There is something special in the bond shared between alpine climbing partners. When you’re alone on a mountain and being tested and pushed and forced to rely on each other, the emotional strain can break even the closest friendships. But there’s nothing more motivating than watching my climbing partners rise to a challenge, push their limits and take extra risk so we can succeed. When all the members of a team contribute and take their chances to reach a combined goal, it builds confidence and trust that can be drawn on at a later date. The responsibility that comes with accepting my partners’ trust and the knowledge that if I fail to give my best or if I make poor decisions then I’ll let down the whole team is something that helps push me on at times when I would rather give up. As Steve and I shook hands in the sunset on top of the Kaipo Wall in April this year, I knew that the climb had embodied in every way the reasons that I climb in the mountains.
I first heard about the Kaipo Wall when I was 20 years old. My friend Andrew Nevin came across an old movie about the first ascent and he decided a repeat would be suitable for our summer adventure. After three months of training in Australia, we somehow got sidetracked at Mt Cook and never set foot in Fiordland. For the next 11 years the idea remained with me, but I made no serious effort to go and climb on the Kaipo. This year I had time for a trip at Easter, so I started planning. Ideas flew back and forth through email and Facebook. Climbers joined our group and then dropped out. Eventually we were left with a crew of four: Steve Fortune, Ben Dare, Scott Blackford Schelle and me. After much debate, and only the day before our departure, an objective was decided on. Steve made the final call and picked Fiordland. I suggested the Kaipo, and when no one complained, we started doing a bit of last-minute research. I had a quick chat with Paul Rogers and gained some beta on abseiling down the wall. He informed us that there is a partially bolted abseil line in place from the line he completed with Derek Thatcher, Mayan Smith-Gobat and Craig Jefferies in 2007. A visit to Craig’s house saw us poring over his pics of the face. Craig gave us some good ideas and confirmed our suspicion that the outlier peak to the west of the face looked to have great rock and would make for a good warm-up climb. Steve and I decided that the outlier would be our goal for the first day. It looked less steep and intimidating than the main wall, and we felt it would be a good warm-up and would give us an idea of what kind of rock and climbing to expect on the main face.
We fly up to the Ngapunatoru Plateau and set up camp on top of the Kaipo Wall. Two hours after landing we are standing at the base of the outlier peak. We nickname the wall the Kaipo Kid. You can only see its true profile and shape from the northern side and it’s not until you walk around to its base that you realise what an attractive peak it is. The weather is flawless. Hot sun bakes the rock and we marvel at the quality of the granite. Protection is always sufficient and even the vertical face climbing is well protected. The route turns out to be one of the most enjoyable I have done in New Zealand. It has some of the best rock either of us have come across in the mountains. It’s also just a short one-hour walk from our camp. It has all the right ingredients for a perfect day in the mountains. Early in the afternoon we top out and finish the climb off with a 150-metre cheval ridge traverse. It is perhaps the best cheval I have ever been on. The setting is amazing, with the drop over the Kaipo Wall on our left hand side and the views to Tutoko on our right and Lake Never Never front and centre. It’s hard to know where to look! The climb worked out to be 620 metres long, with 470 metres of climbing up the face and a further 150 metres along the ridge. Most of the climbing ranged from grade 14 to 17 with the occasional grade 18 crux section. As we traverse the cheval we scan the main Kaipo Wall and the slabs below it. Ben and Scott had set out that morning, hoping to make the third ascent of the Range Rover Route (the line of the first ascent of the wall). By now they will be climbing up the slabs at the base of the wall. We are careful not to drop any rocks because even a small one could do major damage after it’s fallen 1300 metres. Back at the tents we spend a lazy evening soaking up the sunset and admiring the view down the Kaipo Wall and into the valley floor. We have found the abseil line left by Paul, Craig, Derek and Mayan and now all there is to do is wait.
