We drove into Milford Sound only planning to have a look around and do some kayaking. I had recollections of Adam Mulholland telling me about how good the climbing was in Milford Sound but as we drove down the valley I had nothing solid to go on. I didn’t want another Japan episode so I wasn’t about to embark on a trek to try and find a crag, although I could certainly see a lot of rock.
Milford Sound is an incredible landscape. Mountains, not hills, rise at an alarming rate from the valley floor where a single carriageway road winds its way down to the hamlet of Milford Sound. Hamlet is perhaps too generous. There’s a lodge, a pub, a restaurant and a port. Dense forest covers the mountainsides and thick clouds lazily drift up the valley, blocking out any semblance of sunshine. The trees cling to the rock in a way that defies gravity. Even at gradients of 70+ degrees the trees find root. It’s actually quite fascinating how they do it.
It starts with an anchor tree that drops it’s roots into a crack in the rock and subsequent trees use the anchor tree as their attachment point. Entire mountainsides can be covered in thick forest based off of only a handful of anchor trees. But nothing is permanent and when it rains heavily a remarkable sight can sometimes be witnessed. With enough water streaming down the mountains the anchor trees are susceptible to losing their grip in the rock, and when they do lose their purchase a treevalanche thunders down the mountain. A forest sliding down the side of a mountain! The big ones have killed anything/anyone in their path and the scars can be seen clearly for decades.
Milford sound is one of the wettest places in NZ, receiving up to 10m of rain per year. On average, it rains over 200 days a year and the surrounding forest is extremely lush as a result. Seeing large boulders poking out from the trees only 50m from the main road was a tease. Without a machete it looked impossible to penetrate the wall of green. There’s certainly no shortage of rock here, but everything I could see was saturated. How could it be anything else with so much rain falling out of the sky?
Lots and lots of wet rock
A couple of serendipitous encounters led me to a quite remarkable discovery. After randomly asking around for climbers it only took 3 degrees of separation for me to bump into Paul Rogers, an ex-pat responsible for many routes in Milford Sound. Speaking to Paul opened my eyes to how much rock was out there. From single pitch sport to heli approach 10 pitch trad epics. Kind of ironic that so much amazing granite surrounded us but was bombarded by near incessant rain. But then Paul told us about a crag that would be dry. I was sceptical. It had been raining for nearly 48 hours and showed no sign of relenting. Could there really be a dry crag out there? Paul was adamant. He drew us a topo, explained where to park, and showed us some incredible photos. And off we went to The Chasm.
A tiny track led into the forest, only a single stone cairn marking the path from the road. Five minutes later we were stood beneath an immaculate piece of granite… that was totally dry. Unbelievable. It was still raining, but a giant roof at the top of the crag acted like a giant umbrella keeping us dry and happy. The entire crag is very well equipped, with new looking bolts, great double bolt belays, and routes ranging from 1 to 3 pitches. It was proper granite sport climbing! Some routes had been originally climbed as trad routes but were subsequently bolted to make them more accessible and in my opinion it’s worked a treat. In fact, the first pitch can often be wet as the gigantic capping roof doesn’t extend all the way out and Paul has now added via ferrata style rungs so that you can easily bypass the wet section. This might not be everyone’s cup of tea but it does make the climbing accessible.
Hand drawn topo’s from Paul are all we had… but the guidebook can be found at Homer Hut which we subsequently discovered
Paul had recommended a 23 called Groove Armada which started from about halfway up the crag. From the belay I couldn’t see the end of the route, only bolts disappearing into the distance. Setting off the first groove was a smeary test of stemming skills. The crack at the back far too thin for my fingers but I smeared my way through the groove and into some juggy wall climbing. I was then that I began to understand the name. Up above lay multiple grooves, each in a different style. The final groove was pure joy to climb,. Approaching from the left under a small rooflet and having to pull round and turn to climb the groove on the right was so much fun. Clipping the chains I whispered to myself that it may have been the best 7a I’ve ever done. But the more I thought about it, the more I realised it may just be one of the best routes of any grade that I’ve climbed. Granite climbing up beautiful grooves on a permanently dry crag with perfect bolts. I can’t recommend it enough.
Emily coming up groove armada – you can see the waterfall and wet forest below
Up next was another incredible looking route, Busta Milford 26. An overhanging wall of granite punctuated by a series of pockets. It’s unheard of. I think the pockets were on a dyke that was made of basalt/gneiss, which was approximately a foot wide and ran almost the length of the route. Starting from a mid height ledge the exposure kicks in immediately as you step off the ledge onto an overhanging wall, the dyke coaxing you upwards. The first few moves were on smallish holds and I overgripped the gorgeous pinch before arriving at the pockets and relaxing. The moves just flowed and I felt I was reading the route well. After several bolts I was beginning to feel the pump and when I looked up I saw another 3 bolts to go, up a steep headwall. I pondered the moves, tried to shake out, but I knew I didn’t have enough in the tank to make it. I shouted take and slumped onto the rope. As the rope went tight I looked rightwards and exclaimed “Noooooooooooooo”. I hadn’t given up with 3 bolts to go, I’ve given up at the chain! What I hadn’t noticed was that I was only 2 moves from the chains which were just up but to the right. I hadn’t even noticed. “Noooooooooooooooooooooooooooo!!!!”. I later found out that those 3 bolts ahead of me were the 31 extension to the route. I can’t believe I failed to notice the chains only 2 metres away from me. Lesson learned: always look around!
