After hearing about this New Zealand epic by word of mouth, in a quest for a sick multi-pitch climb, in previous weeks and hearing it repeated several times I headed to the local library one fateful Friday to find a guidebook to find the route description. I found what seemed like a decade (at least) old guidebook in Queenstown Rock, Ice and Mountains, and perused it to find around three pages of information on the climb Ravages of Time in Chinaman’s bluff, Glenorchy. Andy, Ellen and I decided to embark on an adventure to conquer this classic multi-pitch sorting out our logistics that day and leaving for Glenorchy in the dark. After an hour of driving in the night, transitioning to a long gravel road, fording streams and rivers in my Honda Odyssey, nearly hitting a large deer and several rabbits and generally losing my shit driving in a forrest at night I was relieved to see the lead car with Andy and Ellen (who had left earlier) at the road’s end in the car park. Exhausted, I fell straight to bed in preparation for an early start the next morning.
An 7am alarm awoke me followed by 30 minutes of summoning the willpower to exit the car and face the cold. With an initial “leave the carpark” time of 8, this soon proved to be a huge underestimation as we starting walking by 8:45 (which was better than the original 9 I thought we would have left after fluffing about). A cold start to the day left my feet numb after trudging about in thongs (stupidly). Setbacks were a plentiful, which should have been forewarning for the rest of the day, with first Andy forgetting to lock his car who ran back up the track to lock it only to catch up to us and find out Ellen and I had forgotten our head torches which we only realised as I read out the recommendation from the guidebook of which I had taken a photo of.
Recommended was a 45 minute walk to the turnoff for the climb from a well maintained track in the Dart Valley with a 15 minute walk to the base of the bluff from there on.
With nothing more than a short description of “look for the cairn marking the vague path” and a black and white photo of a forrest, our party of three embarked on our adventure. 90 minutes later we found ourselves at the start point realising it was 45 minutes recommended New Zealand walking time.
I led the first pitch, which we later discovered was actually the second pitch of the climb, up a 17 slab which was appropriately bolted making route-finding easy. After bringing two seconds up, we swung leads and Andy lead the next pitch by traversing across (unintentionally) to a 21 called Tick Tock, instead of the second 17 slab we had been aiming for. Ellen and I watched in fear as Andy mounted the arête with no protection and a ledge fall that would have for sure been a serious injury if our deepest fears were to be confirmed. Luckily, after some laborious breaths, Andy got a cam in to a crack and went up what turned out to be a pretty solid pitch (aside from the moss and dirt) while I seconded with an annoying pack and painful new-ish shoes.
Reaching the next belay consisted of a badly protected traverse (for lack of bolts or cracks) was somewhat frightening with the possibility of an uncomfortable (probably painful) swing following a fall, I racked up to lead the next pitch with no idea which pitch we were actually on. The belay station was uncomfortably placed, now bolted luckily, when described as a tree belay in the guidebook once we figured out which pitch we were on.
Thinking we were on pitch 3, I expected to see some bolts somewhere as I ascended but this day, luck did not favour us. Following the only decent crack line where I could put protection, I then got stuck under a roof with the perennial problem of this climb, route-finding. To my left the crack connected up with solid rock with no option of protection, wishing not to do an incredibly long run-out on trad with no promise of a bolt, I looked around the arête to my right which held some promise. I then tried to navigate around the arête but found it incredibly exposed and terrifying, not wanting to test my placements I moved further down to rest on the rope on the smallest nut in our rack. Not fully believing in the safety of my placement, I proceeded to place another nut and cam totalling to 3 pieces holding me in mid-air.
After what seemed like an eternity of going up, trying to mount the arête, getting too scared and going back to my gear nest, I decided to go down to give Andy a go. Withdrawing all the gear I could from the crack and leaving a different nut to lower off, I went to take on the nut and while carefully putting my body weight on it I heard a horrible pop as my gear was wrenched out from it’s resting place. By some miracle, I landed both hands onto a ledge at the moment of catastrophe and I was left hanging in mid air, a nut dangling off the rope and the last piece I was clipped into a bolt 3m down right which equated to a 6m fall followed by a swing into a buttress (which would not have been pretty or enjoyable). I quickly gathered my feet back onto the wall and shoved in two nuts into the crack, clipping myself in and then got lowered down to the belay station, re-evaluating my life.
Andy then went up and with the benefit of experience, mounted the arête lower down (in a much easier fashion than I) and was rewarded with an alpine draw which someone appeared to drop for his bravery. Ellen and I then seconded up the now less scary route which was mossy as fuck with a path through a soily patch which ended up with a considerable amount of dirt entering my eyes. By this time, I was well and truly done with this climb. Reaching the next belay station for what we had now learnt was pitch 5, I arrived with an annoyed look on my face and climbing adventure had ceased to be enjoyable. We agreed to do this one last pitch before beginning our descent and hike back to the cars with Andy leading it. With some redemption, pitch 5 turned out to be an excellent grade 20 first going through a perfectly sized hand crack as Andy walked up his lone number 2 cam before reaching the crux of transitioning to a face climb (bolted, thank god) which was reminiscent of the slow, technical, crimpy climbing I enjoyed in Wanaka (especially at The Cutting crag).
I topped out to see Andy belaying us off a tree, which evidently seemed to be “THE” belay tree, with two permanent slings, cordelette and a maillon taking residence on said tree. For extra protection, another tree was connected to the belay with a quad-length sling in an almost expected dodgy, but logical fashion. After revelling in the scenery of mountains and glaciers in the background (and how far we were off the ground), we began the four rappel descent, utilising a stone hitch so two could go down while Andy held the rear and I used the second rope to set up the next rappel.
We hit another roadblock as I had previously got two nuts stuck and couldn’t get them out while seconding (I spent a solid 15 minutes trying to banging and trying to force them out with no avail) and so I left them there for recollection on the way down. After about 20 minute of fluffing about and with the aid of a rock as a hammer, the two life-saving bits of metal were extracted but not without first ironically getting a cam stuck to remove the weight off the rap-line. We finished the descent back to the ground safely and exhausted with little light to spare as we headed back to the main track. An hour or so of trudging through the dark forrest and just generally being sick of moving saw us arrive back to the welcome sight of our motor vehicles where beers were cracked and our adventure came to its conclusion as we headed back to Queenstown.