‘Elysium’ Grade VI, 6 (AI5), 750m.
On the South Face of Mt Suter (2094m) in the Darran Mountains, solo first ascent, Ben Dare, July 12, 2018.
Sometimes the best adventures are those that we don’t plan for. The ones where we set out on a whim. Without specific goals or objectives, and without the burden of expectation. These are the adventures where spontaneity is king and where we open ourselves up to possibilities not previously considered.
It was almost exactly four years ago to the day that Steve Skelton and I made the first ascent of the South Face of Mt Suter. Over three cold July days in the winter of 2014. That trip was one we had talked about and planned for months in advance. Hoping and waiting for the right weather and conditions before making our attempt. In contrast, this climb came about with less than a days planning and without any real forethought. A snap decision made at short notice. And one brought on by variable weather, fluctuating freezing levels and sporadic road closures.
This time as I walked back up into Falls Creek I was working with a blank canvas. And it wasn’t until the South Face came into view that I remembered Steve previously pointing out a potential line of weakness. A faint corner system that snaked up the right-hand edge of the face. At the time it looked to be a tenuous thread of interlinked ice runnels that wove an unlikely path to the summit ridge. Now the entire face was shrouded by a veil of white. Plastered to the previously blank rock a thin coating of fresh snow caused the finer details to blur. All but the most prominent features lost definition, and it was only the occasional dull gleam of hidden ice beneath that gave me hope.
As I plugged steps up the snow cone at the base of the face I was struck by how deathly quiet the mountains can be. Without a breath of wind the silence was absolute. And I felt an eerie calm settle over me as I brushed the loose snow off the first rock bulge. Before reaching up to sink my picks into the thin veneer of ice. A translucent smear that offered a way forward, up the otherwise blank slabs overhead. Picks and front points struggled for purchase as they bit into the thin ice and scratched across the surface of the rock below. Progress was slow as I delicately worked my way up the ever steepening ice. Balancing on tenterhooks through a series of small, but awkward, overlaps. Until finally the angle relented and I emerged onto an open slope of firm neve. Above this a large roof of imposing black rock reared up and cut off the immediate horizon. Forcing me to veer out right and into a steep ice filled groove. From below I had committed this feature to memory and knew that reaching it was a critical point of the climb - as it would hopefully provide a means to reach the large snow field that splits the upper section of the face.
Darkness overtook me as I climbed out into the snowfield. The sudden openness of the terrain was at first unnerving, as was the large expanse of open snow that stretched out above me. Ice crystals spun and flickered through the beam of my head torch. Whipped by intermittent gusts of wind as time slowed and I tentatively moved out into the deep snow, ever conscious of the consequence of even the smallest slide while travelling unroped in such terrain. Thankfully my fears were proven to be unfounded. The majority of the fresh snow from overnight had sluffed off leaving a firm and well bonded snow pack beneath. This offered a straightforward, albeit tiring, path up to the base of the final headwall. Where the snow transitioned back to ice as the ground quickly steepened and the wall was split by a deep gully.
With calves burning and my face numb from a barrage of spindrift I stole fleeting glances up at the final sting in the tail of the climb – an overhanging cornice guarding the exit to the ridge crest. I would like to wax lyrical about the graceful way in which I tackled this obstacle, but at best it could be described as an ungainly and desperate grovel. It was 8:30pm when I broke through and was able to look down into the inky depths of the Hollyford Valley. With the dark band of the Milford Highway nearly a kilometre and a half below.
Here the second stage of the adventure began. And knowing that I was in for a long night I committed myself to the lengthy and arduous traverse of the six kilometre long East Ridge. This had taken a full day to descend previously, and I had no intentions of repeating the route finding decisions that we had made on that occasion. So four hours later when I reached a point two thirds along the length of the ridge, where on the approach I had spied a possible alternative descent line, I dropped off the crest and huddled down in a shallow snow trench. Settling in for the remainder of a long and cold night. Waiting for the arrival of the dawn light that, all things going to plan, would reveal a fast a straight forward descent back into Falls Creek. Thankful in that for this aspect of the climb I had planned ahead.