Published in the NZ Alpine Journal, Autumn 2021
Words and photos by Derek Cheng
The deluge hit in a sudden moment.
I had been fairly calm—and reasonably dry—hundreds of metres up an overhanging rock face in a remote part of Fiordland. And then, like opening the door to a tsunami, I was drenched.
My fingertips clung ever-tighter to small, moss-covered nubbins of rock, as the sheer shock of what was happening left me gasping and cussing in equal measure.
And I thought of the camera and two lenses in my flimsy, lightweight pack. They were the reason why Jimmy and Sam had both offered to lead this pitch; the chances of unleashing a force strong enough to snap the thin pack straps, sending the camera tumbling towards certain demolition, were much smaller on top-rope.
But I’d shrugged my shoulders and geared up for the lead. I wouldn’t have done so had I known about the impending water barrage, which left me little option but to scrunch my face between my shoulder blades and weather the storm.
“Welcome to Sinbad,” I thought.
I had somehow wrangled my way into this Sinbad mission as the seventh wheel. Not your ordinary climbing misfits, it included many who were among the country’s strongest, or who’d been there before: Jimmy, Sam, Sooji, Ben, Josh, Camille.
I’d only read stories about the legendary 300m overhanging face at the head of Sinbad Gully. It was early season, but enthusiasm was high due to an unprecedented weather window; Homer Hut residents would return from a foray to internet land proclaiming that the metvuw site was broken because it showed no rain in the foreseeable future.
Our transport options still made the trip very much in doubt until we were actually on our way. There was Jimmy’s sturdy double, one borrowed kayak, and a number of $20 Warehouse rafts that may or may not have floated all the way to the river mouth. It seemed likely we would need two trips, with one workhorse paddler doubling back around with the more reliable rafts for a second wave.
But one should never underestimate how helpfully pathetic Ben can look. Seated in a raft that suited someone half his size, Ben pushed out into Deep Water Basin trailing a second pitiful-looking raft loaded with his pack. His paddle was two singles held together with masking tape, but too much force simply spun the raft rather than propelling it forward. He proceeded to employ a gentle flick on each side while holding his body as steady as possible, which made his estimated arrival time about 400 years.
Observing all this were some giggling guys aboard a fishing vessel. They’d seen Ben a few days earlier returning from Sandfly Point in a similarly wretched-looking raft, which was leaking at a rate just slow enough for Ben to reach the shore—which he did, half-immersed in water.
The fishermen offered us a lift. We accepted. Fifty metres from where the Sinbad River meets Milford Sound, we dropped our three questionable rafts—loaded with our packs—off the back of their fishing boat, professed our eternal thanks, and dived into the pristine water. Soon we had escaped the onslaught of sandflies on the shore and were marching up the DOC track, which led to a dry river bed, a series of slabs, and then up a steep, densely-shrubbed spur.
It was basically dark by the time we arrived at the rock bivvy, a few hundred metres from the base of the wall. After the arduous approach, it wasn’t surprising when everyone was dead to the world the following morning—except for Jimmy, who had already fetched water and was packed for a day of rope-soloing when I stirred from my slumber.
I scrambled to get ready and we were soon at the base of Rainmaker (23). Jimmy had already climbed these pitches and so left me to do the leading, and I happily obliged, linking pitches up a long corner and climbing straight up a crack through an overhanging bulge which, Jimmy told me later, most climbers avoid by skirting to the left.
The crux Beef Jerky pitch was named after the type of bag that was emptied and then used by Merry Shimanski for an emergency bowel movement, helping him shed weight before he scaled the pitch. It starts up a thin crack in a stem corner before the crack widens to hands and fists.
The climbing was exhilarating enough, but the setting turned the dial up to sublime. There remained a considerable amount of snow in the top plateau in early January, which the sun melted into a curtain of falling water. With an overhanging wall, this leaves you with the impression of questing up a rock face hidden behind the veil of a waterfall. And with the sun out, any glance behind you is met with banners of rainbow colours.
Afternoon wind gusts, however, mean that the curtain could suddenly lurch towards you. On Jimmy’s advice about likely moisture higher up, I rappelled from the crux pitch—only then realising just how overhanging it is—and we downclimbed a pitch to then continue up Welcome to Sinbad (24, A1).
