Climbing Fiordland: All Female Film Expedition To The Tusk

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Fiordland is the kind of place that haunts me, in the best kind of way. Wet luscious beech forest, vibrant yellow tussocks – partitioned by paths made from hard hoofed deer and chamois – and lakes, deeper than you’d like to imagine, sprawled far and wide. When not hiding behind swirling mists or incessant rain, a sea of jagged peaks pierce up into the stark blue sky.

My love and obsession of the place simultaneously fills me with awe and fear and has grown ever since 2010 – when I’d spent four months photographing its raw beauty from the air. From dawn until dusk the teal, turquoise and ultramarine of the rivers and the braided river-beds filled my lens. 

Fiordland is located on the south west edge of New Zealand’s South Island. Helicopters are regarded as the get–around in Fiordland for obvious reasons, but I knew that one day I wanted to walk along the tops of those peaks. Fiordland’s peaks make me think of a deep sleeping Leviathan. Its spines make up the numerous intimidating points, and when it tosses and turns slabs of entangled rainforest slide off its back. When it roars, tussocks dance in wild masses and when it cries, its tears become cascading waterfalls that overflow onto its mossy bed. Fiordland is a magical wonderland that opens its gates to the few that dare challenge its moods.

I’d always dreamed of combining my true loves: photography, climbing, women’s empowerment and Fiordland into one. I applied for the 2018 Travel Play Live Women’s Adventure Grant (Film and Photography Category). Part of me didn’t want to win, Fiordland scared me, but, I did win. 

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I racked my brain to think of three women that would be up for some Type 2 (and even Type 3), fun; vertical vegetation, scrambling, rock soloing, ferocious winds and torrential downpours. We were going off–track, and would potentially face bad quality rock, snow, ice, bergschrunds, and river-crossings. In saying that to myself, I immediately thought of Tasmanian climbers and conservationists Liz and Rosie, and New Zealand mountain lover and Fiordland conservationist Ana. They were all skilled and intelligent women with a healthy thirst for intrepid adventures and crazy ideas. 

My goal was to increase the visual presence of females in the outdoors, exploration and adventure. Like so many women of my generation I was told by the media that I was a girl and therefore it was unlikely I’d be the best at climbing mountains, winning races, surfing big waves – advertisements in magazines showed me pretty – and for some reason that was enough. Today, male sports still receive over 90 percent of traditional media coverage. For so long it has created what might be considered a self-fulfilling prophecy, but slowly talented females, killing it at their chosen passions, are emerging from under their rocks – and I want to make it seen so the next female generation can just get on with kicking ass.

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My goal was to find an adventure worth documenting, not to make a ‘power woman’ film but to simply capture a story about climbers brought together by the spirit of adventure and a love of wilderness. I wanted it to be about pushing personal limits and hoped it would inspire the next generation to be explorers, adventurers, thinkers and eco–warriors. I want audiences to see a mountain film first, a female mountain film second. To me that is progress.

Our objective was to make a first traverse from Llawrenny Peaks/Terror Peak area to Mount Danger, then to Lady of the Snows, with accompanying first climbing ascents. We gave ourselves 20 days, an ambitious objective. We learned of a peak between Llawrenny Peaks and Mount Danger unofficially known as the Tusk, that told of a story about a Kakapo researcher and climber Hugh Willoughby who tragically fell in his solo attempt of the peak in the 70s. It is unknown if he made it to the top. Below the peak, near Lake Liz, we learned there was once a Kakapo stronghold and that some researchers believed they might still be there. Kakapo are an owlish-faced nocturnal bird that can weigh up to 4 kg.  Only 147 are alive today.

Our journey began in Sinbad Gully with a 10-hour hike that brought us to a near vertical vegetated spur. For six hours we navigated wet slabs and waterfalls, tugged and pulled at flax, tussock and monkey bush. At times the vegetation was overhanging and we’d haul ourselves up, with our backpacks pulling us down. It was a battle between us and the plants, a full body experience. At one point Liz set up an anchor made from the roots of a bush, digging mud out from under it to thread a rope when our packs were too dangerous to wear whilst soloing up a wet corner of rock. 

There was a 50 millimetre forecast for that evening. We could under no circumstances get caught out on the lower parts of the spur, in some places a mere 10 metres wide. If we didn’t get to a safe spot there was no guarantee we wouldn’t get swept or blown off. Usually, you wouldn’t go into Fiordland with a severe weather forecast, but with plans for a lengthy traverse, we accepted the fact that we would need to endure some extreme weather.

