All-Woman Team Attempt Fiordland Traverse
By Nick Allen 27/03/2019 2:50 pm

Personally, my goal was to find an adventure worth documenting and to increase the female presence in adventure sports. I wanted to capture the spirit of exploring the unknown, facing unexpected challenges and of navigating through demanding weather and terrain.

As a group, our objective was to scramble up the headwall of Sinbad Gully, off Milford Sound in northern Fiordland, and to make a first peaks traverse from the Llawrenny Peaks area, across to Lake Liz. We also wished to explore the story behind a peak colloquially known as the Tusk, and of the late 70’s Kakapo researcher and climber Hugh Willoughby, who tragically fell in his solo attempt of the peak. It is unknown if he’d made it to the top. We hoped to climb the Tusk from Lake Liz, and then continue along the ridge to Mount Danger and around to Lady of the Snows. To our knowledge, no one had ever completed this traverse before.

Now the challenge lies in editing the film. We carried as many batteries and SD cards as we could, and so were limited to only filming what we thought was crucial to the story. In saying that, I have 50 hours plus of footage to pick through. There will be lots of coffee and long nights.

Team Members:
Liz Oh (Australia): Climber, scientific diver, nurse. Rosie Hohnen (Australia): Climber, outdoor guide, ecologist. Ana Richards (New Zealand): Climber, conservationist, stoat-trapper, explorer. Olivia Page (Victoria, Australia): Climber, photographer. Additional film support from Simon Bischoff (Australia): Climber, Drone pilot.


Rosie, Liz, Ana & Olivia Looking down at the sea on traverse between Lllawrenny Peaks and Lake LizThe Weather’s Constant Presence

Usually, you wouldn’t go into Fiordland with a severe weather forecast. With plans for a lengthy traverse, we accepted the fact that we would need to endure some extreme weather. Getting blown off the mountain is an actual risk. There is an account of someone who got stuck on the valley floor in severe weather and needed to swim and scramble up a tree, to set off an SOS call.

Right from the start, the weather was pressing in on us. On our second day, we were climbing a vertically vegetated spur to the top of the Sinbad Gully headwall. There was 50mm of rain forecast for that evening. We knew of a small handful of intrepid folk who’d performed the mission, so we knew it was possible. However, from the mixture of accounts, we weren’t sure if we would need ropes, or how long the spur would take us. What we did know was that we could under no circumstance get caught in that evening’s storm, while on that spur. Parts of it were a mere 10m wide, with steep drops on either side.

We reached some flats nearer the top of the spur, just before the weather arrived. We quickly made camp and endured one of the worst storms any of us had ever experienced.

Water pooled all around us like a small lake. Then came the ferocious winds. From 2 am until 8 am we braced our bodies against our tents to keep them upright and to prevent them from flying off the mountain. An eerie silence would come before every major gust. You would hear the wind building force as it blasted up the valley, then "Whomp!"

At one point, Ana braved the outside to fix a flailing guy-line. Afterwards, she commented: “our tent was lifting up from one corner, and I thought I’d better get back inside before Liz gets hurled off the mountain!”. During this time, Rosie wore her helmet inside our tent – that’s how violent the wind was. I chuckle about it now, but it wasn’t funny at the time. Morning arrived, and we surveyed the damage: snapped tent poles, ripped tents.

Ana & Liz drying everything at camp after the first stormAfter drying out our gear, we continued our traverse. Beyond the spur, it was anyone’s guess: terrain that (to our knowledge) had never been crossed. We used a mixture of topographic maps and GPS, however in Fiordland contour lines don’t always match up with the terrain before you. We never knew how much scrambling, climbing and rappelling the terrain would require of us. Getting bluffed out and turning around to start again was a probable outcome for the entire journey.

We felt so high up and secluded. When the clouds parted, the big blue Tasman Sea was there shimmering right there at your feet. However, as the terrain changed from hard granite to gigantic piles of choss, there was less opportunity to rope up. The thrill turned to the intensity of calculated soloing. We had to consider every step we took, lest we slip and fall. It was safer to have a little distance between each other, in case we dislodged a rock  — even large rocks could move.

