Diary of a First Descent - Part I

This story was originally published on April 15, 2015

Adventure: a word that continues to inspire people to push their limits and explore, to leave the comfort zone and become stronger, to go where no person has ever been. Every person needs their share of adventure in life.

It was in search of adventure that I embarked on a flight to Queenstown; an adventure which had been embedded in my head for years, one for which I had an equal mixture of excitement and fear but nonetheless, the dream to accomplish. A month in the South Island of New Zealand, eyes targeted on the exploration of new canyons.

Expedition Drama

The year prior, there were talks about sponsors and big exposure, media coverage and a resulting feature-lenght adventure film. But as the support from these sponsors is cancelled one month before the start of our tour, we are left with a team torn apart and requiring a revision of the expedition’s objectives. A lot of discussion about gear, nasty arguments, shaken friendships and non-refundable flights mix up in my head as I arrive into the land of the long white cloud.

But the adventure had to happen. No excuses. We were determined, at all costs, to make a push for one of the hidden jewels of NZ canyoning. Located deep into the Dart Valley and UNESCO-heritage Mount Aspiring National Park, Bedford Stream is the perfect representation of what canyoning is: an exploration sport that requires large doses of determination, passion, camaraderie, stamina and mental strength. We were to expect nothing less.

View of the Bedford Canyon from Sandy Flats, Dart Valley.

Birth of a Beast

Arriving in town I was happy to meet Ben and Shane again, our previous seasons of work and play still fresh in my memory. We were the remaining “original” team members of the planned expedition and with the “recruitment” of David and Mark we are confident on the strength of our new multi-national group. In the month prior, they had tested the team dynamics and descended an adjacent stream to Bedford, naming it William Peak Canyon.

I stop at Ben’s house for a quick check on the recently-purchased gear: a plethora of bolts, hangers and webbing which had been express-ordered with a trustworthy local supplier. A total of 80 bolts, entirely dedicated to our main objective. We grab a beer while I listen to Ben’s account and review the photos of his reconnaissance missions: “It took me 5 hours to climb up to this plateau” he says with a unmistakable French accent and a small grin, as he shows me a video featuring the impressive 245m waterfall we had knowledge of but never seen. Plunging from the “Gates of Hell” (a nickname Nando had given to the visible crack up top), I am amazed by the noise and power of the water, expectations increasing for the upcoming descent.

Ben Buchy and his beloved drill.

Located 2 hours into the Dart Valley and just north of Mount Earnslaw, Bedford is an alpine canyon which is mostly fed by the Frances Glacier and boasts an impressive 12.2km2 catchment area. Anyone walking the Rees-Dart track can spot one of the major waterfalls from the suspension bridge, but what called the attention of canyoners was a single image published by a keen tramper and photographer:

Image of Bedford Stream's chasm, by Southern Alps Photography (https://southernalpsphotography.com).

Further research using satellite imagery and topographic maps revealed a descent of epic proportions: 1,000+ meters vertical descent and approximately 2.5km in length, requiring a multi-day effort that would challenge even the most experienced team. A grueling approach hike through sub-tropical rainforest would require top-level physical condition from anyone attempting the descent. Either that or thousands of dollars worth of helicopter flights.

We decide to scrap the original plan of hiking from the Rees side to the Upper Bedford Valley, as the lack of a support team to establish a base camp meant we had to be self-sufficient and fully autonomous in the expedition. It was decided that multiple days of effort hiking up from the Dart Valley were the best solution. Ben segmented the canyon in 3 sections, the first starting at a plateau at 1,020m and directly below the massive waterfall, and each requiring a full night’s approach and full day descent.

The dry summer meant we could expect a lower water level. Despite, being glacier-fed implied in varying flow during the peak hours of the day and with autumn on the horizon we had to be careful with incoming weather. A review of the forecast charts reveals a good 2-day window with clear skies and warm temperatures. We set the date for the first mission; Ben, Shane and myself were to make a push for the intermediate section starting at roughly 900m. We set our alarms for 2.30am, departing Queenstown at 3am towards Paradise and beyond.

Into the Unknown

We take 30-bolt-plus-hanger sets and the same amount of maillons. Two 60m and two 30m ropes. Drill and extra battery. Wetsuits, rescue kits, first aid, locator beacon, harnesses and karabiners. The heavy load on our backs is soon offset by the expectations for the day ahead of us. We start the Dart trek at 3.30am, the moonlight allowing for amazing views of the surrounding mountains. The track is flat and easy, and I take the opportunity to quietly meditate and relax while walking.

As we approach the 2-hour mark on our march, the noise of a nearby stream exponentially increases with each step we take. A bunch of yellow tape is wrapped around a couple of trees and poorly blocks the passage through a suspension bridge. A sign informs the Dart Track is closed from this point onwards. We have reached the lower Bedford Stream, its roaring flow flushing into the Dart River below. “It’s the lowest I’ve seen” says Ben, to which Shane and I understand as “good flow”. A short break ensues. We take a few sips of water. A banana is eaten. I chomp on a protein bar. We’re ready. Let’s go. Ben tells our river-right climb would see us bush-bash for about 3 hours and gain approximately 400m in altitude. We dress on our harnesses and venture into the dark forest, trying to distance ourselves from the stream. The moss-covered ground proves to be something of a mine-field, its hidden holes having us focus on not twisting ankles or knees. Untracked terrain, at night. Now the adventure really begins.

Approach during the night

The approach sees its fair share of river crossings, rolling hills, tricky up-and-down climbs and numerous rock cliffs. I count 5 of them but would assume quite a few others would be around, hidden in the night. At one specific point Ben points out the end of William Peak canyon. “We’re heading on the right direction” he says. Good, I think.

