following year, at the World Fair in Paris, as visitors marvelled at the engineering genius of Gustave Eiffel, Martel tantalised audiences with visions of this subterranean world.
“No man has gone before us in these depths, no one knows where we go nor what we see, nothing so strangely beautiful was ever presented to us, and spontaneously we ask each other the same question: are we not dreaming?”
This allure drew Martel and others to further exploration, both below ground and in other caves-without-roofs, such as the 25-kilometre Grand Canyon du Verdon, of which Martel made the first descent in 1905 with Armand Jamet. But canyons remained the peculiar pursuit of a few aficionados until the development of lighter, more practical equipment and the opening up of canyons of varying difficulty in the latter decades of the 20th century precipitated an explosion of recreational canyoning in Europe.
In the early 1990s, Alain Rohr was working as a caving, climbing and kayaking guide near Vallon-Pont-d’Arc in southern France. Clients began asking for canyoning trips, so he scouted out some suitable spots. Now highly experienced in both disciplines, Rohr sees caving and canyoning as “completely different”.
“Caving, you have to be very safe and you avoid the water. Canyoning is more fun, because you have the element of water. You add it and use it.”
Adding water requires specialised rope techniques. Initially, the French used climbing and caving techniques, but this led to drownings. New methods were devised to minimise the chance that loose rope would snag or become entangled in flowing water, and to enable a quick release from a rope system should a canyoner become trapped or incapacitated. It was these established procedures that Clearwater learnt from his French manual.
Another skill he had to develop was judging how much water is safe in a canyon. Wilsons Creek in the Haast Pass area—rated as one of the top 10 classic canyons in New Zealand—is a deep schist slot gorge, more than 800 metres in length. In places it’s no more than three or four metres wide, with fluted bedrock towering 80 metres overhead and numerous turquoise pools. Clearwater knows the canyon well.
“It’s incredibly beautiful and continuous, but completely committing. Once you pull your rope down the first time, that’s it. The only way out is down the bottom.”
On entering the canyon for one descent, he noticed the water level was slightly higher than normal. Once inside, he realised the impact of even a small increase in such a narrow canyon.
“On every obstacle we faced, the water had risen to a level where you had to employ very specific techniques to negotiate the obstacle safely. You couldn’t just swim through a pool or walk lazily round the side, you had to swim hard for a particular eddy and know where the water was going so you knew where to aim. Descending some of the waterfalls, you’re getting smashed by water landing on your head, then there were big, turbulent pools at the bottom of the abseils that could trap you if you landed in the wrong place. It was an epic day. We were knackered by the time we got out.”
And yet it is that uncertainty and sense of exploration that is the spice for keen canyoners, particularly those doing first descents.
“At least on a climb you can have a look at the route first, and get a pretty good idea of what you’re up against,” says accomplished mountaineer and pioneering New Zealand canyoner Dave Vass. “But a canyon is really just a big, deep, noisy hole in the ground and you never quite know what you’re going to come across.”
Clearwater is constantly on the lookout for new canyons. “Canyon sleuthing,” he calls it. He pieces together sightings of waterfalls, identifies the rock type and determines the gradient and catchment size to estimate water flow.
“So you mix all those things together and you can probably pick what the canyon will be like, after you’ve done a bunch of them.”
There are still plenty of first descents to be done in New Zealand, Clearwater assures me, but the good ones are coveted.
When canyoners talk about Gloomy Gorge, they just call it “Gloomy”. The nickname animates the canyon. When I ask Phillips what it was like, she doesn’t hesitate. “It was like being in the jaws of a lion for an extended period of time.”
Perhaps the name is the first clue. In the 19th century, gorges were often described as gloomy. But to actually name one Gloomy suggests a superlative quality.
Gloom was a common Victorian response to alpine landscapes, but not in the sense that we might understand it today, as dismal and depressing. In the 1880s, Charles Blomfield, an Auckland artist with the instincts of an explorer, set off up the Matukituki Valley with a tent and provisions to commune with nature at the foot of Mount Aspiring.
In Frames on the Land, art historian Francis Pound describes Blomfield as an avid follower of “the cult of Sublimity”. This artistic genre, Pound writes, sets out to evoke awe and a kind of “delightful horror” or “pleasurable vertigo”, to make us feel small in the face of a vast nature and excite “emotions of self-preservation”.
