Descending The General. Is This One of New Zealand’s Best Canyons?
My first glimpse into The General was on a short reconnaissance mission to get a sense for the approach and exit, and to have a peek into its depths. With its first decent having been done a few years prior, I knew to a degree what the trip would entail from the topo drawn for the purpose. Finding a ledge system that lead to a prime position overlooking the crux of the canyon, ‘the slot of doom’, I was stunned by what I saw...
THOSE FIVE WORDS...
‘Deep, steep, continuous slotted alpine canyon’ I read on the topo describing the canyons character. Those were exactly the words I liked to hear when it came to my preference of canyon type. I liked the narrow, inescapable canyons for the challenge they provided. They are one way trips. Once you pull the rope from that first drop, you better have the skills, gear and team to make it out!
And The General was all about the commitment! If done from the very top, over 40 abseils would have to be done, with very long stretches of no escape.
Located in the Dart Valley, an hour north from Glenorchy, it would offer a ‘wilderness’ feel to it, adding to that it had also only been done a handful of times after it's first descent.
WAITING FOR A CHANCE
With the original planned mission to descend the canyon with my Australian friend falling apart after a string of bad weather and lack of time, I set about finding a team ready to go for the next best chance.
Having spent the last part of my time off canyoning with Dan from the US and Biel from Mallorca in Spain, we had developed a good dynamic and were familiar with one another, so it took little convincing to get them keen on The General. The canyon was given a four star quality rating, the highest rating out there, meaning it was of international significance.
I mean, who wouldn't want a chance at that?!
Going back to work, I refreshed the weather app on my phone each day, hoping for a chance on a weekend. Finally after nearly 2 weeks (well, it felt long, I was excited after all), an opportunity presented itself with the best possible day on a Friday- a work day for me.
Damn. Well, I might as well give it a try, so I was honest with my work.
‘I need to go canyoning to do one of the best canyons in New Zealand’, was all I said. Boom! A day off was approved. We were in business!
With word being out about our attempt from the previous weeks, I had received plenty of interest to add to the team if we wanted it. Our group of 3 would work very well in the crux section as we had worked out, but a fourth person could be handy and free up one of us to do things like take photos.
One guy in particular, Justin, a canyoning guide working in Queenstown, was extremely keen. If there was a message emoticon representing high stoke, I think he would be it! There’s nothing like a lot of enthusiasm to make a trip fun, and with some last minute planning, he joined us out in the Dart valley Thursday night as we camped at the start of the approach hike to get that early start.
ASCENDING TO 'THE GENERAL'
Stirring to an annoying alarm and a dark morning at 5am after 6 hours of restless sleep, we did a quick breakfast and got going just before 6am. Bags were heavy with our wetsuits, harnesses, two 60 meter ropes, a 30 meter rope, and a cordless drill with spare bolts. It was also a great chance to try my new canyoning bag. Having good equipment makes life easy!
With so few descents and its high level of commitment and inescapability, it was important to have the tools to be able to repair or add new bolts if they were damaged in heavy rain. Smooth walls would offer very little in the way of natural anchor opportunities.
We made our way along the creek edge to the water level checkpoint, a place where we could check its level against the photo that came with the topo. Despite some rain a few days prior, it looked to be moderate-low.
The trip was good to go!
From here it was straight up, gaining enough elevation to enter the second entry from the top, known as the ‘superiore’ entry. I had decided I was not as keen for the top section, being presumably open, as I wanted to experience the narrow sections.
Beech forest with soft carpets of moss made the going relatively pleasant, and we negotiated the steep terrain as we got closer to the entry point at the 1050m contour.
It didn’t take us long to find the tree with the webbing that was our abseil into the canyon. It was here we would have a quick snack and gear up. With a toss of the rope into the canyons depths, we disappeared, completely committed. No escape was possible now. We were in.
DESCENDING 'THE GENERAL'
It was straight into the first abseil. From the Superiore entry, we would have about 35 abseils to do over the length of the canyon, dropping about 450 meters in elevation. Teamwork and efficiency are the key in successfully doing big canyons. Taking 5 minutes longer on each abseil would result in almost 3 hours of lost time!
Having the 3 ropes was a big reason we were able to do all the abseils so quickly. Leapfrogging, the first person down would immediately go to the next drop, often just meters away from the last one, and continue the process.
The canyon quickly narrowed, walls rising 40 meters or more above us. Its sinuous pathway was the veins of the earth, the cold water its blood. We were consumed and enveloped, each drop taking us further in.
Click on the photos to enlarge them!
Though the anchors were often placed as far away from the waterfalls as possible, often it was inevitable that you would go in, the pounding water crashing down. In those moments, you just hold on, kiss the rope, and keep going.
