Wednesday, April 16, 2008


I spent yesterday in pursuit of a goal that had been looming over me since my very first week in Queenstown. Not more than a few days after arriving, I learned that the spectacular-looking peak just across Lake Wakatipu from Queenstown was called Cecil Peak, and that there were no roads or trails in the area. It looked like a fantastic mountain to hike, but it was wholly inaccessible except by helicopter or boat. Or perhaps…

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Cecil Peak and Queenstown Gardens, taken from the top of the gondola

Within a few more days, I had learned that Cecil was 1978m/6490ft high, 1670m/5480ft above Wakatipu. I had also looked up the wet part of the adventure on and discovered that it wasn’t that far:

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From that point on, I just couldn’t let it go. As I became more accustomed to the fierce wind patterns on the lake and had time to examine possible routes up Cecil itself, two things became clear…I would need a calm day and I would need a whole day. I spent the next couple of months discouraged by the lack of windless days and the realization that the combination of a windless day and a day off may be too tall of an order. There was also the minor question of how to get hiking gear safely across the lake.

Now the days are getting short here and my time in Queenstown isn’t boundless. The lake also isn’t getting any warmer. A few days ago, I found out I had Tuesday and Wednesday off this week, the weather looked very favorable, and I got serious about the gear transport problem. I spent a good portion of Tuesday searching for a suitable solution, and after a couple wrong turns, arrived at tying a drybag to my foot and towing it behind me while I swam. I had no idea how much that would slow me down in the water, but my time estimates for the whole adventure pointed to “Oughta be able to…” I also phoned the land-owner and got his permission to be on his property, quite a simple permit process!

I did a test-pack of the drybag Tuesday night and was faced with culling some volume from my gear. After trimming back where I could, I had no choice but to dump some of my water; I’d have about 60oz. for the day.

I woke up early Wednesday morning, confirmed that the forecast called for light winds all day, dry, and warm, and decided that the green light was lit!

I scampered down to the lake just before 8am (shortly after sunrise), finalized my packing, and shoved off at about 8:15.

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Goal for the day, doing its best to look formidable

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I’m swimming with this thing tied to me? Sheesh…

Three times on the way over, I, ahem, had the opportunity to teach myself some lessons about water-worthy knots. I also had ample time to reflect on my decision to use cord instead of webbing. It was slow going, but I made steady progress and made landfall about 1:35 after I started. The extra drag from the drybag obliterated my pace. It would have been just about an hour’s swim under normal circumstances. The last half-hour or so was very cold; just too much time in cold water!

I laid my gear out on the gravelly beach, found a place to hang dry my swimming gear, and re-packed the drybag for hiking; I certainly had no room in there for a daypack. I used the same line I’d used to tow the bag as a shoulder sling and set off at about 10:15. It quickly became apparent that this wasn’t a hike: it was a scramble. There were countless livestock paths here and there, but it was tough going nonetheless. I spent a good potion of the first part of the hike crawling along hobbit-sized paths through dense underbrush.

I emerged into more open terrain, picked a route, and continued on my tour of New Zealand’s thorn-producing flora. I felt like Forrest Gump: “You got your green thorns, your red thorns, your black thorns, your big thorns, your thick thorns, your invisible thorns, your hard thorns, your soft thorns, your pokey thorns, your sticky thorns, your…”

It was fairly easy navigating the open terrain, but I had to backtrack and choose a new route more than once. About half an hour after I set out, I opened the drybag to take a drink from my Camelbak and made a grim discovery: standing water halfway up the bag. Eyes wide, I pulled out the bladder and found that the hose had somehow disconnected itself. This was a gear malfunction I had never experienced. Unfortunately, the drybag was watertight, so all my gear was afloat. I had my camera in my pocket (good), but my phone was in the bag (bad). It was cooked. Not only was it my communication, but it was also my timepiece for tracking my progress and making sure I didn’t run out of daylight. Fortunately, the drybag was watertight, and I simply poured the water right back into the Camelbak. If I had actually lost my water, I would have turned around right then and there.

Amazingly, Cecil Peak has a duty-free leather-goods shop!

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And some more cool sights along the way:

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As I watched the sun make its rapid ascent, I realized that my camera had a clock, so I was back in business. It was still on Reno time, and I had to guess whether I’d adjusted the time for daylight savings last fall…

By noon, I hadn’t yet attained the ridgeline, and I had promised myself that 1:20 was my turnaround time. I pushed -really- hard to get to the ridgeline and scrambled up its steeper sections through harrowingly frictionless dead grass.

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The Remarkables from the ridge on Cecil

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Panorama off the south side of the ridge (click picture for larger size)

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Short flight from the airport

One of the local helicopter outfits takes clients to this ledge just below the summit for champagne and nibbles.

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A puff of cloud

I finally reached a little ledge not more than 300 meters from the summit where it turned from a scramble into a technical climb. It was also 1:20 on the dot. The route to the summit was passable, but it would have taken an hour each way to do it safely. So this, unfortunately, was the end of the road for me.

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What separated me from the summit

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Some tiny hidden lakes up there

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Replacing the peak with my own

I left the ledge a few minutes after 1:30 and hurried down as safely as I could. I was able to take a much more direct route on the way down, but tough footing meant that I wasn’t making amazing time. My legs were also quivering from the steep descent, and I still had a bit of a swim ahead of me!

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Queenstown in the distance and a look at my lake crossing straight-on

I got horribly stuck in some underbrush just a few hundred meters from the bottom and lost a lot of time, but I got back to my little beach at exactly 4:30. I hadn’t seen a single sandfly all day, but they had discovered my wetsuit and swarmed me instantly. In the ten or so minutes it took me to rearrange my gear and get my wetsuit on, I got dozens of bites, adding their dastardly little pinpricks to the bloody mess the various thorns had turned my legs and arms into. I drank the last ounce (literally) out of my Camelbak, waded into the water and shoved off once again at 4:45. The lake was considerably rougher than it had been in the morning, but there weren’t any whitecaps and I didn’t really have a choice.

The sun was still decently high on my side of the lake, but it was dropping fast and I was swimming into the shadow. About halfway across, the ball of light dropped behind the mountains, and about two-thirds of the way across, the light left the peaks. I was swimming towards the dark mass of the gardens, the only spot on my horizon line without lights, and the nearly-full moon was brightening just above the gardens, so I was able to navigate ok. I made landfall at 6:15, with no more than a few minutes before the last vestiges of dusk gave way to full-fledged night.

As I stood up in knee-deep water, every muscle in my legs cramped at once and I fell over. Awesome. I shook the kinks out and made my way over the rocks as gingerly as I could with my multi-blistered feet. I was cold, thirsty, and hungry, so I made quick work of changing back into dry clothes and staggered towards Monty’s in a bit of a daze. I gulped down a hot chocolate in front of the roaring fire, ate lots, and took a taxi home: my poor feet didn’t have any mileage left in them!

So it was a 10-hour solo odyssey in every sense of the word. I didn’t summit, but the available daylight simply prohibited it, and I’m not disappointed in the least bit. I’m pretty sure that 4.5mi/7km is the furthest I’ve ever swam in a day, and I’ve never gone overland on a big mountain before.

More importantly, this challenge isn’t looming over me any more! And as I sit writing this, staring out my window towards Cecil, I have to wonder if the all-enveloping shroud of cloud over there today is Nature’s way of saying “Nothing to see here; move along,” and giving a quick wink in my direction.

Past Detritus