It was the last week of work. I’d ducked out of the office to grab a coffee. On the way to the cafe I counted out the days between me and my flight to New Zealand. I didn’t have to count very high. I handed some coins across a cafe counter and started googling adventure options on the south island.
I stumbled across this amazing trip report by a guy called Backpacking Matt. A few years ago he’d ventured up Mitre Peak in Milford Sound. The photos alone were enough to get me excited. The fact that words like EPIC and EXPOSURE appeared more than once excited me even more. I sent the link off to dirtbagjens with a question mark. The little grey dots flashed on messenger for a few seconds. They were quickly replaced with the word YES in capital letters.
Mitre Peak was officially on the ticklist.
We found a few more trip reports online. One of them had this handy topo of the route. We had a nice clean line to follow to the top. We were like, so prepared.
Fast forward a week or so and we’re in a supermarket in Te Anau loading up a trolley with food for the trip. Fast forward a bit further and we’re watching amazing scenery zip by the windows of our hire car, en route to Mitre Peak.
The drive from Te Anau to Milford sound is spectacular. Impossibly steep cliffs sweep up on both sides towards snow capped peaks and swirling clouds. Keas wait at the Homer Tunnel to cheat unsuspecting tourists out of their lunch. Giant waterfalls collapse into impossibly blue rivers. The drive itself is an adventure.
We arrived at Milford Sound and started asking some of the tour operators about the best way to get across the water to the base of Mitre Peak.
None of the commercial groups wanted anything to do with us.
We couldn’t hire a kayak, none of the cruise boats could drop us off. Milford sound is such an amazing place. As a result, all commercial operations in there are heavily regulated. The operators are also concerned about the risks they might take on if they drop strangers off somewhere remote and those strangers never come back.
Eventually some of the staff suggested that we hang out at the boat ramp in Deep Water Basin and see if any of the recreational fisherman would be willing to take us across. There we found another couple intending to reach the summit of Mitre Peak too. They’d lined up a ride with someone who lived in the staff accommodation. We’d jumped on the bandwagon and started deciding what time we’d meet in the morning. Halfway through the conversation his boss called and said he couldn’t take us over in a work boat.
I understood where everyone was coming from, but the red tape was frustrating. We’d just raced from Mount Cook to Milford to catch three days of good weather and it looked like we weren’t going to reach the start of the hike.
After a few more false starts, we managed to line up a lift for the next morning.
We celebrated by climbing a really fun multi pitch route behind the Ferry Terminal. There is a 100m tall route on a streak of rock that must be blasted by waterfalls at some points during the year.
It’s a trad climbing route with double bolt belays and a hand full of other bolts that appear when you need them.
Pitch 1 – 13, 28m, Pitch 2 – 15, 28m, Pitch 3 – 18, 50m (mostly bolted, you need double ropes to get down the last pitch)
Next morning we jumped on the boat with our new found friends. Cameras clicked furiously. There were a few excited giggles as we got closer to Mitre Peak and realised just how tall it was.
Before we knew it, we had reached the Sinbad River gully. A welcoming committee of angry sandflies met us on the beach.
We found two triangular markers nailed to a tree and a faint trail leading into the forest. We sought refuge from the sun and the sandflies and started bushbashing up hill for about two hours.
Old pieces of coloured tape mark the trail. The tape markers can be hard to find, but if you stick to the ridge line you’ll gradually gain height.
We’d gained about 500 vertical metres before our trail plunged back down into thick bush.
The next checkpoint on our journey was the summit of the Footstool, which stands about 900m higher than sandfly infested beach where our day had started. We were soon rewarded with views of Mitre Peak. It was time for lunch and a power nap in the biggest patch of shade we could find.
After a few more ups and downs, the only thing standing between us and our campsite was a short slope covered in snow grass.
The kiwi couple bounded up this section with confidence.
I was desperately grabbing at spikey plants and trying to find solid spots to place my feet when I heard the kiwis call out a warning. They told us that a number of trampers have died in New Zealand after slipping on snow grass. On steep slopes, there’s just no way to slow yourself down. I looked at the water, now a full kilometre below, then found a new foothold and moved closer to the flat ground above me.
We soon reached a flat grassy spot with spectacular views over Milford.
The weather kind and we slept out on the grass. I’ve never seen so many stars.