The start of the next pitch was like the limestone of Potrero Chico in northern Mexico or the Lime Kiln Canyon in Arizona, USA—a cluster of featured dimples, except in granite instead of limestone. After that, the crux pitch led up a corner where the difficulties increase as the angle becomes more severe.
My forearms were fading as I climbed through and beyond the crux section before spying a potential placement. I only had one wire left on my rack and, to my immense delight, it slotted right in. I needed several minutes of breathing space on the jug at the top of the corner, after which a tense traverse across wet rock brought me, utterly elated, to the anchor. This was my hardest trad lead in my first extended climbing trip since my near-death accident in 2018.
In the meantime, the others had approached the wall but the snowmelt had become too intense, except for the first pitch (22) of Te Hamo (31) on the left side of the wall. The lesson had been learned, and the following morning we all started at an earlier hour.
Jimmy, Sam and I headed up Rainmaker again with the intention of topping out. I followed their leads on the lower pitches, lugging up my camera and two lenses in my flimsy, lightweight pack.
The water runoff from the snowmelt had reached epic proportions by the time we reached the upper pitches. Maybe the fact I had climbed so well the day before gave me a false sense of invulnerability. Maybe it was the relatively low grade (21). In any case, I didn’t anticipate having to crimp on moss-covered edges while weathering a soul-shuddering deluge.
“The contents of my backpack cost more than any of the five vans I’ve owned,” I thought as I scratched around longingly for a decent hold, but found only lichen-covered slopers. With the pump about to overwhelm, I squeezed all my insides together, grasped some crappy sloper, squeezed tighter, and then hucked high to what happened to be a reasonable hold.
Relief at the anchor was overshadowed by the shivers from being soaked through. Jimmy and Sam were similarly saturated when they arrived at the anchor, which led to curt responses—“It goes up!”—to Sam’s reasonable queries about the next pitch.
The climb wondrously doesn’t let up until it tops out. The last two pitches are a reminder of how steep the wall is, and I had to strategically sprint between jugs to keep the pump at bay.
Pulling over the top was like stepping through the gates of paradise. Soggy and damp, with weary fingers and forearms, I emerged from a shaded face to a flat, grassy ledge in the glorious, windless sunshine. Fears of my falling camera were forgotten as I gazed out at the Llawrenny Peaks, the spine of rock extending west of Mitre Peak, and the shy heads of Pembroke, Tutoko and Madeline.
A short scramble led us to a plateau complete with a lake and perfect rock ledges, and some skinny-dipping and sun-soaking was in order before rappelling down a steep gully.
Back at camp, Camille and Josh enlightened us to their eventful day. After freeing two of the grade 27 pitches on Shadowland (27), they had lowered down and rejoined Rainmaker when Camille pulled off a brick-size rock. She ripped four pieces of gear, sending Josh, to avoid the brick, into a wall-hugging tuck at his belay stance. Catching her wrenched him upwards, depriving him of a sizeable chunk of flesh from a finger-on-crystal exchange. Camille came to a stop below the belay, a 30m-plunge where, remarkably, she sustained little more than a mild bang to her leg and hip.
But Josh’s finger looked like it had been picked at incessantly by ravenous bugs with razor-sharp jaws. It was of little surprise when he and Sam, who was nursing a knee injury, decided to head out the following morning. The rest of us shouldered heavy packs and headed up grassy slopes to the Llawrenny Peaks.
It was another delicious day of blue sky, and with all the activities of the past days, we needed a leisurely lunch break—siestas included—on a flat spot under the North Peak. The view was immense: countless peaks all around us and textured ridgelines leading southeast to Lake Ada and the Arthur Valley. Terror Peak, tomorrow’s objective, rose prominently on the southern ridgeline, gentle snow slopes hugging the edges of her base.
We summited the Llawrenny Middle and High Peaks before heading down snow slopes—some opted to bum slide, despite being attired in short shorts—to what has been fondly referred to as Lake Terror. It was early evening when we arrived at the lake to discover Nick Flyvberg and Tony Burnell’s decade-old gear stash, including 1.8m raft, generator, petrol, and 200m of static rope.
The sky the following dawn was speckled with candy floss-coloured wisps of cloud. The approach to Terror Peak was a straight-forward scramble up slabs and along a jagged ridge, followed by a rappel to sunny, north-facing slopes.
