First ascent of Mitre Peak was an arduous undertaking

Mitre Peak in Milford Sound. Photo: Craig Baxter
Mitre Peak in Milford Sound. Photo: Craig Baxter

There are no short cuts on Mitre Peak, writes J. R Dennistoun in this extract from To The Mountains.

In November 1909 I was lucky enough to visit the West Coast Sounds in HMS Pioneer as a guest of the ward room. As soon as I saw the wonderful Mitre Peak in Milford Sound I determined sooner or later to make a big try to get to the top. My brother and I intended to make the ascent, but the weather broke and we were unable to make the attempt.

To the Mountains: A Collection of New Zealand alpine writing, selected by Laurence Fearnley and...
To the Mountains: A Collection of New Zealand alpine writing, selected by Laurence Fearnley and Paul Hersey, Otago University Press, $45.
In March 1910 I went with a party over to Milford Sound, via Lake Te Anau and the Government track over McKinnon's Pass. It is a most wonderful walk, and everything is made easy and comfortable. I meant to have a try at Mitre Peak this time, and made enquiries at Glade House about a porter. One's party must be at least two in number on these occasions, although I fear I am inclined to disregard this precaution at times. The Chief Guide was not at all hopeful. However he said that if I wished to try I could have one or two of the track porters. He could tell me nothing as to the most likely route, etc. I talked the matter over with the porters, but they could not help much either. Of course, it is out of their beat, and they knew no more about Mitre Peak than I did. They do not get any climbing either, all their work being on the track. I decided, under the circumstances, that one was enough, and as one of them had read Whymper's Scrambles that helped me in my choice.

Mitre Peak is 5560 feet high. It falls sheer down on one side into Milford Sound, and on the other into Sinbad's Gully. Great smooth slabs of granite are to be seen, with only patches here and there where ferns or scrub can get a hold on the perpendicular walls. Running up towards the head of the Sound is a long, narrow spur connecting with the peak. This spur is bush-covered, and ends where Sinbad's Gully joins the Sound. You see this spur end on from Sutherland's. I believe nobody had previously tried to climb Mitre Peak. This is no doubt because it is so out of the way, and not because of its difficulty, although many believed it to be unclimbable - a very big word nowadays.

I had hoped to go down to the Sound the day before making an attempt, and study that side of the peak. I thought it would be shorter and easier to go some way down and then strike straight up through the bush, joining the ridge at the last big declivity in it before the bush ends. Unfortunately Sutherland was mending his launch, so I was unable to do this. My porter had great stories to tell of Sinbad's Gully, and wanted me to go up the Gully and then strike up onto the ridge. This I decided against at once. Sutherland strongly advised me to climb the big bushy knob facing Sutherland's and follow the ridge all the way along. This I decided to do, but was far from sanguine, as the ridge was very long, and I expected the bush to be very bad. I felt we ought to manage to get out above the bush and see what the final peak was really like - from Sutherland's through a telescope it looked very smooth and slabby, and not at all hopeful - then I would know more about it next time. I was sure there would have to be a next time.

On Monday, March 13th, 1910, Joe and I left Sutherland's at 6.30, and rowed about two miles across the end down the Sound to where the creek from Sinbad's Gully enters the Sound. Here we tied up the boat, and started climbing at 7.30 - about an hour and a half later than I had planned, but the clock had failed us. We took plenty of tucker, camera, telescope, 20 fathoms of good, light, but strong rope that Sutherland had lent us, and I had a pair of indiarubber sandshoes, which I thought might be useful if I ever got as far as the final slabby rocks. It was still a dull morning, not very promising looking. We made great progress up the big bushy knob, keeping on the ridge as much as possible, and finding the bush very open and good for West Coast bush. This was a great surprise, and we just romped up, having two five minutes' spells, and getting up to the top at 8.45. Then the long ridge began - never very steep, generally a very easy slope. The ridge is very narrow, and there was no trouble in keeping our direction; also, the bush was very open; it is always best on a ridge.

I had apprehended there were many ups and downs on the ridge, but they proved very slight ones, and we travelled very fast. At 10.15 we came to the big dip in the ridge - 500 feet, I should say, and very steep. The bush was getting thicker, too. It was annoying, but down we went, getting to the bottom at 10.30. Then the bush became much worse, with scrubby, stunted stuff, and it was very steep. However at 11.10 we got out above the bush, about 3500 feet above sea level. Then a little steep snowgrass brought us to a fairly wide part of the ridge, sloping gently upwards; but it soon got very steep again, and the ridge became narrower and narrower as we went on. However, there was a lot of big snowgrass, and if the foothold was not too good, the handhold was. At a height of about 4200 feet, and about 100 feet below where the ridge levelled off again before rising in the final peak, Joe sang out for help. His arms, unused to such violent exercise, had begun to cave in, and he was losing his grip of the snowgrass. I soon got him into a snug place, where he could sit and rest. Apparently he was quite unable to go further, and wanted me to put on the rope and take him down to the level place, 200 to 300 feet below. This I refused to do, telling him he was safe where he was. I had now a possibility of making the ascent, which I would not have if I wasted energy and time in taking him down to a safer place. We had some very much-needed grub, and a spell of fifteen minutes. Then at 12 o'clock I started off with my sandshoes in my pocket, and nothing else, telling Joe to sit still and not to move. As soon as I got up to the level piece of ridge 100 feet above, I saw the final part of the peak, and felt I would succeed. I shouted to Joe that I was going on, and would be away two hours. I wanted to get him up to where I was, so that he could watch me, as I knew in theory it was all wrong to go on alone, still it was too tempting, and I couldn't resist. Joe said he would sooner not come any higher.

