Diary of a First Descent - Part III

This story is the last of the 3-part series of Bedford Canyon. You can read part I here

Autumn is fast approaching; the weather showing signs of change day after day. Cold fronts from the Southern Ocean bring low temperatures and rain. We’re running out of time.

Due to inclement weather and overlapping work schedules, the team is forced to take a 2-week break from the exploration; some of us seize the opportunity to experience other canyons in the Haast area (subject of previous posts). Nonetheless, we continue to plan the 3rd and last day of our Bedford attempt.

Change of plans

I get a message from Ben: “We’re leaving on Monday 11pm, David, you and I. The three of us will do the top section and finish the canyon. Be prepared for a long day of adventure!” it read. I reply with an OK but somehow, I wasn’t feeling it. Only the 3 of us taking on the hardest part of the canyon, hauling all the gear 5 hours uphill, and making the final push through the whole day. I had some doubts on our capability to pull it off. Despite, I set my alarm for 10.30pm and try to get some sleep before the departure. Around 9.30 I get a message which wakes me up: David wasn’t feeling well, and we would have to postpone our plans. I must admit I felt good about it.

We rearrange the schedules and manage to secure Mark’s presence for the next planned day. We were set, all feeling confident and rested. Thursday, 11pm. Bedford, here we come.

A fast pace on the Dart track takes us to the bridge in 1h40min. We start the climb almost immediately. “We must keep veering left as much as possible” says Ben. The ascent to 1020m starts around 1.30am. A few obstacles are presented on the way: we are required to climb exposed sections counting on tree roots and fragile moss, trying our best to keep the environment as pristine as possible. At 5am we overcome the tree line; our head lamps illuminate a hill covered with tussock. A cold draft hits us: we’re reaching the plateau. It takes approximately 1 hour to traverse the ravines and gullies. The sound of a stream is close; it’s William Peak’s tributary. We fill our water bottles and continue the walk.

Team leader Ben Buchy

David Garcia

Mark Crawford

At 6.30am we reach a small patch of forest in which we decide to rest until sunrise. A makeshift camp is set up, each one of us quickly dressing up on our wetsuits to battle the lower temperature. Our warm bodies soon cool down and although I physically relax, I cannot properly rest my mind. “First light couldn’t come sooner” I think.

I open my eyes to be greeted with a spectacular view. We’re high above the Dart valley in the remote wilderness, the top of surrounding mountains receiving the day’s first light. I look around and see the impressive 245m waterfall for the first time. We’re 200m away from its base, but the noise of the water is intense, the flow extremely powerful. I grab a photo and zoom-in to check its profile: the top is not visible, but we discuss and agree on hanging pools and a final pitch leading to a small, raging catchment concealed by a rock wall. I imagine and draw a mental image of this specific place and it’s not pretty.

Breakfast ensues and soon we’re off, heading towards the entrance of the canyon. It doesn’t take long for us to find it. “This is going to be fucking insane!” Ben says. We look down into the chasm: darkness, white water, full commitment. Bedford at its best.

All systems go

A tree is used for the first drop. I climb around to scout the pool and notice 2 powerful water movements while Ben leads the way. Using a pendulum motion he gains momentum to push and reach the better part of the flow. Finding an edge, he signals for the rest of us. A few minutes later, we’re in.

The view from the top of the following waterfall – a short 6m rappel – leaves room for imagination, the steep and curved walls of Bedford giving us no indication of what’s to come. Mark finishes pulling the rope from the previous drop. From here onwards, we’re totally committed.

We set fixed systems allowing a team of 2 to descend simultaneously. It would increase the speed and efficiency during bolting. David and Ben head down first; the latter intentionally swimming towards the river-right whitewater to test its intensity. Mark and I lose sight of them both as they progress into the dark corridor. With the blow of a whistle, I rope up and go down; Mark in charge of the break-down.

Birth of an epic

“Gus, there is a siphon!” Ben yells, as I see him taking up slack and heading down as lead man once again. I’m amped-up. While trying to get into position for a photo, I hear Mark’s call for support: “Grab the bag and help me up, I twisted my ankle”. I ask him to repeat his statement; he reaffirms what was just said. My initial reaction is silent. Two rappels down, I reflect on our current position and the requirements of the day, starting with overcoming the siphon on the next drop.

