Photo: Looking down to the Gibbston Valley towards Queenstown (hidden from view by Queenstown Hill) from The Remarkables
After I got my hand stitched back together I met up with the boys. It had been three months since I’d last seen them but, since so much had happened in that time, it seemed like years.
It felt strange meeting good friends on the other side of the world. I’d spent a large amount of time with Jake, Oscar and Marco over the past few years, as we’d been on a bunch of riding trips and they’d become a regular fixture of my living room sofa.
But there was a time when there was no way I thought I’d ever refer to the Monks (Jake and Oscar) as friends.
‘*Plop* was the faint but extremely worrying sound I heard as I pulled down my jeans in a long-drop toilet. My first thought was that my sunglasses had fallen in, as the alternatives - my phone or keys - were too horrifying to consider. But my shades were still on my head… Oh, please lord help me no… It was my phone. I looked down and couldn’t even see it.’
Photos (top to bottom): A scramble with Marco (red t.shirt) and Jake to The Remarkables Twin Peaks ridge line. Double Cone is closest to the camera and Single Cone is behind. In the fourth photo there is a climber (top left corner - yellow top) scaling the face.
In the twins’ earlier years I found them unbearable, but since my friend Dave had taken them under his wing there was no escape - skateparks, road trips, even my local trails (unless it was digging season) - their annoying faces would be there.
When I first met them I couldn’t believe a pair of 15 year olds could be so obnoxious. They were constantly in competition with one-another to be louder, ‘funnier’, relentlessly pedantic and ’knowledgable’ of useless facts. I didn’t understand why Dave spent time with them, let alone how he found them endearing and entertaining. Even more frustrating was they had talent on a bike, and they knew it.
Thankfully with age they mellowed out and slowly became tolerable. Even, dare I say, likeable. They formed their own personalities and riding styles; Jake the jumper, Oscar the cornerer. Oscar financed his flight to NZ by labouring in Morzine the previous summer, Jake from winning a top of the line Santa Cruz at a 50/01 jam.
'My heart sank in the same way it did when I was told the head gasket had blown in my van. This would be another large unexpected financial blow.'
Video: In the weeks before Crankworx many of the world's best congregate in Queenstown, which makes for some good spectating at Dreamline and Gorge Rd. Watching Cody Gessel ride these trails blew our minds - so much height and style - but unfortunately I didn't have my camera to hand that evening.
Marco on the other hand is laid back and mature. A few years older and a biology graduate, he’s a shrewd businessman with raw talent for making money. A successful version of the fictional Del Boy from Only Fools and Horses with wheelie skills like no other and an eye for photography. I liked him from the start and wondered how he became friends with the Monks; it’s true a love for riding bring all kinds of personalities together.
I viewed Marco as the sensible one of the trio, and felt sorry for him for having to endure the Monks’ regular squabbles. Since they hit the road together from Whangarei a couple of months earlier they’d been living in their 70s pop top campervan, and they didn’t want their reign of free living to end - which no doubt would be a challenge in Queenstown.
Shortly after coming to terms with the realisation that staying in Queenstown for free wasn’t happening, they started knocking on doors outside of town for the next best thing - living on someone’s lawn. Unsuccessful, they ended up at 12 Mile Delta, the large campsite just out of town where I was staying, doing small jobs in exchange for free parking.
Photos (top to bottom): Downside tables on Mini Dream and at Wanaka skatepark over the channel (one of the few times I rode my BMX in NZ). Shot by Marco Wood Bonelli.
It was nice being in the same place, hanging out and chilling in their camper during the evenings sharing stories - especially after being solo for a while. Unfortunately for them, after a couple of weeks, the campsite dropped the deal so they had to pay the 65 bucks (£35) a week to stay there like the rest of us.
Over time my standards dropped. I got more and more fixated on spending as little as possible and going for longer without luxuries like showers (there are plenty of lakes), washing machines, beds and flushing toilets. Away from friends’ homes I camped when the weather was good and retreated to hostels when it wasn’t, and then I camped regardless of the weather.
