First ascent: finding unclimbed walls in the Darrans
The Darran Mountains lie deep in the marrow of northern Fiordland—a chunky, perplexing range of diorites and sandstones, gneisses and granites. This is a land of extremes, with the country’s most remote summits, the greatest rainfall and the longest, hardest-to-climb alpine rock walls. Adventurers have been coming here since William Grave and Arthur Talbot in the late 1800s, to test themselves and forge new routes through this vertical landscape.
The Darran Mountains are renowned as a world-class climbing destination, rising sharply from the lowlands; castles of stone and ice, with sheer rock walls guarding their flanks. There are around 80 recognised summits in an area less than 60 kilometres long and 25 kilometres wide, bordered to the east by the straight arm of the Hollyford Valley and to the west by the cold dark shadows of the Tasman Sea. At 2723 metres, the highest is Mt Tutoko, with the second highest, Mt Madeline (2536 metres), nestled in its shadow.
Further east and northeast, the Southern Alps—Ka Tiritiri o te Moana—act as a 500-kilometre-long barrier along the spine of the South Island. Moist clouds, rolling in from the ocean, collide against their western flanks. In the Darrans, this phenomenon can mean an annual rainfall in excess of seven metres. This area of Fiordland is bush choked and fjord chiselled. Smoothed surfaces of dark glacial lakes reflect a land that’s difficult to penetrate, where swift rivers cut through steep-sided valleys and thickset forests remain untroubled by the few who manage to pass beneath them.
The only road access is from the small town of Te Anau, the Milford Highway, which tracks the eastern edge of Lake Te Anau before cutting through the flanks of the Southern Alps. Mountains approach from the west, gently at first with bush skirts and sloping ridges. But, pass over The Divide and the mood of the landscape changes markedly.
Early explorers followed this narrowing valley beside the upper torrent of the Hollyford River until they were met with what seemed to be impassable rock. The physical presence of walls more than a kilometre high, only a few hundred metres from today’s highway, is still a breath-taking sight. The mountains offer routes that climbers dream and—perhaps—have nightmares about.
William Grave, a North Otago schoolteacher, was one of the first to make tentative forays up these colossal fortresses in the late 1800s. During his annual holidays, Grave felt an “irresistible impulse” to venture into what he described as the “fastnesses of nature”.
For years, he and another adventurer, Arthur Talbot, searched for a route from near the source of the Hollyford River, over the Homer Saddle, west into Cleddau Valley and on to the already-popular tourist resort at Milford Sound. Until that time, visitors to the sound could reach it only by boat, but the New Zealand Government was keen for access through the mountains to bolster tourism.
Finally, in 1909, after several attempts, Grave and Talbot discovered a route that would become known as Talbot’s Ladder—a precarious, unlikely spur above the Homer Saddle that led towards Mt McPherson. The men inched up a very exposed staircase of rock, a climb that Grave would later describe as “not too easy”.
With dizzying airspace on both sides, this was probably the first significant rock route climbed in the Darrans. Reaching a peak they called ‘the Snowball’ (Mt McPherson), the men were still faced with a traverse northwest along a ridge towards Mt Isolation, then a slippery descent below Grave/Talbot Pass along dead-end grass ledges, and finally down to the Esperance River and the Cleddau Valley. While not at all suitable as a tourist trail, rather astoundingly this became a recognised mail route into the sound.
Just over a century later, the Darran Mountains have become home to New Zealand’s most technical climbs, both in summer on the huge rock walls and in winter when the walls become frozen sheets of ice. While little may have changed since the days of Grave and Talbot in terms of access, better weather forecasting allows the modern-day climber a greater chance of success.
And yet, the mountains remain just as challenging.
For the climber, there’s little opportunity for direct assault; one must scurry, mouse-like, up frightening terraces festooned with slippery mosses and grasses; sneak along broken shelves stubbled with hebes; and baulk at ledges that end abruptly mid-wall as often as not, all just to get to the real climbing.
It’s this unique combination of elements that creates a sense of intricacy, and urgency, in trips here, for there are endlessly varied combinations and always new spaces to explore.
Within their naturally formed architecture, I find myself drawn to the Darrans—upward, by a gentle curve of frozen snow, and then the sharpening edge of a buttress of rock that may rise for hundreds of metres. The challenge is both in front of me and within me, trying to manage the delicate balance between the challenging landscape, the changeable weather and the potential for risk and reward. I came to Fiordland this year with a small team of climbers to follow in the pioneering footsteps of Grave and Talbot and to test our own limits on unclimbed walls in the range. We would discover soon enough why they have remained unclimbed for so long.
David ‘Stretch’ Newstead passes his fingers across a slab of mottled granite, searching for weakness—a divot, an edge, a knob of rock. But the bald, granite face offers little purchase. The ropes tied to Newstead remain untethered, falling in a long arc back to our belay. If he slips now, he will drop the equivalent of four storeys to the glacier below.
