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One month in Fiordland

Updated: Jan 8

One night, sitting around the fire in the Warden’s Quarters at Homer Hut and listening to the heavy rain that signaled the end of the Darrans Winter Climbing Meet, my thoughts turned to the following summer. By then, I would be one year into my PhD – time to get some writing done. Homer Hut – what better place to settle down and get away from the distractions of the internet, General Joll and the monotony of Dunedin life. So I talked with Al Walker, ‘Hut Bastard,’ about wardening over the summer. He agreed I “have a good rant” in me and thus might do a reasonable job taking care of the place, protecting our own ‘Camp 4’ from dirtbags and backpacker tourists. Once back in town, a quick email to Sam Newton seals the deal. February, at Homer Hut, is MINE. Shit yeah.

Six months later at the start of February the car is already overflowing with gear, scientific papers and food as I stop to pick up some more of Frazer Attrill’s stuff. Reversing out of his carpark a large smashing noise alerts me to the fact that my rear vision, completely blocked by gear, has prevented me from taking into account a large power pole. Rear windscreen gone, chances of reaching Homer in time to see off the previous warden are dashed. Thanks to the AA the windscreen is fixed in 24 hours, but we still arrive at Homer too late. I wonder if I have missed out on vital knowledge from Jon Sedon. Do I really know what I am doing here? Will the dirty sportclimbers eat me alive?

Frazer and I proceed to take over the Warden’s Quarters. I hadn’t actually planned on sharing the place, but I couldn’t bear to dash the hopes of the wee lad. At least he, and my flatmate Max (another spontaneous freeloader) are relegated to the upper bunk: the “fart box.” We settle in and I introduce myself to the masses at the other end of the hut. They all hand over their cash, or else convince me they “paid Jon already.” So far so good. Wardening duties done, I returned to the WQ and pack for the next day. So began a busy month!

East Ridge – Talbot. We set off early on a stunning morning – I had unfinished business with the East Ridge of Talbot and Frazer and Max were keen to join. Setting a cracking pace to the ridge, then soloing what we had pitched on an earlier attempt meant we were at the usual abseil notch at only around 10am. From here, it was a few pitches with the rope (16 crux) and a bit of scrambling to eventually wind up in the upper part of the couloir route on Talbot. After summiting it was a straightforward descent down the snow to some good swimming holes near Gertrude Saddle.

Shotwell Slabs. After a big day I was keen to take half a day to get properly settled in and go cragging with the rest of the day. Frazer and I ended up on the route Morris Dancing (19 crux). A rock-chopped bolt meant Frazer didn’t find the right belay, forcing me to dance across on a 25m unprotected traverse to get back on route. From there the route was great fun, and a good opportunity to test the “Reepschnur method” of abseiling on a single rope, with a thin novelty cord used to retrieve the main line. We survived.

Chasm Cragging. Paul Rogers turned up at Homer Hut and began waxing lyrical about the Chasm, his pet crag. I’d been under the impression it was for hard-ass climbers only, but was pleased to hear a few things in the late teens or early twenties might prove climbable. I was disappointed then, to fail at leading the first pitch of ‘Jack the Biscuit.’ In my defence, it was only 17 back in the day when you could bridge off a kamahi tree – long since dead. Frazer stepped up and had a good lead across a very spicy traverse with good gear only at your feet (we turned up a week later and Paul had bolted it – now it’s much friendlier but lacking the same excitement). From there it was my turn to fail on lead again when I went off route on the grade 19 second pitch and wound up on Granite Gringo (22). Frazer, again, sorted things out and we eventually made it to the famous Chillout Ledge. From there we did a few more pitches, the highlight for me being a fun pitch of 18 (P2 of Contact Neurosis). Seeing the mighty roof above, and knowing that people climb on it, was rather daunting. On later trips to the Chasm I became more familiar with the place, but never quite managed to lead anything really decent. I took solid whippers on the last moves of High Ideals and Crazy Dreams and also Mr Wolf; both are three star 22s which I had hitherto managed to onsight. Oh well. The grading is a little inconsistent – I was utterly spanked by Safety in Numbers (22) and the second pitch of Dread Zone (21), which is 21 for the most part, until it’s more like 22-23 near the top. In spite of my general failing the crag is my favourite in NZ – weatherproof (climbing on dry rock in the pouring rain is a must do), and the rock amazingly featured – one pitch alone might call for crack, layback, slab and face technique.

