Fjordland in the South West of New Zealand is one of the wettest places on Earth, receiving 200 days of rainfall in an average year and up to 8000mm of rain a year. The Darran mountains in the north of Fjordland are also one of New Zealand’s most spectacular and best rock and alpine climbing areas. So when we spotted a dry weather forecast for a few days, we decided to make the most of the opportunity and set off on the long and circuitous drive to Milford Sound.
The Darran mountains are remote, (it’s over 100km from the nearest town, Te Anau) wild and precipitous, with steep sided bush clad slopes, and alpine rocky summits.
We decided to aim for Talbot’s East Ridge as it can be completed in a day trip from the road, many of the routes in the Darran’s require a day or more just to get to them.
So we started the long hike up the Gertrude Valley, following the path through dense bush, and tussocks to reach the steep headwall at the top of the valley, where we continued up a scree covered path and over granite rock slabs to Black Lake. At Black Lake we had to jump across the outlet and climb a short boulder problem wall, before continuing up the rock slabs heading up the shoulder towards the East Ridge.
We eventually hit the snow, and donned crampons before continuing. The snow was rock hard old glacier ice, and we were now traversing across above a 500m high cliff, so we had to move really carefully. The further we went the steeper it got, and I really started to struggle and feel out of my depth. Fortunately Adrian knew exactly what to do and guided me up to a small shelf where I managed to put on my harness and rope up. We discussed the best course of action, including turning around and returning the way we came, but decided that the quickest way to get off the steep ground would be to head straight up to where we could see the snow flattened out above us. So Adrian short-roped me up the slope and I moved slowly and carefully, feeling very relived once we got off the steep ground.
We could now see, that we should have climbed up much earlier and we would have avoided the steep snow slope almost altogether! The approach had taken longer than expected and we couldn’t see the exact place where the route was supposed to start, so we decided just to head onto the start of the East Ridge wherever we could find a weakness. So We gingerly bridged across the Bergshrund onto the rock, and swapped ice gear for rock, and I lead off looking for a way onto the East Ridge.
We were happy to discover pitch after pitch of lovely climbing on solid rock with great friction, interrupted only by a short abseil to a notch and then continuing on up the ridge.
The climbing eventually eased and we swapped back into our boots and put the ropes away. The scramble along the summit ridge of Talbot is spectacular and absorbing! There are constant tricky steps and lots of exposure.
The ridge seemed to go on forever and we could see the sun gradually getting lower in the sky. But eventually the rocky notch of the traverse pass (the lowest point in the ridge) came into view and we climbed down the West Face into the Bergshrund at the base, just as the orange glow of sunset started to tinge the surrounding Darran Mountain peaks.
We cramponed down a big snow slope, over more rock slabs, and onto a rocky and tussocky ridge towards the Gertrude Saddle in the fading light. By the time we were traversing across above Black Lake back towards the outlet it was almost dark and time to put on head torches. Fortunately we managed to find the cables that lead down the steepening slabs towards the Black Lake outlet.
We were now back on the path we’d hiked up in the morning, so we could almost relax, knowing that we should be able to remember the path from the morning and find out way back to the hut. But we soon lost the indistinct path, and everything looked completely unfamiliar in the dark. We crossed the stream and hoped we could just descend and pick up the path lower down. But the terrain got steeper, and it looked suspiciously like our choice of descent might end in bluffs. So we headed back up and crossed the stream again until we eventually found the path again and continued on down to the valley.
Once on the valley floor we really could relax and enjoy the beautiful clear night sky, and the silhouettes of the jagged Darran’s peaks.
We arrived back at the hut after 15 hours out in the mountains, tired but satisfied after a great adventurous day out and my first Darran’s peak!