“How bad is it?” I ask. “Pretty bad” he replies. I share the news with David, who is ready to start his descent. We signal to Ben, already seen on top of a rock and out of trouble. The Frenchman nods in disbelief. Our morale, once confident and high in spirit, had suffered a major blow. It doesn’t take much to convince Mark that the best – and easiest – way out was on the rope and through the canyon. Captain America had one more mission through the day, and it involved a strong effort, both physically and mentally.

We overcome the siphon; the water level allowed us to go through it without issues. The first aid kit is deployed and Ben wraps Mark’s foot with a torsion bandage and a few painkillers are administered. “We must continue progressing until we find an exit point” he says. The team is rearranged: himself and David were to fully focus on the set-ups; Mark and I received the task of managing the bags and my main role as a photographer once again became secondary; I’d be the last man down, stripping the systems for the remainder of the day. We were in full rescue mode during a first descent.

We set up a guided rappel for Mark on a small S-shaped drop. The team moves forward and reaches the next major obstacle, a 35m waterfall. A belay is set up on river-left and takes us to a rebelay approximately 15m down. From the top I can see the strong flow of the pool below. Mark limps his way down; I am impressed with his determination and self-reliance. On my turn I marvel at the rappel as I approach David mid-way: the setting is beautiful. The rope length at the rebelay is set above the water; again, a pendulum motion and strong swim would be required to cross the pool. Seeing Mark and Ben already in safe ground, I manage to grab a photo of the Spaniard before moving on.

The open room provides enough space on river-right to shelter from inclement weather if worse comes to worse. It also leads into another deep section, the dark corridor providing no clues of the upcoming obstacles. We use a hand line to traverse around the wall and reach the belay. A 10m overhang gets us in; we reach the edge and as Ben and David continue the progression. I look from above, the ambiance is powerful. The rock adorned with quartz lines, stripped from vegetation, damp from the ever-present spray, glowing with the faint light that reaches down. We’re in the guts of the Bedford Canyon.

Rescue ensues

David is waiting for us at the top of the next drop. The river-right belay is tricky to be reached: we must use the current rappel rope to access it. An S-shaped waterfall presents itself, the water powerfully pushing left, right and down. We reflect on Mark’s ability to overcome it. It is decided we’ll set a guided rappel, to which Ben abides and sets up from below. David joins him and continues to assess our upcoming challenges. I assist Mark on reaching the belay and he’s soon on his way. A third of the way down and the weight of the bag affects his balance, causing him to dangerously flip upside down close to the water. He quickly releases his bag and recovers his position; I am distracted by the episode and end up losing hold of the previous rope, not yet recovered from the last belay: I watch as both tails disappear in the pool behind me. Having used the same rope to move around, I am a bit stuck at the belay, rope and bags far away. I use my Pyrenean cow’s tail to extend my reach; I barely make it back to a ledge where the bags are laid. I can see the tails of the 30m rope on the boil; I jump in and manage to grab a hold of them. Rope down and coiled up, I send the bags down and move forward.

A couple of drops later we notice the brightness of the day once again began to grace the canyon. David climbs river-right and finds a big, comfortable ledge. We assist Mark with the climb up, and indulge in some snacks to recover our energy. We reassemble the gear and move on, first tackling a 15m rappel into a pool and a slippery climb to another ledge. As we all gather together on top of it, Ben shares his opinion: “We can escape through river-right. It’s 2.30pm and we have at least 2 more hours progression to finish the top section, let alone the whole canyon. I think the best is to call it a day, contact Search And Rescue and live to tell the tale”. We all agree, congratulating each other for our efforts and successful push to get Mark out safely.

A quick climb later and we’re out. We sit down, recovering from the 6 intense hours spent inside. Mark turns on his locator beacon; we agree the area is open enough for a helicopter rescue. At just over 900m, we acknowledge that we would have another 2 hours minimum progression through the forest; with Mark’s injury, this estimate could double. The clock was ticking and our odds decreasing. With no sign of SAR, we decide it’s time for action.

