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A New Route on the South Face of Sabre

Updated: Dec 30, 2023

The snow is lightly falling as we sit in the wardens quarters of Homer Hut with Al Uren, Al Walker, Jimmy, Shelagh and Keara. The fire is cranked up and our bags are packed for a 12.45 am wake up call. We have three bottles of wine open and they are going down nicely as we sit by the warm fire talking and soaking up the Darrans atmosphere. Shelagh is a university lecturer and is researching motivating factors for climbers and how those climbers socialise within the climbing community. Our discussion comes around to the bond between climbing partners. Al Uren is telling us how he sat crying in a snow cave while his partner, Clinton, rubbed his back after he broke his pelvis on the north face of Mount Hicks. Earlier in the week, while climbing at Long Beach, Al Walker told me of a climb in Scotland where he and his partner encountered no belays or protection for four full pitches, yet still stayed roped together. On reaching the summit he broke down in tears. We talked about the bond formed through intense experiences and how, even after years, you can still feel comfort from being in the presence of long-time climbing partners. The discussion made me think of my own motivations for mountaineering and the commitment I feel towards my climbing partners. Alpine climbing relies heavily on trust in your partner, their skills, their judgement and their determination. With our forecast being less than ideal, I am not exactly in the mood for alpine climbing. Plenty of snow has fallen during the previous week and it is still falling outside the hut as we warm ourselves around the fire. High winds have caused snow loading on multiple faces. The avalanche forecast makes for grim reading. Climbing conditions however, are a different story. The recent storms and cold temperatures are icing the south faces of Fiordland very nicely.



I had been chatting to Steve on the phone earlier in the week. He was keen to climb and after running through the possible list of areas we realised we would be limited to a 12-hour window of fine weather in the Darrans. Steve suggested the south face of Sabre. I agreed, but didn't feel committed. It's easy to say yes on the phone. I felt that I needed to say yes to Steve though, as I had asked him to free up the time for us to climb together. I felt I must then follow through and commit to the break in the weather that had finally arrived. We talked over the options. Cook? Aspiring? Too much high wind, and the weather would be too unstable further north. Guess it would have to be the Darrans. I had spent four hours packing and sorting my gear on the Saturday morning while waiting for Steve to arrive, very much on edge the whole time. I'd found it hard to concentrate on deciding what gear to take and what should stay at home. I knew that we would not be backing out of this climb while sitting on the couch or by the fireside in Homer Hut. We would make our decisions when we got to the face. To do that would require traversing some major avalanche terrain. It would also mean that if we couldn't summit in our weather window we might be forced to descend in a storm, meaning the avalanche risk would rise even further. We would also be taking no bivvy gear, we'd simply back ourselves to climb a route in one push without stopping. Another thing that had me worried was that I was not in good mountain shape. I hadn't done a big route in the mountains for three months and my fitness was lacking. I knew nothing of the approach, the climb or the way out down the Marian Valley. For all of those reasons, I was nervous. I cranked Johnny Cash on the stereo while packing. As the time passed, I relaxed and my commitment to the climb increased. By the time my packing was finished I was mentally prepared for what I knew was coming. The process of mental preparation is interesting. Sitting by the fire in Homer, I think about what it means and why it's important to be doing this climb with Steve. The first thing I do is commit to the fact that I am willingly and knowingly placing my life in danger. I could not commit and would not be happy to take big risks with just any climbing partner. Both of us are at the start of what I hope will be a long and successful climbing partnership. A good partnership doesn't appear from nothing. I know that for this partnership to grow we must be prepared to make sacrifices for each other's benefit. This involves everything from committing time to trips, training, plodding steps and leading when the other has had too much. To really go for it on a large alpine route we have to trust that when the time comes we will both do what needs to be done and if one of us, for any reason, needs a break, the other will step up and finish the job. I want Steve to know that when I say I'm going to do a trip, I will be there with my bag packed ready to climb, no matter what. I also want him to see that I can do my fair share of the work required to get us up the climb. This thought leads me to consider the mental preparation needed for the physical effort of non-stop alpine climbing. This time I know I am not in top shape. I know that Steve is going to have to break trail all the way. I won't manage with my current level of fitness. I know the snow is going to be deep and I also know that Steve won't even question the fact that I will be freeriding behind him as we walk and climb to the base of the route. In any good partnership you must give to receive, so I know that by Steve breaking trail I will owe him a rest when we arrive at the route, and I know that to even the score I will need to lead the crux pitches. It's not because he wouldn't be able to lead them, it's simply that there's no one-way traffic in a real partnership. So with that thought I do the final step in my mental preparation: I visualise myself run-out on thin ice, crank up some Johnny Cash and I prepare my mind for the prospect of a full-on lead.


