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First Ascent: South Face of Mt Suter

Updated: Jan 7

Viewed from the Milford road Mt Suter is all but indiscernible. Standing amongst a cluster of peaks at the head of Monkey and Falls Creeks it appears as nothing more than a small dot on the horizon -easily lost into the array of surrounding summits. From within Falls Creek however it presents a completely different spectacle. Rearing abruptly out of the small glacial lake which feeds Falls Creek an unbroken 1000m cirque wall stands guard over the head of the valley. And dominating the centre of this wall is Mt Suter.

The bulk of its south face thrusts proud of the main wall to form a prominent buttress of compact granite. Dark and foreboding it is streaked with a series of discontinuous ice smears which offer little in the way of an obvious line. That is until at a second glance the eye is drawn involuntarily to the left hand side of the buttress. Where filling the deeply recessed corner abutting the main cirque wall, and snaking down the full height of the face, is a continuous white ribbon of ice. Continuous that is until being abruptly broken by an apparently blank headwall guarding access to the summit ridge.

In the rapidly fading twilight of the mid-winter dusk it was difficult to tell – would it go? It almost appeared as if there was way out right, out onto the edge of the buttress, which might link into the base of the summit pyramid. From our vantage point on the valley floor it was impossible to be certain. And soon the view was lost completely. Extinguished by the setting sun and swallowed by the all-consuming darkness which enshrouded the valley and sent us scurrying back to the bivvy. Where huddled in our down bags we discussed the prospects of the coming day. With the prevailing early season conditions, options were limited. Thin and inconsistent ice on the main face eliminated all but faint hopes of a directissima. The corner still the appeared the most promising proposition, despite the uncertainty of the final headwall. And while this is where we ultimately decided to focus our attention it was with a lingering doubt nagging at the back of my mind that I settled in for what I knew would be a restless night. My thoughts a whirl with the thrill of the unknown. The thrill that draws me to the mountains once again.

In the inky blackness of the pre-dawn Stephen Skelton and I stumble through the broken moraine field that litters the valley floor. Hopping from boulder to boulder we approach the base of the wall. Passing the iced over outlet we skirt along the terraces above lake. Soon arriving at the base of the large avalanche debris fan which feeds down off the face. Out of the base of our intended line. Acutely aware of the danger that this feature presents we do not linger Being the only continuous break over the full height of the face it would act as a natural funnel for anything falling from the upper mountain. Not somewhere to be caught out in the wrong conditions. However with the last snow fall being nearly a week previous, and following several days of settled weather, there is no evidence of recent slides and the snow pack is firm under foot. Conditions are as good as we could hope for.

Making swift work of the steep debris fan we soon arrive at the base of the gully proper and above us looms the unknown. Viewed from a distance the previous evening it had appeared as is if the lower section of the face would offer little resistance. Moderate snow and ice slopes looked to link through the initial lower reaches of the main gulley system before it constricted and steepened through the upper face. Unfortunately our initial impressions were off the mark. As from the crest of the debris fan our headlamps illuminate a 75 degree ice slope stretching up to a bulge which ultimately cuts off our field of vision. This is not going to be the easy start to the day that we had hoped for.

Out comes the rope and rack and I am soon picking my way tentatively up the initial pitch. After ten metres I manage a marginal screw in the soft alpine ice - perfect to climb but less than ideal to protect. Reaching the base of the bulge I get a stubby into solid ice on the underside of the lip and begin to relax. Hood up, head down, I hold my breath and curse as I am enveloped in spin drift. So much for no fresh snow. Then reaching high with my tools, I bridge out with my feet, lean back and pull through overlap. Above stretches a continuous 60 degree neve slope interspersed with short vertical water ice steps. A little more in line with what we were expecting!

