The first twinkle of hoar frost came just at the entrance to the Eglinton. The full moon lit the peaks with a silvery glow of snow on the tops and ice on the valley floor. Winter had come to the mountains, and a well-timed high-pressure system coincided with the annual Darrans Winter Climbing Meet at Homer Hut. However, I’d only managed to scrape three days off work, had left town late, and I was driving late in the night and was desperate to get some sleep before the next day’s climb. The road through The Divide and past the Hollyford was slick with ice, and a crashed car on the side of the road was an unequivocal (if ominous) sign of the frigid temperatures. I crawled in to the Warden’s Quarters and Al Walker uncharacteristically and kindly shuffled over in the bottom bunk rather than relegate me upstairs to share the ‘fart-box’ bunk with Allan Uren. I had a few fitful hours of sleep before waking to the sound of Al rummaging around putting the tea on and stoking the fire.
Reg Measures and Kieran Parsons had headed off earlier to climb “Cul de Sac” in Cirque Creek – Al, Allan and I were headed to the Tunnel Bluffs. Allan hadn’t climbed on the Bluffs before and was skeptical of our claims that they offered outstanding mixed climbing. We chose an unclimed steep gully left of “Blurred Vision” with a very tricky looking upper section. I took the sharp end for my first pitch of the season and had a few nervous moments getting into it. I couldn’t find any gear at all for the small crux step of the pitch and had a nervous minute summoning the will to move, eventually running out the rope to a welcome chockstone belay. The route eased off for the next pitch and Allan was keen to take the lead on the third, at the entrance to the upper gully. Al was muttering something about how this was just a recce climb, but after I climbed up to Allan at the belay of what turned out to be a stunning pitch, Al was convinced to carry on and join us.
The next lead was mine, and it looked to be the first crux pitch, with tight moves up vertical steps in the gully, just enough solid frozen turf and some welcome snow ice. In an unprecedented step (for the Darrans), every hard move was protected with good gear, and I embraced the rhythm of movement and the joy that comes with cracking the puzzle of any onsight pitch. Allan joined me at the belay with a shit-eating grin and claimed it was one of the best pitches he’s done, anywhere. Al came up third again and was similarly excited, albeit in his stoic Glasgow way (“I told you the Bluffs had decent climbing Allan”).
After this pitch one more hard, even slightly overhanging step blocked the easier ground leading to the Homer ridge above. Allan led off, but didn’t have the luxury I’d had of good gear. 10 metres above the belay with no good pro, wedged in a chimney position at the crux moves, Allan unleashed his alter ego (a.k.a. The Mutant). He proceeded to destroy a weak seam of rock to his side with dozens of blows of his axe pick, creating, just where he needed it, a bomber wire placement. It was, as he put it, “a little bit mongrel, something you need to do when you’re a bit desperate.” After that, the route relented, we followed, and the climb was ours. We decided to abseil the route and were surprised to find ourselves free-hanging in the upper sections – Allan’s lead had overhung far more than we expected! It had been an excellent day’s climb with two friends, hampered only by slight inconvenience with stuck abseil ropes. Allan suggested, half-jokingly, the route name “Tunnel of Love,” which stuck immediately.
Back at Homer we settled around the fire, listening to tales of first ascents and first repeats of other routes on the Bluffs. No-one had seen any ice anywhere yet but the boys up on “Cul de Sac” had clearly found something – by this point they had finished the route and were halfway down Crosscut. They rolled in to the hut around 11pm after a 16.5 hour day and a very solid effort. Reg reported “yeah, it’s not in good condition, but it’s in a condition.”
The next morning Mike Buchanan and I found ourselves on a prominent buttress to the right of the original Tunnel Bluffs route Homer Sapiens. It looked like a good, long route, and is certainly a prominent feature in the area. However, after three pitches of thick vegetation (too much to be called turf) or unpleasant unprotected slab climbing we bailed off. The next day Reg and Kieran gave the same line a go and managed to crack it, arriving back at Homer at 10.30pm after a 10 pitch, grade 5 epic they called ‘The Vortex.’ For us though, the buttress was over and we instead wandered over to a shorter route I’d seen earlier in the season. Mike led off and his relief to be climbing decent ground again (after the morning’s cluster****) was obvious. After a long 80m pitch, with turf, snow, and good dry-tooling moves, it was clear we’d found another high quality route (albeit this one was only two pitches). I took over on lead and danced my way across some tenuous and exciting slabs (albeit with gear) to find a wee gully leading to the ridge. Mike came up and we caught the last day’s sun as we romped along the ridge to Homer Saddle and wandered back to the hut.
I hadn’t entirely planned on my three days climbing in the Darrans being within a 500m radius, but in the end there we were again the next morning on the Bluffs, trying another unclimbed buttress. Again this one proved to be unworthwhile given the poor snow on slabs. So, again, we bailed after a few pitches and instead took the afternoon to shore up the attachments of the picnic table on top of the Homer Hut Pebble, placed there in summer by Charlie. I’ve been asked to lower the table at some point but the amount of verglas on the Pebble made conditions too treacherous for such an undertaking. Through the binoculars we could see Reg and Kieran making slow work of “The Vortex.” Nearby, Karl Greasley, Olivia Barron and Niall McLean were also somewhere high on the Bluffs, climbing a new line left of “Double Vision” which they called “Ptero-vision.” By about 7pm the headlights of the two parties were still a fair way from the ridge and they still hadn’t made it at 9pm. We did a whip-around of spare food in the hut and prepared the two groups dinner for their arrival. About 10.30pm Al headed up with hot raro to meet the groups and congratulate (or goad) them on their big days out. They all rolled in to the Wardens Quarters for a good feed and a beer before getting to bed at midnight (way past my bedtime). Next morning, I dragged myself unwillingly away from Homer and headed back to town, another Darrans Winter Meet over. Same again next year I hope – but more ice please?
For more pictures see http://jazmorris.smugmug.com/NZAT/Climbing-in-the-Darrans/2014-Darrans-W...