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One with the Chief – A Winter Traverse of Tutoko

Updated: Dec 30, 2023

To be one with the chief, you must walk with the chief, eat with the chief and sleep with the chief.

Mount Tutoko was likely named after a Maori chief who lived at Martin’s Bay, on the west coast of Fiordland, close to the mouth of the Hollyford river. Mount Tutoko is a massive peak in the Darran Mountains which dominates high above all else in Fiordland.

Escaping the grip of a storm-filled winter, we craved an immersive mountain experience in a new arena. Tutoko, the chief of Fiordland, had been a goal for many years and a five-day weather window in late winter offered a perfect opportunity to start our journey to becoming one with the chief.

I teamed up with Sophie Jenkins, one of the new mentees of the Alpine Team. Sophie was full of energy & motivation to explore this remote place and improve her all-round alpine skills along the way.

While a repeat of Guy McKinnon's 2013 route on the mighty 1900m tall West Face was very alluring for Sophie and I, alas the lower cliff band of the face was not coated in sufficient ice to inspire confidence. The route requires a good amount of snowfall to low levels to form up, given the starting altitude of 800m. We shifted tack to our Plan B.

We set up our first camp at the head of the Tutoko valley, with steeply ice-streaked Darrans granite faces rising all around us. While disappointed about the West Face being out of our condition, I realised a traverse of Tutoko via the north face and down the south face would be excellent alpine training for Sophie, covering such a variety of terrain. I was also quite excited to be climbing Tutoko. What a mountain, and what a way to see it for the first time.

At first light we began the 1200m ascent of the Grave Couloir. The couloir can be a funnel for rock fall in summer, but in winter it is a peaceful white carpet up to a high col below Paranui Peak, albeit with some hefty step plugging.

Here south became north; the sun glared on to the rimed north face of Paranui, littering the hanging snow slope with ice-bombs. Afraid of being knocked off our feet with cliffs looming below us, we used the rope to secure ourselves to the cliff face in a long simul-climbing pitch.

The Ngapunatoru Plateau is another of those holy grails for transalpine types, of which Sophie and I can both count ourselves party. The Kaipo Wall, NZ's tallest cliff, drops off just to the north more than 1000m into the Kaipo valley, but our attention was squarely focused towards the north face of Tutoko, rising as a pyramid of rock & rime still a good distance away. Hence we set up our second camp in a saddle on the edge of the Ngapunatoru Plateau and set in for another cold night.

Our many cold nights of camping under a sodden wet sleeping bag inspired Sophie to compile some tips for winter alpine camping, both for her own good and for others. Alpine camping with some degree of comfort really is something of an art form.

Grey winds vibrated the tent at 3am, spoiling our dream of the beauty-bomber high. Never to fear, we waited an hour and began the remaining journey to the north face. Team mates Rose & Steve has soloed the rock buttresses in summer, but as we drew nearer we realised a winter ascent would not be so simple.

Thick southerly clouds surrounded us all day, precipitating light snow over our clothing, obscuring our views. Normally this would invoke fear and perhaps retreat, climbing into the mist in such a remote place. But we quested upwards slowly, through eight interesting pitches of moderate alpine ice & mixed terrain, arriving one pitch from the summit at 430pm, still bathed in clag.

Here we appreciated our full bivouac equipment. Given the long and tricky descent via the unfamiliar Southeast face, instead of pushing on into nightfall, we decided to pitch our camp just 100m below the summit. On dusk the clouds cleared to reveal amazing scenes across Fiordland in golden sunset. What an evening to savour!

Following morning, the final pitch to the summit ridge provides a "stirring finish and is prone to icing," according to the guidebook, and sure enough provided a fantastic finale towards the summit of Tutoko.

In winter conditions it is possible to Southeast face following the Age glacier, skirting below the three rock steps of the Southeast ridge. Due to the steepness of the glacier and variability of the winter snowpack it was preferable to stay un-roped, despite many crevasses around. It requires judgement to determine which poses the greater risk.

We reached Turners Bivouac in late afternoon with not quite enough time to descend to Leader creek, so we opted for a fourth camp at the Turner's Biv site. We decided to sleep in the tent again rather than in the cramped rock biv which was lined with snow.

The descent to Leader creek is intricate and it helps to have good beta. See Jaz and Danilo photos for reference.

Later at the car that afternoon, after a caffeine-fuelled exit through Tutoko's bush valley, we revelled in the view of the Chief's proud snow ridges and craggy escarpments, the view always sweeter after knowing that we had just been up there.

After spending five days with the chief – walking with the chief, eating with the chief, sleeping with the chief – we started to feel a little closer to becoming one with the chief.

Tutoko, the chief of Fiordland.

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