Pre-dawn and we're still only half way up.

We reach a massive boulder as I check my watch. 6.43am. Slowly the day starts to present itself, but we are still a good 25 minutes from the break of dawn. The obstacle is overtaken by Ben climbing up a tree and setting a rope for Shane and I to ascend. Shane checks his altimeter. We are at 850m, not far from our entry point.

Shano climbs up a tree to overcome a bluff).

Our first glimpse of the challenges of the day.

A few minutes later and we’re there, all in good spirit. We reorganize the gear into bags and get prepared to drop in. It is clear we will have an intense day ahead of us. The noise of the water requires a louder tone of voice and we’re quickly assessing the surroundings for anchoring possibilities. “We should install the belay close to it” Ben says about the waterfall: a rebounding monster, flushing its juice back-and-forth with mighty power. A hand line on is installed on river-right using an adjacent tree, bringing us to a sloping edge. Ben drills the first holes and installs the bolts, closely supported by Shane. I watch as his head disappears into the chasm. Shane signals to me, “he’s OK”. I approach the belay and get on with retrieving the hand line. I bring the camera out to capture Shane’s rappel, but I’m too late. He’s already 25m down at the bottom, looking ahead for progress. Although my will is to document the descent, my mind instructs me to focus on zero mistakes and requires complete awareness of my surroundings and tasks. Photos become secondary. I still reach for my camera and take a “foot-selfie”. I check the belay one last time and drop down. We are in.

Ben establishes the first anchors.

Looking down the chasm.

Dropping In

Despite the sheer beauty of the place – its quartz-adorned schist walls and spectacular depth forever embedded in my mind – I am immediately put-off by the amount of spray caused by the waterfalls. My camera was exposed, having only the waterproof bag to protect it from the elements. I curse myself for not making use of the Outex housing but accept the show must go on. I bring the camera out and look back at the waterfall, quickly grabbing a couple of frames before the front element on my lens gets hit by the miniscule water droplets, losing all capability of focus and contrast. I dry it up using a towel and store it. Let’s move on.

Rope retrieved, there is no way back.

Ben and Shane begin to place another belay on river-right. Each strike of the hammer produces a spark, a testament to high-density rock. “Maybe a bit higher?” I suggest, thinking of upcoming floods and the stripping of bolts. “We won’t be able to retrieve the rope if we do so” Ben says. I nod and comply. The short 5m rappel takes us to a comfortable ledge which oversees a pool and the edge of a drop. Another belay in, and Ben again takes the lead, crossing the pool on-rope. He struggles to find a decent ledge to climb onto, the rock quite slippery. A tree trunk is perched across the walls. He manages to grab a hold of it and climb up. His subsequent attempt to reach a lower position provides intense moments: he’s being pounded by the water, waist deep, across a pool from which we cannot easily assist him. He reaches for his hand ascender. Clips it in. And with a strong pull, he’s out again. A feeling of relief comes to all of us.

Testing the rock before committing to the drilling.

The first challenge: overcoming the pool immediately before the highest drop of the day.

A couple of bolts are placed as intermediate points for a progression hand line, and with the blow of his whistle I’m away to join him at the edge of the drop. We contemplate the 35m drop for an instant. It is the same one we’d seen during the final part of our approach hike. Green moss adorns the walls and from the top we can see the spray caused by the water impact. Shane sends the bags and I prepare to drop down as the first man. I rappel a few meters and look back at Ben, open a smile and give the thumbs up for the line he’d put up.

Ben admires the beauty and scale of Bedford Stream.

An easy traverse takes us to a rock garden where the spray makes it impossible for me to use the camera. I still snap a photo of Shane, although not sure of the results. We regroup, use a few moments to rejoice on the past 2-and-a-half hours since the start and prepare to cross the 20-meter pool to river-left. The current caused by the waterfall forces us to push diagonally with our legs against the wall. We drag the bags using a rope for an easier crossing.

Shane sending the 35m pitch.

Looking past the large reception pool at the bottom of the 35m pitch

Taking chances

The canyon – albeit still deep – opens a bit and we can get a bit of sunshine to warm ourselves up from the ice-cold water. The draft from the waterfalls continues to be relentless. Shane shelters from the wind as we scout a place to bolt a hand line. A small pool featuring a siphon must be crossed in order to reach the edge, but doesn’t provide much of a challenge in this water level. Ben evaluates the best side to install the belay, and chooses river-left this time round. From the top we assume it’s a 20m drop leading into a small whitewater pool. The line would bring us to the very heart of the flow. We can also see an exit way on river-right. Ben ropes it up and starts his descent. Half-way through he calls my attention. “Look at me” he gestures, as to get my focus on what he is about to do. He pushes away from the wall, into the flow and to the bottom of the falls. The strength of the water ejects him and knocks him off his feet; he involuntarily twists and bumps against the rock. I anxiously wait for the outcome. Finding a ledge, he finally stands up and with a closed fist, hits the top of his helmet. The Frenchman is relentless.

Ben prepares for the upcoming swim

The pool is crossed with a direct jump-and-swim action and he’s out. With a bit of fatigue I signal for a guided rappel, which he sets up promptly. We send the bags down; Shane and I follow suit. That’s it. We’re done with the canyon for the day.

A total of 4h30min of descent with the intensity and technicality we were expecting. We are pleased with the outcome of the day and get ready to climb down through the forest. We reach the Paradise parking area just before sunset and congratulate each other for our efforts. Finally, Bedford was a reality. But as we also knew, this was only the beginning of our adventure.

This article continues on Diary of a First Descent - Part II


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