Bowen-Allan Corner, Moir’s Mate. Even though the first three and a half pitches are pretty easy this is the classic, moderate multi-pitch trad route in the Darrans. This is for a good reason – the “orgasmo-handcrack” in the true Bowen-Allan Corner (the last two pitches of the route, both about grade 17). Pete Harris and I set off for Homer Saddle a few minutes behind Dan Joll and Frazer who were off to Lucky Strike. I had scoped out the route a few days prior but still wasn’t sure where the first pitch went (this is apparently typical of BAC ascents). Eventually we got on route and made it to the Corner, whereupon we were caught up by Frazer and Dan, who’d simul-climbed the 7 pitch, grade 20 Lucky Strike in 1 hour 7 minutes, then abseiled, and caught us up. Good going – but Frazer was shattered. It was my lead in the Corner and it converted me to rock climbing, right then and there. I was secretly stoked when Pete said he didn’t want to lead the second pitch in the Corner so I got that too – at that time my best trad onsights!

Lucky Strike, Moir’s Mate. 7 pitches, grade 19-20. It’s a sport route on amazing rock, but is a little unforgettable if you are used to the thrill and fear of trad. I don’t remember much until Pete had a fall on an ape-y roof on P5 which I got clean, and then I fell while attempting a shitty gaston on P6 which he got clean (by being tall, and reaching a better hold). We were doing fairly well until the last pitch which apparently actually goes a little easier at grade 19. At this point I think we were both tired, Pete wasn’t keen to lead but it was his turn and I was keen to enforce that. With fingertips long gone and now bleeding we both had a grovel on the tiny, sharp crimpers and tricky slab moves and all dignity went out of the climb. It’s a good route for sure, and a credit to Cradock, Ball and Shotwell that it seems so popular. But I just don’t feel the need to go back and get it free…

Crag of Misfit Mascots, East Ridge Mt Talbot. Abseiling the notch on the East Ridge twice in three months, I was struck both times at the immaculate rock quality in the immediate vicinity. So, with some work, the rock was to become the ‘Crag of Misfit Mascots,’ and the abseil line itself following for the most part the route ‘Sexual Harassment Panda.’ Peter Ram(p)age had arrived from Auckland and the weather wasn’t giving us a great deal of joy. I convinced him to check out this promising piece of rock up on Talbot and we began the 2 hour approach. The whole time I was wondering if it would be worthwhile, but when we arrived and saw again the beauty of the crag, we knew it would be a good day. We’d been watching the South Park episode about the ‘Sexual Harrassment Panda’ the night before, and so the crag and even the routes were already named in my head. Obviously we had to climb something.

I took the best line for myself and after a good long epic on lead topped out on the 55m three star route ‘Sexual Harassment Panda.’ For the most part it’s grade 17 laybacks and face features, until an immaculate upper section where a sub-vertical finger crack becomes an overhanging hand jam. Rampage, seconding the route, confirmed the quality and the crag had its first route! Later, Rampage led off on what looked like an easy line – in the end I took over at a tricky grade 18 hand traverse. The first pitch of ‘Terms of Enrampagement’ (18, 2p) is one of the nicest I have done, with great features and a hidden jug just when a traverse appears to blank out. From a delightful free-hanging belay Rampage led the second pitch to the top of the notch, where we cleaned up some old ab-tat and left a hex instead for the next group to bail off. In the end that was all we had time for – but I knew a repeat visit was needed. It was only a few days later when Pete Harris and I returned. Pete chose another easy looking line which proved far harder than anticipated – Phoebe the Phobia Ferret (19) was named for Pete’s girlish scream when a key hold revealed a family of weta. He hates insects; I thought he was about to take a whipper! After that I got onto the other classic looking line we’d seen days earlier. Due to lack of stamina and a fair bit of water (and native slugs) in the crack, I had to rest on gear all the way up Woodsy the Drug Owl (18 A0 and probably 22 free) but the route is just a stunner. Finally, Pete and I repeated SHP and he confirmed the three star quality of the line.

