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The Central Darrans

Updated: May 2, 2023

I’d been wanting to go into the Central Darrans for years. Ever since I stood on the top of Barrier Knob – a Darrans neophyte on my way to climb Sabre – and looked over and past Lake Adelaide to the south sides of Taiaroa and Tuhawaiki. Those faces looked far away and inacessible. They seemed to represent the unknown, and I felt the associated mix of apprehension and lure that comes with being a climber unversed in the vagueries of Darrans rock climbing.

Perhaps there was just too much good rock close to Homer. Perhaps all that climbing I did on the Moirs and the Babylons was just a distraction. In any case, I got sidetracked for a decade or so. And when I finally decided the time was right to explore beyond the southern valleys – holidays, partners and weather never lined up for me. Summer 2011/12 I went skiing in France. Summer 2012/13 I climbed the Strauchon Face of Dillemma. Both ultimate distractions.

Summer 2013/14 I finally resolved to book two weeks off in February and strongarmed Troy into doing the same. We had some luck as the beginning of our trip coincided with the best fine weather spell of the summer, and on the journey south we harvested four new team members.

As it turns out, 10 years of abstinence from the ‘real’ Darrans approaches was a good thing. It gave time to absorb the wisdom of the Rich’s writings in the NZAJs. On the way up the cleft out of Moraine Creek I capitulated to the vegetation. I turned the experience around in my head. Becoming immersed in the Fiordland jungle was the point of the experience. I became one with the bush, a piece of movable flora. I moved, as an animal does, but it was organic movements, in tune with the moss, vines and warped roots. Upwards and through. Equalising species’ on the steeper bits. Dracophylum and flax my favourite combo.

We emerged from the guts at Rainbow Lake. A perfect campspot on soft grasses below the lake outlet. The rocky turrets and buttresses surrounding the lake were pretty exciting to me. Nothing in the view before me had been climbed. The simple fact of us being there made that seem implausible, but you can’t argue with inaction. So we went to sleep, undecided on whether to keep going in the morning or just stop and climb something.

We went on. Over to Boulder Basin and thence up to a notch in the north ridge of Tuhawaiki. We popped our heads over the col and I got very excited at all the rock I could see. I wanted to climb all of it. Immediately. But first some tramping admin needed taking care of. Extreme tramping. Big exposure, and good rock, and then the lake and a campspot on the granite slabs below it. Home. For a while.

I was surprised by the walk in. It had only taken us 7 hours in total from the Hollyford to the Te Puoho Glacier. And I never felt uncomfortable, even with a heavy pack. It all seemed incongruously manageable, considering the terrain.

We all went up to the Petit Dur that evening. We climbed two new routes on immaculate rock. I fell off the hard bit on one of my pitches. I shouldn’t have needed to, but I suppose that’s why we wear ropes.

I had secretly had my heart set on the east face of Karetai, but when Steve and I poked our heads over the top of the PD, we were swallowed into obscurity by the mass of the west face of Taiaroa. All I could see was climbing. It filled the view in an unusual way. Big rock. So the next day we walked up there and climbed it. 8 long pitches, all superb. And an amenable stroll off the back and back to camp. The others climbed up the guts on the Rothorn. We all met up at camp for sundowners.

After that we were tired so we had a rest day and walked up to Karetai Col. Troy had never been on a glacier and was scared of a crevasse. He made us all rope up to cross it. Then the others played a “running on the rope” game, which I think was pretty dangerous. More so than crossing the snowbridge in my opinion.

The view from Karetai Col over Lake Turner to Tutoko and Madeline is probably the best view I have ever seen. I was very happy to get one up on Geoff Spearpoint when he mentioned he’d never been there. Imagine that! I’ve been somewhere Geoff Spearpoint hasn’t been!

There’s a massive pinnacle that sticks out and up off the edge of Ngai Tahu, it stands erect at 50m high or more. One night as we lounged at camp, the full moon passed perfectly behind the pinnacle. Everyone was silent, mesmerised. We decided that kind of thing is how religions are started.

Back to Rainbow Lake. We climbed the best thing we could see there: a large buttress that marks the toe of the SW Ridge of Tuhawaiki. It was 6 pitches and 3 raps down plus some scrambling. And it was enough. We were stuffed.

I learned something from this trip. Going into Central is no big deal. You just wait til Feb or March then walk in there and go climbing. Don’t worry about it being far away, scary and hard work. If you enjoy every bit of the ever changing landscape and your interactions with it, it’s none of those things. And if you like doing first ascents there are many. I have a list in my head of the best ones that I saw. When I think about a few of them I start to panic, “Oh No what if someone beats me to it?!” But then I remember that we are so very lucky to live in an era where we are on the cusp of understanding a new (modern) style of climbing, and being stakeholders in a range of peaks that offer enough fabulous unclimbed features to share around with anyone who wants a good experience exploring unclimbed alpine rock.

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