Finally the yo-yo slapping world of lift and drop ceases. A lifetime encapsulated in fifteen bone jolting minutes. We cautiously crab our way forward off the lurching boat onto the slippery but stationary rocks. There is no time to adjust we’re straight into parting tree branches, untangling vine traps and edging round thick nests of ferns. I’m grateful for Pavlo. Not only has he driven us from Christchurch, he’s figured out how to get across the wind swept fiord and as the non-Kiwi he is, as far as the clouds of ravenous sand-flies are concerned, tasty.
We let the sound of water tumbling over rocks guide our excavations to Sinbad stream. Upon reaching it we pause to swat at the sand-flies, remove twigs and branches from our hair and clothing. I have to remove a few twigs from my mouth and nose prior to quenching my thirst. When I shoulder my pack again the seven litres of water is noticeable but I expect to use every drop. In the shade of the forest and yet to take a single upward step sweat is already trickling down my neck and rendering to paste the accumulating twig dust.
For the first couple of hours the company is terrible. We make the acquaintance of far too many bush lawyer, vines, and trees of the rotting and broken variety. Instead of sand-flies enjoying a good nibble at our expense tree branches and thorns shred our skin. Our ears buzz with distracting urban sounds, the irregular roar and constant hum of boat motors and the bass like drone of aircraft taking off, landing and circling overhead. The reward for our effort is a princely 200 meters of ascent. Camping sandwiched between decomposing logs is not what I envisaged when I was researching the route from the comfort of my office in Wellington.
DJ spies a remnant piece of green tape that coincides with a ground trail. Our enthusiasm and sense of purpose come bounding back. We start paying attention to our surroundings instead of wearily dialling them out. Green tape is supplemented by orange tape. High fives all round. Progress is measureable in time as well as space, sweat and scratches. For the first time a backward glance reveals the buildings that mark the diminutive village below along with tiny dots of kayaks and boats bobbing about like pieces of lego. Ahead of us, through the thick tree curtain we glimpse the unmistakable shape of our granite grey high rise.
The ground trails are numerous and unreliable, the pieces of tape helpful but rare. We solve the supply/demand problem with a game of snakes and ladders. The leader picks a trail but if, after a few meters, we fail to spot any tape we deem the trail “snake”, backtrack and someone else leads out on another trail. The “ladder” is always marked. Three hillocks later we reach the Footstool. Here the route drops away abruptly for 150m; fortunately there are ample branches to break an otherwise speedy descent. The first feasible campsites are at the saddle. It will soon be dark and therefore time to find one.
My scouting is quickly rewarded with a spot that possesses sufficient flat space for our three bivy bags plus a rocky vantage point with views back down to the fiord and across to the Darren Mountains. DJ and Pavlo take a break while I seek to allay my suspicion that there is a better place just around the corner. I discover a small puddle of murky water beside a large pot containing clean rainwater. Someone, presumably whoever left the green and orange tape, has taken the trouble to lug the pot up here to boost the meagre natural water storage. I offer a silent salute to the thoughtfulness of strangers in whose footsteps we are following.
Boats and aircraft have departed for the night and the wind that whipped the fiord into a white-capped frenzy earlier has also retreated, consigned to ancient history along with all our discomforts and fears confronted and conquered in an afternoon. The pure, sweet sound of singing bell birds drifts in the warm air the perfect soundtrack for an enchanting evening. We sit in silence, absorbed by the light and sound show. It would be possible to climb the high rise in a day, but as I watch colour flow, smudge then fade across the sky canvas above Mt Pembroke I can’t imagine why you would. Pavlo the lightest sleeper hears kiwi. As usual I sleep like a log and hear nothing, not even the inevitable snoring.
Birdsong combined with the excitement of our impending ascent ensures we awaken as the first light returns, seeping between the ranges flanking our ridge. Solar powered and adrenalin fuelled I lead us through light dew coated bog and a packet of crunchy peanut butter coloured puddles. We use Dr Seuss branches to haul ourselves up cliffs festooned with dracaphyllum. The combination of a near vertical gradient and the slippery texture of the dead leaves strewn beneath our feet mean our boots surf the surface as if they’re roller skates.
As we clear the bush line the gradient eases slightly, snow-grass takes a turn at trying to take our legs out from beneath our feet. It seems strangely quiet till I realise we’re so far above the boats and air craft we can’t hear them. We’re treated to occasional audiences with elegant Rock wren. Resplendent in vibrant green they offer a scrambling master class, hopping with grace and delicate precision between boulders. White and yellow alpine flowers decorate our path as snow-grass concedes to a rocky ridgeline and Pavlo switches from tramping boots to trainers.
The south-east ridge of the high rise is not a difficult climb, but it is exposed and my research revealed that the price of falling is a dramatically shortened life expectancy. I slow to a steady rhythm following a faint foot trail, ticking off the occasional cairn. “Stay on the ridge. Pick the safest approach. Don’t fall off”. To our left, Sinbad Gully’s impressive glaciated cliffs shine in the sunlight. On the right, hundreds of meters below, the arms of the fiords resemble snake shaped mill ponds. As the ridge steepens I establish a practice of scouting ahead to identify the best route through the maze of rocks before backtracking till I have line of sight to Pavlo and DJ. Communication, always economical is reduced to an abbreviated semaphore.
Absorbed in a dance of point and beckon we arrive at point 1302 colloquially referred to as “the notch”. While we restock with food and water I ponder the fear to anticipation ratio. Before us lies the exposed crux. A steep up and down where two ridges intersect. This is where some parties opt to retreat while others pull out a rope. We put on our harnesses; our helmets are already in place. We are wondering about Pavlo. So far he has climbed with relish displaying impressive grit, good humour and care. We don’t yet know him well enough to be confident he will be okay and he lacks sufficient experience to make a robust self-assessment. As a further precaution we drop his pack. I promise he can share my water.
DJ, the designated canary descends and beckons us to follow. For us, in these conditions the route is fine for soloing. As is often the case, viewed from above, the foreshortened appearance of the descent is at odds with reality. At the spot where the notch bottoms out we survey the 80m climb to the summit ridge. Mindful of consequences we’re considering ease of down climbing on return. Our ascent is methodical we’ve been scrambling for a couple of hours now and the activity has assumed a meditative quality that complements the sense of order inspired by the scenery. With each step I feel more confident we will get to the top.
Anticipation builds with each false summit. We pass key-hole features; spots where glaciation and subsequent erosion have left rock piles with holes in the middle like abandoned renovation projects. The holes are small windows to the valley floor hundreds of meters below. A few minutes later I realise the reason I can no longer see the ridge above me is because we’ve reached the top.
A contagious smile transforms Pavlo’s normally stern face. “Ukrainian first ascent!” Climbing Mitre Peak, a kiwi icon represents a collective dream no postcard or scenic flight could satisfy. We all laugh, happy that our shared adventure has gifted us so many memories and strengthened our bond. Like tree rings marking fresh growth each visit with these landscapes builds on the experience of the previous visit adding a richness and depth. Each climb is rendered ever more precious by the awareness that this could be our last. As Amie Dillard put it “We are here on the planet only once, and might as well get a feel for the place”.