We had one incident when a big block came loose after only the slightest touch of a boot. It went flying down towards Rosie. She had the sun glaring in her eyes, jumped out of the way, and in doing so dislodged another rock. On all sides, the terrain dropped for hundreds of metres into the cirques and valleys below. Mistakes weren’t an option.

We made it to Lake Liz, set up base and bunkered down for another weather front. It wasn’t as severe as the first, but the next morning we awoke to the booming of a dozen waterfalls. The cirque-like wall above Lake Liz was veiled in water, the route by which we’d descended into Lake Liz had become a wall of water, cascading into the rising lake.


Ana rappelling during the traverseClimbing the Tusk

Because of the weather, we managed to sneak in only one climbing day. We were looking forward to it: the forecast was for a bluebird day. However, we awoke to winds that were so fierce you could barely stand. It made it hard to contemplate climbing 600 metres up a ridgeline no one had climbed before. We had decided that we couldn't safely start the climb any later than 1 pm, as Liz and Rosie needed enough light to get to the top and find a safe rappel off the back. It wasn't until 2 pm that the winds had eased enough for Liz and Rosie to rope up, but with significantly less time than they’d liked.

Given the conditions, I made the difficult decision not to accompany them to film the climb. We had to put safety first. It was more crucial for Liz and Rosie to get climbing — filming would slow them down. Fortunately, as a team, we managed to shoot some of the first pitch and some drone and GoPro footage.

Liz and Rosie summited just before dark, but it took time for them to rappel down the Tusk. They were thrilled to have made a first climbing ascent, calling it the Kakapo Crest (600m, Ewbanks Grade 16), in honour of the endangered bird.

After their return, we received a forecast of 162mm of rain. With twisted and broken tents, low visibility and high winds we didn’t feel confident in our ability to weather another storm, let alone travel along the high peaks. After much deliberation, we had to call it a day. The trip had taken almost a year to plan, and that night we felt the weight of our decision.


Ana enjoying the sunset looking towards Mt DangerReflections on the Trip

Leaving the trip, we felt a mixture of achievement and disappointment, and the distinct feeling that there is always next summer. The remainder of the traverse is yet to be completed, to Mount Danger and Lady of the Snows. I know that Ana (local New Zealand mountain lover) will be back — it’s her backyard after all. I have no doubt she will find a way to get up Mount Danger and scramble up the Lady of the Snows.

In these types of projects everything only barely comes together in the last moment. We were so fortunate to have everyone arrive for the trip injury free, camera equipment that worked, and just enough weather to climb Tusk — it was more than we could have asked for.  We planted our boots where no one else ever had: a privilege in today’s world.


Ana and Liz chowing down on some foodFood

We hadn’t used Radix Nutrition meals before but had heard good things. Going into a trip like this, where a full belly, a hot drink and a warm sleeping bag makes the difference between a good and miserable time, it is crucial to have these elements sorted. We knew the meals were well balanced, with proper amounts of fat and protein. They were also light and filling. We never felt hungry, and always felt nourished. We often ate main meals for breakfast before big days too, as the majority of us are savoury breakfast eaters. In saying that, the breakfasts were excellent, notably the Expedition | Mixed Berry Breakfast .

Expedition dates: 30th January 2019 - 8th February 2019 (originally planned for 18th February).

Words and Photos by Olivia Page.


Olivia Page

Olivia has been shooting adventure, travel and conservation for over a decade. Olivia's photography and words can be found in adventure magazines, geographical publications and journals in Australia and abroad - Australian Geographic, Wild Magazine, Adventure Magazine, Rock and Ice, Vertical Life.

Her passion for rock climbing, exploring and nature has taken her from the sheer cliffs of Yosemite to the deep lakes of New Zealand, across the tropical waters of the Java Sea, but always back to her spiritual home: when not travelling she gets into the world-class traditional climbing of Arapiles, exploring the Grampians other-worldly sandstone peaks, pondering new adventures and shooing away the emus and kangaroos investigating her veggie patch.

Olivia is Australia's first female Arc'teryx Ambassador and works in collaboration with Arc'teryx to help bring community together. She is also a Travel Play Live Women's Adventure Grant Winner Sponsored by Travel Play Live, Gutsy Girls Adventure Film Tour and Jack Wolfskin.