Photos (top to bottom): The Remarkables, and riding at Gorge Rd and Dreamline
A major limitation of camping for long periods is a lack of power. After two jump starts I decided not to risk charging anything in my car without the engine running so my phone was rarely above 20% battery and usually at 0%. At least washing wasn’t so difficult with an icy cold (refreshing) glacial lake on the shores of the campsite.
I also got a little more cheeky and sneaky. I typed this in a hostel I hadn’t paid for. On a rainy day I'd park up, pretend I forgot my key to get let in then showered, cooked, chilled out and charged devices before I drove back to the campsite; no-one ever questioned me.
But let’s get real; complaining about the struggles of travelling is like a professional athlete complaining about training. Ultimately life was sweet, and all there was to do was have a good time.
Over time our group grew and I drifted into Queenstown life. We’d go on hikes and scrambles, session the bike park and Wynyard, play frisbee golf and explore, and every so often I’d go to Coronet Peak for some pedalling and time for myself. Time drifted by.
Photo: The hike to Mount Roy isn't exactly thrilling, but the views are exceptional. The Southern Alps are in the background.
The wheel saga
Free Solo was screening nearby and the whole crew was down, so we met in Wanaka to see it. After leaving the cinema buzzing from the film we re-packed the cars as some of us were staying in the area for a few days.
As we re-arranged the bikes we realised my wheels weren’t anywhere. After replaying the previous days in my mind, during which I was away without my bike, it hit me. None of us had my wheels. They never made it back into any of our cars after our last group session. To add salt, I’d only just fitted a fresh tyre and cassette. That was over £500 of parts. Not another expensive mistake. Oh fuck.
We thought back to the last time we had seen them, which was three days prior outside Wynyard when we packed the car in a rush as we got rained out. My wheels were leaning against a bush and as a mate finished packing the car he didn’t realise, and I hadn’t checked. My heart sank in the same way it did when I was told the head gasket had blown in my van. This would be another large unexpected financial blow and all we could do was write messages in Queenstown Facebook groups and post notes through local residents’ doors.
It was a tense couple of days with no word, by which time I’d lost hope. Then Jake called to say he received a text from a local resident, who said she saw a woman holding a pair of ‘expensive looking’ mountain bike wheels while talking to a police officer. It sounded farfetched but promising. The next day the police confirmed they did in fact have my wheels. I couldn’t believe it! And celebrated by jumping off the sketchy campsite rope swing into the big fast-flowing Hawea river. I’d been eyeing it up for a while and this was the perfect occasion.
‘On the last part of the route to the saddle I decided it would be fun to climb up the steeper side of the valley instead of following the standard scramble route, but I got caught out three quarters of the way up. I couldn’t clearly see this section before I set off and just hoped I’d scope a line but now, at the foot of the cliff, I realised I'd made a mistake.’
Photos (top to bottom): The view from Gertrude Saddle, having a rest climbing up the side of the valley, the wet slabs I had to downclimb after getting stuck, and views from the start of the ascent to Barrier Knob from Gertrude Saddle (Mt Talbot opposite - which looks amazing to climb - and the Milford Sound valley to the right).
When we showed up at the station to collect my wheels, in the middle of the day during opening times, the doors were shut. While we waited several other people turned up. Police affairs must differ out here, as we were all here to either collect or hand in lost property. How nice it is to be in a trustworthy place where people are honest and don’t take what isn’t theirs. No doubt my wheels would have never been seen again if they were left by the side of a Sheffield road…
Feeling settled and happy among friends, I found it difficult to leave Queenstown and couldn’t comprehend how fast time was passing. I initially came for 11 nights yet one month later I was sad to be leaving in ten days time. But with a ferry to the North Island on the 18 March, to return to Rotorua for Crankworx, it was a done deal.
Video: Fortunately I was at the right place at the right time during an unofficial Dreamline jam, which made up in part for missing the McGazza jam. The last clip is from Ben Deakin, as I was on my way out to give Oscar a lift from his work. I heard the chaos from where I was and couldn't believe my eyes when I saw the clip. Of course I was gutted I hadn't left a few minutes later and experienced it myself, but what can you do. Fortunately no-one was seriously hurt in the carnage. On a side note, it's awesome how in Queenstown the MTB and BMX scene come together and I can't comprehend how/why anyone would ride this line on a BMX!