The ridge is nearly level, and the narrowest I have ever seen. It literally falls 4000 odd feet sheer down on both sides. It is all rough, big blocks of granite, much broken, but the blocks are big and firm for the most part. At the far end of this ridge are two big gaps of 100 feet or so, cutting it off from the face of the final peak, which rises about another 1200 feet. I reached the end of the ridge at 12.25, it having given no trouble, and I got past the two gaps a good deal easier than I had expected. Luckily there was no wind. It would not be a nice place to be in if there was, or if one's head was not good.

Here I took off my boots and left them. The sandshoes gave a splendid hold on the rough granite. Some of the slabs were big, and very smooth, and I don't think it would be possible to have got over them without the sandshoes. Here, being on a face, one does not quite feel the same as regards the wonderful steepness that I felt along the narrow rocky ridge. The rock was all very solid and good, very different to the mountains round the Hermitage - due, I suppose, to the slight amount of frost to which they are exposed. I reached the summit at 1.15, and built a small cairn, putting a white linen handkerchief in it. I had nothing more lasting that I could spare.

It was so dull that the view was not very good. Tutoko was in a cloud. The view towards Te Anau was shut out, and Pembroke Peak was rather cloudy. I noticed a pretty little lake up the river coming into Harrison's Cove. It is, I believe, unexplored, and must come from the west of Mount Tutoko. The lake was not known before. I got a good view up the Cleddau River to the S.E. The sound looked splendid, and the walls of the hills into it are extraordinary, especially those of The Lion just opposite. The Bowen Falls looked very tiny, and Sutherland's launch was just getting home after taking visitors round the Sound. I could see the grampus jumping round the launch. Outside one could see a long way up and down the coast.

I left the top at 1.30, getting back to my boots at 2.5, and reaching Joe at 2.30, having been away two hours and a half. Joe was quite safe and sound. We picked up our gear, and I put on the rope and had him down on the broad grassy place in a quarter of an hour. Then we had a long spell and much food, and I for one wanted both badly. At 3.45 we set off again, and reached the bottom of the big dip in the bush at 4.15. I then made a great mistake. To avoid the 500 foot climb and then the long ridge, we turned to our right, and dropped straight down into Sinbad's Gully. It was only a distance of about 2500 feet (supposing the creek bed to be 500 feet where we struck it), and though very steep, imagined we would be down in no time. We got there, but not till 6.45, and often I thought we would never manage to get down at all. If we had only stuck to the way we knew we would have just about reached the boat at this time. Four or five times we had to lower each other over bluffs of rock. We took a turn round a tree, and then when we were both down pulled the rope after us. It was a slow, tedious, uncomfortable job, and once or twice the rope was only just long enough. We were wet through by the time we got down, as it had been raining steadily for the last two hours.

We thought our troubles were over when we safely reached the creek, but they were only just beginning. We were nearly three miles from the Sound following the creek, and it very soon got dark. We kept in the creek bed as much as possible, as it was lighter there; but we tumbled about a great deal, and often were forced into the bush by big pools or cascades. In the bush we couldn't see a yard ahead of us, and literally had to feel our way along. We were frequently separated, and then I would have to shout and shout and shout till Joe caught up on me. We stumbled or fell every few yards, and had a great doing altogether. Once we caved in, and decided to wait till morning, but things were too wet and dark to get a fire going, and in a few minutes we were cold, and anything was better than waiting, so on we went. The noise of the creek when we were in the bush gave us our direction. At 9.45 we reached the Sound, and soon found the boat. Luckily there was no wind, and we arrived at Sutherland's at 10.30.

The rest of the party were rather anxious about us, and were trying to get Sutherland to go out and look for us, which he refused to do, and certainly he could have done nothing till daylight if he had gone.

I feel sure that the way we went, though long, is far the best and the easiest. It would be impossible to get up from Sinbad's Gully, and I don't advise anyone to come down that way! I am also inclined to think it would be impossible to get up from some way down the Sound, as I had thought of trying, as I now imagine there must be bluffs of rock in the bush on that side, as the side into the Sound is steeper if anything.

I don't know if it will be long before others make the ascent, but when they do they ought to start much earlier, take sandshoes, and go and come by the way we went up. It is a wonderful climb, and one has rather the feeling of being on top of a steeple 5560 feet high!

On a clear, bright day the view must be glorious, as the colours of the sound and bush and distant peaks from such a height must indeed be splendid.


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