Done, but not finished

The plan is laid out: Ben was to go down, alone, and reach the car park as soon as possible. From there, a 15-minute drive to ensure cell phone coverage. Meanwhile, David, Mark and I were to make a push towards the valley below, carrying most of the gear. We decide the best option is to rappel as much as possible, losing altitude while preventing Mark from walking. The terrain is not ideal: numerous holes concealed by moss dubbed as traps for an already-crippled team. I put my camera away; we make our way down slowly and carefully.

Daylight starts to fade; it had been 5 hours since Ben had left us and there was no sign of rescue. We began to wonder if the beacon was effective, if the Frenchman had made it down safely, but also how much longer we had until reaching the track. We were determined not to spend the night in the wilderness as the last weather check indicated 20mm overnight in the Paradise area.

Suddenly, at 7.30pm we hear a helicopter. It is a distant noise, the machine seemingly hovering over the canyon. Following our far-left approach principle, we had veered right during the descent. Far from the canyon we try to find a clearance, a place to signal to our rescuers. A small patch of forest featuring a fallen beech tree is the best we can find. Head lamps on flash mode, we look up and wait. The light begins to fade and so does our hope of them finding us. The chopper flies over. “Please, see us” I think to myself. Another lap slightly further away and it stops, hovering over the open patch. The door opens. They see us. A powerful light illuminates the ground, trees shaking uncontrollably. It felt like we were being abducted by extra-terrestrials. The rescuer is lowered on a cable and the chopper briefly leaves us alone again. After assessing Mark’s condition and calling for the air lift, the medic drops the news: David and I would have to continue on-foot. Night was already a reality; our fatigue starting to play a major role on our final effort. Soon after the helicopter winches them up and we’re left alone, along with 3 heavy packs to look after.

An extra 2 hours of blind navigation and uncertain decisions later, we find the Bedford bridge. The watch reads exactly 10pm. David and I are the happiest, most tired men ever. 23 hours later, we were in familiar grounds, en-route home. The 2h30min walk on the Dart takes the last bits of energy left, our shoulders as battered as ever. My feet burn from the moisture and sweat, full of wrinkles from the day spent in the water.

We finally spot the Paradise car park. Ben’s vehicle is parked next to Mark’s; we yell out his name. The Frenchman emerges from the darkness, a faint smile greeting us. It had taken him 1 hour down from our exit point, another hour running the track to reach the car park and another 4-hour return trip to the bridge in an attempt to find us. “My legs are finished” he says. David and I are too tired to comment; we dress up on normal clothes and pack up. The drive back is split between Garcia and myself. I arrive at home at 2am; my hosts were already worried with the outcome of our mission. I say hi, find my bedroom and immediately fall in deep sleep. The next day I find out that Mark was well, but the injury was slightly worse: he had fractured his foot. Massive kudos to him for continuing forward in that state.

Our push for Bedford was done. We had given our best, and it had taken the best of us. After 3 days of adventure and determination, we had managed to open 90% of its waterfalls, the last section out of question due to our rescue scenario. The first descent still stands; it will take an experienced and well-prepared team to do so. The stakes are high, but equally are the rewards. Any takers?


Canyon opened in 3 different days by:

  • Benjamin Buchy (FRA)
  • David “Garcia” Molero (ESP)
  • Shane Adams (AUS)
  • Mark Crawford (USA)
  • Gustavo “Gus” Schiavon (BRA)

Day 1: 09/03/2015

Day 2: 17/03/2015

Day 3: 02/04/2015

The team has used Beal Spelenium 9.5mm and Kordas Dana 10mm (2x 60m and 2x 30m) during the descent.

It is strongly advised that ANY team attempting the descent must be equipped with bolting equipment and necessary knowledge to utilize it. A stronger water flow can render some passages extremely difficult or even impossible using the current set-up anchors. Excellent backcountry navigation skills are required during the approach.

The team wishes to acknowledge the following who supported our effort, one way or the other:

  • Stefan from Canyoning Queenstown (www.canyoning.co.nz)
  • Pete Smith from Access Gear (www.accessgear.net)
  • Matthias Schmidt from Adidas shoes
  • Bestard Mountain Boots
  • Dart River Wilderness & Jet Safaris (www.dartriver.co.nz)
  • The St. John Wilderness Search & Rescue team & helicopter partners

Personally, I would like to acknowledge Andrew Humphreys for bringing Bedford Stream to the spotlight and providing an insight of the challenges to be faced. We did our best to open this beast, man.


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