I planned a route from Queenstown to the ferry at Picton up the west coast, visiting the Fox and Franz Josef glaciers on the way to ride the multi-day Old Ghost Road trail, then continue north-east to Golden Bay and Nelson. Maddy had wanted to see the west coast, but we were forced to change plans and head east due to weather. My friend Josh spent some time in the Golden Bay area and couldn’t give it enough praise, so I felt obliged to explore that part of the country.
Before all that I had the Fiordlands to see. In classic New Zealand style, the 30 miles as-the-crow-flies distance between Queenstown and Milford Sound equated to 180 road miles and 4 hours of driving. To add to the frustration I’d even been within 15 miles of the Milford road when I walked nearly half of the multi-day Routeburn track (and back) from Glenorchy on a very wet day the week before.
Because of these reasons and knowing the area was a tourist hot spot I nearly didn’t bother, but I’m thankful I did despite the drama that was about to unfold.
Photo: The night sky from the 12 Mile Delta campsite
Phones and toilets
*Plop* was the faint but extremely worrying sound I heard as I pulled down my jeans in a long-drop toilet. My first thought was that my sunglasses had fallen in, as the alternatives - my phone or keys - were too horrifying to consider. But my shades were still on my head… Oh, please lord help me no… It was my phone. I looked down and couldn’t even see it. Fuck.
I was in too much shock to need to go, priorities had changed. I was off the main (but fairly deserted) road by a beautiful lake, on my own with no-one nearby (although this was very much a problem I didn’t want to seek help for), and now totally without communication.
Think, think, think, calm down, breath, deep breaths, take control… Knowing I had to get my phone and seeng the fallen branches besides me it wasn’t long until I was back in the toilet with a plan. Previously I thought being stuck on a steep mountain with a gushing wound was bad, but that now seemed trivial. Probing a massive pile of shit with branches in an attempt to retrieve my phone was without doubt a new low.
But I had to find it. It was my phone. Without it I didn’t know where I was going, what I was doing or how I was doing it. Let alone be able to contact anyone. It’s pathetic how reliant we have become on a few circuit boards housed in a plastic case.
'So, fully aware of the danger I was putting myself in, I decided I was getting to the top. My heart beat faster and I felt a surge of energy. It was excited not knowing what lay ahead or what the outcome would be. It felt like a proper adventure - alone in the mountains and in charge of my own fate. It was times like these I truly felt alive.'
Photos: Views from the climb up to and the summit of Barrier Knob
Then a branch hit something solid. I didn’t have a visual since it was buried well below the surface, but I knew it was my phone. I just had the extremely delicate task of bringing it to the surface of the shit pyramid. One mistake and it would drop to the very bottom, where it would be out of even a branch’s reach and gone forever. The one positive aspect of the situation was that I was so focused on what I was doing I’d lost my sense of smell. The suspense as I very slowly and carefully used the branches as giant chopsticks to submerge my phone was almost unbearable. Don’t. Fuck. This. Up.
I could see it! Moments later it was at the top, about two feet below the hole. I had two options. The first was to continue using my rather primitive implements to get it all the way out. The second was to just reach down and grab it. The first option was incredibly risky. I grabbed it.
Walking out of the toilet all I could do was laugh. As absolutely and literally shitty as the situation was, it could have been even worse. If I hadn’t been using my phone for navigation it would have been in my wallet case, which would have made the clean up far worse. I could have lost my phone and bank cards. The toilet could have been recently emptied, in which case it would have been unretrievable. I could have easily messed up the rescue effort. I had a choice of anti-bacterial cleaning products: it was fine. Let’s get out of here and forget this ever happened.
As it turned out, I was only warming up to the day’s dramas.
