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TARA MULVANY

Tara mulvany

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Conquering Commander Peak

Posted by Tara Mulvany on April 23, 2016 at 6:55 AM

For thousands of years Commander Peak has stood at the entrance to Hall Arm, guarding the waterways below. I have paddled past this mountain hundreds of times. I’ve looked straight up at it’s towering cliffs, once carved by glaciers, sheets of water pouring off its face, waterfall numbering hundreds and tiny ferns clinging to smooth rock.


Clients often ask if anyones ever climbed it. I tell them about a crazy guy called Ben, who used to guide for us, and how he made it to the summit and down in a day.

So after looking at Commander for so long, and seeing the line, it was time to give it a crack. My partner in crime was the one and only Keith Buckeridge, aka K Buck, the master of ridiculous missions. I called him at 8pm the night before to make sure we had everything sorted. We chatted for about 4 minutes before he exclaimed, “Holy shit T! this is the most planning we’ve ever done before a mission!” It was not far from the truth.


Our plan was to go fast and light - we would only take the bare essentials - some warm clothes, lightweight sleeping bags, a small rain fly, and some food. We would bivvy somewhere along the tops and be down the next day with enough time to paddle back to Deep Cove and catch the last bus for the day out. It all sounded good in theory.


The next morning our grand mission began in the dark, catching the first boat of the day across Lake Manapouri and zooming over the Wilmot Pass. We grabbed a role of red electrical tape from Bob (our favourite Deep Cove person) incase we needed to flag our route, jumped in a kayak and paddled out of Deep Cove and into Hall Arm. The water was glassy calm and mist and cloud hung in the valleys and over the tops of the hills around us. A small pod of dolphins surfaced close by and a kereru flew high above. We were amped, but little did we know quite what was to come.


From a familiar campsite halfway down Hall arm we ditched the kayak, threw our packs on and donned suitable footwear for the ascent - the first ascent of the south ridge of Commander Peak. We followed the tannin stained waters of the river upstream, before cutting up an old tree avalanche and onto the ridge. The rainforest was dense, dripping, and slippery with mud. We slogged upwards, gaining elevation, our spirits high. But soon enough things grew steeper and we dragged ourselves higher with questionable climbing technique complete with a more than necessary use of the knee. We’d left all grace well down at the fiord.

It wasn't long before we were scaling a near vertical cliff, covered in drenched moss with a few small trees growing out at right angles to the cliff. At this point I was thinking, ‘if ferns grow here, then I can climb it.” Myth number one. I soon deemed it false.


15m up the cliff we were stalled by a vertical section with barely more than a few spindly trees with trunks the diameter of a 50c piece. Wide eyed K Buck was looking sceptical, but I saw the line and went for it. There were larger trees above us, and as long as I made it up the next 15m section, we would be sweet. I moved right, off our small stance of ferns stuck to the rock. Carefully moving upward, I climbed slowly, trying to spread my weight evenly across the small anchors I had - a few ferns, a tree root, and a spindly tree. Then all of a sudden, it hit me - what the hell was I doing clinging to a vertical cliff covered in nothing but moss?! All good handholds were gone, and the next tree above me was out of reach. I couldn’t go down - that really wasn't an option. So I lunged for the branch, missed, and swung back down to my tree root. Jamming my foot deep into the moss, struggling to get any grip, I took a second lunge, grabbed the branch and pulled myself to safety.

There may have been a few words coming out of my mouth that started with the letter F. Granted and necessary at that time. I pulled out my throw bag, wrapped it around a solid looking tree trunk and threw it down to K Buck. Then for the next while I nervously watched him climb up. Again, more F words.


I was happy we had made it up the newly named ‘Mulvany Step’, but a little worried about how we’d ever get back down. I wrapped some red tape round a branch, hopeful, yet doubtful that we’d ever find this tree again on the way down.

A still wide eyed Buck looked at me, “and to think we could have been boofing right now!”

I was trying not to think about it. “Ya, but you’d probably never remember that day if we were boating.. and this.. you’ll never forget!”

“so, but at least we could have been enjoying ourselves!!”

I couldn’t argue with the guy, it was a very valid point.

Bashing our way through dense jungle for hours we finally arrived at the bush line. Morale took an upwards slide, and we wove through the last of the trees into a eerie world of tussocks and mountain tops. In a race with daylight we scrambled along the ridge line, following deer tracks and eventually, surrounded by scattered cloud we reached the summit. It was bitter sweet - it was wet, freezing cold, and we had a rough night ahead of us. And, at this stage our hopes of making it down off the ridge before dark the next day were looking slim.


We set up our small fly using a stick we’d salvaged from the tree line and curled up in our summer weight sleeping bags. It was a night of character building, and in the morning we awoke to more cloud and dampness. Wait.. did we actually wake up, or were we just awake the whole time. I’m not too sure.

Either way with a bit of squealing I wrung out my soaking wet polypro pants and pulled them on, donned my trusty jandals and we skipped off into the wind. Through parted clouds the fiords and valleys opened up below us as we boosted along the ridge and back into the bush.

Within half an hour in the bush we were semi lost, got bluffed out and had to retrace our steps back up onto the ridge. Morale was low and I was starting to wonder if we’d ever make it back down.


Slipping, sliding and swearing, we finally approached the Mulvany Step, and found the tiny piece of red tape, wrapped around a small tree. We shimmied down the cliff using my throw bag, which was only just long enough to make it down to a small perch before we were able to down climb the rest.

With a slight opening in the trees, we saw what we thought was the slip that we’d approached the ridge on and eagerly bush bashed down the side of it.. until again, we were stopped by more bluffs. Morale skydived and we climbed back up onto the ridge. An hour or two later we eventually made it down to our kayak!!


With a ticking clock and not much time, we jumped in and sped back to Deep Cove, hauled our kayak back up onto the rack and ran up to the side of road to catch the last bus out. We had 10 minutes to spare!!

Yet another successful or ridiculous mission in Fiordland, depending on how you look at it. So if anyone’s looking to retrace our steps, I have a few wise words of advice. Go when it’s dry. Take at least a 40m rope and some flagging tape, and enjoy! And just incase you were wondering, if deer can climb there, it doesn't mean you can too.


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