The way up, the way down, and the face of stupidity
Our second serendipitous encounter was with Derek Thatcher, the legend of NZ climbing. The tale was similar to the previous one with Paul, except this time Derek was telling me there was a perma-dry granite cave with routes up to 8c. I couldn’t believe I’d never heard about this place, Little Babylon. The walk in however was best described as perma-wet and Derek recommending a full waterproof get up. I thought he was egging it up, but he was so insistent that Emily and I ended up borrowing full waterproof outfits.
The hike was supposed to be about 30 mins, but I suspected it would take us slightly longer in the pouring rain. Derek had described the path as “It’s ok up until Babylon, but from there shit gets crazy”. I had no idea what he meant. A tiny trail led into a very sodden jungle and within the first 5 minutes the precedent was set: we were walking in a stream. As we continued the path got ever steeper and soon we were climbing vertical sections on saturated tree roots. It was genuinely unbelievable to me that at the end of this path lay a dry crag. In fact, I doubted it was possible. At one point we arrived at a boulder problem on the path. Someone had left a length of rope down it which I obviously shunned in favour of a clean ascent. Eventually, after more tree root climbing and a couple more stream crossings we arrived at an incredible sight.
A huge granite cave, ice cream scoop shaped, with a beautiful bombay of rock at the top. On the far left of the crag was a large waterfall and the strong wind was causing some spray to reach the base of some routes. We were cold and a little wet, but I now fully appreciated what Derek had said: waterproofs were most definitely essential, not optional.
Waterfall at the left hand end of the crag
The warm up was a 7a and as I climbed it I could feel the spray behind me. The route was relatively short and the holds quite good so I came back down and pondered the next move. The rain continued to hammer down, seemingly getting heavier and heavier as the wind picked up. Derek had recommended a 30 called Xerxes which featured a boulder problem start into power endurance climbing to the top. It was a strong line, taking the obvious diagonal up the left side of the crag.
I set off hoping to make the 5th or 6th draw, where I figured I would be pumped. Unfortunately I stalled at the initial boulder problem. I’d forgotten that granite climbing requires a special kind of magic. The holds were all slopey, often facing slightly the wrong direction, and I struggled to see the sequence. I wasted some effort trying a strict no match sequence that was doable but felt very hard. Eventually I unlocked it, using all technique and no power. Taking bad holds at funny angles felt so wrong until my body clicked into the right position and everything felt reasonable. I continued upwards but didn’t get too far before needing to rest again. The moves weren’t hugely hard but they were massively sustained. There wasn’t a solid rest and all the holds were just slopey enough to increase the pump with every move.
After battling to the chains I came down and figured I should have a redpoint but the spray from the waterfall had begun to encroach further into the crag thanks to the ever increasing wind. Then again, this was my only opportunity to have a go as we were leaving Milford Sound that day, so I fired up the guns and set off. Unfortunately I didn’t get very far. The bottom section of the route was now damp and I fell mid crux. There wasn’t much point in having another go in these conditions and my mind was already growing concerned about those small streams we’d walked up to get the crag.
After getting kitted out in our waterproofs we set off into the now very wet jungle. Immediately the difference was noticeable. Previously wet sections were now streams. The streams were small rivers. We arrived at one section and when I told Emily where we were going she laughed as she genuinely thought I was joking. That mini boulder we’d climbed up was now underneath a waterfall. The length of rope that I’d shunned was now a lifeline.
Emily coming down the mini waterfall
There was no point in trying to remain at all dry. The focus was now on getting down safely. I grabbed the rope and lowered into the waterfall. I was trying to stay to one side of it but inevitably swung straight into the middle. It was pretty funny that we’d even managed to do any climbing on the same day that we’d walked through a waterfall to get to the crag. The rest of the path had turned into a mini river and we embraced the wetness. We had a good laugh getting down and once we were dry and in the van it all seemed very funny. I still can’t believe that it’s possible to climb on dry rock in such weather, or that waterproofs are a requirement for getting to a crag.
More fun on the way down
Little Babylon is a very cool crag and without a doubt I’d love to go back there. Most of the routes are hard so if you’re not climbing 8a or above then I think you would be missing the best it has to offer. If you are planning on going then pack your power endurance. Plenty of it.
Blurry topo of Little Babylon
Leaving Milford Sound I was really happy to have discovered some of the climbing there, but at the same time I was sad that we’d only managed 2 days of it. It’s a magnificent place and the crags that I saw and heard about certainly do it justice.Essential Info
- Accommodation: Stay at Homer Hut (where all the climbers stay). I’d recommend staying in the hut or in a van at the hut as a tent would be horrible in such a wet environment. Price for NZAC members is $15 NZD/night or $10 if you stay in a van.
- Topos can be found in Homer Hut (especially necessary for little babylon as developent is relatively recent) and there is an ever wonderful new routes book.
- Load up on Food in Te Anau as there is nothing in Milford Sound.
- Bring a bouldering mat! There are loads of boulders near the hut and should it every dry out there will be some stellar problems to be climbed.