Tutoko:  The South East Ridge

Vaughan Snowdon and Simon Bell climb Mt Tutoko in Fiordland National Park. 

This is just one of the stories in Simon’s Trips, a book honouring the life of NZ mountaineer, Simon Bell.

After his disappearance on Pikirakatahi/Mt Earnslaw in Jan 2015, his parents, Colin and Jeni Bell, compiled the book from Simon’s accounts and photos. Lorraine Johns, Rob Hawes, the late Steve Dowall and other friends also contributed stories of tramping or climbing trips they made with Simon.

Simon’s Trips was originally a gift to his family and friends but was later made available in return for a donation to the FMC Mountain and Forest Trust. These donations paid the majority of the costs of digitizing FMC’s publication ‘Safety in the Mountains’ (available here as the ‘Manual‘) and establishing the Wilderlife website. Simon’s estate contributed the balance.

We will be regularly re-publishing a number of stories from Simon’s Trips here on Wilderlife. If you would like the complete PDF, Simon’s Trips may be downloaded here, and a donation made here.

This is the presentation Simon gave to the NZ Alpine Club in Wellington.

Tutoko (2723m) is the highest peak in Fiordland National Park. The South East Ridge is widely considered to be one of New Zealand’s finest alpine routes.

I climbed SE ridge of Tutoko with my friend Vaughan, who is also an NZAC member and lives in Christchurch.

Just a bit of background about me. Last February I completed the excellent high alpine skills course, which we will hear about in one of the coming presentations. I spent a week in October last year trad climbing at Arapiles in Victoria, Australia and about one month climbing in Aspiring NP, MCNP and Westland NP in Nov and Dec.

Tutoko is a great mountain as it requires a huge range of mountaineering skills and I used all the snow and rock skills I learnt last year.


View Larger Topographic Map

This map shows Tutoko is in relation to Milford Sound. Homer Hut is down to the south east, about 20 minutes away by car.

We chose to fly into Tutoko to save a 1.5 day walk in and to ensure that we didn’t miss our weather window. We got dropped off in Milford on a Sunday morning. Ten minutes later we realised we had left a pair of crampons at Homer Hut and nearly had to call the trip off! Its a long story but eventually we found someone who was willing to lend us some crampons so we were on our way!

Airborne, on our way!

Day 1:  At around 2:15 we finally took off. I think the helicopter pilot was glad to get rid of us, after we had spent most of the day sifting around the base, swatting sandflies.

It is a very short flight in and before you know it, we were on snow. We were a bit lucky, as the pilot had landed us 300m or so higher than Turners Biv which is the designated landing area. This somewhat made up for the time lost trying to get crampons!

Vaughan had been to this area, having climbed the neighbouring peak Madeline a few years ago. I’d briefly looked at the route description and the map but wasn’t really prepared for what I saw when I turned around…

Tutoko looked massive and the rock steps looked narly! We planned to get to the col at the start of the SE ridge you can just see in the right of the picture.

This map should make things clearer. We landed at the start of the red line just above 1900m and ended up at point 2139m. This is only 240m height gain but still took about 5 hours.

The route description talked about going to Turners Pass but we decided to take a shortcut and bypass some of the ridge. Without giving too much away, the black line shows what we did on summit day and the blue line shows what we did on the following day.

This slide shows us high up on the Age glacier and looking towards pt 2139m. We headed more or less straight ahead and climbed the rock in the middle of the screen, then up some snow and on to the ridge.

The rock was about grade 14 but was a bit awkward and mossy and times with sparse protection. We did find some abseil slings indicating that this route has been used before.

We traversed along the skyline ridge to pt 2139m. We had originally intended to rap off there, and bivvy on the snow at the col. However at the top of 2139m we found this:

We were stoked to find this bivvy rock. It looked like it had had quite a bit of use, and someone had even left a sleeping bag there (which was now completely rotten).

There was no water at this altitude and we had to walk a few minutes to collect some snow and melt this using the Jetboil. We had decided to travel ‘fast and light’ meaning that our dinners were Backcountry, our breakfasts were One Square Meals and our lunches were crackers and cheese.

