On 22-24 November 2013 our team completed the probable first ascent of this spectacular route. This was my fourth attempt and my obsession for the last 3 years. I’d been aware of the unclimbed route for many years and my focus was sharpened by Rob Frost’s article in the 2011 winter edition of the Climber magazine. He did remarkably well to reach the first rock step solo and turn back from a dangerous solo lead.
In the summer of 2011 Peter O’Neill and I made 3 attempts to climb the mountain. On the first one we only allowed 2 days and it is simply too far to do it in that time frame. On the second attempt we allowed 3 days but the weather turned on day 2 after reaching our high camp at 1140 meters. For our third attempt, Paula Macfarlane joined us and again on day one we reoccupied our high camp. Next day we climbed the first rock step but the weather that had been slowly deteriorating turned to rain.
Last Thursday evening Paula, Reece and I drove down to Homer Hut where we spent a comfortable night. We were initially going to do the Ailsa Traverse but the weather forecast was so good I suggested we switch tactics and head to Mills Peak. An early start on Friday morning saw us leave the car at Milford at 7.00AM as we headed up the unmarked track to the Bowen Valley. It’s a 200-meter climb up to the lip of the Bowen Valley on a rough track and then along a pipeline that is the water supply for Milford. Near the river is a pink tape around the pipe that marks the start of our tagged route up the valley. The Southland Section of the NZAC maintain a trap line up the Bowen Valley as part of our conservation program so we go up there frequently. This leads up the valley bypassing a gorge and then drops down to the river.
At the river we crossed over and then struck up through dense forest to the Bowen ridge striking it at about the 600-meter level. Shortly after that is a vertical step in the ridge that gains height rapidly over a series of levels to camp one at 900 meters. There are spectacular views down to Milford Sound and the cruise boats. At camp one we dug small reservoirs below a mossy wet hillside 2 years ago and these yielded a few litres of water. We each carried about 5 litres of water up from the Bowen River as there is a scarcity of water high up. Here we stopped for some food and a rest in the shade as it was a hot day and it is quite a strenuous climb.
Once past this spot we headed out left on open leads through the bush to the ridge above. This leads up through some bush to big boulders and a nice flat area that I called the balcony because of its spectacular view of Mitre Peak and Milford Sound all the way to the sea. Further on is a stretch of low bush and beyond that an open top with boulders and big holes that make for slow walking. Then its down to a saddle through some thick scrub and up an exposed narrow ridge to Cascade Peak at 1209 meters. Here the ridge broadens out and an old deer trail leads to a sheltered dip in the ridge at 1140 meters that is the site of camp 2. Here I was able to retrieve a few litres of water in plastic bottles we stuck down a hole 2 years previously.
To save weight we took a tent fly and Paula her wafer thin porous insulate mat and paper thin sleeping bag. I being a wimp took my 1 kg down bag and ¾ length Thermarest and Reece, a bivi sac and sleeping bag. I could not say we were toasty warm that night in frost that left ice on the fly!
Another clear day saw us away at 7.00AM as we dropped down to a narrow ridge of low scrub and tussock. Beyond that a steep ridge rose to the first rock step. Here we roped up and Paula led off and we all quickly climbed this. Above this a rock ridge led to the rock arête. On closer inspection this looked difficult and beyond it a vertical rock pillar and steep face above looked challenging. Here we down climbed a vertical face to a big shelf on the right of the ridge and headed towards a boulder slope and gully leading to a col on the east side of the ridge. A sharp whistle and a chamois bounding up the gully was a good omen for our route. The gully was a bit exposed and above it we sidled up a grassy, rocky face back onto the ridge. Easy scrambling led to another big step in the ridge and this time led by Reece. Higher up I did a pitch up another face. Eventually after much scrambling we reached the summit snowfields and here we donned crampons and continued up to a summit. This was at 1815 meters and a little further on was another summit at 1825 meters.
Spectacular views all around of Mitre Peak, Pembroke, Benton Peak, Grave, Tutoko and Madeline. It was tempting to carry on to Benton Peak and Grave but all our gear was back at our high camp and it was impractical to carry it over this technical route. The time was after 2.00PM. By 2.30PM we were on our way down. We followed the ridge all the way as Paula and Reece were not keen on the steep gully route. Our descent route abruptly ended in a huge precipice high above the rocky arête. Here we abseiled down the face and then gingerly soloed down to a grass ridge where we did another abseil down the rock pillar. I led the rock arête a cheval and Reece an awkward step beyond that. It took us 7 hours to descend and a 14-hour climb that day.
Next morning a westerly wind was blowing in cloud and covering the peaks as we scurried off to Cascade Peak and our descent of the Bowen ridge back to Milford. At 1.00PM we finally emerged from the bush to stroll back to the car just before the rain set in.
Summary: An ascent of the South ridge of Mills Peak 22-24 November 2013 by Paula Macfarlane, Reece Mackenzie and Stanley Mulvany SSNZAC
Acknowledgments: Robert Frost for highlighting and sharing his early attempt on Mills. Peter O’Neill for his joining me for the 3 early attempts. Paula and Reece for your great team work that allowed us to succeeded.
Text by Stanley, photos by Reece and Stanley