To­tal com­mit­ment

First de­scents of spec­tac­u­lar NZ canyons

Australian Geographic Outdoor - - Contents - Words Joe Bug­den

IKNEW THERE would be no easy es­cape as I watched the rope tum­ble down to the bot­tom of the canyon, mo­ments after pulling it from our en­try ab­seil. We were now to­tally com­mit­ted to the de­scent. With no al­ter­na­tive but to con­tinue down the canyon, we would be forced to over­come what­ever ob­sta­cles lay ahead.

For me, this is one of the main rea­sons I find cany­on­ing so ad­dic­tive. Com­pared to the ma­jor­ity of out­door pur­suits, where re­treat is al­ways an op­tion, cany­on­ing is all about com­mit­ment. If some­thing goes wrong, if the ter­rain gets too gnarly, if the weather takes a change for worse, if you’re tired or ready to call it a day, you just can’t. When you are in a slot with un­climbable walls, boxed in by wa­ter­falls up­stream, there is no op­tion but to con­tinue down­stream and wait for the canyon to re­lease you from its depths. You are trapped in­side the beast, at the mercy of Mother Nature.

We were in the South­ern Alps of New Zealand play­ing a game with no win­ners or losers. For the past month this game had been a draw, a tie, a win for both sides. We had come to New Zealand in search of un­de­scended canyons. Begin­ning in the Haast River Val­ley, we suc­cess­fully com­pleted many of the es­tab­lished clas­sics, a win for us. We then be­gan ex­plor­ing for po­ten­tial gems hid­den in the moun­tains on the far side of the Haast River. What looked promis­ing from the road, would turn out to be noth­ing but boul­der choked creeks, a win for the Canyon Gods. After a week of failed at­tempts we packed up and headed for a new area and new pos­si­bil­i­ties.

Dumb-luck landed us in the Dart River val­ley (too busy tak­ing in the scenery we missed the turn off to the Rees Val­ley). Upon ar­rival, we im­me­di­ately spot­ted three deeply in­cised shad­ows on the side of the moun­tain that lay be­fore us. A quick check of the map in­formed us the name of this moun­tain was Tur­ret Head. There were three creeks – un­named and un­ex­plored – and so the game con­tin­ued, ad­van­tage us. The first creek we named Cap­tain Chaos; it was a very low flow for New Zealand stan­dards and made for a stress-free first de­scent. The next, Ma­jor May­hem, proved a lit­tle tougher. A mod­er­ate amount of flow and long en­closed sec­tions of nar­row canyon made it ex­cit­ing. The game seemed to be swing­ing our way.

We set our sights on the fi­nal creek. Sev­eral hours later, deep in the belly of the beast, we came to the re­al­i­sa­tion that we had dis­cov­ered a mon­ster. I felt that maybe this time we might have met our match, the canyon gods may have handed us a few small vic­to­ries over the past weeks, but we were now trapped in a game we could never win. The best we could hope for was a tie.

A huge cas­cade of wa­ter rum­bled down from the nar­row chasm above me, bel­low­ing out into a mas­sive am­phithe­ater, then nar­row­ing back down at my feet into a cor­ri­dor so tight it was only wide enough for a sin­gle foot at its base. We were sur­rounded by awe-in­spir­ing black pol­ished rock speck­led with white mar­bling, re­mind­ing us why we come to these unique places.

The power of wa­ter and time can cre­ate fea­tures rarely seen any­where else. On a nor­mal canyon ad­ven­ture, this beauty is fore­most in my mind… but not to­day. This was the first time any­one in his­tory had passed these cor­ri­dors. As beau­ti­ful as they were, my fo­cus was sur­vival.

I watched with bated breath as my ex­plo­ration part­ner, Greg, be­gan ab­seil­ing the next water­fall. There was a ton of wa­ter work­ing its way through this canyon, echo­ing off the walls of the nar­row slot, fill­ing the area with a dull roar. It was bear­able at first, but after sev­eral hours the white noise started tak­ing a toll, wear­ing us down men­tally. Close com­mu­ni­ca­tion is dif­fi­cult so we were re­duced to yelling and hand sig­nals. Com­mu­ni­ca­tion at a dis­tance was near im­pos­si­ble. This is where know­ing your part­ner comes into play. Greg and I have shared many canyon ad­ven­tures to­gether all over the world and have a good sys­tem go­ing. Through a com­bi­na­tion of whis­tle sig­nals and hand ges­tures were able to send sim­ple mes­sages to one an­other like “more rope”, “less rope” or “watch out for a po­ten­tial hazard”. We were deep the slot, con­cen­trat­ing on safe pas­sage, so there was lit­tle de­sire for chit chat any­way... Type 2 fun bal­anced pre­car­i­ously on the verge of a Type 3 epic.

