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Big Wall Training Trip 2021

Updated: Dec 30, 2023

Yosemite here we come. Yosemite was the second of the NZ Alpine Team's training trips, the first being Canadian Rockies in 2020. Well, not according to COVID-19, bummer what should we do now? Lucky enough we have our very own version of The Chief or Half Dome right in our back yard. The Airport Wall, in the Milford Sound, just out the plane window under Barren Peak. With the recent establishment of 'The Mile High Club' perfect for our big wall training trip, we wouldn't even have to book plane tickets.

After some thought, Ben Mangan and myself started to plan our first multi day big wall trip. Not long later, January comes around. Ben is already established in Queenstown, enjoying long walks and climbing with his girlfriend. Our plan was to head off on the Monday, but I was looking at the weather and thinking, no way am I going down there with that forecast. Many texts with Ben about weather and what should we do, I decided to bite the bullet and head down. Meeting up with Ben at Dan's house to sort the gear into the large haul bags, and some last minute objective planning. It was becoming our little expedition with the main objective to join the 'The Mile High Club' while putting all our practiced skills together; jumaring, hauling, aiding, multi day climbing, porta ledge camping, but most of all working as a team with Ben. Jumping in the 'big horny,' What? Is that not a fitting name for the mighty Isuzu Bighorn? Anyways, off to the Homer Hut we go for the night's sleep, never made it. Got to tired so we pulled over, Ben rolled out his blow up mat while I just slept on the deflated Warehouse, Kondor 2000 two seater raft.

Day one. After an early start we found ourselves driving out of the Homer Tunnel, looking out and up at the fresh snow on the peaks. The air was fresh and cold, that had myself thinking about crossing the swollen Cleddau river with the fully loaded Kondor 2000 to the start of the walking track. It made sense to carry some gear in the raft to the Departure Lounge bivy because if we didn't we may have missed our opportunity to even send the route. Trying to climb good weather days so we won back time moving gear ahead of ourselves in the wet. Not long after we were doing it, Ben was trying to just push the raft with me in it but I yelled out, "Quick Ben, get in, we are taking on water." Somehow we managed to jump in without flipping it over, paddling like crazy we arrived at the edge on the other side from the fast flow, downstream 100 meters . Picture that for a second, two guys riding two 145L haul bags in the Kondor 2000 with the charging Cleddeu, not really in control at all. Hiding the boat we started to pack our loads up to the Departure Lounge bivy. We thought it would be best to pack a load up there as we wanted a porta ledge and extra food for Dan's latest project, 'The Dream Liner' over to the right of the Mile High Club .We were going to help extend the route, being steep meant it was a perfect opportunity to get some ledge camping in and also one of the skills we needed to tick for our trip. Made sense to pack all the gear in during the rain so we could make the most of climbing when it cleared up. After a few yarns about views and how exciting it was to be there, and some tent pegs established in the ground we had camp set up. Turning around and headed back to Homer for the night and some cragging for a couple of days while we waited for things to clear.

Day Two When we arrived back to the river, Ben and I looked at each other and said, "Should we try and boat back down to the lodge?" Didn't take much convincing. Heading towards the first major bend with two large boulders and the smallest gap you couldn't even swim through. "Right, right, paddle right," I said. But we forgot to discuss that side of things. Details! We got the boat stuck in the gap having to haul it onto the rock where we were standing thinking what now. We decided to chuck the boat downstream, holding onto it with our paddles then counting "One, two, three jump," Both landing in the boat speeding it away from the rocks into the next rapids. Grins and high fives, that was fun.

Day Three The weather cleared, meaning it was time to head back to the wall. Two guys, One Mile High club what could go wrong? Setting off at 545am from the boat ramp car park we forded the now not so angry Cleddeu, and around the beach to the start of the fixed lines, taking about 45 minutes until the call "On belay!" It was still pretty wet Ben set off up pitches one, two and three while the rest was dry for us as the heat of the day dried it out nicely. It was nice having these pitches to get our systems worked out with ropes and the haul bag. Note: we just used a small bag and hauled on the tag as the rest of the gear was at Departure. I think Ben had the first whip while aiding the corner pitch six. We now know you can whip most places and hit nothing. Easier climbing lead us to the Departure Lounge at 18:00. Next problem was the weather, again, was going to be no good for at least five days so we covered our gear and headed back to Queenstown to wait for better weather.