The next eight pitches are dispatched as quickly as we can manage. Grinding it out, swing and kick, swing and kick, calves burning on the firm snow ice. I try to block out everything other than what lies ahead – swing and kick, swing and kick. We continue to push upwards. All the while becoming more and more aware of the commitment we are making to the route. Nine pitches off the deck with only one or two marginal screw placements per pitch. The blank, and often verglassed, walls of the gully not offering anything in the way of rock protection. The prospect of an abseil descent is not something that I relish. The thought of down-climbing with a full pack on is even less appealing. We are now fully committed to the climb.

Thankfully my own self-doubts and reservations are countered by continual encouragement from below. The difference a motivated partner can provide on a long climb are often understated. And while I have little doubt that Steve is harbouring the same misgivings, his outward display of confidence gives me the self-belief and drive to keep going.

Gradually a series of run out leads, culminating in three long simul-pitches up the unrelenting neve, sees us arrive at the base of the first of the steep constrictions by mid-morning. Above, the left hand wall of the gully abruptly rears overhead. Like the crest of a breaking wave it overhangs the ribbon of ice we are following and channels us up into the depths of an immense corner. The real fun is about to begin! Bringing Steve to the belay I misread the concerned look on his face and joke that the grind is finally over. The ice ahead looks perfect……. 'Not so much the climbing that's the problem mate – more that I haven't been able to feel my toes for the last hour.' Not a promising sign given that we are less than half way through the climb, and are now undoubtedly facing the prospect of an exposed open bivvy. Let alone the long and committing descent which would be sure to follow. Forcing this to the back of my mind I set out again. Steadily working my way up the ever steepening ice. Deeper into the back of the corner. Until with left-hand wall extending metres out overhead to the right I feel I am being swallowed whole. Throwing a glance back down between my feet I can see Steve huddled at the belay. Grinning up at me despite the obvious discomfort with his feet and the continual barrage of ice I am raining down on him. His mood is infectious and I cannot help but smile in turn as I continue upwards. Relishing the quality of the climbing and the breath taking surroundings.


The following pitches rival anything I have ever encountered in the mountains – containing what can only be described as perfect alpine ice. Immaculate and plastic it offers pitch after pitch of sustained technical climbing. Steep enough to make you think, while the frequency of the first time tool placements offers the security and feeling of confidence to run it out between the sparse protection that the soft alpine ice provides. Add the backdrop of Pyramid Peak behind and blank granite walls on either flank – this is one hell of a setting!


Crouched at yet another hanging belay I watch Steve leading out on what is shaping out to be another sustained pitch of steep ice. Much like those that preceded it with one notable exception. Above we can see where the gully appears to peter out. Cut off as the walls merge together to create the headwall we had identified from below the previous evening. After sixteen pitches we have reached what we know will likely be the crux of the route. The ice we are following snakes slightly to the left. Tucking hard under the left-hand wall before disappearing from sight at the junction above. Watching Steve I wait anxiously, harbouring faint hopes that the line will continue around the corner. A linking runnel that will lead us back out right onto the main face and away from the headwall that looms ominously above.

'F#$K!'. Not what I want to hear.

'You're going to want to have a look at this. Maybe it is not so bad.'


Reaching the belay I look up to see what our future holds. My heart sinks when directly ahead our line abruptly ends at the base of the headwall. A tentative link in the form of a hanging dagger of ice from the lip above dangles tantalisingly close to touching down. Close but still separated from the base by five metres. Climbing the mixed ground to try reach the dagger looks desperate. Following Steve's gaze I glance out right in search of an alternative exit. The steep slabs of the main buttress extend across to meet the base of the headwall. Plastering the surface of the slab is thin veneer of ice. Thin but continuous, it might just provide our means of escape.