At 4.30am the alarm sounds. We gather our gear and head to the first abseil. Craig warned us that the abseil line is very steep with a large overhang part-way down. By 7.00am I’m hanging in space, unable to touch the rock or even get close to the next anchor point. I curse Paul and Craig for suggesting we abseil in over a massive overhang then slowly fashion myself a set of prussiks to start climbing back up the rope. After quite a bit of effort and several more curse words I’m close enough to touch the rock. Little by little I down-aid through the overhang until the ends of my rope touch the wall below. I’ve wasted valuable time and I can hear Steve’s questions coming down from above, asking what’s been going on. The sun has come up now and we can see Ben and Scott continuing on the slabs below. When we reach the base of the wall, Scott and Ben are just 20 metres away, in a corner system to our side. We exchange a friendly ‘Good morning,’ and wish them good luck. They are positioned well to top out before dark and we look forward to sharing some Easter eggs and whisky with them later that evening. Paul and Craig had warned us of two things. Firstly, the Kaipo Wall is steep. Secondly, the climbing will be somewhat run-out. We also know that once we have committed to the wall, carrying only rock shoes and a belay jacket, it will be essential that we make it back to the top. We have no means of escape other than by reaching our tents at the top of the wall. We have no bivvy gear, no radio, no bolt kit, no boots to walk down the valley and there is no chance of a rescue from Ben and Scott if one of us should get injured. Those factors combine to make for a nervous start to the day as we scope the base of the wall for a weakness. We find our starting point near the centre of the wall. In typical Darrans fashion, the gear is limited. The first two pitches go smoothly enough and we work our way up the slabs that guard the steep wall above. Pitch three brings us to a large left facing corner and a blank slab. I try climbing the corner direct but a lack of protection forces me to retreat. I spend over an hour working the moves on this section and searching for gear but I am unable to find anything that will hold a fall and stop me from sailing onto a ledge below. Something Paul said to me on the phone two days before rings in my ears: ‘I’m a hard bastard because I know when to back off.’ The words occupy my mind as I contemplate doing some committing moves above two equalised cams, each with only two lobes out of four sitting against the rock. I know the cams won’t hold a fall but I put them in anyway. I soon realise the inevitable. I just can’t commit to doing the moves with such bad protection and head back down to Steve and the belay ledge. I offer the lead to Steve but he politely declines. I look out and up over a seemingly blank and protectionless slab. This is it, the last chance to force the line. Otherwise it’s retreat and up the original route behind Ben and Scott. I work my way up the slab. Two wires give me confidence and I commit to the moves. It’s daunting climbing. I climb 15-20 metres before good gear surfaces and I can relax again. The pitch takes me two hours to climb, seriously jeapordising our chances of reaching the top before dark. I apologise to Steve for being so slow. He offers an encouraging reply and we keep on moving. On pitch four and I gladly hand the lead over to Steve. He charges off up a protectionless corner that leads to some easier climbing above. It’s not long before I join him at the belay and find we are bluffed out again. Our only option is a 40-metre horizontal traverse across the wall. Steve has a high belay in and he lowers me some gear. This allows me to do the initial moves on the traverse on top-rope. After a bit of searching I finally find a piton and lower down to a ledge which allows me to gain a new corner system. ‘I think it’s going to go, Steve,’ I yell. The corner looks as though it might take us all the way to the top. But I have had enough. I hand the leading duties back to Steve for the next five pitches. As we gain height, the wall steepens and the climbing gets more demanding. Steve leads some impressive pitches with small overhangs and the odd loose section. I struggle behind with the pack. I’m forced to fall off or pull on gear to get through the cruxes. I’m impressed by Steve’s climbing as I know that I no longer have what it takes to lead the hard pitches cleanly.
