Diary of a First Descent - Part II

This story was originally published on April 15, 2015. Click here for Diary of a First Descent - Part I

Our excitement with the outcome of the first exploration day had Mark and David salivating. Both had been working and unable to join us on the occasion, but the two were playing their cards for a day-off together.

Shane shares some good news: Stefan – the boss of the local canyoning company – had offered to organize us a jet boat lift on the Dart river, cutting the approach time and saving us energy. The return would see us pack-raft down the river. Sounded like an awesome adventure. Multinational mission, Kiwi style. The following week presents a great weather window with sunny days and warm temperatures. The crew is assembled; day-off guaranteed.

The full team assembled (L to R): Mark Crawford, David Garcia, Shane Adams and Ben Buchy.

The easy way in

A later start meant more time in bed and refreshed spirits during the morning drive. The jet boat would arrive between 8.30 and 9am. As we approach Paradise, we are confused as to the whereabouts of the pick-up area; none of us had done the drive there yet. A few fords have to be crossed, and Shane summons a prophecy: “It will be a bitch to find the way-back later on”. We hear a familiar engine roar in the distance; it is, unmistakably, a jet boat. Equipped with a powerful V8 motor which actuates a water jet turbine, these Kiwi-designed boats allow for shallow-river navigation and are a lot of fun to ride. The guides at Dart River Jet Safaris are some of the most skilled, having to constantly read the ever-changing river bed. We load up and soon we’re off, heading upstream.

Approach was courtesy of Dart River Jet Safaris.

The driver takes us up to a massive landslide which dramatically changed the landscape of the Dart; millions of tons of rock and soil collapsed into the river, creating a small lake and giving the river a silver colour. A large piece of pounamu (greenstone) is displayed by one of the guides, but righteously left on the river bank.

Impressive landslide in the Te Wahi Pounamu wilderness.

The boat drops us off at the Bedford Bridge at 10am. We quickly unpack and readjust our kits. A quick look at the reference maker indicates a lower water level than before. Pack-raft stashed, we head up into the forest, the day light scrapping the need for our head torches. It is incredibly easier to hike up when you can actually see your surroundings.

The combination of a steady rhythm and fresh legs results in 2h30min approach. We spot the canyon and our previous exit point. A quick break, and we’re ready to drop in.

Approaching during the daylight gave us more references for upcoming climbs.

Mark checks the last waterfall of the first day, anchors still intact.

Slowly but surely

The canyon opens up in this area and it is easy to climb around in a lot of places. Despite, we try to follow the water flow as much as possible. Ben and David down climb into a dark slot and scout for a passage, which proves to be too narrow. We finally overcome the boulder field and drop in to what seems to be the beginning of another narrow section. The mood instantly changes; the once open and sunny canyon becomes darker and more committing. I pump up the ISO on my camera and get ready for the upcoming challenges.

The short 8m rappel is closely followed by another small drop. We push forward faster than ever, making use of natural anchor options whenever possible.

Ben and David lead the way into a dark section.

Ben checks the next obstacle. We use the log jam as anchor this time.

“Holy shit this is awesome” says Shane in true Aussie fashion. The next obstacle is a massive boulder which creates a small cavern and forces us to go through the flow while rappelling. At least that’s what we choose to do. The rappel is set up and Ben leads the way. I position myself as close to the action as possible; his silhouette is framed in-between the walls of the cavern. I capture a photo. With a push, he’s gone: a blow of his whistle signals all is good.

A cool feature on the canyon the rock bridge served as a nice frame. Garcia on the view from the bottom.

After roughly 10 minutes of progression we notice the canyon walls begin to rise. By climbing on top of a boulder we can get a glimpse of the next section; we’re approaching the second chasm. A couple of options are presented: either squeeze through a small hole choked with logs or through a wider passage which would require a tricky down climb. Ben barely manages to pass through, Mark also tries the squeeze but has no success; we give up and choose the second option. The team reassembles, our expectations and excitement increasing exponentially.

The crescendo

High walls and loud water noise, let’s do this. A log is used as hand line anchor; we notice a hole in the wall, perfectly positioned on the edge of the drop. Ben once again leads the way and looks back at us, thumbs up and a big smile giving us an indication of what’s to come. He sets up a sling through the hole and around the rock, ropes up and drops down. I’m next, looking at photographing from below. The 15m drop is super smooth; we’re brought into an atrium, the water spray once again becoming a factor for photos. Inside the next deeper section. Shane on rappel as Ben and Garcia discuss the options.

