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Thursday, 16 July 2015

Winter in the Darrans

The Darran mountains of Fiordland is an intimidating place. In summer, sheer granite rises out of the glacially carved valleys, swathed in mist and vegetation, waterfalls searing down from hanging snowfields following the inevitable rain.  But in the depth of winter, when sub-zero temperatures take hold, the resources from this endless precipitation is embraced, when, if you are lucky, those precipitous faces are coated in a thick layer of ... ICE.
Steve on Squealing, Cirque Creek. Photo: Ben Dare

We pulled off the Milford highway near Homer Tunnel at 2AM, sliding down the icy lane to Homer Hut, our base for the following five days of the Darrans Winter Meet. Climbers from around the country would congregate here during the week to climb the surrounding peaks and ice routes.

Weary from the ten-hour drive from Christchurch, but eager to sample the conditions, Reg and I woke early to try a route on the Tunnel Bluffs.

Homer Hut - our comfortable base for the week
Large amounts of new snow banked out the base of our chosen route on the Tunnel Bluffs, thankfully the approach was short with only limited snow plugging. What would typically be intricate mixed climbing was now a straightforward snow climb until the angle steepened into a full pitch of exciting WI3. I led the pitch, eager to gain more experience on the icy sharp end. As I brought up Reg, our Australian compatriot Lincoln had caught us up and was keen to follow. He tied into one of the two half ropes and we expanded to a party of three. Two or three more pleasant pitches later we had reached the crest of the Homer ridgeline with spectacular views down the Cleddau leading to Milford and towards Mt Crosscut.

Following the final pitch on Blurred Vision (4, IV), Mt Crosscut in the background
We climbed as a three along the snow-fluted ridgeline, placing protection as we travelled, belaying the leader through any tricky sections. Once at the base of Talbot's ladder, we were treated to a long glissade descent back into the Macpherson Cirque.

Simul-climbing along the Homer Tunnel ridgeline after topping out our route. Photo: Lincoln Quilliam

Macpherson Cirque (left), Getrude Valley (right). Photo: Lincoln Quilliam

Lincoln on the Homer ridgeline, Mt Moir Massif behind. Photo: Reg Measures
There, something caught Reg's eye. A glowing blue streak of ice searing through the centre of the 200 metre high face of Macpherson Cirque. Walking to the base and striking his ice tools into the freeze confirmed its quality.

Reg returned to the hut sometime later, eyes wide open, raving about the mythical ice line, Stirling Moss, now seemingly in top condition, un-climbed in twenty years, still awaiting its third ascent...

Stirling Moss, a 200 metre ice route in the Macpherson Cirque

Captivated by his enthusiasm for an attempt on the historic line, first climbed in the big winter of 1992, I agreed to follow Reg up the difficult route. Unsure if I would be capable of climbing such steep ice, truly vertical in several sections and rated at WI5, I was full of apprehension as we approached the awe-inspiring wall. As we geared up at the base, Reg announced that he would be leading the first two crux pitches, and I would be leading us to the top-out of the wall. I agreed, not quite knowing what lay in store, but my sense of adventure ingited...

Reg leading on the first pitch of Stirling Moss
An ice-climbers ritual, Reg swung his arms violently in a circular motion to force warm blood into the finger tips, checked the rack of ten ice screws and quick draws were in order, and then planted his tools and crampons into the ice. I fed out the double ropes, standing well to the side to avoid the shards of ice raining down as Reg hacked his way up the luminous blue water ice.

Pausing only momentarily to fire in the ice screws, he pulled through the first overlap without hesitation. I took note of his excellent technique, finding quick rests where possible and charging through the steepness, hooking tools between hanging icicles and swinging with precision.

The ice felt even steeper at close range. Following the bulging blue streak, I hung from my arms to insert Cyborg crampons into the brittle ice, thankful for their agressive, freshly sharpened vertical points. Standing up, locked off on one tool, I swung overhead several times into shattering ice before I gained solid purchase. The pump was real, the sweat was dripping, and the focus reigned tight. Pulling past the difficulties, I climbed up to Reg at the anchor breathing heavily.

