Obvious in hindsight: A first-ascent mission in Fiordland

READ đź“– from issue 239

It’s obvious in hindsight, but bragging about a rope that’d never had to catch a fall was always going to doom it to be fallen on.


The fall that was always going to happen took place on Statue Wall, a 300m-high cliff that connects Te Wera and Karetai in the Central Darrans, Fiordland, where the rope’s services had been in use for several seasons.


The day had started with a survey of the left side of the wall for a new line. Having chosen one, Wellington-based climber Richard Thomson climbed up a slabby, serpentine rib. Golden Bay-based Richard Turner then led through a cruxy roof to a ledge system.

I started pitch three up a gentle dihedral, which, given how gentle it was, was unsurprisingly strewn with debris. With my ropes and belayers well to my left, I started hurling loose rocks down the wall to my right.


A few moves higher, though, and I came to something that demanded extra care: a death block the length of my arm and shaped like an elaborate lamp. I gathered its cumbersome heft in both hands and, shifting my weight from left to right, unleashed my turbo-throw.


All of a sudden, to my horror and confusion, I was airborne. To my even greater horror, the bulky rock dropped between me and the ropes. I fell some 15 metres, my left butt cheek colliding with a slab, before a certain rope took its first catch.


The climbing gear that caught the fall—along with the rope—was a Black Diamond Camelot placed several metres below me in a crack. It was the latest addition to the gear stash at the bivvy cave known as Turner’s Eyrie. Thomson had showcased its shiny newness before taking it up to replace a brontosaurus-era cam that’d been lost the previous season. It’s obvious in hindsight, but this was always going to mean it was about to be fallen on.


But this also meant it was a good way to fall—on a new piece of gear and a previously fall-free rope. I uncrumpled myself from the slab, scrambled to a stance, and proclaimed my excellence in preparedness. Having been hurt once or twice in remote places, I’d started carrying ibuprofen, paracetamol and tramadol in my chalk bag, which I now eagerly reached for.

I climbed back up to where a scar on the rock betrayed what had happened: my right foothold had sheared off as I’d transferred my weight onto it. All the excitement had flashed by in a hurry. Only now did I understand how easily the death block could have sheared through my ropes, which would have seen me plummet all the way down. Instead all I had to contend with was a dull ache in my butt cheek, and a bruised ego.


I continued up the corner to a spectacular overhang, which, thanks to some joyfully enormous holds, was easily overcome. Thomson then led the fourth pitch up a steep corner to a large slab, which was so luxuriously roomy that I promptly lay down for a tramadol-induced siesta.

Turner took the ropes to the spectacular views at the top of the face: the Lake Turner basin to the west, bordered by the undulating ridgeline from Mt Patuki in the south to Mt Madeline to the north; the Te Puoho cirque to the east, with granite giant Mt Taiaroa dwarfing the glacial lake below, and, in the distance, the meandering Hollyford River.


We took our time. It was still early afternoon and, though clouds were hovering, there seemed to be no need to rush down from the exquisite solitude and natural beauty encompassing us. These mountains, never crowded, are as enchanting and majestic as any in the country, and they should always be inhaled slowly.


Eventually, we traversed carefully and delicately along the ridge to the north, towards Te Wera, and then down a low-angled slope to the base of the wall where we gathered our packs before returning to Turner’s Eyrie.

It’s always a unique blend of feelings after succeeding at a first ascent. Until that day, no one had touched the rock on that part of the wall, and trying to climb it is shrouded in nervous uncertainty about whether it is possible, and, if so, how risky it might be; there are no bolts, and we have to place our own gear into the wall’s cracks and crevices to protect ourselves from any potential fall. Whether there will be placements, and if so, how many, are questions that hover over every move.


So there’s the elation at having summited, but also relief for having not crushed anyone beneath me while throwing down loose rocks, contented fatigue from the day’s mental and physical exertion, and gratitude for the adventure in a part of the country as remote as it is beautiful.


Not that it was free of near-misses, after which I always try and consider what I should’ve done differently. The lesson from the previous season—to carry some pills in my chalk bag—had followed a ground fall while first-ascenting on a nearby face, having left my first aid kit behind at our bivvy spot.


This time—like last time—there was a clear lesson that I already knew but had neglected: to keep any potential fall to a minimum, place a piece of protective gear before trying to throw a wrecking ball of rock from your perch. It was a lesson that, thankfully, hadn’t come at a high price.


I’d faced a similar scenario a few weeks earlier, but I hadn’t learnt anything as there’d been no price to pay. I was on a craggy cliff below Mt Syme, in a neighbouring cirque, and leading up a long crack system that would eventually become a new three-pitch route.


My friend Nick Flyvbjerg had climbed the first pitch, starting up a two-crack system that eventually petered out and demanded a committing move above questionable gear. He committed, latched a hold, and continued up to a perch at the base of a corner, which I then climbed into a crack and chimney feature. But it was, unsurprisingly, clogged with debris—not unusual for terrain that climbers have yet to sample.


With my belayers around a corner and well out of the line of fire, I was carefully discarding loose rocks to the abyss below. Most were no larger than my fist, but near the top of the pitch, I encountered a block the size of a 50-litre pack. It wobbled alarmingly when I reached up and touched it. A metallic, echoey sound followed, familiar to anyone who has witnessed massive blocks of rock moving against each other.

It’s terrifying to be on the sharp end when you know a fall will have serious consequences, but at least you only have yourself to blame for being in that position. It’s even more terrifying to be an inch from dropping a death block on someone below you, knowing that anything that happens will be triggered by your own hand.


The dilemma: leave the block as is, and hope my climbing partners will climb up without any harm coming to anyone; or dislodge it myself, and hope it doesn’t obliterate my ropes, which would leave me stranded in the middle of the mountain. One of these options was more in my control than the other, so I opted for the latter.


The block was sitting on a flat ledge, spacious enough for me to straddle it, facing out. I grabbed its lower love handles, braced myself, and then gripped and trundled for all I was worth. It was, of course, a heavy bastard, and almost totally immune to my efforts. It barely scraped over the edge before hitting something on the way down, and exploding into a zillion pieces.


Dust rose up in the aftermath, as if a bomb had exploded. When it cleared, I could see that the ropes I was leading on seemed unscathed, thankfully. I also managed to keep my stance, well above my last piece of protective gear. Who knows what fate would have befallen me had I lost my footing, having not placed a fresh piece of gear—as would happen a few weeks later on Statue Wall.


The third in our climbing team trio, Rachel Knott, took the ropes to the top of the wall via a series of cracks without any further drama. From there, we descended the snow slope back to our bags, and then hiked back to our bivvy spot, taking our time with a dip in some natural pools on the way.

Lying in the sun to dry off, I thought about all the elements that have to come together to pull off a first ascent: choose a line, hope it has enough gear placements to keep you within an acceptable safety margin, deal with any loose rocks without unduly endangering yourself or your climbing partners, do the actual climbing that the route demands, and hopefully get everyone up—and down—safely before the weather turns to custard.


And just as importantly, learn any lessons in the aftermath so you’re better prepared for next time.

Words and photos by Derek Cheng



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