Day 4 Once again when the weather cleared we found ourselves back at the Departure lounge. Later in the evening we decided to climb pitch eight, nine and ten, fixing back to Departure so we could have a head start in the morning. At pitch 10, the remaining water from above was poring over the roof and onto the slab traverse. I was thinking, Dam, I am glad Ben is leading that. It's amazing how fast someone can climb trying to get out of the water.

Day 5 Jugging up to the end of pitch 10 we were back climbing again, somehow time just flew by and at 14:00 we dragged ourselves into The Koru Club for lunch. We had already decided that we needed to have pitch 14 and 15 done so we could fix our ropes back to Koru for the night's sleep. But pitch 15 (25) was harder than I thought, even to aid natural pro and bolts. Three big falls later, trying to clip the last bolt but kept blowing the natural hooks. Ben said, It was funny watching myself flying in the air with both feet in my ladders and hands on the hooks. I decided to call it a day and traversed over to the ledge that we would be fixing back to Koru at 23:00.

Day 6 "Hmm, forgot to set the alarm," says both Ben and I, rolling out of bed at 9am. We jugged back to the middle of pitch 15 and started climbing from there. Making a three piece anchor I set back off on fun ground with a hard slab traverse finish. For what felt like ages I contemplated life trying the last moves then, climbing back to my rest stance. By this time we could see Dan and Steve jugging up the Dream Liner fix lines. The wind was blowing towards Ben and I so we could hear them clearly but they couldn't hear us. "Go for it! Come on! You got it James!" Steve and Dan both yelled out. Finally I went for it, it was not that hard. Ben set off on the 27 aiding bolt to bolt with some hard free climbing, he neared the top, trying to find the bat hooks to no avail. Old mate Ray Charles up there looking for hooks and taking big whips! He then retreated 10 meters and traversed over to the left and started climbing again trying to look for pro. No deal, looking up at this tiny root sticking out of a crack he wondered if he could flick the rope over it and use that to jug up. Well it was sketchy, but it worked. As I hear the off belay call. Ben brought me up as the sun disappeared and the sea breeze picked up. Time to head back to Koru for the night. Fixing from the top of pitch 16 easy 40 meter overhanging abseiling with some re-belays and rope protectors to the ledge. Then another rap with our 70m static, now from ledge traversing over and back to Koru. We Had to eat Merry's dehy, Ben had the Radix Alaskan salmon and I had some random chick pea curry. Always tastes better when it's someone else's food, ha.

Day 7 Both Our alarms going off at 5am Bens straight on to coffee duties, the jet boil fires up as we sit flexing our hands thinking how ruined the skin felt from days of climbing, flaking ropes and jugging. Dan's voice echoing in my head, "Wear your gloves young James, look after your skin." "What's for breakfast Ben?" As he's taking off the lid into Merry's stash. "Well James looks like we have bulk muesli!" I set off jugging at 5:45 taking coils as I went. Meeting Ben back at pitch 16, with the two ropes hanging off my harness. The next pitches were awesome free climbing with some aid for us they went pretty well. Time to crank the Bluetooth speaker. The pressure was on though, we really wanted to top the Mile High Club, especially after all the work getting there. We knew we had the last hard pitch 22 to send. I secretly was saving some chocolate and sour worms for this, handed them to a now very tired Ben. Awesome feeling when you see him light up at the offering. I thought it was going to be easy just reaching clip to clip for the first three bolts and it was not too bad. Then some easy climbing lead to steep trad with a decent run out to the last bolt which was a crux in itself to clip the bolt. I was thinking, no way am I going to reach it after climbing up and down with not much gear a few meters back. Ben yells out, "What about a clip stick?" I thought, no way Dan would be so upset! What should I do? "Well Ben! What you got?" He replied, "Hmmm, I can reach a wobbly stick, and I have some tape." "Sweet, send them up mate!" Not wanting to test the gear I waited on the mini ledge swapping hand holds. I hear "Ready!?" And I pull the tag line up with the stick. It was short, about one metre long and just that really annoying type that bends when you lift it. Meaning I would have to climb up as high as I could. I think I tried twice to clip, climbing up then down climbing back to the rest. The final go with full reach and I managed to clip the bolt. Woohoo! I was pretty stuffed by this stage. Thinking about the slab finish, asking Ben the slab master if he was keen to finish the pitch, he was and we quickly swapped leads. With him getting us to the top just as the sun was setting, making for one of the best views of Mitre and surrounding peaks. It was awesome too share the top out with Ben! We were so stoked. Now for the long rap. Raping back to koru was also hard work, even though we had gravity on our side. Rap, pull the ropes, and repeat. Pull white, pull green, dam that feels tight trying to tug the rope down, I'm sure we were pulling green. It's amazing how much tension you can get on the rope with two people on jumars redirected like a 3:1 trying to pull it down. Didn't work ,just tensioned enough to play the base line from sweet home Alabama, so I just up jugging all the way back up to find the problem. What a way to kick us when we were down. After that was sorted it was a small rap back to Koru. We were both trashed and hungry looking for the last food to scrounge at 1am. Rice and nothing else never tasted so good.

