Climbing Mitre Peak

Words and Photos by Laurel Morrison.

It has all the elements of a great adventure… beauty, inspiration and just enough challenge to keep you on your toes.

Climbing to the summit of Mitre Peak is one of my most memorable New Zealand adventures.  Gazing up at the knife edge ridge from Milford Sound, it rises out of the water, waiting – like a sleeping dragon – inviting and daring you to climb. Seen on postage stamps, buses, websites, billboards and postcards throughout the country, Mitre Peak must be one of New Zealand’s most photographed and iconic mountains. With the Sounds enclosed by the fiord, framing this attractive mountain between sea and sky, the thought of climbing it is both daunting and motivating.

Our plan was to kayak the 2.5km stretch of sea in the calm of the morning, stash our boats at Sinbad River mouth, trek up to the Footstool and bivvy for the night, then climb the summit and descend the next day. The day arrived and everything fell into place, the sky was clear, the sea was calm and we set off at first light. Everything was still except for the butterflies in my stomach as I took in the enormity of this mountain, rising 1,692 meters, straight up above us.

One step at a time, I told myself. By the time we reached the river mouth and base of our climb, the sand flies quickly absolved any ideas of procrastination. After a scramble and a few false starts, we found the trailhead and began our bush bash adventure. Hauling on trees like Tarzan and Jane, we followed the ridge line up. Our packs were laden with sleeping gear and enough water for 2 days and we inched our way up the ridge.
When we finally reached the Footstool, we breathed in our accomplishment. The views were all encompassing. The aesthetics of the summit to one side, the Sounds below and the Fiordland Mountains in front made every step worthwhile.

The Milford Sound visitor centre and airport runway right down there in the background.

We bivvied on the Footstool, we were warned there was not a lot of space… and found that this was no exaggeration, luckily I was the tallest at 164cm and we found 4 small flattish places to rest for the night, much to the entertainment of the local Kea, who enjoyed chewing our walking poles and shoelaces throughout the night. Kea’s combined with the flutters in my stomach made for very little sleep!

The next day was clear and still again. Despite little sleep, I woke up excited and in excellent spirits.

We dropped down to a bush saddle before heading back up the ridge. The track was marked intermittently with flagging tape and spotting the next one, kept our minds busy. Despite the bright pink flags, we did manage to lose the trail at one point… following where others had also strayed. We popped out on top of a tree covered bluff, with views to the sea, before realising our mistake. Unfortunately, at this point my pack must have caught on a tree, and unbeknownst to me, the tree had caught and removed my Gore-Tex jacket that was bungeed to the outside of my pack. (I will touch on this again later…)

Incredible Fiordland views !

Once above the bush line, the route becomes airy and exposed. At some places along the ridge you can see straight down to the ocean below. Though the exposure is impressive, it is not difficult and I found this section exhilarating, never wanting it to stop. We did bring ropes and protected a few exposed sections. The final scramble to the summit eased off and we had done it! We were standing on the top of Mitre Peak. We could see the cruise boats of Milford Sound below, the tiny waterfalls, out to the never ending ocean and the tops of the highest snow capped peaks in Fiordland. It is a scene, I will never forget.

After a quick snack, a few photos, and a longing gaze at the beautiful flat area used as a helipad, we turned and began the task of reversing all of our hard work. By this time, I realised my jacket was gone… we searched for it on the way back down but never to come across it. It was amazing how little time it took to get down after two days of ascending. Those tree branches lower down were made for swinging, allowing us to drop faster than usual. Back on Sinbad beach we found our boats and enjoyed a rocky ride back to Milford Sound as the afternoon sea breeze travelled up the Fiord. It was one of those perfect trips, friendships solidified, a huge accomplishment and a shared adventure.

Jubilation on reaching the top of Mitre Peak

And what of that jacket? On a whim, we mentioned to the team at Ferg Kayaks how I lost my jacket… a few months later, I received an out-of-the-blue phone call from a Scottish climber who had strayed in the same spot and had come across my jacket!  He carried it back and happened to mention it to the team at Ferg Kayaks, they found the crumpled piece of paper with my number on it. My jacket arrived in the post a week later, and I still have it to this day! It really was the perfect trip!

You can climb Mitre Peak with Adventure Consultants, for details check out our Mitre Peak page.