Canyons – essentially, lines cut in the earth by running water – range from 'Grand' (you know the one we're talking about) to 'stunningly beautiful' (think the Verdon Gorge in France.) In the shadows of Mt. Aspiring in New Zealand's Southern Alps, the Gloomy Gorge is decidedly less well known. What makes it unique? Its inaccessibility, depth – and danger. It's also one the few essentially unexplored places left on the planet – until a team of French, American and Kiwi explorers made the trip in March of 2014. (Vine videos: Nicolas Barth)
Why the Gloomy Gorge? It's sinuous, winding path and narrow, high walls (up to 200m) mean sunlight rarely penetrates its depths – and few other things do, too. “Once you're in, there's no going back,” says Nic Barth, an American geologist who studies active faults in New Zealand.
“People have known about this seemingly bottomless chasm for years and years,” he says, “but it's only in the last 10 years that canyoners became very curious about what was inside.” The trench is visible from the popular mountaineering access route up Mt. Aspiring – but it's so deep, no one knew what was down there. Along with photographer Neil Silverwood, skilled canyoner Annette Phillips, and caver/canyoning expert Alain Rohr, he intended to find out.
Scouting of their own, a record summer drought, and significant efforts by a French team who had been working to open the canyon the previous week made the undertaking actually possible. “The goal wasn't to do this for adrenaline or glory, ultimately it was for our curiosity of the unknown,” says Barth. “We went during the lowest possible flow to make things safer and easier.”
“We knew the vertical drop to reach the valley, but no idea what it involved,” says Nic. “It was 650m of drop, across a lateral distance of 800m. It could be two 300m waterfalls, or many smaller ones.”
It's not just about the height, either – it's how much water there is moving (quickly) through a small space. “It has an extremely high volume – a huge catchment sourced from a large glacier,” says Barth. And – it's cold. “It's about 3 degrees C. Almost all the water is glacier-fed so it's a milky blue, opaque color.”
Other hazards and obstacles include inescapable eddies, boulder sieves, and sumps – places where water flows under the ground. But the biggest hazard they expected to find – and did – are 'pour-offs' – waterfalls that flow through a small opening with no ledges or opportunity to see what's down below.
The team used a mix of whitewater and climbing techniques that make up the base of the canyoning sport to descend safely across the various obstacles. It often meant placing artificial anchors to navigate exposed areas, or abseiling down a waterfall.
“Hydraulics – when water pushes you under, or up against a wall – are the most dangerous part,” says Barth. “At one point, we had to do a 16m guided swim across the base of a waterfall. Really frothy whitewater, very aerated, it's tough to stay on top. Without the rope across the pool, the strength of the water would force you into an overhang. You'll recirculate over and over and over. There's no way to get out without being pulled to safety.”
In the end, their success depended entirely on each other. “At this level, canyoning is a team sport,” says Barth. “We relied on each other's strengths to problem solve and safely descend the canyon.”
The explorers originally estimated the Gloomy Gorge would take eight hours to traverse. It ended up taking over 20 hours including a sleepless night. “There was no place to stop – no place to bivvy. We had to keep moving. It's one of the most raw, primal places I've ever been. You're surrounded by smooth, polished rock that's been carved by a roaring river for thousands of years,” says Barth.
“There's a disturbing terror and raw adrenaline rush to being there. It's an intense place, and I'm not sure humans were ever meant to be down there. We felt so remote and so distant – despite the fact that my sleeping bag was just half a kilometre away.”