As we gather at the top of the following rappel, I scout the surroundings for a good vantage point. Shane reorganizes the bags. David is perched on top of a rock and observes as Ben and Mark cross the flow while on rope. They are pounded by the strong water but manage to avoid the hanging pool and find a small ledge on river left. They set up the next belay and I join them, hoping for a good photo. The 30m rappel is through a beautiful cavern and we can see a bit of sunshine just after it. Ben leads the way while I consider if a bottom view would be more visually appealing. I get ready, moving down into an awesome drop, the line leading us right under the flow; pulse pounding, I let out a scream of joy. The crystal-clear pool beneath is deep, waves pushing you against the rock. I find him on river left perched on a tight crack from where we can see the whole of the waterfall. We are yelling at each other; the waterfall’s noise and spray is unreal; an eternal storm inside the canyon. This is the Bedford we expected, all the superlatives and magnitude.

Ben and Mark set up the next anchor after a tricky crossing of the stream. View from the top as Ben takes first honors. A beautiful atrium-shaped festure in the canyon provided for an exciting rappel.

Although slightly more open the canyon continues to be committing. A sequence of rappels ensues; we profit from the natural anchor possibilities as much as we can. A technical rappel off a trunk leads to another enclosed section. We check the elevation and agree we’re closing in on the final drop. The small room leads to an intimidating sight: the waterfall seems to flush straight into a siphon. A few of us swallow dry; it had been a long day and we were closing in at the 5-hour mark. It requires a mental reset from the team and a determined Frenchman to take the lead once again. Belay set-up, Ben starts to descend. David leans closer and I can feel the tension in the air: “Please, don’t fuck this one up” I think, while filming the descent. He finds his steps, challenging the water with confidence and precision. “Use the water! It will help you stay away from that corner!” he yells. One more meter down and he drops the news: it is not a siphon after all. From above, the waterfall ends up creating a rooster’s tail and the impression of a deadly corner; a much more tame view results from the bottom. All down, we decide that this is the final drop of the Bedford canyon.

Ben assesses the feature that looked scary but turned out to be simple to overcome. The team rejoices one more successful day on the attempt to establish the Bedford route.

Smooth(ish) finish

The walk down is easy and quick. In a matter of 30 minutes we are back on the track. We congratulate each other while exterminating the infinite sandflies that attack us. Pack-raft out, we pump it up and get ready to roll. “Anyone been a raft guide before?” I ask. Negative answers all round, we place bets on how many times we would capsize. Remember: a 3-man raft, loaded with 5 adults plus kilos of gear. “How hard can it be?” says Ben. The fast flow of the Dart powers us downstream; sunset is upon us and we push forward as fast as possible, trying to clear the most difficult section of the river while counting on day light. It doesn’t take long for us to capsize; bags gone floating, canyoneers overboard. Laughter all round. The heavy load and shallow riverbed requires us to step out and drag the raft onto deeper waters. Countless times. David feels cramps and uses all his repertoire of Spanish curse words for healing. Meanwhile, night falls and the burden continues: “This stopped being fun ages ago” says Shane; we all agree. Despite, being this deep in the backcountry and under a new moon, the stars end up providing a spectacle not to be forgotten. Tired and frustrated, we spot the bank where the cars were parked: 3 long hours later, we were done.

Pack-rafting down the Dart River was not as simple as we had pictured... Navigating the small rapids and shallows of the Dart River

I end up having to borrow some clothes from the others; my only garments were all wet after the strenuous day inside a non-waterproof sac. I end up wearing Ben’s underwear and Shane’s puffer jacket. Going back to town in style.

As per Shane’s prophecy, we struggle to leave the river bank, looking aimlessly for tracks left by the Dart River Jet Safari’s buses. David and Ben walk about looking for tracks and finally, one hour later, we are back onto the Paradise road. On the way back we discuss the canyon’s features and grading. “The way we have set it up, and from what we have already done, it is definitely on the 5-6 scale both vertically and aquatically” says Ben, adding that “due to the 2 hour return to the car and long, enclosed sections, it should get a VI on commitment.”.

The Bedford was proving to be the beast it promised. And there was still another long, long day from top to bottom before we could properly baptize it.

To be continued on “Diary of a First Descent: Part III”


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