By Jamie Macalister, Canterbury Mountaineering Club
The West Cost of the South Island is one of New Zealand’s most untouched regions. For anyone with a thirst for adventure, it is an unmissable destination. As avid climbers, Martin Johnston and I were drawn to the area by images of large, steep and untouched rock walls nestled among remote West Coast valleys. One particular wall of interest for us is an expansive, 300 metre-high face on Douglas Spur above the Paringa River. After many months of trawling the internet and asking around the climbing community, it appeared that no one had ever so much as accessed the wall, let alone tried to climb it. To us, this only made the face an even more enticing prospect.
With a week’s leave booked and Marty’s exams finished, we set off from Christchurch in mid-November with grand plans of countless new routes. The first leg of our journey involved walking up the Paringa River to Tunnel Creek hut. I generally consider approaches as nothing more than a necessary evil to access the alpine tops, however walking up the Paringa is genuinely a beautiful and pleasant experience. The water is crystal clear, the valley walls are thick with native vegetation and rise steeply out of the river and most importantly, there are no hill climbs. We arrived at Tunnel Creek hut early evening to find a spacious, cozy and well maintained shelter. From here we could see clearly up to the head of the valley and the intimidating Douglas Spur. As the crow flies, the wall was only a few kilometres away, however, as the climber walks, this also involved over 1,000 metres of ascent through untracked West Coast bush.
We rose at dawn to another bluebird day, expecting to be at the wall no later than lunch time for a bit of afternoon climbing. Things started well with quick travel up the remaining riverbed before we turned off into the bush and began climbing. However, once we were high above the Paringa, we still needed to traverse around to the wall which is when things really began to slow down. The bush became thicker and we encountered multiple streams running down the slope. Most of these were no more than a trickle, however they were all steep and incredibly slippery. The hours continued to pass as we drained our bodies of energy, pulling on trees and negotiating steep sections of slippery rock. Occasionally, through gaps in the trees we would see the wall sitting in the sun, which was always enough to re-energise us. It wasn’t until early evening that we finally broke through the dense bush onto more open tussock. From here we were only a short distance from the wall and we didn’t hesitate to establish camp on the first flat spot we encountered. Our planned three-to-four hour approach turned out to be a 13-hour day, we were pooped. And to make things worse, by the time we had established camp, the wall had been enveloped in a thick, dark mist.
Anxious to get on some rock, I woke up early the next day, racked up and began making my way up to the wall while Marty was still getting ready. The cloud that had arrived the previous evening had only thickened. We could no longer see the wall from camp and the waist high tussock we had to wade through was dripping wet with dew. I arrived at the wall, already soaked from the waist down and began scrambling around the lower sections to try to find a good line up the face. It didn’t take long before I stumbled upon a beautiful solidish looking flake weaving its way up a near vertical section of rock. Unfortunately, with less than 50 metres of visibility, it was impossible to tell what we would encounter further up the wall. Marty arrived as I was pulling on my rock shoes and within minutes I was leading up the flake, relishing the alpine setting. The climbing was divine. The thin, weaving flake provided good hand holds while my wet, smeary feet provided some technical difficulty. The small cams sitting behind the thin flake were also enough to keep me alert. Eventually, the flake began to peter out and I was faced with a series of short, steep and fairly blank sections of rock, each one seemingly more difficult than the last. We found the crux of our first pitch right at the top. It involved a series of engaging moves on thin holds and smeary feet. On the wet rock, it seemed impossible. I made multiple attempts but continued slipping off a dirty, high foot on the last move. Just before giving up, I had a big brain moment and thought to clean the dirt (which by now was more like mud) out of the final foot hold. Once it was clean, my foot stuck, I reached for the jug and was able to pull up onto the belay ledge, stoked with our first pitch.
From the top of our first pitch, things started to look a little more complicated. Straight up appeared crimpy, smeary and more difficult to protect. In dry conditions, it looked totally doable. However, when our feet were already skidding off the largest of holds, it was out of the question. To the right, there was a slippery traverse before a large, potentially juggy bulge, but above that, we couldn’t see. Somehow, Marty convinced me to take the lead again and before I knew it, I was out on the ledge desperately trying to keep my feet on the wall. I reached the bulge only to find it blank, slippery and un-protectable, so I retreated back to the belay. Our last chance was to try going left. This involved a traverse and slight down climb on incredibly slippery rock. I found a cam placement behind another flake and was ready to commit until I pulled slightly on the gear and saw the entire flake bend. Again, I retreated to Marty and we were left with only one option: to descend after just one pitch (we guessed it would be at least six pitches to the top).
Back at the base of the wall we were a little bummed, but continued to search around for other lines. It wasn’t long before we stumbled upon a large, steep crack system heading up a separate buttress at the far end of the wall. This appeared to have everything we were looking for. Loads of protection, big holds, steep climbing and miraculously, not dripping wet. Marty quickly racked up and got stuck in. It was clear from the first move that this was going to be substantially harder than it looked. The crack was deep, wide and awkward, while the face was once again blank and smeary. Marty impressively fought his way up the route, eventually leaving the steepening crack system for an arête to the right, before finding a comfortable belay. After following him up, we switched leads and I found myself on a steep crimpy slab, again with increasing difficulties and an exciting crux just before the finish. This time at least, the rock was a lot drier and I was able to layback on good holds on the arête while smearing my feet up the wall. From here, it looked like we may have been able to complete an additional steep pitch to top out on the buttress. However it was already 8pm and we had each eaten no more than a few bars all day, so it was an easy decision to call it quits there. We returned to camp, wet, cold, hungry and tired but totally stoked with what we had achieved given the conditions.
With a storm forecast in two days, we only had one day left on the wall. We woke again to similar conditions as the day before and knew the only way we would get to the top on this trip would be by going around the back of the face. To climb up the back of the wall, we ascended steepening choss to the ridge. From here we tiptoed across a thin section of ridge, before pulling on vertical tussock to the summit. We arrived at the summit and quickly realised that we were right at the top of the cloud and just above us was a completely clear blue sky. We had been incredibly unlucky that our objective was sitting right in the middle of the cloud the entire time we were there. After quickly descending back to camp and packing up, we were back in the bush before we knew it. We managed to pick a much more direct and less technical route back down to the valley and were back in Tunnel Creek hut late evening, before walking out the next day just as the real rain arrived.
All in all, we completed three new pitches on the face of Douglas Spur. We hope that the first pitch will eventually be the beginning of a full route to the summit, which we graded around 17-18, although in dry conditions it may be easier. The second two pitches on the right-hand buttress go at around 19-20 with good pro. We give a massive thanks to the FMC for awarding us a Youth Expedition Scholarship which helped to fund our trip. Thanks also to Radix Nutrition who provided top quality, lightweight and nutritious meals which are essential for any demanding backcountry trip.
We’re delighted to share another trip report from recent recipients of the FMC Expedition Scholarship. Applications close annually in mid-September. For more details on how to apply, please visit the FMC website at www.fmc.org.nz/