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  • Writer's pictureJames Hobson

New Year on the Kaipo.

Updated: Mar 22, 2023

Back in January 2022, Jonty Francis and I had an aspirational conversation about climbing in the Darrans; “There's just so much to do there, so many adventures to be had”.

Why bother clipping bolts at Paine’s Ford for New Year, when you could go and get lost, scared, and wet in Fiordland, New Zealand’s biggest and best national park?

We chatted about wanting to climb The Kaipo wall. After seeing photos from the few ascents of the wall, we started collecting some beta for our own trip. We didn’t find the best beta, and probably didn’t try very hard, so we decided to just wing it.

A weather window presented itself, and we hurriedly packed some gear and set foot up the Tutoko River. Night one we camped at the base of Graves Couloir and ascended it in the early hours of day 2, finishing the day with a camp at the base of Mt. Parariki.

I turned to Jonty and saw he had been replaced with a red lobster in mountaineering gear.

“Umm, have you got the sunblock Jonty?”

“No… I thought you packed it?”

Oops. We reassessed our situation: minimal beta, zero sunscreen, uhh yeah it’s probably a good idea to turn around and try again next year. The Kaipo isn’t going anywhere.

As 2022 passed, we thought it might be a good idea to do some better research into previous Kaipo ascents, and asked around from most recent trips, namely Rose Pearson and Steve Fortune's trip. They made it look so easy: from moving fast, to the great idea of dropping into the Kaipo Valley on foot. This is the beta I wished I’d had last summer.

Along with their trip report, we gathered some rough beta from Climb NZ and screenshots of a good route, and this was basically it. More than last year, but we still wanted an adventure, right?

Range Rover route guide from Climb NZ:

“Start roughly in the middle of the wall below a damp gully which dominates the upper central part of the face. Solo slabs for about 650 metres; at the first steep wall climb just to the right of the central gully for about 550 metres then ascend the final 100 metres or so to the top.”


This trip report was from a party that rafted and kayaked down the Hollyford River, then climbed the Kaipo Wall. The total climb, including filming, took eight to nine hours. Their party spent a week in a snow-cave on the Ngapunatoru Plateau after being caught in a nor-west storm.

Our weather window presented itself on New Year’s Eve, 2022/23. Just in time to give the Kaipo a crack before Jonty heads to the states and I head back to the big smoke to slave for The Man.

Again we organized our gear at Homer Hut in the morning, and after lunch we headed back up the Tutuko River, setting up our bivy at the base of Graves again. Hiding from the sandflies on another hot day, we went to sleep; December the 31st and we're in bed by 8:30pm! 24 and 29 going on 60. Truth be told, we both forgot it was New Years Eve. Too busy thinking about climbing.

We started early and headed up Graves Couloir to get to the base of Parariki for lunch. Afterwards, we continued moving around to Halfway Peak and dropped down the huge spur at point height 1692. Here we were treated to incredible views of the Kaipo Wall and valley as we descended into the valley, arriving at the base of the wall just on dark. We were pretty done. I don't know what happened - heat, exhaustion, or hunger- but we both neglected to set our alarms, and we jumped out of bed at 7am and ran to the wall, eating breakfast at the base.

We were met with a waterfall, which was our first indication that we might be in for a wet climb. Jonty heads up first on the start of the 600m scramble, with words like, “choss”, “traverse” and “rope” being thrown about. Solo slab 650 metres, aye?

It wasn’t too wet at this stage, so we carried on, getting to about 250m when the rope finally made an appearance.

Simul climbing, we carried on. We noticed it was slow moving, and we had to traverse left from the main route and the main water course as it became quite slippery and dangerous. We ended up at the base of the Kaipo Kid with a small 15m rappel back into the main Range Rover route again, just where it trends right to the top. There was a pretty hard, sopping wet, lead from there, and definitely not a grade 17.

We were not retreating, there would be so many dodgy raps.

What would be best, I wondered? Slow down and pitch it out, or keep simul climbing? It would be safer to just simul climb with lots of rope between us and some gear, including micro traction, rather than a dodgy shit two-piece anchor and no gear between us, for the first 15m on each pitch.

We did about 3 long simul blocks each and checked our watches. It was getting late. Did we really want to finish this in the dark on wet rock, only to potentially face a slip and fall several hundreds of metres? We decided to use the great opportunity of a small ledge in a corner and get some sleep.