Vaughan had a ¾ mattress so used the rope to keep his legs off the dirt. I had a 40L pack which was JUST big enough to carry everything if I wore my harness and carried my map bag.

Day 2: When we got up, we were treated to this view!

Our first concern for the day was the 30m abseil onto the col. We were happy with the abseil but not sure how to climb back up again! Eventually we left some slings which we could use to ‘Aid’ the climb if needed.

The SE ridge was three rock steps. Each step involves one or two pitches. The crux is around grade 14 and the rock is solid! It is very difficult to take good pictures on the crux moves with only two climbers. I tried putting my belay device in ‘Reverso’ mode but it won’t lock properly with the 7.8m half rope we had. Also, we only had one camera (mine) and I’m not really a photo person – this is probably the best rock ‘climbing’ photo I took on the trip!

In between the rock steps there is a easy rock ridge to follow, with Mt Madeline in behind.

You can just see the little bivvy rock where we had just spent the night!

Once we passed the three rock steps we were on to the snow! In the photo you can see pt 2608m and the summit which is 2723m. The first section up to pt 2608m is quite steep and exposed.

When we got towards pt 2608m we started to get some great views!  Here, we are looking into the Hollyford Valley.

As we got to the top of pt 2608m we got our first views of the summit. We also saw a huge schrund which we had to abseil over, using some very new looking abseil tat which was in the rocks in the photo. The last section of snow to the summit was relatively straightforward although we did use two tools and had to sidle around a couple of crevasses.

We had some debate as to exactly where the true summit is but eventually decided it was to the right of this picture.

The final summit is on rock which is very straightforward.

This is Vaughan looking out north. The ‘neve’ is about 1000m below, and I think and the valley floor is about 2200 m below.

This is me! With Lake Iceberg in the background and the Hollyford Track is in the valley. The weather deteriorated for a period and it started snowing just as we left the summit. Despite this, we had an uneventful return to the bivvy site and got there just before dark (around 13 hour day). We did nine 30m abseils on half-rope.

Day 3: Ended up being an even longer day than summit day!

We started with a few abseils and snow crossings, with the aim of getting back to the place where we were dropped by helicopter. When we got closer to the rock slabs we decided to try and sidle these instead to save some height gain. This is pretty much what the route description says, although it is a bit vague and hard to follow, especially in reverse. We had also studied the route from the bivvy rock. Crossing the slabs was at first straightforward but slow, as we also had to cross patches of snow and put on crampons for this.

Eventually we got onto the glacier and had to downclimb some steep blue ice, using two tools. We dropped a bit of height and abseiled off a V-thread.

The rock slab on the other side of the glacier was even worse! We downclimbed steep slabs in the hope that it would end well!

Eventually we got bluffed out… We were obviously off route but we really didn’t want to climb to the top of the slab and sidle around the glacier! It took a while to find anything to attach a sling to. Once we had done this, we rapped off, slightly into the unknown!

I’d say we were 95% sure we would get down in one 30m rap, but couldn’t tell till we went over the edge! I had a piton handy just in case. After this we got to one of the rock bivvies that make ‘Turners Biv’ – we were probably 100m or more below the main one, which we didn’t visit. We picked up a cairned route and headed off down the valley. Still difficult and involved another rap off slabs and the final set of slabs involved a nervous downclimb, especially the last 3 or 4m which steeped up a bit! Not recommended in rain!

We then walked down Leader Creek for a bit, found another large rock bivvy and then a track.

We quickly bashed through the track and then followed a dry stream before coming to the main Tutoko River.

I’m still wearing my harness and helmet which Vaughan thought was quite funny. Actually I didn’t really have any room in my pack so I wore the harness for the next couple of hours until we got to the road end. We then had a final 25 minute walk along the highway to Milford Sound where we were hoping for a bed in the hostel! They were full up and offered us a camp site. We accepted (for the showers!) and bivvied out once more. I was woken at 3am by a possum trying to get into my pack!

What a trip. Couldn’t have hoped for much more on my first trip to the Darrans.  I’ll be back next year for Sabre.

Wilderlife