Warwick Briggs has tramped the Dragons Teeth more times than anyone. But the Teeth are a dangerous place and no one can become complacent.
Warwick Briggs balanced on a near-vertical slope, 300m above the south branch of the Anatoki Valley near Golden Bay. Above him, the Nelson Marlborough Rescue Helicopter manoeuvred to lower a paramedic and a sling.
The unthinkable had just happened: a fall from The Wireless.
Beside Briggs were his tramping companions Amanda Harvey and Julie Sherratt. Amanda was crouched behind Julie to keep her warm.
Briggs watched as the wind buffeted the helicopter’s rotors close to the rock wall of the Dragons Teeth, thinking: “What if the chopper crashes?”
The Dragons Teeth are a dozen topographical canines that rise up in the Douglas Range in Kahurangi National Park. The route traversing them doesn’t include standing on a summit or even hauling up and over a ridgeline, but it’s a challenge of extreme tramping, the last tier of expertise before pitons, crampons and ropes.
Briggs has traversed the Dragons Teeth more times than anyone – he estimates more than 60 times over 40 years including attempts when he’s submitted to the weather and turned back. At 64, with his shaggy hair and beard, there’s an eccentric air as he waves his arms and throws his voice describing a sunset over Saddle South, a storm crashing in and the strange looms of light visible from the Moonscape, his favoured tent site after a traverse of the Teeth.
“You have to know the point of no return,” he says.
He’s led more than 60 tramping buddies across the Dragons Teeth route. “If they have a buddy system and they’ve been and they’ve seen and they’re still keen, I’ll journey with them,” Briggs says.
To have “been” and “seen” means to have tramped into Adelaide Tarn Hut and up to Saddle South, as he calls the saddle south of the hut. The view from here, he says, is the classic; “the picture on the chocolate box”. It’s a chance to observe the undefined high route that traverses the steep sides of the Dragons Teeth above the Anatoki Valley – but before bagging the Teeth, Briggs insists his would-be companions tramp the low route which descends from Adelaide Tarn Hut to the Anatoki Valley and up to the Drunken Sailor. From there, trampers from either route walk out via the Cobb Valley.
“When looking at the great front view from Saddle South you can see these two giant fault scars, from the top down into the valley,” he says. “The first one has The Wireless on it.”
The Wireless: the reason why the Dragons Teeth is always traversed north to south.
Most trampers walk in to Adelaide Tarn from the Aorere via Boulder Lake, a two-day walk. Others come in from the Anatoki via the Yuletide Range. Those who want a dramatic view of the Dragons Teeth without climbing them can tramp from Anatoki Forks Hut to the top of Yuletide Peak.
Taking a tent to the Dragons Teeth is essential because Adelaide Tarn Hut has just four bunks and the next shelter is 12 hours away. Briggs always carries a PLB.
The first bite
When traversing the Dragons Teeth, the hard work begins after Saddle South, with what Briggs calls the Slot. It usually takes five minutes but once, when it was covered with snow and ice, it took him an hour and five minutes.
“We had to punch holes and step gingerly without our packs to create a path and then back up to get the packs. So bang, you’re suddenly at a place that takes a lot longer than you thought and you’ve already worn out half your energy before you’ve even started to climb.”
From the Slot, trampers sidle around and up a steep slope. “There are a few cairns but sometimes they go off in a wrong direction or join back up again. I say I don’t touch cairns but there have been a few times I’ve knocked a cairn over because it’s in the wrong direction.”
The aim is to find the Railway Gulch, a steep-sided gully that splits the top of a ridge before delivering trampers to a scree slope. It’s high up and exposed. Occasionally they’ll see rusted tin lids of jam jars with red arrows. Keith Marshall, pioneer tramper of the Dragons Teeth in the 1960s, nailed these to trees as he gradually defined his route.
Briggs follows the Marshall markers where they remain. More recently, red markers have appeared, left by an unknown tramper whom Briggs calls the Red Man.
“Sometimes the little red markers follow our track and other times they diverge and go off elsewhere.”
