‘The Promise’ Grade VI, 6+ (WI4, M5+, A0), 700m.
On the Southwest Face of Mt Percy Smith (2465m), solo first ascent, Ben Dare, October 7, 2018.
Coined as “An enigmatic and mythical beast!” the Southwest Face of Mt Percy Smith is a reclusive and obscure piece of real estate. It is rarely visited, and even less frequently attempted. As such reliable information is sparse, with rumour and speculation ruling supreme. Many have theorised and voiced opinions, few have ventured in to test them. Prior to attempting the climb, I had only ever seen two photographs of the face. One was taken in the same year that I was born……. the other (while being much more recent) was taken in mid-summer and offered little in the way of insight into what to expect during winter or spring.
Straddling the main divide near the head of the Hopkins and Landsborough valleys the peak lacks any real prominence when viewed from most aspects. However, despite this the Southwest Face has quite the reputation as being “…remote, dark, scary, steep, ugly, dangerous…”. Even though, or possibly because, it has only ever been climbed once. All this just adds to the sense of anonymity and uncertainty that surround the face, and enhanced the appeal that ultimately drew me in. The allure of not knowing what to expect.
I was also under no illusions that the climb itself would present the only obstacles though. Being in such a remote location the challenge of getting to, and off, the climb was equally daunting. Especially when faced with the prospect of a 1000m climb out of the Hopkins just to reach the Mt Williams – Percy Smith col. This east facing slope is lee to the dominant northwest weather cycles, the upper section holds deep drifts of snow and catches nearly all-day sun. Speaking from experience it is not something to be taken lightly or for granted. It rightfully demands the utmost respect and caution.
Dropping down from the col with the first light of dawn breaking on the eastern horizon behind me I descended back into a pool of inky blackness below the face. The contrast between the bright snow on the valley floor and the dark wall looming overhead was stark. White smears of ice, streaking down the centre of the face, were the only visible breaks in the blanket of shadows above. Leading me blindly onwards, stumbling at times, as I searched for a line of weakness to attack.
The climb begins to the right of the existing alpine rock route – On the Dark Shore - established by Bill McLeod and Peter Dickson in the summer of 1993. Following ice splattered ledges through the overhangs that guard the base of the face – the result of gradually retreating permanent snow and icefields on the valley floor. Undercutting the rock, leaving it to defy the pull of gravity as it teeters precariously. Rock that lives up to all expectations, and not in a good way. Beyond this the dark slabs laid back, runnels of hard packed neve and water ice providing a way forward on the otherwise blank and featureless expanse of rock. Aloft the sun offered a seemingly false promise as it crested the ridgeline above. The light breeze kicking up trails of shimmering ice crystals that spun lazily and hung suspended against a backdrop of deepest azure. While on the face below the cold shadows refused to give quarter and relinquish their grip.
As the terrain steepened the quality of the ice degraded. Slowly broken down by the recent warm temperatures, it clung defiantly to the rock beneath. Tentatively adhered with the last grasp of a dying winter. Pushed right by the leaning strata, haphazardly stacked layers of weathered and friable Greywacke, I aimed for a solitary gendarme silhouetted on the skyline. A final sentinel that stood guard - keeping a lonely vigil over the sweep of the face below. Caring not but for the passing of the seasons and time. Silently watching over those few who venture into its shadows to unlock the secrets held within.