A Wild Alpine Rock Route in the Darran Mountains, Fiordland NZ
In New Zealand's South Island, in Fiordland National Park, there is a mountain range known as the Darrans. Home to arguably the best quality rock NZ has to offer, with glaciated peaks and untouched forests as far as the eye can see. Climbing grades are sandbagged, and approaches to routes can take multiple days, so if you're up for a real adventure, look no further.
When talking about climbing the North Buttress of Mt Sabre, phrases such as: "Arguably the greatest rock climb in New Zealand" "One of the best alpine rock routes in the country" "500 metres of seriously exposed climbing" “A Darrans classic even before it was successfully climbed” get thrown around.
In Hugh Logan's book, Classic Peaks, he opens the chapter on Sabre with a quote by G Hall-Jones to M Gill, c.a. 1958.
"You should have a crack at Sabre if you want something tough. By God, there's a mountain for you!"
However, despite all the hype, relatively easy grade (Ewbank 17) and holding the title as one of New Zealand's classics, this is certainly no easy alpine objective. Various factors such as the approach, the run-out climbing, the remoteness, or the descent, make for a spicy and challenging adventure.
Tuesday, 21st of March. I meet with my buddy Ryan Colley. We had done some winter climbing in the heart of Southern Alps together in the past and by pure chance, we both had a week off to make the most of the last of the NZ summer.
I fly from Christchurch to Invercargill. Ryan greets me at the airport, and we head straight for Homer Hut.
Fiordland gets an average yearly rainfall of 7 meters (23ft), so it can be tricky find good climbing conditions.
We were however blessed with a 2.5 day weather window, so we start making plans. A few ideas get thrown around, but ultimately, we agree that we should make the most of this weather window to climb Mt Sabre. Reading through the intentions book in the hut, it seems Sabre doesn't get many more than 5 ascents per year. Funny, considering its title as one of NZ’s classics...
We arrive late on Tuesday night and as it turns out, there is another party of two, also intending to climb Sabre during the same window. The race is on…
Our intention was to climb Sabre in an alpine traverse style, by climbing the North Buttress, descending the West Ridge, up over Marian Peak, Barrier Peak and back to Gertrude Saddle. The plan was to bivvy on route, so we’d be climbing with heavy(ish) packs.
Our 2.5-day weather window was between two weather systems. A cold southerly had deposited a fresh dusting of snow on the high peaks prior to our departure. There was slight concern about snow and ice on our proposed decent route down the West Ridge of Sabre, so we decided to play it safe and pack our spikey gear.
This meant our hopes of going fast and light were dwindling, as we now carried snow gear in addition to our bivvy gear. Our packs weren't atrociously heavy but heavy enough to make the climbing at least a couple of grades harder!
Wednesday, 22nd. The other party are gone by 6am, long before our alarms even thought about going off. Ryan and I opted for a non-alpine start and after a gear faff and some fresh bacon sarnies, we left the hut at a very reasonable 11am. All we had to do was get to the base of the route, right? Our plan for the day was to do the approach, which we estimated would take around 7 hours, find an appropriate bivvy spot at the base of the route, and recce the first pitch.
The approach route takes us up the tourist DOC track to Gertrude Saddle. The track ends here and we sidle along Barrier Knob North Ridge (also named "Sui-sidle"). We soon discover why, as rock fall comes hurtling past us while we hold our breath and briskly make our way across the scree slope.
As we approach Adelaide Saddle, we are greeted by jaw dropping panoramas of Milford Sound and the surrounding peaks.
Looking east from Adelaide Saddle, we glance over the beautiful Lake Adelaide to catch our first glimpse of Sabre. We breathe a sigh of relief as any concerns we had about a snowy decent were soon put to rest. It was a blue bird day, and the Kiwi sun was doing its very best to melt the fresh snow on our route. Game on...
We descend the saddle down Gifford’s Crack, a steep and grassy descent and the first crux of the day. The ice axe makes its first appearance as we pick our way down the steep angled terrain. Fistfuls of tussock give good hand holds, allowing for a steady downclimb. We both agree that in the wet, we’d be saying “yeah nah” to this descent, as a slip could result in a 200m fall down to the valley floor.
Once in the valley basin, we aim straight for Sabre, passing Gill’s Bivvy and Phil’s Bivvy on the way. Phil’s bivvy should have been named Phil’s rock hotel, it has two chambers and big enough to house a small family! It’s around 5pm as we stroll on by and wave to the other party who has claimed this site for the night.
The second crux of the day is getting up to the base of the route. We pick a line that traverses left for the first 200 vertical meters until we reach a grassy shelf. The terrain is steep, grassy and moist. In the end I am grateful for my ice axe as it makes its second appearance of the day. I feel more like a gardener than an alpinist as I drive my pick into the wet grass while trying to ignore the no fall zone below.
The shelf lends itself to some more mellow angled terrain as we hang right and head towards more rock and less grass. The sun is setting, and we have around an hour of daylight left. The first pitch of the route takes you to a small grassy shelf known as Yak Pastures, we had initially planned to bivvy here, but as we were unsure that there’d be a water source, we decided against it.
We solo another 50m of easy but mentally taxing climbing to reach our bivvy spot for the night. No fall zones are bad enough without a pack, but when you’re top heavy, it really forces you into a flow state!
Thursday, 23rd. Our alarms are set for sunrise. From what we heard, there’s no water on route. We replace the metalwork in our packs for fluids, as we rack up and fill our bottles at the nearby stream. As we leave the bivvy site, we bump into the other party. We had both originally intended to climb the direct start (Ewbank 19 / 5.10b) as the first pitch of the North Buttress, but we give way to the others as they were travelling fast & light and planning to descend the same day. Rather than wait for the others to finish their pitch, we decide to climb the Standard Route which converges into the main line after Yak Pastures.