"Wow. I've never climbed such steep ice...", I told him.

Reg smiled with the glint of a madman as he eyed up the pitch above - the crux - a roof with hanging chandelier ice touching down to the ice below. This is the gnarly section that culminates in a pull-up on frozen turf and has spat off at least one climber in the past.

Reg leading the crux second pitch of Stirling Moss
Reg worked his way up to the overhang, traversing beneath the waterfall, regretting his choice of softshell jacket as he was partially soaked by the icy spray. The heavily featured ice allowed creative hooking, saving power and energy for the crux moves.

Reg slung a large icicle and placed a short screw into the pillar for protection, hooked the hanging column and moved left into an awkward, off-balance stance. Tenuously, he swung over the lip, finding just enough ice to the left of the main flow and pulled over the overhang, committed to the sequence. An impressive lead.

The rope eventually came tight on me, and I marvelled at the boldness required to lead into such uncertain terrain. Relieved as the angle finally relented, I remembered that I would now have to fulfil my part of the deal. The next two pitches were mine.

Reg following the third pitch, a long pitch on un-relenting waves of 70 degree ice
Fortunately, the angle of the clean slabs of water ice seemed reasonable, and I was initially at ease with the prospect of taking the lead. However as I ran the rope out further and further, the fatigue was accumulating, and each ice screw seemed to disappear far below so quickly after each placement. The exposure was immense. I held out hopes of finding a belay ledge, for rest, but as I climbed to the end of the 60m pitch, I was forced to settle for a hanging stance on the 70 degree ice slope.

By the time Reg joined me at the belay, despite my nerves for the final pitch, the discomfort of the belay motivated me upwards and I racked up once more, psyched for the top-out. 

Reg following the third pitch of Stirling Moss, removing an ice-screw placed during the lead
A previous party had placed a bolt on this last pitch, complaining of 'sketchy snow', and I understood their fear. The ice quality deteriorated in places, requiring calmness and perseverance to search for secure holds before moving higher. This pitch of WI4 was a real challenge, but with the top-out in sight I kept moving higher, and with relief and satisfaction I reached plastic neve and charged to the top. The stoke was high.

Four long abseils later, Reg and I stood at the base of the route again, and at the same moment saw Steve & Ben returning from their climb of Gomer and a WI6 pillar on the upper tier. We returned to Homer that afternoon for a well deserved rest, and to scheme a plan for the last day of fine weather.

Ben Dare, pysched on the great conditions of the Macpherson Cirque. Stirling Moss in red. Photo: Steve Fortune
With Reg amped for a quick ski-mountaineering mission over the Talbot-Macpherson traverse, a classic Darrans circuit, I teamed up with Lincoln for a trip into the Cirque Creek, the next valley east of Getrude.

Dawn in the Darrans - Mt Talbot (left) and Mt Crosscut (right). Photo: Lincoln Quilliam
 An early start saw us leaping across icy boulders in the Hollyford river to gain access to Cirque Creek, while admiring the shining summit pyramid of Mt Talbot, home to several quality lines on the triangular east face.

We clambered over avalanche debris low-down in the valley, en-route for Scratch & Tickle, a 300m ice line in the lower cirque. However, another line suddenly caught Lincoln's eye. An icy incision cut through hundreds of metres of frozen watercourse into a wide snow basin, followed by a stunning ice gulley higher up, topping out on the ice plateau below Mt Crosscut. As far as the guide-book let on, this would be a new route. Lincoln fizzed at the potential adventure of an un-climbed winter line in the Darrans. Sharing his enthusiasm, we ventured up into the unknown.

Approaching the base of the steep ice gulley. Photo: Lincoln Quilliam
After dispatching with the approach, which consisted of several ice steps up a vegetated stream, we forged on towards the main ice gully. We encountered 200 metres of enjoyable terrain, simul-climbing up the narrow gully placing ice-screws and rock protection as we climbed. A pumpy crux pitch at the top of the couloir was well protected with rock pro and slung icicles. Several more pitches took us onto an exposed steep ridgeline, weaving through rocky gendarmes until we were finally on the crest of the ice plateau.