Moraine Creek. After a certain amount of time in the Darrans your fingertips become crepe-paper thin, and even the mere thought of more granite makes them bleed. Pete and I had one more fine day before he had to leave but we couldn’t face another day climbing. Reminded by punters in the hut that, as the ‘New Zealand Alpine Team,’ our rest-day had to be fairly spectacular, we set off for Moraine Creek and Phils Biv. Neither of us had been before and it was a highly profitable day’s reconnoitre over the ‘Sui-sidle’ under Barrier Knob, down Gifford’s Crack to Lake South America, to Gills and Phils Biv, then up the Sentinel Shoulder, to the summit of Sentinel then back to Homer again. The North Buttress of Sabre is calling to me…

Garden Trowel Route, Moir’s Mate. Several days of bad weather had ensued and in the boredom one of the hut picnic tables had been relocated to the top of the Pebble. During one of many safety meetings at this picnic table I got chatting to Mark Watson who was down at Homer climbing with Mike Rockell. Mike had to leave a few days early and there was a weather window for Mark and I to climb something together. We’d hoped to climb the JC Crack on Talbot but with snow down to the hut two days prior, this wasn’t on. We settled for the Garden Trowel, a direct start to the Bowen-Allan Corner. Mark led the first 18 pitch – never has 18 felt so scary, climbing through the overlaps on the Diamond Face of Moir’s Mate on vertical rock with each foothold seemingly perched out in space. I don’t do well seconding compared to leading, but all the same was happy for a top-rope on some fairly run-out sections.

The crux second pitch was my lead – I got off to a slow start but got into things on the “steep and eery ramp” described by the guidebook. What this means is a foot-wide sloping ledge that drops 100m sheer to the foot of the wall, then a further 800m to the Cleddau Portal of the Homer Tunnel. It’s exposed. After the ramp some great face moves led to an awkward mantle onto a ledge, pulling myself over on a marginal finger pocket. I actually hung here for several minutes, gripped with fear of falling, as I tried desperately to rearrange my feet. One had become wedged in a crack and was preventing further progress in a most awkward manner. I made it without falling, shook out on the ledge and studied the final 15m of “great fist jamming”. I’d been saving the #3 and #4 cam for this bit and became aggrieved when it turned out to be handjams – the #2 cam was well below me when I needed it most. Tape gloves saved the day as I rested on each bomber hand jam, walked up the maxed-out #3 cam and eventually, with relief, made it to a belay having led the pitch onsight. Rad! The third pitch, featuring a “v-groove” was actually a back-and-foot chimney which Mark led with ease, arriving at the base of the Bowen-Allan Corner with only a few metres of rope to spare (this is not a 35m pitch, as the guidebook says). The Bowen-Allan was everything I remembered it to be (i.e., great) and Mark was stoked to be back after a decade. We topped out and rapped off, passing by the rather offensive detritus of the recent blasting work on the upper Diamond Face nearby.

Life at Homer Hut. There are few nicer places in the world to be based. When you aren’t climbing, you can go to the warm rock-pools (up to 28 degrees) on the other side of the Tunnel, swim in the Chasm, aquanaut Milford Sound to go trout fishing, slackline between the trees, climb the Pebble, relax in the sun, or by the fire in the rain, and forget about the internet, your job, money – all the bullshit in the world. It was a great month and I can’t wait to go back.

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