Free at last, free at last. I could sense James summoning the words of Martin Luther king as he dreamed of finally leaving the hanging belay at the base of pitch 8. After six days potentially waiting, belaying, climbing, camping on the wall and enduring some wet cold suffer bivies he could finally return to the ground. The free ascent was now complete and we could say goodbye to the Sky Couch bivy our home for the past week.
It was Merry who coined the Dreamliner name. I guess the grass is always greener and while we were having a fantastic time establishing “The Mile High Club” the original line on the Airport Wall both of us would stare across too the golden overhanging portion of the Airport Wall off to our right. Day after day we stared at what we thought were overhanging offwidth cracks and dreamed of one day venturing onto this section of the wall to see what secretes it held.
It wasn’t until November 2020 that I finally got the motivation to begin another new line on the Airport Wall. First ascents on this wall take allot of time and effort. After months working on the Mile High Club I was tired of route development. However, the dream of climbing some mega cracks high above Milford Sound was just too tempting to pass up so James Hobson and myself set out on a five day adventure to establish an access route to the “Dreamliner Overhang”. During this trip we climbed the initial 3 pitches of what would become the Dream Liner route. After this we left the wall alone for around 3 months before heading back up on a bomber 9 day forecast in February 2021.
As part of the New Zealand Alpine Team mentoring program during our new members second year we focus on big wall climbing. James along with fellow team mate Ben Mangan would have usually been heading off to Yosemite for this part of the program but thanks to Covid they found themselves making the second ascent of the Mile High Club. During this same weather window I headed up to the base of the Dream Liner alone and began working out how to free climb the first pitch. After a couple of days I was joined by Steve Fortune and we pushed the line 3 pitches higher establishing pitches 4 – 6. These pitches were amazing, high quality face and crack climbing. Steve took an enormous whipper on pitch 6. Ripping a block out of the crack while aiding and falling through space to land around 3m below my belay! Luckily the wall is so steep that both the block and Steve simply sailed through the air with no real issues to anyone.
After completing their ascent of The Mile High Club, Ben and James dragged their tired bodies over to the base of Dream Liner and we began the second part of their big wall training and mentoring. This involved how to camp on a porta ledge and establish some ground up new lines. We hauled four days of food , water and route development equipment up to a small ledge just below the top of Pitch 6. For the next 3 days we established two more pitches above our camp and cleaned up pitch 6. Ben led and bolted what would become the crux of Dream Liner pitch 8. A tricky pitch of aid with some big whippers as his sky hook placements popped would turn into a beautiful free pitch. This part of the wall is exceptionally steep and climbs a stunning overhang via a series of powerful crimps and pinches. The guys were pretty exhausted after 9 days of climbing between the two new routes and with the weather window closing down we packed up our gear and established part of the new rap line down this section of the wall.
For the next month every fine day I headed to Milford with a string of partners. Little by little we unlocked the free moves on each pitch and slowly built up arm strength in preparation for an all free ascent. Late March Julian Goad any myself found the Sky Couch Bivy. From there we established 3 more pitches and bolted “the great white dyke” a stunning project on top of the wall. The route was now complete and April saw several attempts to free pitches 7-11. I was under some time pressure as I was heading back to France with my Family at the end of May so time for me was running out to make a full free ascent and open the line up.
During the first week of May I was finally and fit enough to give the full line a try. James flew down from Christchurch to meet me and we loaded up the car heading down the Milford Road for what we hoped would be a full free ascent of the climb. 3 days of good weather, then some rain, then maybe a second clearance. We packed 7 days of food just encase. The Dreamliner due its steepness stays dry in most weather allowing you to usually start climbing right after the rain stops.
Day 1 – A hard start. Pitch one (27) takes me 4 goes to send. Precious skin and strength are wasted as I fall again and again off the tiny crux crimps. Eventually I send and we move up the wall hauling our supplies as we go. Again I fall. This time at the top of pitch 4. Crap another pitch to re lead. It goes on the second shot. In all I climb around 12 pitches that day with all the attempts but eventually we find ourselves up at the Sky Couch Bivy with just pitch 8 (28) not yet sent. My arms are pretty tired though!
Day 2. A slow start but eventually we warm up climbing pitches 9 – 11. Luckily they all go first shot. Its then time to work again on pitch 8. 4 more tries my finger tips ripped and raw from the small crimps. Lots of falls and no send.
Day 3. Another slow start. I wait till the evening to hop back on pitch 8 once the sun has left the wall. However my arms are too tired and after a couple of tries I give up and head back to the bivy.
During the night it rains. Then it pours. Rain gushes down from the top of Mt Sheerdown and a huge jet of water smashes into the Sky Couch Bivy. We are instantly soaked. For the next 30 hours we stay under the hood of the bivy bag. James is lying in a puddle of water shivering quietly. Eventually the down pour ends and our 5th day on the wall is clear but cloudy. The last remaining pitch to free pitch 8 is still soaking wet and unclimbable.
Day 6. Sun !!!!! finally a sunny day. This is it. Both of us are sick of the wall. My partner and son are heading to France in 3 days and I need to get home. James is tired of waiting and sleeping in a puddle its now or never. We head out early to inspect the pitch, its soaking wet for the upper half. Crap, I ponder if it can still climb the final series of slopers if they are wet and decide its pointless. Come lunch time the sun is working its magic and most of the holds are dry! Time to warm up. My body is pretty stiff and sore after 3 days of not really moving. I warm up slowly for an hour and then head back up to the bivy to eat and rest. We finish packing our haul bag and rap in to the base of pitch 8. Strangely enough on my first warm up go every hold feels like a jug. In my comfy multi pitch shoes I start up the powerful moves at the base of the overhang. Move after move im still on so I just keep on climbing. “Watch me James im just going to go for it now” He cautions me to take my time and rest where I can to avoid getting a flash pump. I take his advice but in the end the pitch finally goes free for the first time with relative ease. Free at last! Free at last! I don’t know who is more happy James that he can head down or me for sending but either way we are both very excited. I shout a triumphant “fuck yes” into setting sun. The dream of the past 5 months is finally realised.