Mitre Peak, Fiordland
In March 2013, a small team of Wellington climbers headed down to Fiordland to attempt the fabled Mitre Peak. I’d had my eye on Mitre for a while, and the thought of it just sitting there and not being climbed by me was starting to weigh heavily. On a New Year’s climbing trip in the Matukituki I discovered Rob Hawes was feeling the same way, and we made a pact to set aside the month of March for Mitre!
Come autumn, and some very excited eyes were fixed on the weather maps. Yet, despite the drought, a decent window didn’t materialise until mid-March. Things then had to come together quickly, as we only had a few days before the windbars narrowed and various colours flooded the charts. Just over a day after we made the call, I was on an early morning flight to Queenstown, along with our friend Mark.
Wanaka-based Rob collected us from the airport, and our need for haste was delayed only by a short trip into town, to grab a couple of items from the Remarkable Sweet Shop and a nearby pharmacy. The drive to Te Anau was was uneventful, though it was rather amusing to watch health guru Rob try to down a dose of mint chocolate fudge, while I snacked on antibiotics to combat the throat infection I’d woken to that morning (the prescription being efficiently faxed to Queenstown as I was flying).
We reached Te Anau in the early afternoon, where we organised the boat ride we would need to access the climb. We were told we would not be able to get a lift until the next morning, but we decided to head to the Milford Sound and try our luck anyway. Sure enough, the crew were happy to take us over. So just after 5pm that evening, we found ourselves floating over a fiord, looking up at the flanks of Mitre Peak with awe and trepidation. I was acutely conscious of being in the midst of a sheer environment that can only be summed up as “plummeting”.
When we reached the foot of Mitre, next to Sinbad Gully, the nerves were singing – it was time to get cracking! Yet ten minutes of growing agony ensued as we were tricked into thinking the track began by an obvious clearing near the river. We spread out and I headed to a second clearing I’d spotted from the boat. “Tape!” I hollered out to the boys. Relieved to find the track (given our late departure), we set off up the steep bushy climb.
Apart from one area of windfall, the track was pretty good – a fair bit of tape and reasonably well cut. But a track to which daylight adds immeasurable value. We reached our first goal of point 541. It sounded piteously low, but we were able to remind ourselves that the comparison point for Mitre Peak is sea level. We knew we would find a good campsite here, but we decided to press on … to about 570 metres, where we couldn’t walk past a spot in the open, perfect for bivvying. From here, we had an amazing view of the fiord as well as the peak itself. It looked kind of scary. Soon after, while searching for a “bathroom” I discovered a spacious and flat area of manicured grass, mere metres from the track, but hidden by trees. What a find! Rob happily pitched his tent here
The next day we set off just before first light, conscious that we were starting the climb much lower than the ideal high camp, found around the thousand metre mark. Rob aptly kept us en route as we dropped down from the Footstool, avoiding the false trails that led into the fiord-side abyss. Clambering back up the other side, we found a large puddle (perhaps the mystical Mitre Peak tarn), as well as a saucepan full of rainwater, which Mark cleverly found a way of distilling on the return trip. Sure that fortune was on our side, we suddenly emerged from bush into the alpine environment that marks the high camp and the start of the climbing.
Here is Mitre revealed in all its glory. It’s right there and it looks intimidating, with its narrow-looking ridge and sides which fall gruesomely away. In fact, the saying that the bark is worse than the bite is true of Mitre Peak. It is not as hard as it looks - but it does look a little ferocious, and it is difficult to quell the feeling of nervous anticipation. As a consequence, a continuing sense of exposure is likely to be experienced from this point onward.
I’d come across a diagram of the climb while researching the route, and Rob had this handy to narrate the way for us as we went. It went something like this:
First up, a steep tussock spine. Almost like the Tararuas – on steroids.
Second the knife-edge ridge. Almost flat, relatively broad, but don’t peek over the edge. I found an intact Snickers Bar on this section!
Third, the drop to the notch. Much easier than descending the Broken Axe Pinnacles, but you’d roll a longer way
Fourth, the climb out of the notch – “the crux”. No match for once-a-week Fergs skills
Fifth, a short scramble to the “keyhole”. The bit where Rob was waving the diagram excitedly saying “it’s the keyhole”, and looking so cheery you might think we were back in the Remarkable Sweet Shop
Sixth, the ground eases off as it heads to the false summit. Well it does if you’re on the nice ground trail on the true left, rather than the rocky ridge crest. If in doubt, stay left! Also a bit of a rotten gully to step over on the way, which we’d heard described as an “airy step out” … the seventh step, if you can work out which particular bit this is
Eighth, the final plug up the summit pyramid. It looks typically intimidating, until you see Rob Hawes walking up it looking like he’s on his way to the Remarkable Sweet Shop.
We religiously followed the little diagram and, soon enough, we got to the top of it, and also to the summit of Mitre Peak. Nothing like it. Perfect weather, astounding views, and cellphone reception. The summit is also the flattest spot on the entire climb, so flat you could even sleep on it. And some people did, that very night. And we even knew them. It’s a small world, even on the summit of Mitre Peak. I quickly texted Simon, who had spent so much of his annual leave on climbing other things, that he had none left to come with us. Perhaps a text from the summit he was missing out on would cheer him up.
The ninth step was then to reverse the eight steps to summit, which we did uneventfully, rope and rock shoes staying in our packs for the entire climb. We debated whether to rush back for the boat. I was unwell and in need of a proper rest, and all up, we did not want to miss the boat and be forced to camp at the shoreline. Contrary to popular belief, there is a possum trapper’s campsite hidden on the other side of the river – but that’s only useful if you can survive the accompanying mass sandfly attack. So we opted to spend another night at our “high” camp, and this worked out perfectly. It was quite amazing to see head torches winking down at us from the silhouette of Mitre Peak on such a calm and cloudless night.
The next morning, we were up early to catch the first boat. This proved beneficial for Rob, who was in front and who spotted a kiwi on the track. Mark and I had to settle for watching the bush thrashing around as the little fella rushed off in a great panic. In fact, it was not beneficial for Mark at all, who ended up twisting his knee when we lost the final section of track in the low light, and proceeded to bush bash back down to the beach. He was cheered up though, by the playful seal peaking out at us from various rocky hiding places, as we waited for our boat ride back.
Once showered and fed, we were able to sit on the beach looking up at the mighty peak, and reflecting on the unique experience of climbing it. I think we were also happy that the climb had been much easier than anticipated, even if I’d never quite been able to let go of my suspicion that something precipitous was lurking just ahead. The next day we left the injured Mark to continue the adventure by squeezing in the McPherson-Talbot traverse, where, after checking out “Talbot’s Ladder”, we ended up butt-scuttling down the “Hawes-Johns Oops Route” in deteriorating conditions, instead of taking Traverse Pass. But that’s another story!
- Party members
- Rob Hawes, Mark Henson, Lorraine Johns(scribe).