Wednesday, 11 March 2015

Mitre Peak

only went to Milford Sound so I wouldn't feel guilty about not going there. The plan was to stay a night, do a cruise down the fiord, then bugger off again. However, the moment I saw the spectacular Mitre Peak I began to wonder about climbing it. I asked around a few places and found out it was rarely done (only 20 ascents per year according to one local) but reasonably straightforward - mostly bushwhacking with a scramble along a jagged, exposed crest to finish. The only thing I needed to organise was a boat to take me to the start because you can't get there on foot. All this really appealed to me, a perfect mini adventure, and I got planning straight away. It wasn't so much the climbing I was interested in, as there was very little, rather the variety of terrain that stood between me and the top.

Mitre Peak

The route to the summit climbs the obvious ridgeline all the way

Mitre Peak is on all the postcards of Milford Sound. My shite pictures here do it no justice at all. It is a classically beautiful mountain, rising steeply from the fiord, lower flanks covered with trees and bush, then twisting into a tapered rocky ridge to the summit. To me it looked otherworldly, so different to the peaks of Britain and Europe that I'm used to.

The boat ride in

Blissfully unaware of the horror that awaits...

It's a long swim back if things go tits up...

Early in the morning a guy called Rosco took me across the Sound, dropped me off at the base of the peak, disappeared again. I was alone on the mountain, cut off from everyone by the dark waters of the fiord - awesome! A vague trail vanished into heavy bush and off I went. It was bushwhacking all the way, fighting through trees, hauling myself up the steep slopes on roots and vines. A machete would have honestly been quite useful. 

The incredibly promising start of the trail

Typical terrain on the Mitre Peak 'path'

David Gainor is not in the jungle, David Gainor is the jungle

Eventually I crested the first peak of the ridge and saw what awaited me. It seemed rather promising, less steep than before and through scrubby sub-alpine terrain rather than dense jungle. I was wrong, of course.

Misleading view towards the summit ridge

Looking back down the ridge towards the first peak

The easy going terrain almost immediately turned back into the bush I knew and hated. The extremely vague trail wound all over the place, crossing fallen tree trunks, around random crags, losing and gaining height without any apparent logic. After a while I realised I had been descending for ages, and when it eventually plateaued out I saw to my dismay that I'd just traversed over another sub peak of the ridge, and would have to gain all that height back again. Stupid fucking mountain...

Some awesome peaks to the east, with the annoying sub-peak of wasted energy on the left

Still, as I continued hacking my way through the jungle, the trees began to thin out, and I could see more and more of my surroundings. There were mountains everywhere, summits piercing the clouds, massive rock faces dropping down into the fiords way below...

Sweet looking ridge the valley over

Milford Sound and more peaks to the west

After another hour or so I crested yet another wooded peak, and emerged onto a flat, grassy plateau. Here I rested awhile, admiring the views, then dumped most of my gear so I could make a quick dash to the summit.

The final sub-peak before the summit ridge

The beginning of the summit ridge

Without the weight of all my bivy gear I made faster progress, hauling my way up the steep ridge by grabbing handfuls of grass and tree roots - somewhat unnerving with massive drops on either side. Soon I was on the rock and scrambling my way along the crest no worries. Kind of like the Remarkables I was hoping for some tougher climbing but it never came. Still, there would be plenty of challenges to come...

Steepening of the ridge

Looking back to the start of the ridge, a lot further than I realised on the way up

Trickier section of the ridge

Don't think this can be called a deep water solo...

As I gained height it got cloudier, and the peaks and valleys beyond were obscured from me one by one. I pretty much stuck to the crest, trying to find the steeper, cleaner bits of rock in the hope of doing a bit more proper climbing that way. The rock reminded me of the stuff in the Welsh mountains, loads of thin flakes that gave good if slightly dubious handholds. 

The ridge disappearing beneath me

Peaks vanishing into the mist

I was getting a bit tired now, and although the ridge was flattening, there was an irrititating series of false summits that I had to keep climbing up and back down the other side again. At last there was a steeper slab which was pretty fun to climb, then a short scramble up a gully to the summit. It had taken me exactly 5 hours to get there.

The final step, climbed by some good old fashioned boot jamming

The fleeting view I got from the top

Summit of Mitre Peak

I slept for a while on a flat boulder then started back down again. The ridge was tougher in reverse, I often found myself trying to downclimb piles of choss with my feet skidding all over the place. There was a steeper slab that had an abseil anchor at the top, but of course I had no rope, so down the near-vertical scree I went instead.

Scrabbling my way down choss, Milford Sound just poking out of the mist below

Unfortunately the summit never cleared of cloud, but the views got better the more I descended

Some of the highest peaks of the Darren Mountains coming into view

Soon enough I reached my gear dump and began to settle down for the night. However I still had a couple hours daylight remaining, so I decided instead to carry on a bit further, reasoning I would have less work to do the next day. This turned out to be a very good call. I was pretty knackered by this point, but managed to drag myself over the annoying sub peak, and all the way back to the top of the first bump of the ridge. I reckoned on only having an hour or so to do the following morning before reaching the pick up point. Exhausted, I ate some food and wriggled into my sleeping bag.

I slept maybe an hour or so before it started raining. Just a light drizzle to begin with, and I hoped it would soon blow over. After all the forecast was an improving one, with the next day supposed to be even better. But it didn't stop. It carried on, getting heavier and heavier, until it was absolutely pissing it down. Sometime around midnight my waterproof bivy bag gave up the ghost, and I could feel my sleeping bag getting soaked, becoming freezing cold. There was nothing I could do but suffer it out until it got light again.

And suffer I did...

The bivy where I spent the longest night of my life

By the time morning finally came I was utterly drenched and miserable, shivering away, teeth chattering. I'd spent the last few hours in a kneeling position because it seemed marginally less cold than lying down, and sleep was out of the question anyway. The bivy bag was drawn tight into a small breathing hole around my mouth, and water streamed in, down my face, into my sleeping bag. It was a relief to struggle out of the bloody thing and get going again.

I stumbled back down the trail, trying hard to not get lost in the bush. Rain lashed down from the canopy above, I skidded onto my arse every few steps, tumbling down tree roots and crashing through piles of rotting logs on the forest floor. At one point though, as I blundered along the track, a kiwi appeared from the bush right next to me. It sort of waddled around a bit, looking very confused, then disappeared back again. As even most New Zealanders never see one in the wild I felt very lucky - it almost made the long, hellish hours of the night worthwhile...

My luck must've changed by that point, because although I completely lost the trail, I managed to force a way down anyway, and soon reached a river, where it was a simple task of following it back to the Sound and the pick-up point. I radioed one of Rosco's blokes and 5 minutes later his boat materialised out of the lashing rain, and I gratefully climbed aboard. 

What an adventurous couple of days it had been. As we powered back down the Sound, rain and wind lashing the water until it foamed and spat, I did not look back.

Never a-fucking-gain.