15 months ago I was recovering from surgery repairing my shattered ankle. Painkillers caused insomnia and vivid dreams featuring movie like action sequences with a touch of mythology and other absurdity. I would wake, sweaty, shaken, thinking 'that was a bit weird'.
Encouraged by short forays into the mountains in the winter, I tried to get on a longer route in the spring. A weekend attempt on Sth Face of Aspiring, and we turned around due to dangerous windslab. The approach and descent overburdened my ankle and I hobbled for 2 days afterwards. I had recovered enough to try the South Face of Aoraki the following weekend with a similar result, a long walk in, bailing, a long walk out and hobbling for the start of the week. Friends Al and Milo reported great conditions on their new route in the Darrans, which didn't help my mood. The next weekend was marginal weather for the high mountains, and I headed up to try to repeat the classic looking 'Consolation Prize' on the West Face of Double Cone. A hold broke on the 2nd pitch and I fell, 3 pieces of gear pulling large blocks of rock out which tumbled down with me. Bruised and shaken, I could carry on, but we bailed to the easier route Ikon, an enjoyable route and nice summit. Pain from sore muscles and bruises became indistinguishable, as the weekly routine of recovery, rock climbing and weather watching repeated. Hardly Sisyphus, but a cycle I wanted to break.
The weather was stormy all week, but forecast to abate enough to attempt another trip, this time I decided with Ben to try the Darrans, encouraged by Al and Milo to look at Upper Cirque Creek Ice. We took off early Friday afternoon, to get a look around in the daylight and were encouraged enough to set the alarm for early the next morning. Although not far in distance from the routes in the lower cirque, there is a more serious feel to the upper cirque. The descriptions and names of FA in the guidebook, McLeod, Widdowson, Craddock, Perry, Uren, Gilmore, Kerkmann add to the intimidation. Although conditions that day were solid, the miles of avalanche debris crossed to access the face add to the serious feel and a troubled sleep.
To ease our aching joints we wanted walking poles for the approach but weren't sure we would descend the same valley, so didn't want to leave them at the base of the climb. Our solution was to rummage around in some manuka scrub for a couple of stout sticks that we wouldn't feel bad about abandoning at the base of the route if needed. So at first light we found ourselves cramponing across step snow on the upper tier of Cirque Creek, manuka pole in one hand high tech leashless tool in the other.
Dawn revealed a face plastered with ice and a number of possible lines vying for our attention. We wanted to look at 'The Cyclops' a line tried by Al Uren and Dave Vass in times past, up to and past a big cave to the left of Heart of Gold. The direct finish to that line went up some icy grooves to an overhanging chimney festooned with large chockstone blocks, brooded over by an ominous snow cornice. Branching left from the cave was an ice filled gully splitting the buttress to the left, which looked far more attractive, so that's the line we chose to try.
Part of the mystique and mythology of the Cyclops line was climbing delicate, steep blobs of ice that strung out NZ's most accomplished ice climbers. In the Climber Mag, Al described it thus: "The climbing was terrifying". So that was daunting. The guide book described the ice lines in the upper tier as 700m long, 15 pitches, committing endeavors involving bivvys. The topo map showed the face as being 400m high, so you shouldn't always trust what you read. Mystique can frighten you, it can add aura and heighten your experience on a route, but in the end you make your own experiences on a route, and those experiences inform those that come next, as Al and Milo's experience had 2 weeks prior. The line we chose gave us a great experience, 8 pitches of fun ice climbing, never too steep or scary. Sometimes delicate, thinly iced slabs, then thick alpine ice in gullys, a wee mixed step on top. Occasionally cloud would swirl in and obscure our view, a gust of wind would hurl spindrift down at us, and we'd bunker up ready for battle, but then it would clear and we topped out to sunshine and magical views. We decided to rap our line, the first anchor taking some time to excavate under deep snow, but the rest were mostly straight forward threads. Rather than reverse our traverse back to the Cyclops cave, we committed to rapping straight down over a couple of overhangs, but we found good anchors and it worked out well, we were soon reunited with our poles.
My ankle ached as we stumbled down in the dark down what seemed like countless miles of avalanche debris and river boulders. We had some tramadol in our bag, and I was tempted, but decided I had no desire to descend into that foggy mythological weirdness of my tramadol dreams again.