At 1.20 am the stars are out. It's a good sign that our clearance is opening up just as planned. We crampon our way up to the Barrier-Crosscut Col. I complain about my sprained ankle and how it's hurting. I get no reply and realise I should stop complaining. Steve is breaking trail and not even asking if I can help. The descent into the Marian is easier and safer than I thought it would be. Before long we are on the valley floor. There is no avalanche sign and the micro-pits we have been digging show only moderate instability. So far so good. As we approach the base of the lower wall and the south face of Sabre, the snow deepens. I push Steve from behind as he wades through bottomless powder. Steve asks me to take a pic of him wading a trench through the powder. I know he relishes this type of work, which is what he refers to as type two fun. Eventually we break through and it's front points and frozen snow. We race up the 40-60 degree slopes at the base of the mountain. After several hundred metres of simul-solo climbing we hear a loud whoomph as the face we are climbing settles. A fracture line appears above Steve's tools. Shit. I expect to be swept off the mountain in a large slab avalanche. We race up and get above the fracture line. Our line of retreat has just been cut off. We can't retreat over the settled slab for fear it will release. It's up from now on. Five minutes later a second whoomph and another fracture, then a third just as we reach the base of the steep climbing. I quickly build a belay and exclaim how happy I am to finally be anchored to some rock. Looking up I can see a large hanging icicle guarding the way to what we think is a corner system that follows the summer route The Big Corner. As I rack up I know it's time for me to repay Steve for all that trail work. I'm also kind of excited that I will probably get the crux pitch. It's been a few weeks since I did any adventure climbing and I'm looking forward to pushing myself on lead. I start slowly up the first pitch of run-out WI4. My head is still not 100 per cent in the game after our near misses on the approach but I warm to the task and as I arrive at the first belay I'm ready for the next pitch, which looks to be the crux. It's time to repay Steve. A 30-metre wall of thin, vertical ice and two ice mushrooms block my way. I start up slowly. I swing a tool, test it, weight the placement, look for the feet, breath, then move up and repeat the process. The climbing is steep and dangerous. I complete a series of moves that fully commit me to the pitch, downclimbing is no longer an option. There is no chance of gear to lower off if I can't keep climbing, so I take a deep breath and keep moving upwards. I have to climb this pitch. I reach an ice mushroom, the crux, and a break in the ice reveals a thin crack. I grab a knifeblade piton and pound it in. Finally I have some gear that will hold a fall. My heart rate reduces and I shake out before attempting the next moves. I reach high and sink my tools into the ice, then do a pull up to get my feet over the mushroom. I repeat the process, climbing over a second small overhang and at last arrive at a good crack and an excellent cam placement. "It's going to go!" I yell to Steve and run it out up moderate ice to a belay in the big corner system. I'm excited when Steve nears my belay. It's strange, but I want to hear him say "well done". I want him to recognise that I have led a hard pitch. I want our ledger to be equal. I want my partner to know I can pull my weight. "Bloody good lead mate," Steve says. I smile, I'm stoked to be doing my fair share of the work and taking some risk so we can both succeed. The strength of our partnership is what helps drive us upwards. I enjoy the pressure of knowing I must give 100 per cent, so that I don't let Steve down. I tell Steve I need a break and hand the rack over to him. I see the look in his eyes. He knows he too must now step up. We only have six ice screws and two are in my belay. "Save a blue for the belay," I yell up as he heads off. Steve doesn't disappoint and rocks a full 60-metre pitch on just two ice screws. No excuses, no short pitches, just stepping up and doing what needs to be done. We swap leads and I repeat the process: another full pitch with two screws for pro. The climb is now advancing much faster and as we reach the top of the corner system the angle eases back and we climb a final pitch of snow.