A few hours in, we recognised the feature in front of us. The crux of the canyon awaited...
THE SLOT OF DOOM
Justin went first, disappearing into the white, roaring water. Whistle signals were all that could be used to communicate the most basic commands.
‘Give more rope’ sounded with three blasts.
A long silenced ensued as the rope was crept out.
‘Stop’ sounded in one sharp blast. Followed shortly by the familiar two whistles for ‘off rope’.
He had made it to the mid way anchor.
The slot of doom was comprised of a series of multipitch abseils in a steep, constricting drop. There was little chance of avoiding the water completely, and we would have to be quick in this section to avoid bottlenecks and delays.
Dan followed next, with the other rope to continue rigging the next pitch after Justin’s.
When it was my turn, I peered into that white frothing mixture that had been clear flowing water at the top. Its intensity was magnified by the walls, blasted smooth from the pressure, as it was honed with vicious precision.
With a deep breath I committed, moving fast to get through it. Water pounded my helmet and body, gravity fuelling that energy that made water feel like rocks. It always feels longer but I knew it was just seconds as I pass through the waterfall and appear somewhere beneath. That violent progression was magnified from those mere moments before at the peaceful, quiet anchor up top.
A new world awaited, one of wind and water in a never ending swirl. I reach the next belay, Justin already having rigged the next drop. Drops of water floated from my helmets edge, carried off horizontally from the force of the waterfalls wind. I’m off again, meeting Dan below for another abseil, which I promptly descend. No photos can be taken here with my unprotected camera, just some raw snippets from the Gopro...
By the time we are out of the slot of doom, we are cold. The wind takes it toll. Not letting up, the canyon continues to deliver its promise of constricted passageways through the rock. We keep moving, aware that we were only half way.
I look up at what appears to be sheer 60 meter high walls. A reminder. No escape, not ever.
THE NEVER ENDING CANYON
The slot behind us, the water calms again, subdued by a gentler slope. New abseils appear and we are back into it, sometimes staying clear of the water, sometimes not.
Click on the photos to enlarge them!
We lose track of which abseil number we are on. It all starts blending into one another. The roar of water ebbs and flows, our minds slowly worn down with the fatigue of heavy background noise.
The canyon slowly starts becoming tiring as our movements and repetitions wear us down. Towards what appears to be close to the end, it finally opens. Exposed to the cloudy day, some sun would have been perfect to warm us. Instead, we eat to give our bodies some more fuel and muster on.
Our hands become raw as we all agree that we are done with the abseils. Not bringing gloves was something I would regret for a day or two afterwards, the grit and gravel sticking to wet ropes and running through our hands on each abseil.
But the canyon has other plans, giving us plenty more waterfalls to negotiate. With the canyon opening up, we get great views and can sense our return to the flat terrain that would mark the end of the canyon. The last bit a blur, we round the corner to the spot I had stood on the reconnaissance trip a few weeks prior.
The canyon was done.
IS THIS ONE OF NEW ZEALAND’S BEST CANYONS?
Stomping once more through beech forest on the way back to our cars, we pay little attention to our path. In what feels like a blink of an eye, we make it to a wide grassy field, and the dirt road, clearly off track, but the excitement building anyway as we knew our cars couldn’t be far away.
Following the road, our cars now in sight, we feel complete. Shrugging heavy, wet packs off our shoulders in an unceremonious dump, we start pulling out snacks and a beer, and start reflecting on the nature of what we had just done.
Is this one of the best canyons in New Zealand? The high we were on and our smiles said it all. It was definitely up there and had earned its place among the greats. The General promised, and had also delivered.
Descent: January 2019
Times: 11 hours car to car. 6 hours in the canyon.
Gear: Two 60 meter ropes, one 30 meter rope. Cordless drill, 21 bolts, hangers and quicklinks and also Petzl rockpec hand bolting kit.
Estimated Water Level: Moderate, possibly on the higher side.
Want to do The General?
This canyon is for highly experienced canyoning teams only! Building the experience and skills takes time and effort, but is well worth it! Having the right gear is also a must!
On a second trip through, 2 months later, a flood had gone through the canyon and stripped and mangled anchors. I replaced the worst, but there is still more work to be done.
If you are ready, you can get the topo from the Kiwicanyon’s website HERE. Be sure to have extra materials and bolts, including a way to place them (hand drill, cordless drill).
Remember: There is no escape for most of the canyon, it is highly committing!
A GPS track for the superiore entry can be found below:
You can also read about the first descent in the Canyon magazine, which is well worth reading, HERE. A big thank you for Joe Bugden and all the others involved in the first descent, we appreciate your discovery and work in bolting the canyon!
The post: Descending The General. Is This One of New Zealand’s Best Canyons? first appeared on The Vertical Adventurer.