Plastic ice and neve snow in the Freycinet gulley. Photo: Lincoln Quilliam

Lincoln and I at the top of our route 'Freycinet' 600m (3, IV) in Cirque Creek. Photo: Lincoln Quilliam
Ten interesting abseils were required to descend the route. Photo: Lincoln Quilliam

Mt Crosscut's summit was still high above and would require many more hours to reach. We called it a day and began the long descent back to the valley floor - ten abseils on chockstone threads, pitons, trees and a snow bollard took us down the mountain and into the darkness of night. We stumbled back out the valley reaching our car at 10pm, thoroughly exhausted after a 15-hour day on the route.

We burst into Homer hut to cheers from our fellow Darrans winter meet compadres, at first un-convinced that our route was un-climbed, but later confirmed by Al Walker as a new route. Lincoln named our line 'Freycinet', reminiscent of many pleasant summer days spent climbing on the sea-cliffs of Tasmania.

Freycinet (IV 3), our new line marked in red. Photo: Lincoln Quilliam

With all great things coming to an end, after three days of superb winter weather, the heavens at last broke, freezing levels climbed, saturating the snow pack, and returning water-ice to water-falls...
Wild weather in Fiordland - the golden spell finally breaks. Photo: Lincoln Quilliam

Waterfalls surge down steep granite faces into the Cleddau. Photo: Lincoln Quilliam
Two days later, the poor weather finally abated. I teamed up with Johan and Lincoln for an attempt on that beautiful east face of Mt Talbot, namely the airy 'JC Crack'. We set off well before dawn up the Getrude Valley, watching Steve & Reg's headlamps progress up the Barrier face on their approach to Marian, as we ascended above Black Lake towards Talbot. 

Johan and Lincoln hiking up towards Mt Talbot, above Getrude Saddle
Sadly, the snow conditions were still too soft, and we made the decision to turn back well before reaching Talbot. The recent rains had done too much damage, and the freezing levels had not dropped low enough to set a good freeze. Our efforts were futile, and we returned to Homer longing for the conditions of the previous days to return.

Deciding to turn back from Mt Talbot due to poor snow conditions. Photo: Lincoln Quilliam

Johan near Getrude Saddle

Johan and I decided to venture towards the Remarkables in search of better conditions. Following a chilly night in Johan's van, we headed to the West Face for an attempt on the classic Friday Fool, a four-pitch ice and mixed climb.

View from Queen's Drive, Remarkables

Johan on Friday's Fool, West Face of Remarkables (WI3, M4)
Despite Johan's best efforts, the ice here was also too rotten, and he could not commit to the crux bulge above, ice dinner plating away with no chance to place good protection. He carefully down-climbed and we moved on to the Clearances, which appeared to hold much better ice, with more rock for protection.

Johan on the Clearances (M5)
The Clearances was an intense route, with just enough ice to make progress, and tenuous dry tooling adding to the challenge.

Daunted by the final steep rock of the Clearances Direct Finish (M5)
On the third and final pitch, I slowly worked my way up the steepening rocky gully, bridging widely and hooking my tools blindly beneath the sugary snow. The protection was great, but on the final overhang, just 10 metres from the top, I was totally shut down by the sheer steepness of the climbing. Dejected and overcome, I abseiled off a piton to re-join Johan, and we descended to Queen's Drive after a second failure, but nevertheless, an exciting and memorable day out.

It is often the failures where the most is learnt and the stronger friendships are made by forging through the struggle, searching for our limits, and returning safely for another day.

The highs and lows of winter climbing in the Darrans - a magical place - far from the crowds and full of potential for great adventures.

Sunset over Wakatipu after a challenging day of mixed & ice climbing


  1. Really enjoyed these adventures. Thanks

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