Photo: Snow and rock glistening in the sun on the way to the summit
A taste of mountaineering: Gertrude Saddle (1410 m) and Barrier Knob (1879 m)
I have no idea why I end up getting into ridiculous and dangerous situations when I’m by myself, as I’m generally sensible around other people. Gertrude Saddle was a prime example. Disappointed with the relative safety of the conventional route DOC (NZ’s department of conservation) described as dangerous, I made it more exciting by taking alternative exposed lines up rock faces that involved actual climbing.
On the last part of the route to the saddle I decided it would be fun to climb up the steeper side of the valley instead of following the standard scramble route, but I got caught out three quarters of the way up. I couldn’t clearly see this section before I set off and just hoped I’d scope a line but now, at the foot of the cliff, I realised I'd made a mistake. It was certainly climbable, but not by me, alone and rope free. I didn’t fancy down climbing what I’d just climbed up either.
Photos: Day 2 in the Fiordlands. Milford Sounds and the end of the Glenorchy track.
Before I’d climbed up I’d spotted an escape route I could traverse to if I couldn’t get to the top. What I didn’t realise was that my escape route was a near featureless slope with an abundance of streams running down it, turning it into a huge slip 'n slide. A slip here and there was nothing to stop me sliding all the way to the bottom a couple of hundred metres below.
After a tentative hour I finally found a line down, and feeling humbled and with my tail between my legs, scrambled to the saddle how I was supposed to.
The view from the saddle over the other side towards Milford Sounds was astonishing, even for NZ standards. Looking up from the saddle were two peaks on either side, which I later learned were Barrier Knob (1879 m) on the right and Mt Talbot (2105 m) on the left.
It was already early evening so I didn’t have nearly enough daylight to continue, which wasn’t the plan anyway since according to DOC doing so was for ‘experienced mountaineers only’. I'll just go a little higher, take a few more photos then be on my way.
Over an hour later with the light fading I was at the snow line of Barrier Knob. What was I doing? I resented myself for not doing the sensible thing earlier and going back, content with completing the route, relieved to not be stuck on a cliff or in a mangled heap, and happy to have experienced the amazing views from the saddle.
But I wasn't at the top.
There was more mountain to climb and views to see. What was the fun in knowing I could easily get down, in taking the boring option and wondering what I missed out on; it wasn't like I could just come back another time. The weather was perfect and I was here, now.
So, fully aware of the danger I was putting myself in, I decided I was getting to the top. My heart beat faster and I felt a surge of energy. It was excited not knowing what lay ahead or what the outcome would be. It felt like a proper adventure - alone in the mountains and in charge of my own fate. It was times like these I truly felt alive.
'When I made it to the top I couldn’t believe what I saw; I had never seen anything so breathtaking. All around me were beautiful, rugged snow capped mountains and lakes as far as I could see. The light was perfect and I had it all to myself.'
Photo: Looking down on Milford Sound from the peak of Barrier Knob, with the Darran mountains to the rght
There were now large boulders and areas of rock to climb and deep snow and ice in the way of the peak. Totally aware of my inexperience I chose long ways around most of the snow as I didn’t know what lay beneath. My biggest fear were crevasses, falling into one and being stuck high on a mountain, totally alone without reception and late in the day. Scrambling turned to low grade climbing past the snow, but I was nearly there.
When I made it to the top I couldn’t believe what I saw; I had never seen anything so breathtaking. All around me were beautiful, rugged snow capped mountains and lakes as far as I could see. The light was perfect and I had it all to myself. The day's misfortunes now seemed trivial for it had all been worth it for this moment.
Looking out to the Darran mountains and lakes around me, I imagined exploring further on a multi-day adventure. The landscape looked both enticing and terrifying. I wanted to experience the thrill of traversing knife edge ridges, summiting higher peaks and experiencing more incredible views totally at the mercy of nature with only my judgement and intuition to guide me. One day I’ll gain the mountaineering skills and knowledge to do so, I decided. For now though I was content with making it this far.
Photos: More breathtaking views from the summit of Barrier Knob
After a few of minutes I collected myself and felt a sudden sense of urgency. I’d accepted it was going to be dark long before I’d make it back, but I could at least make it as far back as I could before that happened. I took a few photos then navigated the traitorous descent back to the saddle as the sun dipped below the horizon.
