New Zealand Rocks

This is my fifth trip to New Zealand in as many years. Each of those trips have been focused on alpine objectives and therefore a lot of the rock climbing here is still unknown to me. November has been a wet month with significant spring dumps of snow in the Alpine regions. Weather windows have been too small to justify the cost of a helicopter and objectives accessed via walk ins either didn’t inspire us or conditions didn’t seem on. As a result, the start of this trip has been the perfect opportunity to experience some of the region’s best rock climbing.

To date, I have spent an exhaustive amount of time at Queenstown’s premier crag; Wye Creek. A scenic place at the head of the Wye Creek valley with a unique approach involving crossing from the north side to the south side via a water pipeline. The climbing is mostly sport in nature and varies from easy face climbing to steep face and horizontal roofs across a wide spectrum of grades. Schist, the predominant rock type found in New Zealand can be difficult to read at first yet provides incredibly fun features to climb on.

An area of weakness I have identified in my own climbing is my power and ability to link a series of consecutively hard moves. Bouldering is a great way to improve these skills and though it is not a discipline I often seek out, I will integrate it more into my climbing. The Jardine’s boulder field near Wye Creek offers numerous quality boulders which I played around on for a couple of days when I couldn’t find a climbing partner. The problems are fun with safe landings and I thoroughly enjoyed time by myself exploring them.  

Playing around on one of the boulders at Jardines.

Playing around on one of the boulders at Jardines.

The most enjoyable days however have been exploring two of the most magical features in the area. The Sundial and Ocean Wall.

The Sundial

Located on the Remarkables range overlooking Jack’s Point, the Sundial must be one of the most photographic rock features in New Zealand. I came across a photo in my mate’s copy of ‘Queenstown Rock, Ice & Mountains’ the local climbing guide and the features beauty immediately captured my attention.

A couple of friends decided to head there on a Wednesday after work. “Let me know the details and I’m there” was my response.  The plan was to head off at 4pm, be there for some sunset climbing and descend at night. Given the approach was likely to take two hours and that I wanted to climb every route on this beautiful feature, a long evening was guaranteed.

From the road you can just spot the Sundial among the various rock buttresses on the western side of the Remarks. It is almost perfectly triangular from that aspect and a spectacular golden orange in colour.

Results are never guaranteed. Not knowing how things will turn out, whether you will be successful or the experience even enjoyable is an essential element of adventure. It should be an essential part of life. For someone to identify this tiny rock feature on the side of a mountain range, find an approach path, hike up a drill and bolts to develop routes without knowing if the effort would be worth it is something I admire.

Leaving the car we were quickly standing at the front of the land owner’s residence. The approach is quite involved, crossing private land and thick bush. Several parties have been turned around after battling the scrub to no avail.

The landowners must know people struggle getting to the Sundial as a lady immediately came to us and asked if we knew how to get there. Our stumbling response must have given away our anxiety of getting lost as she quickly pointed out which fences to follow and key landmarks to look out for. Thanking her, we promptly set off.

At first the going was quite easy following the fence line which was relatively free of vegetation. However, as the fence line started to drop back down the slope toward the main highway below us, we were confronted with crossing a few hundred meters of thick scrub to get below the buttress we needed to ascend.

Following small animal trails we started making our way through the scrub with the bush getting so thick at points you had to crawl through on your hands and knees. Adding to the fun was that most of the bushes were armed with inch-long barbs which tore away at any exposed skin and shredded clothes. Eventually we made it through to the base of the buttress. Thick vegetation was substituted for steep hiking, gaining four hundred meters of elevation.

Crawling through thick scrub on our way to the Sundial (photo: Pim Shiatosa).

Crawling through thick scrub on our way to the Sundial (photo: Pim Shiatosa).

Crossing the top of the buttress the Sundial suddenly came into view. It is simply breathtaking. The prow of golden rock set against a mountain backdrop and Lake Wakatipu below cleanses you of any pain induced by the approach. It was now 6pm. With less than three hours of daylight remaining and three routes to climb there was no time to waste.

The Sundial has three routes on its northern aspect. A grade 18 which climbs up the corner on the left-hand side of the face, topping out through a small roof. A sustained grade 19 face climb with consistent high-quality movement allowing you to find a real flow, and finally a grade 20 climb on the features arete.

All three provide fun climbing on high quality Schist. After warming up on the two easier climbs it was time to tackle the arete. Our friend Pim pulled the hard move to get onto the face before traversing out onto the arete just as the sun started to set. The lighting was incredible, and the setting provided the perfect composition for a classic photo. One that would make even a novice like me seem like he knows what he is doing.

Not having to belay Pim, I took the opportunity to sit back, relax, snap a few photos and enjoy another one of nature’s live performances. Watching Pim as she assessed the moves ahead of her before perfectly executing them, I knew the climb would deliver on quality. She was obviously having an amazing time and soaking in each moment.