Blomfield’s Mt Aspiring (1912) looks from across the valley to the confluence of a gorge with the Matukituki River. Behind dark, steep hillsides cloaked in dense bush, a waterfall gushes over a precipitous rock wall. The icy peak above is shrouded in cloud. He so accurately captured the sublime mood that it was too much even for some of his contemporaries. A reviewer for the New Zealand Herald in 1889 found an earlier version—Mount Aspiring after Rain—“too overpowering and gloomy”. It may have been well painted, but it “seems to want balance”.
I know that sense of feeling off-balance and vulnerable. When I lived down south, the Matukituki Valley was one of my favourite stomping grounds. From Raspberry Creek carpark we would plod 12 kilometres up the West Branch to Pearl Flat, before struggling up French Ridge, loaded down with climbing gear, hauling ourselves up on tree roots, pausing to gasp for breath.
As the beech forest thins out to sub-alpine shrub and tussock, Gloomy Gorge enters your peripheral vision on the right. Up ahead, a rock cirque comes into view, with Maud Francis Glacier suspended above it, clinging to the side of Mount Avalanche and tossing seracs into the basin below. Melting ice feeds the stream that winds down, with Mount Rob Roy towering above on its true left, and disappears into the depths of the gorge.
On a spring night in 1978, a massive boulder, estimated at one million tonnes of solid rock, fell from Rob Roy, bounced across the glacier, over the Gloomy Gorge bluffs, and smashed into the small lake at the top of that basin.
“A wall of water, ice, rocks and mud careered down the gorge, picking up trees as it went,” writes Neville Peat in Land Aspiring. It blocked the main river at Pearl Flat for several hours, until the force of water building behind overpowered it and sent a wave, several metres in height, crashing down the valley.
Back on the ridge, you reach the Quarterdeck at around 1800 metres. This glaciated snow ramp, a few hundred metres wide, skirts the south side of Mount French en route to the Bonar Glacier, which sits like a vast, gently sloping altar beneath Mount Aspiring. If you arrive late in the season, crevasses opened by summer’s warmth force you to traverse right, out towards the rocky edge and a dizzying drop of nearly 800 metres. We used to joke about having to “hang our arses” out over Gloomy Gorge as we dodged the crevasses. I would try to pretend it wasn’t there, at least until we were safely off the Quarterdeck. A climber’s instinct perhaps, to look up rather than down.
Not so for a handful of New Zealand’s top canyoners, who for years now have been craning their necks to peer into Gloomy Gorge. Dave Vass began exploring canyons in the Matukituki Valley in the early 1990s after being introduced to the sport by a French climbing partner.
“I’d had a poke around in Gloomy Gorge. I’ve seen lots of big natural features, I go and hunt them out, and that’s a really big, impressive one. But I thought it would probably be much more of a rigging exercise than the kind of canyon I wanted to do. You have to stay out of the water pretty much.”
Vass shared his thoughts with Alain Rohr, who’d come on holiday from France in 2001 and quickly concluded that New Zealand was “made for canyoning”. He has returned almost every summer since, basing himself in Wanaka and systematically exploring canyons in the area.
Five times Rohr went to look at Gloomy Gorge. He started working his way up from the bottom until an 18-metre waterfall barred the way. Next, he scouted the length of the canyon for more clues, but Gloomy’s deep sides revealed little. He then sidled into the top of the canyon to check the water flow and assess the risk that ice tumbling from the glacier might create waves in the river and engulf a party in the narrow gorge below. He considered the geology and tried to imagine what features might lie inside.
Finally, he decided that a caving-style approach offered the best chance to crack the mystery of Gloomy. All he needed was a team with the same level of curiosity and skill. And good weather.
Annette Phillips was up for it, but they needed more people and more gear. “I would prefer to do it with Kiwis,” Rohr says, “but maybe I need to wait five more years.”
Then on February 8, at the end of the driest summer in decades, the French arrived.
Expédition Aotearoa 2013 came looking for new canyons to explore. They were probably the most experienced and best-equipped group of canyoners yet to set foot in New Zealand.