I was thankful of the steel cables on the granite faces of the Gertrude saddle route, that many hours previously I deemed unnecessary. I made it down to the basin in the dark happy to be on flat ground, but the challenge of navigating back to the carpark under the moonlight with the vaguest of tracks was real. After some confusion and much relief I made it back to the car, cooked an omelette and drove along Milford Road until I found a campsite.
'After taking a deep breath I started the traverse, twisting my body awkwardly around and under an overhang while clinging desperately to the rock. A slip here would mean the end.'
Photo: In my small safe area 20 or so metres from the top of Single Cone looking down to the Gibbston valley. Queenstown is to the right just out of frame.
Downclimbing in the dark
Single Cone (2317 m), The Remarkables
Following the events of the previous two days in the Fiordlands I embraced a rest day, content with just chilling out at the 12 Mile campsite by the lake lazing in the sun.
The boys were taking some friends up to The Remarkables on a scramble to the start of the Twin Peaks ridge line on the Double Cone side, which had incredible views of the Gibbston Valley below and the Southern Alps in the distance. The previous time we were there we considered attempting the longer and more challenging looking scramble to Single Cone on the left side of Lake Alta.
As the afternoon wore down I tired of not doing much and decided to meet my friends. The Remarkables are home to a ski area near the top, so there is a long-winding road that takes you high up the mountain. In my usual battle against time I marched up the track from the car park to the lake at the foot of the Twin Peaks, where I could just about make out the outline of my friends high above, then I stopped.
But what about the other side?
'In half an hour it would be dark and I was 20 metres from the peak of Single Cone, with no torch and with over 2000 feet of elevation to descend down slabs of rocks and boulder fields.'
Photos (top to bottom): Along the plateau after the first boulder scramble section from the lake before the slab climb to Single Cone, the peak of Single Cone metres out of reach as the sun set and I realised I was in trouble, the boys over on the Double Cone side as I made my way up, and Single Cone (left) and Double Cone (right) looking up from the start of the scramble up to the ridge, with Lake Alta below. From this perspective Double Cone looks deceptively higher.
It didn’t look like it would take much longer, it would be new and I’d been up the other side already. So I turned left, past a family setting up camp by the lake and to the start of a boulder field.
Straight away I realised this way up was far more involved, up and over huge rocks as opposed to scree on the other side, with no obvious line. After much more time and effort than I’d anticipated I was at the top of the first section, cautiously climbing to the top of a rock formation to see the view, which was somewhat underwhelming.
With frustration I could see the start of the next section, to the top, was some way ahead of me and would involve more careful and tiring navigation over huge rocks to get to. Well, I thought, I’ve come this far - may as well keep going.
The next section was fun to climb as it was a little challenging in places but the rock was solid. It wasn’t exposed either, so long as I didn’t drift too far to the right. As I climbed up to the final outcrop the sun began to set on the other side of the peak in front of me, but I was excited by the prospect of climbing to the highest point of the Twin Peaks, the summit of Singe Cone.
Then it got real.
The climb this far had been demanding but relatively safe, but what lay ahead to get to the top of Single Cone was a different story. Here I was going to have to clamber around the outcrop with huge exposure and hope this would lead to the top in a less terrifying fashion around the corner.
After taking a deep breath I started the traverse, twisting my body awkwardly around and under an overhang while clinging desperately to the rock. A slip here would be the end. I moved slowly and focused solely on the next hold, progressing only when it felt secure, while doing my best to stay calm and ignore the huge drop below me. At last I was around the corner and carefully climbed up to a break. I sat down facing the lights of Queenstown below a yellow and red sky with little under my feet.
'I knew both at the time and in retrospect that I should have turned right at the end of the walking track and met my friends, but the rush of adrenaline I felt in the safety of my warm car, knowing how close I’d come to the edge, told me otherwise.'
Photo: The drive back to Queenstown from the Fiordlands is an exhausting affair, and not just because of the distance. The sunset in my mirrors was too much to resist and the glow only intensified the more I tried to ignore it. Here's one from the many stops I felt forced to make.