Day 8 Waking up at 11am with that feeling of being in a hot tent, in the hot sun with no water for 100 miles ,after a big night on the D floor. We finished the raps back to Departure ready for our banquet off food. We sat around eating and sleeping for the rest of the day always looking out at the view. Our plan was to carry a radio so we could talk to Dan over the 300 meter distance between us, but the batteries went flat, so decided to go jug the access ropes that were in place over and up to Dan's camp set up. I was excited to tell him we got up The Mile high club. He said "Nice work, weathers looking good for the next 5 days, you two better get over here." There goes our rest day!

Day 9: Waking up at 06:00 and dragging our arses out of bed, we packed what we needed for the Dream Liner and made our way over, jugging up the fixed lines with them on our back. It was not that long until we were ascending the fixed lines that were established by Dan and Steve to their high point which is the bivy ledge, but we had to haul the bags, that was the crux. Now there were three of us, so more gear, food, water and ledges. We had the two 145ltr bags with the porta ledge underneath. First up it was my turn to haul with the Spanish burton set up, it was still hard work trying to push my weight off the wall to haul. Ben caught up to the bag and jumped into walking mode with feet in stirrups to help haul the bag, which worked. Ben was next to haul the pig, with the wall being overhanging now, setting up the ledge from the hanging stance, flipping it around thinking I'm sure it goes like this. Dan thought that was a great laugh, while he watched from his solo D9 eating what looked like banana loaf. Its great having the ledge and finally turning around to the view and just getting a chance to chill out. Finding out quickly that is very important to be so organised, food and clothing into dry bags so we could clip them to our gear line above the ledges, until it was time to move my shoes. Clipping the last one to the anchor I dropped it. The shoe, now in slow motion, bounced of the ledge and into thin air. I watched it carry on into the tree canopy. Well that's going to make the walk out a tad harder, imagining myself walking through the bush with one climbing shoe and one approach shoe on.

Day 10 My turn to lead. With Ben relaxed on the ledge, I set off aiding up one of the coolest cracks, with the most amazing bright orange coloured granite. It was pretty straight forward because it takes lots of gear for aiding. I then established a two bolt anchor to bring Ben and Dan up on. Ben set off on a great looking pitch, bolting on lead. He soon realised how hard it can be trying to hang on with natural hooks while drilling, he manage to collect a whole heap of air time! I think I was belaying for a total of six hours while Dan back cleaned and tried the moves on top rope solo. Fixing ropes from Bens high point Back to the ledges for dinner.

Day 11 We were so tired by this stage we decided to clean up and align what we had climbed and have a chance to free the crack above the ledge. Dan was keen, with myself belaying back on the ledge listening to tunes. That evening, we decided we had done enough for the trip and thought we would just enjoy the view from the ledge, eating dinner and watching what we thought might be a school of Tuna doing their daily circuit around the marine reserve below us.

Day 12 It was time to pack the gear and ride the pigs back down to the start of the route. One quick look around and I came across my shoe I dropped. Great, two shoes ! Now we just need to retrace our steps back to Departure Lounge, pack up the tent and carry on down the access track back to the Cleddau and over to the Milford sound lodge for that well-earned beer.

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