When we join the West Ridge of Sabre we start to simul-climb. After a short while we reach a gendarme in the ridge. This rock buttress is covered with a deep layer of powder snow. Steve spends some time digging his way up this feature. It's slow going but the summit is in sight and we have plenty of daylight left. For the final pitch we depart from the ridge and head across the middle of the south face then straight up to the summit. The wind is now up and the temperature has dropped. Our weather window is closing down and I think back to the stories of forced bivouacs, epic descents and increased avalanche risk. No mucking around, let's get moving. We downclimb our way along the East Ridge until the terrain steepens enough to enable some abseils. Four long raps and some downclimbing brings us into a large gully which runs all the way to the valley floor. We sit on the side of this 30-40 degree gully watching the snow slowly falling. We are on a perfectly loaded slope. I am terrified at the prospect of having to cross over to the other side. We have no choice though as this is our only way out. We talk over the best line and for some reason Steve asks if he can go first. "For sure," I quickly say. I watch him leave and he suggests we keep a good distance between us. "Definitely," I offer in reply. When Steve is a couple of hundred metres in front it's my turn. I go as fast as I can without stomping too hard. Never stopping, never looking up, I just move; breathing, worrying and hoping like hell that nothing slides. Eventually, after about 30 minutes, we reach the upper Marian Valley and I breathe a sigh of relief. The job is not done but we are getting close. Just a few more hours of walking and downclimbing and we will be at the roadend in the Hollyford Valley. The walk and climb out down the Marian is fairly uneventful. As we get further along the riverbed and the risk of being avalanched recedes we start to chat and joke about the day. The tension is leaving our bodies and we grind out the final hours of bush-bashing and boulder hopping. At 1.30 am we reach the road: 24 hours and ten mintues after departing Homer Hut. I'm a little disappointed we didn't make it in under 24 hours but then I think, What a dumb thought. We made it and we have no major injuries, who cares how long it took. Thankfully Steve finally says his legs are tired and asks if I'm happy to sleep on the side of the road then hitch-hike back to the car in the morning. "Yes please," I reply, a little too quickly. I'm also spent and don't want to face the prospect of more walking. We take a seat each on opposite sides of a picnic bench and lie down for some well earned rest. The sleep doesn't last very long though and at 5.00 am I wake up, cold. "Steve, I can"t lie here anymore, I'm heading back to get the car." "What?" he asks in a sleepy, disbelieving voice. "It's just too cold mate," I say, "I need to warm up. Won't be too long." Famous last words it turns out. Four hours later I finally get to Homer. There were only six cars on the Milford Road between 5.00 am and 9.00 am on that Monday morning and none of them were in the mood to stop. Back at the hut, Al Uren offers to go and pick up Steve. While he's gone I chat with Matt Evrard and Bruce Dowrick. Matt and Al had made the last ascent of the south face of Sabre, via Hongi's Track, 20 years earlier.

As we look over the guide trying to figure out where we went I realise that we didn't actually climb The Big Corner. Rather, we had done a completely new and independent route to the left. I guess there is some merit in just going and climbing what looks good after all. Bruce offers us some amazing hospitality. Even though I had never met him before, he brews up fresh coffee then follows through with pancakes and bacon. The friendliness of the gesture is really appreciated by both Steve and myself. Al Uren had been strangely absent from the hut since he dropped Steve back. I soon realise why when he appears with a full pan of pasta, bacon and sauce. We eat until we can eat no more. It's great to share the experience with some of the original pioneers of modern day Darrans climbing. It's also amazing to think that the face was last climbed in winter 20 years ago, and that two of the four guys from that day are sitting next to us, sharing in our excitement. As we slowly pack up and plan to head for Queenstown I suggest to Al that he'd better drive, it might be safest. He nods in agreement, "Where would you multi-sport types be without your support crew eh" He chips in. I laugh and hand him the keys. Before long Al is driving and we are sleeping. Job done, we're heading home. Walk The Line (VI, 6, WI5+), south face of Sabre Peak. Steve Fortune, Daniel Joll, October 7, 2012. Steve Fortune Daniel Joll

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