We fell into a pat­tern: re­move drill, in­stall an­chors, repack, ab­seil, un­pack, drill and re­peat. We never re­ally knew what was com­ing up next. Could this be the last water­fall? Would our 60m ropes be long enough for the next drop? Did we have enough equip­ment? What would we do if our trusty bat­tery drill got drenched and ceased to func­tion?

A funny thing about canyon ex­plo­ration, when you’re do­ing an es­tab­lished canyon all you want is deep, in­escapable nar­rows. Like­wise, when dream­ing of po­ten­tial new canyons while por­ing over maps or study­ing ter­rain from the com­fort of the car, im­ages of deeper, darker and more aquatic flash to mind. Now that we were con­fronted with these el­e­ments, I found my­self crav­ing a chance of es­cape. With ev­ery new an­chor in­stalled, our avail­able time and sup­ply of bolts was dis­ap­pear­ing with no exit in sight.

A first de­scent plays tricks on your mind. There is some­thing about know­ing no one has passed through this way that grinds away in your thoughts. Fear of the un­known makes the job of the first per­son down each drop that lit­tle bit harder. Ev­ery­thing from the bolts, freshly placed in the wall, to the water­fall be­low has never be­fore been tested by an­other hu­man. Just the small con­so­la­tion of be­ing num­ber two in a first de­scent party is a re­lief, know­ing that the hazard ahead must be sur­viv­able be­cause num­ber one made it through! On the flip­side, the thrill of dis­cov­ery is un­beat­able… no one had ever seen these nar­rows, no one had ever stood on the lip of this water­fall and gazed down into the abyss be­low. A fine bal­ance of raw ex­cite­ment and ter­ri­fy­ing fear.

For these rea­sons we took it in turns to lead each pitch. On my right, wa­ter shot straight off the lip and pow­ered into the wall op­po­site, tum­bling down 15m and cre­at­ing ex­treme tur­bu­lence in the pool be­low. The wa­ter ob­scured much of our view, but we could see an­other short drop of about 5m im­me­di­ately after. At least the ab­seil looked straight­for­ward – a dry drop, just off to the side of the main flow, land­ing in the back of the pool away from the chaos ahead. It was my turn to lead. At the back of the pool I was re­lieved to find I could stand in chest-deep wa­ter. In front of me a cur­tain of white­wa­ter filled my field of vi­sion. I knew I had to punch through it. I be­gan pay­ing out enough rope through my de­scend­ing de­vice so I could swim through the cur­tain with­out run­ning out of rope, but not too much rope that I would then be dragged over the next water­fall we had spot­ted from above. Scary, scary times.

It’s mo­ments like these that force me to face my fears. There is no other op­tion. No go­ing back. No climb­ing out. No avoid­ing it. We would need to sur­pass this ob­sta­cle in or­der to es­cape. Step­ping out of your com­fort zone is what ad­ven­ture is all about. Push­ing your­self to try new things and ex­plore new places is an in­te­gral part of the hu­man spirit. His­tor­i­cally, that in­stinct has en­cour­aged us to climb down from trees, to search out new lands, cross oceans and fill in the blank spots on maps… or in our case con­quer the fear of drown­ing and solve the puzzle that lay ahead.

With that in mind I edged for­ward to the point of no re­turn. Hav­ing sorted my rope, I launched through the wall of wa­ter and swam free of the chaos. My fin­gers dragged along the canyon wall fran­ti­cally search­ing for a fea­ture to grab hold of be­fore I was dragged over the next water­fall. The rope pulled tight in my de­scen­der just in time and I was able to get a foot on a rock be­low. I quickly bal­anced my­self and got into a po­si­tion ready to tackle the next water­fall. I could see Greg’s head pok­ing over the falls above. I gave him the ‘okay’ sig­nal and worked my way over the next small drop to safer ground. The game was get­ting real. Would the canyon step up the dif­fi­culty an­other notch and force us into check­mate?

The end­less se­ries of wa­ter­falls was wear­ing us down. The deep, dark nar­rows would not re­lent. It was get­ting late. We were tired. It was cold. The per­fect recipe for mis­takes to creep into our rou­tine. We came around yet an­other hid­den bend in the canyon and a rush of warm air hit us. Sud­denly the cliffs peeled back and long-for­got­ten sun­shine poured in. An es­cape at last!

Back at the car we beamed with our ac­com­plish­ment. The suf­fer­ing, pain and fear of com­mit­ment to the un­known had al­ready been for­got­ten. The only ques­tion left was whether we should do it all again to­mor­row.

Pho­tos Greg Tilden

Joe Bug­den bat­tles through a wall of wa­ter in the lower section of “The Gen­eral”.

Happy to be get­ting out of the cold and the noise after a long first de­scent.

It’s a long walk out, but the epic ad­ven­tures ex­pe­ri­enced make it more than worth it.

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