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The South Island’s Castle Hill Basin, in Canterbury, is New Zealand’s showpiece bouldering area.
Thousands of limestone boulders lie in grassy alpine meadows across the basin. The climbing style is very unique—there is very little friction, and even less in the way of conventional hand or foot holds. To be successful at Castle Hill, you don’t pull on the slopers … you climb them.
There is both route climbing and bouldering in the basin. The reality is that you’re going to struggle to rope up when faced with the magnificence of the Castle Hill boulders, but if you do decide to venture onto some routes, look for the newer, stainless steel glue-in bolts, these indicate a safe, quality climb that has been deemed worthy of a re-bolt investment.
There are four main climbing areas in the Castle Hill Basin.
Kura Tawhiti/Castle Hill includes four large boulder fields: Spittle Hill, Quantum Field, Wuthering Heights and Dark Castle, which together contain problems and routes that number in the thousands. Spittle and Quantum are the most popular areas, they both lie just a few minutes walk from the road. The boulders in these two fields are generally smaller and less featured, and some of the most popular climbs are becoming polished. Wuthering Heights has less climbs, but is set in a beautiful, peaceful location on top of the hill. Dark Castle is rarely visited as much of it is off-limits to climbers.
Prebble Hill, also known as the Teapot because the boulders form the distinct shape of a teapot when viewed from the road, is also rarely visited, mainly because it is a proper mission to access this field. There are some mega-classic problems at Prebble, and although there are hundreds of established climbs, there is potential for plenty more. You’ll almost definitely be on your own out there, so if you fancy a bit of questing, take a brush and endure the approach march—it’s worth it.
The once-popular Dry Valley sees little traffic these days. This is likely because a change in the access arrangement a few years ago means that you now have to walk past Flock Hill to get there. If you can somehow resist the overwhelming magnetic force of the world’s best boulder field, and endure an extra ten minutes walk to get to Dry Valley, you’ll be treated to a variety of classic problems, some of which even have holds! Take a brush, you won’t find any polish here.
And finally, the jewel of New Zealand rock climbing—Flock Hill. This is undoubtedly New Zealand’s best bouldering area. The lines are big, proud and featured. This field is like Kura Tawhiti on steroids. Wandering around lost in the massive labyrinth of super-sized boulders on your first day at Flock is a pretty special experience, it seems like around every corner there is another all-world problem. There are climbs to suit everyone here, but note that most sub-V4 problems aren’t named or recorded, so you’ll need a little bit of adventurous spirit to make the most of your day at that level. The area really shines in the V6 to V10 range. And there are plenty of king line projects in the V13+ category.
[Note that Flock Hill and Dry Valley are on private farm land and are closed for lambing from 1 October to 25 December every year. Also, you must read this safety notice before every visit to Flock Hill or Dry Valley.]
The most popular option for the travelling climber is to stay at the Craigieburn Campground, on the Broken River Ski Area road. This basic campsite, set amongst lovely native beech forest by a small stream is administered by the Department of Conservation. It is remote and quiet, with space for tents or vans, a small shelter, one toilet, and that’s about it.
There is also holiday rental accommodation at Castle Hill Village, which is a great option if you prefer the comforts of indoor living. Try castlehill.net.nz or bookabach.co.nz for details.
There are no shops at the village, so get all your supplies in Christchurch or Greymouth before heading to Castle Hill.
The best online resource for bouldering in the basin is castlehillbasin.co.nz. There is no guidebook for Flock Hill, Prebble Hill or Dry Valley, but castlehillbasin.co.nz has Google Earth co-ordinates, photos and descriptions for many problems, which is more than good enough to get you to the climbs that matter.
Webcam is here: castlehill.net.nz.
Check out James Morris’ 2009 photo-essay on first ascents at Flock Hill from issue 69 of The Climber magazine.