South Island Canyoning

By Rich Bramley

South Island canyoning, descending into New Zealand's rugged canyons.

Sh*t. Sh*t. Sh*t. I say to myself while the full force of a pretty high volume waterfall pounds on my helmet. I've just spotted a knot in the rope a metre or so below me that I really didn't expect, and really didn't want. I try and force myself to take it easy and think. Can I still breathe okay? Yeah, I guess, thanks to the helmet deflecting most of it off my face. Am I going to get flipped upside down? I've got to be super careful and keep my legs low. Now how am I going to pass that knot when I'm on double rope without a shunt or prusik? Think Richard, think...

In January of this year a group of us congregated in the South Island of New Zealand for a canyoning road trip. It is probably one of the biggest, most diverse group of canyoners that has ever assembled in New Zealand - with around 15 people from the UK, US, France, Australia, and NZ. Recreational canyoning is still small-fry in NZ, with just a handful of people regularly doing trips, yet there's massive potential to open long, committing, high volume canyons. Which is exactly what our group hoped to do over 2-3 weeks in the Haast Pass and Mt Cook regions. NZ is a world class kayaking destination, and it will almost certainly be a world class canyoning destination one day too.

We gathered at a windswept campsite nestled underneath the imposing figure of New Zealand's highest mountain. Everyone was playing it cool, but there was definitely some excitement in the air. However on that day (and most others as it was to turn out) the weather gods hadn't come to the party, with heavy rains falling earlier that week. Dropping into unknown canyons in pretty remote places is committing enough as it is, so anything above normal river flows and they become absolute no-gos. One of our team had spotted a few waterfalls at the bottom of what we'd normally assume to be a rock filled creek not big enough to be a proper canyon, but all our other plans were scuppered, and a closer inspection from the bottom showed that it looked half promising. So 12 of us headed up the mountain with ludicrous amounts of gear - drills, bolts, 300+ metres of rope etc. And so began the not-so-mighty tale of 'Cock-Shot Canyon'. On the way up we passed a near dry shingle bed and one of us joked "I bet that's our canyon". After another few hundred metres it dawned on us that it was indeed our canyon. We ended up bush-bashing our way down steep shingle for the better part of two hours, before finally coming to the top of the same short series of waterfalls we had seen from the road. We gave the canyon its name because, as a form of protest, Nick decided to descend it in just his boxer shorts, which made for some interesting photo opportunities!

As it turned out the disappointing start to the expedition was to be a recurring theme over the following two weeks - we had timed the expedition terribly, with two "weather bombs" striking the South Island over a 10 day period. It was the third wettest January on record, with up to 250mm per day at the peak. Over the course of the first week we descended a number of serious but known canyons in the Haast Pass, but we were being forced to give up our ambitions of numerous first descents.

Such is life in a sport where you are so dependent on good weather. As any mountaineer will tell you, for every story of an epic summit day, there are many more to be told of days spent waiting in huts or bivys for the weather to clear. We still consider our expedition a success – we descended a number of epic new canyons (just not as many as we would have liked) and have prepared topos that should one day make it into NZ's first canyoning guidebook. Highlights include descending a new canyon which finishes with the famous Bridal Veil Falls in Arthurs Pass (an epic 70m waterfall, clearly visible from the popular tourist lookout) and Zig Zag Creek, a beautiful, technical canyon in the Haast Pass; which leads me back to the dodgy situation I started this article with....

I had rappelled onto a knot about 15 metres off the deck at the ‘crux’ of Zig Zag – a 70m waterfall where the entire river funnels into a space about a metre across. Halfway down this waterfall hits a small ledge, creating a large rooster tail that you can't avoid going straight through, taking the full force of the water with your body. Thankfully I was stuck below that or the outcome might have been very different. I shouldn't have been on double rope (in high-volume canyoning it is crucial that you avoid tangling your ropes, so you rappel on a single rope that is blocked at the top, with the other end of the rope neatly packed away in a bag), but I was on someone else's rigging and got complacent. Due to a communication breakdown I was never told that the canyoner before me had needed to join two ropes to ensure both ends reached the bottom. No one likes to admit it, but we all make mistakes at some point, especially when we are tired, cold, and hungry. Or sometimes you're having a great day out with friends and get complacent. The key questions are whether you keep your composure enough to get yourself out of tricky situations, whether you keep making the same mistakes, and, I suppose, whether a mistake is big enough to finish you for good! In this case I managed to get myself out of it by using my hand ascender on one rope, my chest ascender on the other (which is safe enough but very awkward given the stretch in the rope), and passing the knot after lots of little adjustments to unweight my ascenders. This lesson won't be forgotten.

We still have unfinished business in the Southern Alps, so we have plans for another expedition later this year - fingers crossed the weather comes to the party.

Thanks to our sponsors Lyon Outdoor and Alpkit for supporting our adventures on the other side of the world. To find out more about canyoning in New Zealand, go to Kiwi Canyons.

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