Then comes a major shift in gears up rock slabs at the First Tricky Bit, a sidestep up a vertical rock wall. If people make it up there without freaking out, he believes he can get them up The Wireless. If they can’t, it’s not too late to turn back.
As the giant teeth rise from the slope, trampers circuit around the base of each tooth and climb back up the other side, what Briggs calls the Necklaces. It’s near-vertical work: handhold to foothold to handhold.
The trick is knowing when to break away from necklacing the third tooth to find The Wireless. On a trip many years ago, he noticed the deliberate placement of three, mossy white rocks and a coil of wire and took the hint. After a zigzag up the Staircase, he found the occasional Marshall marker and a bottom piton that led to The Wireless. “Then we climb up the rock slab and there’s one way through at the top, at about 11 o’clock.”
The Staircase is a 60m, vertical climb through tight scrub, often with Briggs directing every handhold, every foothold. The next 40m is bare rock: The Wireless. “That’s the tricky bit, that’s the crux of the journey. That’s the bee’s knees. There are some good grips there. It’s not New Zealand Weetbix that falls apart in your hands.
“You put your trust on a rock. You get into the now of the moment and become fully focused. People have accidents when they get home: ‘Ha-ha, it’s all over,’ and then they break their ankle on the doorstep because they’re not thinking. Up there you have to be alert otherwise you bang your nose.”
People freeze at the bottom of The Wireless. Until Julie Sherratt’s accident in January this year, Briggs’ worst moment was with a bloke who desperately wanted to turn back. “I said, ‘No, your mate’s up the top and I’m right here. It’s OK.’ I was already carrying his pack. I had carried mine up and then come back down. And that’s when he said, ‘No, I’ll take my boots off,’ and I thought: oh golly.
“He took his boots off, his jersey off, his hat – and then he said, ‘No, I’m used to running around everywhere in bare feet.’ So he took his boots off and he just ran up.”
The top of The Wireless is three to four hours from Saddle South and it saves the worst for last: the final heave up and over at the top. This is why the Dragons Teeth is always travelled north to south. “Otherwise you look over and you have to go down wearing a pack while still trying to find your footholds,” Briggs says.
Down to the wire
Briggs first traversed the Dragons Teeth in the 1970s with a Canadian and an American – WWOOFers (willing workers on organic farms) before WWOOFers were invented. Briggs took a dog, too – another kind of woofer.
“I wouldn’t do it now, silly of me.” He laughs loud and long.
Back then, The Wireless was still named The Wire, as Keith Marshall had installed a wire there. Briggs was ambivalent about the wire’s benefits.
“You’ve got far better contact if you’re on the rock. If you’re holding the wire, you go to move the other hand and you haven’t got three-point contact because you can’t get a secure hold on a vertical wire, so immediately it was wrong.”
Around his fifth trip, Briggs saw a note in the hut book at Adelaide Tarn Hut. “It said: ‘Bloody hell, why does DOC have this wire here? It’s broken and I could have killed myself’.”
He removed the broken wire, took it to DOC and offered to replace it. DOC agreed it was safer without it and so The Wire became The Wireless.
The Red Man disagrees that The Wireless is the way to go. His markers continue around another Necklace before heading to higher ground in the Mouth beneath the Major Tooth and then, two hours on, to the Chimneys. Keith Marshall originally took these Chimneys as his route and so had Briggs.
“It was hair-raising. You need to know the route or you’ll need a helicopter to take you out. I explored the Chimneys and realised that they all had a spot on them where they were pretty tricky.”
Briggs prefers to enter the Mouth from the top of The Wireless. From there, trampers face up to five hours of a long loop down and around a scrubby ledge that goes over the Chimneys. It’s still toe-tinglingly steep and the bush-bashing has claimed prizes pulled from trampers’ packs: a tent, a grandfather’s watch, hats, a walking stick.
Again, the Marshall markers, the Red Man’s markers and occasional cairn appear and disappear, merge and diverge.
“The scrubby stuff is hard to bash through, and if you don’t know the route you’d be struggling. So if someone got lost at that point, you’d have to bush-bash. You’d sit down and press your PLB or at the base of the Chimney you can make your way down into the valley.” He’s never taken that route but met someone who had found it when they were running out of daylight. “But if you tried to go down prior to that, you’d be bluffed.”
