Climbing in New Zealand

Photo credit: Tyler Lastovich @lastly

New Zealand is not one of those destinations you usually go to solely for the rock climbing, not unless you’re Chris Sharma. That’s partly because it’s so damn far away and expensive to get to from most parts of the world. There are many far cheaper and closer climbing destinations for most of us, and climbers are a famously dirtbag bunch.

But more importantly, New Zealand is far too breath-taking and offers so much for the outdoorsy adventure lover, that to come here for the climbing alone would be worse than sacrilege. So of course, in the four months that my partner and I spent in NZ, climbing was not at the top of our agenda.

Rather, it was dominated by catching up with his family and friends, all of whom hadn’t seen him in years; eating and drinking a lot at these gatherings; and trying to fit in all the sights and do all the activities we could afford (which was sadly a small minority of what’s out there).

Nevertheless, no self-respecting climber would go to a new destination and…not climb at all! Plus, NZ was the old stomping ground of my partner and I was eager to see where he cut his teeth on the rock.

ALL the rock types!

The thing that probably struck me most about climbing in NZ was ALL the different rock types you can climb on within a relatively short drive of each other. In our time there, we managed to climb on ignimbrite, schist, basalt, granite, and of course limestone (but nothing like the limestone I have climbed on anywhere else before!).

As a climbing geek, I found this pretty exciting. I’d never even touched some of these rock types before! But it was also a frustrating experience: every time we went to a new area I felt like I needed to start all over again. And it’s a strange rule of climbing for me that no matter how much I progress, if I take some time off or go somewhere that I’m not used to, my comfort level seems to always regress to French sport grade 6b (I don’t really trad climb almost at all, so there’s nowhere to regress to when it comes to that).

Photo credit: Clay Claydon @clayclaydon

It’s sort of easier to accept these frustrations when you are dealing with an entirely different grading system – NZ uses the Australian grades, and my honest experience of the supposed conversion to French grades is that it’s basically wrong. An Australian 18 is meant to equate to a French 6a, but never did I get on a single 18 in New Zealand that truly felt that easy, not on any of the rock types. I don’t believe this can be explained by the novelty factor alone – I just think the conversion charts are all about a grade off.

Not my style

Having said that, for me a big factor was also that much of the climbing in NZ was very much not my style – often quite short, overhung and powerful, with really slopey holds, especially on the limestone crags around the Paynes Ford area – one of the biggest single areas, with a dedicated climbers campsite to boot.

For any climber visiting New Zealand this is a must-visit – if only for the Hangdog campsite alone, which has a great dirtbag vibe and is super cheap by NZ standards, especially if you become part of the Scumbag club: a membership of $30 per couple for the year gives you a discounted rate of $10pp per night, but a one-off price is $14pp per night. If you’re going to stay for more than three nights, it’s already worth it.

It’s a shame that for me, most of the climbing required a bit too much brute force and not enough finesse to be truly enjoyable. My favourite crag was Bo Peep Slab at Pohara – a overhanging jug-pulling fest that felt like climbing in the gym. The rest, however, was a little too much, with its slopey holds and pretty scary bolting, and no doubt contributed to reigniting my old shoulder injury.

Wanaka

The other place an NZ-visiting climber simply cannot miss is of course Wanaka. This is where I discovered schist climbing – which agreed with me far more than Paynes Ford’s slopey limestone, but really didn’t agree with my partner Clay. It is mostly very technical, with little holds and balancy moves, which I’m quite good at.

Photo credit: Wenhao Ji, @zetaplusae

I also absolutely loved Wanaka the town – teeming with sports shops and adventure tourists, it’s exactly what you’d imagine a lakeside town in one of the most popular parts of New Zealand’s South Island to be like. Trendy. Busy. Gorgeous. And, of course, expensive. I’m such a sucker for places like that! That’s why I picked Shoreditch as a place to live when I moved to London in 2011, and that’s why I struggle to keep my travels as cheap as some others who have truly embraced the dirtbag lifestyle.

We were particularly lucky to visit Wanaka in the autumn, as the trees were turning red and yellow, reflecting in the mirror-clear waters of the lake, with mountains rising in the background. So picturesque it makes you a little bit sick!

Truth be told, though, the rock quality at most of the crags we visited was only mediocre. Schist can be a little crumbly, perhaps because of how it forms in layers. Having climbed on rock-solid tufas in Spain, Greece, and South East Asia, we have become choosy and hard to impress.

North Island

The North Island doesn’t get enough mention when it comes to visiting New Zealand – the South Island has so much to offer, and most people have so little time, that it becomes the focus of their journey. There is much worth visiting up in the North though, which will make a separate post. But even when it comes to climbing alone, the North Island should not be disregarded.

One area that should be on a climber’s radar is Mangaokewa, just south of Te Kuiti. It’s a similar type of limestone to Paynes Ford, but with better bolting. So if you’re into your short, overhanging, bouldery routes – this is for you!

But even for me, who loves nothing more than a long tufa route or a technical 30 metre masterpiece, the setting made it worth the effort. Camping in a national park just under the cliffs, surrounded by nature, with a toilet, running water and picnic tables – it’s so wonderfully kiwi! The crag itself is surrounded by thick New Zealand bush, which makes you feel like you’re climbing inside a jungle, only without all the mosquitoes. Who cares if you can barely do a 20-grade route?

Other climbing spots we visited on the North Island are hidden in the Mangorewa Gorge and in the Wharepapa area, both on ignumbrite cliffs, as well as on coastal basalt cliffs at Ti-Point, north of Auckland. Just be prepared to have a proper little adventure and perhaps be shut down by climbs you expect to be easy.

Guidebook:

The definitive climbing guidebook for the South Island is Rock Deluxe South

We found all of the information we needed on North Island climbing on Free Climb NZ.

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