Our two teams forged up neighbouring lines, ours starting up a rib of rock to a quartz-topped pillar—Terrorfirma (21). The next pitch had some of the most unique rock I’d ever seen, a steep face of diagonal tiles of different shades of rosy pink. It was so unique that I paused mid-pitch to snap a photo, but the climbing was also superb; each reach was met with perfect finger slots.
Meanwhile Sooji, more intrigued by a steep face to her right, headed off into virgin territory, eventually cutting across a face to an exposed perch. Our paths converged at the top. Another windless, perfect day. More views of the immense grandeur of glaciated Fiordland, and another reminder of our comparatively minuscule existence.
We headed back to Lake Terror at our own paces. I reached the bivvy spot as howls of delight rang out from the direction of the lake. A rush towards them revealed a beaming Jimmy, seated on a solitary iceberg in the middle of the lake. “Bring something to sit on and to put your feet on,” he advised as I dived in. The water was, not unexpectedly, rather refreshing.
Soon we were all on the iceberg except for Camille, who was nursing the remains of a cold. Some concerns about Ben’s ability to swim were acquiesced when the iceberg drifted to within a few metres of the shoreline. He still managed an obligatory slip on the ice, dismounting into the water amid a cacophony of splashes.
It was evening by the time we started back up towards Sinbad. The light wrapped us in a soft embrace as we climbed over the Llawrennys to a view of rocky ridges and, beyond them, bands of fluffy cloud shading the Tasman Sea. We hurtled and glissaded down snow slopes and, with tired legs, strolled up and down slabs until we reached the plateau at the top of Sinbad.
The next morning found us sitting at the edge of the wall, wrapped in sleeping bags and awaiting the sun’s first kisses. Ben and Camille then rappelled down the top half of Rainmaker, while Jimmy, Sooji and I rappelled the top pitches of Dropzone (24, A1) to sample a steep arête and face in an exposed, magnificent position.
But it was soaked, so we ascended back up and, while Jimmy and I lazily soaked up sun rays, Sooji scrambled up a river of white marble that we had spied the day before. It was with some resignation when, that evening, we rappelled to the valley for what we knew was one final sleep before leaving this wild, enchanted place.
The week had been a series of brain explosions at the sheer momentousness of everything: the endless peaks and valleys as far as the eye can see to the ocean; the intricate patterns in the rock, including bands of quartz, diagonal pink tiles, and granite dimples; glorious movement up an overhanging wall behind a water curtain amid splashes of refracted light; the laughs and howls of joy and iceberg annexation. The brain can fire new neural networks when it experiences awe, but does it ever become depleted if there are so many such encounters in quick succession?
Disbelief at our weather fortunes continued the following morning with yet another clear sky. Jimmy, ever the workhorse, dried out the week’s worth of collective poo, and then wrapped it up—twice—before shielding it in a plastic container. We considered it courteous to mark the relevant bucket with the words “poop”.
The walk-out was understandably slow as Ben, machete in hand, sought to make the way clearer and easier. At one point, a distinctly scatological odour seeped out from Jimmy’s pack, prompting understandable alarm. A quick check revealed that the first seal had ruptured—hence the sound of sloshing—but the plastic shield had not yielded, which was good enough to keep going without having to revisit the whole enterprise.
There remained the small matter of whether our rafts would deliver us all back to Deep Water Basin. Camille and I loaded up the double, while Sooji took the best paddle but the worst boat, heading back in a rush to minimise any chance of sinking.
Ben’s masking taped-paddle still meant he could barely create any forward momentum, while Jimmy simply starting backstroking his arms to augment the single paddle he had in each hand. This entailed lying on his back in the raft and putting his pack on top of him as he stroked, leaving him defenceless as sandflies ravaged his bare legs.
Somehow, in a perfectly timed finale, we all made it back as the last light of day faded, capping a week of sunshine and nine days of no rain in Fiordland.
The next day was also rainless, and Sam and I, adhering to the unspoken rule about not resting when the sun is out, climbed Pipe Dreams (21) on Moir’s Mate. But when the following day was also cloudless, we considered our appetites for adventure—and our brains’ capacity for new neural sparks—sufficiently satiated. In an effort to find a non-climbing activity worthy of the events of the previous week, we drove to Te Anau and ate a bucket of ice cream.