I looked up to the top of Single Cone above me and realised I wasn’t going any further. Climbing to the top without a rope was out of the question. I felt vulnerable where I was, perched on a rock with a huge drop on either side of me, knowing I had to repeat the terrifying traverse back the way I came.
With every dangerous situation my confidence in dealing with them grew, so over time I took more chances. I also learnt that, while around other people I was rather risk adverse, in the silence of my own company the voice in my head to push myself further and take chances made itself heard. Thanks to that voice I was now in rather a predicament; in half an hour it would be dark and I was 20 metres from the peak of Single Cone, with no torch and with over 2000 feet of elevation to descend down slabs of rocks and boulder fields.
I’ll deal with it, I thought, and took a few photos and video clips before leaving.
I descended as fast as I could, but down climbing is never fast, especially in near darkness. By the time I’d made it down the slab to the plateau it was totally dark and I still had a long way to go. It was impossible to work out the exact route I’d taken on the way up and I could no longer see the landscape around me. I just knew I was on the plateau for some distance between both sections. Somewhere along here I needed to turn left down to the lake, but I had no idea where.
Jumping from rock to rock using my phone torch, unsure of the route back, I felt a wave of panic. I started to descend but it didn’t feel right, it felt too soon, but I needed to feel like I was getting down and making progress.
Photos: More from my Firodlands visit. Top to bottom: Milford Road, Milford Sound (the drive from the main areas in the park to here was really long and I wondered why I'd bothered. Sure the view is lovely, but unless you go on a boat tour, flight or row across to Mitre Peak and climb up it there isn't really much to do other than walk to the waters edge, think 'that's nice' then drive for over an hour stuck behind coaches slowly winding up mountains to get back to the main area. Oh well, at least I got this photo right...) Zippy the pop up tent (my £30 home for several months) at a campsite I pitched at late at night after my Gertrude Saddle/Barrier Knob adventure. Mirror Lake - one of the many just-off-Milford Road prime tour guide coach stops.
I really had gone down too soon. There were streams I hadn’t crossed on the way up, making the steep ground extra slippery. My phone rang again, as it had done repeatedly for the past hour. It was my friends who’d seen me on my ascent from the other side, but I had to hang up instantly as my phone battery was in the red and my phone torch was all I had to guide me.
Eventually, after what felt like hours, I made it past the family (now snug in their tents) and to the start of the walking track to the ski field car park from the lake. This was a huge relief, as it meant I was past the worst of it, but despite my best efforts and with much exasperation I lost the track on multiple occasions.
Then I reached a fire road. I couldn’t believe it. I was on the home straight and finally felt safe, and after a few more navigation mishaps I was back at the car park. The boys had waited, worried about my safety, and cheered when they saw me. Talk about cutting it fine - that was too much!
I knew both at the time and in retrospect that I should have turned right at the end of the walking track and met my friends, but the rush of adrenaline I felt in the safety of my warm car, knowing how close I’d come to the edge, told me otherwise.
Photos: Yes it rains in New Zealand too, especially in the Fiordlands where it rains more days than not. I'd rather walk than ride in the rain, and I'd rather get wet than do nothing, so on one rainy day I drove to Glenorchy and walked the first half of the Glenorchy multi-day hike to Milford Rd. It came complete with deep water crossings, rain, occasional views, a detour up a peak in a downpour with no cloud breaks where I smashed my nose into a metal pole as my hood covered my eyes, and much more rain. Another hike finished in the dark but at least I was on a path and not up a mountain. I changed and cooked in the shelter at the car park before driving back to Queenstown, blissfuly unaware my mountain bike wheels were no longer in mine or my friends' possession. Oh well, it all worked out in the end.
Finally saying goodbye
My leaving date had pushed so far forward I no longer had time to travel up the west coast visiting glaciers on the way, ride the Old Ghost Road and spend time in Golden Bay and Nelson, but that was okay. I’d just bought a flight home from Queenstown, not Wellington as initially planned, so I could do that on the way back down.
For now, it was time to say my goodbyes and finally leave Queenstown.