The Climbing: Instead of boring you with details of every pitch, I will try to give a brief outline of the route. The route gains 500 vertical meters (1640ft). In an attempt to reduce pack weight, we opted for one 50m rope and 50m worth of tag line. We climbed the route in around 12 pitches plus some simu-climbing at the top over easier grade 12 (5.6) terrain.
Some of the highlights included: Pitch 4, stepping left onto a ledge on the Northeast Face, taking in wild exposure, before following awesome cracks straight up on near vertical rock.
Pitch 5 was the crux pitch, a fantastic stemming corner with good crack climbing. The rock was polished and slick. I ended up taking a follower fall on this pitch, luckily no harm was done, and the rope hadn’t suffered any core shots... phew!
Most of the pitches had wicked runouts and airy exposure.
We top out at 6.45pm, pretty much the same time as the other party who have just sat down at a rock bivvy not far from the summit for a bite to eat. A solid 9.5 hours of climbing, and it turns out we weren’t that slow after all... compared to the others at least. A quick hello & goodbye as we leave them to descend the East Face and we carry on down the West Ridge.
The descent: It’s a bit of a weary celebration as we stand on the summit and watch the sun set over Milford Sound. It’s a tremendously beautiful sight to behold, but with under an hour of daylight left in our pockets, and no known bivvy sites ahead, we’re far from in a good spot.
The thought of carrying on through the night crosses our minds as we start descending the West Ridge. Physical and mental fatigue start setting in. The information we have from the topo, tells us to back track and find a ledge system that takes us down and around a notch. However, are we to backtrack from the summit, or from the notch? And how far do we backtrack?
“Another prominent gendarme is also to be avoided” it says. But how do we avoid it? It’s safe to say that our brains were struggling to comprehend this info.
Darkness has set in. We end up finding some abseil tat which points in the direction of a ledge system. Two rappels later and we find ourselves on said ledge system, on the Northwest Face of Sabre, in the dark. We were back in the no fall zone. Tensions start to rise as we head west on nasty tussock ledges. The terrain under our feet is loose and we soon realise we are off route… It’s just a ridge descent, this shouldn’t be hard, we think to ourselves.
Ryan pokes his head around a corner, only to discover that the West Ridge, that we were supposed to be on, was around 200m away towards the Sabre Marian Col.
We had found ourselves too far down on the Northwest face, led astray by what was most likely tat left by a party who was rappelling the whole face and some confusing beta from the topo.
We make the call to climb back up towards the ridge rather than carry on traversing the Northwest face on sketchy ledges, not knowing what would be around the next corner.
We make it back on to the ridge. Inadvertently, we had avoided the notch, and the gendarme. We search for a suitable bivvy spot among the rocky terrain. I find a natural alleyway and move rocks to build a flat spot while Ryan melts snow to drink. It won’t be comfy, but it should provide good shelter from the wind on this somewhat exposed ridge.
Friday, 24th. Well rested and with fresh brains, we wake at sunrise to find ourselves engulfed by cloud. It turns out we had spent the night just meters from the abseil station we had been looking for. The cloud slightly clears, and we get our first sight of Marian Peak and the Col that separates us from it. It was a welcome sight seeing the weathered slings wrapped around a block as we rig up for the 25m rappel.
We watch as gusts of wind funnel streaks of cloud through the Marion-Sabre Col at an impressive rate. Not long after, we find the next abseil station. A 50m rappel that will require a full rope length.
Ryan rigs up a system he used to use canyoning. We descend on the single strand of rope and use the tag line purely for rope retrieval. I had never used this setup before, so I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t holding my breath as I stepped over the edge.
Once at the bottom, we use the tag line to pull the rope down to us. The wind was picking up and we were in quite a vulnerable spot. If the rope was to get stuck as we pulled on the tag line, we would be in quite an awkward situation. There was so much potential for the rope to get stuck. Two 25m tag lines tied together, and a double figure 8 joining the tag line to the rope with a big carabiner. So, plenty to get snagged in a crack…
Ryan picks his timing perfectly as he waits for the wind to blow the rope up in our favour and then quickly pulls it through. Success!
One more 25m rappel sees us down onto the Col. Finally!
We climb up over Marian Peak, which in itself, would be a pretty cool alpine objective. Great quality rock and heaps of potential trad routes.
Still roped up, we move together for the ridge travel. We move at a nice pace, and it feels good to finally be putting some distance between us and Sabre. 2 hours from the Sabre-Marian Col, and after a short exposed cheval, we find ourselves on top of Barrier Peak.
With the last of the difficulties over, we free ourselves from the confines of the rope. We descend the easy ridge down from Barrier Peak with a spring in our step and traverse down onto big slabs overlooking the Gertrude Valley. It’s 6.30pm as we make it back to Gertrude Saddle and officially close the loop. The rain we had been waiting on finally hits us hard, but at least we were back on the tourist track… The tourist track that required more concentration than expected, as we made some faithful steps down the steep, wet slabs with once again, some pretty serious no fall zones!
Two hours later, we are back at the hut. Not much was said in these last 2 hours, as we marched along the valley basin with our heads down, through the pouring rain and darkness. We are greeted by Yamaha, the hut warden, and the other party, who expressed slight concern as they had expected us to be back sooner.
We each inhale a huge plate of pasta and share a bottle of red, as we reflect and exchange tales of our adventure with the other guys at the hut.
All in all, successful trip :)