“The French operate at a completely different level,” Phillips tells me. “They’re super well organised. They’re technically capable. Every single person on that expedition was really experienced in more than one outdoor discipline.” They based themselves in Makarora and began doing first descents of canyons that locals had previously dismissed as “dross”.
“We couldn’t work it out,” says Phillips. “These guys were the experts in their field and they were going down these little creeks.”
While they may not have been extending themselves technically, the French were revelling in canyoning New Zealand-style. Wild, empty spaces, the thrill of unexplored terrain and the challenge of route-finding to canyons through steep, untracked bush—for them it was paradise.
In Europe, opportunities for exploration are all but exhausted and the emphasis is more on sport than discovery. Most canyons have a well-formed track to the start, if not a car park at the top and another at the bottom. Abseils are set up with reliable, well-placed anchors.
“Some of them are even numbered,” Toine Houtenbos tells me. “So if you have any trouble and there’s cellphone coverage, you can call emergency services and say, ‘I’m in this canyon, abseil number two, with a broken leg’, and a couple of hours later you’re out of trouble.”
Plus European canyons may be packed with 20 parties in a day, while in New Zealand, as Vass puts it, “If you bump into someone else, you go, ‘Oh, hello, this is getting crowded’.”
So although they were enjoying themselves, by the end of February the French were running out of options around Haast. They turned to Rohr, Phillips and Dunedin-based canyoner Nic Barth for advice.
“We said, ‘Gloomy. You can’t not go to Gloomy’,” says Phillips. “So we sat down with a map and said, ‘Look at this place’.”
“We’ll get it done in one day,” the French assured them.
They patiently explained the size of the catchment area and the sheer volume of water. Although it was the lowest flow they’d ever seen, a minimum of three days seemed more realistic. “But they just didn’t believe the scale of what we were talking about because even on a topo map it looked quite benign.”
Not until the French team walked up to the bottom of Gloomy did they fully comprehend the scale of it. From their camp on Pearl Flat, the French team of nine, plus Rohr, took on the canyon, piece by piece. Each day, they worked in teams from above and below, and slowly made their way through and around the dangerous water features. For Rohr, this ‘caving way’ was an unusual approach to a canyon, but necessary because of the high level of commitment and uncertainty. Once they were inside, the canyon walls loomed 150 to 200 metres above them, slippery, wet and loose. So they fixed hundreds of metres of rope to be sure they could always retreat.
The water was cold, perhaps six degrees. Even if they stayed out of the water they were soon drenched with spray. Although most wore dry wetsuits, it was hard to stay warm. Little sun penetrates into Gloomy.
After five days they had been to every part of the canyon. Five days to cover less than a kilometre of ground and drop around 350 metres in altitude.
For Rohr, the final step was to thread all the pieces together in one independent, continuous push. But the French team had seen the canyon with a ‘caving mentality’, exploring each part as a kind of mapping exercise. Rohr’s enthusiasm for the full descent was met with indifference. Their work was done.
When he got back to Wanaka, Rohr told Phillips, “Next weekend, we go back there. I want to do it right now.” Ropes had been left in crucial places and, as long as the weather held, the water flow was still at a historic low. With Nic Barth and caver-photographer Neil Silverwood they formed a team strong enough for the attempt, and headed up-valley on a hot Friday afternoon. At 11 the next morning, they began their descent.
Barth described the first section in his post-trip blog. “Despite the pool-like nature of this stretch, I could still feel the water propelling me downstream with considerable force. I exited up a large boulder to bypass a dark horizon line of a waterfall. Once I got on top of the boulder I peered over the edge.”
Barth was stunned. It was the most impressive canyon feature he had ever seen. “Surging sheets of white-water dropped twenty metres into a dark hole beneath a boulder roof that emitted a strong spray.”
This was a section Rohr had been unsure about. The French had descended it by having a team above throw a rope to those below and set up a guided abseil.
“It was a small challenge at this place to know if it was possible or not, so it made us think,” he explains. They climbed carefully around it on narrow ledges and abseiled down the other side. What followed was a gruelling succession of abseils, delicately balanced manoeuvres and desperate swims. Rohr’s prior knowledge was crucial, says Phillips.