Our French mate YanL’eau followed Pim up before it was my time to climb. By this stage night had taken over and I was going to have to light my path using my head torch. This added an extra element to what appeared to be an already incredible climb.

I was not disappointed. With several bulges the climbing felt overhung in sections and I had to focus my headtorch exactly where I wanted to place my feet in order to see the holds. However, there were two conveniently placed no-hands rests which meant you could easily manage the fatigue and so the climbing never felt too desperate. The positioning was amazing, the movement flowed well and like Pim, I took my time to soak in each moment.

Pim traversing out to the arete on the Sundial as the sun starts to set behind the mountains.

Pim traversing out to the arete on the Sundial as the sun starts to set behind the mountains.

Soaking in every moment of the aesthetic climb with a stunning backdrop. Amazing!

Soaking in every moment of the aesthetic climb with a stunning backdrop. Amazing!

Me starting up the route via headtorch (Photo: YanL’eau)

Me starting up the route via headtorch (Photo: YanL’eau)

After being lowered to the ground we received a phone call from the author of the local climbing guide. A few locals from Jacks Point below where we were climbing had called him after seeing our head torches and were wondering if everything was ok. “Everything is great! The climbing is incredible and we are just about to have some dinner and head down.” We promised to let him know when we were back safely at the car. It was 11pm when we sent that message.

A two hour approach through thick scrub and gaining four hundred meters of elevation may seem a little crazy for some single pitch sport climbing. However, the combination of the quality climbing and the setting makes the Sundial a must do for any climber visiting the area.

Ocean Wall

The day after climbing the Sundial I met up with my friend James, a strong young kiwi climber. “Do you want to climb Poseidon on Ocean Wall today?” he asked. At two hundred meters Poseidon is the longest sport climb in the area and at a grade of 23, is no gimme. It is located in the Valley of the Oceans, to the right of the Sundial on the west side of the Remarkables. This meant we were looking at another 2-3 hour approach with five hundred meters of elevation gain.  Lucky I don’t mind heading uphill!

Our bags packed, we got a fairly casual start leaving the car just after 10am. We knew we had to follow a fence line for about forty-five minutes to a large black water tank. However, after approximately twenty minutes we encountered a locked gate.

This farmer obviously didn’t want climbers crossing their land, so we jumped onto the other side of the fence and pushed on. Now on public land the vegetation was significantly more dense and we were soon having to bush bash our way through thick scrub once again. It was about another forty-five minutes before we found the water tank.

From there we headed up the vague ridge line following a faint trail. It wasn’t long before the bush once again closed in and we were forcing our way through. The faint trail we were following was easily confused with other animal trails and several times found ourselves being turned around by dead ends.

For anyone who has not done a lot of ‘bush bashing’, it is incredibly frustrating, and progress is painfully slow. It was another hour before we cleared the worse of it and already this was making the approach to the Sundial feel like a walk in the park!

Fighting through thick bush on the approach. Can you spot James?

Fighting through thick bush on the approach. Can you spot James?

The final few hundred meters of the approach is up a steep hillside. Combined with the size of the wall you are given an incredible sense of exposure. Racking up at the base of the climb it was decided I would take the first lead and link pitches one and two, graded 18 and 20 respectively, into a long forty-five-meter pitch.

Pulling through a small roof and then a tricky sequence on the face higher up I was soon at the second set of anchors. Bringing James up he took the sharp end of the rope, leading the next two pitches including the grade 23 crux of the route. A hard move directly off the belay leads to a steep wall with progressively smaller holds. Approaching the crux sequence, you are trying to manage the pump in your forearms to ensure you have enough gas in the tank.

The first ascensionists were thoughtful and placed a ring bolt to facilitate bailing if you cannot climb through the crux. Without it, parties would have to leave behind a carabiner of their own. The crux is steep, technical and sequence specific. I was impressed when James climbed it clean first go. I wasn’t so successful seconding the pitch, managing to get it second try.

We completed the remaining four pitches with relative ease topping out the route in four hours. The climbing was always enjoyable on mostly good quality rock. Even the last two pitches which comprise the easiest climbing on the route had steep sections with fun moves.

We rappelled the route, put on our shoes and ventured back down the hillside. Thankfully we managed to keep to the main trail for most of the time and were back at the car just after 8pm. Just enough time to sneak a shower in at the Queenstown Event Centre before heading into town to demolish a twenty-inch Fat Badgers Pizza and a pint of beer. Consecutive days of climbing and long approaches had seen me build up quite the calorie deficit!

New Zealand isn’t exactly known for its quality rock climbing however both the Sundial and Poseidon were immensely enjoyable experiences. Though I hope to get into the higher mountains soon, I know that there is more than meets the eye when it comes to New Zealand rock and I won’t be disappointed discovering more.

Ocean wall with the approximate line for Poseidon shown in red.

Ocean wall with the approximate line for Poseidon shown in red.