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Sunday, 12 January 2014

Disaster in the Darrans

The Darran mountains are the mecca for alpine rock climbing in New Zealand, home to the largest walls of most immaculate granite and diorite in the country. Tony had been treated a taste of Darran’s gold the previous summer, so together we returned the following January for round two. We hitch hiked to Homer Hut from Queenstown, the precipitous ranges still swathed in mist, waterfalls pouring off the giant faces. A mountaingasm swept over me - we had arrived. As a large high slowly moved over the Tasman towards Fiordland, we prepared for our first warm-up climb - a true Darran’s classic - the Bowen Allan Corner.

Tony beneath the Moir massif on the early approach. Moir's Mate is directly above Tony's head
The Bowen Allan Corner is an 8-pitch route situated high above the Homer Tunnel on the north-west face of Moir's Mate. The approach is no Froggatt womble; the three-hour 'walk' involves traversing the razor sharp Homer ridge line, making Malte's cheval look like a butter knife. Five hundred metres below, the first tourists were arriving for their own share of Fiordland glory.

The Homer Ridgeline, with Talbots Ladder and Macpherson above

Aware of the tricky approach, we left Homer hut soon after dawn, arriving at the base of the route by mid-morning. However, due to the sheerness and orientation of the rock-face, the sun was still nowhere to be seen, hiding just beyond the crest of the summit pyramid. The rock was soaking wet and streaked with verglas, reminiscent more of Patagonia than the warm summer alpine rock we were expecting. This is real climbing, we remembered. Determined to begin lest risk a cold bivvy on the long route, we picked a relatively dry line and climbed up in gloves, groaning through waves of hot-aches. Our slow, painful progress was to the bemusement of a group of onlookers, who happened to be some of NZ's top climbers. They had arrived later and relaxed in the sun watching us, before moving onto their own hard projects.

Unable to find the fabled rock horn belay, and sketched out by a very wet corner, I slapped in a few good pieces and brought up Tony. Forced to deviate from the true route, which as well as being vegetated also hosted a crop of icicles, Tony pioneered a new line up a very blank arête. 'My protection is crap!' he yelled, before scraping desperately up the coarse rock. If only he hadn't dropped the micro-offsets! Finally a beam of light, Tony spotted the horn: 2 hours in and 'pitch 1' complete.

I raced up an easy, but extremely wandering pitch, resulting in horrendous rope drag despite extenders and double ropes. From a comfortable belay ledge, Tony was again dumped with a difficult pitch. Despite a dry-looking corner to the right, Tony decided to tend left, following the guide book's apparent wisdom. Ten meters up, Tony found himself lay-backed precariously in a steep corner, the crack greasier than the juiciest of Te Anau's famous venison pies.

The corner system in dry conditions. Photo: Eric & Lucie's bus trip


Shaking on a smeary left foot and gripping the shallow flake, Tony calmly selected the #0.1 cam and inserted her innocent lobes into the slimy, flaring crack. The rope clipped. Tony was committed. One subtle adjustment of body weight was enough to upset the tender balance of climbing rubber traction and gravity. Feet cut, Tony plummeted. I locked the rope tight, watching in horror as the cam popped, and my partner continued falling out of view until the rope and slings jolted tight. Silently I waited. Long mumbled groans broke the cold Darran air. 'Aaaaaaa├▒nnnnnnnnggggggggg'. Tony hobbled into view and beckoned me to bring him down, hardly caring about lowering off his next piece, desperate just to come down to safety.

At first glance he looked fine, if suffering from a bit of whipper-shock. Unraveling his OR cirque pants, I winced as yellow skin was now stained scarlet. More leg revealed more gore - a perfect V-gash two inches wide, skin stretching open to expose bloody tissue and bone. Serious. The stupendous view down the Cleddau Valley towards Milford was now a brutal reminder of the epic descent we now faced. I heroically retrieved Tony's gear from the killer pitch while he self-applied first aid. Two long abseils and the same harrowing ridge traverse eventually brought us to the road, Tony limping bravely just behind.

Retreating back along the Homer Ridge, Cleddau Valley far below


The sport climbers at Homer Hut gawped at the gore, quietly reminding themselves why they clip bolts on polished rock. Our friend Jude from Chamonix was fortunately also leaving to Te Anau, where Tony was quickly stitched up by the on-call doctor - also a fellow climber. A picture on his wall framed a climber traversing Madeline, Tutoko shining bright in the background; the jealously welled up. The Darran mountains are a tough nut to crack. There is a lifetime of climbing to be had in that small cluster of soaring peaks and ridges. We'll be back, better prepared, and with scars to prove it.

Mt Tutoko from Ngapunatoru Plateau. Photo: Ian Brown

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