The next morning started early. We ate muesli out of zip lock bags (who wants to carry a bowl up that far?) and looked up at the rocky summit. The moon was still up when we climbed the first grassy slope.
We reached a knife edge ridge and decided to rope up. The four of us spread ourselves evenly along our trusty 60m climbing rope and wandered left then right around boulders and other features along the ridge.
The climbing, if you can call it that, was easy. But the consequences were big. There was a whole lot of empty space between us and the water. Every few minutes we’d hear a buzzing noise and look down at the tops of planes and helicopters taking people on scenic flights around fiordland.
Eventually, we reached the end of the ridge. From this point, or track dropped for about 30 or 40m to a point where you could start climbing the final rock face to the summit. The fearless kiwis slung the rope over a boulder and prepared to abseil down into the small valley.
Dirtbagjens and I looked at the rock face opposite us. To my mind it looked like an intimidating a pile of loose rocks covered in slippery snowgrass. The thought of trying to down climb it was terrifying.
After a quick chat we both agreed that this would be the high point of our Mitre Peak adventure. We wished our new friends good luck on their summit bid and decided to head back to camp.
I’m sure we were physically capable of reaching the top and getting back down safely. But the idea of scrambling up there with no protection was not the kind of adventure I was after. Experienced trampers probably wouldn’t bat an eyelid, but to climbers used to shiny bolts and bomber gear placements it was way out of our comfort zone. I salute the brave folk who have reached the top and seen the view down into Anita Bay. You earned that view. You’ve got some skills and some balls that I don’t have.
Back at camp, Dirtbagjens and I chatted about the decision to turn back and the things that motivate us to go on these adventures. Reaching the summit was never really our goal. Neither of us climb because of burning desire to stand on top of something. We climb because it takes us to spectacular places. We climb because it makes you focus on the here and now and clears your mind of all those trivial thoughts that run around your head when your feet are on the ground. We climb for a whole bunch of reasons that change all the time.
A lot of people I speak to at work or outside of the climbing scene, seem to think that climbing is an inherently dangerous thing. That I must be some kind of adrenaline junkie. This experience just affirmed for me that risk is not what draws me to climbing.
It is possible to take a degree of control over the risks you take when you’re climbing. I honestly feel safer when I’m climbing rocks, than I do when I’m cycling to work. When I’m climbing, I can choose which routes I climb, I can choose which gear I take and I can make choices about the level of risk I’m willing to expose myself too. I’ve slowly developed enough technical skills that I can generally retreat from a rock face if I reach a point where I’m not comfortable any more. When I’m on my bike, I just have to stick to the bike lane and hope the cars give me enough space.
Up on Mitre Peak, the likelihood that any of us would plunge down into the water was actually very low. Lots of people walk up there with no ropes and live to tell the tale. Our kiwi friends made it up and down without any incident. On that day, I didn’t want the summit bad enough to venture on, knowing that there wasn’t much I could do to minimise the risks of loose rocks and slippery snow grass.
Even now I have no regrets about turning back. I had an amazing experience and a bunch of new photos to stick up in my office cubicle. Whatever I was looking for up there, I think I found it while I was camped out under the stars, watching the whole milky way move across the sky.
Eventually it was time to stop being philosophical and trek back down to the water. We lost the trail a bunch of times. Eventually we reach the river where we immediately covered up every inch of bare skin to avoid the attacks from the Sinbad River sand flies.
Rex and his boat arrived on the beach a few hours later, ready to take us back to the real world. Soon afterwards our fearless kiwis emerged from the bush dehydrated, exhausted and grinning from ear to ear. They’d reached the eastern summit and raced back down the hill just in time.
On the trip back to Milford, our intrepid crew helped check a few of Rex’s crayfish pots. One pot was lost. It had been swept into a deeper part of the sound. Another pot was now home to a huge orange and purple crayfish.
The poor guy was destined to be our dinner.
When we reached dry land, Rex invited us all to his place for a hot shower and a crayfish feast. After a week of hiking and sleeping in the dirt, that sounded like heaven.
The food was delicious and the company was great. I hate to think how much that fish would have cost if it was served in a restaurant somewhere with fancy white tablecloths. All four of us were so grateful to this guy who had made our adventure possible. It was almost midnight when we finished eating, drinking and swapping stories. A perfect end to an epic adventure.
If you’re planning your own Mitre Peak adventure, or you’ve been up there yourself, I’d love to hear from you!