Newstead, along with my wife, Shelley, and I have tramped to this remote location near the head of Moraine Creek. Above us, the summits of Apirana Peak and Mt Revelation curve towards a sky clear of cloud, with the unclimbed wall we are attempting squeezed between them like a wrinkle in a great cloak. With an unnamed high point at over 1700 metres, we have been attracted by the look of clean, sun-bleached granite and the promise of a challenging climb. A narrow glacier has allowed us to walk with crampons through the cool shadows beneath the face.
Attached to Newstead’s harness is an assortment of nuts, mechanical camming devices and pitons, all designed to be placed in cracks in the rock and then clipped to the ropes, offering some protection against a tumble into the void. Already, I have completed the first pitch above the glacier, a series of broken, angled ledges, leading up to the point where the wall steepens considerably. Now, my climbing companion is immersed in the intricacies of route-finding.
“Watch me,” he calls, before attempting a series of moves that, from below, appear ambitious: twist and lock, reach, crimp, step high—Newstead contorts his body into unusual positions, mirroring the rock, performing something resembling vertical yoga.
Below, at the belay, Shelley and I hold our breath. Newstead completes the sequence, sidling towards relative safety in an easier-angled scoop. It’s a small win, but above him, the featureless slab continues without a blemish. This route, it seems, may be impossible to climb after all.
Newstead edges forwards a few more precious inches, his fingertips searching the steep slab, before withdrawing. Without an anchor to reduce the risk, proceeding further would be madness. He manages a retreat, picking his way carefully down the rock wall the same way he came up.
This attempt ended in defeat, but arching walls, buttresses and arêtes surround us on all sides—hectares of rock stretching to the skyline, offering a multitude of possibilities for a first ascent… and one in particular higher up the valley.
East Twin is one of a triplet of rock pyramids inland from Milford Sound. During Grave and Talbot’s descent into the Esperance, they would likely have eyed the summits of East Twin, West Twin and The Sentinel with amazement—from the valley floor, these alarmingly steep walls rise for almost a mile. Today, from the spectacular but easily accessed Gertrude Saddle, tourists gape at the sudden exposure, the three summits framing a view that sweeps down into Milford Sound and the iconic Mitre Peak.
In attempting to climb one of these peaks, Newstead and I are following the footsteps of some of this country’s best and most stubborn climbers, including Lindsay Stewart, a Dunedin medical student who became entranced by the Darrans during the 1930s.
As Stewart and his friends made first ascents of Mts Revelation, Te Wera, Underwood and Karetai—among the most remote mountains in the country—they, like us, gazed out on views of untouched precipices and azure ice that stretched for miles before them.
Stewart, along with Jim Dakin and Jack Warren, made the first ascent of East Twin in 1936, along the South East Ridge. This remains one of the only routes up the mountain; its summit has probably been reached no more than a handful of times in the decades since Stewart’s first ascent.
For our next (hopefully more successful) trip two weeks later, Newstead and I are accompanied by Elke Braun-Elwert, a Tekapo based climber and guide. Braun-Elwert has taken over her late father Gottlieb Braun-Elwert’s guiding company, Alpine Recreation.
For Elke Braun-Elwert, this trip is an opportunity for some ‘amateur’ climbing before her final international-level guiding assessment.
The three of us are aiming for the East Face of East Twin, an unclimbed curve of rock that I first spotted years earlier when exploring high above the dark water of Lake Adelaide, and then again studied during the recent failed trip with Newstead and my wife.
Steep, rising around 400 metres above a glacier at its highest point, the wall looked to have plenty of features that should allow numerous climbing opportunities. Looking up at a face like this has always filled me with a certain level of apprehension.
Newstead, Braun-Elwert and I make our way past the last of the day-trippers at Gertrude Saddle and within minutes find ourselves alone in a nearly vertical landscape, traversing narrow terraces under the summit of Barrier Knob, across a section of rock referred to by some as the “sui-sidle”. While not difficult in climbing terms, the huge, exposed drop below the ledge and the slippery, wet lichen add to the risk and the atmosphere. By evening, we have found smoothed slabs flat enough to spend the night on, the rock warmed by the last evening light.
As twilight comes and we settle into our bivouac bags, I can’t help but think of who else may have passed by this way, perhaps bivvying in the same spot and looking out over the same mountain summits. Nearly two decades after Stewart’s climbing in the 1930s, another Dunedin medical student pored obsessively through the pages of Stewart’s written adventures.
“As I re-read his account of those climbs,” wrote Mike Gill in his book Mountain Midsummer (1969), “I seemed to find the same enthusiasm and sense of wonder… the same awareness of the magic of the landscape, the same zeal for exploring its landmarks and byways.”
Gill was staying in the same Dunedin hostel during his 1956 medical studies as the young Phil Houghton. When he noticed that a new ice axe had been delivered to Houghton’s room, Gill poked his head through the doorway. “See you do a bit of climbing,” he said. “I do a bit myself.”