The climbing is excellent and we are now making good progress up the wall. After a few hours we start to feel confident about topping out. Now it’s just a question of when. The sun is slowly getting lower in the sky and cloud is rolling up the valley. I wonder what a bivvy on the Kaipo will be like, with no bivvy gear or water. Not very much fun we decide, so we push harder reach to the top before dark. We link pitches together with sections of simul-climbing, which speeds things up. The best pitch of the climb comes near the end, at the top of it we can see the ridgeline and the top of the wall. As the sun sets I grab the rack and race up the last pitch. At the top I let out some screams of joy. Steve arrives at the belay and I can see he is buzzing. We shake hands and yell excitedly into the night sky. It’s been a very satisfying day for both of us. The combination of intricate climbing, an amazing setting and excellent granite have all combined to produce an incredible feeling of satisfaction. I know as we shake hands on top of the wall that our climbing partnership is growing stronger and I smile at the thought of our next adventure. Along the ridge I can see Ben’s and Scott’s headtorches. They are also close to finishing their route. We arrive back at our tents and brew up a hot anti-cramp electrolyte drink for them. It’s not long before all four of us are crammed into my small Minaret tent, eating Easter eggs with vanilla custard and drinking good whisky. The mood is excellent. Four guys alone on top of the Kaipo Wall, all excited by their successful climbs and enjoying the bond that comes from being together in the mountains. As we finish off the last of our Easter eggs the rain and cloud moves in. Our weather window closes down and we take a well earned rest in our tents. I wake up the next morning and contemplate the consequences of what would have been if we hadn’t reached the top and were now stuck part way up the Kaipo Wall in the rain.
KAIPO WALL BETA
Fly in, it’s easier. If you can afford to, fly out as well. Late in the season or in heavy rain, the descent down Graves Couloir is long and dangerous. You will need crampons and at least one ice tool for the walk out. Flying in and out may sound like the soft option, but if you want to maximise your climbing days and your weather window, it’s hard to beat. The abseil line is difficult and only partially equipped. Allow 2-4 hours to descend it. There are several single-bolt abseils followed by a large overhang that will require down-aiding. After the overhang it’s all single wire or sling abseils to reach the ledge that separates the upper wall from the lower slabs. Between 8 and 10 abseils will get you to the ledge. 60m ropes are essential. Take a mountain radio. If you get caught on the wall and the weather turns or you suffer an injury, rescue will be very difficult. Going in with more than one party is helpful should something go wrong on the wall. If you have an injury and can’t get back to the top, the other team might be able to lower you bivvy gear, food and water. They could also go for help if needed. The wall is steep. Be prepared for some interesting climbing. We found a small selection of pitons to be useful, mostly knifeblades and one angle. Consider taking two sky or grappling hooks as lead pro for flakes, a single set of nuts, single set of offset nuts and a double set of cams from size 0 to 4. We also used a couple of RPs.
Even though the wall faces north, it can be covered in wet mist and cloud. Bring a warm jacket and some gloves. Understand that if you abseil into the face without boots and can’t top-out you will have a long walk down the valley in rock shoes. Down-climbing the lower slabs or climbing the Range Rover Route in the rain would be very difficult. The walk from the glacier to the base of the slabs takes between 3 and 4 hours. Ben and Scott report that this is fairly straightforward. They say the slabs on the lower half of the wall offer easy climbing with limited protection up to around grade 12.
There are currently three established routes on the Kaipo Wall. Kaipo Kid (18, 470m, 10p [plus a 150m cheval ridge], Steve Fortune, Daniel Joll, 2012) is on the north-west face of outlier peak 2072m, immediately west of the main Kaipo Wall.
Range Rover Route (17, 1300m, Graeme Dingle, Murray Jones, Mike Gill, 1974) follows the central gully which dominates the face.
The Smith-Gobat/Thatcher line (25, 11p, Mayan Smith-Gobat, Derek Thatcher, 2007) climbs a steep buttress feature on the upper face (see NZAJ 2007, p25). The Fortune/Joll line (21/A1, 550m, 12p, Steve Fortune, Daniel Joll, 2012) takes a line just to the lookers right of the Smith-Gobat/Thatcher line.