They were searching on a topographical map for a long time before they found it. There were lines stacked on top of each other – it was steep, that was for sure. There was no record of it ever being fully mapped and no record that it had ever been done. Could it be canyoned?
It was a spot in the Richmond Ranges, inaccessible by anything but a helicopter. It was 1200m high and contained an unknown number of waterfalls. It was marked by kiwicanyons.org as a “potential canyon” requiring a “serious undertaking”.
For a group of Nelson mates wanting to put their canyoning skills to the test, it was perfect. The sport involves descending creeks – setting anchors, then abseiling and jumping down waterfalls until you reach the bottom.
If they managed to pull the expedition off the group would have done the highest descent ever in New Zealand.
So, six months ago, the plan was hatched.
“We had done a couple of other ones and the boys loved it,” says James Scoltock, owner of indoor climbing centre Vertical Limits. “They were pretty keen to hit something big.”
So James pushed his friends, Neill Molloy, Daniel Penney and Bodhi Bettjeman to train for the expedition. Then they brought on cameraman George Guille to document it all.
They all went through the skills they needed to carry out the task. They planned to do the descent this month, doing a flyby in a friend’s airplane to get a better view.
It was big but doable, they thought.
But James was getting restless and he knew of others in the canyoning community who had their eye on this as of yet unnamed creek down Johnstone Peak.
“I said ‘let’s just do it next week’.”
It would be his 36th birthday. So, on December 13, armed with donated gear from Aspiring Safety, they boarded a helicopter and headed for the peak.
“The first waterfall was on the map,” says Daniel Penney. “But when we got up there we saw there were two more right after it. It was pretty clear that nobody had ever been here.”
George says that was the appeal — and the challenge.
“You just don’t know what you are going to find. Even with rope lengths we were just estimating. The biggest thing is the unknown.”
Then there was the reality that after you finished the first abseil, there was no going back.
“A couple of us are reasonable climbers but you can’t climb a waterfall,” says Neil.
It also wasn’t clear how long the descent would take. James says he was prepared to spend a night, cold and wet, in the bush.
“But I don’t think anyone else was up for that.”
They had done a food drop earlier – walking up as far as they could from the other direction. But by the time they arrived, possums had got there first.
“All there was were wrappers,” says Bodhi.
They pushed on into the early evening. Eventually, after 13 hours they walked out. They had descended three, 120 metre waterfalls and 10 others between six and 30 metres. For all the large ones they had to drill and set their own anchors.
“It’s pretty insane what we did,” says James. “It’s just a tight little crack in the side of the mountain. It was a monster.”
Bodhi says: “The best thing is that we are all mates anyway, so it was just a great day out. It was a great way to celebrate James’ birthday.”
They have been in touch with the New Zealand Canyoning Association which told James that since they were the first to descend it, they could name it.
“It’s really nice to be put our name on a first descent,” says James. “That’s pretty cool.”
But as for the canyon? George says, being so high “Vertical Limits,” in honour of James’ idea and his business, could work.
“But it was a team effort,” James says. “So it will be a group decision.”
As will the next expedition they plan.