We hadn’t brought our camping gear, and to give us the best chance of moving quickly we decided to only bring one triple-rated 8.9mm rope and a small rack; half a fowm sleeping pad each’ a lightweight tarp; and one summer quilt. For food we stayed dry, with a handful of pizza bases from Anton at the Milford Lodge, with some homemade jerky, dried fruit, and some nuts.

When the sun came up on the 4th of January, we got up early and continued our ascent. The wall was still very wet and challenging, and we had to do some more pitching.

At one stage we were sucked into the corner, and it became too dangerous with no visibility and still another 170m to the summit. Rain and sleet had set in, and we were again lucky enough to be at another ledge.

Quickly we ran around the ledge placing gear to make a long clothesline to hang the tarp over, using small nuts and rocks to weigh it down.

Jonty and I had a lot of tarp appreciation this trip. The last minute gear addition ended up being vital. We huddled beneath it, waiting for the weather to clear and the inversion layer to bugger off so the rock could dry. Being stuck beneath a tarp in the rain, I began to think a lot about our safety.

I imagined slipping off, taking a massive whipper and getting injured and being unable to be rescued because of bad weather. Or, even if we did pull the PLB, we would have to sit the rain out because of no visibility. I asked my girlfriend, Mary, via inreach for a weather update. She replied with rain today and overcast tomorrow, but my inreach forecast said 60mm of rain for the next 5 days. I was a lot more worried now, because heavy rain on that wall would be an awful time and an awful climb, when the rock is already dripping wet.

We were in a bit of a pickle. We couldn’t go up, we couldn’t go down, and staying put meant potentially being stuck in some unsavoury weather for an extended period of time with minimal food and camping gear. Mary said she would contact SAR for us and inform them of the situation.

Everyone jumped into action and started organizing a rescue plan for us.

Through a lack of prior organisation and improper inreach setup, our coordinates weren't sending properly. This problem was compounded by the irregularity of messages being sent and received. In total, it was about 6 hours of Jonty sleeping and myself (and Mary) sitting, worried.

I would race up every time the wind would pick up enough to clear some view of the wall and take a photo to see which way to go on the next pitch.

It was about 7:30pm, after some inconsistent communication due to poor satellite connection, when I thought: "Man, we really have to get off this thing now or we’re going to risk being stuck here for much longer".

I had been strategically saving the last of the nuts, fruit and GU gels for this exact moment. Jonty woke up and I basically read the word right off the back of a Fortune Favors Optimist hazy IPA can, with a climbing twist:

"When life gets cloudy, can you trust the sun to burst on through? You betcha. The optimist knows those rays of sunshine will banish the gloom, even on the haziest day. Like the most awesome climb, nothing's going to drag you down. Grab your climbing shoes and chalk bag and set course for the peak. You know the view's amazing."

His mood lifted and agreed, so I generously nominated him to lead after I saw some nice looking holds out of our bivy.

Almost 170 vertical metres later, with some of the best climbing and cracks left for last, we were on the summit cheval-ridge without the exposure, as the clag still hung around hiding the wall.

A fun little summit traverse for about 150m led us back to our previous lunch spot at the top of the wall, and we were reunited with our jetboil and food supplies.

It was late now, and we were ravenous, so out came the jetboil for some miso soup and Radix. We knew that if it rained from now until tomorrow, Graves would be very dangerous to down climb - as if it wasn't already. At least the inversion had lifted, and we had the clear night sky without the presence of the big ol' sun, radiating down and loosening up all those huge tent-size death blocks in the couloir. When we got to the top of Graves we noticed an extreme shift or event had happened sometime after we ascended four days ago: the entire couloir - 700m of moraine, ice, snow, and loose debris - had heated up and either slipped over 200m, before cooling off and settling again. Some very exposed openings and waterfalls were left behind.

Graves in summer is a bad idea, I do not recommended.

From about 1am we were running down, just wanting to get the hell out of there. In the dark you can't see if a big rock is coming, but you can hear it crashing down nearby.

3am and we slumped back into the bivi. After a nice big sleep in, and we continued the walk out down the Tutoko river back to the Milford Lodge for a beer and some of those great twice-baked potatoes.


Quick shelter from the rain.

Another Feather in Jonty's cap.


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