I have a confession to make.
As much as I tout New Zealand’s winter being amazing and equally, if not more, deserving of your time and energy, there’s still a tiny corner of my soul that’s always a little disappointed when May rolls around. The cold sets in, the daylight dwindles, it’s too early to ski and too late to get up into some high peaks.
In Wanaka, we also get the added benefit of an inversion layer: a thick, dense cloud that sits low above the town until it burns off in the early afternoon, finally giving us some sunshine.
Fortunately in New Zealand, if you have the willpower to fight off the beckoning sofa in front of the roaring fire, you’ll have no problem finding activities to get you outside. You might choose to tour a local vineyard. Perhaps you’ll go on a bike ride.
Or maybe you’ll climb up a waterfall.
Yes, you heard me. Climb UP a waterfall.
I know, it sounds insane and even if it is possible, it sounds like something only the ultra-fit and super brave could achieve. Hear me out.
Last month, I finally got to see for myself that not only is it possible, almost anyone could do it! I was able to join in on one of Wanaka’s fastest growing adventure tourism activities, Wildwire.
Wildfire is a new-ish business in Wanaka that takes those with an adventurous spirit up a jaw-droppingly beautiful Via Ferrata, offering one of the best views of the Matukituki Valley and, probably New Zealand. Bold statement, I know.
The phrase Via Ferrata is an Italian phrase meaning Iron Way or Iron Road. This type of climbing was invented in Italy by WWI soldiers who needed to get creative when it came to getting up and around sheer mountain cliffs. The soldiers placed cables and iron rungs into seemingly impossible areas which allowed them to quickly scale mountains with little risk.
Now, Via Ferratas are mainly used for recreation with the majority of climbs being found in Europe.
In 2015, New Zealand got its very own Via Ferrata and in typical kiwi go-big-or-go-home fashion, it also just happens to be the highest waterfall climb in the world.
Are your palms sweaty yet? I’m wouldn’t consider myself an adrenaline junkie but with an ever adventurous itch, I’ve been eager see what all the buzz was about.
The morning of the climbing, everyone in the group met outside of the iSite in town where we were greeted by one of the guides, Kate, who would drive us to the waterfall and lead the Wild Things climb.
Wildwire has three levels of climbing: Go Wild, Wild Thing, and Lord of the Rungs.
Go Wild, the easiest level taking climbers into the heart of the waterfall and crossing a handful of suspension bridges before topping out at 35m and descending via a walking trail. Wild Thing takes it to the next level, climbing even higher and traversing vertically beside the waterfall, and climbers reach 60 meters and descend via a walking trail which takes approximately 45 minutes.
Lord of the Rungs in the mack daddy of the climbs, climbing all the way to the top of the falls. The climbing in this leg gets a bit harder with steeper terrain and overhanging climbs. It’s recommended to fit people who have a hearty sense of adventure!
I was part of a small group of three who would attempt the Lord of the Rungs level, completing the entire course. The other two in my group were an awesome adventurous couple from Wellington who had flown down to Wanaka specifically to do Wildwire as a surprise 50th birthday present.
Hello, adventure couple goals!
Before long we were pulling onto the private 4WD road to the waterfall.
We were met by our fantastic guide, Sarah, who would be our fearless leader to the top of the falls. We strapped on the climbing harness and helmets and got a quick debriefing of how the safety systems work.
I was thankful to have a practice run on a larger boulder so I could really get the hang off of the clips and the technique. They gave us plenty of time to work out the kinks and ask questions while on the ground so we’d be more than comfortable once we were scaling the waterfall.
We took a moment to appreciate the warm sun on an otherwise brisk early winter day. We were so lucky with full sun and no wind!
I debated on how many layers to take up the waterfall knowing it’d be in the shade for most of it but also I’d be climbing and working up a sweat. In the end, I went with two base layers and jacket with a waterproof in my bag. I also packed a water bottle and a hat and gloves, just in case.
Packed and ready to go, we started off on our climb.
The excitement was high in our group as we started out so we made quick work of the first level of the climb. Every time we turned around we were faced with this view!
I have seen this valley hundreds of times before and driven by this waterfall countless times, but it never ceases to amaze me; I was geeking out over this new perspective of the valley.
How incredible to see it from this view?
After our quick ascent of the first section, our guide pulled out Whittaker’s chocolate (a New Zealand classic!) and grapes as a snack. We refueled a bit and continued on, ready for the next challenge.
The second leg of the climb included even more exposure and allowed us to have some fun on the bridges.
The bridges and cables are designed to withstand tons of weight.
To put it to the test, we clipped into the cable above us and staggering ourselves, swung out off the bridge, dangling dozens of meters in the air above the rushing waterfall below. Even though we knew the gear was solid and we were overly safe, it was still a battle of the mind and body to push yourself off the bridge and be suspended in space.
We reached our next checkpoint before too long and enjoyed a delicious sandwich from a local cafe for lunch.
Our guide told us the day before she had led a bunch of college kids from a neighboring town and each and every one of them insisted on swimming beneath the falls on the lunch break. With the temperatures reaching a balmy high of 5 degrees, I shuddered and secretly commended the brute and strength of Kiwi kids.
They really don’t make them the same anywhere else. I could barely be coaxed into anything colder than a bathtub as a kid. (And still now, let’s be honest.)
As we ate, our guide prepped us for the last and final leg of our adventure.
This bit would become significantly harder with steeper climbing and more exposure to conquer. In addition to these added challenges, we’d also be potentially facing some freezing cold waterfall spray. She instructed us to move as quickly as possible through the first 5 meters and before we knew it, she was off sprinting towards the rungs battling the wind and the water. I followed suit and scrambled up as quickly as possible to get out of the cold. The other two weren’t far behind and despite being a little wet and cold, we were on our way.
A few more bridges and we arrived at what ended up being the highlight of the trip for me: a traverse behind the waterfall on a narrow board bridge. It was so surreal to stop behind the waterfall and look out into the valley through the falls.
The next bit was the physically hardest part of the climb.
It involved a big overhang which made our bodyweight feel 10 times heavier.
Our guide was good at instructing us how to clip in and how to safely let the ropes hold us so we could take breaks. We passed the overhang without too much difficulty and the rest was all fun and games from there.
The Lord of the Rungs does include a zip line but because we only had one guide instead of two, we couldn’t really use it to get from point A to point B. So instead, one by one we swung around on the zip line before being hoisted back once we had reached the end of the line.
We were all getting a little sad towards the end of the climb, knowing that the adventure was coming to a close..
Despite the increasingly spectacular views, we knew our adventure was coming to an end. We took in the final views of the valley through the narrow slots of the waterfall.
Don’t worry, I’ll be back!
When we topped out and unclipped from the cables, we were met with an unexpected fairy valley hidden away at the top of the falls!
As we high-fived and relived the high of the climb, our guide called a local helicopter pilot to pick us up.
As you do in New Zealand.
We only waited a few minutes before our very glamorous taxi down arrived. It was such a surreal feeling having climbed all that way for hours only to be deposited on the valley floor again within minutes. As we landed, we had an epic view of the waterfall we had just tackled.
What an adventure! This was seriously a day for the books and couldn’t recommend it more!
Have you ever climbed on a via ferrata? Where? Does this adventure sound appealing to you? Share!
Wildwire Wanaka – The Lord of the Rungs