On a clear, bright day the view must be glorious, as the colours of the sound and bush and distant peaks from such a height must indeed be splendid. (J. R Dennistoun, New Zealand Alpine Journal, 1956)
That’s it! On one of the rather rare beautiful days in Milford Sound, the view from the summit of Mitre Peak is unique. The sheer exposition of the summit contributes to this, it drops almost vertically over 1600 meters into the sea, as does the view of the sound, the sea and the glaciated peaks of Mount Pembroke and Mount Tutoko. The above quotation stems from the description of the first ascent of Mitre Peak in 1909 by James Robert Dennistoun.
After a very wet first attempt during which our tent at the foot of the mountain was flooded at four at night (unfortunately a small stream formed where the tent was placed), we stood at this second attempt in bright sunshine on the summit of Mitre Peak. Good weather is rather rare in Milford Sound with about 180 rainy days and 7000 mm rainfall per year (in Bern and Zurich numbers are about 1000 mm per year). The ascent to the summit is a great experience. After a boat passage to the starting point at Sindbad Gully, an adventurous ascent through dense jungle follows, in which one pulls oneself up using roots, between huge ferns, always along the edge of the ridge. Above the bush line it is exposed, here the mountain drops almost vertically down into the sound up to 1600 m. A mountain guide told us that he witnessed how a backpack was accidentally pushed down the wall from the summit. This one is said to have touched the rock once before it hit the water surface more than 1.5 km deeper. The exposure is persistent and requires concentration for several hours of ascent and descent. A short spot, after a notch in the ridge, is about grade III UIAA. Otherwise the upper part consists of quite exposed, but easy climbing. The view from the summit is magnificent, far below one of the Milford Sound, the sea and the steep walls of the neighbouring mountains. We camped above the bush line and the next morning a huge sea of clouds lay below us. Climbing one of the iconic mountains of New Zealand is a real adventure at the otherwise well touristy Milford Sound.
Access is provided from Milford Sound either by water taxi from Roscos Kayaks ($120 return including radio for the tour) or self-organized by kayak/inflatable. The way to Mitre Peak is not marked continuously, but there is a trail through the bush, which will probably get better and better in the next years and is already well accessible. The path is sporadically marked with a plastic band and red cloth band, but only in some places, so that good navigation is absolutely necessary in places. In general, the path always runs along the edge of the ridge, which extends to the bush line at about 1000 metres. Once you have left the ridge, it is very likely that you followed one of the wrong branches, some of which exist. For example, we took a wrong turn (short descent) directly behind the Footstool during the ascent and ended up in a dead end on the sound side of the mountain. In case of doubt here, it is better to stay on the side of Sindbad Gully. Especially when descending below the bush line the chance is high to get lost. If you descend from the campsite you should also stay on the Sindbad side. The clearly worn out descent here on the Sound side is also a dead end.
Down at the coast the start of the trail is marked with a yellow plastic band. Here it is worthwhile to look for the entrance, since the way facilitates the progress clearly. Right at the beginning the path runs in a kind of channel and you crawl under a fallen tree. A quite steep and very slippery path in wet conditions leads to P. 541. From here the path follows the ridge edge up to the Footstool (835 m) with a much lower gradient. After this, a short steeper descent follows (keep on the Sindbad side) and after this you reach a flat part of the ridge. Here there are few possibilities for camping, as well as a pot from which water can be taken if it is full. There is said to be a pond in this area, but we did not find it. Now the ascent to the bush line is a little steeper again. Shortly above the bush line there are numerous possibilities for placing your tent, here you will find 8 or more tents.
The more demanding and exposed part of the ascent follows. A steep and still grassy part of the ridge leads to a flat ridge area. This requires a little climbing, I remember it as easy. Then a short descent into a notch of the ridge follows. The following ascent is the key point of the ascent. About 20 m require climbing in grade III. Afterwards, the difficulty decreases, but it remains exposed. Shortly before the summit, a second steeper step follows, before the last meters to the summit are covered in slightly blocked terrain. The descent follows the ascent route. Interestingly, the summit of Mitre Peak is not the highest point of the ridge (P. 1721), which is situated quite a bit further towards the sea. However, this high peak seems to be very rarely visited and P. 1683 is considered to be the summit.
We and all the other groups who climbed the summit with us on the same day, climbed from sea level to the summit on the first day and stayed overnight on the great bivouac site above the tree line after the ascent. We descended back to Sindbad Gully the next day.
Material: Plenty of water! Very untypical for New Zealand you won’t find any natural water on the whole route. For two days one should plan about 4-5 l per person. Further: 40m rope, climbing harness, helmet, slings and small set of nuts for the protection (We carried the whole material up and down again without using it (except the helmet), nevertheless we were glad to have it with us to be able to belay in case we would feel unsafe.