Instead, he camps at the Moonscape, where trampers sleep among giants. From here, Briggs observed strange lights in the distance. It stumped him until one evening, while driving over Porirua Hill north of Wellington, he realised the large trucks beside him were beaming their headlights towards the Dragons Teeth.
Weather permitting, trampers walk up from Moonscape to the Molars around Anatoki Peak in the morning before setting out for Drunken Sailor five hours away.
The Wireless – not for the faint-hearted. Photo: Warwick Briggs
Rescue on The Wireless
Briggs, Amanda Harvey and Julie Sherratt set out for the Dragons Teeth from Adelaide Tarn Hut on Friday, January 13, 2017. Amanda works for DOC; her workmates call her Hardcore Harvey; Julie, then 67, runs regularly and does half-marathons and triathlons. They had just started on The Wireless when Julie slipped.
“I had just moved beyond her so she could move into my space,” Briggs says. “I heard her make a sound and turned around and she was gone.”
“I don’t know why I fell,” Sherratt says. “I think I stood on a wet rock and felt myself falling.”
She landed hard on her pack about 10m below. She rolled down another 30m until stopped by scrub.
“It was only about three seconds before I stopped,” she says. “I yelled out, ‘I’m alive, I’m OK and I think I’ve broken my leg.’”
“I jumped down and nearly fell myself,” Briggs says. “Amanda told me to slow down. So the first few seconds were horror. We got to her and no blood, no bones sticking out and no smashed head.”
Julie was upside-down in a shrubby tree. Briggs removed his pack, then Sherratt’s. He and Harvey lifted her and tucked her behind a tree trunk – difficult work on the steep slope. Sherratt felt no pain, but her knee was smashed. It was an easy decision to activate the PLB.
Knowing that Sherratt would soon feel cold and could go into shock, Briggs and Harvey covered her with clothes and a sleeping bag. “I was not really in any pain,” Sherratt says. “The adrenalin kicked in.”
They were about to brew a cup of tea when, 45 minutes after hitting the PLB, they heard the helicopter and waved a red sleeping bag liner. The winchman had tramped the Dragons Teeth and knew from the GPS coordinates that someone had fallen on The Wireless. He warned his crew they might be retrieving a body.
The chopper hovered so the winchman had eye contact with Briggs who pointed to his own knee and broke an imaginary stick. The pilot understood and landed the helicopter nearby to prepare it for the rescue. For 30 minutes the helicopter attempted to lower the paramedic; four times it had to bail out from being pushed by the wind into the mountain. On the fifth attempt, paramedic Kath Copeland and her sling finally landed a few metres below the trampers; they named her GI Jane.
Copeland gave Sherratt an injection of morphine and splinted her legs. As the helicopter returned, the tiny humans on the bluff clutched the scrub and reached for the winch line. Sherratt rose up towards the white lights, barely conscious. “That drug-induced state was like a sci-fi nightmare,” she says.
Briggs and Harvey decided to continue. Two nights later, a friend met them at Fenella Hut in the Cobb Valley to carry Sherratt’s pack the rest of the way. “When I got to Fenella, that was when my tears came,” Briggs says.
Two weeks before, he had learned that someone had rigged a new wire on The Wireless. Having seen it, he remains adamant that trampers are best not to use it. Sherratt wasn’t touching it when she fell.
Four months on, Sherratt is walking with a crutch and hoping for a full recovery. “I felt that I was very fit, experienced and I could cope with the trip,” she says. “Someone’s got to put a foot wrong sometimes and it happened to be me.”
Mostly, she feels lucky. Lucky that the marginal weather allowed the helicopter to pluck her off and that the shrub stopped her fall. Lucky that her two companions knew what to do. “They are both experienced, rock solid, level-headed.”
She is extremely grateful to the Nelson Marlborough Helicopter for their perseverance. “They’re gutsy and talented people.”
Sherratt won’t be going back to the Dragons Teeth. “You can do a lot of other tramps. The Dragons Teeth is another step. It’s not a tramp; it’s a climb with a tramping pack.”