Gill described Houghton’s car as a “poor maltreated Morris Minor called Doodle whose scarlet and cream paintwork showed dimly through dust accumulated on backcountry roads. On the back seat and in the boot there was always a litter of primuses, old food, plastic bags, pitons, fragments of rope and sometimes a dead rabbit.”
Gill and Houghton went on to complete a number of first ascents in the area, including the West Ridge of Sabre Peak in 1959, an impressive fin of rock that I can see from my bivvy site, its skyline ridges silhouetted by the setting sun. Regardless of tomorrow’s outcome, I already feel a part of the landscape and its history.
“Pass me the hammer,” calls Braun-
“The hammer. Pass it up.”
Newstead and I look at each other. On first consideration, using an ice hammer to climb rock in summer seems rather unorthodox. But Braun-Elbert is still close enough to the ground that I can hand the ice-climbing tool to her without mentioning our dismay.
We are starting the first pitch on the East Face of East Twin, a steep slab that angles up and right, split by ledges and overhangs that we will—hopefully—be able to traverse around. I have already had an attempt on the slab, choosing to start to the left of Braun-Elwert, and quickly finding very awkward climbing without anchors to protect from a fall. As the route became increasingly difficult and dangerous, I was forced to reverse my moves and return to the ground. Knowing that this was only the start of the climb, and wondering what hidden difficulties loomed higher, I felt a bit shaken by the effort.
Braun-Elwert has chosen a line slightly further to the right, starting beneath a tongue of ice that sticks out from the glacier. Now, as Newstead and I watch, she swings the hammer into the ice, using it as a handhold while ‘smearing’ her climbing shoes up the smooth slab without any footholds—using only the friction of the sole on the rock face.
A delicate and brilliant series of ice/rock combined moves (on what turns out to be the crux of the climb) sees Braun-Elwert past the difficulties that had halted me and on to easier angled ground above. First ascents often require innovation like this, to find a solution that hasn’t occurred to others. I remind Newstead that we should have thought of it.
Braun-Elwert disappears over a prow of rock, and the twin ropes slither quietly after her, the only indication we have that she’s continuing to make progress. Sixty metres above us and some time later, she calls out “Safe”. With early morning sun finally starting to warm the face, it is our turn to climb.
The sky is free of cloud and a light breeze blows across the face. Rather than being weighted by the increasing airspace below, I focus on what is in front of me: small details on the rock that allow me to move, the quiet concentration required, the way the chalk feels against coarse granite, the clink of carabiners on my harness as I dislodge a wire from the crack it has been wedged in to, the careful breathing and focus that keep me in the here and the now. Reaching the broad ledge Braun-Elwert belays from comes almost as a surprise.
A nasty-looking overhang rears across the wall above us. It is Newstead’s turn to lead, and he carefully racks the carabiners and wires and cams on his harness, within easy reach for when he may need them.
“Maybe out to the right,” I suggest, indicating a steep but well-featured short wall that looks like it traverses past the difficulties. But we can see for only a few metres, the rest of the climb refusing to reveal itself from this position. Newstead nods without replying and starts to climb.
Newstead’s pitch, and each pitch thereafter, is challenging enough, the positioning and choice of anchors a unique puzzle to solve. And every solution found encourages the lead climber enough to carry on up the next arête and around the next corner.
It’s an addictive process. The higher you rise, the higher the stakes become, and the harder it is to pack it all in and turn back if the climbing suddenly becomes too difficult. But these are the acute balances to strike while attempting a new route in a place such as this, even if misjudgments can be costly.
The last lead is again Newstead’s, a final apex of rock that will place us high on the summit ridge of East Twin. The wind has increased a bit, and more clouds drift by. Another hour passes and Braun-Elbert and I follow. Then there is nothing more to climb.
Where we are standing will likely have been reached by only a handful of others before us. And we have found a new route to get here, the first ascent of the East Face of East Twin. We’re at once part of climbing history and writing climbing history. And yet, the route is only half completed. Often, the most challenging, and sometimes dangerous, part of climbing a mountain is getting off it again.
The sun is well on its way towards the western horizon. On every side, steep drops disappear into the void. The only means to descend is by abseil, back down the same way we have climbed. The ice hammer is produced again, this time used in a more orthodox manner, to whack pitons into cracks in the rock so we have secure anchors to abseil from. Being the heaviest, I get the role of going first to test the security of each anchor placement.
Some time later, back on a flattish knob of rock at the start of the route, I watch shadows lengthen across the wall we have climbed and wait for the others to complete the final abseil. Behind me, hidden by the wall we have just climbed, is Mitre Peak. In December 1955, Gill stood alone on its summit and looked inland across an “unknown array of ridges and ice falls and grey rock faces”.
For Gill, and generations of climbers who followed him, falling in love with the mountains was like any other love. “There comes a moment when you are aware of someone uniquely and bewitchingly different,” he wrote. “I was smitten hopelessly.”