“He was able to tell us step by step what features were coming up in front of us. If we were truly doing a first descent we wouldn’t have had that information and it would have been way more difficult.”
Around 4.30pm, about halfway through the canyon, they stopped for lunch. As the light faded, they considered their options: find somewhere to pass the night or continue in the dark. A canyon bivouac is a potentially hypothermic proposition. What’s more, the water level, already higher than for the French, was not dropping as they thought it might with the night-time freeze on the glacier. With sunrise, the melt would start again, and conditions could steadily deteriorate. They decided to press on.
About 8.30pm, they came to a spot where the French had swum across a pool. Higher flow now made it unsafe, so Rohr made a painstaking 30-metre traverse along the canyon wall to avoid the water. The others waited while he fixed a rope for them to follow.
“For two hours perhaps,” writes Barth, “I hung off an anchor just three metres away from the loud white foamy death of the river, alone. The spray of the glacial waters was chilling and I fought off shivers. I thought of where I wanted to be—in a warm, safe bed. I was only hundreds of metres away from my sleeping bag, but I knew instinctively just how far away that was.”
For Phillips and Rohr, it was not their first night-canyoning experience. The darkness slowed them down, but they relished the teamwork and problem-solving.
“There were some really critical points,” Phillips tells me, “especially at 3 or 4 o’clock in the morning.”
Out in the lead, Rohr disappeared over drops and around corners. Against the roar of the water, their lifeline was a rope and a whistle. At the top of every drop they ran through their whistle calls.
“A mistake wasn’t an option, so it had to be spot on,” Phillips says. With every decision, “we had to be totally happy to run it through its course, because there were so many places where we couldn’t backtrack.”
When the presence of danger dramatically narrows our focus onto the task at hand, we experience “deep play”, according to American-Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.
What is often misconstrued as adrenaline-seeking is actually the search for conditions under which all our faculties are intensely concentrated on the challenge before us. Every superfluous thought or distraction must be shut out of consciousness.
Maintaining control in a situation that verges on complete chaos takes not only skill and experience, but a special kind of mental toughness. In Gloomy, there were few moments of reprieve from the relentless technical difficulties. Phillips had to find the endurance “to canyon non-stop for 20 hours and keep a level head so that you could still function and do what you needed to do and not muck it up”.
Sociologist Stephen Lyng calls this “edgework”—playing close to the boundary between order and chaos. Here are found opportunities for “spontaneous and self-realising action” not available in everyday life. On returning to the “outside” world, the contrast is profound. In The Springs of Adventure, poet-mountaineer Wilfrid Noyce calls it an “experiment in depth”. “We come back to appreciate what is worthy and what is worthless in civilised life; what fritters with superficial wideness and what gives a deep enjoyment,” he writes.
The canyoners emerged from the jaws of Gloomy at 7.15am on March 10, 2013.
“After being in this place that was literally roaring for all of those hours, and there was never a moment where you were ever away from that roar,” says Phillips, “we walked out into the floor of the Matukituki Valley and the river was passing us by like this tranquil, babbling brook. All we’d seen from the moment we’d dropped ourselves into the canyon was grey and a bit of blue and the colours we were wearing. Then we popped out and there was the soft dawn light, and the late season grass on the valley floor was golden. The birds were singing. Oh my god it was an amazing sensation. I’ll never forget that. You can’t get it from biking to work; that appreciation of simple senses. So even though trips like that are really draining, and they take you days to get over, they feed you so much.”
Rohr was happy to have done the trip with Kiwis. “And it was in one go. This means something. It’s not just one piece, one piece, one piece. It’s kind of symbolic.”
He rates it a six out of seven for verticality, water and commitment—the first canyon descent at this level in New Zealand. He hopes others will follow them down Gloomy. It gives him pleasure to know he’s opening canyons for others to enjoy. “In France, it would be a classic, there’s no question. Because it’s deep and nice water, nice atmosphere.”
When Nic Barth reached his car at Raspberry Creek he experienced “a weird feeling of time passing over me, like I had just aged a year. It was certainly a lot of life to feel in a very short amount of time. All I wanted to do in the second half of the canyon was make it out alive. It only took a couple days outside the canyon to crave it again—the raw, pure, elemental beauty that thrills, terrifies and defines the very core of what exploration means to me.”