“You should have a crack at Sabre if you want something tough. By god, there’s a mountain for you!” G Hall-Jones to M Gill, c.a. 1958
In his book Classic Peaks, Hugh Logan opens with the same quote in his chapter on Sabre, one of New Zealand’s most legendary pieces of rock. The similarities between this short article and Logan’s end here, as he gives Sabre’s classic route grade 15 – an outrageous sandbag in the proper Darrans tradition – whereas I would hope to provide some decent, honest beta for the route.
Sabre is indeed tough to get to, up, and down. Proper research, a fast-and-light attitude and a level head (or else, don’t look down) is needed to avoid an epic. It’s a big day and you are climbing (up to) honest technical grade 17, it’s occasionally run-out, and you are probably climbing with a pack. Axe and crampons are almost always needed at some stage on all descent routes.
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Sabre North Buttress, Standard Route (500m, 17)
Via Barrier Knob North Ridge (or ”Sui-sidle”) and Gifford’s Crack to Phil’s Biv. Allow 5.5 h to Phil’s. From Phil’s aim for the obvious waterfall below the North Buttress. Aim for the low point of a short-tussock spur 100m below and left of the waterfall. Behind this spur is a hidden, loose and rocky avalanche gully, which is crossed at any convenient point. Gain a left tending ramp of tussock from near the waterfall that leads to another waterfall in the stream to the left. Similar in steepness to Gifford’s Crack. Cut back right when it becomes obvious you can’t carry on left (about when you reach the second waterfall stream). Easy scrambling to a huge tussock ledge with endless bivvy potential, but it’s only 1 h from Phil’s to the ledge. From the ledge head right and cut back under the prow of the North Buttress. When you reach a stream, fill your water bottles and begin scrambling up (steep at first, then eases) for about 100m to reach the base of P1 at whatever point you choose. For the Direct Start (19) variant, cross the stream instead (may be snow covered) and follow ledges on the left.
P1. 14, 50 m. Follow the best line of weakness up a short bluff to meet the Yak Pastures, a low angle tussock ledge. Routes generally on the left are harder and more run-out than they appear.
P2. 12, 55 m. Climb a prow on the RHS of the Yak Pastures to a belay at the base of the steeper wall.
P3. 15, 60 m. Follow an obvious ramp left to a belay at the very edge of the buttress. The best climbing is in the corner, stepping left occasionally. Grassy and run-out.
P4. 16, 35 m. ** First crux pitch. Step left onto the North East Face with wild exposure to a ledge before following awesome cracks straight up near-vertical rock (with good rests and jams) to an excellent belay ledge with spike belay.
P5. 17, 40 m. *** Fantastic stemming corner (choose the right corner of the two above the belay). Strenuous and well protected in the initial crack, then fantastic holds above, but slightly more run-out. Step just left for a small but good belay ledge.
P6. 16, 40 m. ** Another great corner (watch the odd loose rock) before stepping right to the crest of the buttress about 3m before the corner runs out. Climb the steep, very run-out face directly above with awesome jugs – just hold on and keep climbing, it eases off soon!
P7. 15, 50m. * Straight up, fairly run-out.
P8. 14, 50m. Straight up, fairly run-out. At this point an inviting ledge might lead you towards a separate gully line to the left. The easier (but a little dirtier, at first) climbing is, however, straight up.
P9. 14, 50m. Straight up, somewhat run-out and mossy.
P10. 13, 50m. Straight up aiming for the centre of the huge obvious V gully above and slightly right.
P11. 13, 50m. Straight up with good gear.
Approx 2 more pitches of no more than grade 12 in the big V gully which gets deep and damp near the top, with easy moves, good gear, and a final steep move to top out onto a big ledge.
From the ledge, follow the easiest way up the crest of the mountain to the summit (10 mins). Good bivvy ledges will be found 1 and 4 minutes from the top-out, but not on the summit proper. There is unlikely to be snow to melt on the route or on the summit after about Christmas.
Descent: West Ridge/North West Face abseiling variant
From the summit follow the ridge a couple of minutes to an abseil station above a notch. Either abseil (60 m, with an easy set-up) or backtrack and find a way down to a big ledge system which leads back to the notch. Down-ridge of the notch another prominent gendarme on the ridge must be avoided. Here you can: 1. Descend the West Ridge. Climb up a little from where you abseiled to, and head just to the right (Lake Adelaide side) of the gendarme, back to the West Ridge, then scramble down the ridge to obvious abseil stations above the Sabre-Marian Col. At least two more abseils needed. 2. Descend the North West Face. 70 m ropes are preferable but not essential. From the bottom of the first abseil, follow the obvious big ledge down and left to an abseil station on a ledge, with a metre or two of shitty gravel to get to it (be careful!). Then about 70m rap to another abseil station around a good rock horn. Another 70 m rap takes you to a big tussock ledge system that can be followed (tending slightly uphill) back to the West Ridge. Where you meet the Ridge is at an abseil point on the regular descent route (50 m abseil). A 30m rap from another abseil station (easily visible from above) takes you to the Sabre-Marian Col.
Scramble up the ridge to Marian. A short, steep narrow section of ridge 5 minutes from the Col might warrant a quick belay. Otherwise head up, turning any difficulties by scrambling delightful corners and big crack systems on the Lake Marian side of the ridge. 1h from the col to Marian. Good bivvying on the summit, and snow probably all year round. From Marian follow the ridge to Barrier turning difficulties on the Lake Adelaide side, and then, after about 10 minutes via a large tussock/scree ledge (Adelaide side, about 50m below the ridge crest), that leads past the Marian-Barrier Col. A few exposed easy moves to Barrier Peak (1 hr from Marian). From Barrier Peak follow the ridge, swapping side to side of the crest as necessary, to a short exposed cheval, then plain sailing back to Gertrude Saddle on the snow (crampons usually needed, even in the afternoon).
Check out the slideshow of pictures below, or head to https://jazmorris.smugmug.com/NZAT/Climbing-in-the-Darrans/North-Buttres...