As the dusk quickly turns to darkness, I edge my way out onto the ice away from the security of the corner. Wincing as my picks pierce through the ice to bounce off rock striking with a brief spark. "Watch me mate". After traversing ten metres I begin to straighten. Breathing an audible sigh of relief as I place a screw where ice locally thickens. Watching nervously as a network of hairline cracks extend out from the centre of the screw through the translucent ice which barely conceals the dark shadow of the rock beneath. Settling my nerves, I shake out and cautiously continue upwards. Ahead the ice thins again leading to the blank underside of a small bulge. Beyond which the beam of my head torch is cut leaving nothing but darkness beyond. The darkness is both unnerving and reassuring. It cuts me off from all but my immediate surrounds. Isolating me to the confines of the bubble of my head torch, it forces me to stay focused on the here and now. The apprehension of not knowing what may lie ahead is countered by the drive to keep pushing on. The prospect of being turned back this high on the route is something that I do not want to even contemplate. We have to continue up. I slip back into the confines of my bubble and lead out again.


A further two pitches and the angle of the ice finally relents again. Hunkered at the belay I bring Steve up and hand over the rack. After being out front for the bulk of the day I find my strength dwindling as I begin hitting the wall. The thin climbing over the last pitches has stretched my nerves and drained me more than I care to admit. Despite the obvious concerns with his feet and the fact that we are both teetering at the edge of our reserves he selflessly takes the sharp end. Forcing down another gel with a mouth full of crushed snow ice I try to sound reassuring as I claim that we are only one pitch from the top, two at the very most. Steve smiles back as he sets out into the darkness leaving me to hang prone at the belay. The glow around me gradually fading as the batteries in my head torch slowly die. Time ticks by, and I struggle to keep my eyes open until another wave of loose snow cascades down over me – jerking me back to my senses. Cursing the placement of the belay I wonder what is going on above me. A flicker of torch light and another barrage of snow is the only indication I have that Steve is persevering ahead. We cannot be more than 50m from the ridge the final pitch on the face – but for what feels like the past hour the rope has inched out through my hands only to be pulled back in as it goes slack once again.

A final bombardment of snow followed by a muffled shout from above provides hope. "On belay". In vain I try to shake the feeling back into my fingers as I break down the belay and step back into the void. The angle relents slightly and the ice all but disappears, replaced with steep ribs of unconsolidated powder. Passing a solitary runner, I gaze upwards to follow the track of the ropes as they stretch unimpeded 30m to the crest of the ridge above. My mind flashes back one year, and half a world away, to a similar pitch on Anidesha Chuli and I suppress a shudder and wrestle with my own inner demons. I hope the belay is good.

Finally I wallow up through the final five metres of vertical Patagonia-esque loose snow to burst through into the open. Into the bright sphere of Steve's head torch. Twenty pitches and eighteen hours later, once again in the darkness, we have topped out. Staggering slightly on the transition to flat ground I awkwardly take the final steps to the belay. Struggling to suppress my emotions as we embrace in celebration.

The elation is short lived though, and reality soon reasserts itself as the gravity of our situation and location kicks in. Straight ahead and behind is a dark abyss. To the right the knife edge ridge leads up to what must be the summit. To the left a narrow shoulder width cleft in the rock offers a potential haven. Choked with snow and ominously overhanging the face below it is not quite the Ritz but will do for tonight.


The following morning dawns fine, as we slowly shake and massage the feeling back into stiff and numb extremities before completing the final pitches to the summit. We do not linger. Stopping briefly to absorb the view and enjoy the warm caress of the sun. Then begins the descent. Which proves to be an adventure within itself – taking a further fifteen hours to complete a six kilometre ridge traverse while descending 1700m back into the Hollyford Valley. But that is a tale for another day.


For me the memories of Suter are still fresh. The initial fears and anxiety standing at the base of the wall. The realisation of commitment and the grind up the lower face. Surpassed by the amazing ice up through the all-consuming corner. The looming uncertainty of the headwall and the nerve racking traverse. Then the final run out pitch to the ridge, the nightmare of unconsolidated snow and finally the confines of the cramped bivvy. The highs and the lows, ups and downs. But eventually my thoughts always return to the ice. The perfect ice.

First ascent of the South Face of Mt Suter (2094m).

Darrans winter grade VI, 6 (WI5), Ben Dare, Stephen Skelton 19th July 2014.

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