First ascent of the South Face of Pyramid Peak (2295m) – Ben Dare (solo), July 2020.
'Frost Flower', Grade 6- (M5, WI4), VI, (1200m).
Ten years ago, I ventured out on my first winter climbing trip to the Darran Mountains. Tagging along with Al Uren, we made an abortive attempt on the then unclimbed direct finish to Sign Of The Times on the west peak of Mt Crosscut. While that initial foray had not borne fruit in the form of a line climbed or a summit obtained, it opened my eyes to the boundless potential on offer in the deep south. This was further reinforced, when on the drive back to Te Anau Al insisted that we stop at an obscure roadside pull off near Plato Creek in the upper Eglinton Valley. From this unlikely vantage point we were rewarded with a view into the head of Mistake Creek where two prominent features stand guard – the east face of Flat Top Peak and the south face of Pyramid Peak. The seed of an idea was sown.
In the time since I often stopped to look back up Mistake Creek, taking photos to review in more detail but never committing beyond that. Until this year I finally decided it was time to become properly acquainted.
Recent repairs to the walk-wire over the Eglinton River (damaged in the February 2020 floods), and clearing of the walking track, made for easy access into the upper valley and I soon broke through the bush-line and into a winter wonderland. The open river flats glistened under white blanket of hoar frost, while on the valley walls a series of waterfalls alternated between free-flowing cascades and temptingly translucent smears of ice. And all the while the guardians of the upper valley loomed tall above. To the left the east face of Flat Top stands proud, a kilometre-long wedge of dark stone slowly shedding its coating of snow under the weak rays of the mid-winter sun. While lacking in classical elegance and beauty, it still holds a certain brutish appeal and continually draws the eye. To the right the west face of Ngatimamoe. With the overhanging walls of the lower face, capped by imposing roofs and slender daggers of ice, offering an open challenge to bold and adventure seeking mixed climbers. Certainly well beyond my pay grade. Standing between them is the south face of Pyramid. A continuous sweep of steepening snow, ice and granite that rises 1300 vertical metres from the valley floor – spilt by two rock bands and capped by an imposing headwall below the summit snow slopes. It takes centre stage and instantly commanded my unfaltering attention from the outset.
Following an unsuccessful attempt at ice skating across the small frozen lake, I quickly reached the vast cone of avalanche debris that provides access to the lower face. A jumbled pile of welded snow blocks, haphazardly stacked to a depth of 10m, it provided a reminder of greater powers at play following the recent storm activity from the previous weekend. It was not a place to linger.
After 200m the debris cone petered out as the slope steepened and I entered the first rock band. Climbing into a narrow chute, the snow transitioned into firm neve and then water ice – rock walls closing in on either side. A silent shroud of spindrift glided down from above. Washing over me with a muted hiss as it breathed life into the silence that otherwise enveloped me. After a brief pause to hastily lift my hood and take stock of my surroundings – and my desire to continue - I pushed on, keen to be free of the funnel and gain the more open ground above.
Exiting the confines of the gulley the face proper unveiled itself before me. Several hundred metres of steep snow and squeaky neve. There is no other way to describe it than just being pure enjoyment – this is fun climbing! The second rock band was tackled via a great shield of thin alpine ice leading into a series of thin runnels. Hero ice providing first swing sticks and rapid progress despite the near vertical terrain. I soon find myself at the base of the upper headwall. Viewed from the valley floor, this was the only portion of the route that did not appear to hold continuous ice. This uncertainty had nagged at me throughout the day, getting shut down here and having to retreat was not a prospect that I relished in the slightest. Thankfully, luck and conditions were on my side and a thin ice choked gully provided a means to advance. Slowly pitching my way through the ice and mixed cruxes I watched the last of the days light fade away. Finally reaching the notch between the twin summits under the cover of darkness.
As with many long alpine routes, the ascent is only half the challenge and the descent can often provide an adventure within itself. This was no exception, and as I started downclimbing the unfamiliar south ridge I seriously questioned the logic in not opting for the known quantity of a descent into Falls Creek. But decisions influenced by eagerness can often lack in logic, and for better or worse I had left my tent and sleeping bag back at the lake in Mistake Creek. Committing myself to the long traverse of Flat Top. Bumbling my way through the long hours of darkness the time taken on the descent soon elapsed the time for the ascent, and it was well into the wee small hours before I finally reached the valley floor again.
The following morning, I woke as the sun crested over Ngatimamoe. Caught in the perpetual shadow of the valley floor I lay in the warm cocoon of my sleeping bag and savoured the moment. Stiff limbs slowly awakening as I gazed out the tent door, watching the suns rays dance across the summit of Flat Top - illuminating the upper ramparts and casting them in a stark contrast to the deep shadows that still cloaked the lower walls of the east face. Making me wonder at the suffering the now relatively innocuous and sunny summit ridge had inflicted on me the night before.
It was a time to reflect and reconnect. Often in the mountains it is easy to become transfixed by the lofty peaks that dominate the skyline, all the while losing focus on the finer details of our immediate surroundings. In doing so we can easily neglect the beauty that lies hidden at your feet. Where the smallest of details can be the most mesmerising and inspiring of all. The simple elegance of a falling snowflake, or the intricate needles of frost that crunch beneath the soles of our boots. Each reaching out like a minuscule dagger or spreading open like the petals on the most delicate of flowers. And like the most beautiful flowers no two are ever the same.