Ever since I was a child, I’ve been drawn to exposure, to the limitless space below that makes me feel weightless and free. My father was a mountain guide, and I spent my first five years on a farm in the shadow of Aoraki/Mt. Cook. At age three, I’d hide up a tall larch tree behind our house. In hotels on family vacations, I’d sit on the windowsill of the sixtieth floor, with only a pane of glass separating me from the sheer drop. At twenty-six, I began exploring big walls. My lifelong dream was to free climb El Capitan.
The 1300-meter Kaipo Wall is my home country’s tallest wall, located on the remote flanks of Mt. Tutoko, above near-vertical forests, moss-covered slabs and hanging glaciers, at the head of an immense valley that runs to the Tasman Sea. In 1974 Graeme Dingle, Murray Jones and Mike Gill rafted down the Hollyford River, hiked around the coast, and then helicoptered to the base of the wall. As dark clouds brewed over the sea, they summited the Kaipo in only eight hours by a line that began near the center of the face but veered right to avoid a deep, wet groove, leaving the main wall untouched. Then the storm pinned them for a week in a snow cave.
In the austral summer of 2006-2007, I teamed up with Derek Thatcher, Craig Jefferies and Paul Rogers. Derek was one of New Zealand’s strongest free climbers, yet like me, he had little big-wall experience. Craig and Paul were two of the Darrans’ most prolific route developers. A photo from Dingle’s team showed a buttress bisecting the steep, imposing diorite of the Kaipo; a faint line of weakness cut through jutting roofs and blank sections, with few obvious cracks. Because of the unpredictable weather, we decided to helicopter to the top of the wall and then rappel our prospective line to give ourselves the best chance of success.
Before daybreak on a clear, still morning, we left our tents on the Ngapunatoru ice plateau and dropped over the jutting, knife-blade edge. Hundreds of meters of vertical-to-overhung terrain plunged to a wet, mossy slab that bled into the dense green of the Kaipo Valley. Craig and Paul bolted a few anchors and cleaned, while Derek and I continued down. We carried only jackets and some energy bars. Several hours later, we stopped on a snowy shelf. Six hundred meters of rock now stretched above.
Derek and I climbed the first three pitches quickly. Then a swirling, impenetrable sea mist billowed up the valley like an ocean of nothingness, devouring the landscape and rising up the face to engulf us in a cold, wet cloud. The wind blew straight up the wall, steadily gaining force. Behind the fog, I conjured dead ends and Taniwha, the supernatural creatures of Maori myths. Unable to tell how high we were, or to orient ourselves against the void, Derek and I huddled, hesitant to move.
But there was no backup plan: we needed to climb. I led gingerly into the cloud, trying to move like a weightless spider. The rough diorite was damp, the holds becoming slippery. Everything took on a dreamlike quality. The crisp flakes and features I remembered from the descent seemed to have vanished, and I wondered whether the blurred features I reached for were figments of my imagination.
I placed a small wire behind a weathered flake, knowing that any outward pressure would send this feature plummeting into the mist. Would the wind carry up the faint crack of its impact or would it disappear, soundless, into the nothingness? Ahead, the rock grew even less featured. I could no longer down climb, nor could I find any gear. A sickening knot was building in my stomach–was this a dead end?
The clouds parted–just long enough to reveal a shiny speck across a swath of blank stone. I rubbed my fingers into a ripple and smeared my feet. Time ceased to exist, until I found myself nose-to-bolt at the anchors. Without that opening, I would have climbed straight into oblivion.
“Nice lead. A little scary,” Derek said at the belay. His scraggy dark-brown stubble dripped with condensation. I handed him the rest of the rack. Words felt unnecessary: we needed to keep climbing. The wind tore at my clothing with a deafening sound. The carabiners on my harness beaded with moisture. Occasionally, I shouted up encouragement–more to remind myself that I still existed, that I had a purpose, than for Derek’s sake.
At last, a muffled cry: Derek had reached an anchor. I was glad for the guideline of the rope, for the occasional chalk daub that added definition to the monotone grey. My shoes slipped on wet, rounded nubbins. With numb, clumsy fingers, I wiggled out Derek’s last wire and shifted my weight onto a crystal, stretching to reach between the scarce holds. Ahead lay a terrifying fifteen-foot traverse to his stance, with no gear. A fall would send me penduluming deep into the cloud.
On the next pitch, I forgot my fear and exhaustion–it was such a welcome change to jam my hands into a solid, arching, protectable crack. We climbed the final few hundred feet in an eerie grey light, our world narrowed to the simple joy of movement. The sharp fin of rock, unmistakably the top, came as a surprise: my fingers recognized the feature as they curled around it. Derek joined me, and we took a few lurching steps back from the lip. Here, the wind eased and the mist dispersed into wisps. Rocky peaks jutted from the whiteness below, and a last few hints of red glowed over the cobalt Tasman Sea.
That night, the four of us lingered on the lip of the Kaipo under the star-filled sky, quietly sipping tea. I dangled my feet over the edge, enjoying the familiar, once again comforting, feeling of the dark void below. We sat that way for hours, existing in a world of our own creation, isolated from everything by snow, ice and rock.