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Mitre Peak / Rahotu, 1683m

25 April 2010
 
Coordinates 44° 37.955′ S, 167° 51.360′ E

Looking up the south-east ridge of Mitre Peak from Footstool. Photo D Hegg

The most prominent peak in Milford Sound, Mitre Peak is the easternmost elevation on the narrow range separating the fjord from Sinbad Gully. One of the most renowned landmarks in New Zealand, the mountain is portrayed in thousands of books, postcards and calendars, and is photographed by myriads of tourists each year. The difficulty of access across Milford Sound is probably the only reason why it doesn’t get climbed more often. 

History

Mitre Peak was named by John Lort Stokes because of its resemblance to a bishop’s mitre [1]. Stokes visited Milford Sound in 1851 while on his coastal survey of Fiordland aboard the ship HMS Acheron.  To the Māori, the mountain was known as Rahotu, according to Beattie “after a notorious man of the old time, and if rumour be true his conduct would scarcely have merited a mitre” [2]

The first attempt to climb Mitre Peak was made in 1883, when Invercargill artist Samuel Moreton inspired the “Milford hermit” Donald Sutherland to give it a try from “behind”. On 6 February Moreton and Sutherland sailed to Sinbad Gully and were able to set up camp at the head of the valley. The next day, they set off to climb the mountain, carrying no coats, and just one biscuit each. After a somewhat epic climb they reached the crest of the Mitre Range, from where they could see the Tasman Sea – but they also realized that Mitre Peak was over 3km away to the east. Too late in the day to descend, they were forced to bivvy up high, and were caught out in a storm. After a difficult downclimb the next day, they were forced to sit out two more days in bad weather at the head of Sinbad Gully before returning to Milford Sound [3]

First to the summit was J.R. Dennistoun of Peel Forest on 13 March 1911. Dennistoun walked in to Milford Sound from Lake Te Anau over MacKinnon Pass, and inquired among the track porters hoping to find a companion to climb the peak. None of the porters had any climbing experience at all, but one of them, Joe Beaglehole, had read Edward Whymper’s classic Scrambles among the Alps, and was thus chosen by Dennistoun to accompany him in his attempt. The duo rowed to the mouth of Sinbad Gully and tackled the south east-ridge. They made fast progress up the mountain until Beaglehole freaked out on the steep snowgrass slope at about 1200m of elevation. Dennistoun continued by himself, carrying only his sandshoes and no pack or any food or equipment. He reached the summit at 1.15pm in dull weather and built a cairn before returning to his companion and starting off down the mountain. Here Dennistoun and Beaglehole made a big mistake: to avoid climbing back over the Footstool, they decided to drop straight into Sinbad Gully. They soon hit bluffs, and had to use the rope to lower themselves off trees, nearly running out of rope on several occasions. They reached the valley floor eventually but by then it was dark, and it soon started to rain. Without any camping equipment, they were too cold and wet to bivvy, and thus had no choice but to keep going, using the sound of the river as the only aid for navigation. They found their boat again at 9.45pm, and rowed back to Milford Sound in the dark to conclude a rather miserable descent [3].   

Donald Sutherland of Milford Sound refused to believe that Dennistoun had made the climb. He thought the peak was unscalable by man. It was not until 3 years later that Dennistoun’s ascent was proven authentic, when Jack Murrell and E.R. Williams repeated the climb and found his handkerchief under a cairn on the summit [3].   

It is worth noting that Dennistoun’s account, reproduced in the 1956 NZ Alpine Journal [3], incorrectly reports the date of his climb as 13 March 1910. The mistake later crept into John Hall-Jones work [4]. The correct date (13 March 1911) is reported in the list of first ascents and explorations in the Te Anau – Milford Area published in the 1931 NZ Alpine Journal [5]. Dennistoun signed Sutherland’s visitor book in Milford Sound on 14 March 1911 [6], and a note on Mitre Peak’s first ascent was published in the Grey River Argus on 8 April 1911 [7]

The south-east ridge  

Alpine, grade 1+, crux grade 10 on rock. This is the route of the first ascent.  April 2003 

Mitre Peak map. 1 grid square = 1km. Click to enlarge

Access by kayak or inflatable from Milford Sound. If using an inflatable, it is best to walk to the western end of the Milford airport airstrip to cross the sound where it is narrowest, then follow the shore to the mouth of Sinbad Gully. It’s only 200m across on open water, but beware of cruise ships, since you’ll be paddling across the main boating lane. It takes about 45 minutes to reach Sinbad Gully on a small inflatable boat.   

A sketch of the route to Mitre Peak, which I found in a hut. Click to enlarge

Route From the mouth of Sinbad Gully an unmarked track climbs through the bush all the way to the Footstool and beyond. The track is vague in places, but easy to follow since it’s always on or close to the crest of the ridge. West of the Footstool, the route drops steeply 150m before it climbs to bushline. About 100m below bushline is the only tarn on the mountain, not far from the ridge on the Sinbad side – it’s a small muddy pond, no more than 3m long, and it does dry out on occasion. There is flat ground for a bivvy by the tarn, but the best bivvy site is about 100m above the bushline, just before the mountain steepens. There’s no water here, but amazing views into Milford Sound at sunset.   

After a narrow, horizontal section of ridgeline at 1300m, it is necessary to climb into and out of a deep notch (just west of elevation 1302m on the map). The notch is the crux of the climb – although technically easy, it is exposed, and a fall would end with a dive into the ocean. The climb out of the notch is an 80m step of steep but solid rock on the Sinbad side,  after which the route joins the ridge again near a key-hole. The terrain eases from here on.   

All up, the south-east ridge of Mitre Peak is a very enjoyable scramble on solid granite, with great exposure in places. Many climbers do it without a rope, yet I would recommend carrying one. A few slings are sufficient to protect the route. And yes, it can be done in a day, but you would miss out on one of the highlights of the climb – a bivvy perched up high above Milford Sound. Take plenty of water from Sinbad gully, as the water supply on the mountain is unreliable.   

Looking straight down into Milford Sound from Mitre Peak. Photo D Hegg

References

[1] Hall-Jones, J. (2003) Fiordland Place-Names. 2nd edition. Published by Real Journeys, Te Anau, New Zealand. 88 pages.   

[2] p44 in Beattie, H. (2002) The Maoris and Fiordland. Cadsonbury Publications, Christchurch. 184 pages 

[3] Mitre Peak, Milford Sound – historical. The New Zealand Alpine Journal, Vol XVI, No. 43, 1956, pages 400-418. Published by the New Zealand Alpine Club. 

[4] p166-168 in Hall-Jones, J. (1968) Early Fiordland. Published by A.H. & A.W. Reed. 199 pages 

[5] First ascents and explorations in the Te Anau – Milford District. The New Zealand Alpine Journal, Vol IV, No. 18, 1931, page 150. Published by the New Zealand Alpine Club. 

[6] Appendix A in Hall-Jones, J. (2000) Milford Sound. Published by Craig Printing Co. Ltd, Invercargill, New Zealand. 144 pages 

[7] Ascent of Mitre Peak, p404 in Halliday, M. (2009) Fiordland: News, Views & Anecdotes, pre-1911. Published by the author. 416 pages

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