That evening we made camp nearer to the tops. We settled in for sleep, but it didn’t last long. By midnight our tents were swimming in a small lake, guy-lines were impossible to re-pin as the tent pegs were submerged in water. No one was prepared for the wind. The gusts boomed across the headwall before they hit. Rosie and I had to use both of our bodies to push against the tent to stop it from blowing over. In the other tent Ana awoke to Liz’s legs and arms up against the tent ceiling trying to stop it from inverting. Every time the air went silent we’d think it can’t get any worse and then BOOM! the fight was on. The weather cleared by 8 am. Rosie and I had fallen asleep upright with our arms outstretched holding up the tent. We endured one of the worst storms any of us had experienced. We surveyed the damage: snapped tent poles, ripped tents.

Beyond the spur, it was anyone’s guess: terrain that had never been crossed. We used a mixture of topographic maps and GPS but we honestly never knew how much scrambling, climbing and rappelling the terrain would require of us. Ana’s knowledge of the environment; the rocks, vegetation, and the weather helped us plan our route. Liz and Rosies’s time in the alpine and experience on big exposed walls made for solid team-work and good decision making. The terrain changed from hard granite to gigantic piles of choss, there was less opportunity to rope up. 

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Steep scrambling turned to even more sketchy calculated soloing. We had to consider every step we took. It was safer to have a little distance between each other, in case we dislodged a rock – which did happen. A large rock came hurtling down towards Rosie, with the sun in her eyes she ducked away from the sound of the falling rock and in turn dislodged another. On all sides, the terrain dropped for hundreds of metres into the cirques and valleys below. There was no room for error.

After a 12-hour-day we made it down to Lake Liz, where we set up base camp in preparation for another storm and to start planning a climbing ascent of the Tusk – its ominous peak towering above us. The landscape wavered from grey mists, gusty winds, thick rain and intermittent waterfalls as we waited for a climbing day. On the fifth day we sat huddled under our tarp as the rain pelted down, it was never a guarantee we would climb the Tusk, so when we got a forecast for sunny conditions it was smiles all round. The next day was possibly our only chance. Liz and Rosie packed that night and went to bed hopeful for a 6 am wake-up. 

We awoke to winds so fierce you could barely stand. We were devastated, but climbing 600 metres up a ridge line no one had climbed before was instantly out of the question. The worst thing was that it was a bluebird day. At 2 pm the wind eased so Liz and Rosie roped up with significantly less time than they’d liked – they had no idea how they would get down, and leaving this late meant it was possible they’d have to find their descent under a veil of darkness.

Given the conditions, I couldn’t accompany them to film the climb. It was crucial for Liz and Rosie to get climbing – filming would slow them down. Fortunately, Liz and Rosie managed to film some GoPro footage and our friend Simon Bischoff (who’d flown in to film the ascent) had a drone. It was nerve-wracking to watch Liz and Rosie make their way up the ridge line, often without ropes. The rock quality wasn’t good enough to hold gear or to make anchors, and there were sections of vertical tussock – but they’d had five days of practice.

Liz and Rosie summited just before dark, but it took time for them to rappel. They were thrilled to have made a first climbing ascent, calling it Kakapo Crest (600m, Ewbanks Grade 16), in honour of the endangered bird. There was no back up plan if they couldn’t find a way off the peak, and we were extremely relieved to see their bobbing head torches in the distance, making their way back to camp.

With a forecast of 162 millimetres of rain, broken tents, low visibility and high winds we didn’t feel confident to travel along the high peaks to finish the traverse. The trip had taken almost a year to plan, and that night we felt the weight of our decision. We tried to soften our disappointment with the knowledge that there was always next summer.

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At some point we discussed that this was the first trip we’d been on that was all female, and questioned why that might be. It was simply awesome to explore, navigate and problem solve in such a remote and unexplored area with a capable and enthusiastic group of women. We stood in places no human has ever been. It was satisfying to learn that we could plan and execute a trip of complexity in nature, in a place where you often don’t get your way. 

Wilderness doesn’t care what gender you are – you’re out there on its terms no matter who you are. It just takes one crazy idea and few willing hands to have an incredible adventure.


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